Spanning 12 venues and with 97 participating artists from 35 countries, Kochi comes alive with art, performance, talks and workshops. Its spectacular setting in Fort Kochi, a water-bound extension of the mainland, lends the Biennale its unique atmosphere.
The whole aesthetic experience is cleverly tied together with an 88-chapter text of ‘Baroni,’ a novel by Argentinian writer Sergio Chejfec stenciled across the city walls. Since the start of the three-month event in December 2016, there have been 800,000 visitors to the Biennale, according to the organisers.
The theme of the Biennale ‘Forming in the pupil of an Eye’ came to Sadarshan Shetty as the curation process developed. He had initial conversations with Raul Zurita, the Mexican artist, and things organically grew from there. This was Shetty’s first curating experience and he wanted to create a ‘space’ where the artist/curator relationship was symbiotic, “I was merely the facilitator of a shared space,” he told me over lunch at Solar, a café frequented by the Biennale crowd. I asked him how artists were responding to the space, meaning of course the physical space of the Biennale’s setting. “What do you mean by space? Your perception and mine are very different,” Shetty said.
I cannot but mention the incredible 38-minute video installation Inverso Mundus by the Russian artists AES+F shown on a 15 metre screen. A surreal slow-motion film that blurs the lines between reality and fantasy in a topsy-turvy post-industrial world, Inverso Mundus also questions the power dynamics of today’s world, between the sexes, class, generations and even the animal-human relationship.
Yet another interactive piece was Turkish artist Ahmet Ogut's "Workers leaving the factory - Version 2.” Two simple Merritt sewing machine on which a television screen replaces the operative part of the sewing machine stands in an open room overlooking the sea. As you pedal the machine, a grainy video of workers walking out in protest from a factory site plays out on the screen. The viewer, in other words, has to labour in order to view a labour force, in this case, in protest.
Running alongside the main Biennale are 20 Collateral events, where more international and Indian artists are given the opportunity to show their work. I visited an exhibition by the recently discovered artist Brij Mohan Anand, who came of age in pre-Independent India and was involved with the nationalist and Communist movement. His energetic black and white etchings on subjects such as the futility of war, social oppression, serve to shock the viewer, but are aesthetic in their own right. Roots/Routes, a collaboration of four Pune-based artists portray the individual artist’s journey in mediums as varied as ceramic, video, sculpture and painting.
For me, the Biennale’s offerings represented world class creative innovation.
Last year, I visited the Marrakech Biennale and was more struck by the scale of the art installations in their dilapitated heritage sites. However, the lack of local visitors to the event was a disappointment.
In Kochi, the Biennale was much more embedded in the local milieu. The people of Kochi turned up in droves and there was a sense of pride amongst the local residents in being a part of such an international milestone in art. As a young volunteer student said, “For me, this has been an opportunity to meet important artists, and to learn about history and art.”
The other impressive aspect of the Kochi Biennale was the emphasis on exposing students to new art trends. The Students Biennale, a part of India’s higher education programme, offered students from across India a fantastic opportunity to show their work to a global audience.
Outside of the formal Biennale experience, or indeed as a ‘collateral’ experience, there is a plethora of things to do and see, and fantastic places to eat and stay. It is easily accessed from the international airport at Kochi, and getting around by taxi or autorickshaw is easy for first-timers. An overnight houseboat trip on the beautiful Kerala backwaters is highly recommended and can be combined with your visit to the Biennale.
To fully immerse yourself in Biennale, allow yourself a week to visit. To avoid disappointment, book early and stay at Secret Garden, a fantastic, reasonably priced boutique hotel. It’s also worth enjoying a houseboat experience with Bay Pride Tours.
I hope that this provides you with a taste of the joys that attending an international biennale can bring and that it whets your appetite for the Kerala Biannale in 2018.