Artists: Notes on Art Making


When I recall the bewitchment created by the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, I think of three creature-objects tethered to the decaying structure of the Calvathy dockyard [1] and facing the Arabian Sea in desolate majesty. In his installation titled Kochi Tower, the Portuguese artist Ricardo Gouveia, better known as Rigo 23, mocks the ‘Belem Tower’ in Lisbon (built in the sixteenth century to commemorate colonial victories) and culls up an ‘Armada of Echoes’ from five hundred years ago. A militant in the face of political oppression and using ‘artivist’ means of protest and subversion, Rigo drew on tales around Portuguese colonialism and resurrected the life of ‘black’ slaves traded to Kochi from Africa. Known as ‘kappiri’, the slaves built monuments for the ruling powers; but when (after their defeat by the Dutch) the Portuguese fled, they were sacrificed: massacred or left to perish, guarding the buried treasures of their Portuguese masters. Rigo’s suspended kappiri, carved out of logs from disused Chinese fishing nets, is poised for flight into contemporary history, his gaze fixed on his African homeland. The second sculpture, a black modified autorickshaw wrapped with a mundu and fitted with a bird’s beak and dog’s ears, recounts a tale of Portuguese cruelty against a native scribe. The third sculpture recalls the setting ablaze of a pilgrim boat between Mecca and Kochi by Vasco da Gama and his men in 1502 - Rigo’s elaborately woven bamboo boat is strung with commemorative oil lamps. Over centuries, the kappiri mixed bloodlines with the Malayalis, and sometimes became ‘deities’ worshipped at ‘kappiri tharas’. Rigo willed that his kappiri of mythic proportions spread his arms and ascend to strengthen ‘artivist’ battles with contemporary forms of power. For my part, I have nurtured a desire to swoop down and join Rigo’s dockyard ensemble. To dangle there - face, beak and nozzle visible only to the seafaring boats - and so to look out and away, bereft of civilizational lore, imbued with creature-melancholy.

Our Cosmopolitanisms

Why does one smile; why does it wrench the heart to think of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale? This is not, of course, a legitimizing criterion for an ambitious exhibition like a biennale. But, arguably, enchantment can still be a starting point in an aesthetic and exhibitory venture - so long as the phenomenology, the experiential deposit, is richly calibrated; so long as the itinerary (within a space and between venues) guides you to a semiotic tracking of suggested meanings; and so long as it sustains a more complex layering of thought thereon.

The first edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (henceforth, KMB 2012) was conceptualized around cosmopolitanism.[2] The curators, Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu, were playing on the anachronistic aspect of cosmopolitanism: the histories of co-produced modernities (during colonialism), then retrospectively from the pre-modern to civilizational exchange in antiquity. Peninsular India, the Malabar coast and, more specifically, what is now Kerala had trans-oceanic commerce at multiple levels with Africa, Arabia and the Mediterranean region; and from the fifteenth century, with Europe. This cosmopolitanism was an early form of ‘worlding’ that was (hierarchically) exclusivist. What the curators of KMB 2012 did was to lever this ‘infrastructural’ legacy and to hypothesize cosmopolitanism within the current discourse of world citizenship. Given their positional perspective (from

Kerala/India), they understood well how fractured and fraught these categories (the world and citizenship) are; and that it is no one’s agenda to achieve another coercive universalism. The Kerala experience tests ‘difference’ in terms of ethnicity, language and religion; caste-and-class-based marginality and minoritarianism; and, now, native and expatriate populations - whereby cosmopolitanism comes to be based not on elite émigrés but dispossessed migrants. When identities are petrified by neo-nationalist (religious rightwing) assertions and subsumed by the geopolitics of capitalism, cosmopolitanism is one way of precipitating the demand to read culture as politics, class as multitudes. Placing cosmopolitanism in the terrain of history, KMB 2012 substantiated, at the same time, the claims of materiality: by including sites of previous and present habitation, labour and production, land, building and objects within its fold. Materiality translates into conditions of human survival; with that in mind, the curators invited artists to respond to a poetics of the human imprint: on nature and history, ecology and world politics. The human imprint was ‘visible’ in different ways. Because both curators are practising artists, KMB 2012 foregrounded artists’ production: thus, process, facture, praxis and a hands-on aesthetic. Many artworks seemed to function in the manner of ‘indexical signs’; even works that were iconic, linguistic/symbolic blurred any kind of semiotic grid; all signs seemed to unfold, unravel, catapult in miscellaneous ways and over an entropic field. By unconscious preference, curators and artists in KMB 2012 refused a triumphant or rhetorical statement of ‘belonging’.

