Art News & Views

Venice Biennale


by Uma Prakash

Venice: India is participating for the first time in the world's 116-year-old art fair, the 54th International Art Exhibition-la Biennale di Venezia featuring 87 countries. The India Pavilion is showcasing works by four Indian artists , sponsored by the government, organized by the Lalit Kala Akademi in a first-of-its kind initiative to put Indian contemporary art in the international mainstream, The exhibition Everyone Agrees: It's About to Explode, is curated by Mumbai-based Ranjit Hoskote well-known art critic, curator, poet and commentator whose uses the platform "as a laboratory to float a new set of questions about what it means to be an Indian and an Indian involved in cultural production and, finally, work towards the notion of cultural citizenship."

Hoskote's artist's display original concepts and rich aesthetics with a Tran cultural range secure in their commitment to the historical dynamics of South Asia. Together they represent incentive from diverse regional modalities, religious ancestry sub-cultural locations, artistic choices, and philosophical viewpoint which give a holistic vision of India addressing the often asked question “what does it mean to be an Indian?”

The artists reveal that some of the most significant art being created today draws on different locations, and economies of varied cultural histories. The Indian artistic attitudes stress on the cross-cultural nature of contemporary artistic production. Hoskote's choice of artists transcends linear histories, divisive state borderlines or reductive cultural narratives and economic cycles. Conceptually it appears that the curator has transformed the space into an eye looking into itself, an experiment where there is always the glorious danger of a possible explosion.

The artists whose works grace India's maiden panorama include India-born New York-based artist Zarina Hashmi, Gigi Scaria of Delhi, Guwahati-based Desire Machine Collective (DMC), a multi-media art intervention collaboration between Sonal Jain and Mriganka Madhukaillya; and Praneet Soi, who works out of Kolkata and Amsterdam.

Veteran print-maker and mixed-media artist Zarina Hashmi, who was born in Aligarh in 1937; now lives and works in New York. She addresses the India Pakistan partition that physically and emotionally fractured the spirit of South East Asia. She focuses on the post-partition and diasporic sentiments. Home is a Foreign Place, Blinding Light and Noor (Divine Light). Zarina Hashmi's maps in Home is a Foreign Place appear as endless analysis to psychological and material refugee-ship caused by the cultural rupture of the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan. Hashmi's minimalist works touches on memories and yearnings of familiar location that are imbedded in the mind and cannot be wiped out by the borders of countries. Her work is a reflection, or narrative, of her own life and the life of many others like her, for whom home has become a foreign place. She reflects the predicament of the modern age: crossing borders to live in foreign lands.

Kerala born Gigi Scaria, painter, sculptor, video artist; born in Kothanalloor, Kerala, 1973; now lives in New Delhi addresses questions about displacement and class prejudice in his installations, videos and photography

When speaking about his work Scaria said “My work is titled Elevator from the Subcontinent. It is a real lift cabin with automatic door system. But when you enter inside you will see the other three walls of the cabin with backlit projections. The images and the video animation inside the cabin will make you feel as if you are going up to many levels of a building. All the three side wall projections will be synchronized with computer programming and micro panel so that the moment the elevator closes the visuals appear automatically. Once the video projection is over, the doors will open automatically. Cabin is about 7 feet high and 8 feet wide. At one time there can be six to seven people inside.” For practical reasons he has used a real elevator fabricated in an elevator company and used computer programming for the first time to synchronies the videos.

The concept of the lift is related to different levels of social structures and hierarchies in our nation's newly empowered status as a potential world power. The complex layers of 'upliftment' play out in each segment of social system in India today. He addresses marginalized segments as he has always been preoccupied by urbanization, conscious that geo-political and cultural background of each urban space is different.

Praneet Soi painter, sculptor, video artist; born in Kolkata, 1971; now lives and works in Amsterdam and Kolkata. His paintings and sculptures interweave his concerns on war and other global issues. In Soi's Writing in the Wall, the artist amalgamates 'Cut Out' from terrorism related images from the media and photoshoots undertaken within his studio. These are skillfully transformed into drawings for his work.By using distortion, or the physical tearing-up of the images and their reconstitution he recreates a completely new image in his paintings. Their narrative come out with a different story.

The artist has added another dimension to his work with the recording  Kumartuli Printer, Notes on Labor Pt 1, Here he takes the viewer into the the oldest quarter of Northern Kolkata where he records the movement of an antiquated Treadel press printer, documenting the process between the printer and the artist. Soi had actually worked with the printer to transfer documented images of the printer working, into metal plates that would be used within the printing process.

Through his large images of man addressing his numerous aspects and his recording Soi addresses the individual's struggle for progress in an age of terrorism in a world where man, machine and economy are deeply entrenched.

Sonal Jain 36 and Mriganka Madhukaillya 33's Desire Machine Collective's experimental, avante garde art practices in Guwahati, endorsing the fact that art does not have to be confined to the so-called centre in Delhi or Mumbai. Affected by the Gujrat Riots the couple moved to Gawhati and started an art practice that addressed relevant issues in Assam. For the Biennale the collective have exhibited a video art called Residue a modified version of their existing work of the same title. Perhaps, one of the most moving rendering of their recent oeuvre is this 39 minute video shot in a redundant Thermal power plant, that's gradually being swallowed up by the surrounding forest. in Chandrapur near Guwahati. The static shots with no voice-over but sound tracks will unveil the story of politics of power and oil through the film on Chandrapur thermal power station which had closed down in 1999.

