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The Road Less Travelled

India and China may be closely monitoring each other’s fiscal progress but in the visual arts,there is little that they know of the other.

Written by Archana Jahagirdar | New Delhi |
July 29, 2012 1:03:00 am

India and China may be closely monitoring each other’s fiscal progress but in the visual arts,there is little that they know of the other. With the exception of Ai Weiwei,most Indians would be unable to name a Chinese artist. On the other side,it isn’t any better. Indian art is seldom seen in China (Jitish Kallat showed in 2007) and there is little knowledge about most of India’s top artists.

Against this backdrop of ignorance,the Indian Highway is an exhibition that introduces China to contemporary Indian art. Inaugurated last month at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing’s art district 798,it is one of the most comprehensive art shows ever mounted in China.

Indian Highway first opened in December 2008 at the Serpentine Gallery,London,curated by its co-directors Julia Peyton-Jones and Hans Ulrich Obrist along with Gunnar B Kvaran,director,Astrup Fearnley Museum. For the Beijing show (the first stop outside Europe),Philip Tinari,director,UCCA has added works from the Ullens collection of Indian art. Sunitha Kumar Emmart,director,Gallery SKE,who was present at the opening and had six of her artists represented in the show,says,“This show is the opening of a tiny little window.”

The world’s leading art collectors,Guy and Myriam Ullens de Schooten of Belgium started the UCCA. The centre holds the world’s most enviable collection of Chinese art,and is a space to introduce China to international art.

The exhibition features nearly 30 individuals and collectives in a wide range of media,from sculpture,video,and installation,to painting and performance. The curators have chosen works that draw references from human migration,infrastructure,and technology (that includes the “information highway”) which have been markers of India’s economic boom. The metaphor of the highway was chosen to reflect the importance of roads in migration and as a link between rural and urban communities. Talking about the flow of the exhibits,Jitish Kallat says,“Indian Highway shifts shape and reconfigures itself according to the venue,incorporating newer bodies of work as it shifts geographical locations. The show is like a locomotive where people enter and exit,like in a real journey.”

The UCCA’s gallery was a former weaponry complex and has 26,000 square feet of exhibition space. At the entrance stands Jitish Kallat’s work titled Aquasaurus,which is made of resin,paint and steel and looks like bones,making a strong statement on human mobility. Subodh Gupta’s work,Take Off Your Shoes and Wash Your Hands shows his famed stainless steel utensils on shelves. Sheela Gowda’s Darkroom uses tar drums,often seen when roads are made. Ravi Agarwal’s photographs,which depict the cost of progress,are haunting. Other participating artists include Nalini Malani,Ayisha Abraham,Hetain Patel,Shilpa Gupta,Dayanita Singh,Bharti Kher,Thukral and Tagra,Sarnath Banerjee,Studio Mumbai Architects,and Raqs Media Collective. The show is on till August 26,2012.

The question,though,is who is the viewer? The Chinese art fraternity? Or the crowds that throng 798 as if it were a trendy nightclub and not an arts district? Sudarshan Shetty,who has three of his works displayed,says,“Who is your audience is a more philosophical question. When a film is released,for instance,you know how it has been received either by its box-office collections or the way the critics react. In art,how do you access the audience?”

Shetty is sure that this travelling show will give Indian art much needed visibility in China. Shetty hopes that the UCCA model is emulated in India,too. He says,“We need spaces like 798 in India. Mumbai has big spaces that are lying vacant. If we had state support and these were made available to artists,it would help the community grow.”

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