Monday, January 9, 2017

The Cultural Problem that Kochi Muziris Biennale is

Kochi Muziris Biennale is one of the art spectacles in the world that has helped people in redefining their views on art. For those who thought art was just painting and sculpture, the KMB came as a rude but surprising shock and going by the reports so far one understands that people from various walks of life flock in to see these exhibits not because they are so enamoured by their power to 'move' but because they 'understand' that art could happen in such extreme conditions created by the extreme situations in the world but at the same time they could keep their emotions and responses under check for the sake of keeping sanity while insulating themselves with a sense of euphoria, ephemerality and a 'this-too-shall pass' kind of detachment. Analysing the general viewers' profiles, the comments that they leave in the social media page of the KMB and the carefully chosen photographs of the viewers that the organisers prefer to post there reveal how a compromising and conforming sort of viewership is developed by the KMB exactly the way the totalitarian regimes use political, aesthetical and religious propaganda in order to develop conformity, compromise and agreement.

There are three kinds of viewers that the KMB management wants to project using their propaganda machines. 1. The students and teachers, 2. Families, friends and social groups including relatives, 
3. Politicians, celebrities and influential people. What becomes so disturbingly relevant here is the absence of those viewers who are faced with existential questions or are bewildered by questions that definitely have answers but are not able to grapple with them for the time being. The removal of existential viewers could be understood from two different angles: one, they are not important in the scheme of the KMB's image projection and basic philosophy. Two, the existential viewers are no longer interested in the spectacular art exhibits created by the KMB participants.

Let's go back to the first three categories of pictures. Anybody who has gone through the basic propositions made by the French theoretician Louis Althusser, understands how ideological state apparatuses work in the society. Ideological state apparatuses or ISAs are those wings and concepts of the state for creating and maintaining non-rebellious citizens. These machines include home, schools, hospitals, police, jail, bureaucracy and so on. Now look at the photographs on the KMB page: they are of families, schools, bureaucracy and celebrity establishments. A Biennale that claims radicalisation, refamiliarisation and restructuring of art here is seen pathetically imitating the ideological state apparatuses by projecting school children, families, celebrities and bureaucrats as its main consumers. It underlines two things; the KMB, despite its all claims is a conformist and non-rebellious apparatus, blunting the edges of the otherwise rebellious viewers like school children. The school children (as they are brought by the teachers from schools) are in their uniforms and at times so tellingly in their scout uniforms. They are made to walk in files like rebellious but controlled people in front of the ATMs and beverage corporation outlets. They are mostly controlled by the nuns who apparently in their habits tell the others about their religion, purity, discipline and so on. 

The other set of photographs and videos are by the politicians and bureaucrats of which a majority think about the Biennale as a part of the State's tourism promotion policy (rightfully so) directly convey the idea of the state's looming presence in the functioning of the Biennale. In the three editions so far the KMB management has not even once expressed its views on the various anti-human and anti-ecological activities happening in the state and challenged it with some cutting edge questions. Instead what the Biennale does is the maintenance of criminal silence on things. With such complicity the KMB still highlights it as the biggest radical platform for art in South East Asia and the majority in the art establishment believing in it is the biggest irony that can ever happen in the cultural history of India. The secularists in this country vocalise against the appointment of 'Hindu' scholars at the helm of affairs in various cultural departments conveniently forgetting that the Biennale does the same by holding hands with the left and right governments without ever feeling the prick of conscience or ever sensing the irony at all.

As a part of the shocking appropriations that the KMB has been doing in order to project it as the radical platform, Banta Singh of Punjab is being brought to Kochi to sing his anti-establishmentarian ballads. Most of the people in India may not know who Banta Singh is though a touching biography has been written by Nirupama Dutt. Singh' s daughter was raped in a field. He went to court against the rapists who were from the upperclass and caste. They retaliated by chopping off his legs and hands. Now just a torso Singh sings on radical left and leftists platforms. The KMB brings him to Kochi not as a part of its radical vision but as an entertainment with a difference! It can't be otherwise, for the KMB remains aloof from all the social-political issues of the country while carefully extracting and exploiting the cultural outcomes of such atrocities happening elsewhere. An unsuspecting Banta Singh would sing for the KMB but it would be as pathetic as a talented folk singer rendering his most beautiful songs for an elite audience having dinner and have nothing to do with the content of the song. There is nothing wrong in Singh singing in Kochi but for the KMB it is yet another tourist attraction.

The curator Sudarshan Shetty talks about inclusivity of the KMB. Inclusion and inclusivity are notions that developed against exclusions and exclusivity. There is an etymological confusion that overpowers theses notion: inclusion is an action that operates against all conscious exclusions while inclusivity is a forced state and exclusivity is a choice. Various subaltern forms are included in the KMB platform as act of 'perceived' rebellion. It is against the exclusions by the mainstream. But by doing this the KMB becomes an 'exclusive' platform that does inclusions. In fact inclusion in today's context is a euphemism for appropriation. At the same time being excluded and funding an articulation from exclusion is a political stance. However Shetty seems to be clueless about this. He brings in bands, folk performances and what not to the KMB platform in the name of inclusion but what he destroys is the exclusive and very special nature of those performances. Bringing folk performances to the centre stage of an art Biennale is never an inclusive act because it does not support the 'contemporary' aspect of Biennale but remains a traditional form with its exclusive characteristics. The forced inclusions look like a tourism calendar where Kerala is identified with a Kathakali head and a white woman getting an Ayurvedic back massage.

Let me conclude this essay by mentioning a bit about the museumification or museumisation of objects/events/performances/ideas and so on. An object in a museum is called a dead object. One does not necessarily read dead as physically dead but could see it as notionally dead like brain dead or locked up or paralysed. An object when removed from its location and function and kept in a place for particular contemplation turns it into either a godhead or an artefact. The former is called reification and the latter is called museumisation. But are interrelated. However, in both the cases the objects/events/performances are removed from their original locations and dysfunctional-ised. That means removing an object from location and function gives it some kind of art value when placed in a museum. The KMB is an itinerant museum where folk forms are brought in for performance/ display. That means they are dysfunctional-ised. Reducing some live art form into a mere spectacle may sound good when one believes completely in inclusion and inclusivity but by doing so one deprives them of their exclusivity and autonomy; that's what malls do to retailers by getting the glossy ones into the premises of malls and choking small business into death. Perhaps it also means that the centre fails to hold; the KMB's modernity and contemporaneity cannot stand on its own without the protective cover of tradition and difference.

(Image Courtesy: All images taken from Kochi Muziris biennale Facebook Page)

1 comment:

benoy pj said...

Sometimes, like in Eliot, the projection of the white man as central earns the respectability, but a Chinua Achebe knows well enough that earth is a globe where Europe is just another peninsula as any and that there is nothing but molten lava in the center. as for Althusser's brand of Marxism, it was just another trip in methodolosy that tried to evict the young hegelian marx and place the marx he found out (without inputs from Hegel, Owen, Saint Simon, Marx's Judaism, abd so on) as central. the murdr by his own hand of his wife, to me seems to be an epitome of this kind o claustrophobic evictionary thought.