criticismDispatches
Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011

Passage to Postmodernity: Paris-Delhi-Bombay


Report from… Paris

Paris-Delhi-Bombay: India through the eyes of Indian and French Artists at the Centre Pompidou, 25 May – 19 September 2011

Subodh Gupta, Ali Baba, 2011. installation, found materials, dimensions variable.  Courtesy of the Artist

Subodh Gupta, Ali Baba, 2011. installation, found materials, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the Artist

Hal Foster’s extremely influential anthology The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays in Postmodern Culture (1983) argued that art breaking down the traditional modernist distinction between verbal and visual experience provided aggressive cultural critique. No longer, he urged, could or should artists make merely seductive visual artifacts. Taking up that way of thinking, this ambitious exhibition of almost fifty Indian artists and French artists who are interested in India, deals with six grand themes: politics, urbanism and the environment, religion, the home, identity and arts and crafts. A weighty French-only catalogue (a much shortened version is available in English) presents the context for ORLAN’s Indian and French flags made from sequins, Krishnaraj Chonat’s recycled waste electronic materials, N. S. Harsha’s playful contemporary reworkings of Indian miniatures, Alain Declercq’s photographs of the militarized border between India and Pakistan and Sunil Gawde’s garlands of flowers, made from painted razor blades. There are essays on Western ideas about India; about the role of the sacred art in that country and its museums; and about Indian modernism. And one section is devoted to a variety of points of view about Indian culture, and its relationship to the West. Seeking to learn “qu’est-ce que l’Inde aujourd’hui?,” the curators seek to promote a dialogue between France and India, developing “new and lasting links between our two cultures.”

Pierre & Gilles, Hanuman, 2010. Model: Thomas Tabti. Painted photograph, 200 x 145.5 cm. Courtesy Galerie Jérôme de Noirmont, Paris © Adagp, Paris 2011

Pierre & Gilles, Hanuman, 2010. Model: Thomas Tabti. Painted photograph, 200 x 145.5 cm. Courtesy Galerie Jérôme de Noirmont, Paris © Adagp, Paris 2011

I was amused by Jitish Kallat’s Ignitaurus (2008), a hybrid motorbike-bull sculpture; by the painted photographs derived from popular Indian images by Pierre & Gilles; by Atul Dodiya’s Devi and the Sink (2004), a painting derived from a Bollywood cinematic comedy; and by Ravinder Reddy’s Tara (2004), a large scale golden sculpture of an Indian woman, mounted at the center of the display. I enjoyed Stéphane Calais’s large Indian ink drawings referring to the Thugee sect that robbed and strangled travelers; Riyas Komu’s Beyond Gods (2011), a massive wood sculpture of eleven footballers’ legs; and Pushpamala N’s photographic take-offs on nineteenth-century French painting. And I was intrigued by the erotic art of Tejal Shah, of Kader Attia and of Thukral & Tagra, who set classical Indian erotic sculptures in contemporary bourgeois bedrooms.

But to be honest, everything here seemed obviously and hopelessly derivative, too much so to inspire sustained interest. I sometimes ask myself: what would I take home from the exhibition? From this show, nothing. Subodh Gupta’s Ali Baba (2011), a dense overflowing display of stainless steel tableware, is a version of Allan McCollum’s 1980s exercises in repetition; the photographs of urban waste by Vivan Sundaram and Atul Bhalla’s documentation of water distribution in New Delhi a variation on familiar political themes; and the sculptures of Anita Dube which link blood and sexual identity, tropes on clichéd Chelsea displays. Joseph Masheck’s Point 1: Art Visuals/Visual Arts. Smart Art (1984), a lively, now too little known survey of Lower East Side art, which deserves the attention of art historians, summarizes in more visual detail than Foster’s The Anti-Aesthetic the state of trendy American art of that period. These Indians and their French colleagues have uncritically adopted this now dated Western style. This is stale art that has not withstood the test of time.

Sometimes you learn a lot about an exhibition by going to other nearby museums. A short walk East from the Pompidou Center takes you to the Louvre. The aesthetic paintings of Nicolas Poussin, Antoine Watteau and Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin provide a varied, but surely not comprehensive image of old regime France. Why believe, then, that these contemporary works of art at the Pompidou which all are so self-consciously indebted to Western precedents can provide the best way of understanding present day India?  Can the multifaceted cultures of Delhi and Bombay be adequately presented by this exhibition? I think not. But here we get to the inescapable political problems.  The well intentioned, politically correct Pompidou curators seek to represent India on its own terms.  They want to tell us how the Indians (and sympathetic French visitors) think about economic inequality, politics, and sex. And they seek to identify the distance between art in that distant culture and in the West. But how is it possible to do that when in this exhibition all of the art borrows so transparently from contemporary Western visual culture?  How, I am critically asking, can the Indians represent themselves? Can the Western museum show the Indian women and men as they really are, without reductively reducing employing Eurocentric ways of thinking? This ambitious exhibition posed but did not answer that question, which I hope that other curators in other cultures inside and outside of the West will take up. But here we get to the inescapable political problems.  The well intentioned, politically correct Pompidou curators seek to represent India on its own terms.  They want to tell us how the Indians (and sympathetic French visitors) think about economic inequality, politics, and sex. And they seek to identify the distance between art in that distant culture and in the West. But how is it possible to do that when in this exhibition all of the art borrows so transparently from contemporary Western visual culture?  How, I am critically asking, can the Indians represent themselves? Can the Western museum show Indian women and men as they really are, without reductively employing Eurocentric ways of thinking? This ambitious exhibition posed but did not answer that question, which I hope that other curators in other cultures inside and outside of the West will take up.

ORLAN, Flag Skin Hybrid, 2011. Sequins, light, ventilators, painting, 373 x 546 cm Collection de l’artiste, Paris © Adagp, Paris 2011

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Tejal Shah, You Too Can Touch the Moon (from the Hijra Fantasy series), 2006.  Numbered photograph on archival paper, 147 x 96.5 cm. Courtesy de l’artiste et Project 88, Bombay

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One Response to Passage to Postmodernity: Paris-Delhi-Bombay

  1. CAP says:

    It’s true there are obvious influences to the Indian art under discussion, but I think Carrier misses some important differences as well. Gupta’s installations of stainless steel, for instance, are not just McCollum’s mass fabrications of ornament or machine component, anymore than they are earlier Minimalist tributes to modularity, or subsequent displays by Cady Noland of bulk commodities. There is room in there to discern other emphasis, other voices. It’s a sign of a tired critic (pace Saltz @ Venice this year) when everything starts to look the same or worse than yesteryear.

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