Tuesday, 12 June 2012

TAKE - Biennale I Issue 8 I June 2012

The Phantom Lady Strikes Again
The Phantom Lady ruminates on the heritage of modernism in India after seeing a show of Madan Mahatta’s architectural photographs curated by Ram Rahman in Delhi.


I just saw a fabulous exhibition of Madan Mahatta’s architectural photographs from the 1950s to the ‘80s curated by Ram Rahman at PhotoInk in Delhi. Ram has selected the images from within his own constructivist aesthetic and Madan Mahatta’s photography with its intense graphic quality and dark gritty textures is visually stunning. Many of the small size photographs are actually portraits of the architects in the domestic architecture of their own homes with furniture designed by them. Nasreen Mohammedi would have been delighted to see these images! Mahatta’s photographs cover the important period of Nehruvian high modernism, a record of the creation of the new Delhi and the urban monuments of the new nation, most of them commissioned by Nehru himself. Coming from a family which owned the biggest and most reputed photo studios in North India, Mahatta worked closely with two generations of India’s best known modern architects including Charles Correa, Habib Rahman, Jasbir Sawhney, J.K. Chowdhury, Joseph Allen Stein, Achyut Kanvinde, Ajoy Choudhury, Kuldip Singh, Raj Rewal, Ram Sharma, Ranjit Sabhiki and designers Mini Boga and Riten Mozumdar. (In fact, I had no idea that there was such a thing as modern Indian furniture design till I heard about Mini Boga’s work, which unfortunately, is not known outside Delhi).

As far as I know, there has been no great International style architecture in the South, (though Laurie Baker’s low cost architectural work can be considered modernist in terms of his truth to materials and functionalism). However, a kind of provincial modern architecture spread rapidly all over through government buildings. Curt Gambit, an architect who has been researching on Bangalore, thinks ideas of modern architecture spread through pictures in cement catalogues, a new material just introduced in the period, from which Public Works Department (PWD) engineers took inspiration. International style architecture seems to have existed basically in Delhi, Chandigarh (commissioned by the government) and in Ahmedabad, commissioned by industrial families such as the Sarabhais. In fact, Gujarat was at the forefront of modernism in every way, which ideal seems to have completely collapsed. Chandigarh itself, a new city designed by Corbusier on the invitation of Nehru, has been criticised for its mechanical inhumanity and lack of sensitivity to Indian ways of life, yet it is an important part of our modern heritage. It appears that the Corbusier buildings are in a sorry state, with the original furniture designed by him either gone missing or vandalized.

Though there has been a lot of interest in recovering the history of Indian photography for some time, much of the research is on the pre-colonial era, written about by scholars like Christopher Pinney, and in which Rahaab Allana of the Alkazi Archive has been very active. But the history of post-independence photography, which documents the building of the new nation and which defines our immediate past within which we can contextualize ourselves, is less known. Ram, in fact, has been lecturing widely on the history of contemporary Indian photography, and has curated a retrospective show of the work of the Marxist photographer Sunil Janah. Filmmaker/ scholar Sabeena Gadihoke has researched on women photographers and her recent show of the life work of the first Indian woman press photographer Homai Vyarawala has just travelled through the National Galleries of Modern Art in India. Some years ago, Nafeesa Ali exhibited her father Ahmed Ali’s photographs widely and Pablo Bartholomew has been printing and exhibiting the photographs taken by his father, the late critic Richard Bartholomew. While the photographers mentioned above mainly did press or commercial photography, Richard Bartholomew’s images are more domestic and personal, documenting family life and pictures of the studios of his artist friends who belonged to the Delhi Shilpi Chakra or the Progressive Group. They have an aesthetic of clean bare rooms with little furniture and informal living, parents and children curled up napping on the ground in the heat. The Modernist aesthetic for interiors in India seemed to have been a mixture of Gandhian simplicity and austerity combined with Nehruvian socialism with bare and unfussy spaces, handloom fabrics, natural weaves and vegetable prints.

The “modern” in India is closely associated with the Left and perhaps this is why it is so discredited today with the rise of right wing thinking. SAHMAT, the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust, had a major conference on the Progressive movement in Delhi some months ago covering theatre, literature, film and art. The Progressives, a Marxist cultural movement, formed the avant-garde of modern India over the1930s, 40s and 50s, and had a profound influence. Progressive ideas again surfaced during the 1970s when there was a burst of creative activity in all the arts and creative thinking. This was a highly influential time politically and artistically which has not been studied enough. Unfortunately a deep conservatism has set in with the Left which sees the Progressive moment as belonging to a vanished era and a particular style, and ignores the avant-garde critical work done today, (a critique made by Geeta Kapur in the conference), which has only impoverished Left thinking. The feminist, caste and gay critiques of a universal monolithic modernism are seen as divisive and splintering. Rather than re-thinking and including these critiques and discourses, there is a tendency to dismiss them. The fall of the Soviet Union itself can be seen as the collapse of an extreme form of modernism and universalism, which was insensitive to differences in pursuing a general Utopian ideal. The closed thinking of the Progressives isolates them from us and makes the movement seem distant. Left intellectuals now pride themselves on their philistinism.

