The three-month long Kochi-Muziris Biennale, which will be inaugurated on December 12, will have the world’s top artists displaying their works
Photos: Riyas Komu and Bose Krishnamachari; Aspinwall House
By Shevlin Sebastian
On May 30, 2010, MA Baby, the Education and Culture Minister of the LDF government in Kerala was enjoying a dinner with Bose Krishnamachari, one of India's leading artists, at the latter’s home in Mumbai. The others who were present included fellow artists Riyas Komu and Jyoti Basu.
“We were chatting about what we could do for Kerala,” says Bose. Then, finally, late at night, they came up with the concept of holding a biennale in Kochi.
Baby got very excited. He asked the artists to come to the state capital of Thiruvananthapuram and have an official discussion. The next day, Bose and Riyas got in touch with their contacts – museum directors, curators and artists – all around the globe and asked for ideas about setting up a Biennale.
Soon, they got some figures. The cost to hold the Biennale at Lyon, France, was $10 million, while the Gwanju Biennale in South Korea has a fund of $29 million.
A few days later, with the project proposal in hand, they flew to Thiruvananthapuram. But disappointment lay in store. The Tourism Secretary, Dr V. Venu, told the artists that the department did not have enough money to fund a biennale. Undeterred, Bose and Riyas went to Delhi and met with officials of the Prime Minister’s Office, who offered encouragement and hope, but no ready cash.
Meanwhile, Benny Kuriakose, the chief consultant and conservation architect of the Muziris Heritage Project, which is funded by the Kerala state government, expressed his interest in being linked with the Biennale. Together, Bose and Benny met State Finance Minister Thomas Isaac, who, finally, sanctioned a sum of Rs 5 crore.
Others who chipped in later included the Australian High Commission, the Biennial Foundation, Netherlands, BMW (Global Cultural Engagement Fund) Germany, the DLF Limited, Gujral Foundation, the Farook Foundation from the United Arab Emirates, Goethe Institut, Brazil, and, not to forget, some of the local contributors: the Cochin Port Trust, Cochin Corporation, and Greater Cochin Development Authority.
In August, 2010, the Kochi Biennale Foundation was set up, with Bose as Artistic Director, and Riyas as Director of Programmes. They set about choosing a talented team, and as work gathered speed, people in Kerala and in other parts of India, asked Bose why the Biennale was being held in Kochi, and not in a metro city like Mumbai, where he lives, or Delhi.
Bose said that they had done a lot of research and discovered that most of the successful biennales were never placed in capital cities. “Paris or London does not have a Biennale,” says Riyas. “Biennales are not commercially oriented. We felt that Kochi would be the best place because it is a historical city.”
And indeed it is.
On a sunny, humid morning, Michelangelo Bendandi, the Director of Communication of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB), leads the way into the Aspinwall House at Fort Kochi. A large, sea-facing building, it was built in 1867 by English trader John H. Aspinwall. Inside, there are large warehouses, smaller buildings and a residential bungalow.
Work is going on in full swing. A false ceiling on the first floor of a humungous hall is being broken down. A concrete installation, of a temple, by the artist Anant Joshi is being given the final touches by workmen. At another section, a river landscape by the Delhi-based artist Vivan Sundaram is taking shape. Vivan has used pottery pieces, which are more than a thousand years old, from the Muziris site, 30 kms from Kochi (see box).
At other places, the walls are being painted, and windows being boarded up. “This is a prime venue for us,” says Michelangelo. On the first floor, artist LN Tallur has created a massive roof indoors, using the traditional terracotta tiles from Mangalore. It is eye-catching and interesting. Other works in progress inside include those by Subodh Gupta and Nalini Malini.
Outside, the grass is growing wildly. And Michelangelo – as he leads the way to a concrete pier – thumps his boots on the ground. “This is to scare the snakes away,” he says. After a while, he bends and picks up something from the ground. “This is snake skin which has been shed recently,” he says, with a smile “Don't worry everything will be cleared and cleaned before the December 12 opening.”
At the pier, Michelangelo says, “This prime seafront area will be open to the public. It will be a great opportunity for everybody to enjoy the view.”
Another place to enjoy the view is The Pepper House, on Kalavathi Road. There are two huge warehouses, one facing the road, and the other the sea. The rickety staircase has been replaced with new wooden steps. On the first floor, the balcony has no railings. So, you could slip and slide over. But Michelangelo points at the carpenters in the courtyard who are busy making new railings.
