The Craft of Smell

Monday, April 16, 2018

In true sense, the work of art at the Sassoon Dock was the containment of people in an overbearing envrionment of smell. It is the smell that defines the dock - which kept intensifying and reducing as one moved across the different chambers opened up for art installations at Mumbai's historic dock. One notices the largeness of these left over spaces that have remained locked for a long time. Opening these to the public makes one appreciate the architecture of a dock. 

The smell becomes a part of you in a while, after which you are reminded of it through different installations within the exhibition - the toilets, the sea, the perfume and so on. At the risk of becoming too obvious, the assertion of smell as an art form was refreshing. It takes one out of the sanitized environment of the white cubes and brings you to reconsider the city wherein you are constantly negotiating olfactory environments. 

Typography and Graffiti was an important part of art, primarily because it was curated by ST+ART Mumbai. Different parts of the city were taken over by street artists from all over. The exhibition saw a new politics in art making. Most importantly, it opened up the docks, which, while leaving, are the strongest memory that remind you of the city as a key trading harbour. The jetty, the warehouse, the left over luggage and sea leave you in a wave of history that is so close, but yet seems so far. It was totally worth visiting the place taken over by art!

Pashupatinath / Kathmandu

Sunday, April 15, 2018

One of the most powerful experiences that I had in the city of Kathmandu was visiting the Pashupatinath - a living temple of the Hindu deity of Shiva. 

Gyan Panchal / Against the Threshold

Saturday, April 14, 2018

published in Art India, April 2018. Volume 22 Issue 1

Object Lessons

Gyan Panchal’s spare works explore the scope of sculpting – its nature, culture and limits. Anuj Daga is intrigued by the show.

Through which art-related category should one begin to understand Gyan Panchal’s works, presented at Jhaveri Contemporary, Mumbai, between the 31st of January and the 3rd of March? One enters the gallery to not find any announcement or note. Objects lie discreetly in a state of disorder. Sticking, jutting, leaning, clinging, hanging from different surfaces of the gallery interior, they create an estranged setting. Panchal arrests these objects within carefully chosen moments in their respective ongoing lifetimes. They don’t appear to be too crafted, neither are they absolutely untouched by the artist. Are these found objects? Are these staged? Are these created? Are these borrowed? While they may be all of the above, the effortless art pieces at once make one reconsider the agency of the artist in the creation of these works. How does the artist orchestrate these objects as art, or even as things worthy of contemplation?

Each work indexes an action which is echoed in the titles. Works like beating or leaving transport the viewer’s gaze beyond their physicality into the space of ideas and acts that they embody. Alternatively, human actions acquire a shape in these objects. This is quite evident in the screen-printed wrapping plastic or the aluminum thali pressed along its rim. The flattened vests, the folds of which are resin-pressed and sandwiched between mosquito nets or the crafted theatre mask pressed against the raw slice of a walnut tree bark, make us attentive to the journey of the very materials that make up the works. The stained boiler suit hung upside-down over the sanded bucket peels on the floor begins to reveal untold and overlooked narratives about labour.

One of the consistent inquiries evident in the works of Panchal is about the nature of sculpture itself. In this regard, Heidegger’s meditation on what constitutes sculpture may be quite useful. In the essay Art and Space, the German philosopher proposes that the sculpted body, in fact, brings forth the type of space that it configures around itself. In other words, it delineates ‘emptiness’, in turn, defining spatiality itself. In blurring the space within which, as Heidegger points out, “the sculptured structure can be met as an object present-at-hand”, Panchal generates the possibility of it being re-imagined. This blurring can be physically observed in the (dis)play of artworks as painterly objects; and conceptually, in the creation of a space of ideas that surround these and alter the gaze through which the objectivity of the object is transcended. Panchal frees the sculptural object from purely aesthetic frames to address the discipline of sculpture. In the process, he opens up in-between spaces where several ideas of body, practice, art, society and knowledge can be tested. In assuming the position of the viewer across this transitory space, the show may rightfully be understood, in the spirit of its title, as being against the threshold.

Hetain Patel / at Chatterjee & Lal

published in Art India, April 2018, Volume 22 Issue 1

Dance of Life

Hetain Patel’s video installations provoke Anuj Daga to think about performative worlds and their complex anxieties.

One notices the laborious pace of Hetain Patel’s quasi-photographic video work The Jump exhibited at Mumbai’s Chatterjee & Lal from February the 1st to March the 10th. Dressed as Spiderman, Patel stages a scene from the Hollywood film – he leaps like the superhero in his grandmother’s house as family members watch by in amazement. In the video of the jump stretched to about six minutes, projected in two settings back to back – one in the living room and the other against a neutral background – the act sets a strange dialogue between the wondrous and the absurd. As the viewer shuttles between two staged and carefully overlapping slow-motion videos installed back to back, the referentiality of the supernatural and the domestic begin to interchange. It is in the constructed lapse of time that one comes to terms with the spectacle of mundaneness as well as the ludicrousness of the spectacle.

