At a museum where the city’s past comes face-to-face with the multiplicities of its present, the exhibition explores the impact of the Age of the Anthropocene.
“Asymmetrical Objects” is a group show displaying the works of 10 leading Indian contemporary artists and is closing on 27 March 2018.
Juxtaposing the past environment with the present
In January 2018, the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum completed 10 years since its re-opening, and last year in March it completed 160 years since it was first opened by Lord Charles Canning. Inspired by these important dates, set so close together, the Museum has conceptualised “Asymmetrical Objects”, an exhibition that juxtaposes its past inspirations with its ongoing engagement with the environment. Since its conception, the Museum has also showcased Mumbai’s cultural heritage and history, through a rare collection of fine and decorative arts of the Bombay Presidency. The permanent collection includes miniature clay models, dioramas, maps, lithographs, photographs and rare books that document the life of the people of Mumbai and the history of the city, from the late 18th to the early 20th centuries.
As Mumbai’s oldest museum, it opened in 1857, as the Government Central Museum of Natural History, Geology, Archaeology and Economic Products. However, many of its natural history specimens, archaeological artefacts and geological materials including sculptures, coins and taxidermy animals were given away to other museums in the state of Maharashtra. The Museum retains a small but significant natural history collection as well as a rich archive, which documents its early efforts and successes, including interesting accolades such as a gold medal won at the 1883 International Fisheries Exhibition (London) for specimens of dried fish and fishing nets.
Nature and science were the founding principles of the Museum and are as significant today as they were then. The age of industrialisation and the emphasis on consumption have radically changed the lens with which the world views them both. Nature traditionally was considered sacred, seen as a celebration of the divine, and was respected with prayer and ritual. Science was an instrument used by man and not machine, to make observations and empirically make sense of the natural world. With technological developments and industrialisation becoming the core of our economic growth model, there is a credible threat to older rituals and modes of thinking that have kept humankind connected to this planet we call home.
Exploring the Age of the Anthropocene
In “Asymmetrical Objects”, the Museum displays the works of ten of India’s foremost contemporary artists, whose practice includes an interest in nature and science, and the relationship between consumption and degradation, as process and product. Atul Bhalla, Jitish Kallat, Manish Nai, Mithu Sen, Prajakta Potnis, Ranbir Kaleka, Rohini Devasher, Reena Kallat, Sahej Rahal and Shilpa Gupta have presented their responses to these ideas, by exploring the effects of the much-debated Age of the Anthropocene on the environment and on biodiversity.
The exhibition endeavours to articulate a visual vocabulary that addresses these contentious issues, with each artist exploring a different theme, including alienation, pollution, destruction of biodiversity, unnatural divisions, mutations and distortions, the politics of water and waste, and the destruction of landscapes and rivers. The exhibition invites viewers to form their own conclusions and share these with the Museum in a dialogue that will continue for the length of the show through other activities, including curated walkthroughs, lectures and panel discussions.
In the main entrance hall of the Museum, visitors to “Asymmetrical Objects” are greeted with Jitish Kallat’s mammoth sculpture entitled Aquasaurus (2008), which is the largest among a series of skeletal vehicles by the artist, all of which emerged from smaller gouache drawings that Kallat made in 2002, referencing found photographs of vehicles burnt or otherwise damaged in riots. In another corner is Manish Nai’s colourful installation that uses discarded clothes and fabric to create a work that comments on the complex process of creation – questioning whether we have lost the ethics of artisanal fabrication in the modern frenzy of mass scale production.
Also on display are Reena Saini Kallat’s Hyphenated Lives, Earth Citizens and Siamese Trees (2014), all of which explore hybridity – the merger of the animal life, flora and fauna of different nations – alluding to modern civilisation’s shared and rooted history. Standing tall in the Museum’s public space is Sahej Rahal’s futuristic and other-wordly sculptural installation The Walker XV (2009), made out of salvaged objects from around the Museum, signifying an intersection of its past and its future.
Atul Bhalla’s Vaitarni (2017) and Prajakta Potnis’s Capsule (2012) are both haunting digital images. While the former, taken on location, explores the myths behind one of India’s most polluted rivers, the latter is taken inside a refrigerator and has a hallucinatory effect on the viewer, inviting us into an unreal ‘non-space’ accessed by two escalators that are apparently going nowhere.
Ranbir Kaleka’s Forest (2009) is a single-channel video projection on a wall ,filmed in the Sundarbans, a region home to the world’s largest mangrove forests, which are being swallowed by rising sea-levels. In another video work entitled SPHERES (2017), shot at Mount Aso, the largest active volcano in Japan, Rohini Devasher reimagines the space by combining reality and fiction to create a sense of awe for nature in the mind of the spectator.
