Art Radar takes a look at the similarities, contrasts and controversies surrounding the fifth leg of “Indian Highway” at Beijing’s Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA).

“Indian Highway”, an exhibition of contemporary Indian art at UCCA in Beijing, wrapped up on 19 August 2012. With the world’s two most populous nations’ economies and art worlds developing at a breakneck pace, observers found both parallels and contrasts.

Subodh Gupta, 'Take Off Your Shoes and Wash Your Hands', 2007, stainless steel kitchenware.

Major step for Sino-Indian cultural dialogue?

Despite their proximity and similar paths of development, Sino-Indian relations have been marked by a lack of mutual understanding, especially on the grassroots level. UCCA Director Philip Tinari told the China Daily that improving regional dialogue was one of the major aims behind hosting the exhibition.

‘It is interesting that when a Chinese person meets a Japanese, they speak English, and probably that Chinese knows more about London than Japan; surely there is a lack of understanding for neighbors in Asia,’ Tinari says.

[Tinari] says such an exhibition will provide an opportunity for Chinese audiences to know more about Indian contemporary art since there is a lack of communication between the two.

Jitish Kallat, 'Aquasaurus', 2008, paint, resin and steel. 'Aquasaurus' greeted visitors in the UCCA lobby.

Similarly, The Indian Express noted how the exhibition was organised against a “backdrop of ignorance”.

India and China may be closely monitoring each other’s fiscal progress, but in the visual arts there is little that they know of the other. With the exception of Ai Weiwei, most Indians would be unable to name a Chinese artist. On the other side, it isn’t any better. Indian art is seldom seen in China (Jitish Kallat showed in 2007) and there is little knowledge about most of India’s top artists.

Archana Jahagirdar, The Indian Express 

The Chinese Global Times noted that many Chinese visitors were drawn to the show by the opportunity to witness Indian contemporary culture and history first hand, with one observer noting that they could deduce from the art works that “Indians and Chinese share common concerns”.

Sudarshan Shetty, 'No Title', wood.

Observers find close similarities, stark contrasts

“Indian Highway”‘s Beijing leg brought an extra wrinkle of meaning to the works: What can these works say about the trajectories of the two growing world powers, as well as about Sino-Indian relations in general?

That the exhibition itself, the largest ever of Indian art to be staged in this country, is being held in China provides a unique contrast and unspoken commentary. Many of the works deal with issues that China clearly also faces, including overcrowding, pollution and a sense of helplessness at the everyday frustrations in a nation that is still very much in development.

Laura Fitch, City Weekend

‘Indian Highway’ is a pioneering project in China – an opportunity to highlight the unique relationship between the neighboring countries within [an] artistic context. It presents artistic commentary and analysis of the social, physical and political movement that accompanies an economic boom. Human migration, infrastructure and technological advancement (the title refers directly to the ‘information superhighway’, a development central to India’s global rise) are [as] decisive dynamics in China as [they are] in India.

“Indian Highway” exhibition text

Jagannath Panda, 'Cult of Survival', 2010, plastic pipe, auto paint, acrylic, fabric, glue, rexine and plastic flowers.

While observers in the Chinese press noted the developmental similarities between Chinese and Indian development, they did not often point out explicit connections between Indian and Chinese contemporary culture, instead citing differences in art infrastructure and international reception.

India’s unique history and culture was also reflected in the works on display.

Working within the restrains of religion and history, Indian artists often use elements that return to tradition. Even when addressing societal problems, they don’t seem to be as held captive by Western civilisation as one might imagine. Rather, they are more inclined to dwell on Eastern philosophy, which perhaps is the reason that these works appear so serene.

Wang Juan, Economic Observer Online

Others, however, thought the exhibition’s art works failed to capture the nuance of Indian contemporary art’s Eastern context.

Compared to the West Heaven [a Sino-Indian cross-cultural project sponsored by Hanart TZ Gallery Director Johnson Chang] programme’s close examination of China’s and India’s current situations and the specifics of their historical exchange, ‘Indian Highway’ to a greater extent reflects the crude work of a purely Western perspective and discourse of power.

Shen Boliang, ARTINFO China

Controversial work censored

One point of controversy that emerged a month into the exhibition was the removal of the work I Love My India by filmmaker Tejal Shah. UCCA officials removed the work at the behest of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, which had received complaints from the Indian community in China. The video addresses the 2002 violence between Hindus and Muslims in the Indian state of Gujarat, in which around 1,200 people, mostly Muslims, were killed.

Still from Tejal Shah, 'I Love My India', 2003, video.

The work’s removal prompted an outcry from the artistic community, who were shocked to see such an act of censorship perpetrated by the Indian government.

It’s terrible what they have done and I’m not comfortable with the feeling that the Indian government is becoming censorship-prone to art. It’s strange and I’m surprised. I can’t understand why the Indian government should do this… The work is not offensive, it is playful and has people remembering something that has happened in the past. It’s not a national show, it’s an exhibition at a private gallery.

Ravi Agarwal, participating artist

Nirmala Sitharaman, a spokesperson for India’s Bharatiya Japta Party, however, noted that it was important to remove the work to improve India’s image on the international stage. “I think the Ministry of External Affairs should be pro-active to show that it can act on its own officials, which are there to spread goodwill about India and not such [a] bad picture,” she told NDTV.

Members of India’s artist community issued a letter demanding that the Ministry reinstate the work immediately, citing issues of freedom of expression. As they state in the letter,

That its subject is the communal killings in Gujarat in 2002 is only indicative of the fact that many contemporary artists in India have focused on [the] communal, political and social problems which we have faced in the last two decades. We have fought hard to uphold the right to free speech which is a pillar of democracy… The exhibition has already been seen by thousands in London, Oslo, Rome and Lyon. It is ironic that our government would seek to censor the exhibition in China.

About the exhibition

Indian Highway” was first conceived by Serpentine Gallery Director Julia Peyton-Jones, International Projects Director Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Director of Oslo’s Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, Gunnar B. Kvaran. The exhibition debuted in London’s Serpentine Gallery in 2008 and traveled to four other European cities before stopping in Beijing.

The exhibition includes 27 artists either from India or of Indian descent. For its Beijing leg, the show also incorporated Indian contemporary works from the Ullens collection. “Indian Highway” ran from 24 June to 19 August 2012 and, according to the exhibition text, plans are underway for it to continue its run in other cities in Asia.

[Editor’s note: Some of the quotations that appear in this article were translated into English from the original Chinese by Art Radar.]


Related Topics: Indian artists, gallery shows, connecting Asia to itself, art in Beijing

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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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