Patel is a UK-based artist of Indian origin and his works explore these two worlds in close contact with each other. These works were recently also shown at Manchester Art Gallery. In a well-crafted performance that takes place between two individuals before their marriage alliance, Patel proposes a setting in which personal relationships get forged and the dance of life gets underway. Presented in order to question the boundaries of rituals, race, class, physical access and language, Don’t Look at the Finger opens up ways where bodies communicate and connect beyond words.

If only the story had not resolved itself neatly towards the end, it would have left the viewer moved and intrigued by its cinematic setting, pace and choreography. Patel makes the film accessible but also inaccessible – moves and gestures do not always add up predictably. Patel’s strategic experiment with narrative refers to Hollywood and some of its tropes but also destabilizes our expectations from time to time.

A Pritzker for India

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Many think it's too late. Many also feel that the committee almost missed the opportunity of felicitating Charles Correa. And given the fact that both these architects - Charles Correa and B V Doshi have served the Pritzker committee for much time, it's hardly possible that they are unaware of their works, or their contribution. Much of the West, especially America remains obvilious of the architects from the South Asian subcontinent. When I was studying at Yale, many of my colleagues or professors had never heard of Charles Correa (who has his buildings in MIT campus in Boston, as well as in the city of New York). I wouldn't expect them to even know of B V Doshi either. India has, after all, never remained an interesting place to study contemporary architecture for the West. Rather, unfortunately, it still remains the land of the exotica - of "maharajas, elephants and snake-charmers" - as they popularly say. The West has always valued India merely for its rich past. My essay has this binary in the head, because it is indeed the way in which the West has categorically overlooked South Asia in both -  historical or modern architectural scholarship.

I have plenty of anecdotes to prove the above slippage. I rather not get into it. Meanwhile, we all in India (must) agree that the Pritzker came to Doshi rather late. He's almost 90 years old, has not been actively building over the last decade, and has contributed significantly to the architectural discourse of India over the last 50 years. How do we reconcile this delay then? Doshi, as much as Correa, has always been a revered architect in India, and it would be incorrect to consider the Pritzker as a validation of his contribution. Infact, architects from the eastern "developing" countries have become Pritzker winners only in the recent past. Wang Shu was the first architect from China in the East to win a Pritzker in 2012, and now Doshi. For long, it has been the Aga Khan award that has held high regard in this region, one whose winners have maintained a low key, sustainable, egalitarian and humane architecture rather than the flamboyant, formalistic and high tech approach to buildings. It has been observed rightly, somewhere, that we see a trend in the Pritzker awards towards valuing a more humane Architecture in recent past. But is this "human" turn a mere tactic in foraying a more subtextual geopolitical move?

Let us consider; if we may; the possibility of Doshi designing buildings outside India after his Pritzker status. Will the coming home of Pritzker bring Indian architects any desirability or attention in contributing to the world Architecture scene? At the most, like my colleague Prasad (Shetty) said over a conversation, an Indian Architect would be invited merely to build an Indian or Indian-looking building (embassies, Indian international centres, etc.) outside India. Never shall Indian architects have as much value as our longing for other Pritzker winners like Maki or Zaha (or even starchitects like Holl) would, to come and design for us. Largely, we have still remained underconfident and direction-seeking followers of the West. Our craving for validation from the West is undeniable. Yet, I don't disregard their superiority, for they have invested infrastructures and systems towards architectural scholarship and research. But how can we claim these for ourselves? In much regard, Doshi's constant recollection of Corbusier and the rhetoric of the "Indian" in his post-Pritzker acknowledgements almost works against claiming confidence in our contemporary modes of thought. We have forever been stuck in the identity question, to an extent that we seem to imagine ourselves incapable of articulating a world outside our own. 

But supposedly, these are "Indian" values - precisely those that make us exotic and traditional. We can continue to celebrate these as the Pritzker finds place within India. The ideas of "modern", "Contemporary", "traditional" and so on require new articulation in our part of the world, specifically if we must come to value the architecture we produce. Such a revised framework for above terms is essential because we have not invested in institutions like museums or archives through which we can really assert a progression in thought. It is true that much of what we produce today is borrowed from floating imagery. But could we perhaps initiate a dialogue on the productive process (and even the creative effort) of constant hybridization that we constantly demonstrate in our built environment? Where else would you find so much experimentation? My claim may sound a bit shallow, but we do hope that in his acceptance speech, Mr. Doshi will lead us into a world where we come to sharply interrogate the existing notions of the above instrumental terms such as the "contemporary" or the "traditional" - amply explicated in his own work. It is thus, we may begin to claim some world architectural ground for ourselves.


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