For a reassertion of the human essence

Published : Dec 27, 1997 00:00 IST

The Ninth Triennale does not fully reflect the variety, richness and originality of Indian art, but the show mirrors the yearning of artists to create new spaces in an increasingly intolerant world.


THE Ninth Triennale-India 1997, the international exhibition of contemporary art, opened in New Delhi on December 3, the last Triennale in this millennium. The show is a reflection of the sad state of affairs in India's art establishment today. The Triennale has seldom managed to attract even 50 participant-countries; this time 48 countries are listed.

Among the missing countries are two important ones from Latin America - Brazil and Cuba. From Europe, Belgium, Finland, the Czech Republic, Spain, Bulgaria and Turkey are absent. So are Malaysia and Indonesia from South-East Asia and Zimbabwe from Africa. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Yemen and Oman have come. Among India's neighbours, while Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are participants, Nepal and Pakistan are not.

The Ninth Triennale, therefore, has only a Eurasian core consisting of Italy, France, Germany, Poland, Russia, Japan and Australia. This, along with a strong Indian component, was the raison d'etre of the event up to the Eighth Triennale. Now even the Indian component seems to be petering out.

In 1971, the novelist Mulk Raj Anand, writing in the catalogue of the Second Triennale, said: "It is likely that there will be many surprises for the world in the offing, as time goes on, because our Triennale will prove that there is no monopoly of talent in the creative arts with any nation, race or country, that cultures of the Third World did not expire in the early centuries before Christ or after the medieval period, but have been struggling, in spite of denigration, contempt and neglect of alien rulers, in our vast landscapes. In fact, the dialectic of the world situation may reveal that suppressed flower more easily if equal opportunities are offered for sustenance."

He has been proved right about the art scene as a whole. Indian art has arrived on the world art scene, but this fact is not reflected in the Indian entries in the Ninth Triennale. In 1971, the selection committee consisted of Mulk Raj Anand, B.C. Sanyal and Nissim Ezekiel - a writer, an artist and a poet - and selected 54 artists. The artists included Sunil Das, Ganesh Pyne, Chintamoni Kar, Bikash Bhattacharjee, Jogen Choudhury and Nirode Majumdar from Bengal; Dhanraj Bhagat, Jatin Das, Biren De, K.S. Kulkarni, G.R. Santosh, Satish Gujral, Paramjit Singh and Balbir Singh Katt from the North; K.K. Hebbar, Badri Narayan, Prabhakar Barwe, S.B. Palsikar, Ramesh Pateriya and Piraji Sagara from western India; and K.C.S. Panicker, S. Nandagopal, S.G. Vasudev, P.V. Janakiram and J. Sultan Ali from the South. But a team consisting of two of those chosen in 1971, Jogen Choudhury and Nandagopal, and Arpita Singh, wife of a third from among them, Paramjit Singh, has been unable to choose anything beyond Baroda.

Both Himmat Shah and Rajasekharan Nair, sculptors, and Jayashree Chakravarty and Surendran Nair, painters, studied at Baroda. C. Douglas from Chennai and Atul Dodiya from Mumbai are the exceptions - a sort of compromise, it would seem, to buttress such a narrow-minded choice. Those who benefited from the broad vision of the founders of the Triennale have shown themselves to be unequal to the hopes of those they benefited from. Mulk Raj Anand spoke of how the West was not prepared to recognise the rising talents from the Third World, but he did not foresee how those who benefited from this recognition would try to monopolise it for themselves and their acolytes. This is the malady that has afflicted the Lalit Kala Akademi.

oil on canvas, 100x150 cm. Fardin Sadegh-Ayubby of Iran recreates a Nayika ambience.

The position that there is no art except in Baroda is untenable, and such a narrow, partisan approach can kill the process begun by Mulk Raj Anand as nothing else can. This reflects the exclusivism developing in Indian society, a direct result of the commercialisation of art and the progress towards a consumerist approach to it. This is quite the opposite of the far more pervasive trend of democratisation of contemporary artistic expression all over the country, which has been the real basis of the acceptance of Indian contemporary art all over the world.

The Indian selection committee has been proved unequal to the task in terms of vision and representative character. If last year's selection erred in choosing a surfeit of Delhi artists, this year's selection erred not only in being Baroda-centric but also in failing to make the right choices. As a result, the picture of Indian art presented at the Ninth Triennale shows no relation to its variety, richness and originality.

wood, woodash, acrylic, environmental sculpture, Shigeo Toya, Japan.

