The Biennale as Crucible

There are always murky pools and pitfalls to navigate as an artist-curator, especially for a biennale as large and pivotal as South Asia’s Kochi-Muziris Biennale. Often though, the resolutions that presented themselves during a year of travel and ongoing curatorial research rarely conflicted with the substructure of my artistic research, often aligning in surprising ways, and despite my strong inclination to demarcate my personal practice from my curatorial work. For instance, underpinning my work as an artist and writer is the conviction that it is not paramount to be effectual in one’s time. This acceptance of pace of change, but more importantly recognising the distraction of quantifying effectiveness, has allowed me to spend a decade at a time on single projects. In my current position as artistic director of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2021 however, it is possible that for the first time, the work can be effectual, or at the very least, provide the critical crucible for showcasing effective work. In postponing the biennale because of the global pandemic, it becomes necessary to ask again – what is the role of an event such as this? How can an artist as curator inform differently the decisions and processes involved at every level of work in rebuilding the biennale?

It makes more sense here to write about a continuing preoccupation – that constructing the curatorial structure of the biennale has also meant grappling with the problem of region. As the first KMB curator not based in India, and as a Singaporean, this is an opportunity for me to spotlight the vivid practices and discourses in Southeast Asia, while also being troubled by facile geographical categorisation. The main reason, for me, will always be the dangers of the appeal to authority, or the claim to speak on behalf of a region from a position of knowledge that, as a curator, is sometimes expected. Classifications such as “South Asia” or “Southeast Asia” are challenging to resolve. They appear to bring together states that diverge quite radically, but also given the complex geo-politics, histories, and cultures with porous ‘boundaries’ here, “South Asia” would present them as a supposedly unified region. For me, these terms are especially troubling because they assume that we must read this rich tapestry, this multiplicity, primarily as state or region first. This is evident in the way interaction between cultures or communities is invariably framed as transnational or inter-statist, where national identity becomes the signifier of all parties in the conversation. All the same I recognise the significance of critical cultural production in postcolonial states particularly having to grapple with what constitutes statehood, nation-building, and regional allyship. It isn’t simply about the ‘balance of power’ – itself a hierarchical phrase that negates other systems of power within communities and collectives – but about recognising that the rhetoric that privileges certain groups over others is already being reframed or undone.

A visible example of intersecting frameworks between regions would be how artists navigate the collisions of borders, communities, languages, media, and so on when negotiating the generational trauma inherent in post-colonial states. These approaches may be similar or divergent, but what is notable is that they are still very current, especially when thinking about the way much of the global South continues to cater to the North in terms of resources, but also in the neo-colonising of our countries as ideologically circumscribed battlegrounds. Added to this is the pervasive habit of considering state and inviolate borders as a starting point. This repudiates the reality of the multiple ways in which languages and ideas diffuse across lines, and the way the digital spread resists borders. 

This reality is perhaps best appreciated in artistic practices that directly excavate and implicate the monetisation of everything – environmental concerns, activism, crisis, knowledge production, transmission and access, global capital flows and inequities. Vital in these practices is the rejection of a monolithic narrative, choosing instead an espousal of submerged and manifold stories, and through whose agencies they diverge. Of special note are artistic practices that examine language hegemonies, historical record, suppressed or vanishing languages and indigenous living. With spectacular materiality and tactility, these works embody critical reinventions of craft traditions and performative gestures. The critical reinventions are twofold – firstly, there is a negotiation with traditional medium, tactility, texture, technique and craft. Secondly, there is a strong understanding of generational heritage as disruptor of convention and capricious global market forces, as witnessed in the effectiveness of collectives in decolonising and recording previously unheard histories.

Curating with a global South focus leads naturally to an emphasis on community work and solidarities, but also parsing the problems inherent in such all-encompassing terms. ‘Localness’ has its essentialist problems as much as widespread ideas of what comprise dominant discourses and practices of region. Mapping divergent methods and approaches are aspects that speak more of localness to me, when talking about geopolitical borders, for instance. So while certain South Asian practices tend to focus on land, analogous Southeast Asian practices that address similar geopolitical concerns look to the sea. But more than mere territorial site, these geographies are method, metaphor, material and medium to examine concerns as diverse as problems of ownership, rights, displacement, and exile; landscape and ecologies, human and interspecies interactions, natural cycles and human impact; post-industrial devastation; and possible regenerative propositions.

A lot of this thinking has been present in my work as an artist, though perhaps more axiomatically than overtly. Again, this comes back to the substantial onus involved in curating as an artist – to instinctively ring-fence (and subdue) personal aesthetic inclinations when encountering different artistic practices, and to look beyond the obviously engaging, to the sensitivity of approach, to the fidelity of the work to its initiating ideas and contexts. How to ‘transplant’ the works into the heritage-rich and redolent sites in Kochi, without flattening or erasing contexts, and how to resist degenerative spectacle in favour of work that continues to travel in the minds of its viewers, no matter their contexts. To think of the biennale as commons was an easier way to begin; now, almost two years and a pandemic and a postponement later, it seems that it remains a vital counterpoint to rigid regionalities, and a bulwark against blinkered insularity.

Published in February 2021.

About the Writer

Photo credit @ Samir Sahay

Artist and writer Shubigi Rao’s interests include libraries, archival systems, histories and lies, literature and violence, ecologies, and natural history. Her art, texts, films, and photographs look at current and historical flashpoints as perspectival shifts to examining contemporary crises of displacement, whether of people, languages, cultures, or knowledge bodies.

Her current decade-long project, Pulp: A Short Biography of the Banished Book is about the history of book destruction and the future of knowledge. The first Pulp volume was shortlisted in 2018, and the second volume won in 2020 the Singapore Literature Prize (creative non-fiction). The first portion of the project, Written in the Margins won the APB Signature Prize 2018 Juror’s Choice Award. Rao has also been featured in March Meets 2019, 4th Kochi-Muziris Biennale (2018), 10th Taipei Biennial, (2016); 3rd Pune Biennale (2017), Digital Arts Festival, Copenhagen, Denmark (2013); and 2nd Singapore Biennale (2008). She is currently the Artistic Director for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2021.