In a large hall, Kerala artist K.P. Reji is working on an untitled oil on canvas, a 10’ x 15’ tryptic, which shows a Navy ship lazily going past, as a few boys stand on the shore, beside a gaggle of geese. Reji holds a palette in his hand, and says, “I have been working on this for the past two months.” Through the windows, the sea can be seen and the sunlight falls gently on one side of the painting.
“Around 16,000 sq. ft. of space at Pepper House will be used,” says Michelangelo.
Outside, Michelangelo goes towards Cabral Yard, a ground which once contained Aspinwall's hydraulic baling press for coir yarn. It is a place with plenty of trees. But right in the middle, the mud has been removed to form a large cavity. Afghan artist Amanullah Mojadidi is planning a mud installation which will depict one of his ancestors coming from Kabul to Delhi and then onwards to Fort Kochi. The grey-bearded artist sits on a rickety wooden chair and smokes a beedi.
“I love the ambience of Fort Kochi and the friendliness of the people,” he says. “The biennale will be a great show.”
The other impressive venues are the David Hall, which was built by the Dutch East India Company in 1695, the 19th century Cochin Club, and the Parade grounds. In Kochi city, the 150-year-old Durbar Hall gallery has been renovated at a cost of Rs 3 crore. “It is of a world class standard,” says Michelangelo. “And it is fitting, because the best artists are coming.”
To select them, Bose and Riyas travelled all over the world, visiting the studios of various artists, and assessing the work. “We must have visited around 200 studios, out of which 40 were selected,” says Bose. The duo studied the potential of the artists and whether their style would be suitable for the KMB.
Overall, 80 artists from 35 countries, including India, will be taking part. “The majority of the work will be installation art, videos, images, sculpture, new media, and paintings,” says Riyas.
And all this is going to be a brand-new experience for the people of Kerala. Agrees Bose: “For most people, this event is going to be a revelation. Many art-lovers have never seen a biennale, so this will also be an education of sorts.”
Apart from that, there is an economic component also. Bose happened to attend the last Biennale in Sydney in May, 2010. The chairman, Luca Belgiorno-Nettis AM, declared at a press conference that, thanks to the biennale, there was a benefit of 60 million dollars to the local economy.
“I am sure there will be a similar impact in Kochi,” says Bose. “It will be great for Kerala and India. The branding of Kochi has already begun: abroad, in the art world, it is now known as the Biennale city.”
And some of the more influential people in the art world will be in attendance. They include Chris Dercon, Director of Tate Modern, London, Sheena Wagstaff, Chairman of the Modern and Contemporary Art Department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and Sir Nicholas Serota of the Tate Art Gallery in London.
So, watch out for December 12, when Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy will inaugurate the biennale and, at once, Kochi will be irrevocably placed on the art map. And for the next three months, there will be a sumptuous feast on show to warm the hearts of all art lovers, be it Indian or foreign.
‘Biennale’ is an Italian word and means every other year. So, a biennale takes place every two years. The first Biennale was set up in Venice in 1895. Some of the popular Biennales include those at Sao Paulo, Sydney, Lyon, Havana, Istanbul, Sharjah, Gwanju, Berlin, and Moscow.
What is the Muziris?
The city of Muziris was once a prosperous port and financial centre in the 1st century BC. Unfortunately, it was destroyed during a massive flooding of the Periyar River in 1341.
The city drew hordes of Romans, Greeks, Jewish and Arab traders because of its trade links, and they left their influences. The Muziris is home to India ’s first church (Mar Thomas church), first mosque (Cheraman Juma Masjid) and the oldest monument (Portuguese fort). Today, there are archaeological remains which are being excavated and restored by conservation architects.
Some participating artists:
Hossein Valamanesh (Iran)
Ariel Hassan (Argentina)
Joseph Semah (Netherlands)
Rigo 23 (Portugal)
Jonas Staal (Netherlands)
Dylan Martorell (Scotland)
Atul Dodiya: “The sites are amazing and fantastic. When I am showing my work in Germany, France, Japan, or the Moscow Biennale, these spaces are ultimately in a foreign land. But here, for the first time I will be showing a work in my own country. The walls, the floors, the smells, the lights, it is all so familiar and I am excited by it.”
Amar Kanwar: “Don't forget that Krishnamachari Bose and Riyas Komu are artists and not professional managers. Most of the people who are working with them are artists and young people. Anybody, anywhere in the art world, would be envious and excited of what is happening here because it is not a corporation-run show.”
(An abridged version appeared in the Sunday Magazine, South India and New Delhi)