Having never visited a biennial—a fancy name for a recurring exhibition that explores the state of contemporary art—I had always been curious about this art-world phenomenon that has populated almost every nook and cranny of the globe since the first Venice Biennale in 1895. So a press release announcing India’s first biennial, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, caught my eye. What, I wondered, had brought this biennial into being?
MoMA’s 12-Month Internship Program enabled me to turn my musings into a travel itinerary. I was bound for Kochi, a coastal city in Kerala, and then to Mumbai, where I hoped to deepen my understanding of India’s contemporary art scene.
Before embarking on my art adventure, I had doubted whether Kochi’s Biennale could fulfill the ambitions of its curators, Kerala-born artists Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu, who proposed to “rewrite history” through Kochi—intending the Biennale itself to serve as a tool for opening “a new discourse…a new, hitherto unknown language of narration.” But my doubts dissipated soon after I arrived in Kochi. Unlike conventional exhibitions, biennials spread throughout their host location, becoming as much about that place as about the art exhibited there. And as places go, Kochi is rather special. The center of India’s spice trade from the 14th century onwards, today Kochi is a heady mix of Chinese fishing nets, industrial tankers, synagogues, mosques, and churches. Add to this Kerala’s socialist backdrop and educated population—Kerala boasts India’s highest literacy rate—and you have a highly switched-on exhibition context.
In order to activate that context, the curators handpicked 94 artists from 23 countries to respond to Kochi. Among the many thought-provoking results, I was particularly impressed by two works that really brought Kochi’s charged situation to life.
Combining rural film footage and native rice grains with hand-bound books filled with names and suicide dates, Amar Kanwar’s installation The Sovereign Forest (2010–ongoing) documents the plight of India’s farmers in the face of corporate land-grabbing. As my own reaction to the work moved from visual to emotional, I thought how relevant its core issues—possession and exploitation—were to the exhibition site itself; Aspinwall House, a warehouse complex that had never before been open to the public, was owned by an English trading company during the British Raj.
Sheela Gowda’s Stopover (2012) consisted of 170 grinding stones—an Indian kitchen essential before electrical appliances—trailed across a disused Aspinwall House storeroom and onto a crumbling jetty. As I picked my way across this object graveyard, I noticed how calm the surrounding waters, once so frenzied with trade, are today. The stones’ gathering seemed to parallel the Biennale’s resuscitation of Kochi, a place whose use value isn’t quite what it once was. Presented in different contexts, both the stones and Kochi, I hoped, could take on new meanings—and new life.
On my last day in Kochi, I met with co-curator Riyas Komu to discuss all things biennial. During our conversation, I was struck by his explanation of India’s need to hold this exhibition, specifically in Kochi. “Here,” he told me, “we are the museum.” It wasn’t until I arrived in Mumbai that this began to make sense.
Though Mumbai houses several museums, their missions are heritage-driven, and none is exclusively dedicated to cutting-edge international art. This has forced other players in Mumbai’s art world to evolve in unusual ways. Commercial galleries behave like nonprofit spaces, exhibiting daring programming. During my visit, Gallery Maskara—self-described as filling a gap in India’s art scene, which can value “commercial considerations” above “visual complexity” due to scarce public funding—was showing nightmarish sculptures by Keralan artist Shine Shivan that practically defied purchase. Meanwhile, many other galleries were hosting exhibitions associated with FOCUS photography festival (March 13–27, 2013), a new initiative that saw galleries, nonprofits, and shops across Mumbai together seeking out fresh audiences for photography. Nonprofit spaces like Clark House Bombay (cofounded by a former Mumbai museum curator) also take on a critical role in the absence of a museum culture, asking big, socially oriented questions through exhibitions that belie their often small size.
The more I explored Mumbai’s art scene, the clearer the rationale behind Kochi’s Biennale became. In India, paradoxically, the alternatives to the museum—galleries, nonprofit exhibition spaces—are the museum, the conduit for engagement with thought-provoking art. A biennial, held in fascinating Kochi, seemed to me a fitting next step for the country’s art scene, which, freed from institutional regulation, has developed a decidedly experimental character. A unique addition to the biennial circuit, over the coming years the Kochi-Muziris Biennale just might open up the “new discourse” its curators hoped for after all.