Right off the bat, at the commencement of the project there had been two ways of reading Shikaar: The Hunt. First, it could also be said that Shikaar: The Hunt presents a caustic hypothesis, whereby all exhibitory art events of the future will be rejigged as treasure hunts.
Second, the wager is dicier. Why? Because in addition to the above-mentioned, the artworks have been proposed as illustrations of the curatorial premise. In doing so they have been made functional to the premise but the premise is contingent on a future where iconodules will take over the world.
If you thought adopting two separate conceptual strategies — one addressing the curator as iconoclast and the other the iconodule and his/her luxury market of icons — was tricky, wait and watch while a third strategy emerges, with not much prompting at all.
A Portrait of the Curator as a Salesperson and Vandal
With Shikaar: The Hunt one hoped to draw parallels between the human race’s preoccupation with hunting-gathering — which goes as far back as the prehistoric era — and our extant fascination with this subsistence method, albeit with a twist.
By now, we are all more than familiar with these highly evolved variants of the hunter-gatherers who prefer stalking malls and seeking their nourishment in its glittering array of goodies.
Needless to say, contemporary art is not above such relentless consumerism. More often than not, market, museum, artist, theorist, curator, critic, gallerist and what have you, are all transfixed by a hunting-gathering tradition, which is invariably enamoured of the iconic. But, of course, in the art domain this paradigm is always played out stealthily, if not under the radar. With Shikaar: The Hunt, it was our intention to do away with the safety net of stealth.
Delhi breeds and thrives in the shadow of the mall. Even KHOJ International Artists’ Association at Khirkee Extension cannot escape the irresistible shadow of the seven, no less, malls in its vicinity.
Now then, I’m certain the reader will agree that there could not have been a better place than the mall to take to task the matter at hand. On its highly polished granite floors the art worlder, the treasure hunter and the mall rat slipped, slipped and blurred into one another. For the hunt, artworks by Aastha Chauhan, Atul Bhalla, Cynthia Zaven, Ingrid Hora, Navjot Altaf and Prajakta Potnis were scattered across the mall, with clues guiding the participants to the art.
In seeking the involvement of each of these specimens we hoped to either amplify their varying levels of engagement vis-à-vis the hunt, or indeed pinpoint that there aren’t any such different levels of engagement. Because everyone is consumed by iconophilia.
Amazingly enough, it took little, or no time, for the aforementioned theorising to get defenestrated.
Since the project was geared towards a public space, albeit a contentious one, the process was often unpredictable, but not always demanding. Negotiations are the key to the staging of any exhibition. The nature of these negotiations, however, varies constantly as they get tailored around the site of choice.
What had started off as a project that had really wanted to bite visual arts in the arse and reassert the dominance of iconophila in the most scathingly ironic manner, suddenly transformed into a project that wanted to play interface between art and newer publics.
My previous experiences, barring the one online project in www.beam-me.net, have been predominantly anchored in private galleries, where a lot many things are taken for granted. The audience tops the list of things taken for granted in a gallery environment, in that most visitors to galleries are art savvy.
At some point I had the brave idea of making the project performative vis-à-vis my engagement. I had even gone so far as to articulate my intentions of staying at the mall throughout the duration of the exhibition. The curator as caretaker, literally. Better sense prevailed and I reconsidered. In retrospect though, I would’ve liked to’ve stayed on at the mall. There were performances nonetheless, with the curator essaying many roles, including those of salesperson and vandal. One thing led to another. Performative led to interactive.
As projects in the public space acquire greater saliency one needs to tackle the various forms of public address. Through Shikaar: The Hunt I realised that in order to value the idea of taking art to people and thereby creating access, one must value even more the notion of art being a conduit whereby publics can be engaged. The hullaballoo around public art often occasions that peculiar strain of art called plop art, wherein you just plop an artwork — whatever it may be — in the public arena and observe as bystanders and passersby circumvent it and/or make pictures of it on their camera phones. If you have an in-your-face-bling and/or explicitly issue-based and topical artwork then you’ll grab eyeballs. But even in such cases, the work rarely travels beyond the lens.
Within a few minutes of having gotten to the starting point of the hunt at the mall I realised that sitting at a ceremonious desk with placards announcing Shikaar: The Hunt wouldn’t cut it. A negligible percentage of visitors were to drawn to the artworks and even fewer had queries. The clue maps to the ‘treasure hunt’ had no immediate takers. Had the artworks been left in the space as is, this would have, very likely, continued to be the case. Hard sell was the only way to go. Without thinking twice, I instinctively began to engage the visitors at the mall by walking up to them and selling them the hunt. The curator was just another salesperson. Sales were being heralded from every shopwindow. The lone salesperson, behind a babu-like desk and offering no discounts whatsoever, was bound to grab as little attention as possible.
