At a talk organised on 21 September 2011 by Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong, Ranjit Hoskote, the curator of the Indian Pavilion at the 2011 Venice Biennale, shared his image of the event as a shift from spectacle to search engine, nationality to cultural citizenship.

A talk by Ranjit Hoskote at Hong Kong's Asia Art Archive. Image courtesy Asia Art Archive.

A talk by Ranjit Hoskote held at Hong Kong's Asia Art Archive in September 2011. Image courtesy Asia Art Archive.

The biennale: A historical consideration

Curator Ranjit Hoskote began his talk by identifying three main types of biennale representing key dates in art history. The first is the Venetian model, epitomised by the Venice Biennale, which was inaugurated in 1895 and had its roots in “global” events such as The Great Exhibition held in London in 1851, the first of a series of World’s Fairs, and the Paris-based World’s Fair, the Exposition Universelle, held in 1889. Hoskote noted that some of the attributes of this style of art event can be seen in today’s art fairs, including “a notion of the world as a source of collection-making”, and “the idea that such festivity is a spectacle”.

The arrival of Kassel’s documenta in 1955, the second type of biennale classified by the speaker, signaled a move away from this model, and the self-assertiveness of the Venice Biennale in its consideration of global art gave way to a self-critical tone. Hoskote identified a third kind of biennale, born in the Global South, and dubbed it the “biennale of resistance”. The São Paulo Biennial, which began in 1951, and the Triennale-India, which began in 1968, were cited as examples: “The Trienniale-India was a way of actualising the Nehruvian vision of being able to speak from the formerly colonised world and yet to have a global vision,” he explained.

Click here for more information on the talk by Ranjit Hoskote at Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong.

Talk by Ranjit Hoskote at Asia Art Archive. Image courtesy Asia Art Archive

Ranjit Hoskote speaking at Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong in September 2011. Image courtesy Asia Art Archive.

How best to represent a nation?

From this historical viewpoint, Hoskote brought to his listeners a question that lies at the core of the Venice Biennale, one that haunts those curatorially responsible for each of the national pavilions included in the recent editions of the event: How can a select number of artists, styles and mediums represent the cultural output of an entire nation?

Using the 2011 Indian Pavilion as an example, Hoskote noted that, due to the social and ideological diversity of the country the Pavilion was representing, it would be impossible to conceive of a singular, all-encompassing cultural identity.

To my mind, the idea of a national culture is not only absurd in India, it is also dangerous. If there is anything such as an official culture in India, it tends to be premised on a certain internal paradox. On the one hand, there is the claim that post-colonial India inherits several thousands of years of history as a territory, but at the same time it asserts itself as a modern and modernising entity. The question, to me, would be: Does one really need to go along with the idea of an official culture? When artistic practice seems to be zooming off in different directions, what would be the value of centralising it as an official culture?

Zarina Hashmi, 'Home is a Foreign Place' (1999) in "Everybody Agrees: It's About to Explode," Indian Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale, Arsenale, Venice, 2011. Portfolio of 36 woodcuts with Urdu text printed in black on Kozo paper, mounted on Somerset paper, ed 25, approx 45 x 37.5 cm each, framed. Photo credit ART iT.

Zarina Hashmi, 'Home is a Foreign Place', 1999, in "Everybody Agrees: It's About to Explode", Indian Pavilion, 54th Venice Biennale. Portfolio of 36 woodcuts with Urdu text printed in black on Kozo paper, mounted on Somerset paper, ed. 25, approx. 45 x 37.5 cm each, framed. Image credit: ART iT.

The Indian Pavilion: diverse voices

This year, 2011, marked the first time in the history of the Venice Biennale that India has had official representation at the event. Work by three artists and one collective was selected for the Lalit Kala Akademi-organised Indian Pavilion for an exhibition titled “Everyone agrees: it’s about to explode”. In his role as curator of the space, Hoskote wanted to shift the perspective of the show from nationality to cultural citizenship, from official culture to transnational practice. “What is it that gives you cultural citizenship?” he questioned. “What might allow you to claim cultural citizenship of a country, even when you do not live in or are no longer a citizen of that place?”

Hoskote’s curatorial vision for the Indian Pavilion was to present cultural citizenship as an alternative idea to the traditional one-nation-one-culture structure and to achieve this he chose artists who do not necessarly live in India, are from different backgrounds and have varied artistic output. The work Home is a Foreign Place (1999), a series of six woodblock prints produced by Zarina Hashmi, incorporates as its subject both the historical trauma of post-colonial India caused by the Partition of the country as well as the questions and concerns faced by the Indian diaspora. Residue, by Desire Machine Collective, a film projection which features an abandoned thermal power plant, meditates on the beauty of the ruin and its existence as a memory of India’s period of heavy industrialisation.

Elevator from the Subcontinent, by Gigi Scaria, is a video installation in which the viewer enters an automatic door where he or she is enclosed by three screens plunging him or her through descending levels of imagery which allude to the archaeology and the diversity of social life in India. For Hoskote, the idea of mobility is of particular value when attempting to characterise Indian art today. It was important to him to include Gigi Scaria in the Pavilion show because the artist “represents a certain internal migration within India. Why do people flow as they do? Why do people move from one city to another?”

Gigi Scaria, "Elevator from the Subcontinent" (2011), 3-screen video installation at the Indian Pavilion. Image courtesy Asia Art Archive

Gigi Scaria, 'Elevator from the Subcontinent', 2011, 3-screen video installation, shown at Indian Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2011. Image courtesy Asia Art Archive.

Desire Machine Collective, "Residue" (2010/2011),  35mm film at the Indian Pavilion. Image courtesy Asia Art Archive.

Desire Machine Collective, 'Residue', 2010/2011, 35mm film, shown at Indian Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2011. Image courtesy Asia Art Archive.

Living and working both in Amsterdam and Kolkata Praneet Soi’s work illustrates the different temporalities in which individuals live today. For the slide projection Kumartuli Printer (2010/ 2011) the artist worked together with marginalised people from northern Kolkata. The mural that he painted on-site in Venice consists of drawings from media images and photos, in a collage that brings together different times and places to the surface of the wall.

Biennales as search engines

Hoskote’s belief in the impossibility of a single culture for a single nation means that for him, the Venetian biennale model, structured as it is around national pavilions, is outdated. However, as much as the Venice Biennale is criticised for its association with the spectacular and as much as the structure of the pavilions may be becoming irrelevant, Hoskote still sees value in the event as a site for collaboration between artists, curators and other art professionals. According to Hoskote, the importance of the Biennale in the development of Indian contemporary art lies in its ability to amplify feedback, naming the event and others like it “search engines” for new art, ideas and possibilities.

Praneet Soi, 'Workstation', 2011, acetate and drawing. Image courtesy Asia Art Archive.

Praneet Soi, 'Workstation', 2011, acetate and drawing, shown at Indian Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2011. Image courtesy Asia Art Archive.


Related Topics: Indian artists, biennales and biennials, curatorial practice, lectures and talks

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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