CONTEMPORARY INDIAN ART BIENNALES ART TALKS
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.
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.
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?
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?”
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.
- Indian art season in France: installation dominates 2 major museum shows – July 2011 – polarised views on Indian contemporary art at two French museums
- Asian pavilions at the 54th Venice Biennale – first critic response – June 2011 – for more on Asia at Venice, including a focus on the Indian Pavilion
- India’s Experimenter focuses on the “now” with RAQS and Kolkata location – an interview with Prateek Raja – September 2010 – a beacon for the new trend of Indian contemporary gallery spaces
- Globalisation of contemporary art market evident in growth of art fairs – The Economist – August 2010 – how art fairs accelerate the transnational exposure of artists
- Mixed reviews for Serpentine’s Indian Highway show in London – Evening Standard, Independent – December 2008 – get to know some of India’s most celebrated artists
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