Over multiple WhatsApp group chats, google drive folders of excel sheets and artist portfolios shared back and forth, and innumerable zoom meetings that stood as a true test to the internal coordination capabilities between curators, assistant curators, artists, and the coordinators and production team of the Kochi Biennale Foundation, the planning for the Students’ Biennale began in mid-November.
These same organisational skills had to be transferred onto our onsite operations as well when we went to Kochi in early December, where the network expanded into working with electricians, carpenters, volunteers, travel agencies to local hardware shops and framers and furniture makers as well as the technical and hospitality team at KBF.
The title of the exhibition In The Making connotes “process” as “a series or set of activities that interact to produce a result”. The Students’ Biennale exhibition was titled in a rather prophetic fashion almost predicting the context that the Kochi Muziris Biennale presently finds itself in - of being in a suspended state of making - after the announcement of its postponement was made a day before the opening, due to serious organisational and infrastructural setbacks. This has left many people from across audiences, collectors, gallerists, journalists and writers as well as participating artists both Indian and international, deeply dissatisfied and angry.
What does the failure of the biennale mean symbolically for the world of art in India and what of the future of the biennale itself trying to find its footing post pandemic? What does the breakdown of the Foundation indicate about its current organisational structure in relation to the ecosystem that it exists within. Probing the process itself becomes important here. Because lodged in between these activities that connect, are many questions that seem to elude any direct answers or accountability.
The Students’ Biennale has emerged in the midst of all of this confusion and delay as a silver lining. It opened as scheduled on the December 13, in a collective show put together by seven curators across four venues around Jew Town and Mattancherry, all within walking distance. The process of curation had involved visiting art schools by travelling across 28 states all over India to make their selections. Initially planned with approximately 50 students in mind, roughly divided into 7 individual projects under each curatorial undertaking, soon that number added up close to 150 artists. Thus, attempts to come up with a common theme to tie the exhibition together would be a challenging task.
The spatial experience of the show points to an exhibition born out of the strategies of compromise, improvisation and negotiation. Not unmarked by contradictions, the collective curatorial logic had to work within the constraints of space, of money, the diversity and expansiveness of the exhibition, wherein trust and patience, continuous and repetitive communication were the key to getting things done and essential to the functioning of this seemingly disparate but coherent body.
The layout in a certain sense weaves this curatorial narrative along, spelling out its stories of negotiations more strongly at certain points than others.
Saviya Lopes and Yogesh Barve in their exhibition Deriving Memory in the Mundane were afforded the first floor of the Armaan building within which they have been able to execute their original curatorial vision without the need to break it apart. They expand upon the idea of sustainability articulated through the tradition of communion with the environment as practised by “women and indigenous communities”. The mundane here holds memories of a praxis of everyday living that seems to present an alternative and more sustainable methodology to one that has been impacted by globalisation and development. The proposition, that “changes in cultural values can empower people to make changes that benefit their own communities” seems to come with the suggestion that we turn to this traditional alternative methodology.
The mundane is an area of interest for artists just coming out of the experience of the pandemic who are turning a renewed gaze upon their relationship with it. Buoyancy is an idea Amshu Chukki explores in his exhibition title Buoyant Landscapes, as a way of “negotiating and re-calibrating oneself and location” in this new context. I was particularly drawn to the irreverence of Kiran Mungekar’s engagement with the mundane where she plays upon established meanings encoded onto the appearance of objects through an interactive instructional method that cheekily teases the more vulnerable human emotions like desire and love with an objective to provoke discomfort. There is a certain element of mischievousness and daring to her approach that challenges the viewer.
Within the light of a post pandemic context marked by the experience of mortality, loneliness and introspection, a lot of artists have been led through a transformative journey of growth that has brought their artistic practices to various complex reimaginings of the idea of ‘Home’ in its physical, geographical manifestations. Artists conduct critical inquiries within specific political historical contexts, in direct conversation with established narratives produced by the state. These invoke landscapes of home with the objective to create visual counter narratives that dig up the dystopic histories of brutality and violence that get buried under romanticised representations of the landscape. Biswajit Thakuria’s installation Remembering The Landscape at the TVM venue dives into two contrasting archival resources documenting the same time period in Assam. One is a video projection of Republic Day parades from 1999-2001 that presents “a tableau of romantic landscape and cultural heritage”. In contrast, his installation of suspended walls made out of strips of the traditional Assamese gamcha coated in soil carry imprints of texts that talk about secret killings.
Anga Art collective stood out as distinct with a very strong curatorial direction within the biennale. Based in Assam, they oversaw curation across the eight different states from the North East. Based on a project that they were already working with called the No school project, they brought the workshop model of art practice and discourse generation into the biennale. The artists were challenged to work outside of institutional, academic modes of art making based on eastern or mainland institutional models that felt “delocalised” to the ways in which communities from various regions within the North East engaged with material. This produced exciting pedagogical formulations in the works of these artists, each drawing from their specific contexts that resulted in the Trust Shop by the Ingeuh group from Mizoram for instance. Based on the idea ofashopwithoutashopkeeper, relying on “the community’s idea of mutual trust and generosity”, one could pick up the goods being sold by placing money into the box that was kept to the side. Within the exhibition context, visitors could pick up objects in exchange for some possession of their own to be left in the shop. Bode Swuro from Nagaland saw his engagement with material in the form of setting up a black pottery workshop. The Tani Nyia Nyij Muj group from Arunachal Pradesh, recreated a “Forgotten Environment” - a traditional mise-en-scene of the age old Tani clan, where actual fire was made and pork was roasted over it.
Whether directly or on terms that resist definition, the works within the biennale sit with the idea of articulation, probing its various possibilities and impossibilities. Drawing various practices as well as curatorial inquiries out of established models and institutional structures, they ultimately remind us that there are no clear paths within the act of creation; it is the process that makes the path.