Anything that moves

Great European art tour part 2: From Kassel to Basel, a handful of Indian works spice up bland shows

Though the country was conspicuously absent in the Venice Biennale, it was the highlight of documenta and Art Basel.

From Athens, the first stop in our contemporary art tour of three of the world’s biggest festivals in Europe (you can read the first of my two-part series here) we moved to Venice, the host city of the oldest and best-known international visual arts exhibition in the world: the Venice Biennale. The core of the biennale is a curated show spanning two venues near the island’s eastern tip, the Giardini, or gardens, and the Arsenale, once a massive shipyard.

Equally important are dozens of national pavilions, some displayed in permanent structures within the Giardini, others contained in the Arsenale or rented spaces in different locations in the city. India has usually ignored the Venice Biennale, causing much heartburn within the art community. To make the lack of an Indian pavilion more deeply felt, the curator of the core exhibition, Christine Macel, entirely ignored artists residing in India.

Macel called her exhibition Viva Arte Viva, which can be translated as Art Zindabad. This strikes me as extraordinarily silly. Aren’t all such exhibitions a celebration of art, after all? That a well-funded blockbuster show sought to emphasise the value of art in this fashion is telling.

I wrote in a previous column about how French artist Marcel Duchamp favoured ideas over painterly skill and surface attractiveness, creating a concept-driven art that grew tremendously influential over time. In an obituary of the art critic John Berger after his death in January, I argued that his foregrounding of politics was salutary 50 years ago, but has been carried too far in our day. By proclaiming,“Art Zindabad”, Macel was bringing the focus back to art-making and artists.

Unfortunately, her mode of bringing art back was to divide her show into nine “pavilions” with titles almost as dumb-sounding as Viva Arte Viva: Pavilion of Joys and Fears, Pavilion of the Earth, Pavilion of Time and Infinity, Pavilion of Traditions, Pavilion of the Shamans and so on. There was, as you can surmise from these pavilions, plenty of mumbo-jumbo going round. This placed the show squarely within the mainstream of today’s curatorial direction rather than in opposition to it, as Macel would have us believe.

Mumbo-jumbo and art

Mumbo-jumbo has mushroomed in the art world for a while. I first noticed its incursion when Vandana Shiva was included among the “artists” of the 2007 documenta art exhibition in Kassel, Germany. Those who don’t know what I think of Shiva’s work can read this piece. A few years later, in Rotterdam, I viewed a show that included a yagna, a mandala made of flowers, and a performance involving healing crystals. I asked the superstar curator whether she was drawn to spiritual subjects. She responded, “Spirituality is a dated term, I prefer using the phrase ‘traditional knowledge systems’.”

Every major global art show these days seems to be in love with traditional knowledge systems/spirituality/new-age mumbo jumbo. I’ve realised that most curators are completely uninvested in these things, but pander to them because stuff like shamanism can be theorised as an alternative to the status quo, the capitalist order, however you want to phrase it.

I liked a couple of sections of Viva Arte Viva, particularly The Pavilion of Artists and Books, but it wouldn’t affected my overall Venice experience much if I hadn’t. The great thing about the Venice Biennale is that even if the main show is a dud (which has generally been the case in years I’ve visited), there are usually a few excellent national pavilions to lift your mood. If national pavilions let you down, you can go see a few Titians. And (snob alert) if for some inexplicable reason you do not love Titian, Venice is always jaw-droppingly gorgeous, though also always unbearably crowded.

Kassel let-down

But documenta, held once in five years, has none of these advantages. Kassel, where the exhibition is usually held – though this year there was also a segment in Athens – is a prosperous town (like most in Germany) but irredeemably boring. If the show is not good, your entire trip is doomed. Unfortunately, the Kassel half of the ongoing 14th edition of documenta was a bit of a dud.

Three years ago, I ferried Adam Szymczyk, the Polish curator of documenta 14 around Mumbai to look at the city’s art spaces and meet artists and gallerists. I could tell we had very different perspectives on art, and very different tastes, but could see also that he had a brilliant mind – and that’s not a term I use loosely. I expected something sparkling from him, and the Athens leg of documenta 2017 (detailed in the first part of the series) felt like it was building up to something really interesting. Instead, the whole enterprise collapsed on getting to Deutschland.

There were two main causes behind the Kassel meltdown. First, Szymczyk’s decision to repeat the same set of artists backfired. To view the same people doing more or less the same thing made the exhibition feel like a long haul flight in which the same air circulates a few times too often. His other conceit,of getting artists to forge connections between Greece and Germany, produced narrow and rather predictable political perspectives and histories.

