‘Democratically Elected to be Autocratic!’

Interview with Sudarshan Shetty, curator of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2016.


The third edition of the Kochi Muziris Biennale was noted primarily for the deviation it took from the previous two editions that were focused on installations and paintings, by introducing performing arts and music into it. How was it that you came about such a thought?

The intention in fact was to not change anything. Kabir’s verse ‘Lagan bina jage na nirmohi’, loosely translated means that without intense devotion to something, you won’t be able to invoke the detached in yourself. Devotion and detachment are in the same line, as if they are no two different things, but they are seemingly opposite. So my thing was to capture something of the sorts and that is where from the idea introducing poetry and other traditional arts come from. And that in some way dictated my way of looking at things that are seemingly outside what was expected of the Biennale space.


You’ve been a part of the Biennale as a participating artist as well as the curator now. How different was the task?

Practically saying, its two different jobs. When I began, my effort was to get out of my practice. My first response was to come up with a curatorial theme and I had to be outside of my own practice style. That is why I started conversing with the people in arts who were seemingly ‘outside’ of the Biennale space’s expectation. But its coming to a full circle to where it all began, as I in my own work like looking at things that are outside of my own studio, to access thing from the past. So its been one hell of a ride.



There have been apprehensions about the non-voicing of the political in the Biennale, from the first edition till the latest.  As a curator, what is your take on it?

You know, there are various ways for representing politics and not just one way. It doesn’t have to be a headline. More often than not, thing that comes from certain need for someone to say something is more powerful than an open flag bearing. The idea to approach things in its multiple nature is in itself a political statement and a very powerful one.



But in terms of the politics of power, which has the utmost impact upon the people from all stratus, and which has been a focus of all the contemporary developments, has not been articulated.

Why should we articulate it? There are other spaces for articulating it all. It is like asking why you did this [Biennale] in a particular way and not some other way, or like asking you’d eat rice and not chappathi. All kinds of art are political, like a video installation by Wu Tien-Chan here that shows how nationalist kind of ideals and propogandas throw up a certain kind of image system. I think it’s kind of talking about our own situation, that how we are becoming more and more nationalistic as a nation. So what I’m saying is all these questions are addressed, but are interpreted in various ways. We cannot say that this is how you should look at it. That in itself allows various kinds of politics to play out within this same arena.



There were various minority communities or the marginalized communities that came to the Biennale venue and participated in it artistically but as a notion of protest for not representing them. How do you view it?

Biennale is not a space for representation. The curator is elected democratically and after that the democracy is stopped, and it is decided by one person. Then how do you make it democratic again is another question. It’s not about the artist, it is about the quality of the work. One can question that it is a one-man kind of decision, but I was democratically elected to be autocratic, so to say! Multiplicity and inclusion cannot be measured in these kind of ways in an event like this, it cannot be, because it is not about the people.



If you had curated the Biennale in a city other than Kochi, would it have been the same or different?

It would have been very different. Kochi is a special place and I don’t think anywhere else in the country it’d have been the same. Multiplicity is such a natural thing in the city. I thought that this Biennale should represent that and that their experience should be replicated in some way. There was this enormous positive participation from the people too, who engaged with the event which would not be seen anywhere else, for various reasons.



So you’d say that setting a model of the Venice Biennale sorts would is not required for the KMB?

All models that we operate within as contemporary artists is dictated by the West. The idea of gallery and museum comes from the West. So I think even if the model comes from there, we have the opportunity to challenge it, or bring in things from outside, where we come from. There is a need for us to bring these two worlds together, without negating the Western education. We all have been educated in the West, we have all been victims of colonialism. Whether we need to bring them together, to find the mediating points between these worlds, is one of the questions we are dealing with in the Biennale.


(Article that appeared in Times of India, Kerala on March 29, 2017)


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