On Art

I don’t write as much about art as I used when I was handling the Art section for Time Out Mumbai, but for a year, I wrote an art column for The Sunday Guardian. It was called The Culture Mulcher and despite the fact that there were many times when I almost tore my hair out trying to come up with a subject for the column, I loved having that space. However all fun things must come to an end, and I wrote my last Culture Mulcher column on November 3. Here are most of the arty Culture Mulcher columns, in one almost-unending virtual scroll.

Subodh Gupta in Ra-One

absolut_subodh_guptaFor as long as I can remember, my father, who like all good Bengalis is a snooty intellectual, has had one phrase for commercial cinema: “Hollywood-er afing”, or Hollywood’s opium. If it is a mainstream Hindi film, then it is, predictably, Bollywood-er afing. (There’s something in the phonetics of the Bengali word afing that lets you fling heavy-duty contempt whereas “opium” just sounds contentedly sleepy.) I remembered my father’s favourite phrase at a very precise moment last week, while watching Ra-One.
In the film, Shekhar Subramaniam, who would eventually become the only Tamilian Brahmin to have a Godfather-esque funeral, was designing the video game of his son’s dreams. There was a blank canvas that filled the frame at one point. Red paint was slapped on the canvas with all the artistry of a construction worker. More paint, some black, more brushstrokes, and what emerged was a Manga-inspired costume that you’d think was drawn by a sleep-deprived teenager. The camera pulls back and we see the painting of Ra-One’s red bodysuit with the artist standing in front of it. It’s Subodh Gupta.
That was when I heard my father’s voice, saying “Bollywood-er afing!”, boom in my head. I looked at my popcorn and soft drink with great suspicion. Surely I was hallucinating. Yes, the hype bubble of Indian art has popped with the economic slowdown, but surely things weren’t so bad that Subodh Gupta, arguably the best known name of Indian contemporary art, had to take to Bollywood? But it was Gupta, and with that five-second cameo, the artist revealed he’s as starry-eyed and susceptible to the glamour of Bollywood as the average man on the street. Not just that, he was so star struck that he was willing to ignore the ugly ineptitude of the art that would be brandished as a Subodh Gupta creation in the film. So much for all the high-falutin’ conceptual art that he may exhibits around the world.
The makers of Ra-One could have cast any forgettable extra for that blink-and-miss role but they chose to have a real artist play the part. Clearly, they wanted a thoroughbred artist whom people would recognise. They wanted Gupta, probably for the high profile he enjoys. Gupta is the first Indian to make it big in the arena of international art. His work has sold for record prices and he’s been on the cover of many magazines. Gupta’s is perhaps the best-known face of Indian art. His special appearance gives Ra-One that little extra dose of cool. That’s quite a USP when you consider the film is a Shah Rukh Khan-starrer.
I should probably be thrilled that Bollywood has noticed Indian contemporary art and educated itself enough on the subject to pick Gupta and not a Page 3-regular like Paresh Maity, but I’m aghast. I can’t wrap my head around the fact that Gupta chose to attach his name to Ra-One of all films. Gupta is one of the founding members of KHOJ, which has done outstanding work to promote idealistic, experimental art. When he decided to become a sculptor, it was a bold and potentially disastrous move because at the time, his canvases were selling like hotcakes. Turning his back on the market, Gupta focussed on sculpture and developed a distinctive style that was inventive, unmistakably Indian but not cliché-ridden. He made striking large-scale sculptural installations that were far from commercial, like “Everything is Inside” (2004) which was the top half of an Ambassador taxi with a large box of luggage made of bronze. Who would have thought this man would agree to play the part of a bad costume designer in a film that is more a marketing monster and less a superhero flick?
Yet there stood Subodh Gupta, the Damien Hirst of Delhi, in Ra-One, playing himself; beaming and shaking hands with Shah Rukh Khan; entranced by the opiate effect of Bollywood.

Bhau Daji Lad: City Museum and Contemporary Art Gallery

Last week, at the Mumbai launch of her new “photo-fiction” book, House of Love, Dayanita Singh said, “Galleries are small areas. Photography belongs to a much larger world.” She was explaining her lack of enthusiasm for the traditional photography exhibition. Singh’s latest project is a “book cart”, which will carry all her publications and which she plans to wheel into art openings, parties and anywhere else she can. It’s part of her plan to get a larger audience for her work.
Singh’s hunger for wider audiences is one that many artists share. The point of contemporary art, strange as it may sound to some, is not to flummox or be inaccessible. On the contrary, even the creator of the most complex and erudite art wants their work to be seen.
Last year, while Sudharshan Shetty’s This Too Shall Pass was on display at the Bhau Daji Lad Museum, I remember people-watching with Jitish Kallat. Kallat and I chatted briefly about how good it was to see the diversity of the visitors. Talking about his upcoming solo at the museum, he said he wanted to really make visitors look at the space differently. I would remember that line vividly earlier this year, when I saw Kallat’s show Fieldnotes: Tomorrow Was Here Yesterday.
Kallat didn’t so much exhibit in Bhau Daji Lad Museum as much as colonise the building. Seeing Fieldnotes was like embarking on a treasure hunt without a map. Kallat managed to almost camouflage the art with the building and the exhibits. It was one of the most inventive site-specific shows I’ve seen and perhaps the most memorable show of the year. Mumbai’s present and its history was a theme that ran through many of Kallat’s works. True to his word, Kallat made visitors see the museum differently. I went back to see Evoking the Pause four times. On later visits, I’d lounge around and watch people spot art works amidst the museum’s permanent exhibits. The widened eyes, the disbelief, the exclamations, the giggles — it was as much fun seeing people discover Evoking the Pause as it was to see the show.
Over 2011, Bhau Daji Lad Museum has hosted some superb exhibitions and established itself as the new five-star hotel (if not home) for contemporary art in Mumbai. The beautifully-restored building is a spectacular setting and it has a steady stream of visitors, much to the joy of artists. But it’s worth keeping in mind that few of the ticket-buyers are even remotely interested in contemporary art. As much as I may love the work of artists like Sheba Chhachhi and L.N. Tallur, few of the art shows “showcase the history and culture of Mumbai city”, which is what exhibits at Bhau Daji Lad Museum are meant to do. Kallat’s did and was an exception.
Critically-acclaimed contemporary art gives the museum a reputation in sophisticated circles, unlike the miniature clay figures by nameless artisans. However, it’s the latter that Bhau Daji Lad Museum’s visitors come to see. The uncomfortable truth is that, charmed by the glamour of contemporary art, the city museum has ignored the city in its exhibits. It’s dismissed the fact that people come to Bhau Daji Lad for a simple, unpretentious telling of Mumbai’s cultural and economic history.
Of course it’s important to be exposed to thought-provoking art but it’s equally important to have a place that records Mumbai’s past. Despite our love for paperwork, we are terrible archivists. We rarely keep diaries, letters or old photographs. Recording cultural narratives is almost alien to us. That’s why Bhau Daji Lad Museum needs to show a little more interest in fulfilling its role as a city museum. That’s also why, as thankful as I am for shows like the Tallur solo that opened this week at the museum, I can’t help the exhibit is part of a stealthy encroachment by contemporary art into a space that should have belonged to local history.

