Zones of Privacy | Books as Art Objects | Chatterjee & Lal

Could a book be viewed as an art object, or simply as a series of photographic reproductions? Contemporary artists in India continue to use a diverse vocabulary of abstract forms to convey their ideas. As a result of which, they have understood the potential of the book to go beyond than just an act of displaying information. In this light, Zones of Privacy, an exhibition curated by Rukminee Guha Thakurta brings forth a platform where books meet art, in ways unimagined. The exhibition showcases the works of 27 artists who have engaged with the book form idiosyncratically, allowing the audience to dive into the private lives of the creators themselves.

On display is an assorted collection of sketchbooks, scrapbooks, diaries, and photo-books assembled next to each other on various tables. The viewer has the luxury of sitting down and browsing through each individual book, navigating her or his way into the artist’s contours of thought. From the artist’s point of view, they become totally vulnerable by creating work so raw and poignant, evoking emotions in others who read their books. The series of books exhibited reveal to what extent the artist wants the consumer to consume him or her, that is to say how many of the artist’s personal thoughts and memories should be put out in the open as viewing objects for a third person to scrutinise.

As the visitor uses latex gloves to delicately turn each page of each book, the reader is invited to step into the private zone of the author. As a result, a deep intimate bond is created between the reader and the book. Each book deals with a different subject – exploring themes of love, lust, humour, happiness, and melancholia. Furthermore, along with various themes the form of the book — its colour, shape, size, cover page, style of binding, and material of pages – all generate an experience of great anticipation for the reader. These small details must be paid attention to, because they form an integral part of the book, being in sync with the type of story the book entails.

Artists whose works are exhibited include Sohrab Hura, Priya Kuriyan, Prashant Miranda, Dayanita Singh, Chaitanya Solanki, Nityan Unnikrishnan, and Nida Ghouse among others. Some finds are truly fascinating, Chaitanya Solanki created a small personal journal titled “Ascension”, which is an ode to dying animals that society abandons. The book captures the last few moments of a few animals in urban landscapes. Upon viewing the book, the audience engages with the artist’s passing thoughts, further getting an understanding of how the artist feels for the millions of animals  on the streets who are treated as non-living entities, yet they aren’t so.

 

Other artists too dealt with darker thoughts, such as Magnum photographer Sohrab Hura. “There’s a lot of suffering in this house”, the photographer provides the reader with an uncomfortable personal detail with the opening line of his photo journal. Hura documents his relationship with his mother, who was diagnosed with a form of schizophrenia in the year 1999. Through his photography, he speaks of how his mother was not the “regular” mother. “Our initial years were spent hiding from the world,” he writes. “Hers out of paranoia, and mine out of embarrassment and anger towards who she had become.” His dog named Elsa can be found in many of the photographs, who is constantly  seen with drooping ears, as though the depressive state of his mother has affected the dog. Hura is brutally honest with his experiences at home, revealing a transparent truth to the reader.

In contrast, Rohit Saha’s works explore themes of love through the medium of photography. The photo-journal reflects an on-going story about two lovers and how their relationship is lodged between uncertainties of space and time. Further, the journal traces how their love blossomed despite being in two different cities. Upon waiting for months, yearning for each other’s touch, they would meet in hotel rooms. The cover page beautifully ends in a quote, “Departures were inevitable and replete with raises for another tomorrow.”

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Among the books exhibited, a thick grey and white photo journal entitled “Seeking Moksha” holds Nishant Shukla’s encounter with pilgrims and spiritual seekers, all of whom who are in a constant search for moksha (liberation). The journal describes the photographer’s journey to the Himalayas over six years, where he fantasised about spending his life in solitary living in the midst of serene mountains.

Besides leaving a lasting impression upon the viewers, Zones of Privacy has provoked some unexpected and surprising conclusions regarding what actually comprises a book. However, some people in the audience might not have an overly positive response to this show. They might argue that the current generation is so used to reading on smart screens, they might not yearn for the smell and texture of old paper, or for that matter might complain about the long hours spent on examining each book carefully. Therefore the potential of such an exhibition to occur again might  come along with its own set of disadvantages. Nevertheless, a question which perhaps might puzzle the audience upon exiting the doors of Chatterjee & Lal is —  which category must a book be put in? The art category or book category?

