“Indian Highway,” group exhibition with Ayisha Abraham, Ravi Agarwal, Sarnath Banerjee, Nikhil Chopra, Baptist Coelho, Sheela Gowda, Sakshi Gupta, Shilpa Gupta, Subodh Gupta, N.S. Harsha, Abhishek Hazra, M.F. Husain, Jitish Kallat, Amar Kanwar, Bharti Kher, Nalini Malani, Jagannath Panda, Hetain Patel, Prajakta Potnis, Raqs Media Collective, Tejal Shah, Sudarshan Shetty, Dayanita Singh, Kiran Subbaiah, Vivan Sundaram, Thukral & Tagra, Hema Upadhyay, Avinash Veeraraghavan, and Studio Mumbai Architects.
Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (798 Art District, No. 4 Jiuxianqiao Road, Chaoyang District, Beijing). Jun 24 to Aug 26, 2012.
UCCA served up Indian takeaway this summer: more specifically a show from the Serpentine in London, which has already been to Oslo, Rome and Lyon, finally touched down in Asia. Having traveled thus far, perhaps it is unsurprising that some of the carefully crafted dishes (some 200 works by 30 artists) cooled slightly, even with such curatorial couriers as “HUO” (Hans Ulrich Obrist) and Julia Peyton-Jones — all plated up by the UCCA team. In China’s contemporary art hotplate that prefers to look only at its own output, not that of others, reheating “Indian Highway” was not a lightweight task.
The arrival of “Indian Highway” is the boldest statement yet of UCCA’s international impetus, and thankfully it is on a level removed from the one-dimensional low of the New Yorker photographic exhibition.
It might be a relatively thankless exercise for now, where the embrace of the international is very incomplete. Whilst Chinese art is content to export itself, it is largely unconcerned with importing that of anyone else, and less another nation increasingly called its fellow. India is a country with which dotted parallel lines might be drawn as a zone of goliath socio-economic change in recent years. One anticipated from the wall text that stock phrase, “rapid urban development,” but found instead a more weighty mention of Glissant’s theory of mondialité. But such co-ordinates may do little to warm this unprecedented event on Chinese soil. Among those Indian artists present at the opening, Sudarshan Shetty and Dayanita Singh remarked of knowing nothing of Chinese contemporary art; and one detected a dismissive reception amongst local Chinese artists not much bothered about entertaining the works’ ideas and context. Thus, the question raised in the wall text, “What would a world look like in which the ascendant powers of Asia look not to the West, but at each other?” came across rather like a Serpentine script, even as one resisted the urge to note the difference between looking “to” and looking “at.”
But all this having been said, things have to start somewhere — it’s about time — and why not with an extensive exhibition of works by contemporary Indian artists both established and more new? This is certainly a refreshing show — not least for its ability to rouse Beijing-based audiences (here read critics, too) from their comfort zone. From the word go, here are unfamiliar, engaging works. “Indian Highway” begins in UCCA’s smaller rooms with mostly video and graphic pieces. An unmasked socio-politics is clear from the start with Ayisha Abraham’s composite film “You Are Here” (2007), a mirage of 8 and 16 mm private and public footage. “I Love My India” (2003), the hard-hitting video by Tejal Shah featuring public responses to the Muslim genocide in Gujarat in 2002, has already been removed at the behest of the Indian side concerned about its reception in China. As further works accumulate, one feels the presence of a nostalgia which is both intact and at the same time at rest. In this vein, an untitled series from “The Gate Crash” (2008) by Avinash Veeraraghavan overlays across four panels the imagery of imagination and play (childhood objects, dolls’ houses) with adult possessions. Meanwhile, at the end of the room, an installation, “Cult of Survival” by Jagannath Panda (2010), fuses snake hide with industrial rubber in a metamorphic loop, a form which forcefully manifests the power of development, writhing off the skin of before.
After a particularly engaging graphic series by Sarnath Banerjee (“The Harappa Files,” 2010) and three voraciously decorative pieces by Bharti Kher wherein thousands of bindis swarm in patterns as if set free (“The Internal Workings of My Mind When the Body is Sleeping,” 2012), the exhibition swells out into a veritable panorama of large and varied works. It is difficult to pinpoint the collective atmosphere here. Beijing has seen next to no Indian art, and one imagines most viewers have little familiarity with the cultural context. Artworks may have been skilfully presented, but (as yet) lack presence. Despite the physical immediacy, there are nuances lost in translation. To meet with such a collection of unfamiliar things in a white room was a reminder, perhaps, of quite how internationalized mechanisms process and present contemporary art. For whom do they present it and — where is it in relation to its sources, with what destination in mind?
The works’ import contains strains one doesn’t readily associate with contemporary art from China: amongst those cherished now in the Chinese art scene are a number of robust auteurs — conduits for measured, existential accumulations of paint, for example, or taut conceptual edifices summoned from discarded wood; also prominent are young, reflective individuals finding personal expression through immersive media like video. But in “Indian Highway,” the broader public features prominently, for instance in the “Baggage Claim” paintings (2010) by Jitish Kallat, and “Come Give Us a Speech” (N.S. Harsha, 2008 — the poster for the exhibition), as do depictions of social “types” as in the aforementioned “Harappa Files.” One has the impression of formal rawness, too, that is unusual amongst the technically refined installations displayed in Beijing’s high-end galleries. The latter comes across powerfully in Sheela Gowda’s “Darkroom” (2006): tar drums stacked to create a boxlike container with a dreamy mirror effect inside; and in “8 feet x 12 feet” by Hema Upadhyay (2009), a four-sided cube lined with miniature corrugated slum-shacks, tower blocks and road ways. A glittering, conflated world at once local and global — its walls entrap one’s gaze. Finally, a photographic work like “The Shroud” by Ravi Agarwal — a figure standing by the Ganges completely veiled in white and tied like a travellng object — evokes an incorporeal tie between the people and the river in a state of both sanctity and dissolution. Although sweeping generalizations feel even less applicable to contemporary art, one has a sense of societal kinship — generosity, even — which is not prominent now in the collective personality of Chinese works.
Perhaps this big exhibition not only introduced contemporary Indian art to audiences elsewhere, but also provided aesthetic and sensory counterpoints to artistic production wherever it lands. There was much here to attract thinking about the relationship between art and life, and between art and art, but also to force us to consider what “globalization” really means at this moment for international exhibitions.