A Toast to 2012

It’s been a rollercoaster of a year, 2011. In Mumbai, it feels like we’ve spent most of it complaining or commiserating about something or the other: the city’s vulnerability to terror attacks, the appalling murders of the two young men who were killed by thugs, the deaths of greats like M.F. Husain and Dev Anand, a crashing stock market. But as difficult a year as it may have been on many fronts, 2011 was a surprising good year for Mumbai’s art scene.
One of the biggest and most ambitious exhibitions was Anish Kapoor’s solo at Mehboob Studios. The show was a series of firsts. Mehboob Studio had never displayed contemporary art before. It marked Kapoor’s debut in Mumbai, the city of his birth, and he was showing pieces that had not been seen in India. While the sculptures were being installed, more than one Bollywood star poked their head in to check out this unfamiliar, non-filmi Kapoor who was getting so much attention at Mehboob Studios. With some delightfully shiny works that had everyone clicking photos of their warped reflections as well as the famous cannon that fired a red wax pellet at regular intervals, Kapoor’s exhibition was thought-provoking and great fun.
The other new venue that established itself in the Mumbai art map during 2011 was Bhau Daji Lad Museum. Its beautifully-restored interiors inspired Jitish Kallat to create one of the most inventive site-specific exhibition that the city has seen. Kallat’s Fieldnotes: Tomorrow Was Here Yesterday was as much a treasure hunt as an art show. The works he displayed were almost camouflaged in the museum. Nestled in the permanent exhibits that show different aspects of Mumbai’s social history, Kallat’s work explored ideas from Mumbai’s history as well as its present. There couldn’t have been a more compatible marriage between an art show and a city museum.
Sheba Chhachhi’s mini retrospective Evoking the Pause also used Bhau Daji Lad Museum to great effect. While Chhachhi’s installations weren’t steeped in Mumbai like Kallat’s, they did weave interesting connections with the museum’s history and architecture. Plus, the most elaborate installation in the show, “The Water Diviner”, was spectacular. It occupied an entire room and glowed with a hypnotic blue light, that drew virtually every visitor into the installation.
The city saw two galleries open this year: Mumbai Art Room and Galerie Isa. They are starkly different spaces. Mumbai Art Studio is non-commercial and hopes to show unusual, experimental work from India and abroad by artists. They may not be well-known names but their work, like Nathalie Djurberg’s charming and macabre video which was in Mumbai Art Room’s inaugural show, must be intriguing.
Galeria Isa is far grander both in terms of the physical space and ambition. It aims to be an international gallery that is based in Mumbai and will show only foreign artists. Galerie Isa opened with an exhibition by Anselm Reyle, who is well-known internationally for his kitschy, abstract art.
Another humble but notable entrant in the city’s art scene was Clark House Initiative, which is non-profit artistic venture. It organised some proudly esoteric but interesting events, like an exhibition in support of Dr. Binayak Sen and a performance by the dancer Padmini Chettur.
In the recent past, when art lovers went gallery-hopping in Mumbai, they walked a well-trodden path, entering more or less the same handful of galleries that have established themselves as champions of Indian contemporary art. Things changed this year with these new players entering the artistic fray. Hopefully, 2012 will see more art, more ideas, more questions, more fun and more rants. That’s always worth a toast.

Gyan Panchal & The Otolith Group

Mrmrajo (detail), by Gyan Panchal
Mrmrajo (detail), by Gyan Panchal

Paris-based artist Gyan Panchal’s show is opening next week. On the invite for his so-far untitled exhibition, you can see a white floor, a white wall and a green slab of…well, something. The something is a dark green and is veined with a lighter green. It looks vaguely like marble. My guess is that it’s a slab of sponge. Panchal has spent the past few weeks seeking “encounters” in Mumbai; by which he doesn’t mean the sort of thing that inspired the Bollywood flick Shootout at Lokhandwala, but rather an experience that will allow Panchal to see a mundane object in a new light. Panchal creates his sculptural installations by teasing artistic potential out of boring, everyday objects. In the past, he’s used material like beeswax and polystyrene to create his works. Panchal isn’t a contemporary Marcel Duchamp. He doesn’t simply find an object and present it; Panchal is among those who seeks to transform an object.

Ever since I heard Panchal would be showing in Mumbai, one of my favourite daydreams has been imagining one of the city’s well-coiffed collectors do a double take upon encountering Panchal’s stack of polystyrene. Or the brittle bamboo that I’m told has caught Panchal’s eye for his Mumbai show. Even though Panchal is able to transform objects and make something like polystyrene seem as monumental as marble, I know there are many who would — if they were being honest — step in to the gallery and wonder where’s the art.

A few years ago, Kolkata-based artist Adip Dutta had an exhibition in Project 88 in which he showed (among other things) trousers made of steel wool. Dutta has a fascination for steel wool. He’s made a kurta and an underwear out of the stuff. The most amusing aspect of his steel wool clothing is that it looks entirely wearable until you recognise the fact that the material used to take out the toughest stains off kitchen utensils cannot be comfortable against the skin. In his sculptures and drawings, Dutta explores the relationships we form between objects and how they can be articulated. The steel wool clothing, for instance, speaks volumes about feeling uncomfortable in the garb that defines modern masculinity.

