Like shots fired in the air in the midst of the seemingly limitless revelry of India’s contemporary art market, Geeta Kapur’s “Aesthetic Bind” was an arresting series of five exhibitions held in rapid sequence at the Chemould Prescott Road gallery in Mumbai. The occasion was the fiftieth anniversary of this historic space, one of the oldest commercial galleries on the subcontinent, which famously nurtured the first wave of modern artists in post-independence India at a time when modernism itself could not be taken for granted. Kapur, the preeminent Delhi-based theorist and seminal voice of a post-1968 tradition of leftist art criticism in India, worked with Chemould director Shireen Gandhy (whose parents founded the institution) to mount the exhibitions in quick succession. From September 2013 to April 2014, Kapur presented more than fifty contemporary artists from South Asia and a total of 129 works.
Significantly, the project reflected a number of investments expressed in Kapur’s writing over the past two decades: her commitment to alternative curatorial formats, her fearless address of the problems of region and nation, her rejection of the forces that work to depoliticize art (like the ever-present clichés surrounding the “global”), and her intense dedication to both the advancement of discourse and the plight of working artists in India. And yet the series’ evocative title-one can be bound to the aesthetic, or be in a bind, philosophically speaking-pointless to a place of authority or mastery than to a persistent sense of constraint and conundrum. The project is thus a major showcase of contemporary art on the subcontinent as well as a profound attempt by Kapur, who is now in her seventies, to elaborate on the conditions of her own lifelong commitment to a radical practice of writing, thinking, and curating in India.
It has been ten years since Kapur’s last curatorial project, and one could speculate that the hiatus is related to her relentless interrogation of the international exhibition formats of the twenty-first century. Kapur has rejected, for example, the spectacular scale of recent blockbusters of contemporary Indian art, and has long questioned the hierarchical effects of the “Western venue/menu at Venice and Documenta,” seeing in both a sense of exhaustion within the national survey format and “a kind of packaging that makes the art object more object-like, more commodified.” She has expressed similar dissatisfaction with the lack of autonomy granted by state institutions such as the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi, describing her effort to rehang their permanent collection in 1994-a revisionist project that caused a minor uproar within the establishment-as “an early battle for curatorial independence.” Above all, she has strongly objected to the ascendant commercialism of the India Art Fair in Delhi, now entering its seventh year, lamenting the bleak prospect for art that is encountered in the format of merchandising booths. “In a situation created for distraction and deals, what rationality, what regard, what definition of value can we envisage?” Kapur has bemoaned. Instead, the “big” exhibition, Kapur has argued, “needs to be reimagined so as to function as a constellatory site for new questions.” “Aesthetic Bind” can be understood as precisely such a reimagining, a finely crafted constellation of “big” questions that demand increasingly sensitive forms of perception and intelligent engagement from viewers.
Kapur approached each exhibition with passionate precision. By reinventing the walls, colors, lighting, and mood of the five-thousand-square-foot gallery anew each time, she prioritized the phenomenological encounter with art and the relay of meanings produced by objects in space. She also composed exacting curatorial statements for each show, which are being developed and expanded into an exhibition book. Threads appear from her earlier writing (for instance, the concept of the “citizen artist”), but the project also galvanized new ideas and gestures-in particular, more metaphysical orientations and a greater emphasis on the realm of the imaginary-that expands the scope of her published work thus far.
The series began, audaciously, with death. And yet “Subject of Death,” the first show, was less about its namesake than it was about the forces of life, exploring how art-and painting, in particular (it did not concede, in other words, to that death)-has the capacity to “immortalize absence,” to become, in Kapur’s elegant formulation, “a preemptive move against nothingness.” It did so by remembering the death of a friend, the enormously influential and openly gay painter Bhupen Khakhar, who died from a virulent form of cancer ten years ago. “Because death came so rapidly to Bhupen,” Kapur explains, “he addressed it every which way-with rage, with pleas for compassion, with unconcealed terror.” Khakhar’s haunting later works were thus placed at the center of an ensemble that included a variety of acts of mourning, tribute, and slow surrender to mortality, by artists as wide-ranging as Anju Dodiya, Gieve Patel, Sudhir Patwardhan, and Mithu Sen. To my mind, the phenomenon of Khakhar’s reception among Indian artists has a parallel in the New York art world’s response to the Cuban-born American artist and gay activist Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Both figures have generated powerful discussions-around art, death, sexuality, illness, love, and desire-in their wake. Kapur’s exhibition struck something of this chord, and positioned, in her own terms, “Saint Bhupen hanging resplendent in his gallery and among friends.” It is a gentle act of homage and an unforgettable curatorial gesture, one that transforms the life of a friend into the most delicate of gallery objects.
