On July 24, 1959, at the opening of the American National Exhibition in Moscow’s Sokolniki Park, there was an exchange between then US Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev that went down in history as the “Kitchen Debate”. The site of the impromptu debate was an exhibit featuring a model American kitchen, quipped with latest household appliances, including an automatic washing machine. This kitchen — and the other exhibits — were meant to represent the pinnacle of technology achieved by American capitalism and acted as propaganda for the American consumerist way of life. At the opening, Nixon remarked to Khrushchev, “In America, we like to make life easier for women”. To this, the Soviet leader responded, “Your capitalistic attitude towards women does not occur under communism.”
Given the capitalism versus communism theme of this debate, its relevance might seem questionable today. Thirty years after Nixon and Khrushchev bandied words, communism collapsed and consumerism seems to have become the driving economic force. Prajakta Potnis, however, has used the debate as a thread that links the works in her latest solo, “When the Wind Blows”, which is at Project 88 in Colaba.
The Mumbai-based artist, who was trained in painting at the JJ School of Arts, reveals that she first encountered the Kitchen Debate in 2014, when she went to Berlin for an artists-in-residence programme of KfW Stiftung at Kunstlerhaus Bethanien. “I instantly knew that I had found something momentous,” she says, “I had always been fascinated by kitchen appliances and often found myself peering into everyday domestic appliances such as the refrigerator or the washing machine, like they were alien spaces.”
Unpacking the true meaning of the Kitchen Debate, she knew, would help her understand why she found these household gadgets so compelling. Reading instructions on how to use a German washing machine is what helped her make the first link. “The instructions were in German and I was completely clueless about how to operate it. I use it at home regularly. But the instructions needed to be in English. If they were in a foreign language, the object itself would become foreign to me,” says Potnis.
The experience got the 35-year-old thinking how consumers must have viewed these gadgets when they were invented, particularly after the second World War, when both Soviet Union and the US fueled the invention of household gadgets. Frequent use has now made the once-unfamiliar gadgets familiar, but for most of us their inner workings are still “alien”.
It is this sense of “alienness” that Potnis has captured in her work. In one photograph, dented and stained pressure cooker whistles are positioned on a carpet of frost inside a freezer. The frame is almost cinematic in its setting, bursting with science fiction possibilities. This fictional frozen world is recreated with other common household objects — the blades of a mixer-grinder, a gas lighter, styrofoam, cotton-wool and an electric plug. Looking at them through Potnis’s gaze, one finds these familiar objects to be quite foreign. This sense of alienation also pervades the drawings of household objects, including a table fan and a frying pan. The artist even makes food appear strange to us. A cauliflower, for instance, is photographed closely, as it churns inside a mixie and becomes liquid. The natural form of the cauliflower, photographed in a sterile environment, appears more like the dreaded mushroom cloud of a nuclear bomb than the commonly consumed vegetable. “We’ve tried to make everything easier for ourselves, but at the same time we are estranged from basic things like food. For example, we’re now regularly consuming processed and genetically modified food, which has all sorts of chemicals in it. We’re preparing meals in Teflon-coated pans and delaying the natural decaying process of various foods by storing them in the fridge. The irony is that while all of this is now an accepted fact of life, we still don’t truly understand the technology or the potential harm it could do to us.”
The exhibition is at Project 88, Colaba, Mumbai till February 27