I arrived back from southern India in April, head filled with glorious images and experiences of a country which already had a special place in my heart, I had visited India 23 years ago. With that original trip still vividly remembered, my recent journey was full of comparisons and thoughts on transformation, culture, creativity, history and the changing face of modern India.
One memorable highlight was the ‘Kochi-Muziris’ International Art Biennale in Fort Kochi, Kerala (which opened in December 2014 and had its closing ceremony in March 2015). This creative project ticked all my boxes – contemporary art, a local narrative, community involvement, diversity, education – but what made it really engaging for me, and a model that I feel has unique appeal, is that this wide ranging creative programme was set within several redundant, culturally significant and historic spaces. Temporary and improvised exhibition spaces had been created to present site-specific, locally thematic work. There was a clear synergy between the architecture and the artwork which reinforced the story of each element in the mix. Thus inspired, I bought the programme and the stylishly folded route map to all of the stunning, sometimes crumbling, venues and started walking.
‘Whorled Explorations’ – the theme of this second Kochi-Muziris Biennale, to which the artists made personal responses – is steeped in the notion of ‘Genius Loci’ (roughly translated as the spirit or atmosphere of place). “Kochi was a protagonist in the emerging global narrative in the 1500’s, at the same time that the Kerala School of Astronomy and Mathematics was making ground-breaking suggestions about where humans were located in the cosmos. The 85km area of present-day Kochi is home to fifty-four diverse communities and thirteen different languages. Once, nearly five hundred years ago, this diversity was compressed within the 5km Fort Kochi area, “a magnet for mendacious spice traders, sailors, soldiers of fortune, savants, scholars, carpetbaggers, mendicants and priests from the farthest corners of the world: Portugal, Holland, England, China and Rome”. Echoes of their presence remain in everyday life around Kochi – in its architecture, its food, its monuments and culture. Myths, memory, history, fact, factoid, past and present continually collide in Kochi, which was a deliberate, considered choice as a site for the Biennale. As it provided the opportunity to place ‘cosmopolitanism’ in the terrain of history and the chance to examine the ‘poetics of human imprint’ on nature, history, ecology and world politics through the prism of the Kochi experience”. quote from an article by Sunil Mehra for the Biennale magazine.
The Biennale was co-founded by Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu, and the Artistic Director for 2014-15 was Jitish Kallat. It involved 94 artist from 30 countries exhibiting for 108 days across 8 locations including Aspinwall House, Vasco da Gama Square, Pepper House, Durbar Hall and CSI Bungalow, each loaded with memory, meaning, metaphor and history.
Bharti Kher – Three Decimal Points / of a minute / of a second / of a degree
“The 315-year-old residency of the Dutch Army Commander, today known as the CSI Bungalow, is just off the southern tip of the Parade Ground. Its acreage overrun by bramble and weeds, towering trees and flowering bushes, it exudes a melancholic air of rundown gentility. The 20-foot ceiling, imposing entrance doors and stately windows bear mute testimony to a grander, more spacious time. A Sylvia Plath line plays like a drumbeat in my head….empty, I echo to the last footfall…”.
The programme included: the Students Biennale (35 institutions, 120 young artists, 15 young curators); an Artists Cinema; a Children’s Biennale; a History Now talks and seminars programme; a cultural programme featuring traditional artforms of Kerala and including contemporary theatre events, movement arts performances and music concerts; Arts and Medicine projects; the Pepper House Residency programme – an international residency opportunity for artists from all disciplines to work and collaborate within a studio space; and Collateral – an exhibition programme involving international contemporary artists, young emerging Indian artists and the public.
Benitha Perciyal – The fires of faith
Bijoy Jain – Tar Studies
Gulammohammed Sheikha – Balancing Act
Sahej Rahal – Harbinger
Seeing the Kochi-Muziris Biennale reminded me of feelings evoked by a visit to the British Ceramics Biennial in Stoke on Trent in 2013. I had loved seeing contemporary ceramics displayed amongst the often ruined spaces of the redundant Spode Factory. Architectural salvage had become part of the exhibitions, old doors were used as display tables, artists had responding to the surroundings and created new work including temporary installations inspired by the history of the industry and the historic fabric of the buildings.
The Spode pottery once employed over 1000 workers. The first British Ceramics Biennale in 2009 was apparently the first time that many workers had returned to the site since its closure the previous year. The project is forward thinking – £10,000 is awarded to a participating artist to develop their contemporary practice. The 2013 programme included: the ‘Award’ Exhibition of Contemporary British Ceramics; ‘Fresh’, showing the work of recent graduates; a community engagement programme creating opportunities for visitors to explore and experience clay; a Film Room; and Exploring Spode, a series of site-specific commissions / installations and a related residency programme.
Both of these inspiring and exciting projects, one in India and one in the UK, are closely connected in my mind and noteworthy for me as they both celebrate and draw on cultural heritage while using this as a catalyst for new, innovative work which in turn is amplified by being shown in an historic setting.