Much of this had to do with the curators’ selection of artists (with too few women artists, it must be said) and good placements which led to an efflorescence of what I have called Site Imaginaries. The curators built into the exhibition map extraordinary spaces and buildings: the stately Durbar Hall, capacious warehouses and trading stations with elegant woodwork, terracotta-tile (occasionally thatch) roofs, and overgrown courtyards exhuming aromas of pepper from a celebrated history of ocean trade. Handsome bungalows, an old Portuguese house and some ‘ruins’. There was the coastline, with Kochi fishermen in a ‘choreographed performance’ with Chinese fishing nets; a series of functioning docks and abandoned piers lining the sea-path; and a graceful passage of freighters, passenger boats and liners to and from the harbour. All this allowed the staging of artworks in startlingly beautiful and simple ways.[3]

I am aware that this version of art and site must be problematized. For now, let me just mention that locational aptness is not just scenic magic. Artists made intelligent interpretations of the culture, economy and politics of the place: Kochi, Kerala, India. These entailed historical research as well as a pragmatic understanding of locational and institutional infrastructure. Artists’ allegories reckoned with ground conditions such as India’s skewed economy (wealth and poverty in tight embrace); the paradox of hi-tech claims and low-tech apparatus; and what all our cultural initiatives must face, political and bureaucratic hurdles. In Kerala, this was accompanied by obdurate battles within theartistcommunityand a highly charged ideological temper including trade union contestations (workers’ unions are a powerful presence here). While the fate of KMB 2012 was buffeted about in state conclaves, in artists’ cabals and on the small stage of Fort Kochi, it was cosmopolitan ‘collectivity’ that seemed to survive the financial and installation traumas. The virtue of patience was put to the test so that the site and its constraints, as much as its lure, prompted artists to develop the lean aesthetic of archaeology and the ontology of the found object.

Remember Havana! International artists often themselves carried their work and tool-kits to the Havana Biennale, in order not to embarrass the economy of Cuba or overstress the institutional support for third-world radicalism.

Histories of Cosmopolitanism

In a confessional interlude, let me admit that there is a bpromiscuous profit of romance associated with ancient port cities: Venice, the site of the first ever biennale, is a prime example.[4] Here, in the marvellous twinning of Kochi-Muziris, there is a residue of the myth and romance of archaeology, and the developing body of scientific (if still somewhat indeterminate) evidence that Muziris (or Muciri), the legendary port extolled in Greek, Latin and classical Indian sources was perhaps located very nearby - in Kodungallur or Pattanam. An extensive archaeological dig is underway in Pattanam since 2007.[5] The hypothesis as of now is that Muziris flourished in the early historic period of South India (third century BCE to fifth century CE); it was an ‘urban’ site[6] with hinterland, coastal and trans-oceanic commerce. Muziris seems to have peaked during the period of the Roman empire, and then perhaps declined. In 1341, a deluge-like flood in the long-streamed Periyar river buried Muziris and changed the geography of the region. Kochi then emerged as the major port for the region’s spice trade.

During its active period, Muziris traded with North African, Arabian, Mesopotamian and Mediterranean lands. In view of the Pattanam excavations, there is a strong possibility that Pattanam could be (a part of) Muziris: of the wealth of local materials/objects excavated in Pattanam, a small but significant proportion is non-local, belonging to various regions of Asia, Africa and Europe. This includes a very large and good variety of potsherds including glazed earthenware and, very importantly, parts of Roman amphora - arguably the largest assemblage of Mediterranean pottery recovered from any archaeological site in the Indian Ocean. Other objects include glass beads, semi-precious stone beads and glass counters of a Roman board game played by seamen in antiquity. Several metals including gold have been found. There is evidence of agricultural produce, prominently black pepper that linked Muziris to Berenike port in Egypt; and healing herbs exported to port-sites in present-day Yemen and Oman. It is confirmed that this part of the Malabar coast was widely acculturated and multireligious. There are speculations of very early Brahmin settlements, and full endorsement of a Buddhist presence. An early settlement of Syrian Christians is linked with a claim (somewhat unlikely) that Christ’s apostle, St. Thomas, arrived here. There was a prominent Jewish settlement and an early presence of Islam.

