FOR A NEW LANGUAGE OF CULTURAL VALUE
By: BOSE KRISHNAMACHARI Dated: March 20, 2015
The story of the origin and evolution of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale is well-known. Riyas Komu and I are immensely thankful to Mr. M A Baby, without whom this project wouldn’t have materialised. But from the beginning the Kochi-Muziris Biennale has always sought to be a part of the fabric of the city and has sought to foster contemporary arts amongst the city’s inhabitants.
We understand that the social reality in which we operate is marked by contradictions and can be studied only by the comprehension of these contradictions.
Biennials have a public nature: they move outside galleries and museums into larger and complex public spaces. This requires contact and communication between art and different publics, exposing artists to realities and risks that sharpen the practices of art while provoking in society new questions and new sensibilities. And sometimes the challenge of having a democratic venture like the biennale is precisely its inclusiveness. This sometimes boils up from the lack of understanding by those who are not engaged with contemporary art and who readily term it ‘elitist’. And yet, of the hundreds of thousands who have come to the biennale the ordinary folks from Kerala and around the country — from teachers to rickshaw drivers to tea vendors — readily outnumbered the art aficionados and foreign visitors. They engaged with art practices and forms, which they had never seen before, instinctively, emotionally and intelligently.
This illustrates and forms the crux of our argument. That art need not be ‘elitist’ or ‘something that you don’t understand’, rather it is a continuum in which we all operate in and the Kochi-Muziris Biennale is a platform through which this engagement is made possible.
It’s also true that there has been a proliferation of biennales in the last four decades or so and some people see this as a sign of how biennales are slowly being confined to becoming a tourist attraction rather than spaces for engagement. While I do not vouch for biennales as tourist attractions, it is true that the city greatly benefits from a biennale even though the biennale is not established to create a tourist economy. It is imperative that the State comes forward to support the Biennale fully. We also understand that the Government has other priorities when we still have a large number of people living below the poverty line. But it is of decisive importance that the Biennale remain a public/private partnership because the biennale is for everyone.
COSMOPOLITANISM, CULTURE, CONTINUITY
Kochi-Muziris Biennale could not have been elsewhere. Kochi has been home to a number of different communities both within and outside India for centuries now. This cosmopolitanism of Kochi derives from its continuity with the ancient port city of Muziris, today covered and preserved by mud and mythology. It is this civilisational depth of Kochi as a site that we hope will allow the Biennale to grow roots there. Kerala’s history of public action and engagement through art also affirm the located nature of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. It is these legacies, rather than the presence of art markets like in Mumbai or Delhi, that the Kochi-Muziris Biennale seeks to inherit.
The Biennale places itself in its city by invoking not just the stories of its past and the values that it represents, but also responding to its material presences. Most of the venues of the Biennale are heritage spaces, some of which have fallen into disuse. Contemporary art — many works at the Biennale are sitespecific — has enabled a rereading of these architectural sediments, supplementing the real geography with entirely new geographies of the imagination.
Here there is an interesting double act of the relation between art and the city. Kochi's material and discursive history suggests ideas and challenges to art-making; at the same time, the art at the Biennale also becomes another way to relate to the city. This may be when works of art or the curatorial action becomes instruments through which to look at the city, or when art settles into the background, empowering different points of access to the city.
REFLECTION ‘FROM’ KOCHI
The first edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, which Riyas Komu and I curated, took as its theme this other form of cosmopolitanism, of which we thought Kochi was a model. It was a meditation on Kochi, both in its specificity but also as a model. If the inaugural edition was a reflection on Kochi, the curator of the second KochiMuziris Biennale 2014, Jitish Kallat, says that the 2014 iteration is a reflection from Kochi.
Contemporary art here becomes not simply the presentation of art that is being produced today, but the production of forms of contemporaneity. The distinctive contemporary that the Kochi-Muziris Biennale attempts to produce refuses the representation of the centres of power. As observed by the renowned curator Okwui Enwezor, the Biennale “think[s] the South in a deep way from the South”.
The nearly 4,00,000 people who visited the inaugural edition of the KMB indicates the receptivity towards contemporary art outside the metropolitan art centres. I would also think that the success of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale makes certain demands of the art world: that art must operate in domains external to the market, inside the social and cultural lives of people.
The Biennale witnessed the energisation of public spaces and heritage locations in the city of Kochi. Various heritage buildings in Fort Kochi and Mattancheri hosted the Biennale, and this has inspired fresh perspectives about the architectural possibilities of the region.
The arrival of new and diverse artistic practices and perspectives from around the world meant that the Biennale also became an occasion for thinking about and discussing art and cultural practices. This is precisely why we also have conceived and activated a roster of Programmes like the Student’s Biennale, Children’s Biennale, Artists’ Cinema and History Now (talks and seminar series) under the directorship of Riyas Komu. These programmes seek not just to activate public engagement but also to equip young people with knowledge, understanding and knowhow to enable them to engage fully in critical public debate about the arts.
There is determined demand in our society for the autonomy of the artist and the freedom of expression. We must build a space for such expression. However, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale believes something more: that the freedom that art demands is also a freedom that art should perpetuate. We realise that we won’t solve the problem overnight, but if we all work together we can create a new language of cultural value that will help all of us to understand better the essential contribution that the arts make to our lives — and the biennale also spearheads that idea.