CONTEMPORARY INDIAN ART FRANCE MUSEUM SHOWS
With two important exhibitions showing Indian artists during the 2011 summer, France seems to be at long last looking at the art of the subcontinent with curiosity. Paris-based art scholar and Art Radar guest writer Christine Vial Kayser takes us inside both.
The first exhibition, called “Paris-Delhi-Bombay”, is on at the Centre Pompidou in Paris until 19 September 2011 and the second, called “Indian Highway IV”, wraps up at the Musée d’art contemporain (MAC) de Lyon (Museum of Contemporary Art at Lyon) at the end of July 2011. Despite showing a similar selection of artists, the two events convey two quite different views on Indian contemporary art due to their particular settings, choice of works and curatorial processes.
“Paris-Delhi-Bombay” is curated by two French art professionals, neither of them specialists of Indian art, Fabrice Bousteau, director of the influential BeauxArts magazine, and Sophie Duplaix, curator-in-chief of contemporary collections at the Musee National d’Art Moderne (National Museum of Modern Art). Though the exhibition press information states that various Indian critics and art historians were also involved in the artist and artwork selection process, they are not named, except for the few Indian critics that provide commentary in the show’s catalogue.
The title of the exhibition, “Paris-Delhi-Bombay”, has been borrowed from a seminal series of exhibitions held at Pompidou in the late Seventies called “Paris-Berlin”, “Paris-New York” and “Paris-Moscow”. These exhibitions were particularly innovative because they took into account the social and political context of the artistic and intellectual dialogue that ran between Paris, New York, Berlin and Moscow in eras past. Similarly, “Paris-Delhi-Bombay” purports to establish a dialogue between France and India, and to examine the social context of this exchange. It is a pity then that the title retains the colonial name “Bombay” instead of recognising the return to Mumbai; the exhibition generally conveys a feeling of enclosure within French national boundaries.
Despite the aims implied by the origins of the exhibition’s title, it seems the curators want to examine the present and not the past. They have not, for example, examined the influence of the École de Paris (School of Paris) on Indian artists in the Fifties, among them S. H. Raza, whose work has yet to feature in a major French museum. There is little dialogue between France and India at the present time, and the organisers have asked contemporary Indian and French artists, born mostly later than the Sixties, to contribute work to the show, with more than two-thirds of the artists creating new works. In particular, artists were asked to explore the social and cultural transformations that the economic development of the Nineties has induced in India.
Some French artists did indeed make work that looks at a changing Indian society: video artist Camille Henrot, for example, shows a film that confronts the medieval rituals still taking place in India within its cutting edge pharmaceutical industry; Philippe Ramette shows a charming figurative sculpture expressing the fight for social recognition by Indian women; Pierre et Gilles filled their iconic kitsch and sexually charged photographs with representations of Hindu deities in a style reminiscent of Bollywood cinema; ORLAN‘s mixed Indian/French flag made with glittering plastic disks is suggestive of the ability of Indian people to produce the marvellous from the cheap.
Others have made yet another (very large) work in their usual style that deals with their usual subject matter (Gilles Barbier, Jean-Michel Othoniel), while Stéphane Calais, who refused to travel to India, exhibits unconvincing drawings of an imagined India made with Chinese ink on paper. The best of all works by French participants is the installation by Jean-Luc Moulène, which blends sculpture, photography and film to examine the elusive shape represented in a tantric yantra. It is one of the few works with no social or historical dimension.
As for the Indian artists asked to contribute work to the exhibition, only some have made works that attempt to establish a dialogue with France. Bharti Kher exhibits her trademark bindis (a forehead decoration worn in South Asia, traditionally a small red dot applied to the centre of the forehead) stuck on a series of seventeenth century French mirrors, a sign, she says, of the illusionary quality of the real world. The work does not seem to be the result of a genuine dialogue with French contemporary society and is yet another version of the similar installations made with mirrors from other times and places, proving at best the universal quality of the concept. Pushpamala N. exhibits pictures derived from iconic images from French art history, such as Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix, which seem to deal with the continuous treatment of women as objects of contemplation, both in France and in India.
Subodh Gupta has made yet another Indian bazaar, this one called Ali Baba, and with it fills a whole room with shining pots and pans. The installation evokes Kitchen Bazaar, a French chain store that sells kitchenware. Gupta openly declares that his works simply reflect what he sees, without change, and the fact that the catalogue shows a picture of an actual bazaar, instead of Gupta’s work, confirms this. More interesting, though lengthy, erratic and with too many stories intertwined, is the comparison between Indian and French transvestites (some of Algerian origin) by Kader Attia. The piece shows, among other things, that transvestites in India are seen as entertainers, bringing good luck to important social events like wedding ceremonies, whereas in France they are often found working as prostitutes.
