Conversations on multiplicity

Print edition : January 20, 2017

Sudarshan Shetty. Photo: By Special Arrangement

A work of the Chinese poet Ouyang Jianghe at Pepper House Cafe, one of the venues of the biennale. Photo: H. Vibhu

Raul Zurita, the Chilean poet who is featured in this biennale. Photo: By Special Arrangement

A visitor views an installation. Photo: H. Vibhu

An installation by Ales Steger, Slovenian artist. Photo: H. Vibhu

The Swiss artist Bob Gramsma overseeing the erection of an installation for the biennale. Photo: By Special Arrangement

A painting by Sadanandan at the biennale. Photo: H. Vibhu

A painting by Subrat Kumar Behera on display. Photo: H. Vibhu

Interview with Sudarshan Shetty, curator, Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2016.

THE Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB) is an initiative of the Kochi Biennale Foundation. The biennale’s first edition, held in 2012, was the first of its kind in India and brought together artists from various countries working in a variety of media. The exhibitions, usually curated by practising artists, are held in locations across the city. This year’s biennale, the third edition, is curated by Sudarshan Shetty. His own art practice has evolved over three decades, from being centred on painting to multimedia explorations that include sculpture, video, performance and installation. Born in Mangalore in 1961, Sudarshan Shetty lives in Mumbai. Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline:

Your curatorial note describes your vision for the KMB 2016 thus: “As an old story goes, a young traveller went on a long journey to meet a sage. Finally, arriving at his destination, he enters a dark room to find the sage deep in meditation. He goes and sits with the sage, and for hours struggles to observe through the darkness the room around him. Then, gathering the world into the pupil of her eye, the sage looks up at the boy, who notices her eyes glowing through the darkness of the room. Not only perceiving what is immediately around her—the room all in shadows—the sage assimilates the entire universe. In that single moment and one vision, she grasps its enormous multiplicity—internal and external—and reflects those multiple images back onto the boy and back into the space between them both. Through the generation and layering of visions, the sage creates multiple understandings of the world, speaking those to the young traveller in front of her. Just as the sage assimilates images from a plethora of locations, so the Kochi-Muziris Biennale attempts to gather multiple positions. Selecting from and bringing together a multiplicity of disparate sources of material, the artists gather and layer all the complexity of the world into their representations of it. Forming in the pupil of an eye is an assembly and layering of multiple realities. It attempts to level difference between what is an assumed immediate experience—such as the physical space of the room between the boy and the sage—with that of multiple other consciousnesses, of myriad parallel worlds, of manifold physical simulations, retold together within these pages and within the spaces of the biennale.” As the curator of KMB 2016, how did you develop this curatorial vision?

To begin with, having come up with a curatorial brief that originated from my practice as an artist, I felt that it had to go beyond those limitations. So, the first thing was to look for conversations that were outside my own practice as an artist. I began with conversations with practitioners that I was always interested in, who are, so to say, outside the expectation of a biennale space. These conversations, over a period of time, also led me to look at “contemporary” art practices from an entirely different perspective. Some of the practitioners I started the conversations with could be called performers in the traditional arts and poetry. The questions, to begin with, were: What does it mean to be contemporary? Or to be together in time? In fact, the first artist we declared was Raul Zurita, the eminent poet from Chile. These conversations generated multiple perspectives on how one could take ideas about the “contemporary” forward in a more meaningful way. To find points of mediation between practices that are seemingly outside those expectations of the space demarcated for “contemporary” art and outside the idea of the biennale itself.

There is something essential to the way we look at the world that is multiple in nature. Multiple—in a way that all those positions could be mutually inclusive within our experience of the world, inside and outside. One of the challenges in biennales is to achieve these states of multiplicity as one.

Bringing in these diverse voices or ways of making and dissemination comes with various sets of challenges, beginning with a few practical ones. I was talking to my friend and one of the great singers of our generation, Kedar Bodas, recently, who can sing without a microphone to an audience of about 100 people. He has a different voice for the microphone. I think it is interesting to think about the time when there was no microphone. What did the introduction of electronic projection of sound do to live performances? I think these are essential questions that need to be asked. What does it mean to pitch yourself into certain conditions of dissemination? And, in that context, what does it mean to be contemporary, and to what extent does technology play a part in our conditioning of looking at a work of art?

What you are trying to grapple with are the notions of time in different cultures, regions and art practices and their confrontations with modernity, and thus prompt re-views and rememberings of past and present...

Yes, there is a tendency to think of what we consider modern as something that happened elsewhere. It is a folly to look at modernity as something that is rooted in the West, as coming from elsewhere. There have been efforts in the last decade or so to look for modernities that exist or existed outside Europe. But, unfortunately, the references are still rooted in European modernism and what we end up looking for is reflections and traces of that elsewhere.

As the writer Anand was saying elsewhere, there is now a growing domination of verticality in our world view which suppresses the horizontal in cultures, traditions, and expressions. The Kochi-Muziris Biennale, in a sense, is very local or localised: it is at the far end of the country, and Kochi is not a metro or even a capital city. Secondly, biennales have a long European tradition and a history of engagements with European institutions and they have aesthetic discourses of their own supporting and surrounding them. How do you think KMB engages with these notions and traditions? Are we trying to connect with our own cosmopolitanism or posing it against the European “Other”?

