December 21, 2012 7:01 pm

Spiced up in Kerala

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The Kochi-Muziris Biennale, India’s first ever, was beset by bureaucracy and budget crises, but imagination triumphed
Ernesto Neto, spice sack

Ernesto Neto’s spice sack installation, a memento mori to Kochi’s spice trade heritage

With 24 hours before the Kochi-Muziris Biennale opens, Hossein Valamanesh is frantically stitching fabric inside an empty space. “My installation was delayed at customs,” explains Valamanesh, an Iranian-born artist based in Adelaide. Valamanesh’s work contains light bulbs but a linguistic misunderstanding led customs officials to believe that he was trying to ship geographical globes and they demanded proof that the border between India and Pakistan was correctly drawn.

The next day, Valamanesh’s work is ready. A grid of black-and-white pillars of cloth, each bearing a bulb, has been suspended above a square of Indian carpets. White light falls in perfect spheres on to the centuries-old patterns. Visitors are asked to remove their shoes, yet none of the rugs are prayer carpets. Rather, we are moved by our memories of holy spaces and by the calm instilled by the geometry.

Both the quality of his work and the tortuous installation process make Valamanesh’s saga somewhat symbolic of the Kochi Biennale. Imperilled by bureaucracy, backbiting, politics and budget crises, it is remarkable that the exhibition opened at all.

Ideas for the event were first mooted in 2010. According to a spokesperson for the biennale, Kerala’s then cultural minister, MA Baby, part of the governing Communist party, asked two locally born painters, Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu, for suggestions as to how his state might win itself a place on India’s cultural map.

The biennale, India’s first, was born. Krishnamachari and Komu would curate it in the state’s capital city and an international roster of artists would be invited. Both local and central government would contribute funding, and private donations would make up the shortfall. The original budget was estimated, though never signed off, at around 730m rupees (£8.3m). It was to include major urban renovations and the creation of public artworks in Kochi.

By summer 2011, those plans were in tatters. A change in local government saw Kerala’s new rulers launch an inquiry into the biennale for misappropriation of funds. All state financial support was withdrawn and potential sponsors evaporated. The final show is estimated to have cost around Rs250m, some of which has come from the curators’ own pockets.

The final show has reined in its ambitions, but that figure is still not enough. Although over half of the 90 artists come from India, the rest hail from 24 countries and, even though many have self-financed, the expense is considerable. Furthermore, dozens of spaces never designed as galleries have had to be prepared.

Anpu Varkey, The Fish

Street artist Anpu Varkey works on ‘The Fish’

Once the centre of India’s spice trade, Kochi has been an important port for centuries. (Around 30km away, Muziris was also a port that was washed away by a flood in 1341. Now a network of archeological sites, it is the recipient of a heritage fund, some of which has been channelled towards the biennale in return for its partnership.)

The old town, known as Fort Kochi, is dotted with historic warehouses and trading posts, a result of its maritime history. Blessed with timbered ceilings and capacious stone-walled interiors, they gaze out on to waterways still crossed by ferries, junks and naval ships. Evocative they may be, but their restoration has been costly and time-consuming.

Add to this the Byzantine ways of the customs office, curators with no experience of organising an event of this scale and a heavily unionised local labour force, and it is little wonder that many works were still not installed by the biennale’s opening week.

On one level, this was enormously frustrating. Leading Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam, for example, had still to see his work in place four days after the inauguration. Due to fly home in a couple of days, he was considering withdrawing rather than consenting to installation in his absence. “It’s a complicated piece and you have to be fair to your work and to the public,” he told me.

Yet this is also a biennale that crackles with freedom, courage and imagination. Artists have had to fend for themselves, often preparing their own space and finding materials and labour. Yet inspired by the drama and history of the buildings, they have risen to the challenge.

Indeed, anyone who doubts that artists still work with their hands should have been there on the opening days. It felt like a process-art performance as artists painted, hammered, sewed and conversed urgently with workers, electricians and builders. The result is that installations, so often contemporary art’s most disappointing medium, are the star of this show.

