India’s Ranjit Hoskote talks about curating the contemporary for biennales at the Experimenter Curators’ Hub 2014.
Experimenter Curators’ Hub (ECH) 2014 in Kolkata, India, played host to a number of influential curators sharing their views on curating today. India’s Ranjit Hoskote talks about his insights in curating contemporary art within the biennale framework.
Ranjit Hoskote is an independent curator, cultural theorist and poet. With Nancy Andajania, he co-authored The Dialogues Series (Popular, 2011), an unfolding programme of conversations with artists. With Maria Hlavajova, he is the editor of Insurgent Publics: A Critical Reader in Contemporary Art (BAK, Utrecht, forthcoming 2014). He is also on the Advisory Board of the Asia Art Archive (AAA) in Hong Kong. Hoskote has curated several important exhibitions in institutions worldwide and he worked on the 7th Gwangju Biennale in 2008 and the national pavilion of India at the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011.
Art Radar summarises his talk at ECH 2014, which focused on his experience of curating the contemporary within the framework of biennales.
The birth of the curator
Hoskote discusses the birth of the curator as a professional figure in the art world, and takes Harold Szemann’s declaration as an independent curator in 1969 as the “effective starting point” of curating. But it was not until the 1990s that curating actually became what it is today. Before then, there were what he calls “pre-histories” of curating: people were organising exhibitions – sometimes they were artists themselves – but they did not call themselves curators.
Curating in India in the 1990s
Hoskote started curating in the mid-1990s, and he delineates some of the pivotal moments of his early curatorial endeavours, which came out of a “hybrid practice”. By that time, Hoskote had been writing about art for about six years and had published two books of poetry. He says:
… I was responding to the art world through the optic of being a poet, being a friend of artists, being concerned with their conflicts, looking at questions of language, looking at questions of infrastructure. So the making of an exhibition to me was not only the activity of being an “austellungsmacher” in that sense, although we see that that term embraces many, many meanings. The making of an exhibition had to do with also reaching out to a subculture, looking at contested questions, at what kind of art practices were emergent and in what relation they stood to whatever was taken for granted at that point.
He identifies three pivotal exhibitions during this time:
- “Hinged by Light” (1994, Pundole Art Gallery, Mumbai) included paintings and sculptural departures by three major Indian abstractionists: Mehlli Gobhai, Prabhakar Kolte and Yogesh Rawal. The show looked at the language of abstraction in an Indian context, as part of official doctrine, but where individuals were moving in other directions such as sculptural expression and interactivity.
- “Private Languages” (1997, Pundole Art Gallery, Mumbai) included paintings, sculptures and assemblages by three emerging Indian artists: Anandajit Ray, Ravinder Reddy and Sudarshan Shetty. Artists were looking at privacy, idiosyncrasy and obsessions of the imagination.
- “Making an Entrance” (2000, Kala Ghoda Arts Festival, Mumbai) featured site-specific public-art installations by Jehangir Jani, Bharati Kapadia, Kausik Mukhopadhyay, Baiju Parthan and Sudarshan Shetty, in the context of a city-wide festival. This show considered the question of what is public art, of how an “unprepared” audience would respond to works and how they could engage with other histories: of the city, of belonging or alienation, and how these might be mediated.
Curating the new millennium
The questions Hoskote is looking at today are not that different from those of the 1990s. They are still about language and the public, but the forms in which he might deal with them are now different. One of the reasons for this is the beginning of a practice that has involved forms of conversation, interaction and collaboration with other institutions, as well as conferences and publications. The 21st century ushered in a new era of looking at and grasping art making. Hoskote says about the curator in the 21st century:
I don’t see the work of a curator being confined to the making of an exhibition, but it also leaks out in diverse ways into publication, research; it could take the form of a conference. I think the medium of the curator is mercurial, it’s volatile. […] Curators are not committed to one singular set of preoccupations, we also work interstitially and with questions that might seem not to have much to do with one another, but that engage us.
Contextualising the contemporary Biennale
Hoskote introduces the biennale framework’s genealogy with the dominant history that started in 1895 with the Venice model. Venice’s La Biennale implied a particular world view and understanding of its asymmetries and the artwork within that landscape.
Another history of the biennale began 60 years later, in 1955, with the dOCUMENTA “perennial” format. This emerged from a specific national situation of wanting to overcome the spectres of Nazi Germany and “to regenerate a sense of engagement with a larger art world, with new and emergent forms of art”.
Biennales of Resistance
Subsequently, there was the emergence of what Hoskote identifies as “the biennales of resistance”, where there was a need in the global south to articulate the notion of being the ‘host’: Sao Paulo and Sydney (1950s-1960s), Delhi’s triennial (1962), Havana (1980) and Gwangju (1990s). It is in this typology that the Gwangju Biennale 2008, which Hoskote co-curated, is situated.