There’s a curiously magical quality to works like this when you know how complete the transformation has been. Take Anathema by the Otolith Group, for instance, which is a video they made last year. It’s been described as a “counter-spell assembled from the possible worlds of capitalist sorcery”. A little less cryptically-speaking, Anathema shows molecules of liquid crystal, which is the key component of touch screens. The molecules that enable touch technology are themselves touched by electric currents and what the video shows is how liquid crystal reacts to this turbulence. You’d never have imagined that under the placid surface of your smartphone could lie such frenetic activity. At one point, the molecules begin to organise themselves in geometric patterns. Kodwo Eshun, one half of Otolith Group, said that he and Anjalika Sagar (she’s the other half) were intrigued by how touchscreen technology was constantly described as something intimately personal when it is, in essence, a mechanical process that turns users into “machinist slaves”. Anathema is not the most easily accessible of works but when you know what you’re looking at — a component of a phone’s screen — and can appreciate how dramatically that element has been transformed, it’s a very intriguing work.

The most common taunt that contemporary art faces is either “My kid could’ve done that” or “I could’ve done that”. Except, unless you’re among the few that thought there was any artistic potential in something as unremarkable as a touchscreen or steel wool or brittle bamboo, chances are neither you nor your kid could have.

Justice Katju, the Performance Artist

The chairman of the Press Council of India, Markandey Katju, recently pronounced Salman Rushdie to be a “poor writer”. The chairman has read “some” of Rushdie’s work and that’s enough for him to come to a conclusion about Rushdie’s literary abilities, thank you very much. Katju is a retired judge after all. If he can’t make judgements, who can? Literary critics? Pshaw. Those stooges of Britannia (no, not the biscuit company but the once-imperial heavyweight, Great Britain). Lest you think Katju is dismissive of literature from foreign lands, the chairman clarified that certain Western authors are worthy of discussion. His list of permissible literary figures included Charles Dickens, G.B. Shaw, Victor Hugo, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Pablo Neruda. Now there’s a man who is up to date with his reading.
I’ve read Katju’s comments about India’s “so-called educated Indians” who suffer from a “colonial inferiority complex” about 10 times now, and with every reading I’m convinced that Markandey Katju is not, as they used to say in the ’90s, for real. He’s a performance art project. Trust me. I’m an art critic. I’ve seen this sort of hoodwinking of the public before. Tejal Shah looked remarkably masculine when she pretended to be a young man performing a morning shave in a video work. Nikhil Chopra has convinced people in a number of cities around the world that he is an aristocratic woman in an elaborate Elizabethan gown. He even shaved off his eyebrows to perfect the illusion. Perhaps the most popular of contemporary performance artists is actor Sasha Baron Cohen, who transformed himself into a Kazakh man called Borat and goaded the government of Kazakhstan into placing an advertisement in The New York Times that explained Borat was not really representative of the nation. Placed alongside such examples, Katju’s attacks against India’s literati finally make sense.
Because surely Katju isn’t serious when he describes the author who has won the Booker of Bookers as “sub-standard”? He can’t really believe that India’s literati is under the colonial yoke after 65 years of independence? Or that the “mental level” of India’s intellectuals has felt no impact of postcolonial theory – whose leading figures include ‘desis’ like Padma Bhushan Homi Bhabha – even though it has scorched its way through literary criticism in the twentieth century?
There’s such delicious irony in Katju accusing Rushdie fans of suffering from a colonial hangover, given Rushdie is one of the first writers to gleefully Indianise English. From Satyajit Ray’s Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne to Amitabh Bachchan, it’s all in Rushdie’s writing. He’s the man who coined HUGME (an acronym for the multilingual mix heard in Mumbai; it’s short for Hindi Urdu Gujarati Marathi English) and used it nimbly in his writing.
In fact, when Katju holds up Dickens as an author worth revering and criticises Rushdie’s English, Katju reveals how colonial and antiquated his own understanding is. Both English and literature have evolved beyond the nineteenth-century novel, but not for Markandey Katju. His notion of good writing is fixed in a colonial mould. Katju is unable to see how postcolonial writers have transformed English from a foreign language into one that Katju himself uses to be understood across the linguistic variety that is India. In the twentieth century, English became a bona fide Indian language. It may have been introduced to us by colonisers but it was manipulated into a local product. It’s thanks to authors like Rushdie that English has been forced to expand and accommodate sounds, words and stories from worlds that Dickens, Shaw and Tolstoy rarely acknowledged in their writing.
The whole point of performance art is to provoke thought, and to that end, Katju, with his recent ridiculous statements, has been reasonably successful. This is commendable because Katju’s had stiff competition from those baying for Jeremy Clarkson and Jay Leno’s blood. Who knew the government of India was such a champion of performance art? Of course the trouble is that it now falls upon the rest of us to ensure that these antics aren’t what end up defining contemporary India.

Shilpa Gupta’s Someone Else

Shilpa Gupta couldn’t have predicted that literary festivals in Jaipur and Kolkata, Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen would set the stage so perfectly for Someone Else, her first solo show in Mumbai in years. The two most elaborate works are “Singing Cloud” and “A library of books written under pseudonyms or anonymously”. The latter is the first work you see upon entering the gallery. Stretched across a wall is Gupta’s library. Instead of actual books, what you see on the shelves are metal covers with titles and author names etched on them. There’s something ghostly about a library of novels that have no pages or stories inside. They seem like phantoms of actual books. Look closer and read everything that is written on the covers, and you’ll realise that Gupta’s metallic library is made up of books by authors who created alternative identities and each cover tells you why they felt compelled to do so.
A short distance away from the wall of hollowed-out books is “Singing Cloud”, a gigantic blob made up of a vast number of microphones. These microphones whisper the line “I want to fly away high above in the sky.” (For those who have read The Satanic Verses, the theme of flying will feel resonant.) Just a few steps away from “Singing Cloud” is a pedestal that radiates heat like a barbecue. On it is an open book. A red glow emanates from under the book, as though it’s being burned to black cinders before your eyes.

