A resilient return

Two times postponed and cancelled the third, the Kochi Muziris Biennale returns to Kerala for its 10-year anniversary, after having braved closed shutters, financial troubles and much more.

Published: 08th December 2022 07:20 AM  |   Last Updated: 08th December 2022 07:20 AM   |  A+A-

Bose Krishnamachari

Express News Service

CHENNAI : The Kochi Muziris Biennale is back after a pandemic induced hiatus, and the excitement is clearly infectious. Rising like a phoenix from the throes of uncertainty in a world still coming to terms with the after effects of the deadly Covid virus, the fifth edition of the Biennale opens on December 12, 2022 in spaces across Fort Kochi, Ernakulam and Mattancherry.  With multiple lockdowns and Covid restrictions leading to the cancellation of this edition, earlier scheduled for 2020, India’s first biennale of international contemporary art, launched a decade ago, returns with tales of optimism and resilience. Curated by artist, Shubigi Rao and titled ‘In Our Veins Flow Ink and Fire’, the fifth Biennale features  90 artists from all over the world.

In a free wheeling conversation, Bose Krishnamachari, the President of the Kochi Muziris Biennale, opens up about the challenges that needed to be surmounted in a post pandemic environment, his vision for the future and why Kochi is the perfect setting for an international Biennale.

The Kochi Muziris Biennale is 10 years old. How has the journey been?

The Kochi Biennale has always been an artist-initiated project, conceived and curated by artists. This has been a unique feature that has helped us sustain and grow in the past decade. The Biennale is an international exhibition, but a large proportion of the audience is regional.  This again, is a feature that makes it distinctive. Everyone reads the exhibition sites through their understanding of life. The local people are enthusiastic and embrace it as their own, in more ways than one. This is a people’s biennale. It’s never an easy task to bring people to an unknown location of learning. Even the International Biennale Association was taken aback by the local participation.

Many people have played an important role in my journey to make the vision of a world class biennale possible in India. The Board, my colleagues, the programming heads, the curators of each edition, the generous patrons and the State Government have all immensely contributed to its success.
You say this is the first Biennale that is conceived and curated by artists.

True. This model has now inspired many biennales globally. We are not challenging the relevance of curators. But my belief is that artists understand the practice of art and also have a clearer understanding of spaces. An artist works with materials and can thus understand the process of materiality, the content and the scale of it. That is a crucial aspect in an exhibition of this magnitude. There are lots of layers to understanding sites, a lot of history, memories and how you can give energy to that site. And an artist can do that with the sensitivity that is required.

Did your curatorial experiences reaffirm your faith in the artist as curator?

I’ve always surrounded myself with a lot of people from the creative world, even in my earlier days, from film makers and designers to artists and writers. The first person who asked me to curate a show and opened my eyes to the fact that an artist can conceptualise a show was the late Akbar Padamsee. However, that plan did not materialise. But the first curatorial effort happened in 2004, in Kerala. When invited for a talk at the Kashi Art Gallery in Kochi, the owners came up with the suggestion. My only condition to accept their offer was that the artists in my show would be hosted for a week.

They readily agreed and the show eventually got rave reviews. After that, offers to curate kept periodically coming my way. For me personally though, the show I consider historically important as a curator was Double Enders, the first large-scale project of contemporary artists from Kerala to happen in India in 2005 with 89 artists. Therefore, it’s only natural that when the Kochi Biennale was conceptualised, it had to be an artist-driven initiative.

Why Kochi?

To create any kind of a temporary exhibition, an important aspect is locating a site specific city. The Biennale is a temporary museum. The city transforms into a museum during the course of the show. The city and the sites of the exhibition merge as one entity. In this context, an ideal secular site already existed in the city of Kochi. We only had to plant a seed which grew by itself, as the potential of multiculturalism and linguistic diversity was already there. There are several  languages that people speak here, which itself is its strength.  That heritage of knowledge allowed people to be naturally sensitised to aesthetics through visual experiences. No learning was needed. When we started the Biennale in 2012, there was no title to show. It simply was the Kochi Muziris Biennale. Muziris was the mother of Kochi. There is a kind of an umbilical relationship. And in every edition, a new curator gives a new life to the site, which is also interesting to observe.

The fifth edition of the Kochi Biennale had to be postponed twice and then cancelled due to the Covid - pandemic. It certainly must have been a challenging period for the Biennale Foundation and especially for you.

Yes, the challenges after the pandemic were multi fold, financial hurdles being the toughest to handle. Any large scale exhibition requires sound economic backing to run smoothly. With regard to this edition, we had to face spiralling costs generated by post pandemic conditions, which was the biggest challenge.  Transportation costs, for instance, have tripled. Artworks had to be shipped from various countries which was unavoidable. Travel costs of artists have also soared, with airfares costing much more now than before the pandemic and increased hotel tariffs affecting accommodation expenses. It must however be added that this is good for the local economy. Most businesses that cater to hospitality thrives during the Biennale.

Maintaining the Biennale sites also incurred recurring expenses. All the sites of the Biennale are heritage spaces, revamped by contemporary art. It requires periodic maintenance.

How did you keep the spirit alive through it all?

It is important to find the right people to work with. I have some young talented people to handle the physical aspects of the show but the administrative side was still a struggle. This is not a regular 9 to 5 job. We work 24 x 7, and that is tough for most people to adapt to.

The most interesting event that happened during the lull was the mega art show, Lokame Tharavadu, at Alappuzha in 2021. This show, which was conceptualised while the Biennale had to be kept on hold due to the pandemic, kept the spirit alive in the art community and proved the power of art to heal.
Any regrets?

I can say I have sacrificed my family life as these demanding schedules left me with no time for that. That is my only regret in these 10 years of having founded the biennale. Other than that, I can firmly say I have no regrets and am passionate about all the work I do.

The Biennale is set to open in a few days. Your thoughts…

This Biennale has a few introductions. We have invited some important  institutions to be a part of the overall exhibition, hence making several curated exhibitions also possible,besides the main exhibition.
One of our main Biennale venues, the Durbar Hall in Ernakulam will be hosting a show of Malayali artists this time. We have invited three artists as curators to put the show together. This is a new addition to provide a platform for regional artists during the course of the Biennale. The main Biennale however has 60 percent of international artists while 40 percent belong to our nation.

We also plan to buy the main Biennale site and this, to me, has been one of the most reassuring decisions taken by the state, which reaffirms their belief in the soft power of art. This is an example that many Indian States should take seriously and invest in such infrastructure for the future.

India Matters


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