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The Triumph of Aesthetic | Christo Vladimirov Javacheff’s The Floating Piers

 

 

Lustrous, satiny, and monumental are precisely the words which describe prolific artist Christo Vladimirov Javacheff’s latest project. The seventy-four year old Bulgarian artist, best known for his stupendous environmental installations has yet again got the internet buzzing about his masterpiece — “The Floating Piers”. This phenomenal installation lies afloat on the surface of Italy’s breathtaking Lake Iseo, and is anticipated to draw a footfall of half a million visitors.

Christo’s outdoor creation is strategically located in the midst of Lake Iseo, striking a strong contrast with the deep blue waters of the lake. The floating installation is created using 200,000 high-density recycled polythene cubes, and is covered in a bright saffron coloured cloth allowing hundreds of visitors to get a chance to walk on water, ever so gently. The saffron coloured undulating pathway resonates a playful, upbeat, even positive aura. Furthermore, the installation links the viewer’s imagination to the mythological scene from the Hindu epic ‘Ramayana’, where invincible lord Ram and his army built a bridge out of stones which float on water, thus enabling him to cross from one point to another in order to rescue his wife, Sita. It is in this light the pathway is viewed, as though one is on a spiritual quest, offering a pilgrimage with an uncertain intention.

Resembling the yellow brick road from the tale of Oz, the piers create a vantage point that can never otherwise cease to exist. The installation exposes the viewer to multiple ways of seeing the artwork as well as alternating perspectives. From a bird’s eye view the installation is seen as a symphony of lines — following stringent, linear geometric interventions. Additionally, the phenomenal installation is remarkably juxtaposed against the free flowing temperament of Iseo, where the solid form of the installation is slicing the soft currents of the water body.

However, the work of art is not restricted to just the Floating Piers. The aesthetic experience entails the scenic lake, the piers, the mountains surrounding the installation, the weather conditions which make the pier enjoyable to walk on — all account for making up the aesthetic. The gentle movement of the waves against the Pier are pacifying yet romantic, as if the waves are caressing the walker on the pier. Thus, for the artist, “The work of art isn’t the Floating Piers…but the journey: those who went will carry them in their minds for the rest of their lives”.

To many, the beauty in Christo’s installation resides in it’s indelible experience. However, a critical question to ask is — what makes the installation so profound? Is it his celebrity status in the art world, or the genuine nature of the artwork that is luring people to his creation? Nevertheless, the large scale installation which is only on for a period of sixteen days, gives the artwork a temporary residence, yet leaves a lasting impression on the viewers.

Brian Jungen |Prototypes for New Understanding

 

In an exhibition titled “Prototypes for New Understanding”, displayed at the Vancouver Art Gallery, one encounters artist Brian Jungen’s creative endeavour — a unique hybrid creation of Nike’s Air Jordans with aboriginal masks. This synthesised creation merges elements of tradition and contemporary, and carries with it undertones of commodity fetishism, alienation, and consumerism. By integrating the sacred and mundane, Jungen’s sculptures not only encourage multiple ways of seeing ordinary objects, but also reflect an unconventional symbolical meaning.

Upon looking at the masks, one perceives the mass-produced Jordans as signifiers of eliteness and comfort. Perhaps, the reason for using Jordans amongst other shoes can be attributed to the notion of sanctitude attached to the shoes itself. As an average price of Air Jordans is estimated to be ranging between rupees ten to twelve thousand ($150 – $180), it is quite clear that these shoes are exquisite. They seem to have a pristine quality, satirising the quality of an artefact placed within a museum space.

Further, this enthralling dichotomous creation can be associated with Duchamp’s “ready mades”— the urinal. Just as Duchamp took an ordinary object, placed in the walls of a museum and tagged the object as ‘art’, in the same light Jungen has taken a pairs of Nike shoes and has placed them within a museum calling it art. However, in the process of placing the Jordans in the sacred space of a museum, their original meaning becomes lost. As a result, the viewer tends to attribute meanings that have absolutely no connection to the object’s original purpose.