The twinning of Kochi with Muziris, and the conquest and colonization of this region by the Portuguese, Dutch and English in relatively recent history reveal the scope and scale of the ‘Orient’.[7] Even as we (re-)orient ourselves to what were at one time ‘global’ civilizations, we gain an etymological bonus and irresistible pun: an oriental(ist) cosmopolitanism that includes this region’s early access to modernity. Paradoxically, it is the well-archived occupation by the Europeans, rather than the magnificence of antiquity, that is more uncanny: it is the colonial ‘ruin’ and the palpable morphology of a mixed culture that suggest the more phantasmal conditions of the homely and the unhomely. And apropos that, it may in fact be literature that best renders the ‘unconscious’ (buried histories of knowledge and trade, habitat and ecology) into fabulously subjectivized narratives.[8]

Biennale Allegories

Alfredo Jaar’s 2013 installation for the Chilean Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, titled Venezia Venezia,[9] presented, with considerable scale and technology, an after-image of the Biennale’s famous Giardini. A perfect architectural model of the Giardini was installed in a very large water-filled ‘tank’, stationed on a bridge within the pavilion. In a time-frame of seconds, the model emerged and disappeared from the dark pool of water. The metaphor matched the phenomenon of High Waters in Venice, and the projected submergence of the city in the distant future. But the metaphor also matched the hubris assumed by the Venice Biennale in the world of art. Jaar’s critique of western hegemonic culture was focused as much on the continued supremacy of the Venice Biennale, as on its ground-plan of national pavilions.[10] If Jaar offered a magical disappearance of this mother-of-all-biennales, my response is to the contrary: let the original model survive as an anachronism and with due aplomb. There are up to a hundred biennales and triennales across the world; a large number in the (former) third world and a good proportion in Asia. It is better, perhaps, to ‘provincialize’ Europe - and not in vengeance or caprice, but by setting up alternative paradigms wherein our understanding of cosmopolitanism, internationalism and globalization is recurrently complicated.

So, behold the entry of the newest biennale in the world: the fledgling Kochi-Muziris Biennale. Alfredo Jaar made up another allegory for KMB 2012: selecting a stanza from Meghaduta, the epic love poem by Kalidasa (circa mid-fourth to early fifth century CE), he offered a cloud-shaped textwork (‘moon-lit’ with LED lights),[11] to be read as a mirrorimage in a dark water-tank recessed in a room in Aspinwall House. The text-installation was called Cloud for Kochi.

I now unfold an itinerary with a very small selection of the international and Indian artists.[12] This two-part approach comes not from misjudged priorities or from any need to offer a separatist discourse, but rather, from a desire to understand whether there are ideological motifs and aesthetic affects that distinguish ‘nomadic’ site-specificity from one based on cultural ‘belonging’.

Fascinated by the bizarre coincidence that connects Brazil and India - the journey undertaken in 1500 by the Portuguese navigator Pedro Álvares Cabral[13] - Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto came to Kochi to translate (as it were) colonial greed into material essence, and staged a sculptural installation with spice and textile. With blue cotton fabric bought in Ernakulam, he offered a metaphor for skin - and


[1] Full name: Calvathy Canal Boat Dock.

[2] See the curators’ note in the present volume.

[3] As its first architectural project, the Kochi Biennale Foundation renovated the historic Durbar Hall in Ernakulam for regular national and international exhibitions of art. Its great achievement was to salvage Aspinwall House, Pepper House, Moidu’s Heritage Plaza, if only temporarily, from realtors’ hands. And to obtain and offer spaces like Calvathy dockside and Cabral Yard to artists.

