In what caused considerable consternation in art circles, the Kochi Muziris Biennale, one of India’s biggest and most prestigious art events, had a delayed start to its 2022 edition, which was postponed by 11 days. There was an official inauguration on December 12, but the leading venues were not opened to the public.
“Due to a variety of organisational challenges, compounded by external factors, the main Kochi-Muziris Biennale venues, including Aspinwall House, Anand Warehouse, and Pepper House will open to the public only on 23 December 2022,” a statement issued just hours before the inauguration said. “We are all working hard towards this new date,” it added.
More than the rescheduling, what triggered criticism was that it was announced at the very last minute, on the scheduled day of opening. This meant a wasted journey for the many artists, audiences, journalists and tourists who had already reached Kochi. The fact that satellite exhibitions in the other venues, which included a collection of artwork from Kerala-based artists and the students’ biennale, were ready for viewing did not quite fill the void left by the absence of the main shows.
Since its inception in 2012, KMB has not had all shows ready in time for the opening. There has always been a work-in-progress air that KMB proudly owned and, in fact, even fetishised to some extent. The absence of a rigid punctiliousness lent KMB a certain bohemian dash. Its venues are not the sterile places of biennales abroad. One navigates grazing goats to get to some and kutcha tracks to get to others. With godowns and abandoned warehouses converted to galleries, KMB has always carried off its tousled look rather well and acquired global fame.
This year’s fiasco, however, is much more serious. It has hit artists, art lovers, tourists, and volunteers quite hard. Given how important an intervention KMB is in the calendar of Indian art, its organisers will have to work extra hard to ensure that the lapse does not cause lasting reputational damage. If, as many current and previous stakeholders hinted to Frontline, the process has become unwieldy or inefficient, it is time the organisers began to streamline. It might become harder to bring on board international curators, something KMB appears committed to, without displaying more rigour.
So just what went wrong? Frontline spoke to some of the stakeholders to find out.
From 2012, KMB has been requesting the Kerala government for a permanent venue. Of its 14 venues, the two leading ones—Aspinwall House and Cabral Yard—have posed problems this year. The government owns 1.29 acres of Aspinwall House, but the remaining portions of these two venues are owned by the real estate company DLF. Both places had been made available generously for earlier editions for a deposit of about Rs.10 lakh. In 2016, the government initiated the process of acquiring these two venues permanently but successive delays resulted in the agreements lapsing in 2019. Then the pandemic struck.
The purchase negotiations were restarted this year. By now, the DLF management had changed and, suddenly, the company upped the ante. It now demanded Rs.85 crore for the two sites, which together stand on 3.7 acres of land. The government was agreeable only to Rs.65 crore. Negotiations stalled.
“We started the conversation from July onwards,” said Bose Krishnamachari, co-founder and president of the KMB Foundation. “Usually the curator and the artists begin site visits at least five months ahead.”
Chief Minister’s intervention
When discussions reached an impasse, the KMB management appealed to the government and an intervention by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan appears to have worked. Vijayan chose K.S. Srinivas, Principal Secretary, Tourism Department, to continue the negotiations with DLF. Meetings were held in quick succession, and roughly five weeks before the opening, the tourism department and DLF officials appeared to have reached an agreement.
Aspinwall House was opened up to the biennale staff to begin work. “We got into Aspinwall House only on November 4,” said Krishnamachari. The venue was in a shambles. Major maintenance work was needed to prepare it for the opening, and they had only weeks. “But we were optimistic,” the artist said.
After a week spent racing against time, another twist emerged. DLF declared that the draft of the sale MoU mentioned a timeline of two years whereas the company wanted the sale to go through in six months. Aspinwall House and Cabral Yard were again closed and the biennale staff denied access. After many pleas and fresh negotiations, DLF opened up the two venues on December 1 and December 4 respectively, for a lease amount of Rs.21 lakh a month.
Krishnamachari sounds unfazed, but the experience must have been traumatic. “The Kerala government is pretty transparent,” he said gamely, “but bureaucratic procedures take a long time and not everyone is prepared to wait.”
By this point, only a miracle could have saved the day and not even his persistent Pollyanna spirit could bring that about. KMB’s cup of misery overflowed when cyclone Mandous hit Kochi, stopping what little progress could have been made. Ideally, the KMB Foundation should have taken stock much earlier and rescheduled well in time, but confidence in last-minute jugaad usually runs high in India and this time it ran aground.