Moreover, taking a closer glance at the shoes, one may notice that the shoes remain in their most original and unaltered form. Along with that, in many masks the “made in …” tag is also visible. Since the shoes are primarily made in third world countries, the artist draws a vital connection between the Jordans and the workers present in such countries. His work draws attention to the issues of the exploitation in Nike sweatshops. In the capitalist model, the consumers spend around hundred dollars on each pair, while the sweatshop workers receive less than quarter of that per day, resulting in alienation from the product itself. However, the moment the Jordans become linked to money, buyers start to view the objects as inherently carrying value instead of taking into consideration the amount of labor which has gone into creating the object. As a result, the Jordans become perceived as a fetishised commodity.

Jungen’s idea is simple: to re-contextualise daily objects in order to give them a new definition and meaning. The artist through his work conjures the masks into existence by using human hair in few of the masks, thereby creating a sense of eeriness around them. Further, it appears as though the artist is making an anthropological reading about the cross culture resemblance between Nike’s consumer culture and aboriginal culture. By using pigments of red, white, and black, the artist might be subtly trying to hint that the giant shoe brand Nike could be borrowing designs from a previous culture.

In essence, Jungen’s unique Nike masks symbolise themes of commodification, alienation, and critical expressions of contemporary consumerism. As the title of the exhibition “Prototype for New Understanding” suggests some type of experimentation or modification, Jungen has truly changed the manner in which masks may be perceived in the eyes of the viewer.

 

S. H Raza | Aarambh @ 93

Indian modernist, Syed Haider Raza unveils his new solo exhibition at gallery Art Musings in Colaba, titled ‘Aarambh @ 93’. The painter’s oeuvre comprising over thirty paintings is characterised by his depiction of Bindu. The dynamic, yet aesthetically pleasing dot, or how Raza would describe it — Bindu, is a visually stimulating image, resonating a mystical energy creating a dialogue between the image and the viewer. In this particular series, Raza’s vivid imagination allows him to explore a new visual idiom engaging with notions of creation and existence.

Upon entering the gallery, the first painting which caught my eye was ‘Hartiabh’. The geometric pattern represents a symphony of lines, incorporating a triangle and a circle. The cold colour palette with shades of blues and greens creates a mood of tranquillity and collectedness, leaving the viewer with a feeling of contentment. The Bindu, which is strategically positioned at the top, draws the viewer’s gaze, and causes it to focus from top to bottom. The artist has beautifully juxtaposed the colours and texture to create a sense of conflict as well as harmony between the elements.

In my opinion, the Bindu signifies a narrative of an existential anguish. The circle signifies creation, and the triangle represents destruction. If one looks at the composition with a mortal dimension of our human existence, the crookedness of the lines could perhaps symbolise the discourse of a life filled with ups and downs. However, one must not fret upon such imbalances, as nothing is permanent — not our sorrows, nor are we. This further engages with existential questions of life itself— despite knowing nothing is permanent why do we humans dwell upon joy or sadness? If we do not cherish the moments of joy, or engage with disorder, then what is after all the purpose of life itself? Are we just mere actors on a performative stage incapable of deciphering the telos of life? 

From the collection, the painting titled ‘Samavesh’ has an element of fascination. As a viewer, the centrally dominant Bindu evokes an overwhelming feeling. In my opinion, the impact of this work can be felt only when one is standing right in front of it. The black coloured Bindu, appearing like a black hole, is a space looking out into the void. A sense of mystery, enchantment and fear prevails in the image. Furthermore, the surrounding bright hues of blue, red, yellow, and white could perhaps resemble water, fire, land and sky, thereby complimenting the Bindu. The Bindu then, resembles a ubiquitous mass, a part of the cosmos, as a bearer of all of nature.

That being said, Raza’s work continues to be popular amongst art connoisseurs. He till date continues to push the limits of experimentation with the motif of a Bindu, producing and reproducing timeless pieces of art.

