Anjolie Ela Menon
I would just like to qualify the title of this talk with he addition of the words 'at this moment', making this, 'Is installation art irrelevant in India at this moment', I take the term installation in its broadcast sense to embrace Conceptual Art, Light and Space Art, Environmental Art and Video Art and Performance Art.I cannot trace the whole history of the idiom which I suppose should go back to Duchamp .But I shall touch upon Joseph Beuys who brought together incongruous combinations of objects and apparently incompatible materials to create art whose impact was emblematic rather than aesthestic. Close on the heels of Beuys and Kounellis the appearance of Arte Povera in the seventies in Italy had a liberating effect on artists in several respects. It made it clear that it was now possible to use any kind of material in any way the artist liked. To create something which could be convincinly described as art. Art Povera's importance lay in the artists engagement with actual materials. For the chief characteristic of this type of art was its mutability, its impermanence and ephemeral nature which made it uncollectable and anticommercial. Substances like tar. Copper, fat ,felt, oil, fruit and mud were used. Culminating 25 years later in the rotting carcasses of Damien Hirsts's extravganzas of canned horror in last year's London exibition entitled Sensations. The early installations of the seventies were often didactic political and sociological in nature with very pronounced elements ofrebellion and protest using the contemporary idiom in a deliberately ironic and self conscious manner. They laid bare contemporary issues in a startling fashion as with Judy Chicago's great installations, the Dinner Party and the Menstrual Bathroom which were visual manifestations of the feminist movement in its heyday. Several South American artists also used installation art as a form of protest.Then Karen Finlays installation in NewYork in the 90s was born of her need to actualize her grief for the victims of Aids.In the contrast the work of French contemporary artists such as Bolatanski.Sarkis and Courier many of whom were seen in the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi a couple of years ago were almost deliberately devoid of message or apparent meaning,reinforcing the growing supremacy of the artist is often the raison d'etre for the installation.Installation art expressed a weariness with material plentitude and the commodification of art.It flourished as a reaction to the commercial exploitation of artists by galleries and dealers. Artists such as Christo found they could make art that could not be bought or sold,expressing an approach to art which was not accessible to private collectors or amenable to domestic display. Of course the dealers found a way out of that particular cul de sac.That however is another story.
There is show on at this moment at the Joslyn Museum in Omaha of the installation of Sandy Skoglund.Each of her impressive tableaux fills a whole hall and must have cost close on a million dollars to create.They are in the form of sculptural tableaux assembled from both made and found
Objects. It is by the device of strange juxtapositions in familiar settings and bizarre use of materials such as chocolates, coat hangers or a million cheese straws, raisins or Mcdonalds potato chips which in the end is a savage commentary about life in America at the end of the millennium. In the installation "Walking on Egg Shells" thousands of real eggs form a fragile carpet on which nude mannequins strut, interspersed with toilets, washbasins, bathtubs and deadly serpents. The bathroom as setting was chosen because it is a domestic interior associated with ritual activity which is at the same time both banal and erotic. Psychedelic colours and eerie lighting lend terror to a work called "Revenge of the Gold Fish".
Skoglund herself writes "I consider myself very fortunate that photography exists, because otherwise I'd be stuck in the tragedy of ephemerealness that can come with installation art". Skoglund thus carries the installation one step further by placing it in non-museum spaces such as a lakeside or restaurant and then adding human beings or animals to the picture before photographing it. It is then the photo which is the final art object, a surreal amalgam of sculpture, performance art, lighting and found objects. So we are back to square one because the photo or collection of photos then constitute the final body of work, to be acquired or preserved long after the installation has been destroyed.
There are many questions that arose in my mind on seeking Skoglund's work. The first is that to assemble such a monumental exhibition not only a lot of money but the patronage of a well-funded museum was necessary in order to make it possible. In India as of now we simply do not have that kind of money, either personally or institutionally. The whole annual budget of the National Gallery in Delhi could not support such a venture.
