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Nov 30 2018

Speaking of Conversations: Q&A with Anita Dube

by HG Masters

Portrait of ANITA DUBE. Courtesy Kochi Biennale Foundation.

At the end of a busy four months across the Asia-Pacific for major bi- and triennials—from Thailand and across East Asia to Australia—the fourth Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB) opens on December 12 in the southern Indian state of Kerala. As in past editions, KMB 2018 takes place in several colonial-era structures once used for trade along the water in scenic Kochi. New Delhi-based artist Anita Dube is the curator of the latest edition. In ArtAsiaPacific Issue 111 (Nov/Dec), we published an extensive feature by Jyoti Dhar detailing Dube’s career as a curator, critic and artist. Earlier in the year, Dube and I had met during Art Basel to discuss her inspiration, her plans for KMB 2018, and how she is looking to build relationships between KMB’s audience and the works on view. 

How are you structuring your edition of KMB?  

The whole mega-exhibition thing is not how I see the future. The future of things is small, intense, rhizomatic exhibitions in conversation and involving local communities. But at the moment, I’m doing this Biennale, so I thought of it in two parts: one is the exhibition itself, and the other one is something called the Pavilion, which we are designing. It’s an architectural space in which all kinds of activities can happen: performances, informal conversations—just the way we are talking now—as part of the Biennale itself. It’s a very horizontal design; it works with the trees, with light and air flowing through it as a metaphor for conversations, and for actually inviting locals into the Biennale. So it’s not just about them buying tickets and walking through the exhibition, which is a top-down attitude. What we want to do is to invite people to contribute something, anything: a song, a poem that they love, and many of those things, surprisingly, are on the internet. I am happy for this space to be very populist in that sense. 

This sounds like an attempt to connect with a wider audience, and to change the way audiences relate to biennales, whether in India or elsewhere. 

If people participate in something—and participation could be anything small—when you physically do something, it comes closer to you. That’s the first step in actually also bringing people closer to culture. Although the Kochi Biennale has taken the first baby-steps, in India for the first time, people are aspiring to come closer to culture. They are making queues and standing in long lines for it. Before this day, they only did that to go to temples or churches. They never did it before for an exhibition. 

It’s now the fourth edition of the Biennale, and we have to extend it. How does the public really begin to own something like the Biennale, so that they say that this is our biennale? The way the people of Milan, for instance, might see the football club AC Milan as their team. I would like for people to get more embedded and participate. All of those kinds of things which are supposed to be outside high culture, that’s fine for me as a starting point to allow people to be more and more curious towards other points.

Archival image of students viewing MADHUSUDHANAN’s Logic of Disappearance, 2014, charcoal on paper, each 66 × 66 cm, at the Aspinwall House, Kochi Biennale, 2014. Courtesy Kochi Biennale Foundation.

How will the Pavilion work in terms of its structure? Will you program events? 

We’ll do events, performances and screenings, but it will also be more open than that. Let’s imagine an internet station and there’s a person who is manning it. You can just go up to him and say, I’m thinking of a [Luis] Buñuel film, so we go online and bingo! there’s the film and then everyone gathers around and watches that. And then someone else is inspired to think of something else. It’s all going to be visible to everybody.

What’s happened is that we are all doing the same activities through social media, but we are doing it alone, not face-to-face. There’s no possibility for opposed conversation, except on virtual worlds. But here, in the Pavilion, there will be an open mic, and blackboards where you can write. I really want to agitate the mind more, and to provoke people to talk to each other. 

One of my preliminary ideas for the Biennale was to explore possibilities for a non-alienated life, and I can’t move beyond it. I see it as a problem we are all facing. We may be talking about politics, we may be talking about anything, in fact, but we are all so fragmented that no action can happen. I’m fine with social media as long as it can connect people in real spaces. So we have to try to reconnect people around poetry, music, film clips—even local problems. 

View of the sea-facing facade of the Aspinwall House. Photo by HG Masters for ArtAsiaPacific.

What are you thinking about in terms of the main exhibition components? 

One thing I’ve been thinking about in the last decade has been a curious connection in the word “agriculture” between “agri” and “culture.” A few of the projects will follow this thread.

I’ve said in many interviews that I’m looking at the margins. For example, in India, I’m looking at all the artists who have not been picked for the earlier three biennales—the “leftovers.” I’m very happy because as an artist, for the longest time in my career, I’ve worked with materials that were the debris of the social order, so to speak. In Hindi, there is a saying that you find the gems in the things that have been discarded. I’m so excited that there’s some wonderful work that I’m surprised people have not looked at. It gives me enormous satisfaction and pleasure to find those things that people are not looking at. It’s important because in our context it wasn’t done in the previous biennales, especially in terms of the political margins, like the queer community, and lower classes and castes. 

Also symbolically, if there are 80 artists, I’m trying to make it 41 women and 39 men—just to reverse the fact that it’s always been the other way around. 

How have you done the research and found artists for KMB?

I traveled a bit in Europe, but more in the Global South—in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam. A bit in the Middle East, but then when you get one country’s visa it can be hard to travel to others! Then I traveled in Africa, and Cuba and Mexico, and I’m relying on people who are already in Brazil and Argentina to help me research some artists and collectives from that region. 

In India, I’m not discovering artists from the dalit or marginal tribal communities. I don’t want just to be tokenistic—that’s not the idea. I’m not keeping that hierarchy of higher and lower art. Our reality is like that. We don’t have that kind of minimal, post-minimal, post-structuralist art. In India, these categories don’t make sense, because we’re living in all these situations, simultaneously. I’m not so drawn towards minimal kinds of things. I’m drawn to places where pleasure and pedagogy can be together, where you have to be irreverent. Culture is not god, and I don’t want to make it god. I just want to dismantle it, fight and argue with it—just the way we speak to friends. So it has to be that kind of a relationship with culture. 

View of the exterior of the Pepper House. Courtesy Kochi Biennale Foundation.

How have you developed your thinking about this idea of societal alienation over the course of planning for KMB

My audience is not the one percent who go to Art Basel or Documenta. Six-hundred-and-fifty thousand people came [to KMB] last time. So who are these people? They are the main audience and I don’t want them to say, “This is not for us,” and then never come back again. I want them to be drawn in. I don’t want them to be totally alienated with the language. It’s all about language. This is something that I’m aware of and trying to address. There will be things that trigger people’s curiosity and attention. I don’t want people to be repelled or bored.

Do you feel like you have a different approach to curating because you have this artistic practice? Or can you distinguish these roles for yourself?

When you’re an artist, you understand the process of other artists better. But I also never trained in an art academy to make art. That frees you in a great way, but it has its own limitations. So similarly, curating as an artist, because I haven’t studied the discipline, frees me up in a way and has limitations too. I try to select artists whose works resonate with my ideas, my sensibility. 

People have asked me if the Biennale is going to be very political. I say: it’s going to be exactly like life. We’re not only political people, or we’re not only sexual beings, or we’re not only beings who live within a certain geography. And if we are limited by physical space, then our mind flies, our mind travels. So I’m asking, how can I reflect the human experience, or our bodies’ experience? What is the relationship between our bodies’ experience, not just fixed in a moment but to a longer timeframe? So the Biennale has its dark moments, and it has sensuality. For the biennale structure, it has to have a fairground mentality, and be festive. As I said: pedagogy and pleasure—how do you mix the two?

HG Masters is ArtAsiaPacific’s editor-at-large.

This interview was edited for length and clarity. 

The Kochi-Muziris Biennale is on view from December 12, 2018 until March 29, 2019.

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