One of the most glamorous events in the Indian art circuit, the India Art Fair turned seven this year. A look at some of the artists whose work invited a third glance
The threshold into a dream
Artist: TV Santhosh Supported by: The Guild
One of Mumbai’s iconic landmarks – the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST), formerly Victoria Terminus – lies at an angle of about 30 degrees. TV Santosh’s detailed installation of the city’s famous station has several digital timers (all set differently) attached to it.
The project, which took close to two years to complete, serves as a striking reminder of the Mumbai attacks – the timers ticking away eerily on loop. Santosh says, “After 26/11 when I visited the CST, I realised how the meaning of this beautiful structure had changed, and how it had emotionally shaken me. I wanted to revisit that experience through my work.”
Santosh says that the best medium he could think of in the context was a structure intrinsic to the lives of the people who live in the city. He describes the station as a colonial structure that’s like “an ever-pumping heart of the city”.
Explaining the tilt, he says, “We lift up something in order to see what is underneath it. It is a metaphorical act of investigating into history to see how violence leads to more violence.” While the work resonated with most people, Santosh adds that “children seemed to understand it faster!”
Serenity of desolation
Close to the entrance of the India Art Fair grounds lay a large-scale model of a toppled Kashmiri house: dark in colour with darker interiors (there are no windows to let in light). You can go inside the house from its ‘base’. Inside, on one of the walls, hang watercolour portraits of 50 local faces. At the other end of the house, video footage of the recent Kashmir floods keeps playing on loop.
This is Delhi-based artist Veer Munshi’s interpretation of the floods in Kashmir and its aftermath. Munshi says that often the news of a natural calamity gets drowned in the noise of other news stories that keep happening in a country as large as India.
Hence a site specific project like this serves as a good reminder of what the situation still is in Kashmir post the devastating floods that happened in September 2014. The model took about three months – and about 30 workers – to complete; Munshi will use the proceeds from its sale towards helping rehabilitate affected people in the Valley.
Explaining how the idea came to him, Munshi says, “Me and some other artists were supposed to visit Kashmir for a wedding. That’s when the floods happened and all communication broke down... eventually I started drawing portraits of 100 people from the place, all of whom I knew in some measure, and had spent time with in the past.”
For the video footage he asked friends and acquaintances for help and put together all the resources into one file. The video that’s projected on the house wall inside, has a window frame around it – to suggest the intimacy of the disaster right at the doorstep of most homes.
The collapsed house has another interpretation too: “It also symbolises the houses a lot of Kashmiris left behind... in a way these houses have experienced collapse twice, one was a political fall and the other was a natural fall.”
Overall, Munshi says he is happy with the reception he got at the fair. “People have been appreciative mostly. Some though asked me if I brought the house from Kashmir, and how I managed to do it!”
Emotive sounds of the electric writer
A small device fitted with a marker-pen sat on a high table making mechanical noises as a long roll of paper with squiggly handwriting came out of it. It was almost as if the innocuous looking machine was writing letters.
Which is exactly what Nandita Kumar would like you to take away from her ‘performance’ at the India Art Fair – the idea that humans and technology can co-exist to produce an experience that’s meaningful – with a human touch no less.
Kumar invited people from across the world to write hand-written letters. Next she fed it to a machine which ‘mimicked’ the handwriting on a long scroll of paper and printed it out. At points where the machine failed to fully understand the handwriting, it paused (to ‘think’ if you will) for a few seconds.
And every such ‘pause’ left a blot on the paper. The result was a long scroll which resembled a musical score. Kumar then proceeded to ask musicians to convert the “score” thus produced into a proper musical piece.
“The whole thing is so simple and poetic!” exclaims Kumar: “It’s a direct journey from analog to technology to sound. You write the letters, the machine translates it, which in turn is converted to a musical score. What’s poetic is that the sounds that emerge are from your words. The art – the letters – are yours.”
Kumar says she had been working on the idea for over a year now – it was initially commissioned by the Jeu de Paume arts centre in Paris and she built upon it thereafter.
Describing some of the reactions, Kumar says that one of the most memorable one came from a four-year-old girl. “She was jumping up and down saying she wanted to write but didn’t yet know how to. So she dictated her letter to her mother who wrote it down. The child then actually copied the whole letter by herself!”
