Hit play: Two connoisseurs have amassed a collection of video art that will stun you
Four of the works are currently on display at an exhibition at the Sunaparanta art space in Goa.art and culture Updated: Sep 18, 2017 11:21 IST
Years ago, I was living on a houseboat moored on the Nile riverbank, in western Cairo. Nearby was an enigmatic, shrouded structure. In daylight, it appeared part-tent and part-auditorium. But late at night it glowed neon, and shadowy figures sidled down the waterfront to disappear within.
One moonlit midnight, I headed there myself. Inside, I found a rough concrete dancefloor occupied by work-soiled Cairene men, many in gallabiyas (the few women present sat to one side, sipping cold drinks). Suddenly, a shout of recognition. The security guard of our boat jumped out at me, still in his khaki uniform.
Beaming with pleasure, he dragged us under the lights. Now the music started up, and everyone whirled. I found myself giving in to the dance.
That half-submerged memory came flooding back unexpectedly this week, on a routine lunchtime visit with my sons to Bodega, the outstanding courtyard café attached to the Sunaparanta arts centre in Panaji. Climbing the curving outdoor staircase, I heard the unmistakable strains of Egyptian ‘shaabi’ pop music. Hunger forgotten, we chased the sound.
On a large screen in a darkened room, there were flickering points of luminous blue, revealed as the lures of fast-finning anglerfish, then crystallised to lights on a speaker. Music crescendoed.
The camera pulled back to reveal two men dancing purposefully, together and yet apart. It was impossible to look away. Several minutes later, I was still breathless with excitement.
This was my first, unforgettable viewing of Jewel (2010), a short, six-minute-thirty-second video artwork by Hassan Khan, the fast-emerging global star from Egypt.
At this year’s Venice Biennale, he won the Silver Lion for most promising young artist (he was born in 1975). When Jewel was exhibited in exceedingly distinguished company at the New Museum’s 2012 Triennial in New York, it created a sensation.
Writing in the Middle Eastern art magazine Bidoun, the critic Kaelen Wilson-Goldie exulted that, “with its driving soundtrack, mesmerizing choreography and riddle refusing to be solved, [Jewel] was by far the most magnetic piece in the exhibition”.
In Goa, Jewel is one-fourth of a stunning exhibition of video artworks on display for the first time in India, on loan from the collection of Kutch-based businessman Anurag Khanna and his wife Payal, both aged 41.
Each video in Longing — open till October 30 and sensitively curated by Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi — is a standout signature work by an exceptional artist.
Alpsee (1995) by Matthias Müller of Germany is an all-time classic, a hauntingly measured evocation of the turbulent emotions that underlie ‘normal’ childhood.
Tomorrow Everything Will Be Alright (2010) by Lebanon’s Akram Zaatari, which is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, depicts an exchange of text messages playing out on a clacking typewriter, each line brilliantly paced to rachet up tension.
In the Guggenheim Museum’s permanent collection is Alejandro Cesarco’s Methodology (2011), which portrays an aching, discursive conversation failing to communicate even through a torrent of words.
Given the blinkered lack of imagination of the Indian art herd, with its non-stop focus on brand-name mediocrity, it’s nigh unbelievable that the blockbuster gems of video art on display in Goa all belong to a single collection, quietly amassed by a young Indian far from the country’s major urban centres.
But Anurag Khanna is the real deal, one of those metaphorical ‘black swans’ whose existence seems impossible until they materialise in front of your eyes.
Via email, he described his remarkable journey in autodidactic connoisseurship, marked by singular diligence.
“I started to travel abroad just for art. Long walks within museums in Europe just to educate my eye, and get deep into this world helped to broaden my mind and develop my vision,” he says. “I thought it would be interesting to do a mix by pulling out good artists from our region, and some works from the West, and letting there be a dialogue between the two.”
Restricting himself to geographical boundaries would have forced him to collect average art and artists, he adds. “Getting myself free from this burden [meant] I could do anything I liked and I really enjoyed this freedom. Of course this demands a lot of study, looking around and travels, but it really helps me grow as a human being and it gives me a very broad perspective of the world.”
In our screen-saturated times, video art packs especial punch. Arguably as old as motion picture cameras, the genre moved into galleries and museums in the 1960s, with pioneering artists like the Korean-American Nam Jun Paik.
Following in those footsteps, many of India’s younger artists have devoted considerable energy to the medium, including Kiran Subbaiah, Nalini Malani, Raqs Media Collective, Desire Machine Collective, Shilpa Gupta, and Ranbir Kaleka. After his first purchase, of Matthias Müller’s film, Anurag Khanna acquired Sonia Khurana’s Bird, another seminal work.
“I was so excited to see these moving images, the colors, the sound, the way emotions were being expressed,” he says. “Like with Jewel, the complexity of the work is very attractive. When works are fluid I get very attracted to the multiple dimensions thrown up. I am always curious to know about special works closest to the artist, and if possible I want to get them home, as their heart and mind has gone into them. At times I feel it is karma, some are destined to come to you.”
Like his collection, the show in Goa is a labour of love. “It has been a huge effort from my end as all these works are so iconic, and all four of these artists are of such great international repute,” he says. “I had to make them comfortable about the idea of showing in a space like this, as most of these works are screened in the finest museums in the world and have a superb exhibition history.”
(Vivek Menezes is a writer and photographer, and co-founder and curator of the Goa Arts and Literature festival)