Outrageous, export, outraged, and uncollectable. According to the students from the first class on art curating at Jawaharlal Nehru University, these four sections encompass the work at the Devi Art Foundation’s second exhibit, Where in the World. Curated by a team of faculty and students and drawing from the Lekha and Anupam Poddar collection, the show’s premise borders on the adolescent, but the power of the artwork more than makes up for the trite groupings.
Face forward: (top) Atul Dodiya’s B for Bapu; and T.V. Santhosh’s Where One Hand Claps/Signs That Betray Its Meaning.
The Gurgaon-based foundation will likely confront this issue as it grows into itself: The artwork is without question some of the best contemporary art in the country, yet the execution in creating a flawless show is shaky at best. However, while the curating of the show may be weak, it speaks volumes for the foundation that it chose to work with students rather than experienced curators for its second show. It shows that the foundation’s mission is to encourage education just as much as it is to display and promote art.
Despite the noble motives behind working with first-time curators on a professional scale, the show lacks some serious polish. Some works are afforded official plaques, others must make do with printed paper slips taped to the wall.
And, whereas the first show seemed to inhabit the architecture of the foundation much more securely (for instance, the small space that housed Ranbir Kaleka’s video installation Man with a Cuckold seemed specifically designed for the piece), the second show does not seem to have considered the placements of many works. Often, works overlap other works, edging the viewer out. The Untitled globe plastered in newsprint, tiny skulls and butterflies by Jagannath Panda does not have its own defined space and blocks other installations. The viewer visually connects the globe to other artwork, when in fact it is an entirely separate piece.
The most patronizing part of the show, however, is the immaturity in the grouping of the work, and in the section definitions. For instance, one section describes all the artists as representing “Exports”, which in a nutshell says that artists either act Indian, or they “make themselves resolutely un-Indian”.
But the most obviously flawed grouping has to be the “Outrageous” selection. The definition seems to be derived from a textbook on art curation: The works are described as “subversive, sacrilegious, sexually graphic or physically dangerous”; yet, the pieces themselves are rather benign. Subodh Gupta’s naked self-portrait is hardly sexually graphic. And Anita Dube’s installation, Silence (Blood Wedding), of human bones dressed up in velvet and jewels, while compelling, does not scream subversion.
However, on the opening night of the new show, people were far too entranced by the works to notice the rough edges.
This is in large part due to the quality of the work. Pieces such as Atul Dodiya’s mixed media painting B for Bapu, which traps Gandhi behind a rolling grill shutter, or Sudarshan Shetty’s giant T-Rex fornicating with a Jaguar (the car) in Love have rarely been displayed in the public sphere before.
Anupam Poddar’s vision of a space to gather India’s contemporary artists under one roof has finally proved its power. And, while the groupings may not be cutting edge, compared with the foundation’s first show, the second collection proves the foundation’s ability to hammer out cohesive themes.
This time, there is a definite sense of playfulness: Rooms hum with the clattering of typewriters and odd machines blow bubbles. Viewers must walk into Shilpa Gupta’s strange apothecary shop, Blame, where the word “Blame” pulsates off flourescent-lit glass bottles.
Newer work, such as the installation Untitled by Susanta Mandal that plays with bubbles; and the video installation piece Pan(i) City by Gigi Scaria, are also given space alongside more monumental pieces from the recent past.
Despite the first show’s success in incorporating the building’s design with the art installations, the second show handles the basement much better, by filling it with large works that need vast space to be fully enjoyed. Sheba Chhachhi and Sonia Jabbar’s work When the Gun is Raised, Dialogue Stops: Women’s Voices from the Kashmir Valley is fully enjoyed from two levels. Walking up to the low brick structures topped with books displaying quotes and photographs of Kashmiri women, it seems the stories are being offered to the viewers in a series of altars. But as the audience walks down a particular curve in the stairwell, the piece, confronted at eye level, becomes a low-slung bunker, trapping the women in a world of war and violence.
While there are still some kinks to work out, the exhibit proves Poddar’s genius. The foundation is a force to be reckoned with: It is not about consumerism or the marketability of Indian art, but the simple pursuit of celebrating contemporary art in India.
Where in the World will be on view at the Devi Art Foundation until 3 May 2009.