Imagine turning around to the sound of a clattering flipboard and seeing that. Shpooky.
Shilpa Gupta, Somewhere Else

If the idea of a microphone that emits rather than absorbs sound and a continually burning weren’t unsettling enough, there’s the whirring flap board — similar to the board in an airport that tells you flight timings — near “Singing Cloud”. The first time I looked at it, it spelt out “Transmit secret messages”. I felt goosebumps rise at the back of my neck. I felt like I’d been entrusted with a responsibility even though (sadly) I have no secret messages to transmit.
Someone Else is made up of works from different series and made over the past few years. All of them explore ideas of control, individual agency, fear and censorship. Gupta has long been fascinated by the idea of one’s actions being controlled by someone else. One of the reasons she is among Indian contemporary art’s most exciting artists is that she has returned to this theme repeatedly without creating work that feels formulaic. The only thing you’re assured of in a Shilpa Gupta show is that it will surprise you and there will be at least one interactive element.
One of my favourite works in Someone Else is “Speaking Wall”. It has a path, made of a line of bricks, which leads to a wall that has a pair of headphones hanging on it. Walk up, put the headphones on and a cool, emotionless voice tells you to step back, stop, step further away and so on. There’s something authoritative in that disembodied voice. It asks you to perform a simple but uncomfortable act — stepping backwards — and one that is both absurd and unsettling. Yet you find yourself following the orders. “Speaking Wall” was the first thing that came to mind when I read that Google and other websites had agreed to the Indian government’s demand that they remove “objectionable” content.
Gupta’s show seems to be almost tailor-made to join in the current debate about culture, censorship and power. She even has a burning book as an exhibit, after all. However, the uncomfortable truth is that Gupta didn’t conjure up the show to ride on the coattails of recent controversies. Neither were these pieces inspired by the events that have been making headlines. Someone Else is both wonderful and uncomfortable because when art that is about self-censorship and not pegged to India resonates with our current state of affairs, it speaks volumes about freedom of expression in this country.

Spiral Jetty

American sculptor Robert Smithson is best known for “Spiral Jetty”, a 1,500-foot long sculpture that sits in the Great Salt Lake in Utah, in America. Made out of earth, mud, salt crystals, basalt and rocks, it is precisely what its title claims it to be: a spiral-shaped jetty that extends from the shore and then coils around to create a shape reminiscent of the circles that were threatening signals from aliens in M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs.

Smithson built “Spiral Jetty” in 1970 and the contractor, Bob Phillips, remembered Smithson as strange and his ideas as weird. Phillips never heard of ‘earth art’, which is how Smithson’s work was categorised, but he realised it was a big deal because a film crew and helicopters whizzed around to document the making. Smithson would pick up pieces of rock, examine them and often roll them around to place them in precise spots. In case you were wondering, 6, 650 tons of rock were used in “Spiral Jetty” and the whole thing was built in six days, which is impressive when you consider Smithson personally handled much of those 6,650 tons.

Smithson also made a film about “Spiral Jetty”, which he shot with his wife Nancy Holt. It can be seen on Smithson’s website or, if you’re in Mumbai, it’s playing at Gallery Maskara as part of examples to follow!, an exhibition spread across five galleries in the city. There are a variety of poetic interpretations that “Spiral Jetty” invites. Walk on the human effort to control nature and you end up going in circles, only to end up at a point from which you must retrace your steps. The “Spiral Jetty” has, since its construction, been submerged by the lake and then resurfaced. The basalt is now encrusted with salt crystals and so it looks completely different from how Smithson designed it (he wanted the jetty to be a black coil against the pink waters of the lake). It is as though nature is reclaiming this little example of human intervention.

Except when I went to see Smithson’s film at Gallery Maskara, the first thing that struck me was the resemblance to the chapter in the Ramayana in which a bridge is built by the monkeys to reach Lanka. Smithson took six days, the monkeys took five. Smithson lifted each rock and placed it precisely, so did the monkeys. Eventually the bridge built by the monkeys went underwater, as did Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty”. It’s unlikely Smithson thought of the Ramayana while building “Spiral Jetty”, but that’s the power of context and the effect of having grown up hearing myths told as bedtime stories.

Smithson’s work doesn’t seek to control nature as much as create something man-made that can hold its own next to the beautiful, natural curiosity of a pink lake (the Great Salt Lake gets its colour because of certain salt-tolerant bacteria and algae). In the Ramayana, the attitudes are more complicated. Rama, the human with a divine spark, wants the ocean to do his bidding and although the ocean allows a bridge to be built, it’s not Rama who actually controls the natural element but Nala, the monkey son of the heavenly architect Vishwakarma. Rama’s antagonistic “Let me pass or I’ll dry up your waters!” has no constructive result (he ends up creating a desert, unnecessarily). Sagar, the god of the ocean, certainly doesn’t seem intimidated. It is Nala, a hybrid of nature, who figures out how to harness nature in a way that serves Ram’s purpose and doesn’t harm the ocean.

We tend to forget that there are significant chunks of the Ramayana that are about establishing a balance and amity between humanity and nature. Rama has to learn the ways of the forest; his army is not of the human but the natural world. There are aspects of the epic that fit neatly into the dialogue about “aesthetic and sustainability” (the theme of examples to follow!), which goes to show that this isn’t a modern debate. Valmiki seems to have been as worried about it as many of us today.

April Fool’s Invention: The Wall Text Interpreter

It’s the newest innovation in the world of art, and everyone who has ever entered an art gallery is chattering about it. The QR code, so far seen only in mysterious and largely-incomprehensible advertising strategy, is being touted as the cipher for one of the most complex codes in our society: the wall text. For the uninitiated, the wall text is a passage that is usually be seen upon a wall soon after entering a gallery. It is supposed to introduce the show to the viewer and is called wall text because it comprises text and is on a wall. Frequently, this is the only simple aspect of wall text, which is known to inspire reactions as varied as admiration to abject fear. Some point quivering fingers to wall text as the reason they don’t enter galleries. Others confess that they spend more time deciphering the meaning of the wall text and less on the show itself. Whichever group you belong to, have no fear; the QR code is here. Take your smartphone, scan the code and hey presto! The nifty app, Arty or Farty, categorises you as either Artist, Critic, Curator, Gallerist, Aficionado, Collector, Random Visitor on the basis of a quick questionnaire and then translates the wall text into a language matching your category. The best part about this app is that once you understand wall text, chances are the reviews of art shows will make sense as well (since similar language is used in both). Don’t take our word for it. See for yourself.

