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The Venice Biennale is deemed to be the “Olympics of the Art World”. The participating artists are among the finest from across the globe, and the national pavilions strive to outdo themselves. But in recent years, India is nowhere to be seen. It has been to the Biennale only once, in 2011, helmed by the Ministry of Culture and the Lalit Kala Akademi. There has been no official showcase since, though our artists have been part of the Biennale’s central exhibition a number of times. A significant first was at the last edition of the Biennale in 2015 when The Gujral Foundation funded the showcase titled ‘My East is Your West’, with works of Mumbai-based artist Shilpa Gupta and Lahore-based Rashid Rana.
When the list of the participants was published for the ongoing 57th edition of the Biennale in February, India did not feature anywhere prominently – neither among the 86 national pavilions nor among the 120 artists, whose work comprise the central exhibition “Viva Arte Viva,” curated by Christine Macel. The only Indian on the list is New York-based, Kolkata-born Rina Banerjee, who has four works in the central exhibition. Using a corollary of contexts, she weaves stories with varying materials, from threads and copper tubes to pearls and silver leafings, on concerns ranging from migration to our relationship with nature.
The other, more distant, Indian occurrence at the Biennale is at the South African pavilion, where Candice Breitz’s seven-channel video installation Love Story shows Shabeena Francis Saveri, a transgender activist from India. It is a part of six narratives of people who have fled their countries under oppressive conditions.
“When you have initiatives from so many countries, India too should be there. An effort should be made to take artists to such platforms. One could even think of a South Asian pavilion. It would be wonderful if all the countries could come together,” says Gupta.
Even though there are no official records, speaking at an event organised at the FICA Reading Room in Delhi in 2013, Manuela Ciotti, researcher and professor of global studies at Aarhus University, had spoken about India’s participation at the Venice Biennale as far back as 1954, and five other editions till 1982. He had noted that the 1962 participation even finds mention in the Lalit Kala Akademi records, though he could not find official documentation of earlier outings. While there is no pragmatic reason for this official disinterest in the subsequent years, in times when Indian art and artists are travelling across the globe, there have been more than a couple of missed opportunities. The most famous one was the invitation extended by Robert Storr, curator of the Biennale in 2007. “I wanted to give Indian art centre space, but that didn’t happen. I was told the invitation was sent very late, which is disappointing,” Storr told The Indian Express during a trip to Delhi in 2008. Eventually, he did have Indian representation at the Biennale. The central exhibition curated by him had Riyas Komu’s oil series Designated March of a Petro-Angel and Nalini Malani’s reverse painting Splitting the Other.
Repeated appeals by the artist community have also fallen on deaf ears. In 2015, artist Sudarshan Shetty — during meetings of the advisory committee for the triennale at the Lalit Kala Akademi — had reportedly suggested that India should prepare for the forthcoming Venice Biennale. He had even proposed taking up a venue on a long lease, like several other countries, but that was not to be.
Incidentally, India is shining at the other ongoing high-profile showcase of contemporary art, Documenta in Germany, which takes place once every five years. Like the central exhibition at the Venice Biennale, here too artists are selected by the curator. There are no apportioned contingents from individual countries though. The central exhibition at the famed bifurcated event — taking place in Athens and Kassel — have 15 artists from the sub-continent. India is represented by Amar Kanwar, Gauri Gill, Nilima Sheikh, and Nikhil Chopra, apart from modernists Ganesh Haloi, Benode Behari Mukherjee, KG Subramanyan, Chittaprosad and Amrita Sher-Gil. Curator Natasha Ginwala says, “I find the extensive and dynamic participation of artists from South Asia emerging from the wider tendencies of re-mapping a more complex global modernity. There is also a transition in international institutional practices, biennale making, collection building in major museums from Europe, to North America, Australia and South East Asia, and in-depth research being carried out in the last few years for a sustained conversation with the subcontinent.”
Based out of Amsterdam and India, Ginwala also played a crucial in the Gujral Foundation initiative in Venice. Speaking about India’s non-presence at the ongoing Biennale, she says, “It is vital that the government steps up to support the arts within platforms such as Documenta and Venice Biennale but also across South East Asia. There are numerous initiatives from museum shows to smaller biennales that could gain from public partnerships.”
At the Venice Biennale
With exhibitions and installations spilling out of grand buildings, squares and churches, 86 countries from around the globe have set up pavilions across Giardini and Arsenale venues. For the first time, countries such as Antigua and Barbuda, Kiribati and Nigeria are participating as well.
* French artist Loris Gréaud’s offsite installation The Unplayed Notes Factory in Campiello della Pescheria, Murano, is at an abandoned glass factory. He hired local glassmakers to create ceiling pieces, which were allowed to crash on the ground. The broken glass pieces are then recycled. Gréaud depicts the age-old dying art of Murano glassmakers, whose techniques and trade secrets can disappear anytime.
* With her much applauded performance titled Faust, German artist Anne Imhof has transformed the German pavilion into a hostile environment with anti-riot wire fencing and two Doberman dogs, who stand guard. As dancers dressed in black crawl under a glass stage, they put to the fore questions of liberty in a Nazi-like experiment.
* British artist Damien Hirst’s exhibit (pictured) titled Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable had him filling the two museums — Palazzo Grassi and the Punta della Dogana — with fake artefacts allegedly retrieved from an “ancient shipwreck”. These include statues of unknown gods and royalty, swords, coins, bowls and vases.