The Kochi-Muziris Biennale, the most recent global art biennale, was launched in Kochi in the state of Kerala, India, in 2012. This essay considers the “biennale effect,” locating it within India's recent history of radical political modernization and in the context of the state's attempts to establish itself in terms of internationalism and contemporaneity via the arts. Pivotal to this discussion of the biennale effect is the recognition of a growing critical discourse about the biennale format by scholars, critics, and curators. The impact of the Indian biennale on the formerly Communist city of Kochi is also explored, including photographic documentation by the author, in the context of the contradictions and paradoxes raised by India's hosting of this global art event.
During my visits to India as an artist and academic over the last twenty years, I have witnessed the social and cultural effects of its rapid economic growth, especially the impact of this growth on contemporary art and visual culture. The most notable change has been the increasing internationalization of Indian art in response to globalization and the subsequent anxieties this internationalization has engendered. The arts in India have responded to the resulting social and political issues through a diversity of engagements, including a recognition of the shifting distribution and reception of contemporary Indian art in a more globalized “art world,” and changes in the form and content of art produced, particularly in the key metropolitan cities where these developments have had the greatest impact.
Worldwide, one of the most visible effects of arts globalization has been the increase in the number of biennales and international art fairs, with the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in December 2012 being the most recent, as well as the first to be held in India. My goal in visiting this biennale was not only to view how an event of this scale might be realized but also to see how India might respond to the globalized biennale format and, more specifically, how the transformative effect of a biennale might manifest itself in the city of Kochi, which is outside the recognized centers of Indian contemporary art. I also wanted to explore how the regional legacy of communism would affect India's opportunity on this global stage, even as the country recovered from the 2008 deflation of India's overheated art market, which had generated debates concerning the future of Indian art, especially the economics of Indian art both nationally and globally.0001- 0004
Twenty years ago, India was near bankruptcy as successive postindependence governments had failed to lift the country from its third-world status and had instead built up excessive international debt from loans taken out from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. This critical situation became the trigger for radical economic change.
To understand the situation that allowed this biennale to take place, one has to first understand the ascent of Indian artists and art within the international scene, which paralleled the country's rapid economic growth. It is also important to consider the effect of current debates that consider the relationship of politics to the formation of artistic identity, as well as to consider the perceptions of India that are revealed through contemporary art. Some of the contemporary critiques of the global biennale format have discussed the individual attributes of art and compared those with its possibilities as an active social force. These ideas are here applied to the radical potential of the biennale in India, as an event beyond passive mass spectacle, drawing on the alternative perspectives on art and community expressed by philosopher Jacques Rancière in his seminal text The Emancipated Spectator (2009).
The Biennale: A Longer History of Politics
The pressures in 1991on the Indian government to create reform through economic liberalization can be seen as an end of the postindependence project started in 1947 under the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru. Opening a once protectionist national economy to the possibilities of global free-trade markets has, among its many effects on everyday life in India, helped to economically and culturally valorize contemporary Indian art in the emerging globalized art scene. This has propelled many contemporary Indian artists like Jitish Kallat, Subodh Gupta, and Bharti Kher into new national and international territories and generated a renewed interest in the Indian “modernists” and “progressives,” including F. N. Souza, M. F. Husain, and S. H. Raza, who set the collective mandate of political activism, intellectual vigor, and radical critique that has become a legacy to a successive generation of Indian artists.0005- 0008
The economic success and optimism that followed reform in India can be expressed in the nationalistic marketing slogan of “India Shining,” which captured the mood of India's new economic status during the political campaigning of 2004. It was, in the main, the economically energized cities of India that became these shining national beacons of India's reversal in fortunes, and it was in these centers of cosmopolitanism, synonymous with a more globalized outlook, that the effects of liberalization and rapid urbanization were primarily felt. The main beneficiaries of these changes have been the wealthy and the growing urban middle classes. However, these same cities are now facing growing financial inequality, tensions of class and caste, and problems stemming from social and political difference—a situation exacerbated by an increasing subaltern workforce swelled by poor rural migrants seeking their fortune.
