CONTEMPORARY ART EXHIBITIONS INTRA-ASIAN ART EXCHANGE
In ancient Chinese Buddhist texts, India was referred to as the “West Heavens”. To pious monks in China, India was the land where their revered philosophy originated, and some, such as the famous Xuanzang of the Tang Dynasty, travelled west to bring home the scriptures that were to become the foundation of the numerous Chinese schools of Buddhism.
The West Heavens Project is a rare effort between China and India, now both rising powers in the globalised world economy, to continue that century-old cultural dialogue. Consisting of an art exhibition and a series of intellectual forums, the project marks the first major artistic engagement between India and China.
The project’s commissioner and academic director is Johnson Chang Tsong-zung, art director of Hanart TZ Gallery and guest professor of China Art Academy. “I hope it will make the Chinese public see India with a fresh eye. The intention of the project, I hope, is to reshape Chinese imagination about India,” said Mr Chang to the New York Times.
Cross-cultural curatorial experiment
The art exhibition, titled “Place · Time · Play: India-China Contemporary Art Exhibition“, was held in Shanghai from 30 October to 20 December 2010. The curator, Chaitanya Sambrani, is senior lecturer at the School of Art, Australian National University. As he states on the event’s website:
We intend this project to be a curatorial experiment. We have encouraged the Indian artists to create works targeted at the Chinese audience, without the intention of ultimately submitting to the scrutiny of other international platforms. They have been asked to treat China as a laboratory for testing new ideas, and as an object of desire or critique.
For those who missed the spectacular exhibition, here is a selection of artworks on display by four artists:
Nilima Sheikh’s Over Land (2010)
Over Land by Indian artist Nilima Sheikh consists of fourteen exquisitely fabricated silk scrolls on which images of trees, birds, monkeys and dragons are painted and stencilled. Hanging from the high ceiling of the dimly lit Anglican chapel that is the site of the former consul, the artwork creates a silent aura of sacredness. To the artist, this is the quiet power of visual telegraphy, of speaking through images, of conversing in shared space. In Sheikh’s own words:
Looking at prayer flags fluttering over land in Himalayan Buddhist sites, I have often wondered what words and pictures in the air do? They incant prayers, send messages across? I feel attracted to the simplicity of this visual telegraphy, of hope. I thought I too could practice sending messages. Not in the habit of the religious codes, I need to develop my own conventions of sharing: to speak of the yours and ours, of histories of regions understood by small conversations. And, with lessons from the great pictorial traditions of China, learn to inhabit the air.
Tushar Joag’s Riding Rocinante: From Bombay to Shanghai via Sardar Sarovar and the Three Gorges (2010)
Riding Rocinante: From Bombay to Shanghai via Sardar Sarovar and The Three Gorges documents the journey of Indian artist Tushar Joag on his motorcycle, named Rocinante after Don Quixote’s horse. In the artist’s mind, the imagery of “journey” is replete with symbolism. His journey from India to China is inspired by those holy voyages undertaken by Buddhist monks and by Prince Siddhartha Gautama himself, whose travels led to moments of transformation and a turning point in his life. To Joag, his experience has been no less enlightening:
My journey is perhaps more Quixotic than heroic. However, more than a journey from point A to B it is a journey towards myself.
The installation piece consists of maps, a suit, and dismantled parts of the motorcycle placed in dislocation from one another.
Gulammohammed Sheikh’s CITY: Memory, Dreams, Desire, Statues and Ghosts; Return of Hiuen Tsang (2010)
The image of the Buddhist monk is again explored in Gulammohammed Sheikh‘s CITY: Memory, Dreams, Desire, Statues and Ghosts; Return of Hiuen Tsang. As an artist, writer and educator, Sheikh’s project CITY is an ongoing exploration of those spaces where memory, dreams and desires are born and experienced. In his work for “West Heavens”, he invites the viewer into the landscape mapped on standing and ground panels resembling an archaeological site with solitary human figures.
