'Biennale a platform for social and cultural change'

Bose Krishnamachari

Noted artist and the president of Kochi Biennale Foundation (KBF) Bose Krishnamachari speaks to Onmanorama about a handful of topics that range from the relevance of having an artist-curator for the Biennale, the hardships the Foundation had to face to put up the show and his team's determination to go ahead with the project.

What's the focus of the current edition of Kochi Biennale?

Biennales constantly reinvent themselves as the theme and focus of each Biennale depends on the curator. And the Kochi-Muziris Biennale has a different flavour in the sense that the site itself plays an important role. The site not only becomes a point of reference but also part of the focus and theme.

KMB 2014 is titled “Whorled Explorations” and is curated by Jitish Kallat. The exhibitions look at where we stand now as a human-race while using cosmology and cartography as pointers. When we are sitting here, the earth around us is whirling but we are not aware of that. It’s almost like Maya. So I think he is connecting or trying to understand the extremities of the practices in visual arts as well as science and maths so on.

I think Jitish has done extremely well. We are also receiving very positive feedback from many curators, critics and art lovers. For example, Okwui Enwezor, Artistic Director of Venice Biennale 2015, after his visit to KMB said that it is truly the 21st century Biennale. It’s an incredible statement from a brilliant mind like him and it puts in perspective the importance of why KMB should be sustained.

N. S. Harsha's "Punarapi Jananam Punarapi Maranam" at Aspinwall House, Fort Kochi.

Can you brief the history of Biennales or such events in India?

Biennale happens every other year. The Triennale happens every three year. Earlier, we used to have a Triennale. It was part of nation building during the Nehruvian period. In 1968, Mulkraj Anand and Octovia Pas started it. However, later it faded into a bureaucratic exercise and then ceased to exist by 2005.

What’s interesting about the KMB is that it is an artist initiated project and the curators are artists. There is merit in this as an artist can understand the process of making art much better. Of course, there have been many brilliant Biennales and Triennales around the world which were curated by academic curators. But sometimes you feel that a certain sensibility, of the artist, is not preserved. And Jitish was unanimously chosen by a specially appointed artistic advisory committee.

Does the Biennale advocate any particular kind of art, or school of art?

No there is nothing like that. Though there are places where this kind of thing has also worked. For example, Massimiliano Gioni , the curator of Gwangju Biennale worked with history and historical art theory. He put together historical pieces but with contemporary artists. It depends on the curator. Once we appoint a curator, he or she is the boss. We believe that the curator should not be troubled with our ideas. We would like to arrange the facilities for conducting the Biennale with whatever funds we have.

Our aim is to promote art and culture and we foster and develop a culture of inclusiveness. But of course that doesn’t mean that we will deviate from the aims and long-term goals that we have set for ourselves. But I think that we are already seeing the benefits of art being integrated into our local society.

Right from the beginning there were reports that the Biennale foundation is reeling under fund crunch?

It’s true. The Kochi Biennale Foundation is in a financial crisis. We are a non-profit and non-commercial charitable organisation. We raise only the funds that are required to conduct the exhibition and our accounts are transparent. It is true that we are affected by the lack of Government support. But we are hopeful that the Government will come in and support us more – there is a great goodwill for this project irrespective of politics.

This year we got a lot of support from individual patrons, corporate sponsors, galleries, artists and embassies and art councils. Without their timely support KMB2014 wouldn’t have happened. We also requested the public to support us through crowdfunding.

This year you have some private sponsors too?

A view of Hew Locke's "Sea Power" at Aspinwall House, Fort Kochi.

We have. One Malayali, Mr. T. V. Narayan Kutty has given us Rs. 1 crore. He felt that only art can create a bridge to the society. The first year he didn’t support us at all though we had met him but this time, he attended the ‘Let’s Talk’ series and found our leaflet and came to know what is Biennale and our intentions. We organised an awareness get-together in November, 2014, and that’s the time when everything got changed. People started to understand that we don’t have any money. We didn’t tell that to anyone because people wouldn’t believe us. However, Jitish opened up his mind. Let me say that he doesn’t take even single penny as his fee, though a curator is the most paid one in the international art scene. He has postponed all his shows for the biennale. Moreover, he also donated Rs. 5 lakh towards the project. Even the artist-community came forward to support this initiative. Vivan Sundaram gave us Rs. 40 lakh and Sudhir Patwardhan gave us Rs. 10 lakh and other patrons from the art-world came together to raise the money required to open the exhibition on time on 12/12/14.

What about the state funding?

I think it’s very unfortunate that we don’t have more state support. It’s not just about the money but also about coming forward to support a project which is uplifting an entire region through art. The Kochi-Muziris Biennale is one of the most important cultural project in South-East Asia and we should all be proud that it’s happening in Kerala. Every Keralite should feel proud that India’s first Biennale happened in Kochi, against all odds.