Shilpa Gupta also uses interactive video and sound in her installation Shadows 3 (2007), with the viewers becoming active participants in an unfolding narrative involving an environment under rampage. Also on display in “Asymmetrical Objects” is a multimedia installation of a performance by Mithu Sen, documented on video by the artist and by the children of a home for minor female orphans in Kerala who were victims of abuse. In the work, which is an unscripted performance, Sen explores the limitations of language and the possibility of dialogue outside it.
Art Radar spoke to the curator of “Asymmetrical Objects” and Managing Trustee and Honorary Director of the Museum Tasneem Zakaria Mehta and Co-curator Himanshu Kadam about their experience.
Your endeavour to introduce contemporary art at the 160-year old Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum over the past 10 years since its renovation and reopening is commendable. What have the challenges been in conflating the old and the new?
Tasneem Zakaria Mehta (TZM): It requires knowledge of the collection and of 19th and 20th century history as well as of contemporary art practice. I wanted to make a political statement as Indian artists had been rejected when this museum was established. They were not considered intellectually capable of producing fine art. So I gave the artist centre-stage at the Museum. Working with artists on solo shows is challenging as it’s a new paradigm and they are often producing work especially for the show. As a curator you are both a visual editor and a choreographer. An exhibition is a visual experience and making it memorable is a tremendous challenge.
The Museum receives visitors from different backgrounds, many of whom have not been introduced to contemporary art. How have visitors to “Asymmetrical Objects” responded to the exhibition and its serious environmental message?
Himanshu Kadam (HK): A major part of our exhibitions programme is related to crafting outreach and education programmes around the theme of the show. We have tours with a special focus on the exhibition every weekend and worksheets for children and young adults. We have had activities and workshops based on specific artworks or the general theme. It is not only aimed at getting the audience to engage with the works but also to respond to it creatively and intellectually. Visitors are actively participating in the exhibition.
You have curated the works of ten of India’s foremost contemporary artists whose practices incorporate humankind’s dialogue with nature and science. Could you share with Art Radar readers the parameters that you have used to ensure that their submitted works would blend seamlessly together, to achieve your curatorial vision?
TZM: It’s important to understand each practice and the message of the exhibition. It’s also important to ensure variety, scale, 3D, 2D, etc. Himanshu Kadam who co-curated the show with me, and I, wanted to show a wide range of practices. In a way it is also a statement about our contemporary art scene by showing senior as well as young artists. So the show was ambitious in its intentions. There’s a logic to the flow. A balance of ideas and of colour and scale. This comes with experience and visual practice. I studied Fine Arts and Design at the JJ School of Art and at the Slade of Fine Art. And it’s years of looking and writing about art that brings it all together.
What are some of the upcoming exhibitions and events for 2018 that you would like to share with the Art Radar readers?
HK: For our next show we are going to have Dr. Arshiya Lokhandwala’s exhibition “Beyond Transnationalism: The Legacy of Post Independent Art from India”. This exhibition, in collaboration with the Raza Foundation, seeks to understand the many positions of artists of South Asian descent living in the United States. We are also planning to have a few more historic exhibitions on visual history and one on Indian Theatre of the 20th century. We will also continue to collaborate with several institutions around the country to have shows in our Special Project Space.
“Asymmetrical Objects” is on view from 19 January to 27 March 2018 at the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum, 91-A, Rani Baug, Veer Mata JijabaiBhonsle Udyan, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Marg, Byculla East, Mumbai 400027.
- 3 Indian Abstractionists to see: “Troika” at Art Musings, Mumbai – January 2018 – Art Musings brings together the works of Ram Kumar, Prabhakar Kolte and Laxman Shreshtha
- An exhibition of contemporary art acquisitions at Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum – January 2018 – Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum presents an exhibition of its contemporary Indian art acquisitions, the first of its kind at the Museum
- Indian Artist Sudarshan Shetty on “Shoonya Ghar” at the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Mumbai – interview – December 2017 – after the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi and the 20th Biennale of Sydney in 2016, the exhibition moves to Mumbai
- “The personal is the political”: Indian artist Prajakta Potnis at Mumbai’s Project 88 – February 2016 – Prajakta Potnis explores trajectories connecting intimate and public worlds, and sketches those topographies influencing relationships in global politics and economics
- My East is Your West: Rashid Rana and Shilpa Gupta in Venice – interview – June 2015 – internationally acclaimed artists Rashid Rana and Shilpa Gupta talk about their collaboration in the collateral exhibition “My East is Your West” at the 56th Venice Biennale
Subscribe to Art Radar for more news on Mumbai’s arts and cultural scene