The first edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in 2012 was greeted with enormous excitement. Artists and art enthusiasts were largely carried away by the expectations that it would have a profound impact in the promotion of art and art-bound economy. It is obvious now that their expectations were off the mark. No sign of change has appeared so far. However, this disillusionment is not exceptional. It has to be located in the sphere of a new interest that plays a crucial role in biennale culture at the global level.
There are around 200 biennales/biennials all over the world. A great share of them have proliferated since the 1980s, primarily as a result of the entrepreneurial culture that globally took hold of the new economic policy of governments. That art and culture can be converted into competitive and profitable commodities to effect greater economic growth was the focal point of this new policy. No wonder, in this economic imperative, the aesthetic value of artwork has largely been disregarded. Instead, the non-aesthetic has gained the upper hand. The same shift of interest has been seen in the Kochi Biennale as well. Being a joint venture of the departments of culture and tourism, the organisers aspire to make it a cash crop by etching an everlasting impression on the world tourist map. Hence the claim from the very beginning that it found itself to be in the sixth place in the world tourist map.
In this context, there is an illuminating story. Ferrara, a small Italian provincial town, has a rich cultural tradition dating back to the Renaissance. Thanks to its traditional agrarian economy, Ferrara never experienced modernisation. It rather remained in exclusion with an economy in slow motion, and was cut off from major industrial developments and communication systems.
Its mayor in 1986 declared: “We must aim at making Ferrara into a city that produces and consumes culture at the highest level. … We believe that cultural consumption, even at a mass level, can turn into a source of jobs, of skilled labour, of tertiary activities.” This was whole-heartedly embraced by local artists, intelligentsia and the reformists. Various programmes in music and arts were held at regular intervals. As part of this, Grandi Eventi was organised, a series of exhibitions from 1991 to 1995 featuring the works of modern masters since Impressionism. A total of 955,000 visitors saw the shows. Still there was a loss of 617 million lira.
As the scholar Maria Trasforini says: “The lack of a private market of galleries and therefore of an art-buying public… just on the lack of an academy of fine arts… has not helped the growth of an articulated field, that is, the circuit of art-related jobs (collectors, dealers, artists, critics, etc.).” Yet Grandi Eventi has been celebrated annually only to cater to its own cultural snobbism. As a result, Ferrara was all of a sudden transformed into a postmodern city without ever having been a modern one. Thus Transforini observes that when “a small postmodern city becomes a global cultural actor, it also risks, like Saturn, devouring its own children, those small and medium-sized actors that are the connective tissue of urban culture.”
This observation is of vital importance with regard to the Kochi Biennale that is being held in a place where local art practice is much more visible than anywhere else in the country. Still it is paradoxical to see that the biennale has nothing to do with the conflicting issues of the global and the local in art. This safe but disastrously antipathic position has to be seen as something working in tune with the rules of the game.
To put it into clear words, see what Kian-Woon Kwok and Kee-Hong Low say in a case study of the Singapore Biennale that was started in 1995: “The government apparatuses have been extremely active in generating a cultural (arts) policy that tends to emphasise an economic rationale. It is not surprising that those who are at the receiving end of the policies find that the arts development in Singapore is being reduced to a business venture undertaken at the national level.” Artists who have been active in doing experimental works therefore “seem to believe that the government is interested only in commercial large-scale impresarios...which at the same time have been used in ministerial speeches and reports as indications of a cultured enterprise”. This new economic drive has caused a wanton visuality to predominate the art world at global level. Mega-art events mushrooming recently in India are its clear reflections.
This has a counterpoint in Liverpool. In the early 1980s, Liverpool witnessed unprecedented economic decline and social violence. To regenerate the city, Margaret Thatcher invested around £30 million for a massive art project. She believed that money given to arts was not a mere “expenditure” but also good “investment” that would “trickle down” leading to jobs creation and economic benefits. Too many expectations about a boost to the economy and being a tourism attraction were highlighted. And 2-3.5 million visitors annually flew to the newly converted art-city of Liverpool. However, the whole project immediately turned out to be a great disappointment. It remained the same for the initial four years (1988-1992).
The root cause of its failure was that the local art scene in Liverpool was not integrated into the project. Subsequently, an extensive project was restructured basically to address the problems of the local art scene. Local artists were offered studio and exhibition spaces, and their open-studio events and alternative exhibitions were arranged by the local community of artists. It resulted in mitigating outmigration of artists to London. It is this elaborate project of local art that “remained a great asset for the regeneration of the city, since 1992”, says art historian Pedro Lorente. And its logical culmination was the Liverpool Biennale being successfully celebrated over the years. Bilbao in Spain and Marseilles in France have similar stories to narrate. When we foreground the Liverpool Biennial in support of a biennale-like art event, we should not forget the history of its death and resurrection.
Chandran T V, Art critic & author. Teaches art history at the College of Fine Arts, Thiruvananthapuram (email@example.com)