6/18 Grants Bldg, 2nd Floor, Opposite Basilico Restaurant, Arthur Bunder Road, Colaba, 400005 Mumbai, India
In 2003, Arshiya Lokhandwala pulled down Gallery Lakeeren’s shutters in Juhu, a suburb of Mumbai and in those days an unlikely place for a contemporary art gallery. She headed off to Goldsmith for an M.A. in Curating. She then went further, to Ithaca, NY to obtain her Ph.D in History of Art from Cornell University. Returning to Mumbai six years later, she re-opened her gallery doors, this time in Colaba, amidst a gradually forming art district in South Mumbai.
Always innovative, just being a gallerist wasn’t enough; she was soon curating her own shows, including last year’s thorough ‘Against All Odds: A Contemporary Response to the Historiography of Archiving, Collecting and Museums in India’ at the Lalit Kala Akademi in New Delhi. Ever restless and wanting to 'share knowledge', her latest gallery activity was conceived. This August, ‘Research Pod’ converted her gallery space and the gallery’s collection of art books into a public library of sorts.
This is a definite physical statement of how serious Lokhandwala is about engaging a wider public in critical discourse. Three cupboards full of books and two large tables were the basic furniture of the show, inviting and rich in content. This was all there would be for a month. The gallery walls would lie bare; the art lay in the broadening of the mind through knowledge.
Bose Krishnamachari’s excellent LaVA (Laboratory of Visual Arts) jumps to mind as a prior project with similar aims. His was an art project conceived out of his experience at college: the lack of instruction and the non-availability of reading material during his student years; a malaise inflicting most art schools in the country. As an installation within a gallery space, it was presented as a growing project adaptable to different institutions or museums. A constructed library of books, CDs and DVDs, it invited the viewer to partake of knowledge dissemination by reading, listening and viewing, thus changing the dynamics of the installation as merely the presentation of objects to be viewed from a distance.
Lokhandwala, while providing an interface for knowledge gathering, goes further. Having opened up the gallery as a space for public dialogue she invited forums to be convened every Wednesday evening around specific topics – ‘public sculpture’, ‘documenta’, ‘feminism’ and ‘collecting’. She wanted to give 'a platform to others, to come and take the opportunity' to initiate a dialogue that they had an interest in. These ‘Knowledge Sharing Sessions’ took the form of round table discussions involving participants who had different approaches or experience in the field of the given topic.
Diana Campbell, the director and chief curator at Creative India Foundation, ‘chaired’ the first ‘Knowledge Sharing Session’ on sculpture. Having recently traveled this summer to various sculpture parks around the world, she showed images and discussed the commissions, funding, as well as the challenges and mistakes related to various parks. The artists attending talked about their engagements with large-scale or outdoor sculpture; a gallerist spoke about the difficulties of handling the lengthy commissioning processes, government red tape and liaising between artist and commissioner; a collector spoke about how he thought about commissioning artworks for public spaces, involvement from the conceptual stage, as well as assisting in production of the piece.
This was a relevant debate for a country that has negligible public art. Questions were thrown up: the role of the gallerist in such situations, the considerations of curators of sculpture parks – these ranged from budgets, choice of artist, sustainability of the park, maintenance, limited period contracts, acquisition of land, social responsibility at the site and how to make the process inclusive of people who lived where the sculpture was sited at, and so on. At the end of the discussion a lot had still been left unsaid – most wanted the discussion to continue at a later date and be ongoing. For Lokhandwala, there could not have had been sweeter outcome.
'Personally, this project at the gallery works with my belief; it resonates with me. I am not here to make a quick buck,' says Lokhandwala. Those who have followed the trajectory of the gallery know this to be true: she shut shop as the art market picked up to pursue her studies; she re-opened at a time when the market had collapsed. 'I am interested in the archaeology of art, its architecture and discipline, and a knowledge-based discourse around it.' Having finished her studies, she is committed to sharing the knowledge acquired and to encourage questioning and readings of current practices. Every Thursday, during the ‘Research Pod’ month, ‘Mentorship Sessions’ for young scholars and curators were conducted by Lokhandwala herself.
In a city that is starved of rigorous thought exchange, I asked if this would be a regular feature each year. Lokhandwala would like the sentiment to be an ongoing one, but 'it may not be the same format' – again she likens this to her practice of never being static but constantly evolving an idea in a new avatar. By next year, hopefully, the number of participants willing to engage in her experiments with the truth about art will have swelled from the ripple she stirred this August to a wave of new thought.
(All Images: Installation view, Research Pod, August 2012, Lakeeren Gallery; Courtesy of the gallery)