ASPINWALL HOUSE IN Fort Kochi is the epicentre and largest exhibition space of the Kochi Muziris Art Biennale. We have attended this event four times to date – 2014, 2016, 2018, and 2022. Outside the main entrance to Aspinwall House, there is a list of those companies, organisations, and individuals, who have donated money to the Biennale. The current (2022/23) list has the following heading “Principle supporters”. Is this wording an undetected typographical error, or is it intentional, or is it a Freudian slip? I ask this question because the sentiments expressed in many of the exhibits question the consequences of the activities of some of the donors.
Far too many of the exhibits in Aspinwall House are more like well-made documentaries than what has until recently been regarded as art. The documentary exhibits are mostly well put together with superb still photography and cinematography, and quite a few of them are highly informative – akin to, for example, National Geographic productions.
The majority of the documentary-like exhibits have elements of political protest, often leftward leaning. Now, I have no objection to political protest in art, but I wonder whether some of these exhibits have strayed too far from what used to be considered art, and have become more documentary than artistic. In the past, to mention but a few, artists such as Picasso, George Grosz, Otto Dix, Joan Miró, Subhi Tagore, Diego Riviera, and currently William Kentridge, have made artworks with political content. These artists and some of their contemporaries produced artworks which are not purely political or polemic, but can also be enjoyed as purely visual experiences; knowing the message is not important to the impact the works make on the viewer, but can add to that. Much of what is on display at Aspinwall House during the current Biennale simply thrusts political messages at the viewer. There is little else to appreciate but often depressing messages and images.
As for the abundance of photography it is mostly superb. Since the invention of photography, it has been used highly creatively by some photographers. Examples of these include Julia Margaret Cameron, Charles Dodgson, László Moholy-Nagy, Ansel Adams, and Alfred Stieglitz. Artists like these were competent photographers who exploited the camera to create original images that would have been difficult if not impossible to produce with other artistic materials. In contrast, many of the beautiful photographic works in the current Biennale seem to be aiming at documentary or archival accuracy rather than creative images – works of ‘pure’ art.
Having blasted at what I did not like about the Biennale, I must point out that there are many artworks that satisfied me purely visually. Some of them are in Aspinwall House, but many of them are elsewhere, notably in the Durbar Hall in Ernakulam. The works that impacted me positively because of their purely aesthetic 7characteristics might also be conveying political sentiments, but the nature of these did not impede my immediate, visceral rather than cerebral enjoyment of them.
Returning to the predominantly documentary exhibits, those that made most impact on me were housed in the TKM warehouse complex in Mattancherry. Some of the works there are not only political or polemical, but also highly creative and artistic (in the old sense of the word).
As for the odd use of “principle” on the list of donors mentioned above, I found this not only careless but ironic. Many of the artworks in the current Biennale question the principles of some of the donors, who funded the show.
Having read this, you can call me ‘old-fashioned’ or ‘politically incorrect ‘ if that makes you feel better. I might well be both, but I was brought up by my artistic parents to appreciate the works of both old masters and contemporary artists equally, be they works by Piero della Francesca or JMW Turner or Brancusi or Barbara Hepworth or Rachel Whitehead or Anish Kapoor.
Visit the Kochi Muziris Art Biennale if you can before it ends in early March 2023, and judge it for yourself. Almost all of the exhibits are housed in heritage buildings, which are alone worth seeing. I look forward to the next show in 2024/25.