The Gwangju Biennale
Hoskote co-curated the 7th Gwangju Biennale (2008) with Hyunjin Kim and Artistic Director Okwui Enwezor, who proposed an annual report as a way of ironising the world of corporate affairs. The Biennale had three sections:
- “On the Road” looked at the scale of exhibition making
- “Insertions” exhibited new commissioned work for the Biennale
- “Positions Papers” invited five other curators to contribute their preoccupations with the exhibited work
This layout was one of collaboration and an amplified collegial way of curating, typical of Enwezor’s modus operandi since dOCUMENTA. Hoskote is, as he says, “inspired and activated by” this format.
Re-imagining the contemporary
Within the Gwangju Biennale, there were exhibitions that re-considered what contemporary art is.
- The re-presentation of a Whitney Museum exhibition in a different context, with a new audience responding to it, cemented the idea of the biennale bringing ‘news’ from elsewhere.
- The juxtaposition of an Italian and a local artist, the latter working in the more ‘traditional medium’ of painting, to underline how some things can remain relevant in the contemporary.
- The “Dictionary of War” looked at questions of the migration of art to different places and different iterations.
- Zarina Hashmi’s work put the spotlight on media that tend to be relegated, like ceramics or printmaking.
The Venice Biennale
India’s first pavilion
Hoskote was curator of the first official India pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale (2011). Prior to that, India’s exhibitions at the Biennale were mediated through the Embassy in Rome and presented an official view of Indian art. Before curating the Pavilion, Hoskote had argued that India should not have a national pavilion, because of the pressures coming from the art market and the domain of official culture. He says:
The logic of national representation is frankly no longer meaningful, because nations and states are at odds. We recognise hyphenations, anxieties, sub-national aspirations – and to some of us, politically, the nation state has never been an available or desirable entity, because of its enormous capacities for cohesion and for hegemony. But since we live in nation-states, we might as well address them critically.
Transcending the nation-state
Hoskote, therefore, chose to form an enquiry into the nation-state through four practices from four different locations in India, which spoke of different trajectories, to see how they saw the idea of India and how they pushed the boundaries of that view. Entitled “Everyone Agrees: It’s About To Explode”, the pavilion featured selected works by the artists Zarina Hashmi, Gigi Scaria, Praneet Soi and the Desire Machine Collective.
- Praneet Soi works at the micro level with local craftsmen in a marginal economy in North Kolkata, while also working at the perennial level. He represents a “transcultural trajectory” and extends the imagination of what an Indian artist could be.
- Gigi Scaria incarnates the predicament of “the internal migrant”. Coming from Kerala in the deep south, but living in Delhi, he encountered a variety of social, linguistic and existential questions on which he focuses in his sculptures, installations and videos
- Desire Machine Collective are politically important. They originate from the Northeast of India, a region that has always been considered as removed from the mainstream and under effective military rule since the mid-1950s. They demonstrate that even under such unfavourable conditions, there was the possibility of art practice to form and to reach out to a global platform. Self-consciously connecting their work to Southeast Asia, they reformulate the notion of where India belongs and support diverse practices. This also connects to re-thinking about Kashmir or the Red Corridor: areas with unpromising conditions, but which do have articulations that emerge.
- Zarina Hashmi reminds us of the sinister side of Independence, pointing at 1947 as the year of Partition, rather than “independence”. Living in New York as an American citizen, her representation brought up questions of cultural citizenship and how displaced individuals respond to the predicaments, anxieties and urgencies of what it means to be India or Indian.
Hoskote uses the word “contributor” when talking about the artists, particularly when mentioning Zarina Hashmi, an artist in her seventies who does not live in India. He says:
I use the word contributor because that was another of my other tropes for this pavilion. Not to look at citizens, at artists, but at contributors. The figure of the contributor is very important because this is the way I conceived of these positions: they were people and practices that were contributing to the debate about nationality, about citizenship, about entitlement. And it was a way of going through the domain of artistic practice and curatorial practice to reunite with questions that address the public at large.
Recalibrating the contemporary
Since the new millennium, there has been a subliminal “equalisation” of the contemporary with the new, the young and new media practices. Hoskote’s Pavilion was a way of “recalibrating the contemporary” by introducing older and displaced artists. He says:
I am very unhappy with the notion of the contemporary. I wonder if we have formulated the notion of what is contemporary art in a limited way and now its moment is over.
Contemporary art can be looked at as something emerging from 1989 onwards, after major political events and changes, as the world was renegotiating itself. There was the rise of certain institutions, of kinds of exhibition making, the circuitry of the global biennial, the kind of tacit artistic agreements on what contemporary practice consists of. Then came the “turbulent recalibration of our audiences”, consequence of the conflicts and disorders around the world. And finally, we have been accustomed to define the notion of the contemporary through the mechanisms of the market.
But ultimately, Hoskote professes his commitment:
There is, for me, an ethical commitment to re-engaging with things that have been relegated, lost, eclipsed – curatorially.
C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia
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