The Wall Text:
The Latin word ‘retrospectare’ from which the modern term ‘retrospective’ is derived conventionally refers to a backward glance, the postulate of which is the past. But in Banana: Braque, Warhol and Beyond, the artist Krit Rana adopts a persona akin to two-headed Janus, or Ianus, the ancient Roman god of beginnings and transitions who casts his gaze upon that which is in the realm of recollections as well as the future. Similarly, in Banana: Braque, Warhol and Beyond, the artist presents a curated selection of sculptural installations, sculptures, installations, photographic works, photographs and paintings that exemplify his oeuvre and also offer a tantalising look at how Rana’s praxis is evolving, thus giving us a glimpse of a promising future.
Banana: Braque, Warhol and Beyond shows Rana’s atypical perspective of the quotidian. In his photographs and paintings, the common becomes uncommon and a Barthesian punctum anchors the gaze upon the interstitial space of theory, creativity and experiential memory. Subverting conventional notions of aesthetics and superficial gloss, Rana’s paintings are a space of subjugation, transformation and desire. Rather than pleasure re-territorialising the space in a Foucauldian sense, Rana’s attention is upon deterritorialisation. The conceptual complexity of his photographs makes them a labyrinth of references that curate and collate art historical milestones. Beauty is a castoff; ugliness is deconstructed; the everyday is enriched. Seemingly nihilistic, a closer look at Rana’s art shows a nuanced but unflinching celebration of the grandeur of the commonplace.
The progressive scientisation of our culture is a leitmotif in Rana’s sculptural installations, which inhabit the liminal space in which sculpture intersects with installation. They transform the spatial dynamics of the gallery and their construction and processes emphasise the architectonics of the contemporary era while simultaneously privileging the rigorous discipline of the manual labour that has been an intrinsic part of artistic praxes traditionally. Subverting notions of sophistication and technique, Rana posits a reinvention of constructs that determine an object to be technically advanced. Simplicity, with an emphasis on minimalist, utilitarian values, is the hallmark of the future that Rana imagines.
Art for Rana is a site of contest between context, subtext and pretext. Rather than passively see Banana: Braque, Warhol and Beyond, the viewer is encouraged to encounter the works and engage in the dialectics that inform Rana’s praxis. Rana’s work is part of numerous prestigious, international collections and thanks are extended to the following for their generosity….

Translated for the Artist:
Retrospective of acclaimed works from the past and hastily-done pieces from the present. Big show coming up somewhere else so new works are being made for that show. This one’s like a warm-up. Contains photographs, paintings, sculpture and installations. The photographs are derivative. The paintings are abstracts. The installations are very mechanical. Wanker.

Translated for the Critic:
Has thesaurus and isn’t afraid to use it. Photographs, paintings, sculpture and installation. Either the artist has studied abroad or has hired a postgraduate student to write wall text. Can use phrases from wall text if writing a review. Postmodern wanker.

Translated for the Curator:
Getting works will be complicated and involve massaging many collectors/museum/gallery egos. The style is likely to be provocative with phallic objects popping up (given the repeated mention of bananas and the absence of any feminist critical perspectives).

Expensive show, tough to sell but this is a good artist to dangle in front of press. Knows big words, drops names from international art and work is suitably weird without being completely dysfunctional. If reasonably attractive, a profile in fashion/lifestyle magazine is almost guaranteed.

Works might be derivative but the artist should be a good one to have at parties. The photographs probably use found photographs. The paintings are abstracts. The installations are likely to be mechanical and interesting in their mechanics.

Overpriced works but promising artist.

Random visitor:
Weird paintings, weirder photographs. Installations may be cool. Wanker, but successful and famous-ish wanker. NOTE: If the airconditioning isn’t turned on when you walk in, someone in the gallery will turn it on the moment they see you.

For those who don’t have smartphones, rumour has it that the company that created this app is also working on a holographic wall text that, if seen with special glasses (like 3-D glasses), will show you the translated version. The art world need never mystify you again.

Shreyas Karle’s Museum of Fetish Objects

Shreyas Karle's Diagram for Censor Mathematics
Shreyas Karle’s Diagram for Censor Mathematics

The artist Shreyas Karle was once asked how he defined art. “Art is common sense,” he said. He described artists as the “gatekeepers of the visual world” who are prone to being felled by COCIS, which stands for Crisis of Creative Ideas and Subjects. According to Karle, there are two ways for the gatekeepers to treat COCIS. They can either try to make their old ideas and subjects seem novel by repackaging them or they could “try to improvise the language of art”. Like much of Karle’s artistic work, his words are a curious combination of earnestness and mockery and while seeing his contribution to Cinema City, a sprawling exhibition that explores Mumbai’s kinship with movies, I couldn’t help remembering Karle’s prescription for COCIS. After all, if there was ever an art form that thrives on repackaging old ideas, it’s film. And then there’s Karle, who has done his best to improvise the language of commercial cinema.

Comprising more than 30 objects, which include sculptures and drawings, Karle’s “Museum of Fetish Objects” is a miniature exhibition within Cinema City. One of the first things you see as you approach “Museum” is a tiny brass sculpture. It looks like a set of buildings lined up. Read the wall text that accompanies the work, and you’ll know that this is the “Multi-religion Protagonist Locket”, which shows a temple, a mosque, a gurudwara and a church next to one another. Karle folds consumerism into popular cinema, highlighting how our films manufacture constructs for ideas like desire. The Hindi title of the series translates to “museum gift shop”. Karle’s point is that cinema sells us stereotypes and we buy into them. Some of the items in “Museum…” are delightfully silly, like the drawings of the factories producing B and C-grade cinema, whose shadows are in the shape of the relevant alphabet. Then there’s the milk bottle, titled “M.K. Milk”, or “maa ka doodh”, which has a label that has a fuming Dharmendra printed on it. “Above 18 under 18” is a set of movie-viewing glasses made of kulfi moulds. Children are to wear the ones that are more conical while those above 18 get the moulds whose ends are squarish. An accompanying diagram explains that the narrow-focus of the glasses for the under-18 glasses ensures a child sees only the nipples, as though they’re the tops of baby bottles. Adults, on the other hand, are allowed to see the entire breast. It’s ridiculous, and yet at the same it time, Karle reminds us that so much of cinema (particularly the B- and C-grade variety) taps on ideas of voyeurism and wish fulfillment. There’s also the hilarious “Spot romance-stop romance”. It’s a large poster that shows a progression from tetrapods (where one spots romance, both in real-life Mumbai as well as in the movies) to a red triangle that signifies the stop sign.