Megapolis India| Without Walls | Studio X

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The process of making a city ‘modern’ has brought joy as well as anomie – joy because people are getting exposed to new forms of information and communication technology, integrating sections of society, anomie because modernisation tends to shun the unprivileged even more. The changing dynamics of Mumbai’s infrastructure and economy have resulted in patterns of spatial segregation  – which have denied the poor their right to the city. The homeless, classified as the “other”, are rendered passive in the changing urban landscape. However, in recent times, the plight of the poor has witnessed a certain revival in popular imagination. A co-curated multimedia exhibition by Megapolis India and Studio X, along with inputs from NGO Pehchan, has focused on the plight of the homeless by exposing the everyday struggles faced by them.

Upon entering the exhibition, one sees a series of video interviews displayed on a projection screen, where women, young and old, reveal their daily struggles living on footpaths. For instance, Meera, a woman in her 30s, along with her family has been living on the footpath for years. She says, “This is where we were born and raised, where our children were born and raised.. Where will we go, even if you chase us away?”. This powerful statement gives us a glimpse of the lives of the homeless, making the urban city dweller question whether or not the homeless have a right at all to decide upon what type of urbanism they want. The series of video interviews made me raise certain questions — on whose ideology does the city run on? Is urban planning done taking into consideration the homeless/poor? Has urbanisation completely become a capitalist endeavour? Are the homeless completely left out of the process of globalisation? 

One whole wall of the exhibition is assigned to maps of areas where the homeless dwell, along with photographs which display the areas where the homeless reside. Thus, as a viewer when I began to engage with the map, there seemed to be a sense of loss of identity and belongingness. In my opinion, the larger than life map displayed on the wall seemed to be overwhelming, further making the observer feel displaced. There seems to be a “growing amnesia” towards the poor, making them appear as overlooked elements of society, as political scientist Rajni Kothari recalls. The homeless seem to be perceived as an unchanging, mundane aspect of the urban dweller’s life.

As an observer, I also find it amusing to see how the visual space of the gallery can transform mundane aspects of life to sacred. The homeless are seen as inhabitants of a space, but who do not seem to catch the everyday pedestrian or a car go-er’s gaze. However, when the lives of the homeless are displayed in a gallery, they instantly become noticed and valued. The visual space of a gallery has the power to alter the perception of an object/group of people. Furthermore, the public then starts to pay attention to the plight of the homeless population.

Moreover, as one walks through the exhibition, a certain sense of a nomadic lifestyle seems to prevail in the images. As a viewer, I feel as if Mumbai’s homeless are living as urban nomads. The temporary lifestyle — similar to that of a nomad, lacks privacy, makes a person succumb to loneliness, keeps an individual always thinking of new places to rest and work in. Nevertheless, the exhibition is an eye opener and can be looked at as a tribute to Mumbai’s homeless.

Valuing the Devalued Tangible Cultural Heritage.

“Bombay has the second largest number of art decor buildings after Miami. However, unlike Miami where an entire precinct was restored, making it an international tourist attraction, here we do little to preserve our heritage.” 

-Sharada Dwivedi, veteran historian and researcher.

Mumbai, as we all know, is a land of plurality due to an amalgamation of many cultures. Each culture needs a platform to showcase its elements of tradition, belief, value and knowledge systems, which ultimately gave rise to the notion of cultural heritage. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has described heritage as, “The entire corpus of material signs – either artistic or symbolic – handed on by the past to each culture and, therefore, to the whole of humankind. As a constituent part of the affirmation and enrichment of cultural identities, as a legacy belonging to all humankind, the cultural heritage gives each particular place its recognizable features and is the storehouse of human experience.” (Draft Medium Term Plan 1990-1995, UNESCO, 25 C/4, 1989, p.57) However, due to unpleasant defacement practices showcased by citizens of Mumbai, the city’s epitomized glorious cultural heritage is nearing its end.

However, the on – going processes of urbanization and modernization has lead humankind to reach a stage of ‘anomie’. With reference to French sociologist, Emile Durkheim, one can say that humans have become more and more individualistic as opposed to their primitive counterparts whose societies were closely knit, where sharing was the norm. This progression towards individuality has made humans confused about their role, further confused about why the past should matter.

