Kochi, India

Ernesto Neto, Life Is a River, 2012, cotton fabric, polyamide fabric, spices. Installation view, Moidu’s Heritage Plaza, 2013.

Ernesto Neto, Life Is a River, 2012, cotton fabric, polyamide fabric, spices. Installation view, Moidu’s Heritage Plaza, 2013.

the Kochi-Muziris Biennale

Various Venues

Ernesto Neto, Life Is a River, 2012, cotton fabric, polyamide fabric, spices. Installation view, Moidu’s Heritage Plaza, 2013.

“THE PAST IS A FOREIGN COUNTRY: they do things differently there.” This is the famous first line of L. P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between, published in London in 1953, but it could have easily been a description of India’s first biennial, in 2012–13. Curated by Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu, both Mumbai-based artists of Malayali descent (they grew up in Kerala), the Kochi-Muziris Biennale dredged up ideas of history, difference, and—that elusive concept—multiculturalism. Set throughout Kochi, the exhibition also paid homage to the ancient city of Muziris, once a thriving seaport, which according to legend was washed away in the fourteenth century by a major flood. In its stead, Kochi (dubbed the “Queen of the Arabian Sea”) rose to become the epicenter of the spice trade—hosting a multiracial masala as Portuguese, Dutch, Arab, and Jewish traders settled there. Since Queen Kochi no longer reigns supreme (she peaked in the seventeenth century), her inheritance is one of loss—but also resurrection. It is the latter that the curators hope to aid: “The Biennale aims to reconnect the legend of Muziris with the modern metropolis of Kochi,” according to the catalogue.

The diversity of the seaport’s heritage was echoed by the varied contents of the show: sculptures, installations, and videos by ninety-three artists from twenty-three countries. Displays stretched throughout this once-thriving nexus, occupying venues such as Aspinwall House (a crumbling colonial trading compound), Pepper House (a onetime trading godown for spices), and David Hall (a quaint Dutch bungalow).

As each of the spaces has a rich past of its own, the artworks were appropriately haunted by history. In the disused warehouse known as Moidu’s Heritage Plaza, for example, the smell of spice pervaded. Its source was Ernesto Neto’s Life Is a River, 2012, in which multihued cloth sacks filled with cinnamon and other seasonings dangled from the ceiling. Unsettling and bewitching, these pungent protrusions imitated the experience of the biennial itself—seductive but a trifle menacing. Elsewhere, in a ramshackle wing of Aspinwall House, was Valsan Koorma Kolleri’s No Death, 2012. Kolleri had constructed shelves on which to exhibit strange debris: dried-up leaves, clay concoctions (some of which looked like amputated human legs), bits of bark, and rusty farm tools. But does displaying relic-like objects in this manner merely present evidence of environmental decay, or have they been reborn as art? Indeed, this struggle between death and resuscitation dominated the biennial. Mumbai-based Sudarshan Shetty addressed similar questions of transience even as he commented on the difficulty of accessing the past, in I Know Nothing of the End, 2012. At this mock-up of an archaeological dig, early visitors to the exhibition found an intricately carved wooden cenotaph, with a painting of a broken pot emblazoned on a nearby stone slab. But the image disappeared in the first rain after the installation: It was painted with rangoli pigment, a powdery substance used to make patterns often associated with Holi (the Hindu spring festival symbolizing renewal).

Yet deferral was sometimes unintentionally programmed into the biennial. Vivan Sundaram’s Black Gold, 2012—an installation of pottery shards collected from the archaeological site Pattanam (where Muziris is thought to have been)—was supposed to have a video component, but the projection was still “under construction” when I left, three days after the opening. As if figuring this temporal contingency, the shards were arranged into simulated architectural ruins. Peering closely among them, visitors found peppercorns: “black gold.” Facing Sundaram’s spicy exhibit was Subodh Gupta’s Untitled, 2012, a boat piled high with goods such as furniture, an old television, and stainless-steel pots. Overloaded and hung from a rafter, Gupta’s seagoing vessel paradoxically suggested immobility, benefiting from its juxtaposition with Black Gold, as together they reminded us of the doomed nature of many ambitious expeditions, both those that seek to discover new lands and those that explore the past. A short walk away, also in Aspinwall House, Sheela Gowda and Christopher Storz’s Stopover, 2012, suggested obsolescence, too. One hundred and seventy squarish grinding stones (did they resemble misshapen modernist sculptures?), gathered from old houses, were grouped together. Stopover, the wall text informs, is meant to be a “cemetery” of these stones, traditionally used to pound spices.

The Kochi-Muziris Biennale’s allusions to trade connected it to others this past year. The Liverpool Biennial, curated by Lorenzo Fusi, also investigated multicultural relations in an entrepôt. Like Liverpool, Kochi hopes to resuscitate its fortunes by revitalizing cross-cultural exchanges. Such efforts, however, are not always welcomed by residents.

At Kochi, South African Clifford Charles’s “walk-in” painting Five Rooms of Clouds, 2012, was a site-specific installation riffing on belonging—incorporating numerous “indigenous” extras into its five-room display. For instance, in one room, the shoes of the laborers who helped set up the exhibition were exhibited; in another, strings of local marigolds were prominent; and in a third, a sandpile, home to an insect colony, remained undisturbed. Despite Charles’s Malayali ancestry and site-sensitive offering, some Kochi residents decided to add their own (unsolicited) contribution to the discussion by vandalizing the “foreign” artist’s installation in December. While the biennial thus undeniably succeeded in capturing the attention of the locals, in addition to that of the art world at large, it was not always able to establish a smooth connection between the two. As the organizers discovered, it is one thing to aspire to join an international celebration of cosmopolitanism, but quite another to facilitate its enactment.

Zehra Jumabhoy is a Steven and Elena Heinz scholar at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London.