Retrieval Systems, a group show by five artists that goes on show at Art Alive Gallery, New Delhi, comprises disparate sets of artworks—portrait photographs, sculptural installations, digital prints, photographic installations and egg tempera paintings—with no apparent connection.
But there is a link. Ranjit Hoskote—curator, writer and poet—is the man behind the show and it originated in his preoccupation with memory. “The metaphor of the retrieval system (is drawn) from the domain of information technology,” he explains in his accompanying essay, “where it refers to electronic data storage and access devices that extend our memory…” He uses the term in the context of art to “refer to the archives of memory and reference that sustain the contemporary artistic imagination”.
‘Silenced Sound’ by GR Iranna
The exhibition, then, is the product of Hoskote’s twin interest in contemporary Indian art and in memory—and after viewing the works, speaking with Hoskote and reading his curatorial note, the link between the works and their source of inspiration becomes more apparent. What registers more prominently than the underlying theme of memory, though, is the fact that the artworks are—independently and even as stand-alone pieces—striking.
Alex Fernandes’ black and white portraits of stage actors who belong to the tiatristes tradition of Goa—and who are posing as characters—are animated and alive character sketches of both the actor and the role which he or she is dressed for. Manjunath Kamath’s installation of an antique closet that has a scaled-down model of a typical apartment block in mid-construction (fashioned realistically out of actual tiny bricks and cement) thrusting out of it is ungainly and jarring to behold. But the violence done to the past and, on reflection, the inevitability of the change, is perhaps the artist’s point.
Tina Bopiah’s choice of medium for her paintings—egg tempera, which uses egg whites—lends depth and texture to her dreamy mish-mash of intertwined human and animal figures, objects and landscapes that feel both ethereal and solid. Baiju Parthan’s monochrome photo studies of the famous Panjim statue of Abbe Faria hypnotizing a woman—different bits and pieces of the statue shot from various angles and then assembled as photo montages and a collage—perhaps possess a greater degree of coherence than the conventional photo of the statue (that serves as a point of reference). And, G.R. Iranna’s three sculptural installations are deceptively effortless and aesthetically elegant depictions of human violence.
‘Tiger, Tiger on the Wall’ by Tina Bopiah
There is a temptation then to dismiss the theme of memory that supposedly binds these works as unnecessary and even superfluous. Hoskote won’t be surprised by such a response—he has a poor opinion of the curatorial art as it is practised in India. He feels it is quite “un-evolved”, with the curator usually acting as a “commissioner or a proxy dealer”.
“(I) approach the curatorial process as an intellectual process,” he says over the phone, “a collaboration with the artist that is highly empathetic.” For him, when it comes to putting together an art exhibition, this is the one and only correct approach.
But the proof of the pudding is in the eating—while the curator’s role is highlighted in all the text that accompanies the show, it is invisible in the show itself. Which probably is how it should be—it doesn’t call attention to itself. The beauty and vision of the artworks on display in Retrieval Systems, however, is clearly in a large measure the function of the curatorial hand that guided the show.
Retrieval Systems will be exhibited at the Art Alive Gallery, S-221, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi from 25-30 November.