The Critic-in-Residence for the Khoj Workshop 99 was Anita Dube. Anoli Perera, a participating artist also contributed an essay (see below). Khoj 1999
By Anita Dube
A workshop is not a workshop, is a workshop. The same location the same structure, but a different set of twenty four artists, and everything was transformed : The atmosphere and the sites, by the unique dynamics of human exchange. That was KHOJ # 3, as combustible as they come, packed with strong individual voices, politicized voices, poetic voices, spontaneous debate and critical interventions. Theory and praxis all thrown into a melting pot spiced with differences and contradictions and confrontations. Khoj 1999, was a provocative construct, not so much through deliberation as by chance, a compound-mixture of experience intending to stand many a priori determinations on the head.
Let us begin story in Sikribag, the huge, walled to colonial Modi house, used by the family's gurus, that housed the artists during the workshop. Set amidst acres of land, fields, mango and guava orchards, a private pond (to which the residents of Modinagar have access only during certain festivals like the chat puja), assisted by a small army of servants in true feudal, provincial, U.P. style. Or should we begin in Modinagar, once a flourishing industrial township founded by the Modis (a premier entrepreneurial family of post-independent India), now in a state of quasi abandonment, with family funds, litigation, sick units and disbanded labour - And with the new features of cross development that mark small highway towns in UP ? This sharp inside / outside contradiction became central in the work of many artists metaphorically and significant politically, which we must keep in mind as we go along.
Early in the workshop, Subodh Gupta and Charles Citroen set off for Saharanpur a village 6 kms. from Modinagar. Subodh collected objects from the villagers a hookah, a plough, a brass pot, an empty bottle, a small insignificant blackened container used for putting oil in machines etc. In this contact with the villagers he returned to his roots, to childhood memories and rituals, trying to connect the stories buried in the objects to his own story. With the help of women he smoothed the surface of a filed with a paste of mud and cow dung. Cutting into this to the shape of each object, he sunk them in at different depths. Himself anointed with the same paste, he placed himself in the center of the field in Shravasana (corpse posture), in a ritual of cleaning and forgetting himself.
Meanwhile Charles Citroen underwent an "orientation/ disorientation" experience. Nothing had prepared him for an "International" workshop in such a "local" place. As a Euro-American also, he found himself in a minority. He made pictures, as he's done earlier in 35 countries, posing G.I. Joe, the American zombie - the village, in the arms of street-boys, against a fresco in the Modi temple complex. Negative stereotype / alter ego, Joe's pathology was communicated through juxtapositions. But being small, a toy, he got by, while the real Charles suffered neurosis when the surface of his skin got nicked by the blade of a local barber. He compulsively bandaged, covered up, tied together odds and ends, poles, toys, balls, coils of rope, chairs in pieces that were like innards suspended in a deliberate interference of space mirroring a westerner's paranoia at the comfortable chaos, crowding / touching of local life in the market.
For Anne Marie and Mariusz Soltysik, searching for materials, the same street became a nightmare. Stoned by a group of school boys having some cruel fun, they tried to escape from the encounter during the course of the workshop. They invented a surreal romantic masquerade, an orientalist fantasy in which Mariusz was an exotic man - bare forso - haram pants and Anne Marie a saree draped princess. Photographed near the pond, in the cotton field - they showed slides of their collaboration. A debate began around Said's critique of orientalism - on why their fantasy was routed via the Arab world During the workshop Anne Marie made a thread web-work on a mango tree, a fragile and temporary home to feel secure in. She controlled the tension in the thread, in the abstract lines and negative spaces, and as she bound herself in, she intuitively performed her way out. Mariuz's anger against the "Modi Mafia", for the chaos of the town, for the failures of electricity and water simmered. Ann Marie and he again collaborated on a photo project in which they photographed themselves as Gujarmal Modi and Dayawati Modi, replacing the patrons photos bearing down on all of us. Another debate began here around the "freedom of the artist" and the rupturing gesture of the avant garde. We asked them about their awareness of local national histories, about responsibilities even within the avant garde.
