What is a curatorial response? It’s exactly the opposite of the curating that happens in the primary art market where the curator comes up with a concept and the artists respond to it. In the art world, the curator gives a highly intellectual topic or a concept or a proposition or a provocation or a suggestion or a gesture or a catalyst or a nothing or a thematic and the artists will make their artworks. So in the art world, curator proposes, artist disposes.
My curatorial take on the first MFA display of SNU is exactly the opposite of art world curating. The artists have already created their works under the mentorship of contemporary Indian artists Tushar Joag, Sharmila Samant, Vasudha Thozhur and Atul Bhalla who are stakeholders in the social turn in contemporary Indian art. The art curriculum of SNU is envisioned as a pedagogic exercise governed by the visions of credible contemporary art practitioners. My involvement in this pedagogic vision is that of an art history teacher who taught these MFA students for two semesters. Here, the curatorial function is imagined as a response to the already created works and the curatorial privilege of choosing a thematic or a concept or a proposition or a provocation or a suggestion is not there. Now it’s the turn of the curator to respond.
It is with this humility that I wish to enter this world of art created by eleven young artists. I want to highlight the number eleven here. Why I’m getting excited about the number eleven is also because it’s a sacred and patriotic number in India today. It’s the number of players in a cricket team, which is sacred in India. So I was tempted to curatorially frame these eleven young artists as a cricket team and as a tribute to Nationalism. Then I thought against it since I’m engaging with university students, you know.
I’m not saying that the nation is not relevant for young people. In this degree show, one artist Ranjeeta Kumari is showing the preamble of the Indian Constitution drafted by Ambedkar, as a part of her work, and she is showing the first page of the Constitution that promises liberty, equality and fraternity, the page that was designed by Nandalal Bose. Another artist Angad Nair, is showing photographs of a dome, at the Dalit Prerana Sthal built by Mayavati, which is very near the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, Noida where this MFA display is being held. So there are these tangential references to the national and its promise of liberal democracy in just one or two works.
Why I’m referring to the national is because there was a time when the national was considered as a paradigm to fix what is progressive art what is socialist, what is secular and what is modern. Then came a generation of artists who thought that they are beyond the national and they have been celebrating the digital as some kind of heaven. Here I would like to quote Adorno, “The celebration of technology is a bourgeois retrospection that conceals relations of production.” Possibly, that’s why the right wing is also celebrating internet.org as an emancipatory tool for the poor. The internet might be the only space, where the post-structural leftists and the epic right-wing co-exist in a rhizomatic web of things. But, the digitally oriented artists are also obsessed with the nation indirectly so that they had to designate themselves as the ‘post-national’.
In the post-national condition the city emerges as the site of intensities and flows and interruptions and possibilities and emancipation and schizophrenia. Fortunately or unfortunately, the MFA students of SNU were not in the city, as they were quarantined in a village called Dadri. But they were not participants in the village life either. Possibly they led the life of outsiders inside a village as witnesses. And the village they witnessed is not a very innocent village. It’s a communally polarized village of hate, suspicion and crime. How might these social conditions affect their art and life? One MFA student Arshad Hakim, has been working with the idea of the glitch in technology, possibly as an indirect reference to the glitch in society, like the communal lynching, as he has reflected in his master’s thesis.
Other than communalism Dadri is also witnessing rapid urbanization. The anxiety of vanishing natural habitats and the intrusion of the modern architecture in the agricultural land; these are recurring concerns in the works of SNU MFA students. There is a fear of the city that’s coming. It is a fear of the human being as a geological force. This fear is sublimated as a fascination for the natural habitat, or the object in itself, or the poetics of the earth, or chance encounters with materials, or as the breath of the land. As Carolyn Christov Bakargiev says, it’s about a society where the human is not the center of the cosmology but only one element in the making of the world, including objects. That leads to a question of what is the object saying? What is the plant saying? What is a stone saying?