Both the economic benefits and the problems inherent in globalization have had a profound effect on contemporary art and artists, helping to define a new international consideration of contemporary Indian art. Some have argued that economic liberalization has allowed back into India the Western imperialism that Nehru's protectionist and nationalistic policies had previously deflected. Others see this economic globalization as a benefit that has allowed a “new” India to be realized, one in which the positive outcomes of economic growth could potentially benefit all by expanding opportunities.
A contemporary understanding of the biennale must take into account this legacy of recent radical historical change in India: not only the redrawing of the colonial world map, but also the national modernizing agenda, which, though first envisioned under Nehru, has been realized through recent economic changes that have hastened India's rise as a global economic power. The Kochi-Muziris Biennale might be described as a timely assertion of India's contemporary global identity as part of a new agenda to forge a national identity not just economically but through “soft power.” What is apparent from this biennale is that overlapping histories of radical political change, intersecting with social and artistic development, have made this situation possible, while the success of Indian contemporary art becomes manifest within this biennale and its particular geographical setting.0009- 0012
My attendance at the launching of India's first global art biennale is, therefore, prefaced by the question of the impact of these widespread social and political changes, both on the intentions of the biennale and on key artists whose work is itself a commentary shaped by these changes. While this new addition to the growing list of global biennales can be seen as another move in India's pursuit of global recognition, it can also be read as a conscious effort to elevate Indian art in terms of aligning it with a global and contemporary culture industry. Such an alignment can be understood in terms of the dialectical forces of globalization that encompass a network of global art market structures, of art production and consumption, replete with the issues this brings, and in fact, the biennale in India has triggered much critical discussion about the disparity between those who most likely will benefit from it and those who most likely will be left behind.
The growth in international interest in Indian arts can be seen as one of the benefits of the economic reforms of the 1990s, as it allowed an alignment of commerce with a contemporary and more internationally focused Indian art world that speaks more directly of universally understood issues of globalization. The biennale effect might be seen as the sum of these situations, which paved the way for India's entry, a first, into the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011, which was then followed by the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, with both events becoming key markers of India's positioning onto a global platform for art.
The landscape has been radically altered for many young and emerging artists in India: the impoverished national state sector, which is generally both conservative and slow to respond to rapid change, is now usurped in terms of recognition and credibility by the new commercial art fairs, private institutions, and galleries. The growth of both individual Indian and international investors and collectors of contemporary Indian art has been funded on the back of neoliberalism, in the form of India's economic liberalization. These interconnected dynamics of political change and economic drivers have also helped support the international presence of contemporary Indian art, and it can be seen that the old modernizing agenda under Nehru led by the state has now been supplanted by the agendas of art enterprises supported by private commerce. It is these new drivers that are complicit in the current stage of “modernization” of the arts in India.0013,0014
To understand the biennale effect in India one must also understand the national drive to achieve international recognition for India postindependence and how this has become a very tangible part of the political drive of the state, as part of its assertion of a new, modern identity. There are, of course, multiple readings of the term modernism; the Indian art historian and curator Geeta Kapur has attempted to intellectually rationalize modernism as both a social and a historical condition unique to India, which she articulates as being understood as an alternate matrix to that used in any Western art historical model.
Modernism, in the case of India, is best defined within an understanding of the particular political situation of Nehru's social and intellectual modernization agenda as a nationalist cause for Indian artists. With Nehru's sense of urgency about the modernization of India, art suddenly became part of a national agenda of reinvention and, importantly, liberation from the traditional colonial art education established by the British. Nehru's hubris, in the rush to implement his plan, was to think that modernity might quickly be reached in India through rapid change, which would form a new modernist national identity. While this condition could not be constructed as part of his moment of radical historical change, his agenda did make an avant-garde possible in India at that time. This has had far-reaching consequences in developing an idea of the contemporary in India, at least until the forces and attractions of globalization became too difficult for a new India to resist.
