Monday, June 23, 2014

The Matter Within: New Contemporary Art of India

Originally published in Harper's Bazaar Art Arabia #2

The Matter Within: New Contemporary Art of India
October 15, 2011-January 29, 2012
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
San Francisco, CA

A restless instability and agitational force pervade the works assembled in the Yerba Buena’s recent exhibition The Matter Within: New Contemporary Art of India. Organized around the themes of embodiment and the imaginary, the artistic and political perspectives in The Matter Within appear more as a constellation of micro-climates than a cogent, distinctly articulated expression of politics.

Indian curator and art historian Chaitanya Sambrani argues that we expect art from the so-called developing world to offer more than the education, entertainment, and “occasional glimpses of a transcendental, redemptive power,” that we normally demand from art. According to Sambrani, regardless of a “non-western” artist’s connection to social change movements, we have often come to expect a sort of oppositional rhetoric from their work. One could add to this that we often expect exhibitions of art from the so-called emerging cultural and economic powers to provide their audiences with a self-referential accounting of their history, politics, and culture. A sprawling and often meandering group exhibition, The Matter Within (curated by Betti-Sue Hertz) commits an offense repeatedly perpetrated by group exhibitions devoted to regional production: the positing of a tautological equivalence between exhibiting art produced in a region and exhibiting the region itself. In this case, the curatorial quest to capture an elusive “Indianess” and over-emphasis on local production creates a didactic framing that effectively mutes Indian art’s dialogue with the rest of the world.

One of the exhibition’s strengths, however, is its treatment of the ascendancy of certain media in contemporary Indian artistic practice, namely video, sculpture, and, most of all, photography. The Matter Within reflected a wide array of photographic approaches ranging from the intimate, almost photo-journalistic work of Gauri Gill to Pushampala N.’s performative enactments of Indian female archetypes ranging from iconic figures and film stars to criminals. Multiple intersections between post-coloniality and queer identity emerge throughout the exhibition, most notably in the work of Nihkil Chopra, represented by photographs and video from his series Memory Drawings, in which the artist takes on various different persona—ranging from deities to dandies—and creates a drawing from the perspective of each. Represented by a number of works in the exhibition, Tejal Shah’s approach to similar themes can be either oblique and poetic or disarmingly direct and disaffected. Documentation of her performance Encounters, undertaken with the artist Varsha Nair, shows both artists swathed in a single white, straight jacket-type tube connected by absurdly long arms. Stretching across great distances, with the jacket’s sinewy appendages extending around corners and through architectural obstacles, the work evokes simultaneous, conflicting associations of isolation, longing, exclusion and a tenuous togetherness.

The theme of crossing between multiple worlds, time periods, and identities appeared again and again throughout the exhibition and found its most sophisticated expression in Otolith III, a video work by the London-based Otolith Group. Unfolding between shifting, non-synchronous poles of history and memory, this gripping film, which was inspired by Satajiyt Ray’s unmade 1967 film, The Alien, resists easy categorizations, and poses many of the questions that the exhibition falls just short of articulating, exploring relationship between image and event and, most succinctly, the idea of the “alien,” as a disembodied, atmospheric force.

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