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The 2012 Kochi International Biennale
The Kochi-Muziris Biennale, a proposed international exhibit of contemporary art in the scenic state of Kerala, makes for a significant development. If the vision of its futuristic organizers comes into reality, India will have its first major biennale event of a genuine global scale and scope, emulating those in Berlin, Liverpool, Venice and Dakar. If everything goes according to the plan, art lovers will witness a truly grand showcase of works by both Indian and international artists across a wide variety of mediums like painting, sculpture, installation, new media, film and performance art.

Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu, the two Mumbai artists, who are originally from Kerala, have planned this extravaganza of contemporary art. Through a curious collation of contemporary art practices from across the globe, their vastly ambitious project seeks to celebrate the participative spirit of art, even while invoking the truly historic cosmopolitan legacy of the new modern metropolis and that of the ancient port of Muziris, its mythical predecessor, in the tropical south of the country.

Slated to be held in various spaces across the historic venue such as the newly-restored Durbar Hall as well as its serene surrounding islands like Willington and Bolgatty, the eclectic event modeled on the Venice Biennale envisions mass participation through debates, discussions, seminars, talks, workshops, screenings, educational activities and a series of shows in unusual spaces. It emphasizes creating site-specific installations, bringing life back to heritage buildings, and reanimating disused houses.

Kochi is among the few Indian cities where pre-colonial traditions of captivating cultural pluralism still flourish. They pre-date the post-Enlightenment concepts of cultural pluralism, multiculturalism and globalization that can be traced to Muziris. The site is currently under excavation, and it’s vital to explore and also retrieve the past memories in context of the present status, in order to posit alternatives to cultural and political discourses emanating from the specific histories of America and Europe. With it, a dialogue for a new aesthetics and politics deeply enmeshed in the very Indian experience, albeit open to the winds blowing in from far-away worlds, is well possible, the organizers believe.

The Biennale will involve people from across the cross-sections of contemporary art world, including top artists like Atul Dodiya, Bani Abidi, Zakir Hussain, Tallur L.N., Alfredo Jaar, Fiona Tan, Gabriel Orozco, and Wangechi Mutu, to name a few. Young and upcoming practitioners will also get an opportunity to display their talent alongside the more known international figures. In a way, the platform seeks to project the new energy of artistic practices in the subcontinent.

An introductory note elaborates: “It will introduce contemporary international visual art theory and practice to India, showcase and debate new Indian and international aesthetics and art experiences and enable a dialogue among artists, curators, and the public; it seeks to reflect the new confidence of Indian people who are slowly, but surely, building a new society that aims to be liberal, inclusive, egalitarian and democratic.” The time has come to tell the story of cultural practices distinct to the Indian people and local traditions, practices and discourses shaping the idea of India, it emphasizes.

The custodianship of a sustainable and solid platform for contemporary Indian art is central to the Kochi Biennale Foundation’s purpose and activity. It works towards promoting broad consensus on investment in art infrastructure and ensuring public access to it across the country by initiating a continued dialogue between public, Government and international arts institutions and artists themselves. In fact, the foundation is keen to position it on the contemporary art calendar like the Shanghai art fair and the Basel art show, in the years to come.

The inaugural Kochi-Muziris Biennale is probably the most high profile initiative undertaken by the foundation envisioned by Bose and Komu. As a creator, curator and practitioner of art in various forms and domains, the former likes to challenge and defy conventional concepts of art practices. ‘Panorama: India’ curated by him offered a fascinating overview of contemporary Indian art at ARCO Madrid 2009. Though he had put up a show, entitled ‘Double Enders’ (2005), comprising artists from his home state Kerala, he believes that art cannot be bound by regions. On the other hand, Riyas Komu’s oeuvre refers to the paradoxes of the urban situation that he paints with cynicism and compassion; with dejection albeit tinged with hope and sympathy.

The duo seeks to establish the Biennale as a hub for artistic engagement. The Wall Street Journal columnist Margherita Stancati reveals: “Artists and art lovers often complain that not enough is being done to promote contemporary art in the country outside a commercial framework. As a result, the room for discourse on contemporary art in India has so far been relatively limited. We need to create that space, according to Riyas Komu. The start date for the event - a ‘first step’ in that direction’ - has been set: a prophetic 12/12/12. The idea behind it is to provide a platform for contemporary art in India that is neither a gallery not a trade fair.” Very preliminary figures put the event’s outlay at $15 million; part of it to be provided by the state government, and the rest to come from private sponsorships and contributions.

Importantly, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale will focus more on art orientation, artistic expression and its relationship with society than merely commerce and sales, asset building and investment. It aspires to emerge as a new space and a fresh voice that protects and projects the autonomy of the artist and their pursuit to constantly reinvent the world we live in. In essence, it aims at creating a new idiom of cosmopolitanism combined with modernity rooted in the lived and living experience of an ancient trading port, which, for over six centuries, has been a crucible of many communal identities.