When the Kochi-Muziris Biennale is written about, it is often compared to the Nehru government's failed attempt at a biennale-type event modeled on the then successes of the São Paulo, Venice, and Paris biennales. Nehru's Triennale-India was launched in 1968 as an initiative sponsored by the Indian Ministry of Cultures, through the Lalit Kala Akademi, with a progressive and international outlook. It was felt, at that time, that “the impact of the style of European modernism was intensified by the belief that its internationalism suited the experience of modernity and would further the modernization of public spaces and cultural life” (Chaudhuri 2010: 942).
The Triennale-India promised an alternative expression of India's modernization project, with early editions bringing key international experimental and conceptual artists to India. Criticism both internal and external (John Berger sent a letter to the Akademi in 1968 advising they overthrow the hegemony of Europe and North America by rejecting this international event), and ensuing political pressure to support indigenous and traditional arts, forced the Akademi into becoming less experimental, leading to more parochial events and a loss of initial purpose. This failure due to too much state control of cultural development was replicated in subsequent failed attempts in developing a new biennale format for India centered in Delhi and led by Geeta Kapur. The fruition of the idea of a biennale that was not only a national event but an international one, though predominantly for Indian artists, has finally managed to be realized in Kochi.
The cultural experiment of the state was seen as a failure, and the state's ability to support shifts in artistic thinking and practices, as well as a key moment in the modernizing agenda, was wasted. This failure to set postcolonial India on a par with the mainstream international art world, where radical ideas were then moving toward postmodernism, would have a long-lasting effect on the arts in India and India's status within the global arts setting.
It also becomes clear why those artists who had experienced the radical changes within the developing modernist art movements, outside of postwar India, embraced Marxism. That, in India, Marxism “may now be the only organized movements to speak the language of modernity” (Kapur 2000: 298) also helps us make sense of the ontology of socialism of Nehru's modernizing agenda. This was an agenda crucial to those artists who wanted to define themselves in India and internationally beyond traditional or craft-based art forms or the complex relationship of caste hierarchy and custom, which were seen as anathema to change. Setting the biennale in Kerala acknowledges the important relationship that Marxism has had with Indian art and the effects of this relationship in the contemporary Indian situation.
The distinctions between a Western and an Indian period of modernism becomes important in understanding the situation for Indian artists who have emerged in the last twenty years, a period in which India has been a nation defining itself, not postcolonially, but globally and economically, as part of a new world order. This is an important distinction for the contemporary Indian artist who does not need to deal so much with being modern on a national level but, instead, with gaining acceptance or recognition within the wider dominant global centers for artistic production. It is here that the development of a biennale event becomes a gateway for Indian art and artists to develop a recognized global presence within a localized Indian structure, thus achieving a balance between the binary of local/global discourse while acting as a modernizing force both critically and intellectually within India.
It might also critically be seen that India's emergence onto the international platform might have more to do with the fickle global interest of art investors looking beyond the West to find financial opportunities. Boosted through recent reappraisals in the West through major survey exhibitions, contemporary Indian art, synonymous now with the more globalized outlook of Indian artists, has become a more acceptable market for the moment. The new mobilities and global potentials for Indian artists are considered in an essay in the catalog for the Danish exhibition India: Art Now (2012), one of many recent exhibitions of contemporary Indian art. The essay considers the paradox of opportunity, noting “while participation in the global circuit of exchanges generates the possibility of dialogues with new interlocutors and colleagues for Indian artists, the local situation encodes specific kinds of difficulties and impediments for them. At home, they must continue to confront a conservative market that is unresponsive to innovation and departure” (Hoskote 2012: 61).
India Plays Host to the World
Biennale culture, or the biennale condition, is no longer merely one among many of the features of global contemporary art; it has become, in a profound and constitutive way, its primary matrix.