Secondly, the most important facet of her work that it is totally rooted in its time and place made for an audience with shared belief systems, with easy access to its references. I have yet to see an installation in India that achieves that rootedness and fidelity to its own sources.
Indian contemporary Art has often been criticised by the western establishment for a number of reasons. The chief criticism at times has been unfair that it is thoroughly derivative and that from the immense cultural and visual sources both ancient and contemporary that we have access to in our amazingly rich country, with perhaps the exception of Tantra Art we seemed to have generally failed to create a specific genre that could challenge the world with a new idea. The art scene in the west has repeatedly admittedly to a state of fatigue. Much has been written by critics , such as Danto and Greenburg about the end of art and the desperate attempts at revival seeking inspiration both philosophical and stylistic or re-engagement with tradition in the search for new directions.
However the one thing that becomes clear in a study of conceptual art from Duchamp to Hirst is that what ever form it assumes art has to be situated in a deep cultural moment and have its roots in the geography and specificity of its times as an expression of ,or reaction to that moment. In this respect 1 am deeply sceptical about the rash of installations so tar witnessed on the Indian art scene. A shocking number of them by hitherto respected artists seem to have been simply plagiarized from previous installations already seen by the cognicenti at various biennales and Documentas over the past two decades. If I was to be more specific I would be naming names which I would like to avoid in this forum. Many Indian artists have failed to even make the distinction between an installation and an assemblage or tableau and have taken up the idea in such a superficial manner as to have entirely missed the philosophical point or historical underpinnings of the movement or the
origins of this particular form of art. Installation art has its genesis in extremely affluent societies and is essentially an art of waste whereas life in India as seen against in inescapable background of poverty is surely about retrieval and resourcefulness. In the Indian context art itself is an indulgence we can barely afford. But to create an art that is doomed to self-destruct in a months time is surely not only amoral but against the very nature of what we are. Our innate strength lies in our genius to create art from extremely creative use of materials and our reluctance to waste anything. One has only to observe the extreme economy of workman on a building site to realize that in India we are making 21st century monuments with only the most medieval tools.
Methods and materials. No machinery, no electrical drills not even a roll of masking tape or a pair of cheap goggles to protect the eyes of the stone cutting man. The most beautiful example of thrift is the making of the Kantha which was originally a kind of thin quilt made from layers and layers of old torn saris where even the threads for the embroidery were extracted painstakingly from the borders of discarded sarees. Because of the wonderful patterns created by the stitching this eventually became a greatly coveted art form sporting not only decorative but narrative and religious themes. The best kanthas found their way into the world's museums. With this argument in mind I would like to mention Neckchand in particular as being our most important and valid installation artist and it is ironical that his work has been more recognised abroad than it has in India.
Nekchand is a modest man who worked as a government functionary. The created a whole sculpture garden out of waste building materials in Chandigarh. Essentially naif in nature Nekchand's imagery is both quaint and earthy and by pure chance is utterly contem -porary in terms of global art. Nekchand created this enormous installation in a state of complete innocence and totally ignorant of all tile jargon accompanying the movement. Katharine Kuh once curating a show of contemporay art in New York claimed that Nekchand was the only truly contemporary Indian Artist.
A few years ago I had an exhibition of Objets Trouves Recognised, Retrieved and Resurrected. These were a variety of objects and furniture which had mostly been discarded and which I repaired, modified and painted. I quote from the catalogue this art is the antithesis of the current trends in the West. If installation art is the ultimate expression of a wasteful society this is the very opposite - an art born of thrift conserving every last scrap. It is anti-esoteric, taking art down from its high pedestal and making instead an art that you can sit uponů
Huge gaudy, Cinema hoardings, the lively and ever present paintings on trucks, buses and rickshaws, the proliferation of present day religious imagery and the great variety of art that supports political propaganda all add up to an extremely vivid popular art. And yet Indian contemporary art has clearly failed to respond to this prevailing and all prevading visual matrix of our times instead claiming for itself a dubious high ground where The current urban art of the masses is dismissed as low art 110 matter that it's sheer volume
And influence is overwhelming and ubiquitous. Even our political upheavals and burning social issues rarely find a place in this wave of installation art and that in the final analysis seems merely self indulgent.