The venues do not seem to have been the only headache. Post-pandemic inflation also hit KMB hard. “International shipping costs were 200-300 per cent higher,” said Krishnamachari. Moreover, new regulations have made it mandatory that bank guarantees for Customs to clear shipments are routed through nationalised banks only. “It took 21 days to get three bank guarantees from SBI,” said Krishnamachari, exasperation entering his voice for the first time. The remaining seven were routed through Bank of India and it took just one day, he said.
A lack of focus
While the KMB Foundation’s members attribute the fiasco chiefly to unavoidable circumstances, many voices hint at a lack of focus. KMB, they say, has been struggling with internal turmoil for a while now, which they attribute to the absence of an institutionalised structure. A top Indian artist associated with several biennales, including the previous one in Kochi, requesting anonymity, said: “I don’t believe money is the issue. The institution’s structure is more important. Administratively, there have been significant delays and a lack of direction.”
Its loose organisational structure has, however, been considered one of KMB’s strengths and was chosen deliberately by the original board of trustees to allow artistic individuality and creativity to flow unhindered by bureaucracy and hierarchy.
Another commentator, previously associated with KMB, said: “The mishap is symptomatic of a systemic failure. The event is run in an autocratic way. There is an absolute lack of democracy, and only a select few are privy to the decision-making process.” This person reiterated that the biennale was losing focus, saying, “It has become for the ‘art world’ rather than for ‘the world of arts’”.
Claiming organisational lapses, the person said: “The Biennale is a non-profit affair, funded by the government, so it should be run in a transparent manner and under public scrutiny. But today, most matters are opaque. The Aspinwall controversy is just the tip of the iceberg. The debate should be on the larger goals of the biennale and its change in philosophy.”
One of the KMB trustees strongly refuted this. “Both the government and the private donors independently audit the accounts of the biennale,” he said. “There is complete scrutiny.” According to him, when postponement became inevitable, a meeting was held with the participating artists to ask if the biennale should be opened partially, with only the Aspinwall House show deferred. The artists decided it would be unfair and opted for the full show to be postponed. “This is democratic process,” he pointed out. “To meet a bunch of very angry artists and take their opinion.”
As the trustee explained, “The KMB is an artist-driven biennale. This is both its strength and its weakness.”
Another criticism levelled at the organisers is that since the biennale’s 2020 edition was postponed to 2022 because of COVID-19, a lot of ground had already been covered. Some 80 artists had been chosen and half of them had begun work on their projects during the COVID years. Thus, on-site planning, too, could have been kicked off at least a year in advance, the critics pointed out.
Need for permanent venue
Perhaps that becomes difficult when there is no permanent venue. Every year the foundation had to do a lot of running around to negotiate with private landowners and complete extensive maintenance work in a short period of time, resulting in a lack of progress if not successive delays and in the focus shifting to infrastructural work rather than creative engagement. The obvious solution is to get a manager on board while Bose Krishnamachari concentrates on the art. Can the KMB trust ensure this?
The Kerala government continues to be a major financial backer—roughly Rs.7 crore was provided in the latest budget—but it seems to be dragging its feet on the venue issue. It has been a decade since the biennale began; acquiring a permanent place need not take so long. The first edition of the biennale in 2012 reportedly fetched over Rs.5 crore, and it has since steadily increased. Sustained support from the government and from other institutions is necessary for such creative initiatives to succeed.
The KMB Foundation has battled many challenges since 2012, from financing and labour issues to sexual harassment charges and the unprecedented postponement this year. But it has come through, succeeding not just in elevating the status of artists from the region and increasing awareness locally about art and artists, but in firmly placing Kochi on the global art map.
If the biennale keeps its date with December 23, this year’s edition, curated by Singapore-based artist Shubhigi Rao under the theme “In Our Veins Flow Ink and Fire”, will finally throw open over 100 creative projects by 87 artists from 24 nations, not to mention invitation programmes, partner projects and satellite exhibitions. It will be on display till April 10. The “people’s biennale” would have finally reached its audience.
Nidheesh M.K. is a freelance writer based in Kerala.
- The Kochi Muziris Biennale, one of India’s biggest and most prestigious art events, had a delayed start to its 2022 edition.
- Though officially inaugurated on December 12, it now starts on December 23.
- Lack of a permanent venue is one of the reasons, though the KMB Foundation has been requesting the Kerala government for one since 2012.
- While the KMB Foundation’s members attribute the fiasco chiefly to unavoidable circumstances, many voices hint at a lack of focus.
- It will showcase over 100 creative projects by 87 artists from 24 nations, apart from invitation programmes, partner projects and satellite exhibitions.
- It will be on display till April 10.