Celebrating art in all its hues

Celebrating art in all its hues

venice biennale

chosen Zarina Hashmi’s works are grim reminders of the Partition in 1947. She is one of the four artists who is on view at the Venice Biennale.The India Pavilion has been organised by the Lalit Kala Akademi, the country’s National Academy of Art, and this step makes India’s presence at Venice a historic milestone.

While in earlier years Indian artists have been on view as individuals, chosen by the artistic director, and in 1953, the Indian Embassy in Rome had taken 60 selected works to the exhibition, this time, the doors of the Arsenale in Venice, where the exhibits from India are on view, will have a unique take. For the first time, the selection of works for the Venice Biennale has been undertaken with a professional approach. Cultural theorist, Ranjit Hoskote, has been appointed its curator so that he can project  India ‘as a conceptual entity that is territorially based, but is extensive in a global space of imagination’, before the world of art in Venice.

This clear-cut structuring of his concepts, within a framework, has given the Venice showing an innovative take. This is in evidence when one ponders over the choice of the show’s title: ‘Everyone Agrees: It’s About To Explode’. It comes from the curator’s eye falling upon a text, by a group of theorists, who called themselves the ‘Invisible Committee’.

Hoskote was charged by the multiple meanings that could be fathomed from such a phrase and was thus expressive of the ‘plural and productive articulations that are all set to explode’. According to Hoskote, in its Biennale context, the title ‘stretches the idea of India to serve as a laboratory to test out the key propositions concerning contemporary Indian art.’ This stance has also helped the Indian participation at Venice field in talent that is not metro-centric, auction house circuit contributors, and thus displays Indian art vis-à-vis avant garde practices in art globally.

Finding the artists that would fit the bill led Hoskote to home onto a representative four, who are Indian by birth, and yet, have fanned out globally as part of their art life production base. This gives the production base of artists from very different constituencies, even while they are essentially Indian. It projects India as transcultural and proves that there is more to it than just its cosmopolitan image. It honours the extent of India, without restricting margins, and makes the artists collaborators in bringing this viewpoint before the global art world.

 Zarina Hashmi, the print maker and mixed media artist, and one among the chosen foursome, is Aligarh-born and now lives and works in New York. Her works, says Hoskote, is a close reminder of the trauma of the Partition in 1947, to which in recent years has come about the experience of diasporic living, leading to a novel realisation that is tinged with mysticism and spiritual flavour. Her selected works at Venice are titled: ‘Home is Forgotten Place’, ‘Noor’, and ‘Blinding Light’.

Another artist who is on view at Venice is Praneet Soi, who has been working on a giant 50-foot mural which he has made on-site since April. Otherwise, he still works out of his birthplace, Kolkata, but has shifted to Amsterdam, where too he engages himself in artistic pursuits. Thus, his works, ‘Notes on Underdevelopment — Kumortuli Printer’, is a slide show with framed images of erstwhile letter press parts, a choice that came off his work with the letter press workers who reside in the Kumortuli neighbourhood of Kolkata.

The artwork is a cultural honouring of the marginalised, as Soi has been working. His link with Amsterdam is the sea and the maritime trade it generates. “The sea, the locale of a mercantile city, and the attempt of recovering the monumental within the space of a painting,” claims Hoskote, is what underlies the artistic view in Soi.

The curatorial choice of Gigi Scaria, who was born in Kothanalloor in Kerala, but has moved to Delhi to work as a sculptor, video artist and painter, enlarges the scope of migration and its effects. His showing of a ‘Elevator from the Subcontinent’, as a three-screen video installation, draws attention to making things visible. It examines the cultural repercussions of living in a metropolitan city, and thus addresses people’s curiosity about it. In that way, it defines the place where the art is coming from, without saying so.

The duo of Sonal Jain and Mriganka Madhukaillya, who call themselves the ‘Desire Machine Collective’, occupy a part of the India Pavilion to present a video showing of a 35 mm take, titled ‘The Residue’. It displays scenes from an abandoned thermal power plant in India’s north-east, at Chandrapur, near Guwahati. The static shots through their sound track unveil the story of politics, power and oil, played out on the Chandrapur canvas as the plant had been closed since 1999. Besides, a message behind the shots is the core of a collective of two, a photographer and cinematic practices innovator, who detail what is happening around us, particularly in the not-so-developed region of the country. This internalises a conflict to the layer of the conscience and strikes a common chord in viewers’ minds.

Besides a crop of artworks with meaning, the location of the India Pavilion in the Arsenale, in its Artiglieri section, has its own fallout. The Arsenale is no steel and concrete landmark, but a grotty expanse that in its earlier avatar was a ship-building yard in the 15th and 16th centuries when Venice was the centre of maritime trade for the Republic of Venetia. The Arsenale was a rope making yard and a weapons storage space and is blessed with vast bays and columns. Within this space, the India Pavilion is shaped into a quadrature layout, a reminder of the  amalgam of the Buddhist, Hindu, Islam, and Jain concepts of an enclosed mandala. Within this enclosure, each artist has been allocated a space of his own, so that the complete venue becomes a balance of closed and open areas, giving viewers a variety of visual experiences as they weave their way through it.

With so much thought going into the showing, the Biennale is geared to awaken artistic sensibilities about the idea of India. It is bound to generate an enquiry by the global fraternity, not just about Indian art, but about the concept behind art in India. In this way, this showing is a subtle form of cultural citizenship stretching boundaries beyond territorial limits. No wonder, the showing this time justified the choice of a handful, with powerful statements, rather than a multitude of works drawn from a space, which in textbook terms is called a ‘territory’.