The second show, titled “Citizen Artist: Forms of Address,” elaborated Kapur’s theory of the socially engaged artist, a line of thinking that has been central to her vision of a contestatory citizenship and her conceptualization, since the 1990s, of the central suppositions shaping an Indian avant-garde. This show was pitched most rhetorically from her theoretical writing, and yet it differed dramatically from the first in its formal selections, incorporating multichannel video, sound, and performance projects by younger artists and collectives such as camp, Tushar Joag, Inder Salim, and Gigi Scaria, along with photographic works by Gauri Gill, Pushpamala N, and Ram Rahman. Equally noteworthy were the nameless gravestones offered by Shilpa Gupta to mourn the damage produced by nations and borders, the lineup of miniature “frisker/frisked pairs” created by Jitish Kallat, and the large digital photoprints of crowds by Rashid Rana and Arunkumar H G, which evoke the multitude as a political form.
An altogether different proposition was explored in “Phantomata,” the third show in the series. Here, Kapur pointed to the realm of the imaginary,theelusive and multisensory space of phantasms, dreams, memories, and thoughts, where consciousness and the Lacanian symbolic meet the immateriality of the projected image. These concerns appear to have roots in Kapur’s 1999 account of Ranbir Kaleka’s Man Threading a Needle, 1998-99, an ingenious artwork included in the show that combines painting with video and sound to depict a trivial activity in the most unforgettable of ways. Phantomata was concerned with light, lenses, receptive surfaces, and forms of printing that impress or leave traces on these surfaces; it featured haunting video works by Sonia Khurana, Kiran Subbaiah, Pratul Dash, and Raqs Media Collective, alongside the archaic technological instruments of Susanta Mandal, Sudarshan Shetty, and Tallur L. N. The latter were presented in juxtaposition with Nikhil Chopra’s riveting photograph of his epic Tuscan costumed performance and Joag’s luminous army of glowing, wired sculptural figures. The show represented, in part, Kapur’s response to the explosion of ways in which video and new media have been put to use by contemporary artists in India today, and the radical forms of what she has described as “postcelluloid media.”
“Cabinet Closet Wünderkammer” was entirely different yet again, and seized on Adorno’s insight that the mausoleum and museum, as structures that both enshrine mortality and material decay, have much in common. In this fourth show, Kapur placed the pleasures of the Wünderkammer into an encounter with the claustrophobia of the crypt: from the installations-cum-vitrines produced by Atul Dodiya, Shakuntala Kulkarni, and Sen, to the light-box dioramas of Anant Joshi and Archana Hande, and the coffined mannequins and suffocating casts of Vivan Sundaram and Yardena Kurulkar, respectively.
If the final show, titled “Floating World,” promised relief from these morbid depths through more buoyant metaphors, such effects were also undercut by Kapur preference for art with a gravitational pull. In the uneasy “Mappamundi” of Gulammohammed Sheikh, the high-voltage, barbed-wire cartography of Reena Saini Kallat, the incendiary matchstick chandeliers of Hema Upadhyay, and the sublime Yamuna River full of filth in the photographs of Atul Bhalla, we are left with a hazardous, threatening, and polluted world, utterly explosive and vulnerable in the end.
Kapur recently stated that, in exhibition making, “… the actual display, the phenomenology of the exhibition space, the dialogue between objects, the unexpectedness of the encounter and the meanings that surface in the setting up of an itinerary, thrills me quite separately from the conceptual paradigm of the exhibition. Yet, criticism forms the foundation of my curation; it shapes the concept and design of the exhibition . . . therefore I am critic first, then curator.”
What, then, is Kapur’s “aesthetic bind”? It does not appear to be a vocational bind born out of any disjunction between curating and criticism, for hers has long been an integrated practice with a clear sense of the dialectical stakes. Perhaps it refers to the restriction of meaning that occurs as contemporary Indian art is increasingly strung up under the banner of “the global”? This is the kind of bind that constricts, even strangles, and is clearly perceived to prevent further growth. Or is it the bind of representation itself? Of the relation between the visual and the verbal, or the limits of language when it comes to the arts? Or is it the bind between philosophy and art, the entangled attempts at human understanding that have led to all manner of historical effects, from revolution to impasse, revelation to opacity? Or is it the bind of the ambivalent critic, whose desire for explication and legibility is at odds with her need to sustain difficulty and beauty, and to permit art’s will toward silence and illegibility?
The boldly indeterminate answer is, it seems to me, all of the above. Kapur’s principled curatorial practice, building on a lifetime in the arts, refuses to arrive at a singular message or allow for the comfort of an easy synthesis in the end. Instead, her account of the dizzying social, historical, phenomenological, and psychic investments of contemporary art reenergizes the intellectual potential and parameters of the exhibition format in our time.
This essay was first published in Artforum, Summer 2014.