The art of Papilio Demoleus (or how to become The Lemon Butterfly)
"Eeew!” went a fetching young lady as artist Priyanka Choudhary started nibbling on the leaves of a potted citrus plant at the India Art Fair.
It had to be the most intriguing performance at this year’s fair. Delhi-based artist Choudhary, dressed in a white gown, sat on a high stool facing a citrus plant. And proceeded to eat the leaves one by one till the plant was bare except for the lemons.
By the time the performance ended (she ravaged two citrus plants), her dress was stained with green dribble. Once the act was over she walked away quietly. But she had placed a card nearby which asked, “Who in our world becomes a lemon butterfly?” and sought answers from people passing by.
Choudhary says that she wanted to explore the theme of invader-invasion and the violence attached with it. And the best example she could think of was the lemon butterfly, also called the “butterfly of death.”
She says, “This little caterpillar is one of the biggest destroyers of citrus plantations globally and a very successful invader. One small creature finishes off a whole plant and when it turns into a butterfly, it quietly flies away!”
The correlation between the act of invasion by the insect and invasive behavior in the real world is inevitable. “Which is why some of the answers to the question I had asked were so interesting. One person wrote ‘America’, and someone else wrote ‘Politician’! Yet another person wrote ‘Ego’... for me those were very significant reactions from the public. It showed that despite being a radical act, a lot of people got the point of it,” says Choudhary.
Choudhary also says that she had been thinking of this act for a while now but the India Art Fair presented the right platform she needed: “I thought the fair was a very interesting public space suited for this kind of performance.”
And how did she prepare? “I do a lot of yoga… and before the act I go into complete silence, which helps to focus,” says Choudhary, adding that the period immediately after the performance is more difficult, both physically and mentally.
“I thought I’d throw up and people were offering me bins! But surprisingly I didn’t feel the need to throw up at all.” However, she suffered blisters in her mouth from the rather harsh meal but laughs it off saying, “Well, I did manage to digest all the leaves!”
Looking Lahore talking Venice
Shilpa Gupta and Rashid Rana
Near the Palazzo Benzon on the Grand Canal at the Venice Biennale this year, a unique collaborative art project promises to break down nationalistic boundaries.
Lahore-based Rashid Rana, 46 and Mumbai artist Shilpa Gupta 38, will place their works adjacent to each other in an informal ‘regional’ pavilion – both India and Pakistan don’t have national pavilions at the Biennale in 2015.
The oeuvre of both the artists has been touched by the realities of urban life. “In our own ways, Rashid and I like to embrace the city environment. While Rashid clicks urban spaces in Lahore for his photo mosaics, having grown up in a migrant city like Mumbai, I’ve always been interested in addressing the concerns of the ‘other’,” says Gupta.
Although the project is only at the ideation stage, Gupta hints at what the contours are likely to be. “Since we will be located at the Palazzo on the Grand Canal, we will respond to the site. The location is ornate and classical and in our own styles, we will place our work in that context and let it have a conversation with the venue.”
The idea of the project was first broached a couple of years ago when Feroze Gujral of the Gujral Foundation and Rana took refuge under pelting rain under an awning at the Venice Biennale and enquired about the location of their respective national pavilions. “We realised neither India nor Pakistan had a pavilion and joked about what a common pavilion would be named when it comes about,” said Gujral.
This was the genesis of proposed My East is Your West project which will come up on the Palazzo Benzon, in the centre of Venice on the Grand Canal between May and October 2015.
Once Rashid came on board, Gujral approached Mumbai-based New Media artist Gupta, whose work recently exhibited at the Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art, among other international venues.
“I happily agreed. Unlike the world of politics and diplomacy, there’s been constant dialogue between the art worlds of the two estranged countries,” says Gupta. “Since both India and Pakistan don’t have a pavilion at the Biennale, a collaborative project is like an unofficial dream which can only be dreamt in the world of art,” adds Gupta.
“It is particularly relevant at a time when India is creating what will be the world’s biggest border fence around Bangladesh. Our past was common, our present is conflicted but we have a collective consciousness.”
Photos by Gurinder Osan
From HT Brunch, February 8
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