[4] Venice is both the aesthetic imaginary and symbolic node of old Europe. The lagoon-city drifts on moon-tide, rotten scents, masked erotica; the skies are swept by tempest hues. In the thirteenth century Marco Polo, Venetian merchant, travels to the east along the great silk route; his quasi-mythic travelogue unravels a dazzling geography, a cartographic universe, a perennial desire for the orient. Facing the east and enriched by civilizational exchange, Venice acquires a resplendent profile. Venetian Gothic (blending European, Moorish, Byzantine, Ottoman and later Islamic styles of architecture) invites intense regard. Venetian painting produces turbulence among the esoteric miniaturists in the ateliers of Istanbul. In the spirit of aesthetic enterprise, a Venetian poet-mayor ‘gifts’ a commemorative art exhibition to the Venetian royalty; the Venice Biennale, recurring since 1895, becomes the mother of all international art exhibitions.

[5] In utmost abbreviation I refer to the Muziris Project, and in particular to the hypotheses and evidence put forth on several occasions by Dr. P. J. Cherian, Director, Pattanam Excavations, The Kerala Council for Historical Research (KCHR). While these archaeological findings have been further investigated and, in some cases, endorsed by archaeologists in specialist institutions the world over, there is still vexed debate even on whether Muziris was present-day Pattanam or Kodungallur. Professor Romila Thapar, in her diverse references to peninsular India, its civilizational history and cross ocean trade, underscores the importance of the Malabar coast and the ‘reality’ of Muziris; however, she retains questions on archaeological procedures and determining evidence about the exact site, chronology and collapse of Muziris.

[6] According to Dr. P. J. Cherian: houses with brick walls, clay platforms, multiple floors, ring wells, roof tiles, wharf, terracotta toilets, storage with residential or warehouse characteristics attributable to a port-site.

[7] Ranjit Hoskoté and Ilija Trojanow, Confluences: Forgotten Histories from East and West (New Delhi: Yoda Press, 2012).

[8] Amitav Ghosh’s In an Antique Land: History in the Guise of a Traveler’s Tale (New York: Vintage Books, 1994) is a complex narrative set between India and Egypt. One strand follows Abraham Ben Yiju, a Tunisian Jewish merchant based in Cairo, then Aden, who spent two decades on India’s Malabar coast and hired a slave named Bomma who conducted his business with Arab lands. Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh (New York: Vintage Books, 1997) tells the fictional tale of Moraes Zogoiby, ‘the Moor’, descended from the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama; from Boabdil (c. 1460-1527), the last Muslim king in Spain; and Black Jews who immigrated to Cochin. Rushdie’s fabulous traverse evokes the famous spice markets of Kochi.

[9] See Geeta Kapur, ‘Acqua Alta/High Waters’, in Alfredo Jaar: Venezia Venezia, ed Adriana Valdés, exhibition catalogue (Barcelona: Actar, 2013). Several viewpoints on Venice and the Venice Biennale are presented by the editor and authors in this publication.

[10] There are only 30 pavilions in the Giardini, when there are over 200 nations represented in the Biennale; the back-stories of privileged access and outsider status of different countries confirm inequity. India has no presence in the Venice Biennale. In 1954, India’s Ambassador to Italy managed to ‘represent’ India at Venice (with 32 artists and 60 works); a few indifferent shows have ‘stolen’ the nomenclature of India pavilion; in 2005, a good, privately mounted exhibition of Indian artists featured in the collateral calendar. In 2011, the Department of Culture and Delhi’s National Academy of Art supported a curated show within the Arsenale. This came to naught in 2013. Financial reasons or state apathy: this is an index of India’s priorities, and must be put in the balance when discussing national pavilions at the Venice Biennale.

[11] Robert Montgomery’s elegiac poem about exile in LED lights glowed as you sailed past the sea-facing facade of Aspinwall House.

[12] KMB 2012 included 23 countries, 89 artists, 11 street artists; 14 sites, 60 spaces, and 300,000 sq. ft. of exhibition and event space.

[13] Cabral ‘discovered’ Brazil in 1500 and, in a continuous expedition undertaken by royal command, reached India’s Malabar coast including Kochi. Despite oceanic misfortunes and brutal violence, he succeeded in taking back shiploads of precious spices to Portugal. Vasco da Gama, Cabral’s contemporary, remains the conquering navigator-colonizer from Portugal; he is buried in Kochi.

[14] Manifesto Antropofago (Cannibal Manifesto) was published in 1928 by the Brazilian poet, Oswald de Andrade. (It was translated into English in the 1990s.)