Imagine the eye as a periscope that miniaturises the most wayward detail, imagine the mind of a fabulist who recreates the stuff of boyhood dreams and enlist the scholar who compresses and weaves together the pages of art history: Gulammohammed Sheikh challenges his viewer with such a slew of visual material. On a canvas imploding with detail he compels the viewer’s attention onto seemingly contradictory pathways.
Qiu Zhijie’s Railway from Lhasa to Kathmandu (2010)
Imagine travelling the distance from Lhasa to Kathmandu on foot, with shackles such that your steps were controlled at 33 inches long. This is what Chinese artist Qiu Zhijie did in his piece Railway from Lhasa to Kathmandu, in order to re-enact the journey undertaken by Indian spy Nain Singh in 1865, whose steps were trained to measure 33 inches in order to construct a correct roadmap of the region. Qiu also collected iron objects along the way and recast them to form four rails, each 33 inches long. Read Joyce Hor-chung Lau of The New York Times describe the exhibit:
‘Railway from Lhasa to Kathmandu’ by Qiu Zhijie touches on many of West Heavens’ recurrent themes: faith, colonialism and the crossing of national boundaries. Mr. Qiu, who usually works with electronic media like photo or video, commissioned traditional artisans who make thangka, a type of Tibetan embroidered painting that is often used for religious purposes, particularly by Buddhist monks. These modern thangkas, hanging in that eerie old dorm, tell the tale of Nain Singh Rawat, an Indian spy hired by a British captain to travel to Lhasa disguised as a lama, in order to map the area. The installation was accompanied by an ankle shackle bolted to the floor.
Need for intra-Asian art exchange
Other participating artists in the exhibition include familiar names like Raqs Media Collective, Atul Bhalla, Liu Dahong and Hu Xiangcheng, among others. The parallel series of intellectual forums, the India-China Summit on Social Thought, that is part of the West Heavens Project is still ongoing.
To organisers, this is just the beginning of a long overdue cultural exchange between two emerging Asian powers. Their common pasts and development trajectories mean that there is much fertile ground for communication and exchange of ideas. As stated by organisers of the Summit,
For more than a century, challenges of imperialism and capitalism have forced India and China to develop strategies that have profoundly transformed both societies. To share this experience is valuable for Indian and Chinese artists alike.
After a century of revolutions and reforms, as a ‘modern’ culture China is still strongly under the spell of a bipolar ‘East/West’ mentality. This frame of mind has helped China to see itself through the mirror of the West, but it has also seriously impaired other dimensions of cultural perception. A similar predicament faces India, and several other Asian countries to different degrees. Intra-Asian exchanges are now urgent, both for furthering self-understanding and opening local resources hidden by established discourses.
To critic Lee Ambrozy, West Heavens has made that first step to bring about intra-Asian exchanges. “As the first major show to introduce arts from greater Asia, it exceeded an outdated China/West dichotomy and explored common issues,” he writes on Art Forum. “Significantly, half of the works occupied a former dormitory for British monks in an old Shanghai concession neighbourhood near the Bund, forming a new post-imperialist conversation on the ruins of a former ideological fortress.”
The art world can expect that the burgeoning dialogue between China and India will produce more spectacular works like those shown in the West Heavens Project.
- Galleries say début Art Stage Singapore brings diversity ART HK lacks – January 2011 – the works from 26 countries showcased in Singapore with strong Asian audience
- Singapore Biennale 2011, 28 of 63 exhibiting artists are from Asia – January 2011 – a list of Asian artists who participated in the Singapore Biennale
- 500+ articles on Chinese contemporary art available on new Yishu online – January 2010 – new resources available as the formerly print-only journal goes online
- South Asian contemporary art scene: Five artists to watch – January 2011 – Art Radar shows you the works of five emerging artists from India and Pakistan
- 3 Indian and 2 Chinese artists in top 10 for sculpture auction revenue – Artprice – December 2010 – read about the works of the five artists in this article