As with many imported arts ideas, which have been, adopted by Indian artists the understanding of the genesis of the genre, which is imitated and appropriated, is often very superficial. Which would young Indian artists begin to make installations today I can think of several reasons? The first and worst is that the artist is 1acking the skills to be a successful painter or a sculptor and that installation art is an easy way out. The second is the often mistaken notion that installation art is an avant garde which in the global context it has ceased to be as it is now nearly 30 years old. Alas as with most things we are generally running approximately 10-20 years late. The third is the again mistaken notion that by imitating what is happening in the west we are going to be
recognized global1y. Whereas we will only attract derision once again for aping what is already old hat. The fourth and most va1id reason could be a genuine attempt at didacticism or an engagement with social or political causes of which the installation is a manifestation or mouthpiece. In that case this brings the burning question of whom are we addressing? In the Indian context contemporary art has become more and more isolated and divorced from the concerns of ordinary' people. It scents obvious to me that television or film and not the gallery would be a more effective vehicle for message, whether it is of dissent or the dissemination of new thought processes because of the sheer multitude of their reach. Whereas I am fairly certain that installation art can at best be understood only by an extremely small coterie of the intellectual elite and for the rest, including many members of the art community it is simply a question of the emperor's new clothes.
Mercifully the Macdonaldization of India is its infancy. We are still very far from the cookie cutter cultures where every city looks alike; everyone dresses alike, where music food and entertainment are reduced to the lowest common denominator for rapid consumption by the greatest number. India is still full of variety and contrast and individuality India is still full of surprises.
In affluent societies where the sheer uniformity and boredom of the consumer culture and the sanitation of daily life led to a yearning for participation in something that was strange mysterious and unique. Installation art lay in the implicit invitation to the viewer to participate - to enter into, be absorbed, and surrounded. This was a change from the situation where you gazed at an object on the wall as an outsider. In India we don't need that, at least, yet, because our installations are alive and kicking. They are not museums or gallery specific. They remain participatory in nature, and the artist's role that of facilitator rather than oracle.
They are not meant for the esoteric members of the art club. They are totally unconscious of themselves. They exist in every pocket of our great country. Full of joy forever and colour they are at the same time absurd and Profound, tawdry and beautiful. Some are site specific others are time specific. We don't need Damien Hirst for our therapeutic dose of reality. Here life is still being lived in all its fullness. The joy and horror are all around us, the daily catharsis of birth and death, still witnessed, experienced and felt. They don't need to be created in an artist's laboratory. Giant cut out of politicians and god's parade the streets expressing our adulation or disregard. Huge effigies of anti-heroes burn with gay abandon. A puja pandal, which is, a temporary structure meant to accommodate idols during prolonged festivities such as Dussehra was meant to be a sort of elaborate marquee. Now the pandal itself has become an extraordinary art forum, fashioned out of cloth and bamboo. I have even seen one that bore an incongruous but startling resemblance to St. Paul's Cathedral. Our corpses burn in our presence. Muharam processions enact a drama of performance art, each one different from the other. Each year thousands of Ganesh and Durga statues are made in clay adorned, worshipped and ceremonially immersed, while a billion dung cakes make a million daily installations of great beauty in the open air. Who needs Richard Long? Every beedy shop is an installation, every fruit seller, an artist at heart and hoarding painters conjure up enormous gandy fantasies gleaned from popular cinema.
However, in order to be recognized and legitimized as high art, the exoticism of our indigenous installations have to be domesticated and made unthreatening, packaged in the same manner as objects trouves, moved from their natural habitat to the more sacrosanct confines of museum spaces, where, now excluded from riotous participation the women will come and go talking of Michael Angelo.
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