A video by Amar Kanwar, called The Sovereign Forest, refers to the threat on the natural scenery of the Indian state of Orissa from a proposed mining project. The work should have been the apex of an exhibition that aims to cast light on the complexity of social change in India, but instead it exemplifies all the survey’s shortcomings. Neither the artwork’s exhibition panel nor the text in the catalogue gives a full explanation of the situation. In suggesting that Amar’s subject is a classic case of conflict of interest between environmentalists, local indigenous tribes and industrialists, similar to, for example, conflicts in the Amazonian forest in Brazil, means the exhibition misses an opportunity to reveal to its audience one of the darkest aspects of Indian development.
As a whole, the relatively small exhibition space, 1000 metres squared in total, is overloaded with mostly big, talkative and shallow works of a different media, subject matter and point of view, created by 57 different artists. The individual artwork descriptions, sometimes sibylline, sometimes long and confusing, are in great contrast to the information presented in the survey’s introductory room, which is packed with historical and sociological facts yet very inartistically designed. An astounding sculpture, Tara by Ravinder Reddy, is enshrined in the middle of the space’s orange wall and questions the fusion between the mythical and the vernacular in Indian tradition, where a woman, even a humble peasant, is an image of Devi (in Hinduism), or Tara (in Buddhism), and thus an object of cult, as is shown in the famous film by Satyajit Ray, Devi (1960).
Among this crowd and noise is one huge yet very quiet work that almost escapes the visitor’s attention. By Krishnaraj Chonat and called My hands smell of you, the installation is designed in two parts. The first part consists of a wall of used telephones and other used electronic devices and draws attention to the recycling of electronic material dumped by the West, which is a pillar of the Indian economy and an industry that relies on the exploitation of an unqualified and illiterate workforce. Placed in the corridor leading to the exhibition’s introductory space, it is easily overlooked. The back of the wall, visible only when a visitor reaches the very end of the exhibition, houses an orange map that resembles an electronic chip and is made of soap smelling of Santal. The concept of the piece, that the dirty work done in India allows environments in the West to remain clean and fragrance-filled, is admirable, yet it is lost to the viewer because of the work’s placement within the exhibition. This particular choice of artwork placement is exemplary of the tone of the whole exhibition: complex to the point of being obtuse; difficult to grasp because of its lack of direction; demanding from its audience a great deal of patience and reading; showing a few interesting works among many that are pretentious and conceited.
Indian Highway IV
The Lyon show stands in stark contrast with the event in Paris. The exhibition’s 31 works are displayed in a space 2000 metres squared in size and both Western and Indian curators were responsible for their selection. The exhibition has travelled to several European museums and galleries on its way to Delhi, India, and each institution has adapted the show to suit its space and ethos. In the process a dialogue between artist, work and place has been established. Some of the works are repetitions or declinations of the Paris show: pots and pans by Subodh Gupta; plastic animal skeletons and vehicles by Jitish Kallat; comics books by Sarnath Barnejee; a series of iconic art figures such as Marcel Duchamp by N. S. Harsha; the slums of Mumbai by Hema Upadhya; and advertising campaigns and wallpaper by Thukral and Tagra. Such repetition makes the works appear to be simple artefacts based on formula.
Yet other artists present in both exhibitions show very different works. This is the case with Sakshi Gupta, whose Freedom is Everything (2007), a carpet made of metal nuts and bolts and presented in Paris, is as strong and beautiful as her Landscape of Waking Memories of the same year, which is presented at Lyon. Another few striking pieces are worth description. A whole room is dedicated to sequences of videos by Amar Kanwar. The Lightning Testimonies tell the stories of woman who have been driven mad by the sexual violence inflicted upon them by soldiers during “liberation wars.” The inescapable terror of the situation is visually engaging and his treatment of it is subtler than in his video The Sovereign Forest, shown at Pompidou.
Bharti Kher’s surrealist sculpture Choleric, phlegmatic, melancholy, sanguine (2009-2010) evokes a mythical submarine figure and is much less decipherable, hence more interesting, than her mirrors with bindis. Nalini Malani‘s paintings of surrealists and indigenous figures are engagingly strange, more so than the installation of hers shown in Paris, enslaved as it is to a political discourse on women and violence and for which her imagination seems ill suited. And last, but definitely not least, Subodh Gupta’s arrangement of rusted chairs, old typewriters and files bundled in a beautiful yet dusty red fabric, called Date by Date (2008), elicits mixed feelings of nostalgia and relief: nostalgia for picturesque symbols of a disappearing practice, here a rural lawyer’s office, and relief for the memories of corruption and inefficiency that they entail.
It is too bad that both exhibitions appear to elicit some kind of cult of youth and a preference for installation over painting, choosing to avoid, for example, the wonderful talents of Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh, born in 1937 and one of the most innovative of Indian artists. It is also sad that for the sake of exposing social contexts, the curators of both exhibitions overlook the poetical, the religious and the metaphysical as being too “exotic” an image of India to be explored.
Christine Vial Kayser is an art scholar and curator living and working in Paris, France. She graduated with a PhD in from the Paris IV-Sorbonne University in 2010 and has been the curator and director of Musée-Promenade since 2008. She has lectured in contemporary Chinese and Indian art at IESA since 2010.
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