Besides images of the plant, Residue's soundtrack has Buddhist chanting and electronic sounds. “Most of the sound is not linked to the image,” says Jain. She says it's hard to describe the work but it's about “perception-image”. Adds Madhukaillya: “It is also about the whole cyclical process of creation and destruction and memory and how it is replaced.”

“Desire Machine Collective has a sophisticated, vital practice,” says curator Hoskote, “They have very strong regional commitments, yet they have taken their body of work out to the world. They embody what I say, that you don't have to be metropolitan to be cosmopolitan. Their work is political in essence, highlighting economies that have been superseded and voices that have been silenced, but it is nuanced.”

Nandita Chaudhuri of Indian origin, born in Britain, is the only Indian artist to showcase outside India Pavilion. She represents India at Venezia, Scoletta of San Giovanni Battista adjoining the church of the ninth century. Nandita Chaudhuri has been earmarked alongside '53' countries, to represent India, during the Biennale d'arte di Venezia.

“My new works, titled The Islands have Shifted have been inspired by the fragility of human and land mass when confronted by forces beyond control. You begin to think of the laws of existence and the framework on which we let it stand, and the layers we weave upon it. Until such time all such endeavors are rendered specks of dust that fly and swirl as they are swallowed by fathomless forces” notes Nandita Chaudhuri about her work on display at the Venice Biennale.

Chaudhari's expert brushstrokes expertly captures the enormous forces of the recent tragedy in Japan. Her recent works is driven by the fragility of human and land mass when hit by unforeseen forces. The little specks of dust that fly and swirl on her canvas symbolize this. As a migrant, her work displays specific cultural influences of her place of origin which have imbibed a totally different socio-cultural milieu.

The Indian participation is complete with the large black and white photographs from Dayanita Singh's File Room series, which show drab, largely unattended rooms stuffed with paper archives, bagged, bundled or stacked like so many desiccated lives.

Illuminations, the title of the main exhibition at the 54th Venice Biennale evokes the belief that enlightenment emanates from artists. It's a great fusion of the classic with cutting-edge artists. Curated by Ms. Bice Curiger's the exhibiton is spread in two parts, the Giardini and the other at the nearby Arsenale, the network of shipyards, factories and warehouses where Venetian fleets were once built. There are also more off-site shows this year, stuffed into abandoned churches, disused palaces and empty industrial buildings. The works of different countries are intriguing and compelling.

The famous 16th-century Venetian artist Jacopo Robusti Tintoretto's, (who died in 1594,) dazzling masterpieces like The Stealing of the Dead Body of St Mark is on display in the main gallery. His rendering of light in his paintings are breathtaking. The organizers feel he is modern, He breaks the rules. He is a reminder to young artists that they, too, should break the rules.

Mike Nelson's installation has transformed the British pavilion into a meticulously re-created version of a Turkish caravanserai, Istanbul's Büyük Valide Han. It was built in 1651 as a rest house for travelers, with storage and sleeping quarters built around a central courtyard. By the 21st century, the building had become a muddled but lively accretion of artisans' workshops, and in 2003 Nelson made an installation there for the Istanbul Biennale.

The Golden Lion for best national pavilion, was awarded to Germany for its display of work by Christoph Schlingensief, the late artist, filmmaker, and theater experimentalist who passed away from cancer in August of 2010.The German pavilion has been transformed into a replica of the church where the artist spent his teenage years as an altar boy in order to present Fluxus Oratorio, the second of his three-part final work, created after he had undergone surgery to remove a lung and presenting multimedia documents  from videos to x-rays  relating to his battle with terminal cancer.

The Silver Lion for most promising young artist was given to British artist Haroon Mirza for his piece in the Arsenale engaging the public in a sound installation as much as a sculpture, the work includes a ring of LEDS hooked up to an amplifier in a custom designed anechoic chamber.

The Golden Lion for best artwork in the main exhibition went to American artist Christian Marclay's The Clock, with its scenes from snippets of thousands of films which has drawn crowds everywhere.

The Biennale consisting of challenging sensibilities and artistic missions was overwhelming. The Chinese artist Song Dong presents a labyrinth of salvaged panels leading from doors and room dividers along with a pagoda-style roof, reflecting turmoil and permanence the modern China. James Turrell's baptism-by-light-installation, The Ganzfield Piece offers a rare experience.

Several younger artists Luca Francesconi, Rebecca Warren, Ryan Gander, Carol Bove, Ida Ekblad and Anya Titova display modernist art, design and décor vocabularies, sometimes stimulating.

The sisters Shadia Alem and Raja Alem, connect the energy of their birthplace Mecca to Venice in The Black Arch at Saudi Arabia pavilion, through a fascinating display of gleaming chrome forms, projections of both Islamic and Christian mosaics and rustic folk music. Plan B, from Turkey by Ayse Erkmen, consists of a network of chugging motors and brightly painted pipes that pumps water from the canal just outside the window, purifies it and returns it to the Venetian effluvia.

The Venice Biennale is an exhilarating experience. The magnitude of the art exhibits are overwhelming Here artists have crossed borders and united together to demonstrate their freedom of expression. They have addressed universal issues and concerns through installations, videos, sculptures and paintings. They have shown that artists are the true visionaries who generate social awareness and emanate light in the world with their imagination.

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