The Kochi-Muziris Biennale, India’s largest and most important contemporary art showcase, is embroiled in controversy after more than half of this edition’s participants publicly alleged a breakdown in communication with management and a spread of other problems. Ahead of the show’s opening, one artist pulled out, and several artists told ARTnews that they were unable to realize their work before leaving the country.
Of the 90 artists showing in the exhibition this year, 53 signed a letter published by e-flux that spoke of behind-the-scenes chaos. “The scale and ambition of the Biennale should be attuned to its financial situation,” the artists wrote, saying that fees and production costs had not been paid to them. They also reported that there were persistent fundraising and labor issues at the biennial.
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The letter was only the latest controversy faced by the biennial, which is typically held every other year in the city of Kochi, in the state of Kerala.
Before the show’s opening in December, as the Art Newspaper and Hyperallergic have reported, the Kerala government reportedly pulled out of a deal to acquire Aspinwall House, the central exhibition site, from a private developer who usually leases the complex for the event. This inhibited Biennale staff from preparing the venue for installation. On top of this, there had been unexpectedly bad storms that slowed down the opening process.
Kochi Biennale Foundation president Bose Krishnamachari told the Hindu that only ₹3 crore of the ₹7 crore (or $850,000) in the Kerala State Budget for the KMB had been received by the foundation. He declined to comment for this article.
Despite funding and infrastructural issues, the foundation continued to announce the December 12 opening on social media, and artists flew to Kerala in early December to install their work. They arrived to find leaking roofs, materials and media players missing, and even unusable toilets at Aspinwall, according to the open letter.
“Institutional optimism that ‘it will all work out’ is not a viable strategy for producing such an ambitious event,” the artists wrote in their letter.
The foundation called an emergency meeting on December 11 to announce the two-week postponement. By that time, only 10 percent of the show had been installed, according to the artists’ letter.
“We believe the Biennale Foundation should have made the decision to postpone weeks earlier, when many of the failures were already apparent,” the artists wrote. “Well before thousands of art-lovers traveled for the opening days, and most artists themselves had to return and could not stay on to see their own work installed or engage with the work of fellow artists and visitors.”
The biennial did not respond to a request for comment on a list of inquiries sent by ARTnews.
A Lack of Transparency
The Kochi-Muziris Biennale has in past editions weathered other scandals. In 2019, workers on the 2018 edition said the biennial hadn’t paid them for their labor. During that last edition, Biennale cofounder Riyas Komu stepped down as the foundation’s secretary after allegations of sexual harassment. And in 2011, before the first edition even opened, the Kerala government was asked to investigate the biennial’s financial management.
Delhi-based artist Asim Waqif said that he knew about the precarious legacy of the biennial, with past participants warning him about unpaid production costs and installation delays. Still, Waqif told ARTnews, “I had dreamed for years to be part of the biennale.”
After artist Shubigi Rao, the curator of the 2022 edition, extended an invite, Waqif discovered he had to curtail his ambition for this dream opportunity. Waqif had planned to sustainably harvest the bamboo for his large outdoor sculpture. Since the Biennale would not advance money or provide a budget for him to oversee this part of the project, Waqif said he conceded the harvest to the foundation’s management. Only one-third of the material was available when he arrived in late November to install.
Training local flooring workers to help him create the immersive structure, Waqif was able to finish his project for the original opening date. While his work was completed on time, he still considers the lack of transparency by the foundation frustrating. “Biennales should give artists opportunities to expand artist production beyond studios and galleries,” he said. “Artists had to limit the scope of their projects to deal with the inadequacies of the foundation.”
London-based artist Pio Abad, with his wife, jewelry designer Frances Wadsworth Jones, also said they scaled down their work after receiving little assistance to carry out their initial plan. Instead of creating a three-meter-long facsimile of a necklace belonging to Imelda Marcos, the wife of the corrupt former Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos, Abad and Wadsworth Jones constructed a small 3D-printed copy of one of Marcos’s tiaras. “In the end it was the right work for the moment,” Abad told ARTnews. “But it’s always nice when you’re invited to work at a Biennale scale to produce something that matches that scale.”