Today, there is a widespread notion that India has gone straight from the pre-modern to the post- modern, and is in fact a kind of quintessentially post-modern country, successful in “infotech” while seamlessly adhering to its “ancient” traditions.  I end by quoting film theorist M. Madhava Prasad who writes in his essay The Last Remake of Indian Modernity, that dominant Indian cultural discourse has been about essential and unchanging identity that refuses to accept the sharp break from the past, which defines the modern condition in which we live:

The discourse of Indian culture is replete with the jargon of being and belonging, and within it art is assigned an expressive function tied to this phantasmic essence, figured as besieged by a modernity that threatens to banish it into oblivion. In such a conception, time has only one axis of articulation: there is a past rudely interrupted which awaits the restoration of its line of continuity, and the present, which is an interregnum of alienation. In this scenario, modernity has no temporal depth, no ruptures or transitions internal to its time. It is posed as eternally in conflict with its other – tradition– in a space bracketed out of time.

Such a stubborn disavowal of the contemporary is of course easily explained by reference to the difficult historic struggle for cultural survival after the devastating impact of colonial rule. But today we can and must pose against this nationalist imperative the necessity of not only coming to terms with, but also of embracing without reserve, the actuality of loss, rupture, ungrounding. It is only through such a gesture of recognizing that the only position of enunciation available to us is located in the modern, that we can emerge from the stalemate of the politics of being. The nationalist discourse has glossed the freedom won by our ancestors as the freedom to go back to being what one always was (itself a fantasy construction), thus inaugurating the politics of being. If modernity continues to appear to us as an external imposition, it is only because we have not rallied to its cause, letting it instead only befall us. Against this constricting definition of freedom which imprisons us once again, we should strive to reopen the closed pathways to alienation, to the freedom of becoming.”

The Phantom Lady
May 2012

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

TAKE - Design I Issue 6 I December 2011

The Phantom Lady Strikes Again
The Phantom Lady interviews Smitha Cariappa about the very successful performance art festival she organized with Bar1 at Bangalore recently: LIVE ART 2011.


PL   Smitha, the LIVE ART 2011 Bangalore International Performance Festival you organized recently for Bar1 was so ambitious in scale and thoughtful in conception, I have never seen anything like it. It was part public performances, part workshop and part seminar, with experienced international artists, young artists and students. We spent two weeks together and became a community. I found an unusual intimacy, openness, experimentation and spontaneity with a lot of discussion and analysis. Can you talk about how it came about?

SC   Performance is like dope, you get hooked on to it! It started with my being a part of BAR1, the Bangalore Artist Residency 1. We decided to stop our residency programme in November last year and work on projects.  I have been thinking for a while that it was very important to document and archive performance and to encourage students and performance art studies, and the best way was to organize an international platform. You know that Bangalore has also been a city where theatre and performing arts has had a long history but the people here have not really understood performance art.

As an artist organizing the event, I wanted it to be informal and intimate, and my target was the students and upcoming artists. It had to make a change to the approach to performance art in the city.  I invited artists who had made a big difference in their own cities, like Dorothea Rust who created the Dawn to Dusk performance in Zurich and Tamar Raban who is really responsible for the performance art scene in Israel by creating the Performance Art Platform (PAP) in Tel Aviv. I had met Bandu Manamperi and Janani Cooray at the Theertha Residency in Colombo. Janani who works on critiquing the concept of “Beauty” was so constrained in Colombo, but she was very relaxed and almost giggly here. I think it’s very male-dominated in Colombo but she found so many women artists in LIVE ART. I wanted her to meet Mangala because they are so similar in some ways, and finally they did a performance together here.

Dorothea Rust and Monica Klingler curated the Swiss section and invited Markus Goessi and Susann Wintsch, curator and editor of the DVD magazine on contemporary art called TREIBSAND.

I found a book on Ratnabali Kant’s work in Suresh Jayaram’s place (1Shanthiroad) and realized she was doing performance in the mid 1980s and felt that her work had not been recognized, so I invited her for the event. She had stopped doing performance in 2005.

PL   I found so many elements of Ratnabali’s work in young artists today- using installation and painting and sculpture in their work, in the literariness and the direct feminist statement, and in using traditional cultural material. One of the problems around her work was the lack of context or discourse around it at the time, like the early videos of Rameshwar Broota. They were like lone figures doing something before its time!

