ART GALLERY SHOW ASIAN ART IDENTITY CURATOR INTERVIEW
“Structures Within an Intervention“, a show that was on at The Guild Art Gallery, New York, was centered on the various relationships that exist in the art world. Relationships that determine the place of an artist, curator, dealer, buyer, critic and the spectator in relationship with each other under the institutional umbrella of a gallery space, function as the central premise for an interventionist re-thinking of the lines between artist, curator and spectator.
The show consisted of five “interventions“, scheduled at specific times, which were open for anyone to witness. With each intervention, the meaning of the work and the artist’s intention were reworked into a new context. Participating artists and artist collaborators included Afruz Amighi, Anindita Dutta, Divya Mehra, Fawad Khan, Mariam Ghani, Michael Buhler Rose, Nidhi Jalan, Rajkamal Kahlon, artist project Redo Pakistan (Fatima Hussain and Hamja Ahsan), Swati Khurana and Vandana Jain.
Art Radar Asia spoke with Meenakshi Thirukode, curator of “Structures Within an Intervention”, about the show and the various issues that have arisen within and from the interventions.
How did “Structures Within an Intervention” come about?
All of my curatorial projects are essentially dialogs – a continuation of dialog to be precise. For me curating is one form of trying to find answers or just have a conversation or perhaps even find some kind of reconciliation between the idea of the institution and the idea of the individual. So, when The Guild Art Gallery asked me to curate a project for them, one of these dialogs manifested as “Structures Within An Intervention.” I don’t work from the standpoint of thematic contexts. I think that’s a regressive way of contextualizing any practice. There has to be some kind of deeper more genuine search.To go beyond expectations, categories, niches: it’s the need to have that conversation and have it materialize as projects that are physical or ephemeral, definite or indefinite that is my focus.
“Structures Within an Intervention” features contemporary artists of Asian origin and a few of these artists straddle multiple media and follow specific ideologies. How did you select artists and works for this show?
The premise was already laid out for me by the institution. As The Guild gallery focuses on South Asian and Middle Eastern artists, I had to function within those parameters, so to speak. This was a perfect scenario because it is in a sense reflective of how contexts are created based on this very focused mission of commercial institutions. In a way, this is the gallery’s identity, one that it has every right to define just as artists or even curators define their own (by choice or by contexts others build around him/her). So how do all of these structures work then? What do we have to say beyond this obvious friction between institution and individual and all of the hierarchies within it? That is something we are trying to get at here.
I chose artists that I’ve been working with since I started to “function” in the art world as a writer and curator. I’ve written about their work or curated them in other projects. I’ve done so because I connect to their work and to me it’s important to nurture that relationship, to see the work progress, evolve, change or perhaps remain as is. Whatever the case might be my relationship to all these artists is important in terms of my curatorial practice and what my work is about – some I’ve known since the start of my career and others I am getting to know along the years. This continuity is pertinent to my work and given the premise under which I was asked to curate the show, it was a perfect segue into exploring all the intricacies and structures so to speak between artist, curator, gallery, collective and all the other myriad categories under which we all function in the art world.
The works were chosen predominantly by talking to the artist about this premise and seeing what they thought would work best. In that way, I was playing with the idea of authority and control – is it the curator who has the control and so called authority to choose the work or did it transfer to the artist? Or did I, as curator, allow the transfer of authority to artist in choosing the work they wanted to be a part of the project. Of course less romanticized factors like availability of the work also played a role in what work was ultimately part of the show.
It seems the interventions essentially seek to question some defined norms of social relations, personal and public, and institutional hierarchies under the umbrella of which we all seem to operate. Do these interventions manifest themselves via the work/the artist/the curator, or via the interaction of all of them? How, then, is it a move away from or within the defined systems of collectives/curatorial practice/artist as the creator of meaning?
Freedom is an interesting word. Because we presume we have freedom but most likely we don’t. From the start of the project, the way it culminated, the responses of artists and those invited to intervene, all of it embodied this notion of freedom and control and who was giving it and how much of it. Five interventions were set to take place and four of the interveners were artists whose practice extends beyond just their ‘individual’ practice to put it in simple terms. Parlour is a curatorial duo (Leslie Rosa-Stumpf and Ciara Gilmartin) and has proposed an intervention that will re-curate the exhibition in an attempt to bring the participating artists’ practices into a broader contemporary dialogue—not one tied to a definitive cultural milieu. New artists will be invited to be part of the conversation. Parlour alone functions predominantly as a curatorial duo but since their intervention is still to take place the context of their interaction is ambiguous. Town Hall Meeting (THM) describe themselves as performative art historians, AD HOC VOX‘s (AHV) Colleen Asper and Jennifer Dudley are artists but as AHV they are having their own critical dialogs about varied ideas both within and outside of what we call contemporary art. SHIFTER is a publication Sreshta Premnath co-founded with another artist. Greshams Ghost is Ajay Kurian, an artist who functions within the norms of a curator under this insignia.