STILL, we can learn from what is there. After all, every work of art has a residue of a large number of aesthetic stimuli. The predominant element in art as far afield as the United States, Japan, Sweden and Australia, seems to be the creation of an artistic environment, and so the installation form appeals to a large number of artists at the Triennale. It is a form that provides interfaces between sculpture, painting, narrative and concepts in art, creating new space in a world that has become increasingly intolerant. And artists are aware of this.

Japan's Shigeo Toya, whose remarkable environmental sculpture, From Borders III, is probably the best work in the exhibition, said: "We have no way of dealing with what suddenly and irrationally assaults us all. It can crack, sometimes destroy, our otherwise quite-firmly-in- place spiritual order... Over the past few years, Japan has suffered a series of events that seemed to violate all normal reasoning, causing many people to die, including the attacks of the Aum Shinrikyo cult in the Tokyo subway system with the deadly Sarin gas."

Japan's traditional systems are no longer able to cope with the new challenges that its productive capacity has unleashed, a condition that "violates the border between good and evil... never failing to be met with both frenzy and hatred." New areas must thus be created to help individuals cope with these new challenges rationally. And the artist has used this particular form of sculpture, one that "belongs neither to the realm of geography nor to the realm of the psychological." "Rather, sculpture is where these two intersect as systems" and can be used "to build a dwelling of integration with outrageous forces."

In other words, old systems of idolatry having died out, art can evolve new ones still. The very fact that such a search is on reflects the brittleness of the so-called global order and the desire of thinking people to find an alternative to it.

acrylic, board, Julian Opie, Britain.

Australia's Simeon Nelson seems to follow the same concern when he balances a chaotic circular pond full of duck-weed and consumerist waste with a finely graded mandala-like square of wood. His urge to resolve the problems of the present world, at least visually, seems strong, as it is in most artists today. But is it enough? More determined resistance is called for to cope with the increasing standardisation being imposed on people by globalised market economies.

THE new order is meeting resistance everywhere. Britain's Julian Opie seems to give vent to this trend when he says: "The shapes of recent European housing apartments are very similar to tombs. Both contain people, are made of stone and stand on grass in groups." This gives his installation sculpture its upright look.

Within this framework, he explains his visual language. "Different combinations of symbols or drawings create different scenarios and atmospheres. Car/tree/road is calm, modern, smooth and distant. Trees/high office buildings is noisier, urban, crowded, tough, but a bit romantic. Trees/low office buildings is more campus-like, quieter, a bit lonely, but still public. Trees/suburban house becomes a little mysterious, more old-fashioned, silent."

Simeon Nelson, Australia.

The new icons are not lasting, though, like the old religious ones. They do, however, force humanity back onto the dehumanised and faceless existence of the modern metropolis. This is evident from the powerful narrative element in Ulf Rollof's (Sweden) assemblage of hand-crafted objects that look like industrially produced ones.

Ulf Rollof's installation-sculpture is called Daddy's Bus. It takes one on a journey from a black tent past strap-hangers, to a plate of lemons and a mirror reflecting it, and then to stretchers and a glass sheet that seemingly puts an end to it. What is interesting in his work, as one approaches it, is how the far brighter reflection of the lemons in the mirror disappears and the real lemons take its place in one's vision. It is a reminder that illusions only work at a distance and that such seeming artistic solutions do not work when one is faced with the real problems that confront the modern world.

bronze, 76.2x30.5 cm, Mala Chummun Ramyead, Mauritius, 1995

SO much for art in the advanced capitalist countries. In the Third World, the artist seems still to retain his links with craftsmanship. Fardin Sadegh-Ayubby's blend of the decorative and figurative in what in India would be called a traditional Nayika study shows that folklore and craftsmanship can be used to resist the new economic dogmatism of globalised society just as it resists the religious dogmatism of not painting the human figure.

The celebration of the human being in wood-stuffed canvas and fabric, as in the work of Henri C. Cainglet of the Philippines, or the huge human figures by Italy's Margherita Manzelli, or in the works of Surendran Nair, C. Douglas and Rajasekharan Nair, remind the viewer that the struggle to put the human being back at the centre of his world needs more than just a "human face". What is needed is a reassertion of the human essence. But that reassertion is still in its infancy, if the Triennale is anything to go by.

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