For a salesperson to succeed in the mall s/he needs be peddle some pretty darn engrossing stuff. Of the six participating artists, four had done Delhi specific works. In that, their works were either directly addressing Delhi or were informed by landscape, cultural and otherwise. This geographical immediacy often helped in drawing new participants into the treasure hunt. There was also a hidden track so to speak. Since all the artworks in the exhibition were picked, after much deliberation, from the mammoth Khoj archive, the insertion of The Khoj Book, 2010, was inserted into the exhibition as an artwork.
The tome, an archive, charts 10 years of KHOJ International Artists’ Association and comprises interviews of artists by artists. The book is a roll call of contemporary Indian artists who have been variously associated with Khoj. A copy of the book, along with the humongous LED sign that announced it, dovetailed just so with the exhibition.
Yamuna Walk, 2007, by Atul, is a suite of a 161 photographs, which forms a visual journal of the artist’s five-day walk along some of the off-the-map banks of this prohibitively polluted river. The photographs were originally displayed in the stairs that run through the Khoj Studios, for the exhibition they were deliberately displayed in a longwinded, grubby and infrequently used staircase that travels to the deep basement of the mall.
An untuned piano was hoisted onto the back of a truck, the artist jumped on board and banged away at the decontextualised musical instrument as the truck roamed the streets of the Indian capital. To begin with, the violent political cacophonies of another capital, Beirut, were the key trigger for Lebanese artist Cynthia’s Untuned Piano Concerto with Delhi Traffic Orchestra, 2006. Eventually, however, the work articulated itself as response to the chaotic metropolitan worlds of her hometown Beirut and Delhi where she was on residency at Khoj. The video documentation of the performance, which invokes dissonance, was very deliberately screened in the über slick Good Earth.
Berlin-anchored Ingrid’s sequence of photographs titled The Wedding Band, 2009; objects titled Human Moment, 2009, Squeezer, 2009; Trying to Find Balance, 2009 and a suite of untitled sketches are a humorous response to the wedding brass bands, which flourish across the capital during the wedding season. The functional (non)objects which hold the project together are intended as a fun release when the bandwallahs are not jamming away at a wedding.
DELHILOVESME, 2006, is an illuminating instance in Navjot’s wide-ranging socially engaged practice. For this public art project the artist engaged with individuals and communities living in Khirki and Hauze Rani. These areas were chosen because their proximity to Khoj has already occasioned dialogue. Significantly these areas — marked out as villages within the urban metro space of Delhi — have large migrant populations. The village status and the general demographic both don’t fit in with the capital’s plans for a future marked out by bling. The pertinent question, begging to be asked was, ‘Does Delhi love me?’
The participants in this project raised this question through poems, counter-questions etc that ranged from the political to the humorous. The Hindi text was then transferred onto attractive stickers that were then pasted on the backs of rickshaws and the like where they had maximum mobility. For the exhibition, the stickers were deliberately given an enshrined air when they were put in a narrow cabinet behind a glass door.
Those familiar with the rock ‘n’ roll pantheon will know that, Elegantly Wasted, 2006, the title of Aastha’s light installation is after an INXS album of the same name. Read in its musical context the title is a marker for a scene often known to burn in the fury of its own excesses. When read in the context of the artwork the title extends ironically. On the one hand it is impishly announces its aesthetic merit and on the other hand it self-consciously alerts us to the waste of resources caused by bright bulbs that light up this installation.
The Curtain, 2005, is like a Prajakta painting come alive. In saying this, however, one does not in the least want to insinuate that the work is a literal translation. It is, on the contrary, a magical transition. In this installation, the artist attaches a white frill — ordinarily found at the bottom of curtains of the more ornate variety — to the bottom of a pre-existing white wall. In doing so not only does Prajakta give the term ‘curtain wall’ a twist, she also creates an illusory encounter.
Several contrary motivations went into the making of this exhibition. The curator’s role as salesperson will feel suitably tepid when compared to the vandal performance. Doublesided tape is a safe bet for putting up prints, so safe it is, you can rest assured you’ll never be able to take them off again. Following the conclusion of the exhibition, I had to personally rip and scratch out artworks that refused to budge from the walls of the mall. My scratching frenzy even managed to alarm a well- meaning guard at the mall. He was fairly sure I was a miscreant.
