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Putting it together is art of making art

The moribund Calcutta art scene showed stirrings of life last week when the fourth edition of the two-day Experimenter Curators’ Hub, which most surprisingly attracts curators, artists, gallerists and art historians from all over the world, got underway on July 25 and 26. This annual event affords everybody the opportunity to freely exchange their views (no place for the vernacular though) on contemporary art, occasionally precipitating heated debates. But however stimulating, at times a feeling of sameness does creep in.

Most of the sponsors were from the West as usual — Pro-Helvetia, Japan Foundation, Polish Institute, British Council, Goethe Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan. Since funds could not have been a problem, gallerists Prateek and Priyanka Raja, who have been doing a great job of organising the hub, should make sure that unlike this time, on the next occasion, the speakers and their interrogators are audible from the back rows. The space is small, and was crammed with enthusiasts on those two days. From where this correspondent sat, the moderator, Natasha Ginwala, was reduced to mumbles and whispers.

Ten curators had been invited to make presentations on recent exhibitions they curated, and among them were Alexander Koch from Germany, Eungie Joo, who is curator of the forthcoming Sharjah Biennial 12, Magdalena Ziólkowska from Warsaw, Pooja Sood of Khoj International Artists Association, Shuddhabrata Sengupta of Raqs Media Collective and Yuko Hasegawa from Tokyo.

This report is based on the better part of the proceedings on July 25 when the speakers were Ranjit Hoskote, Adam Szymczyk, Grant Watson and Riyas Komu, in that order. Hoskote’s focus was on India’s first stand-alone national pavilion which he curated for the Venice Biennale in 2011. He said that it was only in the mid-1990s that the practice of the “independent curator” first came into currency in India. India was represented at Venice during various editions between the 1950s and the 1980s, but those were sarkari selections. The year 2011 gave Hoskote the opportunity to address the idea of nation state critically. By showing the work of Zarina Hashmi, emblematic of the Partition and its cultural outcomes, as well as Desire Machine Collective, based in Guwahati, he hoped to provoke viewers into thinking of the disquiets and unfolding debates concerning the nation-state. It was also a time for challenging the idea of ‘contemporary’ with which he was unhappy. “The contemporary is not the preserve of a specific generation, medium or style,” he said. “It emerges from a critical engagement with the richly hybrid traffic between eclipsed narratives and emergent ones, between reserves sedimented within the history of modern aesthetic subjectivity and energies freshly released from cultural struggles. “As for the India pavilion at Venice”, he said, “It is perhaps just as well that we don’t have one any longer. Under the present dispensation, it would probably showcase the Pushpak Vimana.”

Adam Szymczyk, artistic director of Documenta 14, whose understated sense of humour brought some relief after Hoskote’s tone of high seriousness, went back to the Latin roots of words like exhibition and display — bringing to light — and curator — from Latin curare — to care for. There is a notion of unfolding here — so easier to comprehend. The curator enables articulation.

Szymczyk stressed that contemporary was not just reportage of what is happening. The contemporary moment is an active moment that must be interpreted and questioned. He began his presentation with an account of the exhibition of Bangladeshi artist Naeem Mohaiemen, who divides his time between Dhaka and New York, titled, Prisoners of Sathik Itihas — how the history of a nation undergoes drastic changes with every change of regime — a predicament with which Indians can identify. Szymczyk had curated the show held in Basel.

The other “exhibition” he elaborated on was Supershow by the group Superflex, based entirely on a clever idea. Szymczyk was more interested in “movement of thought” among individuals than “presenting objects”.

Grant Watson, freelance curator, writer and researcher at the Institute of Visual Arts in London, has worked with Indian artists and on themes such as textiles, Ramkinkar and Rabindranath. He investigates history and politics related to the exhibitions and displays supporting documents from museum collections and archives interfacing these with works by contemporary artists as he did in the exhibitions on Indian textiles, Ramkinkar’s Santhal Family sculpture, Tagore’s Post Office (the play Dakghar) and the efforts to reclaim Tagore — once the toast of the West but now all but forgotten — by international artists.

Artist Riyas Komu, the ideator of the hugely successful project Kochi Muziris Biennale, one of the organisers and co-curator along with Bose Krishnamachari, has for the past few years been engaged in presenting several large exhibitions related to the politics of football. He referenced anything from the victory of the Iraqi football team in 2007 to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. At the stadium he encountered a man wearing a Modi mask. Riyas, himself wearing a “Gandhi” cap, got himself snapped with the Modifanatic. He projected this prognostic shot during his presentation as a metaphor. When Riyas moved from Kerala to Mumbai in 1992 and “India was again divided by religion” he wondered how such conflicts could be resolved. He raised these issues in his work, Cult of Dead and Memory Loss and My Father’s Balcony. The biennale was a “confluence of ideas” where he worked as an administrator. “I wouldn’t call myself a curator. Curation came as a social responsibility,” he signed off.