All’s not well at Kochi Biennale: Artists flag concerns in open letter, organisers apologise

Visitors at the fifth edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale | Photo: Manorama

Kochi: Over 50 artists participating in the ongoing fifth edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale have come out flagging the organisational failures that have cast a shadow over Kerala’s mega art show, prompting apology from Bose Krishnamachari, the chief organiser of the event.

As many as 53 artists from different parts of the world expressed their concerns over the way the event is being held this time in an open letter. In the letter, the signed artists have questioned the Kochi Biennale Foundation’s decision to postpone the opening of the event at the last minute.

“As artists arrived for installation in the weeks and days prior to the opening, we were overwhelmed by many problems: shipments delayed in transit and at customs past the opening day, rain leaking into all the exhibition spaces impacting equipment and artworks, lack of steady electrical power, shortage of equipment and an insufficient workforce on all production teams.

Visitors at the fifth edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale | Photo: Special Arrangement

Artists were drawn into daily struggles with the Biennale management, whose organisational shortcomings and lack of transparency while facing them, had made a timely and graceful opening impossible long before it was postponed. The considerable challenges that participating artists would encounter upon arrival were never communicated, so none of us could make an informed decision as to whether to travel to Kochi or indeed to participate under the circumstances. While artists produced projects in good faith, our commitment to the Biennale was not reciprocated, and responsibility for the many problems that surrounded it, evaded,” the letter reads.

The letter states that the decision to postpone the opening of the event to December 23 was taken only on December 11, a day before the scheduled inauguration of the event. “We believe the Biennale Foundation should have made the decision to postpone weeks earlier when many of the failures were already apparent,” the artists write.

The letter lists out “shockingly poor communication”, “opaque financial planning and last-minute fundraising”, “absence of capable people at the appropriate time, “imaginary of an ideal Biennale” and “collective stress” as the reasons for the organisational fallouts of the ongoing event.

“Despite this edition taking place two years later than originally planned, funding, contracts and financial planning has been chaotic. At the same time forty new commissions were announced. The scale and ambition of the Biennale should be attuned to its financial situation. Institutional optimism that “it will all work out” is not a viable strategy for producing such an ambitious event, and artists and production staff should not bear an unreasonable burden for it,” the letter states.

The artists, in their letter, made it clear that they “reject the notion that was put to us that the ongoing dysfunction is a consequence of the special regional conditions here, from unionised labour to weather systems.” “We reject the notion that chaos is inevitable with artist-led endeavours,” they write.

Curator Shubigi Rao speaking to media personnels | Photo: Special Arrangement

Suggesting the Biennale Foundation to focus on what is realistically possible in Kochi, rather than always fighting its context, the letter called “for a complete reform of the Biennale’s conduct, and of the current team in charge.”

The artists said on December 13, 2022, a group of 40 artists present in Kochi met with trustees, advisors and management of the Biennale Foundation and expressed their significant concerns for the ways things had unfolded and subsequently been handled. “We emphasised the need to urgently overhaul the management as well as the approach and intention of the Biennale Foundation, for the sake of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale’s survival. We have appealed to the Board to conduct a thorough review of the current Biennale with respect to the many issues raised. We will await their analysis and response,” the letter reads.

The artists have offered solidarity with this edition’s curator, Shubigi Rao and all of the production workers, volunteers, electricians, carpenters, fabricators, and craftspeople.

Bose’s reply
Soon after the open letter was out, Kochi Biennale Foundation president Bose Krishnamachari issued a statement, admitting the failures pointed out by the participating artists.

Thanking the artists for pointing out lapses and offering constructive criticism, Krishnamachari stated,

“As regarding serious shortfalls pointed out by you, we take full accountability and responsibility for operational failures, lack of interpersonal communications leaving behind an avoidable sense of neglect. As an artist-led and run biennale, we realize that we have disappointed the very core of our perspectives and ambition - the artists - and we outright acknowledge the fair criticism, positions and feedback offered by the artists, stakeholders, supporters and our own teams.”

On the criticism of the last-minute postponement, he said: “There is also the single most important issue of last minute postponement, which caused a great deal of misery to artists and stakeholders. Ever since the sites were made available just days before the show, the thought of postponement was under active consideration. Reviews brought out that the rate of progress of production work was similar to those of previous editions. Untimely cyclonic rains did interfere, but in the end it was a grievous error of judgment.”

“As an organization with a ten-year legacy, many of these issues should not have happened. Unfortunately poor finances, attrition of manpower, pandemic, uncertainties regarding sites, all affected us gravely. The Board of Trustees has decided to take a hard look at these issues during the first quarter of 2023, and plan to bring forth necessary institutional reforms with expert feedback and plans, so that these issues don’t repeat. Your statement is a valuable input in that process. The results of the review would also be put in the public domain with resolutions mentioned,” he said, on behalf of the Managing Committee of the Board of Trustees.

15,000 people reach Biennale venue
After five days of the Kochi Muziris Biennale, around 15,000 people visited the main venues of the Biennale, the organisers said in a statement. As many as 1,400 people turned up at Aspinwall House on the first day when the main venues opened to the public. From 23rd to 27th direct ticket sales crossed 10,000 while the remaining tickets were sold through online.

Finland Ambassador Ritva Koku Ronde along with her family came to see the Biennale. Eminent personalities like Kerala High Court Judge Justice P B Suresh Kumar, Hindi film star Richa Chadha, former city police commissioner C H Nagaraju along with his wife, South zone IG Harshita Atalluri came to see the biennale. Entry to the Biennale is from 10 am to 7 pm, daily. The ticket price is Rs 150. Students and senior citizens are eligible for concession. The charges will be Rs 50 and Rs 100 per person, respectively. The ticket price for a week is Rs1000 and for a month Rs 4,000.

Other than the counter at Aspinwall House, tickets can also be purchased through the Book My Show App. The link is: . Entry to the 'Idam' venue at Durbar Hall Art Gallery is free.

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