In recognising iconophilia, the artifice was dropped and the artworks pinned down as treasure, but by absorbing the artworks into a curatorial premise that was never really their thematic bedrock to begin with, one cast the net of iconoclasm on them.
Curator as Iconoclast
The header for this subsection has been borrowed from Boris Groys’ Curator as Iconoclast1. A lot of the ground tread in this essay has been mapped by Groys in the above-mentioned essay. In taking forward his argument of curator as iconoclast I’ll hopefully extend and add to what Groys has written and illustrate from personal experience.
In his essay, Curator as Iconoclast, Boris Groys sites the example of Utopia Station. Curated by Molly Nesbit, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Rirkrit Tiravanija, at the 2003 Venice Biennale, Utopia Station in Groys’ opinion subverted aura by employing works that would amplify and expand the curatorial premise. In a sense the works were functional illustrations.
Commenting on how the said project was received critically would be difficult, because this curator-critic wasn’t there in person. However, having worked on two curatorial projects — Anxious, 2008, Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke, and Godown, 2009, Guild Art Gallery — wherein one adopts the model Groys has identified as iconoclastic, I can tell you from experience that such manoeuvres don’t go down too well. Why functionalise the artwork? Shouldn’t the curator be the caretaker? Irreverence?
For anyone unconvinced with the idea of the depleting aura as proposed by Walter Benjamin in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1936, the camera wielding throngs around the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, Paris, will be a thumping reaffirmation that good ol’ Benjamin was wrong all along.
Despite all of Benji’s — to employ his adjective — prognostic faculties he would have not been able to forecast what has since become of the aura.
For one the aura has been inducted into the pantheon of the undead. Despite the pantheon being peopled, as it were, by heavyweights such as vampires, zombies and ghosts, the aura has asserted itself with a degree of confidence. This confidence, of course, is in part due to the fact that unlike the rest of the undead community the aura has also accrued a serious case of multiple personality disorder.
There are, whether we like it or not, two broad groups to observe vis-à-vis the aura. The one that is held together by the glue of power & consequently that of the artworld and then there is the one on which power is poured like hot glue and this is the broader public which allows for the realisation of the power.
At this point, some well-meaning folks like yourself would argue for the subaltern voice. And sure a case could be made for subaltern voices. Now more than ever before they exist in significant numbers. As a matter of principle I too would rally for the subaltern voice. Alas we all know how this pans out. For instance, the voice of the subaltern, sporadically, if ever, reaches the classrooms of universities where genealogies are invoked in a linear and ironhanded fashions.
More over in the case of the visual arts the subaltern too can’t help getting sucked into subaltern artworlds, which would in fact make the complete ‘outsider’ feel as though she were twice removed from the scene.
Coming back to our leathery undead and multiple auras. Aura acts differently on different societal groups or more appropriately different societal groups act differently in its presence.
The majority of the people who queue up in front of the Mona Lisa don’t do so because they are entranced by the painting and its art historical significance. However, the aura that the Mona Lisa conjures up is not the aura of Benjamin. And to this development alone, I’d like to propose a cheers.
I reckon not too many people in this flash-happy crowd are looking to channel the spiritual uniqueness of either the Mona Lisa or Painting? They are mobbing an uncurated and consequently autonomous object, whose aura is in part the result of its unthinkable monetary value.
The Mona Lisa was moved to its current fortress within the Louvre in 2005. At the time, Cecile Scaillerez, curator in charge of 16th century Italian art at the museum had said in an interview to the BBC: “The painting abolishes the distance between the model and the viewer by getting rid of a foreground, which created a barrier in pictures of the time.”
The painting — measuring just 53 by 76 centimetres — currently hangs behind bulletproof glass and railing keeps all viewers at least a few feet away. They could put a moat around the thing and it would still attract followers.
But the power equation will get reconstituted should it ever come in direct contact with a jaded artworlder who has successfully weaned herself off of the aura of the artwork. Such an individual is extremely likely to give Ms Lisa a skip when she visits the Louvre. Thanks to the super high res images she has had access to, she has most likely seen the painting in extraordinary detail.
What started in 2009 with the Museo del Prado, Madrid and 14 of its most important paintings available at 14,000 megapixels via Google Earth and Google Maps, has now culminated in the Google Art Project. Through this project we have access to art treasures in 17 museums across the world.
The above stated hypothesis, vis-à-vis the Mona Lisa, can be supported by any number of artworks in any number of museums. The museum is a producer and/or controller of knowledge systems; it is thereby a symbol of power. Needless to say the aura and the perceived autonomy of the artwork gets more exacerbated outside the museum. But I’ve chosen to begin my argument with the museum because I beg to differ with and split from Boris Groys on this one critical point. In the aforementioned essay, Groys writes, “the museum’s iconoclastic gesture consists precisely of the transformation of “living” idols into “dead” illustrations of art history.”
