Trying times

Print edition : February 17, 2001

Some reflections on the Tenth Triennale, now under way in New Delhi.

ADMITTEDLY, the Tenth Triennale is being held in New Delhi during troubled times. These are troubled times not for India alone; as the sculptor Amarnath Sehgal notes, "the world is full of pathos, violence and suffering." Dinker Kowshik says: "Today's ar t is marooned in the rainforest of information, where there are no footpaths of faith, there are too many fireflies but no light." Satish Gujral, who probably has used the world of commerce, design and politics more efficiently than most others to furthe r his artistic career, finds that "never before in India has art faced such testing times." "Galleries are mushrooming, projecting whatever is saleable. To achieve their aims they even drag in students, killing their spirit of experimentation and learnin g while they are still in the budding stage!" The process of opening up and of commoditisation on an unprecedented scale has also brought on the unprecedented democratisation of artistic expression. Gujral, however, ignores it. He only notes the negative aspect.

Probir Gupta's installations "Remembering Soutine" and a "Sequence of Food Bowls", pointing to the marginalisation and privation of human beings in the world today.-COURTESY: LALIT KALA AKADEMI

Somenath Hore, sculptor, painter and graphic artist, is much more sensitive in his understanding of the situation: "A sense of impermanence is creeping into my life. So far, immersed in my art, and with my wife Reba beside me, my only preoccupation was w ith working harder and harder. Now I feel that nothing lasts forever."

Indeed, nothing does. And the knowledge of that in the artist's mind gives direction to his or her expression. For, as painter Paritosh Sen has pointed out: "In order to become a painter the universe seen by the artist has to become a private one created by himself."

K.G. Subramanyan echoes the same thought when he says: "I do not feel that any fact of history is the legitimate subject of art unless it becomes an artist's personal myth and its tragedy becomes a scar on his innermost being." From such a perspective, o ne can understand Akbar Padamsee when he says: "You cannot teach how to see or even what to see." That is determined by the process of expressing oneself. It requires not only time but a commitment to art rather than to the market. But market forces are often stronger than individual commitment.

Hema Upadhyay's installation with 2,000 cockroaches that she used as markers in a space, which reflects both decay and survival.-COURTESY: LALIT KALA AKADEMI

CHANGING circumstances, then, are met with changing expression. The Tenth Triennale is best seen from this perspective. Indeed, the major shift we see is in the emergence of the installation as a dominant art form. The majority of the award-winners - Hem a Upadhyay and Probir Gupta of India; Michele Blondel of France; Gunilla Klingberg and Peter Geschwind of Sweden; Andrea Kuluncic of Croatia and Herman Chong of Singapore - have made installations, with the Australian award-winner Eugene Carchesio being a borderline case.

What does this imply? The artist is definitely responding directly to life around him or her - as in Gupta's "Sequence of Food Bowls 1,2,3,4 and 5", reflecting the curious phenomenon of the producers of food in this country being denied it as a result of government and World Trade Organisation policies, or Gunilla Klingberg and Peter Geschwind's 'Cheap High', calling attention to how we are tapped by multinationals building invisible monopoly cages around consumers - to trap them like rats on a treadmil l. But we observe that the concern with originality often has to give way to simplicity and immediacy of communication.

Sukhvinder Singh's wood-cut, "Inner Reflexions of the Human World", 137 x 306 cm.-SUNEET CHOPRA

Gupta is easy to understand if one looks at his work with reference to Somen's installation 'The Aesthetics of Adulteration' or N.N. Rimzon's 'Man With Tools' or even Nagji Patel's concern with artifacts to evoke the human presence. In the same way, the Swedish artists' work can trace its lineage back to Claes Oldenberg's soft sculptures. But that does not concern the installation-maker, who often chooses a number of ready-made found objects to work with. The meanings these objects are charged with alre ady enrich rather than impoverish the work. So if from Gujral's perspective we lose in permanence, depth and originality, we gain in immediacy and directness of impact, without which art would find it very difficult to stand up to the world of design and advertising, and also to the dictates of fashion.

Merely fulminating against these trends does not make sense. One has to swim with them in order to counter them, as the installation-makers and pop-artists, like Britain's Catherine Yass, with her boards of Bollywood actors and actresses, do. Or one has to strike out on an austere minimalist path as the Australian Eugene Carchesio does. Here too, the strikingly original is lacking. Yass has the ghost of Andy Warhol lurking behind her, while Carchesio reminds one of the seminal contributions of Latin Ame rican artists like Sergio de Camargo in the 1960s.

"Cheap High", 2001. Installation by Gunilla Klingberg and Peter Geschwind that highlights consumerism running amok in Indian cities today.-COURTESY: LALIT KALA AKADEMI

Perhaps more originality might have been visible had we had countries such as the United States and Cuba participating in the Triennale. The international participation this time is quite dismal. It is unlikely that any Triennale to date has had such med iocre works.

ONE cannot get away from this by saying that world art is in crisis. The Indian section looks better only because the international section is so poor and the exhibits so dated. Ajit Chakravarty, Prabhakar Kolte, Achuthan Kuddallur and Brahm Prakash ough t to be congratulated for choosing a better than average display, where the works of Valsan Kolleri, Aku, Anupam Sud, Amitava Das, Azis T. M., Dattatreya Apte, Dhruva Mistry, Hema Upadhyay, Jaya Ganguly, Kishore Shinde, M. Sanathamani, Probir Gupta, Sand eep Bhatia, Sukhvinder Singh, Ashok Gour and Walter D'Souza reflect a strong backbone of Indian art of different genres and media. So the decline of art in general cannot be blamed for the unimaginative turnout at the Tenth Triennale. It is evident that an India that has managed to get itself sidelined in the field of world affairs with its self-assigned role of playing second fiddle to the U.S., has not only got scant respect from that country but has also marginalised itself among the artists and art lovers of the world. This is the reason why this Triennale has caused the least ripples ever in the artistic community.

A minimal work of Australian artist Eugene Carchesio.-COURTESY: LALIT KALA AKADEMI

Still, it has demonstrated that the Indian art that emerged with the national movement, with a radical anti-imperialist agenda, has successfully navigated the storms and whirlpools of changing styles, as well as new ways of presenting and saying things, to match the best in the world, as is evident from the awards being given by the international jury consisting of Michel Baudson of France, Jill Snyder of the U.S., Nicholas Tsoutas of Australia, A. Ramachandran and Akbar Padamsee of India, to the instal lations of Probir Gupta and Hema Upadhyay, both of whom show a commitment to an aesthetic, the roots of which go back to artists like Ram Kinkar Baij, Jamini Roy, Nandalal Bose and Bhabesh Sanyal - who came all the way from Kolkata to Lahore to do the bust of Lala Lajpat Rai, after he had been killed in a lathi-charge by British forces.

It is indeed fitting that Sanyal, who will be completing a hundred years this year, was given a special show of his works. One got to see his outstanding bust of Dr. S. Radhakrishnan; his series of self-portraits that constantly laugh at himself and yet claim his canvases over the years; landscapes that reflect his closeness to the great Chinese tradition just across the Himalayas which imperial ambitions on our country have kept us distant from so long; and of course, his lyrical animal studies that so mehow manage to remind us of street children, migrant labourers and the millions of people who live on streets and in the open, sharing their lives with those of dogs, pigs, cattle, crows and pigeons.

The force of these lives, marginalised by globalisation, ignored by the building mafias responsible for the deaths of thousands, living in an uneasy balance between life and death, is what keeps our art going in all sorts of times. The Tenth Triennale am ply reflects this.

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