The much-anticipated third edition of the Kochi- Muziris Biennale is poised to address the fundamental conundrum.
‘What is Contemporary art?’ is not a question easily answered. It’s an even tougher one to ask. Yet, it is what Sudarshan Shetty will attempt to address with his first curatorial venture, the third edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale opening on December 12.
In his vision statement, the artist says he drew inspiration from India’s historic designation as the “land of the seven rivers.” For him, it is the rivers that led to the premise: “What does it mean to be together in time—to be contemporary?”
It takes the most intelligent people to ask the most elementary questions. With the perspective afforded by time, we can now agree that Modern art refers to art produced between the 1860s and 1970s, channeling the style and philosophy of these decades. No such straitjacket however, is cut out for Contemporary art. It can be variously defined as art that breaks from tradition, as disruption, as commentary. It is often described as a visual philosophy and yet it can exist without a visual at all. At the last edition of documenta (13)—the renowned quinquennial Contemporary art exhibition held in Kassel—British artist Ryan Gander’s I Need Some Meaning I Can Memorise (2012) was simply a gentle breeze blowing through a large empty room.
With previous editions also helmed by artists, this edition is set to be even more ambitious and amorphous—“an admixture of styles, schools and sensibilities,” says Shetty—than it has been so far. At the first announcement of artists on December 15, 2015 in Kochi, Shetty set the tone by announcing Chilean poet Raúl Zurita as the “first artist”, and inviting him to recite his poetry. His roster now includes over 80 artists with practices as diverse as the graphic art of Orijit Sen (India), the performance art of Pawel Al- thamer (Poland) and the sound installations of Camille Norment (Norway).
While Shetty studied painting at the Sir JJ School of Art, his father was a Yakshagana performer and there was “a lot of music and singing in the house” growing up in Mumbai. When I ask him about an art event that left a mark on him, he picks not a visual arts exhibition, but the festival of Sufi music in Nagore in Uttar Pradesh. At Kochi-Muziris, Shetty is actively seeking out convergences too. “I’m interested in re-examining the idea of what is contemporary and what constitutes tradition. I love what Ratan Thiyam is doing with ‘tradition’ in theatre, for instance, using natya sastra and thang-ta to comment on present-day politics. So I started looking at these practices outside the biennale space and started conversations with a vast spectrum of people who were into music, theatre, poetry, even activism. I spoke to a lot of activists and asked them how they viewed art. It opened up doors in terms of how I should look at the biennale at large,” he explains.
All for one
Perhaps best illustrative of the fluid nature of the event that he is shaping up is the interaction between the young Scottish artist Hanna Tuulikki, who is interested in Scottish folklore and birdsong, and 33-year-old Kapila Venu, who is one of the foremost practitioners of Kutiyattam in the country today. “It was an organic collaboration. Now, whatever Hanna presents at the biennale will be informed by their exchanges,” he says. There are also plans to bring down 100 students from around the country to create a daily newsletter to document the 108-day art event while it is in progress. “I’m hoping that some of them become a part of the biennale… It is important to document whatever is possible, so a person who comes on the seventh day will know what transpired before.
When we met at Shetty’s studio in Mumbai in September, he was about to leave for the inaugural edition of the Yinchuan Biennale, curated by his friend and Kochi-Muziris Binnale’s co- founder Bose Krishnamachari. He was also in the midst of scouting for locations for his independent exhibition, comprising a two-channel film and sculpture, as part of the Rolls-Royce Art Programme. But the trappings of the biennale were everywhere as well; blue-prints were pasted on one wall, three studio assistants were glued to their Macs. “In the beginning, [the biennale] seemed like a schizophrenic situation. I had my own art to pursue. Now it seems like one and the same thing,” he says.