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Art by the coast

It has been a nerve-wracking few weeks for star artist Subodh Gupta. He had to hire first one crane and then a second bigger one to winch one end of his giant installation — a Kerala boat crammed with household objects from old furniture to pots and pans — up in the air. In the process he also had to smash a hole through the roof of a long shed at Aspinwall House in Kochi where the installation has been put up.

Gupta and his cranes were still in action at the time of the inauguration of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, the ambitious art show that kicked off a few weeks ago in the west coast port city. Despite the nail-biting tension that stretched over several days, Gupta was brimming with excitement. “It’s fantastic. There’s such a great energy here,” he says.

It’s an energy that has spilt all across charming old Fort Kochi ever since the launch of what’s almost certainly the biggest show of Contemporary art ever held in India. Aspinwall House, a sprawling but abandoned colonial-era sea-facing compound — it’s a mix of old offices, a bungalow and warehouses — is the main hub of the show with installations like Gupta’s boat and Vivan Sundaram’s installation made from pottery shards dug up from the Muziris settlements archaeological site near Kochi.

You could say that every corner of Fort Kochi — it’s an island a short distance from the mainland — has been taken over by the art world. Kochi-Muziris has moved into 14 venues — a mix of old bungalows, warehouses, docks and even the beach. And street artists like Anupu Varkey have carefully daubed their creations on walls and almost any available blank space. “We want to create a culture around and educate people about Contemporary art,” says artist Riyas Komu, who founded and curated the show with fellow artist Bose Krishnamachari.

The mammoth show has been drawing the Who’s Who of the art world off their normal beaten tracks all the way to Kochi. So, you have over 80 artists from 24 countries including India’s big names like Gupta, Atul Dodiya, Sudarshan Shetty and Vivan Sundaram showing their works at the biennale. Then, there are leading international artists like

Brazil’s Ernesto Neto and San Francisco-based Portuguese artist Rigo 23. Also, there are Israeli artist Joseph Semah and Ariel Hassan from Argentina.

The art collectors too are coming in droves. From Delhi, Kiran Nadar and Anupam Poddar, who have both started museums of their own, came to attend the opening.

Also, the biennale’s been drawing international curators and experts like Chris Dercon, director of the Tate Modern museum in the UK, Dutch academic Arjo Klamer, who’s known for his work on the economics of art, and Yugo Hasegawa, chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo. “The Kochi biennale’s very important in terms of the visibility of Indian art and the opportunity to see international works,” says Nadar.

Adds Dercon: “What’s special is that this is a biennale for and by the artists. And that’s very rare these days.”

But it isn’t just the cognoscenti of the art world who’s turning up for the show. Kochi’s not an art world hub and some of the installations must seem esoteric to say the least, to the untrained eye. Nevertheless, that isn’t stopping thousands of ordinary citizens who’re trooping through abandoned spice godowns, and peering through rooms filled with art to take in everything from the big installations that are a key feature of Contemporary art today to paintings to digital and text- and sound-based works too. At last count, the biennale had attracted 1.25 lakh visitors in just 20 days.

“It’s a super successful show,” says Bose. Komu and he have had a tension-filled time putting it all together. The two have battled controversy over the alleged misuse of government funds, fended off protests and rivalries from locals and artists and scrambled to raise cash till the very last minute.

The fact is that the biennale’s been plagued by glitches. Even two weeks after the opening, some art works were still being installed and there are some disappointments like the bland display of art at Durbar Hall, on which the biennale trust spent Rs 2.5 crore of its Rs 5 crore of government funds. Still it’s hard to miss the sheer artistic energy pervading the space.

What’s more, many artists have made site-specific works, even funding many of them on their own. They’ve taken advantage of the opportunity to work and show in the biennale’s vast spice warehouses and colonial buildings — keep in mind that India is starved of large gallery and museum spaces for oversized works of art.

Consider this: At one end of the sprawling Aspinwall House — real estate major DLF has lent this venue —Vivan Sundaram has created a 40-ft-long installation on the floor titled Black Gold. Sundaram was inspired by the history of Muziris, an ancient port which had trade links with everyone from the Romans to the Chinese. An archaeological dig is taking place at Pattanam near Kochi, which is supposed to be the Muziris site. Sundaram has used 80kg of pottery shards unearthed from here to create his work. “I’m interested in fragments and fragility,” he says.