For “Museum…”, Karle said he saw himself as a shaman. His intention was to reveal how popular cinema is used to both create and control desire in the audience. It panders to and creates fantasies but also reiterates conservative conventions, like encouraging the viewer to objectify women and also tamp down one’s own sexuality. Karle’s use of everyday objects makes “Museum…” all the more potent and entertaining. The tetrapods, for example, are a fixture on Mumbai’s Marine Drive, a favourite with the city’s romancing couples. Whereas to most of us they’re just oddly-shaped hunks of concrete acting as a bulwark, to Karle they are part of a cinematic language and speak of love, longing and suppression.

Cinema City, which is currently on display in Mumbai’s National Gallery of Modern Art, has been organised by Majlis, the Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute of Architecture and the Ministry of Culture. The exhibition has works by famous Indian artists like Atul Dodiya and Pushpamala N, but one of the most fun and inventive parts of the exhibition is Karle’s Museum of Fetish Objects. It’s not the most eye-catching set. In fact, there’s a drabness to it that befits the idea of a dusty, neglected museum. To appreciate Karle’s work, you need to come up close and read what he’s written carefully and then look at what is on display. Do that and you’ll find yourself grinning while nodding in agreement with Karle’s critique of cinema.

When Tejal Shah was driven off Indian Highway

Last week, a leading Indian newspaper in English had a small piece, ostensibly about an art exhibition titled Indian Highway, being held in Beijing, China. The article had the headline, “Beijing showcases Gujarat carnage in art exhibition” and described a video titled “I Love My India” by Indian artist Tejal Shah as well as a work by Chinese artist Wang Mai. In one of the world news pages of the next day’s newspaper, there was another article about the same exhibition. This time the headline was “India forces China to take off Gujarat riots video”. The article emphasised that because the newspaper had “highlighted” the contentiousness of Shah’s work that the Indian embassy in Beijing had asked that Shah’s video be removed from Indian Highway. How’s that for the impact of a newspaper?
There’s a tumbleweed of concerns in this story about Shah’s video and its removal. If the galleries who have curated and hosted Indian Highway chose to remove Shah’s work because of pressure from the Indian officials, that’s a bone that the artist and the Indian art community needs to pick with those responsible for this decision. It’s not for the Indian government to consent to or authorise an exhibition held in a foreign country by a private gallery. On the contrary, the hosting gallery decides whether or not they wish to honour the Indian officials’ request that Shah’s video be edited out of the exhibition.
For me, more problematic is the first article, which has been described as a report even though almost every sentence is laden with bias. Take the very first sentence, for example, which suggests that a visiting a trade delegation from Gujarat is somehow connected to and impacted by Indian Highway despite the fact that there’s no connection between the two. Shah’s video comes across as a salvo against the government when it’s clubbed with Wang Mai’s show, even though the two exhibitions are completely independent of one another. They just happen to be running simultaneously at Beijing’s Ullens Center for Contenporary Art. The insinuation is that Shah’s work is overtly political and misrepresenting India to China. The journalist chooses to quote only those bits of Shah’s video and artist statement that can be interpreted to support his argument. For instance, he doesn’t mention that the video has quotes from people for whom the Godhra riots are only a vague memory. At one point, the article says Shah’s video “has curiously been approved and tolerated by Indian officials”, clearly suggesting that the government should not be so magnanimous about freedom of expression.
No one is under no obligation to like Shah’s art or support citizens’ right to expressing their opinions (however myopic such a stance might be). However, the expectation made of a journalist is that personal agenda or bias should not figure in an article that claims to be a reported piece. Opinions are meant for columns and editorials. When they appear in articles, it’s editorialising, which happens to be one of the deadly sins of journalism. If you haven’t seen Shah’s “I Love My India” and if you don’t read the article misrepresenting it with a questioning eye, you may not notice how the writer attacked Shah when good journalism says he should either have described or critiqued her work. There could be any number of reasons for the writer’s opinion — maybe he’s a supporter of Narendra Modi, maybe he dislikes Shah — but his feelings, justified or otherwise, have no place in his article. Unfortunately in this case, his warped depiction of Shah’s video has been presented as fact and resulted in her being cut out of Indian Highway.
At a literary festival a few years ago, someone once told me that journalism’s presence was transient. Newspapers and magazines are picked up, flipped through and within hours, what’s written in them becomes irrelevant and has little impact. Clearly this gentleman hadn’t seen Indian newspapers in action.

If Tracy Emin’s Bed Came to NGMA

Two years ago, one of the most well-known art collectors in the world, Charles Saatchi offered Britain’s public galleries a gift: 30 million pounds worth of contemporary art by some of the most talented artists of recent times. Saatchi made it very clear that he wasn’t expecting anything in return for these works, which include some of the most talked-about pieces of contemporary art by controversial and acclaimed artists from Britain and beyond, like Tracey Emin, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Richard Wilson Grayson Perry and our very own Jitish Kallat. Saatchi also said he would foot the costs of storage, maintenance and restoration. All the government had to do was adopt these works and give them homes in museums and galleries across Britain.
You’d think the British government would snap Saatchi’s offer up like a hungry alligator, given the drastic cuts that governmental funding for the arts has had to suffer in recent times. But no. The Arts Council, Government Art Collection and Tate have all said thanks, but no thanks. As ridiculous as this sounds, two years later, there are still no takers for Saatchi’s gift in Britain, despite the fact that there’s no price tag and the 200 works he’s offering include some spectacular art. Consequently, Saatchi is setting up a fund that will manage his collection.
Years ago, someone at an art opening had said to me that their favourite daydream was that Saatchi would donate his collection to the National Gallery of Modern Art and we’d be able to see Saatchi’s collection in all its glory, in India, in exchange for a ticket priced at Rs. 10. Ever since I read the news that Saatchi’s gift had been rejected, I’ve indulged in daydreams in which India steps in where Britain failed and gives Saatchi’s collection a home. The media is gung-ho, the Indian art community does happy dances, everything seems to be on track. Until, of course, the works have to be installed.

