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‘Auratic’ city and superstar

What was the man described by the New York Times as a “superstar among curators” doing in a backwater? Lobbed this query, Adam Szymczyk, the director of Kunsthalle Basel and artistic director of Documenta 14 in 2017 in Kassel, replied without batting an eyelid, that he is interested in backwaters, and instead of taking the “trodden path”, Calcutta was the first place he visited in India. He declares that he does not believe in the “hierarchy of places”, and by the same logic he visited Dhaka first. India has been on his mind ever since he read about the country in the Gospel of St. Thomas in his school back in Poland, and he wanted to begin with a place “which has a distinctive character”.

Szymczyk was here for the Experimenter Curators’ Hub on July 25 and 26, and based only on what little he had seen through car windows he said “there is something like a soul here”. It is an “auratic” place, which “exudes an air of mystery”. “It is very dark, but not in a negative way. It is not too easy to piece together or penetrate at first sight, and that is beautiful”. He had not missed the distinctive architecture of the early 20th century buildings.

Szymczyk is 44 and as thin as a whippet and one wonders if that influences his decisions as a curator, whose job, he clarifies, is “closer to the position of an amateur” or even a dilettante. Asked about his plans for Documenta 14, he says he has decided on “shaking or shifting the paradigm of the big exhibition at Kassel” so that it is “valid for today” and reflects the zeitgeist. It would be a “tool for understanding the present — the contemporary”, which he describes as “the moment of transgression”.

However powerful he may be on the international art scene, Szymczyk has the humility to admit that he is “learning and trying to build a picture”. Geeta Kapur has come to his aid, but it is a “complex picture” and “I understand the basic predicament” — the “disaster on which the country is built”. And although the “infrastructure in India has not developed” there are people here “who are making work and are aware of what is going on elsewhere”. So it cannot be ignored.

But one artist who has definitely impressed Szymczyk is Ganesh Haloi, a man whose practice is “distinctive”. It is “difficult to box it using the categories we have”, and he says so after seeing Haloi’s “book” based on the copies he made in Ajanta when he was employed by the Archaeological Survey of India in 1957. Szymczyk stressed that there is as urgent a necessity to publish this work as there is to learn from Haloi as he bridges the precipice between the 1950s and now.