Meanwhile, Huma Mulji from neighbouring Pakistan felt amazingly at home. Observing popular advertisements of consumer items, on the walls and billboards in the town, she wanted to bring three symbols of contemporary capitalist culture into the feudal-field of Sikribag. A dish antenna, a tyre, a sewing machine and fans made with ply-board, were covered skin to skin with patterned florescent pink, green and purple sarees. Installed in the field, the antenna-dish was the transmitter / receiver of signals, the "medium" through which seduction flowed, magnetizing the fans like moths which whirled around in dislocated edginess. An inflated tyre lay still. It was the domestic sewing machine, however, the smallest item, which was the surreal witness in this witty parable.
For Navjot Altaf memories of her childhood in Meerut returned. She combined these with her engagement with the Bastar tribals. The official politics that surrounded the amazing Mahua tree became her focus. Under the only one in the compound, she installed a swing constructed out of railway sleepers. She told us that forest officers in M.P. have stopped the planting of Mahua trees because its flowers are used by adivasis (tribals) to distill alcohol, forgetting that its bark is used to make a medicine for arthritis, its seeds crushed for oil, that throughout the year it provided shade. In protest she planned a planting of 100 Mahua saplings in five primary schools with the help of school children. With the compound children she made brightly coloured paper boats that were floated in a water channel near the house on open day. In another context Ramesh Kalkur engaged with the inside/outside contradiction, quoting and commenting on the Post-impressionism within the post-modern, with wit, reversals and a wry irony. A clear knowledge of the out of sync illusions of underdeveloped economies underscored his work. Working with the aviary he wove an image of the cage as seen from the outside (quoting the 50 mm lens), onto the rectangular frame of the pipe-iron cot. Perceptional knowledge, fauvism, pointillism and weaving skills helped him realize an image surface to contemplate or to sleep on. The modernist object image was thus encaged within the real cage.
Opposite Kalkur, Subba Ghosh blew up the marginal proletarian subjects into larger than life characters - Ramesh, Roshni, Ismail and Komal - on the outer walls of the caretakers quarter. Academically painted these portraits belonging to the social - realist genre were offset by a post - modern excavation in the surrounding ground that yielded labour implements.
In contrast Balasubramaniam was involved in the sensory perception of ambiguous polar phenomena and a translation of this into material form. In one work, 700 porcipine (ish) wooden needles painted first red, then black were inserted into an inverted pot projecting 360° in all directions. It was the space between them that interested him, the ambiguity of the positive and negative, the blurring of the outline. He placed this "small animal" in the junction pit of the water ducts which was painted in the junction pit of the water ducts which was painted a corrosive red. A heavy drone in the sound piece created the atmosphere. Another work placed 13 mirrors framed with straw along a straight line. The watering mirrors reflected the changing sky. In "thanks to the sky" he mixed paper pulp in water, allowing it to evaporate and return to the sky.
While touring the S.K. Modi factories (searching for materials). in a particular abandoned melancholic shed filled with waste, two ara (saw) machines stood silently as in a Louise Bourgeois installation. In a moment of inspiration Alex Mathew put a white fluff of grass through the wheel knob of the giant machine. The site became alive and used for a performance piece by Anita Dube. Sheba Chhachhi photographed this shed, the machine with the grass fluff and the debris, which became the projected backdrops of her installation in the house. Researching the history of this shed, Sheba discovered Itbari Lal Khan, a carpenter employed in the same shed in the early days of Modinagar when the doors and windows of the Modi houses and factories were being constructed. She made photo portraits of Itbari and his colleagues, who had lost their jobs. these were transferred onto transparent lith film in multiples. The coal black faces were layered onto the centrally framed horizontal mirror (a fantasy landscape with a reclining Veena-playing apsra- a kitchy nayika from the Todi ragamala). This seductive/ reflective source of light was concealed by the rogue's gallery. The debris from the shed was projected on to this above the mantle shelf. Below, the giant machine was projected from the floor-tangentially -into the fire - place, its grey and pink marble border holding the white fluff. On the way it illuminated the cupped cut hands of Itbari holding his identity cards, reminding us of the story of the building of the Taj Mahal and the fate of the artisans.
