The Kochi-Muziris Biennale in Kerala, India

The Latvian artist Andris Eglitis stood at the door of a structure that in shape resembled an over-sized house-tent you might find at a drive-in camp site.   It was constructed with poles and wires to hold up the roofs but large enough to walk inside, with a couple of interlocking rooms.   Except that it was made of coconut fronds over bamboo struts.

Kochi-Muziris Biennale India art

Will-o’-the-Wisp by Katrina Neiburga and Andris Eglitis

Like half a dozen other artists I encountered that morning, however – many of them significant international names –  Eglitis,  looking gaunt and hollow-eyed, seemed to be mentally tearing his hair out.   Artists are apt to pull all-nighters as they push against exhibition deadlines, and lose track of time when they meander off creatively  – they’re artists, after all  – but this was different.

The coconut tent, titled Will-o’-the-Wisp, designed to use the vernacular architecture and building practices of South India, housed an elaborate film installation of multiple projections themed on the subject of miracles.  But hours away from opening he had no power supply to test them or start them up.

“They are promising for three days that in half an hour there will be electricity,” he said. “On and on and on and on.”   He had been working with his fellow Latvian artist, Katrina Neiburga, for three weeks in Kochi,  while the whole project, largely funded from Latvia,  had been several months in the planning.  In desperation he was pleading with organisers for a generator to try and power it up for the opening day of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale.

For a novice visitor to Kochi, in the southern Indian state of Kerala, the first encounter with the Biennale was  deeply confusing.  On press preview day,  when your average art festival would be wearing its best dress for visiting reviewers, almost nothing seemed finished.  The first press walk-through of the biennale –  which in just three outings has become a signature art event, India’s first and only biennale   – had taken place the previous afternoon,  in the main venue at Aspinwall House, lead by its curator, the artist Sudarshan Shetty.   But there were ten other venues, and on the following morning, as a dutiful arts reporter with a deadline looming, I had set off for an early look.

In the dark, by the light of my iPhone torch, Andris explained what would happen in Will o’the Wisp, when and if his cables were connected.  “There will be projections on different surfaces in different places so it’s a very different experience,” he said,  including on wall screens, and the sawn surfaces of a tree trunk in the middle of the floor.

“The videos will be about miracles.  There will be different people telling their stories about their experience of miracles, what they think is a miracle. Here in India people have way more miracles than in Europe.”

Earlier in 2016, at the India Art Fair, a friend  who runs one of the country’s leading commercial galleries in Mumbai was helping me with a story on a planned new Partition Museum, devoted to the extraordinary upheavals of 1947.  It was my first visit to the country.   She observed that in India nothing may move forward for a very long time, and then suddenly things very quickly.

Will-o’-the-Wisp was in prime position at the Biennale, in the Cabral Yard, opposite the newly constructed Pavillion that was to house all the main gatherings and events, in an event  with a strong performance strand that included the country’s top theatre directors, dancers and singers.   A glance was enough to see pavillion was still wrapped in wooden scaffolding and the patchy gravel and concrete walkway leading up to it, trod by workers bearing baskets, was still wet.

Kochi-Muziris Biennale India art

Tony Joseph’s Pavillion

Ironically or not this year’s title for the biennale was “Forming in the pupil of an eye”.   And miracle or not, by the following day, Andris’ projectors were on, projects beaming on to tree trunks and screens.  Performances at the pavilion, its interior a wonderful pastiche of rustic steps for sitting on and quirky high-design chairs,  were well under way.

Kochi-Murizis Biennale Kerala India art



Writing about multi-faceted arts events – from the Edinburgh or Adelaide Fringe, or the Istanbul or Kochi Biennales – is a daunting prospect, particularly in  a single story of a a few hundred words.   It demands plunging into a vast body of work,  and making some rapid judgement calls on what’s worth writing up. There were nearly 100 artists in the main section of the biennale alone.  For which reason, this blog may get a little out of hand when it comes to length.