In Indian context, citizens too find themselves in this ‘state of anomie’ in relation to cultural heritage. The majority of citizens of the country have deluded themselves into assuming that there are no strict laws which are propagated towards the preservation of these monuments, therefore making citizens believe that it is acceptable to project any sort of defacement to the heritage monuments. What intensifies the situation is that even though there are laws present to prevent defacement crimes, they still seem to offer minimal form of protection.

The most primitive works of art have been items such as totem poles, engraving on caves, painting on slabs and fertility dolls. As these end up being heritage sites in today’s times, what makes them unique is the presence of ‘aura’ around it. Critical theorist Walter Benjamin (2003) in his book ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility’, has closely examined the concept of aura and termed it as authentic. However, it must be noted that what gives rise to this authenticity is the amount of rituals that go into the making of a heritage site.

There is a cultish characteristic associated with a heritage site, this includes; emotion, vision and religious significance which is strictly observed by the artist during the making of the site. According to Benjamin Walter (2003), The artwork’s use value was located in its central position within ritual and religious tradition. Hence, the aura illuminated from the monument is the after math of the work of art being uniquely woven into time and space. 

However, today the world experiences a ‘loss of aura’. This phenomena stems from the fact that people are unaware of the holiness attached to the monuments and hence end up destroying historical sites instead of preserving them. This not only results in the destruction of the aesthetic experience of the monument but also ends up disorienting the intimacy present between the maker and the site. This intimate bond is the onetime-ness of the experience. What is meant by this is that, the moment where the object meets the maker that very situation cannot be replicated or reproduced, therefore must be preserved through various conservation projects.

As the issue of authenticity is a fragile topic, Abdul Rehman (2011), a renowned professor of architecture remarks “In any conservation project there may be three areas where one has to be very careful to look into the different aspects of authenticity. These aspects are to maintain, to preserve, and to safeguard authenticity.” If these three aspects are taken into consideration, only then can the claim of preserving and conserving of a heritage site  be authentic. Sadly, in the city of Mumbai, many do not seem to understand the loss of aura and authenticity around heritage sites, consequently resulting in these sites to be threatened by uninviting acts of tobacco spitting, graffiti, urinating, throwing of food and plastic bottles or infrastructure projects.

Co-founder of Infosys, N. R. Narayana Murthy has effectively highlighted the crux of the situation in one of his speeches given at Indian Institute of Management. He has stated that Indians have a certain loyalty towards their family. However, this loyalty is only reflected in the family sphere and not in the community sphere. Murthy (2003), “In the West – the US, Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand – individuals understand that they have to be responsible towards their community.” Furthermore, he states that the primary difference between Indians and the West is that, the Westerners have a much better societal orientation. They care that they have for their society is much more than the Indians have for theirs. Furthermore, this links to enhancing the quality of life of Indians.

Apart from a dire need of social change, it is advisable that more security personnel should be appointed at heritage sites to preserve them, along with that it is necessary that the security personnel are made aware of the historical background of heritage structures so that they have a strong will to protect heritage sites. Another issue to be focused on is that of creating orderly environments with respect to heritage sites, as that would encourage adherence to social convention and overall conservatism, whereas disorderly environments would encourage people to seek novelty and unconventional routes (Stenger, 2013).

Furthermore, with the implementation of smart designs and concept of placemaking, pathways could be construed with biodegradable and non-biodegradable dustbins at every 3-4 metres so that visitors have no where else to throw waste. Also, indigenous people people who have been living around areas of heritage sites must be asked for their opinions regarding preservation and conservation of heritage structures, as they have existing ancestral knowledge regarding techniques of maintaining the integrity of heritage sites.

Thus, India being so diverse, so vast in terms of geography and cultures, if citizens actively seek to preserve what little is left of the past, what will enhanced will be quality of life along with the nation’s aesthetic beauty linking people together as human beings.

The Harsh Consequences of The Politics of Social Inclusion and Exclusion

Each social institution has its own methods of creating boundaries within its structure. There are concrete and blur boundaries made in order to distinguish between the cultural spaces of individuals in a society. These boundaries, contribute to the social inclusion and exclusion mechanisms by which people are labelled to be as inferior or superior. What is deemed as ‘normal’ plays a great role in cementing the foundations and boundaries of a society. Anyone who deviates from the so called ‘normal’ is said to be looked at as a maladaptive element in the society and hence is marginalised. However, it is important to note that the definition as to what constitutes as normal is subjective for each community.