In the light of what we have just seen, the Mona Lisa would hardly qualify as a “dead” illustration. It is if anything bristling with an aura, which in turn allows for it to be seen as autonomous iconic creature.
Although in principle Groys’ comment makes sense but you have only to look at the ever complicated issue of the aura to realise that even within the purview of the museum the aura of a said object is quick in burrowing its way around.
In our various art histories we are dealing with a more or less an elitist and venal lineage. A specious valorisation of the visual arts and its practitioners as superior to ‘barbers’, ‘surgeons’1 and bankers is deeply entrenched in several cultures across the world. It’s an ongoing drama in which art, even today, fetishises its role and self- image. Whereas, in fact, its elitist origins have always prevented it from be accessible.
It is a known fact that even the defiant gestures of the avant-garde and neo-avant garde have long since been institutionalised and subsumed in the mainstream of the artworld. Some might argue, and with good reason, that the avant-garde and its precursors occasioned a rupture and that rupture is significant in its context. A quick sidelong glance is all it takes to realise that the ripple effect was largely confined to the artworld. Even today, decades later, plain regurgitations of the avant-garde and the neo-avant- garde gestures continue to bewilder and amuse larger population, who still read visual arts as synonymous with painting and sculpture.
Significantly, while practitioners working in theatre, music, dance, film, and even poetry rarely, if ever, actively look for publics — hoping instead that their work will resonate among the audiences — contemporary visual artists are acutely concerned with micro-curating and tailormaking projects, which reach out to specific publics. And yet the networks of theatre, music, dance, film, and even poetry are as widely spread as they are across different socio-economic strata. Guilt, via Freud, then is most visibly the key to contemporary arts’ ongoing search for a broader public.
When the age of mechanical reproduction separated art from its basis in cult, the semblance of its autonomy disappeared forever. That’s Benjamin again. But it ain’t true. Although autonomy from religion has been achieved we are nowhere close to being secular. So aura, autonomy and subsequently iconophilia, are the key problematic notions we are looking at vis-à-vis the art object.
It is into this impasse that one introduces the curator as an iconoclast, who can then employ the book and the virtual real, and now of course the virtual book — but I won’t get into that — such that the much-dreaded process of (mechanical) reproduction turns into a calculated tool for aura bashing. Curating for chapbooks and for pamphlets. Bringing out a series of books periodically and in these curating images. These are just some ways in which the curator as a ‘secular artist’ — a term borrowed from Groys — can bruise the ego of the aura.
A friend recently pointed out that poetry, more specifically Ghalib’s poetry, is available at train stations, across several parts of the country, for very little. Creating a similar access to the visual arts could potentially result in scenarios where you have people quoting artworks on street corners.
Curating online comprises the second half of a parallel model for the circulation of images. And this model has been explored variously. But let me just briefly touch on a recent project to illustrate how easy it is to have a relapse of iconophilia or indeed to first cure oneself of it… even online.
Recently I curated the Indian chapter of a bigger online project called beam me up. Completely not-for-profit the project was supported by Pro Helvetia. Vishal Rawlley and Abhishek Hazra were the two participant artists. A group of observer-reporters twittered about Abhishek’s #cloudrumble56, a closed door performance. The twitter feeds were our only access to the performance. Which has since faded online as well.
Hauz-i-Shamsi, Vishal’s project, on the other hand had him float a buraq – tin, spareparts and waterspouting and all – on the waters of the Hauz-i-Shamsi in Meharuli. The buraq in turn responded to voices streaming in via Skype and/or the phone.
Despite all the mails and alters sent across not too many people accessed Hazra’s work which was also very time specific. Rawlley’s buraq on the other hand where there was an icon acknowledging the caller was a hit. With people calling in repeatedly over a period of few months.
Be that as it may, in making a case for these models one isn’t implying that they are the only strategies at our disposal, and by our, I mean the curators. And I cannot emphasise enough that these are not romantic alternatives, they’re simply parallels one could adopt alongside existing paradigms. That said, even within the model of the exhibitory event, subversions are possible. Shikaar: The Hunt was an attempt in that direction.
1. Boris Groys, ‘Curator as Iconoclast’ in Cautionary Tales: Critical Curating Edited by Steven Rand and Heather Kouris (apexart, 2007)
2. Mona Lisa gains new Louvre home on http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/ (6 April, 2005)