A winter without the Kochi Biennale: Despite loss of serendipity, a meaningful engagement with post-COVID era
Unlike the predictable compactness of exhibitions at galleries and museums, a biennale is known for its emphasis on the sheer monumentality of exhibiting spaces; its publicness; its site-specificity, and the often blurring of demarcations between the artworks, the physical spaces that the works inhabit, and the viewers.
Editor's note: As the coronavirus pandemic and ensuing lockdown changed the contours of our world in hitherto unimagined ways, Firstpost's 'A summer without' series looked at all that had been lost (and in some cases, gained) in this new normal. We're now extending the premise for a series of essays about 'a winter without', beginning with this one about the Kochi Biennale.
7 March 2019. It was a typically muggy afternoon in Fort Kochi. The fourth edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, curated by Anita Dube, was coming to an end in a few weeks. I made my way to Pepper House, one of the main venues of the biennale, but an installation-based work in its courtyard did not catch my attention. It was one of the most minimalistic works in the biennale, comprising just a set of water sprays attached to a thin structure of rods. I think it got lost in the relative vastness of the very green Pepper House courtyard, surrounded by its Dutch-style clay roofs, until I noticed visitors walking around the installation, in lost-and-found mode.
The installation “Catch a Rainbow II”, by the Nagaland-born and London-based artist Temsuyanger Longkumer, would emit water droplets at periodic intervals to produce gentle patterns of a rainbow. I was able to catch a glimpse of the rainbow after some guidance by a volunteer, who pointed her finger mid-air, where the rainbow hung, just for a few moments. The initial miss was an inconspicuous happening that did not seem relevant to me until now, when I began thinking about not being able to visit the fifth edition of the biennale, which has been postponed because of the anticipated health risks associated with large gatherings of people in the COVID-era.
Unlike the predictable compactness of exhibitions at galleries and museums, a biennale is known for its emphasis on the sheer monumentality of exhibiting spaces; its publicness; its site-specificity; and the often blurring of demarcations between the artworks, the physical spaces that the works inhabit, and the viewers. Longkumer’s work at Pepper House, the historic sea-facing warehouse-turned-art-space, testifies to these unknown spatial possibilities that a biennale offers.
In the COVID-era, physical spaces have shrunk, largely confining people to their homes or to their virtual realities, even though a vastly crowded city like Delhi, where I live, belies the fact that a full-blown pandemic is infecting people and claiming lives. To not have the Kochi Biennale this year is to miss out on the pleasures of experiencing global contemporary art in a communally, culturally and historically vibrant city like Kochi. It is an opportunity to temporarily move away from our overly occupied cities, homes, social circles and workspaces; and loosen the grip, so to speak, by partaking in the slow-paced life of the seaside Fort Kochi, and its historical landmarks, which have a world of their own, being tucked away from the hustle and bustle of mainland Ernakulum.
That it is not as easily navigable as the art spaces of bigger cities like Delhi and Mumbai adds an exciting dimension to the biennale experience, especially when you get lost — as I did — while tracking the exhibiting venues in Mattancherry, the historic Jew Town in Fort Kochi. Accustomed to relying on Google Maps, which (not unusually) gave me the wrong directions, I ended up walking into a lane full of shops and godowns selling antique furniture and collectibles, and statues of deities. It is this chance encounter with unexpected things and hidden treasures that I am going to miss the most.
A significant factor in shaping contemporary art, the so-called globalised world — with its porous boundaries, easy access and hyper-connectivity — has slowed down to a great extent; in the COVID-era, it is this easy access to locations and people that is adding fuel to fire. The biennale, a prominent international exhibition in the South Asian contemporary art calendar, facilitated this ease of access, in terms of bringing global artworks and artists to Fort Kochi, along with curators, patrons, collectors, gallerists, critics, institutions, etc. Even as conversations and exhibitions have moved online, digital programming cannot compensate for the experiential intimacy of an art space, especially that of a biennale, which relies heavily on the physical features of the exhibition site. In the previous biennale, a collateral exhibition by Pune-based artists, led by Raju Sutar, was a case in point, where larger-than-life works dwelt upon the relationship between thought and matter.
The biennale’s postponement makes the need for solidarity and community-building even more urgent, especially in these times, as explained by Shubigi Rao in her curatorial note for the fifth edition. From her strongly worded essay “In Our Veins Flow Ink and Fire”, I quote generously:
“What do we find when we listen, read, record, think and make? For one, that even the most solitary of journeys is not one of isolation, but drinks deeply from that common wellspring of collective knowledge and ideas. Even when we work alone, we amplify the voices of others, and this form of sociability is why when we create, we are collective.
A biennale can be so much more than a mere accumulation of coincidental collisions. As a bulwark against despair the biennale as commons may seem an impossible idea. But we remember the ability of our species, our communities, to flourish artistically even in fraught and dire situations, with a refusal in the face of disillusionment to disavow our poetry, our languages, our art and music, our optimism and humour. To envision this biennale as a persistent yet unpredictable murmuration in the face of capriciousness and volatility comes from my unshakeable conviction in the power of storytelling as strategy, of the transgressive potency of ink, and transformative fire of satire and humour.”
The essay speaks to our hopes and despairs, while reflecting contemporary anxieties over an atmosphere of imposition of singular narratives, “proscription”, “conflict”, “volatility”, and “apathy”. Phrases such as “solitary of journeys”, and “even when we work alone” also speak to our times, where a new normal of remoteness and isolation is increasingly re-shaping social mores. Responding to the scenario of lockdowns and isolation, the editorial of Marg’s latest edition, 2020: A Species of Change? (September 2020), raises an important question: “What do crisis and continuity mean for the arts when trapped in an exceptional state of remoteness?”
In the event of cancellations or postponement of art exhibitions, what remains to be seen is what appears on the digital screens. For the 5th edition of Kochi Biennale, re-scheduled to open on 1 November 2021, Rao’s curatorial text is one of the artworks, for now, along with the first list of artists announced much before the postponement decision. The list offers possibilities of what the artists could bring to the next biennale. For example, what stands out in the first list of artists is the participation of collectives, involving practitioners from geographies as varied as the Middle East, South America, Europe, and Asia, including India. This emphasis on collectives takes us back to the introductory lines of Rao’s essay, where the act of creating, even if it is executed in isolation, suggests the making of a collective. Perhaps, this solitary act of creating is the answer to our present crisis of remoteness and entrapment.
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