Aerial view of the Aspinwall House, one of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale's main venues (photo by Swanoop John; courtesy the Kochi Biennale Foundation; all other photos Aastha D/Hyperallergic)

KOCHI, INDIA — The fifth edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale of contemporary art, In Our Veins Flow Ink and Fire, was slated to open on December 12. But hours before its scheduled inauguration, the organizers announced the event’s sudden postponement, citing “a variety of organisational challenges, compounded by external factors” and pushing back the opening to December 23. Much to the dismay of attendees from across India and the world who had made the trip to Kochi in the state of Kerala at peak holiday season, a delay of 10 days means many travelers will miss the entire biennale.

“We seem to be taking two steps forward, one step back constantly,” said Shubigi Rao, the biennale’s curator, taking a break from overseeing ongoing installation work to speak to Hyperallergic. The event’s postponement was partly due to the arrival of a cyclone that brought heavy rains and strong winds to southern India, forcing organizers to de-install artworks to prevent damage. But “many of the problems that have cropped up, resulting in delay and disappointment, were actually preventable,” Rao said.

Navigating bureaucracy is never formulaic. Kochi Biennale Foundation President Bose Krishnamachari attributed the chaos to multiple factors: the government withdrawing its decision to acquire the main venue, Aspinwall House, from the Indian real estate developer Delhi Land & Finance (DLF) at the last minute; a delay in decision-making about leasing the property, compounded by yet another delay in nationalized banks approving and releasing funds; and customs holding shipments (both art and materials) for longer than required or expected. Mitigating these hold-ups cost the foundation an exorbitant amount of money — a reported 40 million Indian Rupees (~$485,000), forcing it to dip into its bank guarantee funds kept for releasing overseas shipment.

Left: A banyan tree at Aspinwall House is surrounded by debris, cement, waste, and building materials yet to be cleared or utilized; right: the entrance to an exhibition hall is blocked by installation materials, shipment boxes, and bamboo used to erect scaffolding

“The state government of Kerala announced 70 million Indian Rupees (~$850,000) as funds for the biennale, out of which we have received half the amount so far, and as late as November 2022,” Krishnamachari told Hyperallergic. Even with the help of patrons such as the Tata Trusts, India’s largest multinational conglomerate, these financial challenges, exacerbated by “untimely rains,” made the show’s postponement inevitable. (Some elements of the biennale’s program, such as the Students’ Biennale and satellite exhibitions at Fort Kochi, were launched on schedule.)

Krishnamachari reminisces of the “magic” of past editions, which he says helped them pull off the event even in the face of adversity. This year, however, wishful thinking backfired, chipping away at people’s faith in the biennale. For some participants, the delay translated to tangible losses. Curator Sharan Apparao, who runs Apparao Galleries in Chennai and New Delhi, lamented the situation.

“Even if it was muddy and slushy and not fully ready, people would have still come [if it was under way],” Apparao told the Indian English-language newspaper The Hindu. “All of us know that the show always settles down only after the first couple of weeks. Which is fine because it is an artist-run biennale, not a fully-funded corporate event. I think this is a lesson to everybody who is doing these big, major events in the art world to understand that we can’t always do ‘wow’ things. We have to learn to cut our coats according to our cloth.”

Left: The main gate of Aspinwall House, shut to the public with a notice of postponement; right: art waiting to be installed on the floor and walls of an acoustically treated exhibition hall

The Indian state of Kerala, governed by a Leftist political party, is known for its progressive culture, from its strong labor unions and high literacy rate to its 1:1 sex ratio and its position at the forefront of development, social reform, tourism, and cultural heritage. Founded in 2011, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale is India’s first-ever biennial of international contemporary art, and its story is unique to India’s current reality — its political, social, and artistic landscape. The show, last held in 2018, began as a government initiative led by the Department of Cultural Affairs of Government of Kerala. In its fifth edition, the Biennale will host over 90 artists and collectives from across the world with a keen focus on local figures, such as New Delhi-based artist and filmmaker Priya Sen and Goa-based artist Sahil Naik. Work by Palestinian-American artist Jumana Manna and by Ali Cherri, who won the Silver Lion Award at this year’s Venice Biennale, will also be on view, among many others.

The gates of the main venue are shut, a notice of the postponement mounted on it. As one slips through the smaller entry, heaps of cement, bodies at hard labor, and scaffolding serve as evidence of a stalled event. In the halls of Aspinwall House in Fort Kochi, surrounded by dust, noise, and the smell of fresh paint, Rao is visibly tired, coughing, the spirit of something larger driving her.

“A very specific aspect of the Kochi Biennale is the mingling of people across lines that defies stratification, unlike biennales across the world, where local people are barely involved or interested,” Rao said. “The theme comes from my unshakeable conviction in the power of storytelling as strategy, of the transgressive potency of ink, and transformative fire of optimism and action.”

A lot of the art is already mounted, but secured only with masking tape and covered by a protective layer of paper. Waiting to be unveiled and absorbed is a story brewing in the many halls and walls of Kochi. Sound tests run in the background of a hall, the acoustic tiles dampening everything but the enthusiasm of technicians, volunteers, and Rao, an artist herself. 

The scaffoldings have started to look alive in the evening light. Hyperallergic briefly chatted with textile sculptor Anne Samat, who is set to fly out this week after having postponed her ticket by a week. When asked what biennales do for art, and her experience in Kochi so far, Samat said she appreciates “the platform to be wild, free, and big.”  

“The artists I have met here are so lovely, like sisters and brothers, a closeness I have not experienced in any other biennale,” Samat continued. “The postponing actually strangely worked for me because my shipment was late, and everyone helped put it up since it arrived yesterday, even as their own work needed attention. We had to do in a day and a half what needed at least four days to put up.”

Rao reflects on the state of the world and art as an antidote forging change and collective action. “The people in power are happiest when we despair, which leads to apathy and cynicism,” she says. “Tempting though it is, we cannot give in to that.”

The external wall of an exhibition hall at Aspinwall House
At the far end of Aspinwall House, a wall reads “It’s our Biennale” in English and Malayalam, the language of the state of Kerala.

Aastha D. (she/they) is an independent scholar, essayist, and editor. She has degrees from India in architecture and its critical, curatorial, and conceptual practices. She founded the magazine Proseterity...

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