I think, in principle, a biennale itself comes with certain conventions to begin with. The idea of a biennale does come with certain expectations and conditions. However, I’d imagine that most curators’ efforts would be to sidestep such conventions.

I went to an art school established by the British with an emphasis on the British portrait painting tradition. So, we tried to learn it from within those ideas of how to paint. At the same time, we were also taught design, which came from a Bauhaus [a German school of art belonging to the early decades of the 20th century] grid, which, I guess, got introduced into the curriculum at some point of time. They were, if not the opposite, very different from each other. So, we were in a schizophrenic space of sorts: one curriculum came from 200 years of colonisation and the other from another part of European Modernism. No one ever explained this to us, as if it was but a natural part of learning art. I guess it is a part of the multiple understanding of the world that is natural for us. So, many things that we do may consciously derive from certain histories we come from, and how we have to perform in the world may often be at loggerheads with that. For us, it is an interesting position to consider. How do we negotiate between the way we naturally look at the world and the way we are taught to look at the world? How do we bring both these positions together?

The locations within the KMB are special in many ways. None of the locations is owned by the biennale foundation. These locations are occupied by the biennale for a period of time and a few of them go back into disuse before they are reclaimed as biennale spaces at the next edition. If you look at these spaces, they are not your ideal white cubes. Most of these spaces possess a character that is far from being that. Moreover, the division between the inside and the outside spaces is a fluid one. I think it is one of the engaging factors about it. The other compelling part is the local participation, which makes it perhaps the most interesting biennale among the ones I have been to in my limited experience.

Last time, Jitish Kallat, as the curator of the biennale, titled it “Whorled Explorations”. So, it was constellations that he was seeking. More than a specific theme, your attempt seems to be more about flows, fluidity, flux, and asking questions about where knowledge comes from.

One of the first concerns was the strategies one could employ to keep the biennale open-ended. Is it possible to see the biennale in a flow or in a process of its own making through the time of the biennale and perhaps even bend the time of the biennale? So, I wanted to flip over that whole idea of the thematic itself. The other question was, is it possible to change the notion of a curator as someone who is a producer of knowledge and culture to someone who is a facilitator? Even with my [artistic] work, I see myself as a facilitator of sorts. When I finish making an object, I feel that it doesn’t belong to me, it has its own life. I can point a precedence to almost all my actions, where these actions could take me to an unknown.

Is being an artist and also a curator a difficult task? How does one jell with the other? As an artist, you have a way of looking at things. Will that come into play when you choose works of others?

Being an artist is a condition that one cannot escape. So, as I said earlier, it was a conscious effort to move out of my own practice with the conversations that I began with practitioners who, in some ways, are outsiders, so to say, to my space of operation.

However, with this job, after every studio visit, those diverse world views did reflect upon my own practice as an artist. Over this period of time, through this experience, I must say that I have gained enormously as an artist from all the other practitioners, in some way or another. It has been a great opportunity of access to some of the brilliant minds of our times.

Your concern with tradition and the past, and the challenges of bringing them into a biennale space, is interesting. For one, in present-day India, there are attempts to streamline and make a monolith of everything, which works against the dynamic processes happening within cultures, and even within art forms. There is also the interesting interface between such arts when they enter a space like a biennale, where there is an essential interface with other art forms, practices and practitioners, which can lead to new synergies.

Yes, it opens up many such possibilities and this is not something that I am thinking up; it is part of a certain tradition and also of modernist tradition. Ritwik Ghatak was doing it in the mid 1950s and 1960s; he was aware of gathering various parallel narratives from his own surroundings, or where he came from. When I look at a film like Komal Gandhar, I am amazed by his deep understanding of the music and theatre of this land.

The great film-maker Mani Kaul did it all his life; Kumar Gandharva created another world view through his music. So, the idea of the contemporary perhaps means different things at different times, and some works do transcend time and remain relevant at various times.

Coming back to the biennale, there is a diverse world out there and there is an expectation from a biennale, and the question is how to bring these two worlds together.

As far as Kochi is concerned, it is also a process of remembering–it has a long maritime history, it was host to all the major cultures and commercial powers, and many religions mingled freely here. But we seem to have forgotten this long, rich and complex cosmopolitan history of ours. A biennale, in that sense, is a kind of reminder.

Yes, that’s true. I don’t remember who said this: to understand “who we are” it is very important to understand “who we were”. What role does tradition play in our contemporary lives? Can we not find tradition in our immediate present? Can we see tradition as something of a flow that comes from behind and that flows through our contemporary realities in the form of many streams and into the future while it is fed by various tributaries?

As rivers flow, overflow and recede, can a biennale accumulate meaning over time and spill into the future? The flow of these streams, their convergence, and divergence, inspire a series of questions and propositions about the varied forms of and approaches to knowledge presented by the objects performed as part of the biennale.

Is the gap in space like a lag in time? To experience this gap is like pulling open the doors of time. How does that pull in time also become a fold in space?

As one gazes back at the gap, is it possible to be drawn in and propelled forward by a force sometimes referred to as tradition, sometimes as a cascade that erupts in the midst of the present with flashes of the future? Folded in upon itself, a lag in time can simultaneously imply looking back and looking forward. When a gap is also a fold, one can look back to move forward. What does it mean to be together in time—to be contemporary?

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