Interview with Jitish Kallat, Artist and Curator of the Kochi Biennale

Asian Contemporary Art Week (ACAW)
Oct 21, 2014 3:07PM

Interview with Jitish Kallat, Artist and Curator of the Kochi Biennale


This interview first appeared in the Biennale Leaf, Volume 2, Issue 1, published from Kochi is October. Courtesy of Kochi Biennale Foundation.


Can you very briefly reflect on the figure of the curator in the contemporary art world?


Jitish: In the last two decades the figure of the curator has emerged as a key mediator between artist, exhibition site and audience. Like art-history, curatorial practice has evolved its own form of narration and a supple vocabulary through the tools of exhibition-making; if art-history focuses on art that has already happened, curating attends to art as it happens.


What role do you see biennials as having in India, as opposed to art spaces like galleries and museums?


Jitish: Galleries and museums are structured institutions. Biennales offer flexibility and celebrate the inconclusive. If I may describe these structured institutions as sessions of a seminar, biennales are the coffee break where one can experience flashes of insight.


You are known primarily as an artist. How are you going about this shift in role, to becoming curator?


Jitish: The main shift from making art to curating was perhaps the shift in ambience from the solitary reflections in one’s studio, to a space of dialogue with numerous artist colleagues. From the start I felt that the biennale must produce themes rather than reproduce a pre-meditated curatorial theme, where exhibition-making echoes the very creative properties of art-making. My letters to artists were not a thematic curatorial note but a sharing of intuitions in the form of ideas and imagery. These have become the co-ordinates of a project, which is non-linear and layered.


Tell us a bit about your curatorial journey, the research and selection process. How do you arrive at the artists and works to be featured in the Biennale?


Jitish: Two chronologically overlapping, but perhaps directly unrelated historical episodes in Kerala became my points of departure. The 14th to 17th Centuries was a time when the Kerala School of Astronomy and Mathematics was making some transformative propositions for locating human existence within the wider cosmos. It was also the moment when the shores of Kochi were closely linked to the maritime chapter of the ‘Age of Discovery’. The maps changed rapidly in the 1500s with the arrival of navigators at the Malabar coast, seeking spices and riches… And within the revised geography were sharp turns in history; heralding an age of conquest, coercive trading and colonialism, animating the early processes of globalization.


A reflection of this navigational history, as well as a shift of one’s gaze deliberating on the mysterious expedition of our planet Earth hurtling through space at over a dizzying 100000 kilometers per hour, where none of us experience this velocity or comprehend its direction, were two prompts made in my letter to artists. The seemingly unrelated directions of these suggestions were intentional; one was a gaze directed in time, the other in space.


I began with a small, core group of artists whose work for me became the nucleus of the project. Thereafter the process of inviting artists has been primarily one of responding to the biology of the project which is a shifting field and every invitation greatly alters this constellation of signs. It entailed six months of incessant travel and dialogue with artists and scholars in various places around the world. The biennale is a snapshot of a journey in a sea of possibilities.


Would the historical and the cosmological be the focus of the exhibition?


Jitish: The historical and the cosmological are pointers to draw in a range of ideas and images with which we might grip the present. While pointing to the river the finger is a mere device; we look at the flow of the river and not the finger.


What are your curatorial intentions and ideas for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2014?


Jitish: The intent is to place a divergent set of ideas, a series of sensory and conceptual propositions, as a prod to the imagination. The historical and the inter-galactic are to be viewed metaphorically within the exhibition; an analogy could be drawn to gestures we make, when we try to understand something. We might either go close to it or move away from it in space, to see it clearly. We may also reflect back or forth in time to understand the present. The exhibition draws upon this act of deliberation to bring together art-works that picture versions of the world referencing history, geography, astronomy, time, myth… interlacing the terrestrial with the celestial.



Kochi is not one of those cities that have been prominent in India's art scene like Bombay or Delhi. As curator of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, how do you think about this fact? What are the limits and possibilities of Kochi from this perspective?


Jitish: As a site Kochi’s rich history offers a unique orientation and a glossary of signs to address the present. Unlike so many other places, a lot of the local audiences are citizens engaged in cultural, social and political processes which more than compensates for their lack of exposure to contemporary art. At one level I’d say that the unfamiliarity to contemporary art could help draw a differently rich experience of art as one’s view is free of preconceptions.



Almost three-quarters of the artworks at the first Biennale was site-specific. How will it be this time around?


Jitish: I might say that this edition of the biennale is conceived as an observation deck hoisted in Kochi. The ideas are catalyzed by this historic site and hence it is ‘site-responsive’, but I would not use the word ‘site-specific’. Kochi in this instance is the viewing device and not the vista.




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