[15] Indian Radical Painters and Sculptors Association (active 1987-89); Anita Dube, Questions and Dialogue, exhibition catalogue, Baroda, 1987.

[16] For a developed discussion of the larger questions around site-specificity, see Miwon Kwon, One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2002).

[17] A substantial discussion of the activities of (Delhi-based) Khoj International Artists’ Association is required to evaluate project-based art practice in all the areas mentioned above. See and the book, Khoj (New Delhi: Harper Collins, 2010), which includes several essays including mine, titled ‘A phenomenology of encounters at Khoj’.

[18] The Arsenale complex in Venice offers the archetypal example: the largest pre-industrial production centre of the world, the Arsenale’s shipyards symbolized the economic power of Venice (especially c. thirteenth to fifteenth centuries). The Corderie area (that produced naval ropes) was used for the 1st International Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennale. Curatorwizard Harald Szeemann, Director of the Venice Biennale, 1999 and 2001, had the Arsenale complex renovated for the Biennale’s Aperto section, which exhibited younger, more diversely international artists.

[19] Jacques Rancière, ‘An Unsinkable Island?’ in Alfredo Jaar: Venezia Venezia.

[20] See my Introduction, and essay titled, ‘Curating across agonistic worlds’, in InFlux: contemporary art in Asia, eds Parul Dave Mukherji, Kavita Singh, Naman Ahuja (Delhi: Sage Press, 2013). Several other authors in the volume deal with the biennale proposition via case studies and evaluate it critically as a privileged paradigm for contemporary art.

[21] A recent compendium of positions is collated in The Biennale Reader, eds Elena Filipovic, Marieke Van Hal, Solveig Ovstebo (Bergen and Ostifildern: Bergen Kunsthalle and Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2010).

[22] Terry Smith, ‘“Our” Contemporaneity?’ in Contemporary Art: 1989 to the present, eds Alexander Dumbadze and Suzanne Hudson (Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013).

[23] It is useful to cross-reference an earlier avatar of the KMB. Triennale India, a state project, launched in Delhi in 1968, posed a brave challenge in the context of a new internationalism foregrounded by the third world. The story of its failure after 1978 cannot be abbreviated here, but it was the artist community’s inability to make precisely such interventions within the state apparatus and the public sphere, as I mention above. The plans for a Delhi Biennale were conceived (by a group of artists, curators, academics and architects) and tested with internationally active counterparts via several symposia during 2005-07. Paradoxically, a hairsplitting discourse around the biennale phenomenon spelt its premature end. For a discussion on Triennale India, see Vrishchik (1970-72 issues of the little magazine, published between 1969-73), eds Gulammohammed Sheikh and Bhupen Khakhar, Vadodara. See Geeta Kapur, ‘Partisan Modernity’, in Mulk Raj Anand: Shaping the Indian Modern, ed Annapurna Garimella (Mumbai: Marg Publications, Vol. 56, No. 4, 2005); and Nancy Adajania, ‘Globalism before Globalization: The ambivalent fate of Triennale India’, in Western Artists and India: Creative inspirations in art and design, ed Shanay Jhaveri (Mumbai: The Shoestring Publisher, 2013). For a consolidated view on the ambitions of the hypothesized (and abandoned) Delhi Biennale, see Geeta Kapur, ‘Curating across agonistic worlds’, in InFlux.

[24] KMB’s slogan, ‘Against All Odds’, turned into a manifesto. Detractors’ accusations and endless travails suffered by the Kochi Biennale Foundation make instructive ‘history’. I follow my own ideological and aesthetic partisanship to the cause, and connect with others such as the cultural theorist Sarat Maharaj, who spoke at the KMB 2012 conference, and Chris Dercon, Director, Tate Modern, who admired KMB and its astounding publics. His remark suits my own argument: ‘It

[KMB] has brought about a paradigm in self-representation and governance.’ As for plain statistics, KMB 2012 included: 23 countries; 89 artists; 11 street artists; 73 per cent new commissions; 14 sites; 60 spaces; 300,000 sq. ft. of exhibition and event space; 25 collateral events; 29 talks by local, national and international speakers, and several symposia; attendance/ participation of 30,000 schoolchildren; active presence on the social media; and 382,659 visitors in the three-month run.
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