Scene & Herd

Do You Remember the First Time?

Left: Artist Khalil Joreige with curator Shwetal Patel, executive officer of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. Right: Artist Bose Krishnamachari, artistic director and co-curator of the first Kochi-Muziris Biennale. (Except where noted, all photos: Kaelen Wilson-Goldie)

LET’S DISPENSE WITH THE GRISLY DETAILS. The world did not come crashing to a cataclysmic end on 12/12/12 (already the less popular apocalyptic appointment on the Mayan calendar compared with 12/21/12), but on that date a few weeks ago, the first Kochi-Muziris Biennale flung open its doors to give onlookers an eyeful of total organizational chaos and an exhibition in shambles. The artists Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu—two of the so-called Bombay Boys, who began stirring up the Mumbai art scene back in the late 1990s—cofounded the biennial’s coordinating body just nineteen months ago. As curators of the first edition, they applied the ethos of an artists’ project to an event whose grand ambitions demanded infrastructure and administrative largesse. They invited more than ninety artists—half from India, half from the rest of the world—to find a place among fourteen possible venues and effectively do their own thing there. In lieu of a curatorial concept, Krishnamachari and Komu rummaged through the layered histories of metropolitan Kochi (with its riotous mix of Dutch, Portuguese, Arab, Chinese, Sephardic, and Syrian Catholic influences) and mythical Muziris (an Atlantis-like port city said to have been washed away and lost forever in a flood a few thousand years ago). From that combination of real and imagined cities, they came up with a few vague but serviceable keywords—such as cosmopolitanism and heritage—and hinged their biennial to them.

Meanwhile, the local government (in the state of Kerala, population 33 million, and staunchly communist at the time) agreed to support the biennial with annual financial assistance. Then the government changed. The new party in power not only ripped up the contract but also launched an investigation into how the first tranche of funds (worth five crore rupees, around $900,000) had been spent. The biennial’s board of trustees went to the private sector for help patching up the huge hole in their budget. They elicited great sympathy but came back empty-handed. By the time the inauguration rolled around, things were not going well. Barely half installed, the exhibition was a wreck, a treasure hunt with no map and potentially no treasure either. The day before, when I arrived for an ostensible press preview, the situation had been even worse, tilting toward despair in a wincing vision of shipping crates, stalled labor, discarded tools, half-cleared piles of trash, and thoroughly despondent artists. Not only that, but the dainty streets of touristy Fort Kochi—where most of the biennial’s venues are strung together, like distressed architectural jewels, in crumbling dockside warehouses, seventeenth-century bungalows, and a nineteenth-century clubhouse for colonial-era gentlemen—were awash with posters, graffiti, and an elaborately painted mural depicting the biennial as a resource-sucking labyrinth of misappropriated funds, manipulative marketing, corruption, and corporate intrigue. Because one dark plot deserves another, a critic from Delhi arched an elegant eyebrow and suggested that perhaps the antibiennial campaign was the work of the Naxalites, India’s shadowy Maoist insurgency.

Left: Curator Robert Kluijver with Rami Farook of Traffic and The State. Right: Artist Vivek Premachandran, aka UBIK.

Was that the worst of it? Probably. From that point on, though, the biennial worked its charm on all of us. Hour by hour, installations came together, problems were solved, and artworks that had been stuck for ages due to power cuts, customs issues, technical difficulties, diva drama, or plain doubt began to emerge as concrete things to see and surrender to. I caught up with the Kerala-born artist Vivek Premachandran, aka UBIK, who had been wise to tackle the heaviness of history in three nimble, text-based installations that had been ready to go for days, giving him ample time to watch his colleagues at work. “This is really a DIY biennale,” he said. “It’s like boot camp for a young artist like me. These are some of the legends of modern and contemporary art in India, and I get to see their working process out in the open and in public.” Boot camp for him was an education and a steep learning curve for me—from the Bombay Boys to the Kerala Radicals and beyond—and a quick study in how we got here, to India’s first biennial despite eleven editions of the India Triennale, which launched in 1968 and folded in 2005, and a hard, subsequent push to get a Delhi Biennale off the ground, which ultimately came to nothing and collapsed amid too much talk and no action in 2007.

Bailing out of a press conference on Tuesday that was scrapped five minutes before it began, I jumped into an auto rickshaw with Rami Farook, founder of the Dubai-based design studio Traffic and publisher of a year-old journal called The State. A biennial advisor and supporter, Farook had been traveling between Dubai and Kochi for months, and was helping a handful of artists to get their projects together on time. “To be honest with you, everything is running a couple of days late,” he said in classic soft-spoken understatement. We took a lightning-quick tour of three venues—Pepper House, Moidu’s Heritage Plaza, and Aspinwall, a compound of nineteenth-century warehouses edged along the Arabian Sea—with a driver named Joseph who had clearly gotten the biennial thing down. Weaving new material into the well-worn story of Kochi, he spun us a lovely history of perennial art events from Venice until now as we bumped along in the back seat.

At Aspinwall, Amar Kanwar’s striking installation of The Sovereign Forest, 2010–12—including two videos, four handmade books, and more than two hundred varieties of rice seeds—was an oasis of calm and completion amid the madness in evidence everywhere else. Kanwar had also parked himself inside his own installation to answer visitors’ questions, explain the work, discuss the issues at stake (among them, mining and the loss of Indian farmland), and generally keep an eye on things until a guard turned up (which eventually happened, two days later). “I think there is an audience for this in Kerala. If we didn’t have the biennale, I would never have shown this work here. It’s an important event for art students. It will start all kinds of dialogue,” Kanwar said. “If it survives.” In a building nearby, Vivan Sundaram, one half of the Indian art scene’s reigning power couple (the other half being the critic and curator Geeta Kapur), was struggling to get the lighting right on a mesmerizing floor piece that assembled a model of ancient urbanization from a pile of pottery shards the artist had borrowed from an archaeological excavation site thought to correspond to where Muziris once stood. Beyond that, a small army was trying to hoist up the bow of a traditional Keralan fishing boat, its wooden hull overflowing with the effects (pots, pans, bedding, furniture) of either a large family or a small village—all part of a spectacular sculpture by Subodh Gupta.