One major thematic in the work of SNU students is the space-time relationship. Sonam Chaturvedi displayed a collection of stones and other found materials. She works with the idea of time and transience. There is a video in which the word ‘now’ is repeatedly projected in red typography against black that allows the viewer to reflect on the incommensurability of now as a moment, which is always elusive. Payal Arya also works with the idea of transience and transit. She decided to display her works in the basement car park of KNMA as a site of transit and her videos capture a certain sense of movement of light, objects and emotions. Arshad Hakim who showed his works in the basement, works with the idea of glitch in technology, which can also be read as glitch in everyday life of humans. Angad Nair is fascinated by chance encounters with technology like the loop of live footage of what a DSLR captures while recording its own projection. There is a circularity of motion that Angad is fascinated by, when he captured the rotation of the dryer in a washing machine, when there was a glitch in it that allowed him to insert a DSLR inside the dryer. Devashish Sharma is more interested in the essence of ‘objects’ around him, including architectural elements and how those forms can be mimetically rendered through carpentry wrapped with photographs expanded to life size as vinyl prints.
Another major thematic in the work of SNU students is self-other relationships. Smita Rajmane also works with architectural elements like walls and doors, animated with electronic kinetics, but she is interested in an investigation of insider-outsider relationship between the self and the other, where the other can be designated as another human, the mirror image of the self or architectural space or forms. Mouna G R has been working with her relationship with her own father, as a monumental presence inherartisticlifethat comes to life through large photo montages in theatrical settings where her father and herself share space. Kiran Telkar is also interested in the self and other relationships, and he has stacked up 500 artificial eggs that the viewers are free to take away, and can share their experience of inhabiting with the egg through an app accessible through a QR code.
The most significant thematic in the works of SNU students is land-labour relationships. Vrishali Purandhare has been working with the plant lives in SNU campus. Her works are predominantly concerned about the vanishing biodiversity of the habitat in the village of Dadri because of rapid urbanization. There is a series of video works showed as a matrix of LCD tablets where the pruning of plants in SNU landscaping is shown as a very violent human intervention in plant lives. She also collaborated with the life sciences department in SNU to document the herbarium process that preserves rare plant lives in the campus. Her works are annotated with poems by Faiz and Pash as a poetic sub-text to her environmental concerns. Abhinav Yagnik created a huge human nose-like structure with mud near the pond in SNU campus, thus symbolically allowing the earth to breathe. Yagnik has translated a personal experience to a universal one, as he has a nasal medical problem and by building a monumental nose on the earth, he is reflecting on the living conditions on the planet. Ranjeeta Kumari who has displayed the preamble of the Indian constitution has also made a work called the Farming of Fundamental Rights which is a stop-motion animation of seedlings sprouting on a clay model of huge book. Ranjeeta has been influenced by the agricultural cycle of the farmlands around SNU campus.
Addressing the ecological concerns in many of these artists. I wish to title my curatorial response as, ‘The Vanishing Pond near the Field’. The vanishing pond is completely fictional and any resemblance to any living pond is completely co-incidental. Meanwhile, the vanishing pond is also speaking to the ongoing show in KNMA Noida called ‘Pond Near the Field’ which reflects on the romanticism of five Malayali artists from the 1980s. As a Malayali male in 2016, I wish to add that the ponds are vanishing. The vanishing pond is not a pun on the vanishing point. The vanishing point which is the point of convergence in the theory of linear perspective in Italian Renaissance which was the originary point of enlightenment rationality that led to everything that is wrong today in the human-centric world including the mastery of nature by the most dangerous organism ever evolved. And while speaking about the mastery of nature, we should also speak about primitive capital accumulation, economic growth and the privileges of surplus value.
While looking at this MFA display, it’s hard to miss the privileges and the infrastructures of the special economic zone (SEZ), which the Museum has enabled with all these projectors and all the white walls. Infrastructure is a double-edged sword in the art world. For artists, the infrastructure is necessary, but it is not sufficient as there is some obsessive artistic urge to subvert the infrastructure itself. It is the avant-garde cravings in artists that compel them to critique institutions and destroy the center. In that sense, are these white cubes an open invitation for subversion? I suppose, these white cubes that KNMA enabled for SNU MFA students are tempting enough to arouse avant-garde impulses.