Social inclusion as well as exclusion, play a a vital role in terms of marking social positions of individuals in society. Both these concepts are intertwined with power relations, which cater to the issue of social advantage. The individuals who have access to resources are given a more ‘inclusive status’ which is characterised by a privileged status, where as an ‘exclusive status’ can be seen in those who are alienated and de-attached. Exclusion in the Indian context can be understood by those individuals who fall into the category of Dalits, tribals or adivasis and other minorities who are alienated from their most basic rights.

As per the 2011 census in India, scheduled tribes constitute to 8.6% of the total population. Since this number is relatively small, the classification of tribes as inferior is not uncommon amongst many minds in India. Tribals in many parts of the country are assumed to be irrational and incapable of making their own decisions, which is why they have been marginalised not only from many societies in India, but by the nation as a whole.

The issue of governance of tribals in India has been a fragile one and it is crucial to understand both sides of the story. Shri Brajeshwar Prasad, member in the Constituent assembly had strong opinions about the governance of tribal areas. He said that they should be centrally administered and not in control of the state, as during 1947 there was still a blur boundary as to which areas constitute as India. This view further argues that the trib- als through the ‘civilising mission’ should be integrated into the nation as a whole. This argument has lead to the thought of tribals being a ‘local tradition’ which needs to be absorbed in a larger tradition, being that of the country.

There is a confusion as to what constitutes as ‘Indian culture.’  As Hinduism is a religion which is majority in number, many characterise practices of Hinduism as what should be ‘Indian culture’. Hence, tribals who live in isolation are ‘sanskritised’ into Hinduism and are given the status of a lower caste. This a a way of integrating them into so- ciety, into a bigger more ‘recognised’ culture. Hence, the face value of tribals can be seen as inclusive, but looking deeper into the situation they still have an excluded status.

Another school of thought is that of the liberals, who state that the tribals should be be seen as an autonomous unit and be given self governing rights in order to ensure their welfare. This view claimed, that the tribals should be free from processes of globalisation and impacts of dominant cultures that disorient the tribals from their own culture.

Years of hard work towards the preserving of resources such as cultivable land, and forests which are owned by the tribals are looted by the ‘developed people’ who make profit off these means of production. 90% of all coal and around 50% of other minerals are found in the tribal lands. The tribals, being naive and illiterate are fooled by the poli- cies and framework of the so called ‘promised’ agendas of the government resulting in further alienation of tribals from their own land. These so called developmental activities leave the tribals landless and displaced with minimum survival needs.

The government has certain ideologies and goals in mind for the country, one is to increase the GDP growth of the country and move towards a more civilised India. There is nothing wrong in having such agendas, but what is wrong is the means by which they achieve them. The government relentlessly feels that after taking over the resources from the tribals, it would grant the tribals separate land to live on and give them means of livelihood. However, this does not always follow due to the scams and corruption activities involved. Even if they are given employment opportunities and societies to stay in, they are still at a great loss as they are placed in unfamiliar societies having less skill to fit the conditions of modern society. This leads them to be excluded from not only form the economic, social and political sphere but also in the areas of education, citizenship and respect.

Rebellious movements such as the Maoist movements come into play here. The members of the movement brainwash the tribals and use examples of how the tribals have been excluded from mainstream society and from the eyes of the government. They emphasise on how a blind eye is turned towards them, compelling the tribals to join these movements. The tribals feel that there is a certain class of people showing sympathy to- wards them and hence join them. This further intensifies the struggle of being excluded for the tribals.

Till date, tribals are still victims of developmental processes. Unless proper attention is given to the plight of the tribals, bringing about a change in their situation is tough to accomplish. The main issue to be targeted is the implementation of the laws. There are many protective laws made in order to protect the tribals. But the question still remains, how far does law enforcement go? Nevertheless, tribals should be educated and made aware of the laws made for them, it is only then they can stand up for their rights.