x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Searching for the spice of life at Kerala Biennale

Known for its lush landscape and backwaters, Kochi in Kerala has just launched the subcontinent's first version of the famous Venice Biennale contemporary art festival.

Visitors admire a creation by the Chinese artist Zhang Enli at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. Sivaram V / Reuters
Visitors admire a creation by the Chinese artist Zhang Enli at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. Sivaram V / Reuters

Good art on its own is great. A beautiful landscape, in and of itself, is a treat. Combine the two - great art by Indian and foreign contemporary artists spread out in the lush and verdant landscape of Kochi in Kerala - and you are sure to bliss out.

Contrary to Shakespeare, there is a lot in a name. Not for nothing do we have the Venice Biennale. The name conjures up the city's majesty and grandeur. A "Wigan Biennale" or a "Delhi Biennale" doesn't quite make the grade.

But the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in Kerala? Now, that has a nice ring to it. Kochi (formerly Cochin) evokes the spice market, the port with its steamers and ferries, the Arabian Sea and buildings dating back to the first traders who arrived on the shores of this small fishing village.

The less well-known Muziris in the title is Kerala's lost city that drowned with the flooding of the Periyar river in the 14th century and which is being promoted as a heritage destination by the Kerala government. This city, legendary for its role in the ancient spice trade, is the largest heritage conservation project in India.

Just as the Venice Biennale celebrates a city, so the Kochi-Muziris Biennale celebrates Kochi's history. This is place where Arab, Chinese, Dutch, British and Portuguese traders came looking for pepper, cardamom, cloves and cinnamon. They found all these and, as a bonus, a land of forests and water that enchanted them.

At one point, India's art world feared the Biennale might never happen. Despite the Kerala government's bold decision to pioneer the event, bureaucratic delays, infighting and a shortage of money threatened to capsize the event.

But as the day of the launch - 12/12/12 - approached, everything (well almost everything - some of the art got stuck at Mumbai customs) fell into place to the immense relief of the brains behind the Biennale, the artists Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu.

It was thrilling to wander around the main venue, the ramshackle and sprawling Aspinwall House which once belonged to a British company that traded in spices, tea, coffee and rubber. The estate is overgrown and wild but frankly the art looked all the more interesting for being laid out in this informal and intoxicating setting.

"Informal" was the word that came to mind a lot. On the day of the opening, carpenters, painters and welders were still getting some rooms ready. The occasional artist could be seen looking frazzled - "I can't find an electrician to fix my lighting," said the artist LN Tallur, whose work, a tribute to the terracotta tile industry, needed more light to give off an earthy glow.

Some found the wiring in their video installations dodgy. Others were giving their works the finishing touches and labelling them even as visitors strolled in.

But no one minded. The energy and enthusiasm in the air was palpable. Foreign tourists, locals, artists and art lovers from all over India, along with local schoolchildren, priests and autorickshaw wallahs, all came for a look.

Because Aspinwall House is situated on the waterfront, you walk into the rooms and are dazzled by two things simultaneously: the art and, through the windows or the trees in the garden, glimpses of the wharf and the waters of the Arabian Sea shimmering in the sunshine.

Many of the more than 80 artists, half of them from abroad, have displayed their art in different places all over Fort Kochi (the heritage area of Kochi) in gardens, public spaces, galleries and other heritage buildings such as Pepper House and in Muziris.

There was the Dutch artist Jonas Staal's installation of 45 billboards depicting the flags of banned or blacklisted organisations as his way of showing us the "limitations" of democracy and free speech; the Indian artist Subodh Gupta's giant boat loaded with domestic detritus such as bicycles, garden chairs, fans, TV sets and kitchen utensils; the "trash art" of the Australian artist Dylan Martorell's Robot Drums, made out of pieces of rubbish swept up from the venue; and the Indian artist Vivek Vilasini's Last Supper - Gaza, depicting Christ with 13 burqa-clad figures.

Gupta, who is known for mammoth projects like Very Hungry God, a giant skull made of steel utensils, had to erect special scaffolding to take the weight of his 60-foot boat. The vessel and its cargo symbolise survival and migration. "I'm hoping the Kochi Biennale will create an alternative to the shopping mart of art fairs that we've seen so far. I think it will revitalise the art world," says Gupta.

Spices have inspired some of the Biennale artists. One of Martorell's installations has aluminium pots with speakers inside and handfuls of ground spices on top. As the volume of the sound increases, the vibrating speakers send up clouds of spices.

And the Indian artist Vivan Sundaram's exhibit Black Forest is a collection of hundreds of thousands of pottery shards he found at Muziris which he reassembled inside a shallow pit to create an undulating landscape suggestive of a lost civilisation. His last touch was to throw peppercorns onto it to symbolise the flooded city's links with the spice trade.

"This is going to expose Indian artists to what is happening internationally. Not everyone can afford to travel to Venice or elsewhere. For younger artists, it will be inspiring to see what's on display here," says the Mumbai-based artist Atul Dodiya.

Like any good art show, the controversies keep erupting. Staal plans to invite members of the banned organisations whose flags feature in his installation to Kochi. "I want to hold a summit just before the festival ends to give a voice to people who have been given no space in so-called democracies," he says. But the Kochi city police commissioner said that if the summit turns out to be illegal, he will not allow it.

The Kochi-Muziris Biennale is on until March 13. Visit kochimuzirisbiennale.org for more details.