The current exhibition at the Tang, The 11th Hour, serves as a brief and very much overdue introduction to a few strands of contemporary Indian and “Indian diaspora” works. The curator, Shaheen Merali, seems to have found his niche in the transnational post-colonial identity art discourse, working at the House of World Cultures, Berlin, and recently curating at a variety of venues, including Stux Gallery (NYC) this spring. His focus tends towards work that responds to “the world spiral into an existential meltdown.” With so little Indian artwork available to view in Beijing, it is important to frame the framer of these first extrusions into the Beijing scene and understand that the choices of these artworks spring from a perspective of one already outside both cultures acting as an unrelated but interested marriage broker. This fact does not necessarily nor preemptively undermine the show's integrity.
The works chosen reflect a wide swathe of contemporary work ranging from murals that still refer contiguously backwards to identifiable Indian precedents and traditions to newfangled projects in which any archeology into a putative relationship to Indian Art is futile and misguided. In the former category are the magnificent scrolls of the Chitrakar brothers, which depict historical events in a cluttered, concentrated, baroque cacophony of vital folk-like imagery wherein we are dazzled by the details and inspect them tenderly so as not to miss the inclusion of seamlessly incorporated contemporary glosses. At the other extreme of this continuum hang the photographs of Tejal Shah, who’s reproductions of a set of clinical photographs originating in 19th century Paris, shed little, if any, illumination on the cross-cultural crisis defining Indian artists today. More appropriate to an illustration to Foucault’s groundbreaking first work on the historical contexts of the representation of mental illness, it is hard to see why these works were seen as integral to this “first contact” type of exhibition. A number of artists fall somewhere between these poles.
Baiju Parthan is an exciting, more mature artist who has his feet firmly set in Mumbai and a five-year training in Goa but who has stretched his reach out into the post-modern interplay of complex ideas and philosophically sophisticated appropriations. The London based and English educated duo of the Otolith Group, recently nominated for the Turner prize, present a series of manipulated photographs, offering large group photos of upper-class sari-clad women, often with a westerner or two, portrayed by making Rorschach-like reflective halves that impart a somewhat sinister feeling tone to the composition, a tone amplified by the background details. I found myself asking but not answering whether the fact that the original photo’s content was distinctly Indian went very far in making the content of the artwork “Indian” in any important sense. Tariq Alvi, another London-based artist who studied in the Netherlands, has an internationally generic piece comprised of dozens of price tickets collaged in a manner that makes a redundancy to absurdity of the notion of value, transforming it to mere decoration.
While many of these individual works are strong and some of them do serve to announce the injection of Indian artists into the Beijing maelstom, it is worth considering the oversized impact such shows potentially have in shaping subsequent aesthetic framing. Shaheen makes clear his political presuppositions in selecting his artists for their work's “ability to immerse the audience in an understanding of the conditions of stress into which we have been led by the painful explosions of boom economies…of false reasons and stagnant haunted policies.” I look forward to upcoming shows introducing Indian contemporary works with a variety of other themes and agendas.
With the upcoming inclusion of 11 Indian contemporary artists in the Shanghai Biennial this fall, and with it’s China-India Summit Forum, From the Heaven in the West to the Earth in the East, this year may prove an important watershed in selecting the initial window through which Indian Art is perceived. Who knows if a few years from now the Chinese reception and evaluation of South Asian art might play a role analogous to the New York and European market's facilitation of taste in the nascent Chinese art market of the 1990’s. All those Yuan have to go somewhere.
(Images from top to bottom: Tashu Joag, photograph, 147 x 147 cm; Baiju Parthan, Exit 1, 22" x 30", Mixed media on Archers; Otolith Group, photograph, 20 x 40 cm, 2010; Tejal Shaw, Swelling of the Neck of a Hysteric, Photograph, 96.5 x81 cm. All images courtesy of artists and gallery)