SC   Usually stars are invited for these events but I didn’t want to invite the regulars, except Sushil Kumar (who tells me that he has been doing performance since the 1980s as well). I also wanted the invited participants to interact and stay for all the fifteen days of the event to give back to the students and young artists. This way the crowd doesn’t get dispersed after the performance and the conversation keeps going. The invited artists can also get into the culture of the place. In most international festivals the local artists just come for a day and perform and don’t involve themselves in the whole festival.

PL   I thought you had structured the event very well. The first two days there were artist talks, the third day was the Dawn to Dusk performances all over the busy roads between the artist spaces Bar1, 1Shanthiroad and Jaaga, and some inside them. You were dressed like a sergeant major in army fatigues with a LIVE ART 2011 umbrella, leading the people to the various spots. And there were actions taking place on the flyover, under the flyover and medians, walking across the roads and pavements in the traffic. It was great fun. The art student Deepak’s performance on the flyover while painted half black and half white was really spectacular. And sometimes the street performers also joined in. The police and the shopkeepers and the petrol bunk people were so intrigued that no one objected to the confusion! And then there was the intensive two-day workshop after that by Dorothea Rust and Monica Klingler, where each one’s work was analysed and critiqued, followed by loosening up exercises.

SC   The idea was to have the 15 November event first and then the workshop, because seeing documentation is not experiential. The invited live art performances were for five days after the workshop. Being an artist myself I wanted to give everyone freedom to choose their time and space, so sometimes the schedule was very loose!

Basically I’m an introvert. I can’t be with people all the time. At the same time the Festival was a free go. Especially, the 15 November Dawn to Dusk 7 am to 7pm almost non-stop performances was very interesting. The whole day was in the open, on the public roads in the centre of Bangalore. I felt very comfortable leading people to the sites, with the public crowding around. Being an introvert you are suppressing yourself, but when the event happens you break away all those walls and you create a sacred or structured space, and another persona comes out. Something you would like to develop over a period of time re-surfaces. Being an artist and organizer is difficult because as an artist you need a lot of freedom, a bare minimum of restrictions, while as an organizer you need to be more structured. In this I was being more of an artist yet giving it a definite structure, rehearsed in my mind as I would do for my own performance. In many ways LIVE ART 2011 is my conceptualized durational performance lasting for over nine months.

PM   The next five days of invited performances in the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) and Venkatappa Art Gallery were intense and also had their ups and downs. Artists chose their own sites and times and worked with the elements on site - the favourite one in NGMA being the pool! Or sometimes it was an indoor space like the white cube of the Venkatappa Gallery. Vijay Shekhon and Manas Acharya actually worked with the figure of K.Venkatappa and his collection there. Many artists improvised or did several actions, doing collaborations towards the end with other artists or students. The whole thing ended with two evenings of talks. And there were lots of parties throughout!

SC   It was almost so certain and predictable that most artists prefer to perform in the evening as they would anticipate a large crowd. Venkatappa Gallery has a raw quality in its landscape, the very opposite of NGMA, and to have a museum crowd strolling in without knowing what they are to see is interesting for performance art.

At the NGMA, I was expecting more artists to present their work. In fact when I introduced the space to them I took them from the car park and backyard and much later approached the water body and café space. Yet it fell into the more predictable site of NGMA near the water body. I found Janani’s approach interesting as she laid out the braids she used for her work on the café tables. I also liked the way Sahej Rahel used the all round space of the NGMA venue, disappearing and re-appearing and working at the favourite spot near the water body under the tree with charcoal.  Monica’s idea of choosing the back yard of Venkatappa Gallery, a rough space was so perfect in contrast to her sophisticated flamingo-like movements. The confinement of the indoor space at Venkatappa served well for video projections and vocal dialogues for the performers. I had given artists complete freedom in their work. Tamar Raban’s actions in the Archeological Museum courtyard matched very well with the pigeon birdfeed and words spoken to melt/ drown in the traffic noise as she performed with the “horn” in her pocket, followed by very subtle and almost hypnotic gestures with the thread in her mouth and between her fingers.

PM   The prelude to LIVE ART 2011 was the workshop you organized with Pascal Grau in 2009 in Bangalore with the Chitra Kala Parishad students.

SC   In 2007 on my Swiss residency I got to know Pascal Grau and I was part of her video performance where I had to play my maternal and paternal grandmother’s roles and only with gestures! I found that Pascal had been Marina Abramovic’s student and also her assistant. There was this myth that had been created around Marina. I was very impressed by Marina’s book on the student body, which was about her workshops and exercises with students and that’s how this whole discourse started. Pascal was interested in doing her tableau vivant project in Bangalore, which she had done earlier in Bolivia and Myanmar. So she was here at Bar1 for twenty days and created a work after an old Mysore painting, Girija Kalyana with Chitra Kala Parishad students. It was a sort of collaboration where I was the artistic director. This was performed in the Government Arts and Science College library in October 2009.

