March 7, 2013 By K Shabin Muhammed

Whither Art?

Whither art Kochi Life 2

The Kochi Muziris Biennale, the first of its kind in India was initially celebrated in the media as an Olympics of contemporary art. The Biennale was expected to cater to and enhance the prospects of art works based on the local life of Kochi, especially the Fort Kochi, Mattancherry regions having a rich legacy of local art and culture of traditional Kochi life. The outcome was not quite up to the expectations as the event attracted mostly tourists and not the local crowd.  Besides one is not too sure on whether the organizers succeeded in spreading the message of the Biennale at least across Kerala. Soon or later a section of the media even started attacking the event over fund transactions and the result was nothing other than controversial unhealthy talks and the focus getting diverted from what was meant to be a great exhibition of contemporary art.


It is in this context, the Kochi Art and Letters Foundation organized an alternative platform – the Kochi International Festival, Kochi Life 2 and the target audiences were those people who loved ‘Art for Art’s Sake’.  Mattancherry – being the main tourist attraction and centre stage of the Kochi Muziris Biennale was purposefully chosen the venue for Kochi Life 2 as well. The event got organized on 17th February 2013 in the historically and culturally significant Jew town. The event rightly questioned the ethical shortcomings of Biennale. At the same time it sought meaningful discussions and dialogues based on the contemporary art. The reformative part was that it emphasized the destruction of the usually followed patterns of art fest related discussions, where experts in the field of art held the privilege of shaping and setting the tone of the discourse.

Rustom Bharucha a cultural critic based in Delhi teaching at Art and Aesthetics, JNU and Annapurna Garimella, Bengaluru based designer and art historian – were the main speakers of the event. The festival had three panels under themes related to art and contemporaniety. “On the Edge of Contemporaniety: Positioning Global Art” was the first panel which discussed global contemporary art and the way it worked out in Kochi. The second panel was “Between Hostility: Media, Hospitality and Malayali” and it dealt more with the public debates with regards to the ongoing Kochi Muziris Biennale. “Whither Art?” is the third panel which expands the above concerns to the level of realising their subversive potential in re- imagining the force of art.

As someone who has been reading Marx for almost three decades, Rustom Bharucha expressed his concern over the recent treatment of ‘art as capital’. He described ‘capital’ as the vicious begetter of all differences and also the great leveler capable of reducing all differences to a single value. “So we cannot trust capital, old habits die hard!” he noted. It is in this context he questioned the recent trend of positioning ourselves in relation to capital. “More precisely, what do we make of it in the larger context of the global art economy and its impact on local cultures? Even more precisely, how does this economy make an impact on Kochi today – not merely at material levels, but in terms of the political culture and history of the city?” he asks.

“Biennale is indeed a wonderful art fest but the way it occupied the historical buildings and the life of ordinary people in Kochi is worth having a look into. It boycotts the traditional art of Kochi and someway reconstructed a capitalistic form of art. It is a truism to acknowledge that in the age of globalization, where mobility and split-second transmissions of capital would appear to be an irreversible norm, at least for some privileged sections of the world’s population, the reality is that the gaps, the fissures, the disparities, and the distances would appear to be growing in many other parts of the world which do not share the same global clout”, he observed.

He sought attention to the problematic nature of ‘desire’. At an intercultural level with regards to the exchange of cultures across national borders, it could be argued that the desire for the West is reinforced through the centrality of funding and availability of resources in the North for collaboration with artists, scholars and activists in regions of the South, said Rustom Bharucha. He pointed out that the Indian state has not matched this cultural investment apart from short-term opportunistic forays in the now moribund area of the ‘festivalization’ of Indian culture abroad.

Annapurna Garimella revealed the backdrop of Kochi Muziris biennale by projecting photos of a few artistic portraits from biennale. She questioned the logic of presenting contemporary art festivals by showcasing portraits related to the cultural history of Kerala. Biennale had portraits demonstrating archeological pieces of ancient Kerala like ‘pounding grain mortars’, ‘roof pave tiles’ etc and it was these portraits she was referring to.  She examined the archeological, sensorial, scale values of the portraits exhibited in biennale especially with regards to the portraits which demonstrated culture and traditions of Kerala.

Three years ago Kochi Life had organized a public forum around the critical question, ‘Whither Left?’ – A question of high relevance when the Left worldwide seemed to have lost their battle of resisting the neo-liberal hegemony of our times. ‘Whither Art?’ is thus the second question from Kochi Life 2 and has in a way probed successfully into contemporary art and made some sincere attempts to answer a few critical questions related to art, capital, culture and tradition.

B.Unnikrishnan, Shwetal Patel (Executive officer, Kochi Muziris Biennale), P.J.Benoy, Annemarie Bucher (Art historian), T.V.Sajeev, Padmanabhan Chandroth,Ajay Shekhar, Leena Chetan, Sudeep, Jose Varghese, Rajesh, Prasad Pannian, Jyothi Basu, Narayanan Kutti, Smitha Madanan, P.A.Uthaman amongst others participated in the discussions. Dilip Raj was the coordinator of this ‘non-event’.

Posted in: Art