Alongside it, in the same shed is Subodh Gupta’s 60-ft-long boat. Nearby, in the middle of the compound, visitors are scrambling up a heap of gunny bags to peer into Srinivasa Prasad’s nest-like installation. And outside another shed, they’re queuing up to view Amar Kanwar’s stunning work The Sovereign Forest, which includes two films, three amazing books that combine narrative text with moving images beamed from a projector, and exhibits, all relating to real and fictional scenes of crime about farmer suicides and land loss in Odisha.

“We only understand what the law defines as crime; we don’t comprehend the scale of loss. Permit me to present poetry as evidence,” says Kanwar as he seeks to expand people’s understanding of crime, politics and human rights.

There’s more art outside Aspinwall too. Down the road is Moidu’s Heritage, formerly owned by a coir company, where Brazilian artist Neto has taken over an attic. Continuing with his earlier work with spices, he’s hung stockings filled with turmeric and cinnamon from a canopy stitched with locally sourced fabric. “It represents my desire to connect the culture of my art to the cultural environment in India,” he says.

Next door, at Pepper House, a Dutch-style spice warehouse, Alex Mathew’s minimalistic sculpture of an anchor grabs the eye. In an adjoining room, Hossein Valamanesh’s pillars of black and white fabric hang from the ceiling, casting spotlights on a bed of carpets.

Further down, Portuguese artist Rigo 23 has a three-part installation on the Kalvathy Road dockyard. He’d transported one part, a long coir and bamboo tunnel by boat from Aspinwall to the dock, where it faces the harbour where Vasco da Gama landed. Taking up his theme of social justice, Rigo says he wants to present “different stories of Vasco da Gama than that of the hero”.

Now, the world over, art biennales are glitzy and well-oiled affairs. But the Kochi biennale’s been more in the nature of a work-in-progress with the artists practically bringing their studios into the open. Young artist Shreyas Karle, who was painting his leaking fountain installation before opening day, says: “Kochi’s become like a large studio that’s providing a multi-layered perspective on the sweat and labour that artists put in to create their work.” He has three works exploring the nature of water.

And Sudarshan Shetty likens participating in the biennale to “creating another solo show”. He’s created “a fake archeological site” comprising three pits, one of which has a “death monument” that his carpenters carved on site.

Of course, most Indians still associate art with painting or sculpture. And the biennale does have these. Baroda-based Kerala artist K.K. Reji even moved into Pepper House to paint his large oil-on-canvas triptych on site.

Yet, it’s the installations, including text- and sound-based works, which dominate the show. So, in the vast upstairs of one building at Aspinwall, L.N. Tallur has a massive inverted-roof installation made from Mangalore tiles with tiny figures in hathayoga poses on some tiles.

Just below that, Sheela Gowda and Christopher Storz’s 170 grinding stones “rush out in a stampede” towards the jetty. And along the entire back of the building, British artist Robert Montgomery’s mystifying LED-lit text beckons passing ferries.

“Indians hardly see any installation work so it’s very hard for them to begin to see art as something beyond painting,” admits Gowda. But she’s hoping the biennale will change that.

The artists are also exploring diverse themes from the political to the poetic. So, Dutch artist Jonas Staal’s “alternative parliament” installation has the painted flags of 45 banned Indian and international organisations. And Atul Dodiya has stepped away from his canvas to present an unusual installation of photographs of artists, gallerists and art lovers that he’s taken “for fun” over the years. “Since this is India’s first biennale, I thought of showing the pictures of all the people who’ve made a contribution to the Indian art scene,” he says. He’s enjoyed watching the reactions of ordinary visitors who’re posing next to his picture of M.F. Husain with a red Ferrari.

“To see the local people interact with the art and see the huge interest from students is extraordinary,” exclaims former star model Feroze Gujral, whose Outset Foundation is sponsoring the collateral Let’s Talk series of lectures.

Bose and Komu admit it’s been a huge challenge on all counts. “We had to create everything from scratch,” says Komu. “The biggest challenge was funding,” adds Bose. This was especially so after the new state government froze funds in 2011. In fact, Bose says they put in Rs 1.5 crore of their own money. Now, they’re still adding up all the costs. They’ve also appealed to the government to release the balance Rs 5 crore of the sanctioned Rs 10 crore funding.

Certainly, many visitors felt the biennale had been a hit. “The Kochi biennale is not only important for India but it could redefine and bring into shape again the life of biennales in general,” says Dercon.

Will they be able to keep the biennale going over the long term? Despite all the troubles and roadblocks, the two are bubbling with confidence. Bose talks about the Bilbao effect — the run-down Spanish industrial town turned around, emerging as a cultural hub, after the Guggenheim Museum opened there. “This,” he says, “is what is going to happen in Kochi.”