Left: Artist Vivan Sundaram. Right: Artist Amar Kanwar.

Later that night, after a rowdy dinner, a pack of us—including UBIK, Farook, Nina Trojanovic of Traffic, and about half the staff of Art Dubai—returned to Aspinwall to find an improbable hive of industry under newly installed floodlights. Clearly, no one was planning to give it a rest before the opening ceremony on Wednesday morning. I mean afternoon. I mean evening. Valsan Koorma Kolleri, jumping down from a high table and impressively agile for a man just shy of sixty, was turning an old archive room into an incredible installation of dried leaves, palm fronds, peanut shells, coconut husks, and much more. A vast collection of his clay sculptures was strewn across the floor to dry. Volunteers ran through the grounds passing out bottles of water. At Pepper House, the painter KP Reji was hosting an open studio at midnight while putting the finishing touches on a massive triptych. Next door, Shaina Anand and Ashok Sukumaran of CAMP would soon come, see, and install a four-screen video installation without sweating any of the details that had been tying other artists in knots. Ernesto Neto offered lusty explanations for why he was hanging clove, cumin, and turmeric from the ceiling of a disused warehouse, then added: “This is a biennial for amateurs, not professionals. I’m an amateur. An amateur and a lover.”

At some point on Wednesday, the biennial did quietly open to the public, and some 10,000 people streamed through the gates of Aspinwall over the next three days. Welcome to India. Finally getting my hands on a map, I spent hours running around with Khalil Joreige, who had nothing else to do since his work was still missing. We returned several times to a brilliant series of photographs (with hilarious accompanying texts) by Anup Mathew Thomas, who may or may not have stopped us on the stairs to regale us with tall tales of his life as a dope farmer. Nalini Malani, who was showing a wonderful video made from the outtakes of her Documenta 13 commission, reminded me of the unconscionable fact that in an exhibition of ninety-odd artists, only six were women. Sudarshan Shetty’s I Know Nothing of the End, 2012, struck me, at first, as an ill-conceived copy of Pierre Huyghe’s dystopic garden in Kassel, until I stumbled into a beautiful wooden temple that was being hammered together by hand, even as it appeared already half-buried, a ruin in progress.

Left: Artist Ernesto Neto. Right: MIA performing on the Parade Ground in Kochi. (Photo: Swanoop John)

Later, I did my best to avoid catching an elbow in the eye during a concert by MIA, who was participating in the biennial as an artist under her own name (Maya Arulpragasam). She thrilled the mostly male audience on Fort Kochi’s open-air Parade Ground, but nothing compared to the moment she brought the Bollywood heartthrob John Abraham, just voted the sexiest man alive by People India, onstage with her. The crowd went wild. MIA performed “Paper Planes” and then bolted without so much as an encore. We made our way over to the clubhouse for dinner and an afterparty on a badminton court DJ’d by the inimitable Nico De Transilvania, my housemate for the week. Much to my surprise, Santiago Sierra, Ernesto Neto, and Subodh Gupta, who was positively gallant in the five minutes to follow, all rushed to my defense against a nasty bartender who had the nerve to call me “darling” while I was trying and failing to procure the weakest of whisky sodas. It was quickly becoming one of those special international art events that counter institutional failures and organizational shortcomings with an awful lot of heart. Shwetal Patel, the biennial’s executive officer, cocked his head and said to me smoothly: “You’ll be kind to us, won’t you?”

Of course, none of this stopped Krishnamachari from using the word “professional” eleven times in as many minutes when we spoke about what had gone right and wrong in the run-up to 12/12/12—as in, “We wanted to do something professional. It is an artists’ project but we wanted to do it in a professional way.” Then he told me a story. “I was in Sharjah a couple of years ago, and there were some kids playing cricket. We just asked them, ‘Hey, there are a lot of people going into that museum over there. Do you know what’s going on?’ Unfortunately, they didn’t. But everybody in Kochi knows the name ‘biennale’ now.” Is that enough? Is that even true? I’m not so sure. But like so many others who were won over in Kochi, I’m willing to wonder, and to imagine what that could mean.

Left: Artist Santiago Sierra. Right: DJ Nico de Transilvania with Nina Trojanovic of Traffic.

Left: Kochi-Muziris Biennale volunteers. Right: Artist Paris Vishwanadham.

Left: Artist Valsan Koorma Kolleri. Right: Writer and curator Jyoti Dhar of Art Asia Pacific with curator Rattanamol Singh Johal of the Khoj International Artists Association.

Left: Artist Nalini Malani. Right: Artist KP Reji.

Left: Azad Shivdasani, chairman of the Inlaks Shivdasani Foundation, with artist Sheela Gowda. Right: Artist Hossein Valamanesh.

Left: Artist Jonas Staal. Right: Artists Shaina Anand and Ashok Sukumaran of CAMP.

Left: Artist T Venkanna. Right: Artists Monica Narula and Shuddhabrata Sengupta of Raqs Media Collective.

Left: Artist Rigo 23. Right: Artist Sonia Khurana.

Left: Artist Thomas Florschuetz. Right: Curator Sumesh Sharma.

Left: Curator Zasha Colah. Thomas Girst, head of cultural engagement for the BMW Group.

Left: Artist Armando Miguelez. Right: Artist Giuseppe Stampone.