Tracy Emin, My Bed
Tracy Emin, My Bed

The Honorable Minister of Culture
New Delhi

Dear Madam,

As per the instructions conveyed by you during our telephone conversation dated August 18th 2012, I have been through the list of artworks offered by Shri Saatchi and I enclose herewith my initial comments.

As detailed by Shri Saatchi, the collection he is generously offering for display at the prestigious NGMA (Mumbai and New Delhi) are all very expensive and many of them are said to have garnered immense critical acclaim over the years.

However, I feel there may have been some confusion. We have just opened the container that, according to the list, contains a work of art by Shrimati Tracey Emin and it seems Shri Saatchi has sent us a bed instead.

The bed is sturdy and well-made, as per the expert opinions of the carpenters we have hired at premium rates for the installation of aforementioned art works, however I must with some trepidation report that it is not a very respectable bed. I am aggrieved to report that this bed has clearly been used for immoral purposes and activities, judging from the presence of items like used male contraceptives. In addition, the bed sheets are dirty and crumpled and there are questionable stains on them. I have submitted a requisition for fresh bed linen (a copy is attached with this letter), which I hope to receive within 24 hours. Upon its receipt, the linen will be changed immediately. I have also requested the Ministry of Tourism to loan us a qualified housekeeper to make the bed neatly. A similar request has also been submitted to the Ministry of Health, since hospitals require high-quality bed making. However, while these cosmetic improvements will certainly enhance the appearance of the bed, I would like to put on record that it seems unlikely that, no matter how neatly the bed is made, this item would be suitable for display at the prestigious NGMA.

I would also like to draw attention to the fact that there are suspected blood stains on the bed sheet. Please advise if we should send the sheet to CID or RAW for analysis.

Yours sincerely,

Very Important Person at National Gallery of Modern Art,

Anju Dodiya’s Room for Erasures

In Anju Dodiya’s new show, Room for Erasures, there’s a painting titled Pink Scream. In it, you see a woman, seated and wearing a pink robe. She’s holding a paintbrush in one hand and the expression on her face is one of shock. She looks like she’s about to leap up. Facing this painter is an enormous, misshapen head. It’s as though the brain is spilling out of the skull. Pink Scream is a strange painting because it’s a moment from a horror film put together using delicate watercolours. At the same time, there’s something almost comically theatrical in the posture and expression of the painter. Then there’s the head. You’ve seen that face. It’s shown up in a number of Dodiya’s paintings. Pink Scream is the artist seeing how she’s emerged in her own works — it isn’t a straightforward likeness; it’s out of her control.

Dodiya draws on her own experiences, places them without much facade into her art and then leaves it to the viewer to piece together a narrative or draw connections with a larger context. She’s unusual in this, so far as Indian art is concerned. Usually, our artists create works that are steeped in concepts rather than autobiography. Yet, if you ask her about her paintings, Dodiya doesn’t talk about the personal angle in her works despite having put herself on display. Some may find this frustrating, but it’s one of the aspects of Dodiya’s art that I’ve loved over the years. The experiences may be Dodiya’s but the feelings are not particular to her. We’ve all felt them —self-consciousness about the way we look, the sense of being scarred, the need to create an emotional distance between the facade we hold up in public and our private selves, the desire to erase and make new beginnings. The best of Dodiya’s art is rich with finesse and sophisticated technique that just about contains feelings that are as raw as a freshly-picked wound.

Perhaps my expectations were too high, but while Room for Erasures has many beautiful paintings, only a few of the works made me catch my breath. Beasts, for example, throbs with a picturesque violence that is chilling. In one corner is a blood spatter that would cheer Dexter’s heart. Below the figure of a woman is being torn apart by animals. A fat, red curling ribbon of blood lies near her. The colours in the painting are dark and earthy, and so all you see at first is the blood, a woman’s outstretched arm and her face. It doesn’t have the over-the-top expression of Pink Scream. The muted expression on her face, however, is far more expressive. The horror of being attacked when you’re defenceless is unmistakable.

There was a theatricality in many of them that made me nostalgic for Dodiya’s older paintings, which would whisper rather than yelp. Still, there are some wonderful works, like Altar For Erasures, which comes with this instruction: “These three drawings are available for every adult viewer to erase.” (Note: the stress on “adult”. A blank canvas is not child’s play.) The enormous wall pieces have little step ladders before them and a shelf of erasers. I can’t imagine anyone actually rubbing out any part of the delicate, wraith-like drawings, but there are a few darkened, knobbly erasers on the shelf.

One of my favourites in the show is the series of digital prints placed in a mat of painted canvas, titled Circuit of Erasures. Dodiya lets you glimpse how she has been viewed and how the images of herself have surfaced in her work. Some of the photos highlight discoloured patches on her skin, as though her face is a watercolour mask with sections that are being erased or repainted. One of the most poignant images in Circuit of Erasures shows Dodiya caged in a woven pattern. You ache for her to come out of those restraints.

I confess, I’m a bit of a Anju Dodiya fangirl. I have a soft spot for women who can articulate angst honestly and beautifully, without becoming self-indulgent and whiny. It’s a forgivable bias, no?