In a differently engaged manner Shilpa Gupta chose a very basic disused wash - room in the care takers compound, almost swallowed up by the expanse of Subba's work. A retrieval of function became central to her engagement with a public site. She repaired the waterline, attached a tap, and altered this roofless structure a bit towards her minimal, conceptual interests. A string of fairy lights was embedded in a straight line on the inner and outer horizontal facades of this white structure. The dotted line ended in a full stop breast cast with prominent aureolic hair. Inside the semi private washing area on the floor were embedded two square marble files with etched drawings like misplaced quotations from the history of art as a fragment of distant memory.
Alex Mathew came preoccupied with the real life story of the abandoned wife of an artist friend. This woman crazed with grief disappeared and no one knew whether she was dead or alive. Anita helped him compose a Brechtian ballad around this story which formed the border around his work. He wanted shadows to represent the stories of such women, but was unable to convince working-class women who came to cut grass in Sikribag, to come into a darkened room to model for the work, for fear of scandal, Sheba, Shilpa and Anita helped out and their shadows were cut out from plyboards and painted black, Installed on the terrace of the house, the iron structure with a hook as well as the negative areas of the plyboards contributed to this study of traumatized women.
It was the artists from the far and near east, Song Dong and Michael Shaowanasai who brought a fresh and a free approach to art making that was revealing. Song Dong left for us the mercurial breath of an artist, in the inner body of vacuum flask, on the last day. During the workshop he sat silently for an hour or two each day, face almost touching the wall, on a large wooden platform (takhat) in the busy courtyard area, in a ten day action-work that remembered the Indian Buddhist monk who went to China and not knowing the language remained silent for ten years. In another work he cut up the pages of a Hindi textbook on history "Bharat Ka Itihaas" until it was a shredded hairy conceptual Art-Object placed on a table for contemplation, with two facing chairs.
Michael Shaowanasai brought theatricality, performance and gay issues into the workshop. He showed us the "Tale of the Iron Pussy", a Thai film, in a local Modinagar theatre, demonstrating that despite the language barrier communication was easy because of plot and structure with popular Hindi films, that echoed the similarity within peoples lives. In another work he dressed himself up as an Indian bride, taking on a dream identity, that he has attempted in different locations. Local make up artists, hair stylists helped him don a saree, imitation jewellery etc. to reach the desired effect. He got himself photographed, and hung this come-hitcher but coy portrait over a slogan panel, kitchy and bedecked with painted flowers that read - "Blow my horn but keep distance".
Michael Lin from Taiwan however continued his practice of transforming interior spaces with blown up patterns from popular textiles. In the lounge, on the wall surrounding the fireplace, he painted a stylized green vine - pattern taken from a textile. Preparatory drawings on a grid were projected and synchronized with the grid on the wall to enlarge the pattern. Theatre backdrop, wall paper, design, a fragment from popular culture, a stylized piece of nature - all come together in this artifice.
Jayashree Chakravarty alias Khepa, filled the early hours of the morning with the pure sound of song, haunting in its crystalline beauty lined with pain. In her work she wanted to capture sunlight as an experiment with working in nature. She painted a large cloth backed paper piece that curved in. Painted with her characteristics free mark making in inks and acrylic, she wanted to install this vertically as a kind of enclosure, a cave open to the sky, where real sunlight would play with its painted cousin.
