In 2007, the Indian government inexplicably turned down an invitation to participate in the 116-year-old Venice Biennial, one of the world’s most prestigious art exhibitions.
Four years later—with the support of the Lalit Kala Akademi (the national academy of art) and the ministry of culture—India is all set to host its first national pavilion. The budget for the 250 sq. m pavilion is Rs2 crore; it’s a sum entirely drawn from the commissioning organization, the Akademi. While Indian artists such as Riyas Komu have shown at the biennial as part of other delegations, this national debut at the highly rated non-commercial international art space is momentous for Indian contemporary art.
The overall theme for the biennial this year, which is not binding on the national pavilions, is “Illuminations”. The India pavilion’s theme is a critique of the idea of the nation state. Mumbai-based art critic and curator Ranjit Hoskote, who has been charged with the pavilion’s organization, titles it Everyone Agrees: It’s about to Explode.
Among other things, the exhibition inquires into the notion of cultural citizenship. What does it mean to be an “Indian” artist? What forms of attentiveness to India are involved? For Hoskote, to be a cultural citizen is a deliberate act of affiliation, stronger than the simple facts of birth and nationality. “I am looking here at practices that extend the ‘idea of India’, to adapt a term made famous by Sunil Khilnani; practices that show us how India is not simply a territorially bounded entity, but a set of dynamic propositions that extend into the global imagination,” says Hoskote over email from Venice, where he is busy finalizing the display of the works.
His selection of artists breaks down the conventional wisdom of the art market, which emphasizes Top 10 lists, medium-specific judgements, generational differences, and narratives of arrival and success. Hoskote has looked beyond auction catalogues, the market hubs of New Delhi and Mumbai, and tapped lesser-known artists.
In accordance with the theme, the pavilion is designed around the idea of history, migration and displacement. Hoskote weaves in sub-themes as well, such as the transformation of the studio or the way in which artistic practice now blurs across a series of related fields and venues of practice.
Instead of having a vast number of artists—the kind of showing that gets cancelled out in a vast polyphony such as the Venice Biennial—to illustrate the booming Indian contemporary art scene, Hoskote has chosen four powerful positions to make a strong symbolic statement about contemporary India. His curatorial proposition for the India pavilion is that Indian art has multiple horizons of emergence, and is produced from a diversity of locations—from the metropolis, but also from the North-East, which is so neglected by mainstream discourse; by resident Indians, but also by bearers of diasporic histories and trans-cultural practitioners; by artists who migrate among regions and media. “It was important for me to point to the variety of locations from which contemporary Indian culture is produced,” says Hoskote.
Meet the India pavilion
Who:A Kerala-born artist, now based in Delhi, who poses questions about displacement and class prejudice in his installations, videos and photography.
Mobile art: A still from Scaria’s video installation Elevator from the Subcontinent, which was commissioned for the exhibition.
Why: He articulates the critical energy of the internal migrant, who brings an empathetic anthropological eye to the social contexts he moves through.
Processed: An image from Soi’s slide projection work Kumartuli Printer</span>, based on his observations of a printmaker in north Kolkata.
Who: A painter and photographer who produces paintings and sculptures on war and global issues. Soi’s art is an outcome of his search and observation of cultural contrasts between two places: Amsterdam, where he now lives, and his native Kolkata.
Why: He develops a zigzag practice that connects his work on the global residency and biennial circuit with his collaborations with entrepreneurs in Kumartuli, Kolkata.
Squared: A 36-part woodblock-print ensemble, Home is a Foreign Place is one of three works by Hashmi to be shown in Venice.
Who: A veteran printmaker, long based in New York, whose minimalist works tend to explore spatial boundaries.
Why: She relays the birth moment of India, the moment of independence, Partition, migration and diaspora.
Desire Machine Collective
What: A duo that hails from Guwahati in Assam, runs an alternative art space on a ferry and experiments with works such as a “sound map” inspired by a sacred forest. Collaborating since 2004, Sonal Jain and Mriganka Madhukaillya work through image, moving image, sound, time and space.
They confront the many forms of fascism that lead to violence and injustice, both regionally in Assam and around the world.
Mechanized: A still from Residue, a film shot by the duo in a redundant thermal power plant on the outskirts of Guwahati.
Why: They relay the cusp position of the North-East as a site from where we may begin to imagine a new trans-regionality, a cosmopolitanism that connects us with South-East Asia.
The Venice Biennial opens in Venice, Italy, today and will run till 27 November.