Subodh Gupta, fishing vessel

Subodh Gupta’s fishing vessel in Aspinwall House

Often drawing on Kerala’s history – yet never falling into the mannerism found, for example, in works about carnival masks at the Venice Biennale – a clutch of works are formally confident, respectful of their materials and in tune with the artist’s existing practice.

In Aspinwall House – a former British trading house on the waterfront – Indian superstar Subodh Gupta has crammed a traditional Keralan fishing boat with cooking pots, chairs, bicycles and quilts bound by hefty chains. Slung up to a girder in a former shipbuilding yard, the boat rears up like a monumental roar of hope and suffering from the ghosts of refugees and migrants.

Gupta’s vessel seems to have emerged victorious from the drowned city of Muziris, which Vivan Sundaram, one of Indian art’s elder statesmen, has laid down in the other half of the hall. Its towers, rivers and settlements reassembled from terracotta pot shards found in the digs, this floor sculpture is a triumph of poetic thinking and precise handiwork.

Out on the waterfront, two more site-specific works engage in a touching conversation about home and exile. Tumbling out of the warehouse doorway on to a jetty, dozens of grindstones – once used by Indian women for spices – are here reinterpreted by Bangalore-based couple Sheela Gowda and Christoph Storz as mute, immovable witnesses to a lost domestic tradition. On the wall above, lines of song spelled out in LED lights by Scottish artist Robert Montgomery capture a sailor’s longing for the love he has left behind or has yet to meet.

In the beautifully restored clay-roofed Pepper House, local artist Alex Mathew breathes new life into the ready-made by planting a rusty anchor on the lawn and snaking the chain upward by means of invisible wires. The brutal, uncanny beauty could be a calling card for this biennale. Equally appropriate is the sack of spice sewn from local cotton by Brazilian Ernesto Neto – who has long used spices in his work – in Moidu’s Heritage, a blue-shuttered building of dilapidated grace that once housed a coconut-fibre company. Hung from the beams of an attic room that gazes on to the shipping lines, there could be no more pungent memento mori to Kochi’s heritage.

grindstones, Sheela Gowda and Christoph Storz

Grindstones, once used by Indian women for spices, reinterpreted by Sheela Gowda and Christoph Storz

The show looks beyond the local. Known for its tolerance, Kochi is a city where Hindus, Muslims, Christians and a small Jewish community live peacefully together. Nevertheless, it was brave to invite Saudi artist Ahmed Mater to present his photographic chronicle of the Hajj. Shot from a helicopter after much bureaucratic negotiation, these are once-in-a-lifetime shots that communicate with revelatory candour the scale and intensity of the pilgrimage to Mecca.

At times, the quality dips. Having gone to the trouble of restoring former royal residence Durbar Hall to museum standard, why put together a bland, random mixture of photography and painting by international and local artists with no obvious rapport?

Fewer than a quarter of the artists at the biennale are women, which is insufficient in an age where female talent abounds. Shining out are four films by Australian artist Angelica Metisi that show people making music without instruments – a black American man whistling exquisitely in his car, a Mongolian throat musician – in moments of breathtaking stillness and intimacy.

The decision to include street art, in recognition of Kochi’s history of political slogan-writing, is to be applauded. More interesting than painterly interventions is the projection on a blank wall, by Venezuelan Juan Requena, of two ants fighting to the death like murderous aliens.

There’s no question that for 2014, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale must sharpen up its act. Aside from the works that weren’t ready, the absence of labels, maps and a catalogue will not be forgiven a second year running. It will be a challenge, too, to win over some hearts and minds for whom the Biennale may seem alien. In recent days, two works – an installation by Clifford Charles and a drawing on a street wall by Australian artist Daniel Connell – have been vandalised. A spokesperson for the Biennale says the attacks may not be linked, although they think it is possible that Connell’s work may have been defaced by the same people who tore down posters advertising the event.

For all its problems, however, this Biennale is a refreshing antidote to an art world often contaminated by too much money and not enough taste. And that may be a lesson for our times.

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