—Ranjit Hoskote, “The Shapeshifting Trajectory of the Biennale”
The Kochi-Muziris Biennale was an idea precipitated by an invitation in 2010 from the then Communist local government of Kerala to Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu, two Keralan-born artists of some recognition nationally and internationally, operating from studios in Mumbai. Without the usual curatorial concept, they had developed an artist-led approach: “Through the celebration of contemporary art from around the world, The Kochi-Muziris Biennale seeks to invoke the historic cosmopolitan legacy of the modern metropolis of Kochi, and its mythical predecessor, the ancient port of Muziris” (Kochi Biennale Foundation 2012: 3).
The artist/curators' positioning of Kerala's unique history in India is important in terms of framing the biennale as a key ancient site for global trade, the Communist and socialist character of the state, and the articulation of progressive policies. In this respect, the curators assert: “What India needs is an international platform for contemporary visual arts…more connectivity with the international art discourse…more global awareness of Indian arts, and greater local awareness, understanding and appreciation of contemporary art in India” (Kochi Biennale Foundation 2012).
This written pitch by the curators recognizes the benefits that the biennale format might bring and is as much an assertion to local state funders as it is to a global audience. By inviting forty-nine Indian artists and twenty-nine international artists to create work in private spaces in Fort Kochi, the curators hoped to address some of these issues. At the same time, the regenerative powers associated with bringing the biennale to Kochi, as another biennale effect, sought to achieve some unity between art and life through the use of the wider city as a space to intervene and respond to rather than to just conventionally house the event. As there was no single space within Kochi equipped to accommodate an event of this nature and scale, nor the funding to establish exhibition-level spaces, the use of derelict and former colonial spaces became an essential part of the curatorial turn and not just a subversive statement against the usual elitism of the institutional or museum-level space.
To attend the biennale launch was to witness a work-in-progress, the grand ambition of two artists as curators/organizers dealing hands-on in the displaying of works while negotiating the vagaries of a crumbling infrastructure of historic spaces. Delays to the biennale were attributed to the late withdrawal of some of the expected state funds from a now non-Communist local government, sensitized to the criticisms of local pressure groups. The biennale had a difficult birth, with financial strain, a paucity of professional art infrastructure, and a highly unionized workforce (a legacy of previous state communism) to contend with. This was coupled with inexperienced technical support and specific artistic demands: the many video displays, projections, and lighting needed for the more complex sited artworks were an added strain.
The construction, let alone the launching, of exhibitions across citywide sites, was visibly challenging. The effect of this was not wholly detrimental to the event, lending a grassroots feel in the communal problem solving, which I could see still being played out well after the launch. It seemed apt in this deeply socialist state to see the visibility of the labor needed in the “production” of art, which, in other circumstances, might have been a less effective avant-garde gesture or performance but here seemed both honest and a welcome antidote to the self-conscious performance of reality.
While it was clear that some international visitors were perturbed by the unfinished nature of the biennale spaces and the lack of censure, it was also clear that this situation radically located this particular biennale as being uniquely Indian while acting as an antithetical gesture to the homogeneity and the clinical choreography of similar Western art events I have visited. What was also refreshingly apparent was the diversity of the audience: not just the usual suspects and VIPs of the international pack of art tourists, critics, curators, artists, and media that would normally be present, but a very democratic and largely local contingent that comprised local workers, schoolchildren, and a very general public. The influx of the art jet set is a manifestation of the politics of globalization, and when seen in Kerala brings to mind that “in The Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels argue that the bourgeoisie has created a new internationalism via the world market” (Harvey 1990: 99). Fortunately the lack of physical barriers or entry fee made for a more accessible event, while the reappointing of redundant historical spaces with many works responsive to the locality made visiting the biennale both an inclusive and a democratic proposition.
We can understand the wider topographical contexts of this biennale and its situation in Kochi through a particular reading of the rapid social and economic changes occurring in India, which inform the complex narrative of an emerging modern Indian nationalism. The cultural terrain has shifted since the time of the original Triennial-India and the time of this latest incarnation of the biennale in terms of the effect of the forces of global economics. The ability to realize a large-scale and international biennale event is testament to the extent that current modes of communications are able to bring together the diverse global cultures of art, allowing a new deterritorialized forum in the biennale format, one that enables ideas and practices to be shared as well as rapidly assimilated and disseminated across global networks. The shifts in the centers of art production mean that “some biennials no longer strive for this ‘affiliation with the West’ but rather back a regional community” (Vogel 2010: 112), a dimension that gives the Kochi-Muziris Biennale a future position to create an alternative global framework.
