Malvika Mehra
Guest Article

Brand managers, will you attend the next Kochi-Muziris Biennale?

Malvika Mehra explains why you, along with your CDs and designers, should.

Called the 'Best Biennale' by the Tate Modern, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale is India's largest contemporary art festival, held every two years in the beautiful and humble town of Kochi, Kerala. The exhibits are set all across the city - in pretty little cafes, abandoned warehouses, heritage buildings and shops. With artworks spanning a variety of mediums including film, installation, painting, sculpture, new media and performance art, this year's event had 97 artists participating from 35 different countries.

Brand managers, will you attend the next Kochi-Muziris Biennale?
Fascinated by this beautifully curated art experience, and given my education in the Applied Arts, coupled with two decades in the advertising business of building brands, I couldn't help thinking if there was a chance of a fine balance between 'fine art' and 'commercial art' and if brands could actually find that magic spot to create interesting and relevant content for themselves. Albeit do it subtly, maintaining the sanctity, of course, of the art piece and the artist's sensibilities, obviously without compromising on their own brand values.

After all, fashion and lifestyle brands, world over, have had some very successful partnerships with artists. Yayoi Kusama, the 'Princess of Polka' has created a polka dotted range of scarves, bags and sunglasses for Louis Vuitton. Before her, Takashi Murakami had a seven-year long collaboration with LV to create iconic collections like 'monogramouflage' across their bags and other accessories.

Absolut's association with artists like Andy Warhol (remember those famous print ads leveraging the iconic bottle shape?) Damien Hirst and Keith Haring completely redefined the premium vodka landscape, as Absolut became synonymous with art, culture and nightlife. And who can forget their association with Swedish House Mafia to create the Greyhound music video? Closer home, they commissioned an 'Absolut India' art exhibit using sounds of India, at the India Art fair.

Other brands like Uniqlo and Gap have tied up with art museums like MOMA and the Whitney Museum to create limited edition tees with contemporary artists' work and Red Bull of course took the cake and opened up a full-fledged new business - a media house, collaborating with artists, film makers and musiciansto create fresh content. And not only for their own brand.

Once back from the Biennale, I spoke with Krishnamachari Bose (co-founder of the Kochi Biennale), Manju Sara Rajan (CEO, Kochi Biennale Foundation), and a dear artist friend of mine Dhruvi Acharya, on the possibilityof the Kochi Biennale providing a platform in India where brands and artists could collaborate. Without stepping on each other's toes.

Here is my personal take.

Whilst a lot of corporate brands do admittedly get involved in such events as part of their CSR duties (BMW, HCL Technologies, Tata Trust, Google, TVS, Merck, JSW, Apollo were some of the patrons at the biennale this year), not many are perhaps seeing opportunities beyond generous sponsorships and logo mentions on festival material. Of creating fresh, path-breaking content/talking points for their brands on such a fertile platform (but executing it subtly, of course).

Perhaps driven by habit, while looking at the exhibits, I couldn't help but connect some of them with brands (obviously one would have had to go through the rigour of appropriate brand messaging for each, but for now, this is just a hypothesis).

Brand managers, will you attend the next Kochi-Muziris Biennale?
For example, there was a series of photographs of an Albanian artist standing under doorways of identically designed entrances, which exude a certain 'sameness' of the houses, except all of them had been embellished differently - adorned with flower creepers in some, a new colour in the other etc., making these 'homes' that reflect individual tastes and desires. Now would it not have been nice for a brand like IKEA (homogeneity marries individualism) to associate with this art work in some manner?
Brand managers, will you attend the next Kochi-Muziris Biennale?
In Sunil Padwal's installation 'Room for Lies' were rooms with walls adorned with over 600 photographs, drawings and collectibles that represented Mumbai. Given that a lot of these photographs were shot on his iPhone, I wondered if indeed Apple had commissioned this art work. Well, they easily could have. As could have a Nikon. Or Canon.
Brand managers, will you attend the next Kochi-Muziris Biennale?
Dia Mehta Bhupal's beautiful and painstakingly done piece 'The Bathroom' was a room made entirely of little pieces of rolled up paper, glued together. What an opportunity this might have been for a Fevicol.
Brand managers, will you attend the next Kochi-Muziris Biennale?
Or the fascinating multi-lined, bilingual font created especially for the biennale, something Adidas could have commissioned too, maybe with a minor tweak - sticking to the brief of using their trademark three stripes only.
Brand managers, will you attend the next Kochi-Muziris Biennale?
There were two art installations made entirely of light bulbs. Again Philips, Bajaj, Havells and Syska came to mind.
Brand managers, will you attend the next Kochi-Muziris Biennale?
Besides these, there were other art works - a book written out across walls in the entire city - Kindle? Penguin Random House?

Yet, the only brand that built great content for itself at this biennale, in a very subtle yet elegant way (there is no other way to do this at shows like this, and thank God for that), was Asian Paints. A unique collaboration between Asian Paints and the folks at Kochi-Muziris Biennale resulted in creating a 'Biennale White', a shade of white which was used to paint all the buildings hosting the exhibits in Kochi. Easy, effortless and an apt association. Now that's how you do it.

With a full festival ticket costing a mere Rs.100 and allowing access to all the venues across the city, the Kochi Biennale indeed is doing a great job of democratising art. Given that the event hosted around 6,00,000 visitors this year, across different strata of society (SEC A, B, C and hell, D too), I couldn't help thinking if indeed this was a missed opportunity for brands, for some awesome content creation.

I hope creative directors, designers and brand managers are listening. Will you be flocking to the next biennale in December 2018? More importantly, who's your artist on board? And how interestingly is she building your brand? For the future.

You got 20 months. And your time starts now.

(The author is founder and creative director, Tomorrow Creative Lab)

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