Nicole Durvasula’s I Am Here

Nicole Durvasula's The Reddy Maid II
Nicole Durvasula’s The Reddy Maid II

It’s not everyday that an extra from a Nagarjuna film has a solo exhibition in a posh, south Mumbai art gallery, but Nicola Durvasula is one such artist. Durvasula is a rare bird. Not because of her cinematic repertoire but because of the unusual confluence of influences from different times and parts of the world in her art.
Despite her Indian-sounding surname, Durvasula is British. Born in Jersey, United Kingdom, Durvasula’s decision to visit India in the late ’80s proved to be a turning point. She met the man she’d marry and from 1992 to 2002, Durvasula lived in India as a wife, mother and artist, steeping herself in both the intricacies of everyday life as well as the ideas that were swirling in the contemporary art scene. I Am Here, which is on display at Galerie Mirchandani+Steinruecke, is a collection of paintings, drawings and sculptural installations both old and new. You wouldn’t expect a bubbling sense of humour in works made by a woman whose interest in South Asian artistic traditions began with an admiration for the elegant lines and delicate washes of colour in ancient Buddhist art, but I Am Here is fun.
Enter the gallery and in the niche to your right hangs a jharu. It looks like a regular jharu until you see the end that is usually used for sweeping. It’s been braided to look like a plait. Meet “The Reddy Maid II”. Further inside is “The Reddy Maid”, which is a pochha (the cloth used to swab floors) that has been neatly and ceremoniously framed. There are a number of household objects that appear in I Am Here. Usually, the person who uses them is dehumanised because we consider the work menial — we Indians are notorious for how we disrespect and mistreat domestic help and housewives — but Durvasula does the exact opposite. She humanises objects that keep a house clean and in order, lending everything from a mosquito coil to a surface cleanser dignity, grace and wit.
There are some delightful examples of mix-and-match in Durvasula’s work. East meets West, historical meets modern, taste meets tasteless (but tastefully). One watercolour has Wajid Ali Shah alongside the weeping woman from Roy Lichtenstein’s “Hopeless”. “Post-colonialism II” shows a face that could be out of a Mughal miniature strategically poised under a porn star who, while striking her pose, looks like a wraith because of Durvasula’s almost-invisible, fine lines. Steel tumblers that make you thirst for filter kapi raise a toast to Constantin Brancusi’s “The Endless Column”. Incense sticks look like brutal gashes, reminiscent of Lucio Fontana’s slashed canvases. Hoshang Merchant, Pablo Picasso, Apple, Nagarjuna (who becomes a bit part actor because in the little video, it’s Durvasula who is the star since the snippet is her story rather than the superstar’s) — the cameos in I Am Here are many.
On one wall are a series of heads, drawn using a Biro pen and stamp-pad ink. Those who have attended art openings will recognise many of the faces because they’re all portraits of artists, gallerists and critics whose approval gives on the stamp of acceptance in Indian contemporary art. How fitting, then, that the media for this work are a pen and that distinctive purplish ink, the staple tools in government offices, banks and other places that have the power to accept and reject people and proposals.
All this tongue-in-cheek wit doesn’t mean there’s no poignancy in Durvasula’s work. Even at its most jocular, there’s a softness and fragility in her art. One series of untitled figures has a tentative quality that is particularly moving. The drawings are a palimpsest of bodies as seen in Western sculpture, sweeps of colour and Buddhist-art inspired faces. It’s almost as though the men and women are undecided about which aspect of themselves to show or nervous about appearing wholly and entirely on the paper. They’re here, but just out of reach. And I wonder, where should we look to learn where Durvasula has hidden herself in the hushed lines of her art?

So Long, Farewell

Indulge me as I get a bit nostalgic because, dear reader, I’m vacating this spot. Technically, I shouldn’t get sniffly about this being my last column because now, there’ll be more time to work on the book that I’ve been promising myself I’d write. But even as I type this, I’m remembering how, in what now seems like another lifetime, I wrote a book. It was a biography of the artist most of us know as Raja Ravi Varma (despite the fact that he was not a king or even a prince. Blame it on the Brits — they mistakenly added the Raja to his name and he, cannily, didn’t point out the error of their ways). I’m not particularly fond of Varma’s paintings, but his is an intriguing story about the beginning of a modern Indian art and that was enough to convince me I could write the book while working full-time. My memories of that year are vague, probably because I ran for months on roughly two hours of sleep per day. That wasn’t the worst part. The real horror was encountering writer’s block every day and looking at each sentence I typed — whether for an article or the book — and wondering how badly it read to someone who wasn’t running on two hours of sleep.
Here’s what I know for certain: all 284 pages of the book got written as did every assignment I had as the art critic for a fortnightly magazine. The other thing I remember from that year is the relief I would feel when I’d walk into a gallery and realise it was a good exhibition on display. The internal debate about whether it would be simpler to find the words to describe the show or to throw myself off a balcony would come later. At the moment when I stood in front of art that wasn’t self-important or rubbish, the gallery turned into a bubble that didn’t let in the neuroses that swarmed the world outside. It was enchanted. That was when I realised how much fun I have viewing art.
I started seeing contemporary art because I got a job as an art writer. Before that, my exposure to contemporary art was limited, to put it mildly. When on holiday abroad, I sometimes wandered around museums happily and cluelessly. At home, I didn’t know where any of the galleries were, nor did I know contemporary Indian artists and their works. My foggy notion of Indian art began with ancient sculptures and ended with a blurry awareness of the paintings of FN Souza and MF Husain. From the little I’d seen, I thought art was something one admired from a distance rather than enjoyed.
For my last stand as Culture Mulcher, I’d like to share a rarely-disclosed nugget — an artist may begin the process of creating art but you the viewer complete it. The artist’s responsibility is to be as creative as they can be. Yours is to have fun while viewing the work. If it doesn’t engage you, then the art has failed at some level, regardless of what astronomical figure it’s valued at by the fanciest of auction houses. Don’t let the forbidding artspeak or the silence of a gallery daunt you because the art inside — bizarre, ugly, ridiculous, pompous or beautiful — is itching to have a conversation with you. Whether it’s Subodh Gupta slathering dung over his naked self or Sheba Chhachhi giving the concept of magic lantern a modern makeover or Sarnath Banerjee making portraits of losers, the works are the artists’ earnest attempts at drawing you into the world of their imagination.
Contrary to popular belief, it’s not a difficult world to enter. I know because I did it, despite not having any sort of academic background in art and very little experience of viewing art. A little more than half a decade later, I’m actually sad to not have the pressure of writing about art shows because they’re more fun when you can share how they made you feel. Often, talking and writing about it helps make sense of what’s going on in an exhibition. The first step, though, is viewing art. So go visit galleries. Once inside, giggle, curse and question. That’s why the work of art was made in the first place.


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