By Kyle Mullin
In the past they’ve been divided by Himalayan heights, border skirmishes, and a race to become the world’s next superpower. Today their economic rivalry may be neck in neck, but in the art world there’s no contest– India is losing ground to China.
At least that’s what one of India’s top gallery luminaries said at the debut of Ullens Center for Contemporary Art’s current showing, Indian Highway. The exhibit, held in Beijing’s 798 Art District, features the work of nearly 30 Indian artists and runs until August 26. At its opening, lauded photographer Dayanita Singh– who has captured the slums, eunuchs and everyday families of New Delhi and Goa with her lens– described how Beijing might inspire her even more.
“Without critical discourse, it’s a bit like the Emperor’s New Clothes,” the Indian Highway featured photographer said of her homeland’s art scene, alluding to the beloved children’s fable that featured throngs of onlookers too afraid to tell their duped and nude monarch that his ‘new clothes’ were non-existent. She went on to add that Beijing’s kind of art critiques– from highfalutin university periodicals to regular rankings in alt-weeklies like Time Out— are desperately needed to improve India’s galleries.
“Contemporary art in India needs to find its conversation. We need our own vocabulary,” Singh said, adding the Indian scene needs to stop mimicking its Western counterparts.
Singh has never been such an imitator. In fact, she’s pushed photography to a new level, most famously by filling an entire book with stark black and white portraits of Mona Ahmed, a eunuch whom the photographer dubbed ‘an outcast amongst outcasts.’ Since then she’s published several captionless photo books in an effort to bring on the artistic literary wave that she insists her homeland is lacking.
Singh’s hyper realistic photos featured in Indian Highway are juxtaposed by her peers’ surrealist sculptures. The most striking sits in the gallery’s foyer. It’s called Aquasaurus, a seven metre long truck by sculptor Jitish Kallat made not of nuts and bolts but bone, its rear tanker nothing more than gaping ribs, its grill comprised of teeth left to grind in the gridlock traffic that keeps a nation of commuters waiting.
The inverse of that snarling, carnivorous vehicle sits across the gallery — a dilapidated temple, the same brownish hue as the tarnished bones of the aforementioned skeletal truck. This latter sculpture, dubbed No Title (from Listen outside this house), was crafted by Sudarshan Shetty, a Mumbai based artist. On the floor of his sculpted temple, a riddle phrase about mysterious love is written in sloppy black, spiraling text, while its walls seem to bend and crumble inward, buckling under the same urban constrictions that make Kallat’s truck creature sneer.
In an interview with Shanghaiist, Shetty agreed with Singh’s comments about India’s lacking critical discourse, adding that that intellectual deficit lets the country’s squalor stretch from the slums to the galleries.
“Whilst the internet obviously allows a form of access to the wider art world, and a potential for an individual to make their own map of how things stand internationally, it remains a very brittle and superficial picture of things,” Shetty says. “What is needed (in India) is a much more informed culture of conversation and discourse.”
During a visit to the exhibit’s opening, Singh and Shetty discussed the leaps and bounds China’s art world has made over its southern rival, comments that were echoed by Indian Highway’s curators.
“China has a strong arts institution, there are more and more galleries being curated publicly and privately,” Hans Ulrich Obrist, curator of Indian Highway and co-director of London’s Serpentine Gallery, where the exhibit was first held, says to Shanghaiist. “So it’s becoming a real landscape, not only in Beijing and Shanghai but all over China. In India that just isn’t the case. People don’t really have the opportunity to show their work in their own country.”
Those constrictions at home bind Indian artists even as they embark abroad. Obrist went on to detail the worst of those examples- bids to open a pavilion for Hindu artists at Venice’s prestigious Biennale exhibition that the Indian government stonewalled for 116 years, right up until famed critic and curator Robert Storr’s successful spearheading in 2011.
While such domestic hurdles may cripple India’s emerging artists, Obrist’s partner says it is no slight to the nation’s master workers.
“Artists on Dayanita Signh’s level have such an international rep that they show regularly almost anywhere in the world, so in that sense they’ve superseded their nationality,” says Julia Peyton-Jones, Obrist’s co-curator and the director of the Serpentine Gallery in the U.K., a showing which reflected The West’s current fixation on Asian art.
Peyton-Jones added that despite the breakthrough of a few gallery superstars on the world’s stage, most of India’s artists still struggle to find a space to showcase their work– unless they’re willing to sell out. Literally.
“Unlike the galleries in (Beijing’s) 798 (Art District), there aren’t venues that show art for the sake of itself in India, that aren’t in place for auctioning and selling,” Peyton-Jones says.
But Shetty says that economic environment doesn’t necessarily push Indian artists to produce profit-centered work.
“If work did go through such a process I seriously doubt that it would have any residue of an interesting idea left,” Shetty says of any Indian art that might be forced toward commercialism. But he added that any such issues would certainly be stemmed by non-profit 798 style galleries. “India desperately needs such large, benevolent and informed spaces for art. There is still a very naive idea of what art should be and how it should appear, what its functions are in society, and such places would provide endless benefits. There is nothing like the UCCA anywhere in India right now, though there is a potentially exciting development with the emergence of privately funded museums like the ‘Devi Art Foundation’ and the artists run initiatives like ‘Khoj’ in Delhi.”
Singh agreed, adding that such first steps need to be taken further, even if India’s artists are unsure where to start.
“I don’t know how it can change. But the solution doesn’t lie in exporting 10 curators or 10 writers to Venice,” she says of the Biennale success that Obrist mentioned earlier, a victory which she deems to be meagre. “What we need is more discourse within India, perhaps bring those curators or writers to India, because we have to form our own vocabulary.”
But Shetty says the solution can’t be imported or exported– it must be found within India’s borders.
“I do not think an imitation of any other culture’s institutional infrastructure will be helpful for India in the long-term. It is much more exciting, though of course incredibly difficult, to try to imagine specific ways that India could establish itself internationally, of course with some fundamental similarities to other international models, but without constantly being forced to cash in on an exotic passport. In a way, India and China face similar problems in this respect. Something more structural needs to be established that can survive in the long term whenever the (Western) art market’s current excitement for the two countries inevitably fades.”
Open until Aug. 26
RMB 15 for adults, free on Thursdays, and free for students and children
798 Dashanzi Art District, 4 Jiuxianqiao Lu, Chaoyang District
Open Tue-Sun 10am-7pm
For more information call 8459 9269 or visit www.ucca.org.cn