This is the first year that the prestigious Documenta has forked out of Germany, with a parallel exhibition at Athens, Greece. It is also the year when the contemporary art festival has one of its largest contingents from the Indian subcontinent: more than 16 from a total of 160 participants. Representing the Indian modernists are Nilima Sheikh and Ganesh Haloi, as well as the works of the late Amrita Sher-Gil, Chittaprosad Bhattacharya, Binod Behari Mukherjee and his student at Santiniketan, KG Subramanyan. The contemporaries include Amar Kanwar, Gauri Gill and Nikhil Chopra. While the first leg of the festival has already commenced in Athens, and is on till July 16, the curtains go up in Kassel on June 10.
Light and Dark
Amar Kanwar, 52
Artist Amar Kanwar’s film, Such a Morning (see right), is a cinematic parable about the interplay between light and darkness, one that reflects on current times. Exhibited at the historic Athens School of Fine Arts, the 85-minute film is the story of an old teacher, a famous mathematician, who withdraws from life at the peak of his career and moves into an abandoned train coach. “The film explores the multiplicities of darkness and light. The professor moves into a zone of darkness so as to get accustomed to darkness before it descends finally and completely. Once inside, a series of magical events begin to occur slowly, drawing him back into the real world,” says Kanwar, 52.
This is the artist’s fourth exhibit at Documenta; he first participated in 2002. The Delhi-based artist is known for his research-based art practice, which addresses contemporary concerns. The new work is influenced by storytelling and narrative traditions in the subcontinent, and social and philosophical responses to the question of violence. “The film searches for a sensory, hallucinatory and metaphysical way to re-comprehend the difficult times we are living in…It seeks to navigate multiple transitions between mathematics and poetry, democracy and fascism, fear and freedom,” says Kanwar.
Meanwhile, the main set of the film — a 40-foot iron train wagon — is stationed in a small patch of wilderness on the outskirts of Noida, till Kanwar finds a suitable location for it. “It is a memorial to the teacher who doesn’t conform,” he says.
Such a Long Journey
Nikhil Chopra, 43
When countries in the West are boarding up their borders against migrants, artist Nikhil Chopra has set out on a journey that connects two cities more than 2,000 km apart, Athens and Kassel. Curator Natasha Ginwala notes that his road trip, Drawing a Line Through Landscape, travelling to Germany, through eastern Europe, will be punctuated by performances, public drawings (see right) and collaborative events. The trip began with a performance, where the Goa-based artist sketched the walls of a former tavern in the industrial district of Moschato in Athens, with images of the open sea, in a three-day act. In each subsequent location, he will pitch his mobile room to draw on the walls of his tent, at times collaborating with other artists. The journey ends on June 9 in Kassel on a railway platform at the old Hauptbahnhof, where Chopra will present a series of large drawings to create a panoramic view.
Time Present and Time Past
Gauri Gill, 47
On a hot Delhi afternoon, Gauri Gill is busy preparing for her exhibition at Kassel which is due to open in a few weeks. She will exhibit photographs drawn from three ongoing series, in which the photographer has brought to the fore concerns of marginalised, rural communities from across India, and actively collaborated with indigenous artists.
Premiering at Kassel will be photographs from her most recent engagement with traditional adivasi mask-makers in Jawhar district in Maharashtra. Called Acts of Appearance, the collaboration had Gill commission the acclaimed brothers Subhas and Bhagavan Dharam Kadu, along with their families and friends, to create masks based on their own reality, and not gods and demons, as is the tradition. “The series is concerned with representation, and how much say we have in how others see us, or what we would wish that to be. I asked them: Instead of representing mythological figures, what if they were to speak of their own selves, and the reality they inhabit, and how would they wish to portray it?” says Gill, 47.
In Fields of Sight, also showing at Kassel, Gill has collaborated with Dahanu-based Warli artist Rajesh Vangad, to combine photography and drawing, and create “documents” of multiple truths, about his home and local life. In the series, The Mark on the Wall, Gill photographs the expressive works on classroom walls across western Rajasthan, in order to understand how pedagogy might express itself visually. The artists are the students, teachers and local artists in rural Rajasthan who participated in the Leher Kaksha scheme initiated by the state in the early 2000s, where children were encouraged to learn visually through art. Select photographs from this series also feature in a showcase at the Epigraphic Museum in Athens (above), acting as a thread between the two exhibitions by Gill at Documenta 14.
Through her work, Gill captures stories that would otherwise remain unknown, probing contemporary realities, issues of social mobility and the many challenges of living. In Athens, the selected images foreground various kinds of text or written inscriptions from the museum collection; they observe the span of human life and the significance within it of language and learning — as well as the time before, and at the end of language. “It’s an honour and a thrill to be able to show in collaboration with the Epigraphic Museum, where the sense of time is acute, as is human mark making. Photography itself is about time, and my own work often takes years to make and show,” says Gill.
In an Antique Land
Ganesh Haloi, 80
On a visit to Kolkata last summer, Adam Szymczyk, artistic director of Documenta 14, saw the work of abstractionist Ganesh Haloi — his minimalist gouache on paper (above), and bronze sculptures influenced by cubism but rooted in the Indian miniature tradition. It did not take long for him to extend an invitation to Documenta 14 to Haloi. “I try to paint a land that is my own. My land, with my rules. It has no resemblance to nature,” says the artist. Haloi’s art has evolved over the years, influenced by his numerous experiences — from moving from Bangladesh to Kolkata in 1950 at the age of 15, to the seven years he spent sketching copies of the murals at the Ajanta Caves, and his trips to Varanasi and Gour Pandua in north Bengal. His works, exhibited in Athens and Kassel, record these influences and his close association with nature, with distant landscapes, vast green fields and floating patterns in different tonalities.
Again I’ve Returned to this Country
Nilima Sheikh, 71
Nilima Sheikh first read Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali over a decade ago. She was familiar with the Valley through her frequent travels to the region as an adolescent, but poetry became a way for her to “enter the complexities” of Kashmir’s history. In 2003, she first painted the ravaged landscapes in “The Country without a Post Office: Reading Agha Shahid Ali”. She has pursued her engagement through the series “Each Night Put Kashmir in Your Dreams” (see left), exhibited in Mumbai, Delhi and then at Chicago. Presently being shown at Documenta 14, the works navigate multiple references, ranging from the arresting beauty of the land and its craft, the difficult socio-political complexities of Kashmir, to the historical verses, folktales and contemporary writings. “In a way, I am looking at other art histories to construct my work,” says the Baroda-based artist. “Every work of art has its own politics within its language. I am not closing any definitive statement but leaving it open for interpretation,” she says.
On view at the Benaki Museum in Athens, the set of works depicts the complex culture of the Valley, juxtaposing violence with its more illustrious past. The sheer dimensions of her massive scrolls lend a performative element to the paintings. Valley is a picturesque portrait of Kashmir inspired by a embroidered map shawl, and in Construction Site, she has anonymous labourers rebuilding sites devastated during violent incidents. In a new work painted for the Documenta, Terrain: Carrying Across, Leaving Behind, Sheikh, 71, presents a 16-panel tempera painting installed as an octagonal space, telling tales of movements across continents and social norms. The painted portrayals interact with the accompanying text, where the artist borrows verses from several poets across centuries, from American poet Emily Dickinson to the 14th century female mystic Lal Ded of Kashmir.
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