Scores of art enthusiasts, artists, art patrons and tourists who flew in from around the world to Fort Kochi for the Kochi Muziris Biennale (KMB), an artists-driven international festival of contemporary art, were in for a rude surprise on its opening day on Monday when they realised that the main show curated by Shubigi Rao would not open until December 23.
The four-month-long biennale was inaugurated by Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan late on Monday evening. But the scene at Aspinwall House, the main venue that would feature about 60% of the works by 90 artists part of the main show, was reminiscent of the opening day of KMB’s maiden edition exactly 10 years ago, in 2012.
Groups of workers were busy shoveling gravel on the soggy pathways of the colonial era warehouse. Whitewashing of the inner walls was under way at a frenetic pace in some areas where art works covered in polythene sheets were kept ready for mounting. Unpacked cartons of audiovisual and electrical equipment were strewn along the corridors. Rolled-up mats, paint containers and scaffolds lay in the foyer of a building on the campus.
“If you were not opening today, you could’ve announced it well in advance. The last-minute change of schedule has inconvenienced many who have travelled in from other parts of India and abroad,” Rita, a visitor from Stockholm, was questioning Bose Krishnamachari, the president of the Kochi Biennale Foundation (KBF) at the gate. There were many like her, dismayed that they were kept in the dark about the main show, held across Aspinwall House, Pepper House and Anand Warehouse, not being ready on the opening day.
“The Students’ Biennale and the invited exhibitions at 11 other venues would all be available for viewing as scheduled,” Mr. Krishnamachari tried to pacify them. In a conversation with The Hindu, he blamed the situation on the delay in making available Aspinwall House, owned by the DLF, for timely repairs and exhibition-related groundwork.
Kerala tourism department’s negotiations with DLF to acquire the property for about ₹65 to ₹80 crore ended in a deadlock following which the property and the nearby Cabral Yard, where the biennale pavilion is traditionally built, were locked up on November 20 only to be reopened on December 1. The Hindu has learnt that the KBF gained custody of the property by paying a lease amount of ₹ 21 lakh and a guarantee of another ₹ 10 lakh for both properties.
“Back in November itself, we realised we had a job at hand, as the buildings were in a bad shape and the roofs had collapsed at some places. Then we had a problem getting some works from abroad released by Customs. With the State Bank of India failing to execute a bank guarantee for the safe return of works even after 20 days, we sought the help of Bank of India and furnished a guarantee of ₹4.5 crore to get these works released. Fund crunch was addressed with the help of sponsors like HCL Foundation. That was when the sudden downpour wreaked havoc,” Mr. Krishnamachari lamented.
At the Cabral Yard, architect Samira Rathod, who is creating the biennale pavilion using recyclable material, said she faced back-to-back challenges on a daily basis. The plan was to build the pavilion in 45 days. “The venue wasn’t available on time. But when we finally got it, the labour contractor pulled out. Sourcing material, labour and getting them to do what our team wanted, all posed challenges but we talked to them and addressed their concerns to move forward. Sudden showers too created trouble,” she says, lamenting that the KBF could have planned for these eventualities and rescheduled the event accordingly.
This reporter bumped into Isaac Sahani Dato, who is exhibiting as part of the biennale at Pepper House. “It’s not opening tomorrow and I’m scheduled to go back on December 31,” he said.
Sharan Apparao, curator, Apparao Galleries, said that KBF should have announced the postponement of the main event at least two weeks ago. “So many of us have lost money on tickets and bookings. Even if it was muddy and slushy and not fully ready, people would have still come [if it was under way]. The spirit is to show solidarity, and that’s what the whole art world believes in. All of us know that the show always settles down only after the first couple of weeks. Which is fine because it is an artist-run biennale, not a fully-funded corporate event. I think this is a lesson to everybody who is doing these big, major events in the art world to understand that we can’t always do ‘wow’ things. We have to learn to cut our coats according to our cloth. Bringing practicality into the art world is very important,” Ms. Apparao said.
An art critic from Mumbai who is a regular at KMB rued that the biennale was just squandering away its cultural capital. “It is 10 years of goodwill they are losing with this mismanagement. I’m in Fort Kochi now and only 10 of the 90 artists are on display. So, obviously the artists are upset. It didn’t have to be this way,” he said.
Blow to tourism
The eleventh-hour decision has dealt a blow to tourism, too, argue some. Afterall, KMB has given a fillip to tourism in Kerala and played a part in the economy of the region.
“You can’t just decide overnight that you are going to postpone an event like this,” said Michael Dominic, Director of CGH Earth. “They should have kept reviewing it, and made a decision at least a month back. Many people have postponed their trips to a later date when the Biennale is on. A few dinners that were arranged across our properties have been postponed, and one — for the visiting artists at Brunton Boatyard — was cancelled. There is a lot of disappointment across the board. So many international visitors fly in, and many had booked their flight tickets,” he said.