Visitors to the 2022–23 Kochi-Muziris Biennale pose with wall text. Image credit: Shutterstock / Abie Davies
I was excited and nervous to attend the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2022–23 earlier this year. For me, the stakes of enjoyment and engagement were personal: not only was this my first ever time attending a biennale, but I’d be doing so in the South Indian state of Kerala. Though I grew up in Milwaukee, Brussels, Mumbai, and Bangalore, Kerala is my family’s native soil, and it calls to me like home. I was proud to learn that the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB), founded in 2011, is South Asia’s biggest international visual art event. But before I even set foot inside, my hope of enjoying the biennale was crushed.
The Kochi-Muziris Biennale takes place across a range of venues around Fort Kochi, many of them repurposed heritage properties. For a festival that showcases contemporary Indian and international art—and in doing so, in director Bose Krishnamachari’s words, “erases borders”—Kerala’s old trading port seems like an inspired setting: for more than six centuries, Kochi has been a crucible of cosmopolitanism, one of the few cities in India where pre-colonial traditions of cultural pluralism continue to flourish, away from the razor-sharp claws of Hindu Nationalism.
Visiting Kerala from New York, where I now live, I felt somewhere between an insider and an outsider. But the visitors at the biennale included Fort Kochi locals, tourists from across the globe, study groups from schools, colleges, and organizations, political leaders, dignitaries, celebrities, artists, curators, and museum officials. Surely, I thought, the biennale will find a way to make us all feel welcome.
To prepare for my trip, I read through the biennale’s website, finally arriving at the 2022–23 curatorial statement by Shubigi Rao. My optimism evaporated. The note’s unnecessarily complicated vocabulary and syntax was clearly not for everyone, even as it celebrated “that common wellspring of collective knowledge and ideas.” I had a bad feeling the statement was just the beginning of the confusion I would experience at the biennale—I knew I couldn’t be the only visitor who didn’t know what “concatenation” meant.
In their influential 2012 essay for Triple Canopy, critics Alix Rule and David Levine identified the writing style of art world press releases as “International Art English,” a “universally foreign language” adopted to distinguish elite and non-elite readers. More recently, critic Jackson Arn expanded on the legacy of International Art English in a 2018 essay for Artsy, noting that “impenetrable art jargon limps on by convincing impressionable people that obscurity is a sign of intelligence and sophistication—a proposition that sounds ridiculous once you give it more than a moment’s thought.” But if you are impressionable—if you are, like me, a first-time biennale visitor—it’s hard to dismiss the jargon as ridiculous: it’s a barrier, a form of exclusion in what’s billed as “the People’s Biennale.”
The jargon of Shubigi Rao’s statement could be found, unfortunately, throughout the exhibition. Alongside the essential details of an artwork (artist, title, date, materials, dimensions, owner) provided in standard wall text labels, many art works were accompanied by statements known as didactic wall text, which adds information such as the artwork’s history, its connection to the exhibition’s theme, and perhaps a few words on the artist’s intellectual concerns. This is where the potential for prose and poetry open up, and this is where writing style comes into play.
Here is a short example of how KMB approached didactics, sampled from the 300-word introduction to a series of 25 drawings by Vivan Sundaram:
In the proliferation of ink that occupies the paper’s surface, Sundaram is attentive to the labouring multitude as a reverberatory phenomenon, as more than bodily matter in amalgamation or assembly. The multitude in these drawings can form as easily a corral of agony among ruins as it can a fist seizing the winds which billow from the future – a time that has weathered the storm of progress.
The wall text also dwells on how the title of the series is derived from “The Heights of Macchu Picchu,” a 1944 poem by Pablo Neruda. Scholar Geeta Kapur and Karl Marx are cited in the wall text’s analysis of Neruda’s poem—but no context is given for Sundaram’s own Marxism or influences, which I personally would have found more engaging. Instead, we get the grandiose “reverberatory phenomenon,” “corral of agony among the ruins,” and the future described as “a time that has weathered the storm of progress.” I came away more confused than illuminated.
In the anthology What Makes a Great Exhibition (2006), curator Ingrid Schaffner points out that wall text is a curator’s responsibility, and should be approached as an “opportunity to transmit insights, inspire interest, and to point to the fact that choices have been made. When there is no wall text, other assumptions are being made, which also need to be read critically … Just as the curator chooses to insert or not to insert wall text, so the viewer too has a choice: to read or not to read.” If they do read, they spend as much time reading a 100-word wall label as looking at the art work it accompanies, as critic Orit Gat explains, meaning that the accessibility and length of the wall text has the potential to control “the pace at which visitors move through an exhibition, the amount of information they receive beyond any pre-existing knowledge, and their sense of what the museum wants them to know or learn over the course of the show.” Reading wall text, Gat concludes, “has become part of looking.”
