- Contemporary Art BiennialsDecline or Resurgence?
In the recent ArtReview.com op-ed titled “The End of the Biennial?,” J. J. Charlesworth (2017) argues that the ubiquitous format of “large international exhibition” of contemporary art is starting to show signs of fatigue. Analogously, one could argue that this kind of criticism—which became customary, if not fashionable—among Western art-world professionals around the turn of the century has by now become predictable, prosaic, and tired.1
Scrutinizing the recent editions of documenta, Manifesta, and the Venice Biennale, Charlesworth points out—quite rightly so—the inherent contradiction between increasingly nonartistic agendas, such as social transformation or political engagement, and the systemic inability to fulfill such promises. According to Charlesworth, documenta’s uncomfortable engagement with the austerity-hit capital city of Athens is the ultimate testament to the impotence of the biennial format, in relation to the real tensions of its host city. While his argument is somewhat confirmed with the unapologetically European selection of examples used to illustrate it, his statements are unjustifiably presented as universal. Charlesworth and many other biennial skeptics tend to ignore the fact that the most fertile ground for biennials—which have been continuously proliferating since the mid-1980s—is to be found outside Europe, and that the proliferation itself can be seen as a project of correcting and decentralizing the cartography of the art world inherited from modernity. [End Page 135]
Among dozens of contemporary art biennials—which materialized in the peripheries and semiperipheries with analogous agendas—the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB), established in 2012, is perhaps the most salient counterexample for skeptics. The recently published book India’s Biennale Effect, edited by Robert D’Souza and Sunil Manghani of Winchester School of Arts, University of Southampton, is a powerful testimony to the stamina, complexity, and popularity of the biennial format, in India in particular, and outside the global North in general. This collection of essays and interviews written over the span of the first three editions of the KMB is a unique record documenting the laborious birth, growing pains, and rise to international fame of a new organization, now widely acknowledged as one of the most significant emergent biennials in the world.
D’Souza and Manghani strike a balance between the analysis of the local aspects of the biennial, specific to the context of the port of Kochi and its region of Kerala, as well as more universal ones, such as striving for decentralization and modernization and responding to the new demands of our times (attendance figures, corporate responsibility, etc.). They consider how the older modernist project of creating an international art event to generate symbolic capital for the locality has been absorbed and adapted by late capitalism under the aegis of branding and marketing, without romanticizing the role that art can play as a form of resistance. More important, they manage to seamlessly interweave the narrative of the exhibition logistics with its artistic content, often focusing on particular artworks in the show to develop their arguments.
The book content is arranged in three parts. First, key debates surrounding the creation of a new biennale in Kochi are defined, providing political and historical context for further deliberations. The contents range from a sober overview of the Indian artscape devised by the cultural historian Dhritabrata Bhattacharjya Tato to a more essayistic contribution by Ryan Bishop, which interprets the second edition of the KMB through the lens of subjective ontologies. Part 2 examines the particularities of the artist-centered and artist-driven environment of KMB, with exhibitions curated by local artists and the impetus to produce ambitious, site-specific work. The latter, in connection with the unlimited enthusiasm and dedication of the biennial team, including hundreds of volunteers, is believed by some to be the key to success of the young Indian biennale. This part is marked by formally diverse personal accounts of the production process, including Hattie Bowering’s documentary stills, conversation with the curator Jitish Kallat, and D’Souza’s...