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On Pepper House’s sea-facing wall in Fort Kochi, Kerala, a black and white dragonfish mural beckons seafarers, tourists and fishermen to join the cultural revelry. A glass in one fin and a cigarette dangling from the other, the debonair fish celebrates the arty reincarnation of the ancient cities of Kochi and Muziris. It’s this that the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2012 is attempting to do—the eternal return—using the ancient narrative as a premise for contemporary art.
Round the corner, colours continue to cavort on the walls of Aspinwall House where five young artists have left their imprints. A sea monster, a dragon and a phoenix named Lulu have taken up residence on these walls. The Kochi-Muziris Biennale, starting on 12/12/12, will be the first of its kind in India in terms of sheer scale and should change the landscape of the city forever. Art critic and poet Ranjit Hoskote says a biennale is the most widespread form of large-scale exhibition in the world today. Typically, it’s not a country’s most important city, but often one that has enjoyed previous glory but has later been relegated to irrelevance which is selected as host. The first, oldest and foundational biennale, the one in Venice (established 1895), had its origins in such a need, to recover lost ground (the biennale was devised as a cultural strategy of self-renewal).
The Kochi-Muziris Biennale seeks to evoke a language of cosmopolitanism that defines these historical trading ports. Muziris was a prosperous seaport which traded with the Assyrians, Romans, Greeks, Chinese, Arabs and Jews from time immemorial and was believed to have been lost during the floods of 1341. This threw up Kochi as a new trading port. These two ports were receptacles of numerous cultural and inter-religious dialogues. Hoskote says this biennale is an important initiative to recover our ocean-based histories. “Northern India has always been concerned with land-based histories and our centuries-long connection to the Indian Ocean, the Malabar-Venice trade and the coalition between the Zamorin, the Venetian republic and the Mamelukes of Egypt, have been relegated to footnotes. This is a gesture to recover those histories for ourselves.”
The biennale is a phenomenon meant to evolve; its curators have little hold on its trajectory after the launch. Says painter and curator Bose Krishnamachari, “We travelled to different countries, different biennales, art fairs, practices to pick the artists and it was done over a period of two years. Most of the art work and installations will be site-specific. The artists from outside India have already made numerous visits here to imbibe the history and culture of the place and they will interpret it in their works.”
“The aim is to tell a story of eternal migration...of an imaginary ancestor Zoman Mojadidi travelling to Kochi.”
Beyond the high walls of Aspinwall House, you can see an artist at work. Amanullah Mojadidi, an artist from Kabul seeks an ancient ancestor, Zaman Mojadidi. He carefully weaves the strands of his personal history with the history of Kochi to create an ancient myth. “I strive to tell the story of eternal migration and the shared histories of the region. My ancestors who were Naqshbandi Sufis had left Afghanistan and settled in Sindh...and then migrated back to Afghanistan. Here I have created through this archaeological site the story of my imaginary ancestor Zaman Mojadidi, a humanist, who had left his hometown Saffron and travelled to Kochi. He was revered here for his philosophies but the British evicted him from his house and he died in jail in 1857. The viewer can walk through the site, examine everything, come to his/her own interpretations.”
Like Mojadidi, many other international artists are enthusiastic about the biennale. Says Amsterdam-based artist Joseph Semah via e-mail, “Kochi, in my opinion, is a paradise for religious denominations; here we can see how the concept of tolerance took shape by promoting a kind of balance between different religious groups.” Nobel prize-winning Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s videos will be shown, some of the other artists to watch out for are Ernesto Neto and Alfredo Jaar. Neto is known for his large, spongy installations stuffed with spices that can be squeezed and felt and walked through. Anant Joshi, a Mumbai-based artist, has created a Kerala temple and in lieu of lamps he has installed mosquito repellent contraptions on the walls of the temple that will emanate flower and wood scents. The viewer can walk through the temple and, literally, gain an olfactory experience.
Notions of art and how we view art get challenged every day; the biennale hopes to be the scene for an explosion of the senses. Dylan Martorell from Australia, in fact, is experimenting with music and art. “I am fascinated with the concept of a musical diaspora or the ways in which music travels through time and space carried by migrating cultures, trade routes, military campaigns, refugees and how hidden threads connect cultures. So much musical culture has threads that run through India, from Indonesia to northern Europe and Cochin has an especially fascinating role in this concept as one of the first centres of globalisation.” A project that’s already online is the HFV project, installed by Ariel Hassan, showcasing the fact that one does not even need to visit the biennale to participate. Hassan believes that art should not be authoritarian but participatory and invites viewers to respond on: www.hfvproject.com. The corollary of the interaction of artists, critics, music, ideas, cultures, arts is so huge now it cannot be imagined. It will have to be experienced. Come to Kochi, the biennale will be on till March 2013.