It’s a shame when such an integral aspect of the art-viewing experience is shrouded in a veil of prickly vocabulary. The curators of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale could have used inclusive, thoughtful wall text to open up a dialogue about the subject matter and artistic approaches on display in the biennale. Instead, they chose to employ the International Art English that unites, as Arn puts it, “a tiny, well-heeled minority and excludes the insufficiently dialectical masses.”
This chosen audience is so small that even people who work in the art world can feel excluded. An art mediator working at the biennale, whose primary role is to lead guided tours of the various sites in Kochi, told me that when he was given the festival handbook to prepare for his tours, he was terrified by the language and did not believe he would be able to learn and memorize all the jargon. He had attended two previous biennale iterations as a visitor; but this time, he protested, the curatorial writing “did not do justice to the work itself, and that by using the jargon-filled language that they did, they did a disservice to the very core value of the biennale, which is to bring art to the people.” This jargon spills from International Art English into other languages: the mediator told me that the Malayalam text, which was added about a month and a half after the festival began, was also hard to digest.
When I asked another art mediator about who had written the wall texts, she admitted that even there the biennale lacked transparency: “We really don’t have a clue. There was a curatorial team working under the curator’s stewardship, but she worked independently on a few texts, and the rest were by the overall team. There has been no communication as to who wrote what, and that comes through in the texts not having been credited.”
Attempting to understand my frustrated response to the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, I got in touch with UK-based visual arts writer Dany Louise, who has worked in the field—predominantly publicly-funded art—for over 30 years. During our conversation, she recalled how when she was in her twenties, she would read the wall text and think, “I don’t understand what this text is saying, but it’s me—it’s my fault because I’m not educated enough. I don’t have the key to unlock it because it’s not really meant for me, but for someone else.” Eventually, Louise told me, she became aware that a lot of the text was simply talking up the art in a way that “wasn’t about communicating with visitors, but rather to curators and other gatekeepers, trying to position the artist and their work as intellectually rigorous, almost like an application piece screaming, ‘Take me seriously, take me seriously, I’m doing work that is worthy of your attention!’ in a way that would progress an artist’s career.” She realized that “most of what’s written is fairly meaningless, in that it’s almost like a wish list of how I (the artist or curator) wants the work to be seen.”
Louise is also careful to note the distinction between biennales and galleries. In her The Interpretation Matters Handbook chapter titled “There’s Something about Biennales,” she notes how in the contemporary art world, artists and artworks, money, and power are “inextricably intertwined” and that there is a fierce drive for new biennales to become a part of the elite art club: if “art world esteem” is gained, the perception is that a considerable number of other benefits will follow. This, in her assessment, is the root cause for why some biennale texts are difficult, complex, and in many cases, plain bad: “Despite being public-facing the people that the organisers really want to read are staff of other biennales, influential curators from the world’s institutions, gallerists and dealers, high profile artists, hugely rich collectors, and the most influential international critics … Generally, the humble local audience comes last on the list.”
So what wall text is useful for a non-specialist viewer? Beyond the sparse details of title, creation date, and so forth, Louise thinks prompts or reminders about the subject matter or material techniques, and different views on contested interpretations are also helpful for people who don’t have a background in the arts, or who don’t have the confidence to “pester attendants with a random question about Francis Bacon’s psyche.”
Louise mentioned to me that the requirements of biennale wall texts are different from those of museums or art galleries because they are “a mass event for a mass audience.” Generally speaking, she said, biennales “showcase such a range of artists that no one visitor can possibly know everything about every artist that’s exhibiting, which in my view, makes an explanation, or some form of guidance even more imperative.”
Next time I go to a biennale, I’ll follow some advice shared by one of the Kochi-Muziris art mediators I spoke to: while preparing for his guided tours, he told me, his fellow mediators and other colleagues at the biennale repeatedly told him, “Don’t read the handbook, it’s just going to confuse you. Just talk to people.” The text of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale handbook is an exact replica of the wall text.
Shweta Nandakumar is an editor, researcher, and writer based in New York.