Two memories among many still stand out.    Tucked into as side room at the Map Warehouse, another crumbling mansion building, where again the main installation was far from finished, was the work of the Mumbai artist Yardena Kurulkar, in particular Kenosis.   From MRI scans, she made a 3-d terracotta replica of her own heart, and took 15 photographs of it decomposing in water.     The catalogue called it “creating a point of confrontation between life and death”; it seemed an extraordinarily brave exploration of one’s own mortality, of the pump of  life dissolving.

Yardena Kurulkar Kochi-Muziris Biennale India art

Kenosis, by Yardena Kurulkar

Last year the piecemade Kurulkar the first foreign winner of Australia’s principal award for contemporary art, the Blake Prize, worth $35,000.

The student section of the biennale was an exhibition in itself, boasting some of the most promising work from young artists across India.     It included Artist as Bomber,  by Sahil Ravindran Naik.

A scale model portrayed a  back bureaucratic office or set of studios that has been torn apart by a bomb.   There was debris and dust everywhere,  smashed  and overturned tables, chairs,  shelves and cupboards.  The only thing missing in the miniature scene of devastation was the bodies.

Kochi Muziris Biennale KMB 2015 India art

Sahil Ravindra Naik, Artist as Bomber, table model

But it was the film playing beside the table model that made the work particularly acid:  it was mocked up, typically grainy CCTV footage of this imagined moment of mayhem, complete with time clock.

Kochi-Muziris biennale, KMB 2016, India art

Sahil Ravindra Naik, Artist as Bomber, constructed CCTV footage

The art journalist Rachel Spence was at the Kochi opening for the Financial Times,  and her account of it is here, with the benefit of experience from a second visit.    The Art Newspaper carried my initial article on its website, with a longer version in the January print edition.

In Kochi, adding to the bewildering exoticism and the challenge of encountering India’s multi-layered and powerfully young contemporary art scene, overlaid on an ancient culture, was the element of the last-minute rush to a conclusion, a show still on the road.

The  journey to Kerala began a couple of months earlier in Edinburgh, at the studio of artist Hanna Tuulikki.   Hanna was one of the featured artists at last August’s Edinburgh Art Festival. She had already been out to Kochi for several weeks to work with the country’s top practitioner of ancient Kutiyattam dance, producing a wonderfully quirky three-screen film and sound piece of her eyes, lips, and body as she performed.

That day at Pepper House, the wonderfully run-down colonial building where Hanna’s installation was due to open, the artist was somewhat overwhelmed, like her Latvian counterpart, by hiccups and delays.    She was being comforted by staff from Creative Scotland, who with the British Council had funded her and other visiting UK artists.

From the balcony, I watched as another Scottish artist, Jonathan Owen, helped about six volunteers carry the wooden crate containing a sculpture that had broken, probably at customs.    A few minutes earlier, Jonathan and I had looked down on it, through the open top of the crate.   It represented three months work, specifically for the biennale, carving one of his signature pieces from a 19th Century bust; it had never been shown.    The  back of it had smashed; speaking gently, he was in a philosophical state of shock.   The biennale was certainly more of a live drama than one typically expects at a visual art event.

True to form, however,  within a couple of days Tuulikki’s piece was up and running, though her live performance was cancelled.

  • Hanna Tuulikki: from this

Owen’s work involves erasing things from existing artworks, and his surviving cut-away bust was impressing his Indian visitors, flagged in the Huffington Post.    I left him in his exhibition room, explaining to several fascinated young local volunteers how he also erased images from the photographs he was showing, leaving just ghostly hints of a former presence in the pictures.

The lesson, if there is one, is that visiting artist and sponsors taking on the event in future years should be well  prepared for large last-minute hiccups.  Red tape, import rules and customs searches, have  also made the  India Art Fair in Delhi, the country’s leading commercial art event, an obstacle course for foreign galleries, many of which have elected to stay away.

At a guess, Kochi’s rapidly rising profile brought a burst of interest and support from overseas cultural agencies and their country’s artists this year, who in their enthusiasm were not quite prepared for the challenges.  A friend suggests that while logistics issues with India are hardly new, given the Kochi-Muziris Biennale depends  a lot on student volunteers and others to help with the install, there is a case for investing in skills building a few months in advance of the next outing.

