Protests, however odious, are at least legitimate, but this week when vandals desecrated installations by two artists at the ongoing Kochi-Muziris Biennale, they over-stepped the limits of dissent. Paint was poured on South African artist Clifford Charles’ installation, while Australian artist Daniell Connell’s portrait of tea vendor Achu was defaced.
This when, finally, the media coverage surrounding the beleaguered biennale had finally turned positive. In the foundation’s office in Kochi, there had been bitterness about the lack of support — financial, true, but also participative and emotional — though emerging positivism had finally also injected a dose of hope and enthusiasm. Not that the griping in the back rooms had been without merit. The biennale might have courted controversy leading up to its inaugural, but it had ventured far beyond it in reaching out to create an event that it had mostly pulled off well enough — surely it deserved some laurels?
Why had the media been so negative, I was constantly asked by “volunteers”, several of whom claimed not to have been paid for months together. The stress seemed evident enough in the secretariat, where the team pulled off an amazing feat despite limitations. At the bottom of it all was a lack of resources, with some volunteers sharing that they were pulling in whatever funds they could on an almost daily basis just to meet and keep expenses going. The lack of corporate support, in particular from Indian companies, was only too evident. The constraints of working within the restrictive Kochi environment added to the measure of frustration.
While all of this might have appeared like a raw deal, it is part of building any brand and the organisers had to know that they had no easy task on their hands when they began preparation for Kochi-Muziris 2012. The lack of information leading up to the biennale added to public apathy. Visitors — and, typically, international art viewers book their tickets months if not years in advance — didn’t know whether to build Kochi into their itinerary. In the absence of any updates, people and media had opted for outright dismissal, or speculation, but no sooner had the biennale actually taken off that the mood changed. Despite dismay about artistic projects that were delayed and venues that remained unfinished, media support was astonishing, and artists mostly chose to remain accommodating instead of lamenting the absence of a safety-net. Not all visitors were initially complimentary, but reports emanating from Kochi are about improvements on an almost daily basis, and the sheer cocktail of events and activities is proving heady. It is therefore a pity that no calendar of proceedings has been put into circulation. Certainly, there are some who have already returned to Kochi to view the art installations and participate in the offerings of the biennale, and as word spreads, more should be expected — which should be the healing salve for the volunteers and the work the office has put into curating and staging India’s first biennale.
Daniel Connell, meanwhile, has been able to restore his mural of Achu, a task easier than the biennale office will find on its hand when it begins preparations for 2014. Much has been forgiven in 2012 for the debut event — its holding itself touted by many as a miracle. As it moves forward with greater confidence, it will also find that the challenges have multiplied. Lapses overlooked in 2012 will not be as easily exonerated in 2014. In its secretariat, volunteers can look forward to more sleepless nights over crises that will require fire-fighting — it is the nature of the beast called the biennale, as so many curators and organisers around the world well know.
Kishore Singh is a Delhi-based writer and art critic. These views are personal and do not reflect those of the organisation with which he is associated