There are many paradoxes that might mitigate against the seeming benefits of these changes, as the assimilation and consumption of art subsumed into a global melting pot speeds up, and notions of radical or critical thought are subsumed by the need to provide a new or novel take on a recognized product. It is crucial to recognize the relationship that the developing art scene in India has to the art market and the capitalist models of consumption and production, which can be seen to have asserted themselves as part of the contemporary biennale structure.
A review of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale must acknowledge the multiple and interlinked global economic structures that the biennale can only exist within and comply with in order to sustain both national interest and support. The biennale organizers must carefully balance the competing forces of the art markets, corporate sponsorship, and global economies, which can systematically reduce the cultural difference of India's art production through the homogeneity and standardization that these market forces eventually bring. These are certainly some of the most persuasive situations that the curators must critically resist yet crucially operate within, as they become the critical consciousness of the biennale.
Only the distance of time can allow us to consider whether critical knowledge from the growing study of the biennale could be significant in supporting the future development and manifestation of a more effective biennale for India, or what “effective” might even constitute. It must be asked if the current preoccupations and the growing critique of this global art format have become an unsatisfactory critical burden. The character and identity of a biennale in relationship to specific localities and as part of a network of global opportunity is a key element to consider in debates about the emergence of alternative structures and prospects, not just for India, but for the wider critical discussion of global contemporary art and the structures that support and inform it.
In seeking to understand India's need for the biennale, we need to consider if there is a need for further radicalism through the biennale to reassert ideas of difference when the forces of globalization threaten India with cultural homogenization, and while a rising tide of religious fundamentalism is driving nationalist extremism and threatening contemporary art practices with the shackles of conservatism. It would seem that India's biennale could well be the platform to reclaim some of India's politically radical vision of social potential realized postindependence within the transcultural space of the contemporary biennale, where in “global art there is also no hierarchy of ‘local’ and ‘global’. The themes are global, the contexts local and the artists transnationals” (Vogel 2010: 115).
While globalization for Indian art inevitably means economic pressures from the Western markets, it also brings the benefits of the deterritorialization of current centers of global art production, which in turn allows for changing relations of cultural exchange and value systems of art production from those currently accepted. The recent debates in the India Art Fair as to how India might critically engage with accepted structures of thought when those structures are still dominated by the West shows that the discourse to further Indian arts recognizes the significance of this issue: “While art practice associated with the global contemporary has become global, the space of art writing is still ruled by western art historians and curators. Art curators, critics and art practitioners are invited to reflect on this paradox of the global contemporary and the status of art theory in writing practice” (India Art Fair 2013).
With the now dominant form of the contemporary globalized biennale established, there is a greater need to question and not just accept this format to allow for the possibility of a new alternative more suitable for India's current social and political situation. It may seem that the future of the Indian biennale might again lie in the ideas that propelled Nehru's original radical modernizing agenda, not only in order to determine a new critical space—a “global contemporary”—but also to reassert secular and democratic thought through art in India.
The biennale signals a moment of change for India, and at this critical juncture, it is useful to consider some of Rancière's ideas about the emancipatory effect that art can have on the spectator, to see whether they could be applied in terms of the active participation of art and the possibility of bringing together communities that this biennale has potentially offered. An event beyond passive enjoyment might take India back to the idea in circulation postindependence that art can be more than the contemporary “hypertheater” it has become—that it can be a creator of a more revolutionary identity in society. Does the biennale effect mean, as Rancière would argue, “that art has to provide us with more than a spectacle, more than something devoted to the delight of passive spectators, because it has to work for a society where everybody should be active” (2009: 63).