There’s always a tension over biennales, which have spread world-wide from Venice, along with  other flagship art fairs: how international, regional, or national  they should aspire to become.     These events are often run by international outfits who want to make a splash with artists who have brand-name status.  One international gallerist  was opining that Kochi needed a bigger headline name.

The risk of this is losing the sense of place .   Istanbul for example has (or has had) two significant art fairs alongside the Istanbul Biennale, one run by an international company which knows how to supply high-profile galleries and artists, enlist the big collectors and art publications.  My personal preference was for Contemporary Istanbul, dominated by Turkish galleries of all shapes, sizes, and quality.

Kochi is notable for being founded and run by contemporary artists; and that allows for an extra bit of latitude for the chaotic, stitched-together-at-the-last-minute, quality.   It doesn’t suffer from being slick.

Generally, everything slows down in Kerala.   Kochi calls itself God’s Own Country, and in Fort Kochi, the sleepy, low-rise, historic heart of the port city, you can see, and hear, why.   When pigeons feast off your cupped hands at the Jain temple – where these urban rats, circling the cupola three times,  join a surprisingly spiritual feeding routine lead by a monk  – you hear the call to prayer at the nearby mosque.

While trying to bring a critical judgement to bear on wonderfully accomplished paintings and drawings  by Indian artists in a secondary venue, there’s the distraction of Hark the Herald Angels Sing, followed by Away in a Manger, from what can only be the end-of-term concert at a local school – with one boy, whose voice has clearly just broken, sounding hoarsely above the rest.

Kerala is measured as 18 percent Christian, and whatever the numbers the heart of Kochi is dominated by churches, which for a novice to India comes as a surprise.   The fronts of buses are emblazoned with either Jesus, or Allahu Akbar, and it is home to some of the earliest settlement from Europe and the Arabian Gulf by Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities.

The carolling was the backdrop to work at the Kashi Art Gallery (if you should visit, don’t confuse it with the Kashi art cafe) in a ‘collateral exhibition’ to the Biennale.    It included the work of Abir Karmaker, from Baroda, India, wall-sized paintings of the walls of an aspirational middle-class Indian home; photo realism so real you want to pull the handles of the larder cupboards,  or hold the books so they don’t spill out of the overspilling shelves.  Troupe l’oeils on a grand scale of  of television cabinets and knick-knacks,  well-stocked larder shelves; accomplished and impressive, particularly in the seeping sideways light he created,  the sheen of reflection off wood panelling or food tins.   There were the strange and wonderful  paintings of KK Muhamad, or GR Iranna’s shadowy views of trees from above.

One particular charm is finding your way to a tumbledown colonial building of crumbling mildewed bricks, reeking of an old India, and entering the world of high tech contemporary.  One installation I discovered consisted of high piles of bulging hemp sacks.  “No,” said a workman.  “This is real life.”  I was in a cargo store.

The Russian collective AES+F showed photographs of corpses from a Moscow mosque dressed in high fashion, and also, tucked behind run-down waterside warehouses, in ultra high-resolution in a huge panoramic screen, a surreal film of an animated future city,  as bizarre as Luis Bunuel.     It was being pooh-poohed as populist by the cognoscenti, but remained compellingly vivid.




In one hotel, a young couple from Britain,  in India for swimming and food rather than art, asked what a biennale was.   The first answer is it’s something that happens every two years.      In Kerala, the word has become “binali”, which we’re told has come to take on a general meaning of “something unexpected and special”.

The major set pieces at Kochi included Raul Zurita’s Sea of Pain, with the walk through a wading pool in memory of tragically drowned Syrian refugees, and Slovenian artist Aleš Šteger’s walk-through poetry installation in the dark, smelly corridors of a giant pyramid of cow dung.    (The National newspaper in the UAE has a nice write-up on it here.)  These high-concept works did not carry much artistic impact, nor really did the novel being written across the town during the biennale, though it was a telling and amusing idea.

Memorable performances included a dance  piece exploring political and social divisions in the use of water, from the upper classes up stream to those who must live off polluted down-stream dregs.   Separately Camille Norment performed on her glass armonica for an audience sat on vibrating benches meant to evoke the deep sounds of church congregations,  with boats and ships in the Kochi port passed by behind her.    Ethereal and utterly absorbing.

