A series of five exhibitions celebrating 50 years of Chemould Prescott Road

Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai

20 January - 1 March, 2014

Participating Artists

Atul Dodiya, Shilpa Gupta, Archana Hande, Anant Joshi, Shakuntala Kulkarni, Yardena Kurulkar, Prajakta Potnis, Mithu Sen, Paula Sengupta, Charmi Gada Shah, Vivan Sundaram, Suresh BV

There are small exhibits within this exhibition compacted by a set of framing devices. The Closet holds intimate things: clothes, mementos, secrets about identity, fear and crime. Glass-fronted Cabinets display objects ranging from diagrams, maps, books and photos to magical and miscellaneous exotica referred to as 'curiosities'. The Cabinet of Curiosities can expand into a room: an aristocrat's private chamber; the archivist/voyager/collector's humbler storage space. From the 16th century, the Wunderkammer (Room of/for Wonder) appears as a prototype of the museum - crammed with objects, hung with pictures from floor to ceiling.

Museum histories include vastly varied themes, disciplines, cultural and conceptual propositions. Collections of local heritage gain national status even as they display the wealth of artefacts gained in good part from colonial conquests. The loot in the fold of Europe's 'age of discovery' becomes the encyclopaedic and ethnographic museum. With the rise of the bourgeoisie, the development of the public domain and the state's undertaking to offer culture as education, privately endowed museums take on the profile of a 'public' institution. But this is not the place for such elaborations; what is of interest is the constant cross-over between ethnographic, archival and art museums. This is precisely what shapes methodologies, criteria and value in art history. More specific to our purpose, it bears directly on categories, canons, and their systematic deconstruction in modern and contemporary art.

A curatorial invitation to a set of artists interested in museum-like configurations or in cabinet formats led me to further invite artists who access grim rather than vivid aspects of the collection-container-display equation. This brought in the vault, crypt, lab, cellar and backyard: spaces that subvert pleasure, create claustrophobia and veer away from the Wunderkammer into darker zones. But we know that in the richly mixed desires of the unconscious, objects, artefacts, totems and memento mori produce peculiar morphologies. In Cabinet Closet Wunderkammer, I try to build an exhibition phenomenology with entangled frames, object spills and aesthetic overlays.

Atul Dodiya presents a room-size installation that properly realizes the overlapping resources of personal archives, art-history anthology and wonder-room. The signs emitted from this photo-image-object continuum are incremental. There is a corresponding escalation in the mode of self-inscription - holy alliance and mock-combat staged among a legion of artists from around the world. A miscellany of hero-'trophies' mounted on wall-shelves produce the aspect of the wonder-room. The viewer's gaze squints, then registers excess as spectatorial privilege and gift of the exhibitory mode itself.

There is a pact between art and enchantment via the fetish, especially dolls, puppets and marionettes (much interpreted by philosopher-poets and artists). Mithu Sen's collection is, as she says, an archive of vernacular culture - of unidentified deities who cannot be historicized; it is as much a nurturing lair breeding abject creatures who signal their unbelonging. The round vitrine (a circus ring and shadow play), holds her 'menagerie' of voodoo figurines, porno trash, miniature monsters, skulls and all manner of memento mori that spell (an always premature) death. Mithu's indulgence, meets, here, with a quite different form of Wunderkammer aesthetic. Shilpa Gupta's mural in shallow relief presents the red velvet curtain of a midget theatre and the performative 'conceit' of a conceptual artist. The curtain is embroidered with the words, 'I will', which the artist turns into a seductive contradiction: the parted curtains reveal not a proscenium stage or a vivacious actress, but a flat mirror that reflects on your face the word 'die'.

These two shimmering works lead to a museum vitrine, properly so called. Shakuntala Kulkarni houses life-size 'marionettes' that are simply cane armatures elaborated into arabesques to make up armour, cage and regalia. Extracted (as though) from a heritage museum, the sculptural ensemble borrows tribal forms and serves a double agenda: recuperation of humble and elaborate craft, and construction of 'combat costume' for a feminist/activist.

Back to toy-size miniaturization and Archana Hande presents, in illumined dioramas, a life lived as a 24-hour travel-log (/travelogue). The artist produces, in a blend of mediums, fluid landscapes, real and fictitious itineraries. Boxed as a peep-show, the aesthetic recalls doll-museums, theatre and architectural mini-models. Anant Joshi, decides to traverse time via the television, and serializes a year-long calendar of emblematic moments, real-life stories, and media events. Dystopia and surveillance, watching and being watched - this is compacted into 12 dioramas with everyday travesties performed in the absurdist style of pantomime theatrics.

As the preamble promised, there is a verso to the recto page of Wunderkammer.

There is a crypt in the heart of the gallery. Vivan Sundaram's ceremonially installed coffin - underground closet with interred bodies - holds a pair of amputated lovers, in embrace. Like in all crypts, there is a haunting: a ghost (/video) quivers on the wall. At the gateway: two stand-up benches -would-be cabinets - mounted with totemic heads: Narcissus and Echo, who failed love. Burial protocols are ornamental; Vivan's aesthetic spells a poverty of means, diminished craft and mortal remains. The figures are discarded mannequins; the body, three times dead, revives as 'sculpture'. Nearby, there is another allusion to the crypt, or is it a laboratory: Yardena Kurulkar arranges an iron-rack with 42 ceramic casts of her own head 'drowned' and 'sealed' in small water-tanks. She fights to draw breath, the sculpture petrifies - she survives? A grid of photographic self-portraits (a clay face-cast) and a gap of five seconds to map her dissolution: the experiment lies in reversing time. Yardena is dead before she breathes again. To suicidal mortality is added vegetal decay. In a cellar-like room, Prajakta Potnis 'embeds' refrigerator vaults where daily life blooms, and rots. Time moulders, lace sutures the walls, exotic fruit sit in vaporous glory - it's the light of the refrigerator translated into projected transparencies (/obsolete celluloid). Her diligent collection of decomposed ephemera is acquired, she says, through neighbourly goodwill.

In the exhibition's backyard is a litter ofminiature houses wrecked by therealtor's axe or by mere disuse. Charmi Gada Shah's small squat models make iconic the memory of house, mother-of-all containers. She remains matter-of-fact: her cleaved constructions may enter the space of the museum as precious shells, urban ruins, no-place with place-histories; they are, quite simply, diminutive portraits of dwellings routinely erased by the expanded city.

From the gully enters a white peacock with feathers etched on its alabaster-like body. It wears the black hood of a culprit/victim on death row. B.V. Suresh's albino is the citizen whose belonging is denied and destroyed within a system of forsaken justice. He alludes to the symbolic 'sovereignty' of India's blue peacock; to the discrimination and displacement suffered by minorities, and, routed through courtroom and prison-cell persecution, a threat of the gallows.

I end by looping back to the beginning - to the museum/archive - with Paula Sengupta's homage to Tibet in exile. Transparent 'manuscripts' fitted into vaults hold life-`testimonies' of individuals who have lost their bearing. Ethnographic material includes lamas' haloed' robes, ceremonial scarves printed with texts and draped like museum objects. It includes stacked steel plates with Tibetan signs, the guiding principles of a lost way of life. Invited to occupy a tiny library, Paula conceived an elusive resource that emits a low hum of withdrawal and resonates with exile conditions worldwide.

Text by Geeta Kapur.

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