Meanwhile Fiona Foley's was a full-on response to the sense of India as experienced in the market place in which colour was naturally dominant. Mounds of dried red-chillies and turmeric attracted her as natural materials associated with the world of women in the home. These became layers of symbols in two works with strong geometric designs of circles and half circles, on flat hard grounds prepared with robin blue ultramarine pigment, that were reminiscent of her sand sculptures. Decking her with marigold garlands and henna in enjoyment of the local culture she also made a work stringing pipal leaves cut in red and yellow paper dipped in wax. This made a concave arched line on the wall over a similar arched line made with strung marigolds. Having previously used markers from as original culture and history to empower aboriginal identity, here, without particular historicity, these markers could not escape the exotic that usually foregrounds contact with other cultures. Anoli Perera and Belle Shafir, also prominently used red (kumkum) pigment to ground their work.
Metaphors of imagination, travel and borders preoccupied Anoli, especially the context of the Sri Lankan identity being a suspicious identity within international travel. She sunk eleven small and large shallow galvanized iron trays in a geometric floor pattern, near the pond, into the flattened earth of the embankment. These trays were filled with water that metaphorically represented the reality of Sri Lanka. Within each an earthen pot with a lid was placed, its neck tied ritualistically with mouli or thread dipped in a sindhur paste. The outer surface of the pots carried an English stream of consciousness text reflecting the anxieties and the psyche of a traveller. For her the pots were like knots of emotion in the process of leaving home and negotiating a space and an identity elsewhere.
Belle Shafir was deeply moved by the warmth, easy camaraderie, and purity of the ordinary people in Modinagar, that contrasted with her experience in the capitalist / militarist state of Israel. She made a shrine for love "Pyar hi Jeeva Hai"(love is life), in a quiet corner near the pond, surrounded by mango trees. Around one totemic trunk, decorated with garlands, a primitive bark carving and drawings, she smoothed and smeared the egg shaped land with Sindhur mixed with milk. Around this was a garland of dried leaves. Fragile and ecologically aware, the work was filled with stray details of stitched leaves that were scattered around.
Kay Hassan had other political and ecological concerns that oversteped Carl Andre's minimal line. With organic waste of dried leaves and twigs he made a foot wide line that bisected the path from the entrance of the house to the compound wall. This was lit up on the night of open day in a straight line of fire, around which the artists unwound themselves.
Minimalism's long tail was visible in many works, in one way or another. Al Obaidi flew into the middle of the workshop and created work with the help of Huma Mulji previous works. He displayed these, one open and one closed in the courtyard outside the house. He also promised financial support for a small business for Salim (Itbari Lala's son) who helped him, as a gesture acknowledging the economic unevenness of the interaction.
Meanwhile Mariusz Soltysik continued the minimal story by constructing a few meter long, L-shaped beam with plywood. Painted a deep ultramarine blue it was installed at the edge of the pond, just off the water with a steel support structure. It was visible from across the water body as a blue line.
Here, Shyamala constructed a bamboo structure tied together with coarse jute rope that pushed forward her preoccupation with structures and diagrams rooted in a genre of Cholamandal Art but brought into a new aspect of sculpture. This ambitious eight pronged grid originating from an octagon was designed to float in the central pond, but floated half in and half out having become too heavy, and with perhaps too little water in the pond.
In a different approach to interactive work, L.N. Tallur designed his space as a kitchy road-show called "Welcome to the global village - eat here and meet me anywhere". A red jute carpet led one into the servants quarter, where under a canopy on a plat form was a hollowed out T.V. box filled with images of God and fitted with different coloured bulbs that viewers could activate sitting on a sofa and smelling the incense from plugged in electrified incense sticks. In another piece a stuffed hen, i.e. a 3-D object was placed inside the idiot-box to be viewed under psychedelic light conditions that a viewer could optionally never the less control.
Finally Patrick Mukabi from Kenya encountered for the first time a diversity of practices that opened up many possibilities for him, especially the works that interacted with sites. He installed painted canvases around the well, with images that linked up with his usual voyeuristic images of women. (Women and wells and Patrick, well!) And so another Khoj went by and another one is in the making. Meanwhile there has been a change of guard. I say adieu, Khuda hafiz, and Khoj Jindabad in the same breath on behalf of all of us initial working group members, may the existing experiment germ retain its energy and vision.
New Delhi, August 2000