Interestingly the four interventions that have taken place have all been more of a performance or what would seem like an artist’s intervention rather than a curatorial intervention. Of Course Parlour’s intervention is yet to take place so we would have to wait to see what they do. There was no sense of inclusion/exclusion or a presence of authority and control as would define a ‘curator’.
If work was being placed as in the case of AHV and Greshams Ghost, I did not tell them where to place it. They chose where to place the works. There was no attempt to move away from anything really because I don’t think exact defined roles exist in what we all do. How do we define performance even? During AHV’s intervention Swati Khurana, an artist in the show, did a performance with her grandmother called Lesson 1, which involved them knitting a ball of red yarn together concurrent to a reading that Colleen and Jennifer performed after installing their artwork in specific sites around the gallery space. We then celebrated her grandmom’s 80th birthday with a surprise birthday cake – is that performance? Did I, by suggesting we get cake, lead everyone into a performance no one knew they were participating in? Is that curatorial control then?
For instance, I have a blueprint on the wall where I’ve been documenting whatever has been placed or left behind or performed in the gallery space. It is a blueprint/a record in flux. In a way I am trying to exude control but do I have any? And by virtue of placing this blueprint on a wall am I functioning as an artist? Or am I strictly a curator? Are the interveners artists or curators or critics? Are they institutions since they have built an identity and a ‘brand’ with logos and mission statements separate from who they are as artists or writers? In fact, I have a logo and have created this pseudo institution of myself called MT Productions. So what does that make me? All those definitions and roles then seem redundant and I am just trying to see if that’s a justifiable statement through this project.
There are set dates and times for these interventions. Do these interventions, in themselves, become performative? Is the essential quality of the show dependent upon viewers witnessing these interventions? If yes, how so?
Viewer interaction was very key in all the interventions. With Town Hall Meeting and SHIFTER they were participants rather than mere ‘viewers’. While with AHV and Greshams Ghost it was more of an opening reception/reading/panel discussion kind of interaction.
Town Hall Meeting had prepared a questionnaire based on their reading of postcolonial theorists as well as essays and texts on the notion of the ‘other’. So the participant would sit with them, in a make shift tent they made in the gallery, thereby making it a small more comforting space within the abstract gallery space, and answer the questions. THM is in the process of compiling the answers.
Shifter’s intervention involved looking at works with torchlights while Trin T Minh-ha‘s lecture played. So the role of this ‘viewer’ has also been a point of exploration within established structures.
Many Asian artists, increasingly because of international gallery representations and greater exposure to international markets, fairs and increased interest in Asian art, have attained a global status. Their works are international in spirit but often deal with themes of displacement, identity and are culturally specific. Additionally, most artists featured in this show are international artists of Asian origin. How do these themes appear in this show? In the interventions so far, how have the artists responded to re-contextualizing their works?
The artists were chosen either because they were of South Asian or Middle-Eastern origin or had some connection to the region as embodied in their practice. This was a conscious choice reaffirmed to work within the gallery’s vision as well so as to have that ever-present dialog and debate of choosing artists and creating contexts based on nationality.
The process of inviting artists was interesting. So was the process of inviting those who would function as interventions. Most accepted to be a part of the show as artists while some had issues with being contextualized based on their South Asian identity, even though the point of the project was to set it up that way so that we could deal with all the problems associated with it. And that was great! It shows how some artists can be very cautious of how their work is being contextualized. It shows a need for control, perhaps. And so even before the project materialized here we were negotiating control! Here was a strain of dialog that’s always running through every other debate on the ‘other’ identity, the ‘non-Western’ identity, that was more pronounced now that we were specifically talking about a project that was ironically trying to discuss the problems of such contexts and if at all it can be resolved here.
In terms of responding to the actual interventions it’s always been positive and interesting when they give their feedback. They have been more open to all these different interactions and contexts. No sense of losing control even though it could have run through their mind at some point, I suppose. I can’t speak for them but it also brings up the notion of trust in my mind. The fact that I know most of them at a personal level, if not all, it’s less formal, so to speak. I mean of course there are consignment agreements and everything else related to formal structures between gallery and artists but there is still a sense of community here between all participants.
Do you plan a finale for the last day of the show?
There’s no finale. The project in its materialization at The Guild ceases to exist. The dialog still goes on.
Meenakshi Thirukode is a writer and curator based in New York. She graduated with honors for art critical and historical development from the masters program at Christie’s Education, New York. She has written for leading Indian newspaper The Hindu, and is a columnist for White Wall Magazine‘s online daily as well as artconcerns.com. Thirukode serves on the Christie’s Alumni Society Board (New York).
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