But we do hope that the State will be supporting us more this time. The tangible benefits of the Biennale was listed in a study conducted by KPMG which was released by Shri. Oommen Chandy our honourable CM.

But apart from all the economic benefits and tourism benefits the State also has to realise that at a time like this, it’s these cultural festivals which act as a gathering point for people to come and explore the possibilities outside their own immediate realities. I am not saying that this is an “escape from reality” but that the Biennale is a platform for social and cultural change and awakening.

Khalil Rabah's "Biproduct" at Aspinwall House, Fort Kochi.

Does Kerala's art literacy, if there is something like that, match with the lieracy rate of Kerala?

I don’t think that the people of Kerala are art illiterate. This is a State which has one of the best film festival, an international theatre festival and has a history of literary festivals. I don’t believe that art is separate from our lives. We may not have had anything like the Biennale before, but that doesn’t make people art illiterate. The Biennale has also opened people’s eyes to the possibilities of contemporary art from across the world; that art is not confined to the four walls of a room; that the autonomy of the artist has to be protected because it gives voice to the people. This understanding is made possible because of the literacy and the curious-nature of the people of Kerala. They have a yearning for more knowledge and wisdom and the Biennale provides just that.

The condition of most of our art schools is said to be pathetic. In this backdrop, what's the relevance of the Students’ Biennale which you have introduced this time?

It’s an incredible project that was conceptualised by Riyas Komu, Director of Programmes. The project, in effect, becomes a survey of the prevailing art practices and the various “schools of thought” across India. We chose 15 young curators and are displaying the works of 120 students from Govt funded art schools across the country. The infrastructure of art-schools in India is pathetic. They lack even the basic facilities. I do remember making courses for an institution, which I don’t want to name. The professor or institution doesn’t even have an email.

We are planning to extend the programme. Some of the institutions didn’t want to participate. They were scared. It’s not their problem actually. They have never watched what’s happening outside.

As a practising artist, how do you look at the pedagogy and syllabus of art schools?

All of us, me, Riyas Komu and Jitish Kallat were invited by Bombay University to suggest how to improve their syllabus but often our suggestions were not implemented. See, we don’t have cultural universities in India. There are 33 cultural varsities in US alone. China understands the value of such institutes. They are making museums.

Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain. AFP

I was reading an article in New York Times, which says in 2011 alone China constructed 350 museums.

In India, each state has a rich culture, but nobody is aware of it and even whomsoever is aware of it they have no capacity to implement such projects. We should learn from ther successful examples about the wealth of culture or the changes culture can make. One such example is Britain. As much as 35 per cent of that country’s GDP comes from culture.

There is something called Bilbao effect. Bilbao is a place in Spain. It had nothing earlier. They spent $800 million to develop that city into a cultural city. In six years they got the money back.

But when people open up such discussions, there comes a criticism that they are selling art or culture?

Biennale is not for selling an art work. Art fairs are for that. Here people, serious cultural tourist come to see and experience the Biennale and the place. The Biennale should be seen as a catalyst for our culture and not as a means through which we are selling ourselves or our culture. This is the only way cultural tourism can develop. This is what is happening in other parts of the world like Spain. Earlier people used to go to Madrid and Barcelona but now more people go to Bilbao. The impact the cultural tourism caused on the economy of Spain is known as 'Bilbao effect' in Economics. I think we have something to learn from that. Biennale is bringing more people to Kochi.

Julian Charriere's "We are all Astronauts" at Durbar Hall, Ernakulam.

Despite all the troubles and roadblocks, have you started thinking about the next edition? Future plans?

We don’t know how to sort out the present problems. But we won’t give up. Not only me, our other trustee, like Riyas Komu and Hormis Tharakan are dedicated people. They have committed most of their time to the Biennale. It’s not a sacrifice. I feel it’s a responsibility. Many people tried to do it in Delhi in 2005 but unfortunately they couldn’t. There was neither the state nor any community to support it. Here the state supported us in the initial stage and others later which gave us confidence. Even the art community didn’t have trust in us during the first edition. Many people were skeptical about whether it would really happen. Now people know that somehow we will make the project happen.

I feel so sad about the business community in Kerala. Often for them charity means only assistance for healthcare or some child or woman centred programmes. I’m not against it. We are also doing fantastic educational projects. But often the business people want to know the amount of visibility they get if they give us money. They want their names everywhere, but it’s often not possible in a Biennale. From Kerala only one architect supported us. He sent Rs. 10 lakh without asking. That happens rarely.

As a Foundation, we have learned a lot from conducting the first two editions of the Biennale. I am not saying that the next one will be easier to conduct, but because of this experience we will be able to do things in a much more coordinated way. The Foundation has larger ambitions and we will be pursuing that in the coming years. The Biennale is, of course, central to all that and it will be very exciting to see the evolution of the Biennale as the next curator takes charge.