Question the Answer

Monica Narula on the challenges that Raqs Media Collective faced as chief curator of the 11th Shanghai Biennale.

Written by Shiny Varghese | Updated: December 14, 2016 7:03 pm

In 1992, Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula, and Shuddhabrata Sengupta began their practice as a collective “founded on an ethic of conversations”. Delhi-based Raqs Media Collective is chief curator of the 11th Shanghai Biennale, which began this month, and continues till March next year. Titled “Why Not Ask Again: Arguments, Counter Arguments, and Stories”, the show has more than 92 artists from 40 countries. Excerpts from an interview with Narula:

With censorship in China, what did you need to leave out as part of  your curation?

It would be far-fetched to think that any major exhibition in the world would take place today without some amount of scrutiny. The Power Station of Art, where the Shanghai Biennale takes place, is a state-supported institution and subject to the normal restraints that affect such an institution. That said, the exhibition has a range of works that maintain a sensitive yet critical edge — with regard to social, ethical and political questions — that are relevant to Chinese audiences and to the world. We were able to negotiate and achieve a great deal of openness. Except for one instance, which discussed the conduct of European states towards refugees, we have exhibited all the 92 works at the show.

Imagine that an exhibition is like a human body, with many organs, many systems. Like the body, any event or process in contemporary art has to build its own immunity. It is a question of the overall health of the exhibition, and the overall ecosystem of the arts. No one organ can fight this on its own. The auto-immune apparatus has to be a networked response, across many exhibitions, biennales and initiatives.

An exhibition is also about the people who move in that space. How did this consciousness affect your curation?

We were clear that the experience of the Biennale has to be achieved through a triangulation of the analytical, the intuitive and the fabulous; through an intersection of reason, sensate intelligence and the power of stories; between the dream-like quality of film, the expressive power of dance, the vividness of an image and the incisive insight of poetry. A visitor will find their curiosity aroused, their assumptions challenged and their bodily sensations and affective responses addressed in a variety of ways.

Do issues of climate change, pollution, terrorism make it to the Biennale?

This Biennale takes on the nature of the world today without hesitation or evasion. But, it refuses to do so in terms of the sensational way in which ‘current events’ are framed by the media. Liu Yujia’s video meditation, Black Ocean, which premieres in the Biennale, address the ways in which the hydrocarbon economy erodes the earth. Navjot Altaf’s panoramic image is of a Chattisgarh landscape ravaged by strip mining. Azadeh Akhlaghi’s sequence of photographic tableaux addresses the history of political assassination in Iran. The Desire Machine Collective does a sounding of political protest from Guwahati to Occupy Wall Street in Manhattan, while Vinu V’s sculpture with sickles and a dead tree directly references the assertion of Dalit agricultural labour in south India.

Raqs is Persian for a whirling dervish. Have there been those dervish moments at this show?

Certainly. Watching Aki Sasamoto whirl inside a washing machine in Delicate Cycle, considering Lee Mingwei’s dancers (some of whom are clerks, financial analysts or factory workers in their other lives) while they sweep a circle of rice into a mandala with a broom, coming face to face with Olivier Sagazan’s performative incarnation of himself as a beast-shaman-god-sceptic or witnessing Ma Haijiao’s documentary film on an injured factory worker turn into an itinerant Buddhist preacher brings us close to the kinetic, contemplative ecstasy of the whirling dervish.

As extremism is increasing globally, what is the role of an artist?

The weaver Kabir, who lived 500 years ago, wrote many poems in what is called sandhya bhasa, or twilight language. Here is an instance: Ghorai chari bhais charaavan jaaee. Baahar bail gon ghar aaee (The ox runs wild, the cart laden with stuff comes home, the buffalo rides the horse and takes him around). In the world of labour, men, women, animals and devices come together and diverge in all sorts of interesting ways. The coupling and uncoupling of gears and wings, of claws and hands, of hooves and feet, of prostheses and parenthesis — in these we find the stirrings of a twilight language.

It is an antidote to the morbid rigour of every certainty. In this state, humans speak differently — with joy, with love, in play, in the registers of fantasy and wickedness. There is an openness towards inhabiting futures, where animals, machines and humans recover grounds of equality and conversation.

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