Art critic, cultural theorist and poet Ranjit Hoskote is set to helm a four-part series on the transition of contemporary art in India, with the first talk focussed on the biennale phenomenon. In an interview he opens up on finding elusive artistic strategies, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale and young poets in India. Excerpts:
How did the idea for “Beyond Contempo- rary Art” come about? What are your thoughts on contemporary art in India?
I have collaborated with Asad Laljee of AVID Learning before and we were thinking of a format that would shuttle between the lecture, the symposium and the assembly. As for the subject, for years now, I’ve been a contributor to an ongoing project called ‘The Former West’, where one of our concerns is to question the so-called ‘contemporary art’, which has increasingly proved to be trapped within the populist museum, the block-buster show, even the sort of biennale that simply repeats a generic list of celebrity artists rather than acting as a search engine for what is most energetic in the world’s artistic milieux. None of these phenomena are going to disappear any time soon, but how do we negotiate with them, how do we look for elusive artistic strategies that, however briefly, bypass or defy them, would be the question worth asking in India or elsewhere.
Why did you choose the biennale and its place in contemporary art as a subject?
The biennale, today, is the primary matrix for global contemporary art. Despite seeming temporary, episodic and tactical in nature, it competes strongly with the museum as a centre for exhibiting contemporary art, and how it may be studied and engaged with. It offers artists a special experience of the studio-on-the-move and nurtures a variety of productive relationships among artists, curators, writers and viewers. I’ve been a participant in what I think of as ‘the biennale condition’ for many years, having associated with the Busan Biennale preparatory conference in 2001, the seventh Gwangju Biennale in 2008 and even India’s first national pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2011. The biennale condition defines my approach to contemporary art and to what lies beyond its institutional parameters.
What is your opinion on the Kochi-Muziris Biennale?
It is a courageous effort to develop a hub for artistic production and a participatory viewership in the global South. It reaches out to a vibrant regional culture and to the diverse scenes of global art. Kochi-Muziris should also be seen in the heroic lineage of biennale-making activity that was inaugurated by Mulk Raj Anand with Triennale-India in 1968, a milestone achievement, which should not be forgotten in the current enthusiasm for new developments.
You say that it’s become fashionable in the art world to decry the biennale as a spectacle. How do you view its place in developing countries like India?
In countries like India, the biennale has the potential to serve as a vital interface where new audiences can engage with a variety of forms of artistic production and critical frameworks. To view a new work of art is also to address the shift it brings about in our understanding. It is very special to experience this in a biennale, especially as the 56th Venice Biennale does — across exhibitions, as well as symposia, readings, publications and performances.
You started out as a poet when you were fairly young. What do you think of young poets in India today and their place in the cultural landscape?
My first book of poems, Zones of Assault, was published when I was 22. The early ’90s was a tough time for poets. But we’re survivors. Poetry in India, today, across languages, is in a very good place indeed. Young poets now have access to far more poetry, and literature in general, and use this sensibly to assess the direction of their work. Many are working across media, between text and image, print and digital platform. Poetry may not be central to the cultural landscape, but it is not marginal either.
What are you working on next?
I’m curating an exhibition, “Unpacking the Studio: Celebrating the Jehangir Sabavala Bequest”, at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya in Mumbai. It’s centered on the generous gift of Sabavala’s last works and his archive, made to the Museum by his wife Shirin Sabavala. I contextualise Sabavala’s distinguished career, aligning it with the eclipsed history of art-making in the Bombay of the ’30s and ’40s, when Sabavala was growing up. The nearly 100-object show opens on September 15. I am also collaborating with my friends Rahul Mehrotra and Kaiwan Mehta on ‘The State of Architecture’, which will open at the NGMA (National Gallery of Modern Art) in January 2016. The exhibition offers a critical survey of post-Independence Indian architecture, and the adventures and anxieties of young architectural practices wrestling with the complex moment of the early 21st century.
“Deconstructing the Biennial with Art, Politics and World Futures” will be held today at The Indian Express Gallery, Express Towers, Nariman Point, at 6 pm. The following sessions, to be held between October and December, will explore the role of museums and galleries, interdisciplinary practices and art audiences.