     Since I am untrained in Performance art myself, part of the idea of having the Live Art Festival was to also have artists who have been academically trained in Performance art exercises to conduct a workshop for students. Pascal’s approach with the students was quite different from Dorothea and Monica’s approach, because their background is from contemporary dance. In 2009 Pascal had worked for five days with the students with Performance art exercises to tone and prepare their bodies to maintain stillness for thirty minutes for her production, which is easier for an individual but very demanding for a group! The LIVE ART workshop was for two days, starting with an intense analysis of the Dawn to Dusk performances of 15 November, and on the second day more about loosening up and letting go, very playful.

PM   Why is there such a surge of interest in performance art in Asian countries?  Made Surya was telling me that they have a group in Bali. Suresh Kumar Gopalreddy says that he tells his students to do performance so that they don’t have to depend on gallery shows and selling, and can keep on making art. He says he has stopped doing sculpture because he doesn’t know what to do with his works, and concentrates on performance. In contrast, according to Monica when she started in the 1980s in Europe, performance was big and there were museum shows and artists got paid well to perform. While now there is a lack of interest institutionally and it’s basically small artist groups who meet.

SC   There are interesting things happening in Myanmar too where Moe Satt is the artistic director of a group called Beyond Pressure in Yangon (Rangoon) and the two Myanmar artists who came, Aung Myatt and Ma Ei are from there.

However, some statements made about getting into performance art may sound too light, in most cases. It is necessary to understand ‘body aesthetics’ and then the quality of material and expense involved. It is a mistake to believe performance art does not have a market! In Bangalore people started doing it as a public event. It was about creating the observer and the observed. In the Bangalore Habba of 2003, a public city festival, some of us did some performances. Though sometimes things are done too casually here and I’m very doubtful about it. We got a chance to see some work in the Mysore Khoj in 2002 where there was this performance artist Michael Tuffery from New Zealand. And we have these alternate spaces like Bar1 or 1Shanthiroad which have young artists and students helping out by which they meet artists and learn. These spaces become open classrooms, open to artists to develop skills in art events and art administration in a practical way.

PM   The beginnings of performance art in America was in the 1960s and ‘70s at the time of the Vietnam war protests, the civil rights movement, the Women’s Movement and Flower Power. You can see the politics deeply embedded in the Kashmiri artist Sushil Kumar’s work, which is sharp and violent – as when he wore that old commode he found on his head and walked around at the Dawn to Dusk, or when he was dragged around naked in Venkatappa gallery. You invited artists from Israel, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. Performance art in Sri Lanka has come out of the troubled situation there, Bandu’s act of breaking a thousand eggs with his hands and then putting his head inside a sewer drain, was powerful.

SC   Tamar Raban invited me to Israel for the ZAZ Festival in 2010 and I did a performance called Body Line. I lie at the entrance and exit of a busy bus station, so I’m obstructing the flow of passers by at the evening peak hour. Those who are curious come and stand around me. There are bags of flour near me and a sign saying in English and Hebrew ‘Sieve the flour on the body’ so the flour is sieved over me. I lay for one and a half hours in stillness. Soldiers were passing by and I could smell their boots. The circle around me which was five feet away came closer and closer. Some people were very gentle while one person threw a whole bag of flour on me violently. An orthodox Jew who was standing nearby kept shouting that I was Satan! My passiveness was very irritating to people.  So sometimes passiveness can be very aggressive!  Just like silence can be noise.

PM   Well, Gandhi used passiveness as a political tool very well!  We had an interesting discussion about Marina  Abramovic’s retrospective at the MOMA New York. The Europeans made faces and said they were no longer interested in her, and her performances now are not convincing. There was this controversy about her students replaying her old performances in the show, with plastic bones used instead of real ones. But I found the notion of a ‘retrospective’ of performances and of the copy and the bad copy interesting, so did the Swiss curator Susann Wintsch. It’s like reproductions of paintings circulating.

SC   I feel a bit queasy in the stomach hearing about plastic bones!
Performance is very spontaneous. There is no rehearsal, though it may be done in the mind. Even if one uses video projections, something is picked up and improvised. The performer has to be sensitive to the vibes from the audience, at the same time you shouldn’t get carried away and overdo things.

The Phantom Lady
December 2011

LIVE ART 2011 Bangalore
November 11-25 2011
facebook: LIVE ART 2011 Bangalore (updated)