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It’s hard to know where to begin writing about an art spectacle of this scale, and harder to know when to stop.  Amid all the conceptual and performance work, Dai Xiang’s 25 metre panorama, digitally sewn together, was a contemporary take on the 12th Century painting Along the River During the Quingming Festival, considered China’s Mona Lisa.

But among the most compelling  works, were the embroideries of Avinash Veerarghavan, After the End and After the End 2, of abandoned playground items in a setting that evokes rubbish-strewn backwoods of an urban park.     There was  a seediness in the stitchwork, a distinctive dinginess in the design of these textile pieces.    Then there were C Bhagynath’s multi-layed charcoal drawings on translucent paper, pinned one on top of another; they flapped loosely in the breeze, informally animated.   The variety, safe to say, was enormously rich.    Like several other artists, he was working through the biennale on a continuing project, in his case “Secret Dialogues”, “a story about layers, how we add to what has come before”.


In another room downstairs at Pepper House,  the deliciously eccentric German artist, Erik van Lieshout, was beginning his three-month biennale film, that would run through the course of the Biennale.

“I will be the whole time here, and I will make things with the public,” he said.  “I’m really lucky, because I don’t need anything. The other artists, they need electricity, they need nails, they need works. We feel very close to what art is about.”  Word was going round that another Scottish artist, Charles Avery, was in Kochi, but with only two of his eight drawings having made it through customs.   Avery substituted some of his striking posters, which were plastered on walls around the centre of town.

Erik’s evolving work now included drawings of the artistic director, Shetty, pinned to the wall. In the spirit of the event he had made his own wall captions.

Eponymous Erik

Eponymous Erik

We agreed that art should involve pain.   The biennale seemed to test reactions to India – your own, and those of visiting artists.

This year a book was published on the biennale, now in just its third incarnation. It is called India’s Biennale Effect, with essays from leading artists and participants. Writing about the first biennale, in 2012, s editors Robert E. D’Souza and Sunil Manghani observed “what visitors arrived to was by no means a well-orchestrated event” – a phenomenon that has continued.

“The late withholding of funds was one significant pressure, but so was the relatively poor infrastructure,” the book said.  “There was a general lack of technical experience and the use of derelict and former colonial buildings made the preparation of exhibition spaces extremely challenging. Even as delegates made their way round the opening of the exhibitions, wall captions were still being applied and catalogues being printed…attending the Biennale launch was to witness a work-in-progress”.

But the rawness of the event and its exhibition spaces, they argue, was seen as a “refreshing riposte” to “non-spaces” of other art fairs and biennales world-wide.

In Communist Kerala, the original biennale was free to wander into.    It was truly democratic.   Now a ticket was 100 rupees, not an easy expense for the likes of duc-duc drivers who get rice vouchers as pay-offs from shops when they drop tourists at their doors.  Meanwhile the Indian currency crisis had seen two of India’s most common bank notes suddenly removed from circulation,  so that nobody – literally – had any money, particularly change.

It took some getting used to, and not just by outsiders.    “It happened while I was here and I was literally left with no money.   For everybody it’s frustrating,”  said Zuleikha Chaudhari, the Indian theatre director who has moved into “spacial experiences”.   Her piece Rehearsing the Witness: The Bhawal Court Case, used the notorious 16-year court case of man who claimed to be the long-lost heir of a Dhaka estate.

The biennale was a “huge undertaking” she said.  ” That kind of interfacing of the different arts – I’m curious how it registers, the possibility of different connections in the content. it is interesting to see where practises and forms overlap with each other.   It’s in testing to see how similar ideas unfold differently in different practises. Art and literature and the performing arts and dance historically have a lot of connections.

“I think it’s important to keep pointing through and keep going.  This is one of the only places I have see that it’s such a open audience and so accessible to anybody.   That doesn’t happen with galleries.  Everybody and anybody walks in here.   It very rarely happens that people are able to come and access a whole range of stuff.   A way of thinking and feeling by art is very important as an alternative to where we are today.   It allows you to feel and think in other ways and I think that’s very crucial at this point in the country and the world. ”

The Kochi-Muziris Biennale runs until 29 March 2017, with 97 artists from 31 countries. 





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