I was also perplexed by his inclusion of past work, which leaned heavily on the late 1960s and early 1970s. I suppose that period marked a Utopian moment, but Utopian thinkers then passionately believed in their Utopias, and their curatorial use now becomes a political stance devoid of deep commitment, akin to the use of traditionalist mumbo-jumbo.

Indian highlights

The Indian presence was fairly strong in Athens and Kassel, thanks, presumably, to one of the exhibition’s advisors, Natasha Ginwalla, who is the first Indian to have made it to the top echelon of international curators. Delhi artist Amar Kanwar was accorded the singular honour of being invited to documenta for the fourth consecutive exhibition.

My favourite Indian piece in Kassel was the performance artist Nikhil Chopra’s Drawing a Line Through Landscape. Chopra is known for performances that last hours or even days. For documenta, he stretched that timeline further, travelling from Athens to Kassel by road, sleeping in a tent and painting onto its canvas sides representations of the landscapes he traversed. That tent, along with a video capturing moments from his East European sojourn, and the paintings he made, now stitched together in one long panorama,were presented in an abandoned underground station in Kassel, where he ended his 28-day performance.

Not only is Chopra an unflagging performer of rare stamina and concentration, he is also an excellent draughtsman, capable of producing vigorous drawings and carefully-wrought likenesses in difficult circumstances. What do I mean by difficult? Try painting on the cloth of a tent on a windy day, or even on a still day. His performances require heaps of skill, and their meaning grows out of it. I’m heartily sick of discovering the point of a work solely through reading about the its historical context in the wall text, or through a sappy biographical back-story, and there was far too much of that in documenta 14.

Nikhil Chopra's performance art. Credit: Chatterjee&Lal/via Instagram
Nikhil Chopra's performance art. Credit: Chatterjee&Lal/via Instagram

Cooking up a storm

Between the two relatively non-commercial shows, we attended one super-commercial event: Art Basel. If you want to witness the art market in action, this annual event is the place to be, specially on the first day immediately after the champagne breakfast in the circular central courtyard has ended. We came in at lunch time, and heard that some flights scheduled to land earlier had been delayed by an air traffic jam caused by private jets. As soon as I stepped into the first booths, I sensed this was going to be a vintage year for sales.

Even late in the afternoon, gallery managers and assistants were in constant conversation. The conversion rate of conversations to sales is very high during Art Basel’s VIP days. There was plenty of great art around as well, though a fair is a pretty bad place to view art, what with the cramped booths jostling for space and flat lighting.

Only three Indian galleries made the Basel cut this year, Chemould, SKE and Experimenter, and it felt like fewer than three Indian collectors had made the journey to Switzerland. The rest of the art world did not seem to notice.

Art Basel has a section called Unlimited, created for large-scale works that would not fit into conventional booths. This year’s edition featured two Indian artists. Dayanita Singh showed Museum of Shedding, a selection of her photographs of architecture in an architectural space she had created. The second was Subodh Gupta, who had also created an architectural space, a home of sorts, with second-hand utensils, part of a project he called Cooking the World.

Credit: Girish Shahane
Credit: Girish Shahane

Gupta has used pots and pans in his sculpture for nearly two decades and has consistently probed beliefs, rituals, and taboos related to food. He took his preoccupation a step further in Basel by creating a performance around serving and eating food. In a table setting that resembled an intimate sushi bar, he offered a seven course menu of Bihari and Indian favourites in four daily seatings which had to be pre-booked through a website.

We booked a bit late and got the worst time of day: 4.45 pm – far too late for lunch and way too early for dinner. We had also made the mistake of eating a full meal earlier that afternoon. I was feeling a bit embarrassed as I took my seat, knowing I would only pick at the food Gupta offered us.

The very first course, a slice of besan cheela with a smear of chutney, looking nouvelle but served in a disposable plate made from leaves, proved me wrong. It was flat-out delicious. I could’ve scarfed five of those. Then came bhel puri, khichadi, a thali, and dessert, washed down with nimbu paani or masala chai. By 5.30 pm, I’d happily consumed my second full meal in four hours.

In the context of an exclusive event in Switzerland, Gupta’s sculpture and performance brought up ideas of the way food both unites and divides, how the same dish can comfort one individual while estranging another. In a time when migration is among the most potent political issues, Cooking the World interrogated cultural identity and difference through the acts of cooking and eating. But those second-level considerations could be effectively addressed only through the artist’s evident passion for food and skill in the kitchen. If the meal hadn’t been exquisite, any political discourse around it would have been dry and flavourless.

The first part of this series can be read here.


Documenta 14 runs from 8 April to 16 July 2017 in Athens, Greece; and from 10 June to 17 September 2017 in Kassel, Germany. The Venice Biennale opened to the public on 13 May and will be on view till Sunday 26 November 2017.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

Play

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.