Abad said that the biennial hadn’t made himself and other artists aware of what was taking place behind the scenes. “If there were challenges being faced,” he continued, “I think all the artists would’ve appreciated being told exactly what those challenges were and how we can navigate them, rather than trying to guess what’s working and what wasn’t.”
Most artists were unable to see their projects through before leaving India, with only 10 percent finished by the original opening on December 12, according to the open letter.
“I boarded the flight [to India] having no idea what I would find,” Berlin-based Philip Rizk recalled. He arrived on December 10 to discover the screens for his four-channel video on the ground and the electricity out at Aspinwall. Although members of the collective CAMP helped Rizk mount his work, the piece was still not fully installed by the time he left.
‘I Felt Like I Had Been Scammed’
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One project was never even realized because the artist behind it withdrew from the Biennale on the day she arrived, she said in an interview with ARTnews.
Landing in Kochi from Nairobi at 3 a.m. on December 11, Jackie Karuti had not been told where she would stay or who would pick her up. “When none of that had been confirmed when I arrived, I felt like I had been scammed,” she said.
What she did receive was an email from Bose Krishnamachari, the foundation’s president, announcing the postponement. With no per diem, no signed contract, and no idea of the state of her installation (she had not received any communication from the biennale since November 23, two weeks before her arrival), she decided not to stay. “The importance of the KMB and the challenging yet ambitious position required in organizing such an event is not for me to overstate at this moment,” she emphasized. “I would be downplaying the terrible organizational structure, lack of care and accountability, which is the issue here.”
Karuti, who is from Kenya, acknowledged that, as in her home country, India is a place where it is difficult to put on such an event. Still, she was frustrated in how the foundation did not take ownership over the delay, instead blaming the weather and infrastructure. Other basic administrative necessities they oversaw, like contracts, were never resolved.
“On a legal level, if anything should happen to my work or myself, they are not responsible,” she said. “I emailed them to please sign, and by the end, they never signed the contract.” Without a signed contract, she is also concerned about intellectual property. Since returning to Nairobi, Karuti has not heard if her artist and visa fees will be paid.
Karuti, Rizk, and many other participating artists have conceptual, often video-dominant practices; they depend on biennials to show their work. “Biennales and art events of this magnitude are crucial to independent artists who rarely get invited to exhibit in bigger institutions” Karuti explained. “It’s considerably challenging for those working conceptually with no one to advocate for them and it gets worse if you’re coming from a region where the artistic landscape is still nascent, further making the production and realisation of your work and ideas difficult.” The Biennale did not respond to a request for comment on Karuti’s withdrawal.
The Biennial Responds
In their open letter, the artists stood with the curator, who they wrote “has worked through challenges well beyond her purview.” Artists spoke of Rao working herself into the ground, overseeing shipping and managing the clean-up of waterlogged venues, even being hospitalized the week before the opening. (Rao did not respond to a request for comment for this article.)
Krishnamachari sent an apology letter to the artists shortly following the e-flux letter. He owned up to “poor finances, attrition of manpower, pandemic, and uncertainties regarding sites” as “serious shortfalls” on the part of the biennial, and admitted that the delay was “a grievous error of judgment.” He promised a review by the foundation’s board of trustees in the first quarter of 2023, with institutional changes to follow.
Regardless of what ends up happening, the artists involve believe that this Kochi-Muziris Biennale will provide an important case study for biennials staged in the coming years.
“I keep on thinking Kochi might be the first post-pandemic biennale, where we can’t take things for granted anymore,” Abad said. “You can’t take production lines for granted. You can’t take shipping schedules for granted. You can’t take manpower for granted in a way that we used to.”