Kochi Biennale and alienated lives

Kochi Biennale is beautiful.

I know the opinion that something is beautiful is subjective, and there is no reason you should believe what I say, but the consensus would dictate that it is beautiful.

The Kochi-Muziris Biennale is an international exhibition of contemporary art held in Kochi, Kerala. It is the largest art exhibition in India and the biggest contemporary art festival in Asia. The fourth edition was held from 12 December, 2018 to 29 March, 2019. Curated by Anita Dube, it featured art exhibits from the tribes of Kerala to those by international artists.

Visiting Fort Kochi is a delight in itself, with all its quaint cafes blaring Spanish tunes, graffiti on secluded walls, and an air of carefreeness. So being in Fort Kochi while Biennale is going on, makes one feel like time has stopped and the entire city is tailored for you to absorb its pulse and with it, all of its art.

The theme for this edition was ‘Possibilities for a non-alienated life’. The biennale aimed to create a platform which would not adhere to art elitism as museums do. Where those pushed to the margins of the dominant narratives spoke up. It hoped to create a dialogue between the entitled and ‘others’, not as enemies but as co-habitants of this planet.

I have always been inclined to art as a way of connecting with others, as a way of bridging the divide. Generally, on a good day with enough art around me, I don’t feel so bad about being a human. I feel that art arouses empathy when other media fail, it makes you step in the artist’s shoes. And sometimes, if you really connect, your paradigm shifts and that, I think is an artist’s highest accomplishment.

Once I read, ‘There is no such thing as a voice for the voiceless. Just pass the microphone.’ And Kochi Biennale does exactly this. With 50% of art exhibits by women, exhibits by refugees, economically backward classes, tribes affected by Kerala floods, artists from war-torn nations, Biennale gives everyone a chance to tell you what is different in their part of the world from yours. Present in a room filled with people’s perspectives from all around, it is difficult to not be in awe of people’s stories of struggle. It makes you sit in discomfort with your entitlement and think of ways to help the ailing.

The theme of the 4th edition of the Kochi-Muziris biennale.

One of my favourite exhibits was For, In Your Tongue, I Cannot Fit by Shilpa Gupta. It was a multi-channel sound installation giving voice to 100 poets from around the world who have been imprisoned for their poetry and their beliefs. With a runtime of over 2 hours, numerous speakers shaped as microphones chanted the words of these poets, sourced from their letters, poems and prose. Maybe because it was so contemporary to the political scenario in modern India, just like many other art pieces, it cemented a place for the Biennale in my heart.

Soon after coming back to college, I came across an Instagram page called ‘justicefrombiennale18_19’. By then, I had been to Biennale twice. The page claimed that the Biennale was a hypocrite. It stuck to the theme as far as the art exhibits were concerned. Outside that, it was followed by allegations about non-payment of the labourers who helped set it up in the first place. It owes the contractors that built the pavilion in Cabral Yard a total of Rs 1.4 crore and refuses to clear the debts. Also independent workers like masons, plumbers haven’t been remunerated. The wood for the pavilion was brought by the Wayanad tribes who were promised payment and never paid.

Mr. Thomas, the contractor for the pavilion, said that the foundation paid all its overseas vendors and only local vendors have been facing these issues of non-payment. Claiming this to be a double-standard, he compared his work done for the Biennale to slavery.

“We have nothing against the Biennale,” says Mr. Thomas, “but we cannot let them destroy the livelihoods of hundreds.”

The pavilion was built under strict time constraints and in inclement weather conditions. To not pay the workers who toiled day and night for the success of the Biennale showcases the impossibility of the non-alienated life.

All the workers and contractors are asking the Kochi Biennale Foundation (KBF) to revise their audits and clear the non-payment. KBF’s response to the allegations, however, were far from satisfactory. As if calling the Instagram page, which was a plea for help, a disinformation campaign wasn’t enough, KBF called Mr. Thomas “akin to someone who erects tents, pandals and scaffoldings for household functions like weddings etc on payment” and “not within their rank and station”. The disrespect towards the workers and contractor was clear in the statements released by KBF to media and court – so much for the possibility of a non-alienated life. The case has been taken to the court, and will hopefully be ruled in the favour of justice for the workers.

Putting aside the facts of this case, how does this make me feel about art and Biennale?

I understand that art needs to be commercialised for artists to spend enough time on their art and receive appreciation. But if the foundations that credit the artists are involved in illegal activities, how do I trust the Biennale? Biennale for a very long time was synonymous to art for me. It was the first art exhibition I have been to, seen so much talent and art at one place and peeped into different worlds. The first time I heard about the non-payment to the workers, I was hesitant to believe it. A tiny part of me still hopes that this is a big misunderstanding because I know that if it isn’t then there will be no next Biennale. Even if the next edition is as grand as this one and features more art, Biennale would never be the same for me. I would always second guess the KBF and in extension, all the other art exhibitions I attend.

I have been saying to myself repeatedly that ‘the possibilities of a non-alienated life’ is about art and not the Biennale anymore. I loved the art I saw and felt. Some left me in chills and I cried more than twice.

Art is beautiful.

Kochi Biennale is ugly.

Dhwani Shah

I may or may not have binge-watched cat videos for the last 5 hours.

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