From Local to Galactic: Tracing the Politics of Contemporary Art in South Asia

About the Modern is a four-part series by Sumitra Sunder that traces the evolution of contemporary art in India’s metropolitan cities and how the movement has flourished outside the traditional spaces of museums and galleries.

In part three of the series, Sumitra Sunder makes a case for an Asian avant-garde movement in art, with artists moving towards social justice issues emerging out of their creative practices. Read part two here and part one here.

Throughout history, one sees that social change and radical politics have always had either a direct or subversive influence on creative practice. In a more global context, there has been a large shift in the balance of power in Asia, which has resulted in a shift in the kinds of creative practice of nations in the continent.

Since the 1990s, the ways in which creative practice manifests itself has seen a shift. Politics and social constructs have always had a significant role in the ways contemporary art manifests. But perhaps, for the lack of a better word, the globalized world has seen a different set of influences on contemporary arts practice.

MadhusudhananImage: Madhusudhanan, Logic of Disappearance, installation view Aspinwall House, Kochi-Muziris Biennale.

What is important to consider in these shifting paradigms is that firstly, there is a contested ground for artistic practice and secondly the challenging of the dominance of the older centers of Western Europe and the United States. This kind of rationale emerges in the 1990s with writings of T K Sabapathy referring to a ‘wariness towards accepting or succumbing to orthodoxies emerging, imposed or acquired, from the West’.

The turn of the century has witnessed the beginnings of an astonishing alteration in the balance of power towards Asia, militarily as well as economically, signifying perhaps, as many experts suggest, the impending close of five centuries of global domination by first Europe, then the United States. This alteration has also influenced international relations and has therefore been mirrored in the creative practice of different Asian regions.

Ernesto-NetoImage: Artwork by Ernesto Neto. Site-specific installation at Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2012.

The contested ground in art practice is influenced by issues like multiple and hybrid identities, minorities, multiculturalism within nations, to name a few. Arts practice has therefore entered a time when the primary factors influencing it are no longer located in conventional Western models. Historians and critics are beginning to refer to the Asian context of arts practice as a ‘civil society in huge ferment, a political society whose constituencies are redefining the meaning of democracy and a demographic scale that defies simple theories of hegemony’. Neo-colonialism, environmental degradation, sexual exploitation, social and political injustice, etc., are some of the issues that are being fought through creative practice. Art and creative practice cannot be isolated, locked into a set of traditions or frozen in time.

Apinan Poshyananda writes that cultural syncretism is a key element in arts practice. Western Modernism has made an impact on art practice, however, different cultures and countries have developed their own versions of modernity. Contemporary Euro-American paradigms of looking at art can therefore not really be applied to developments in Asia.

The history of contemporary art locates arts practice in two ways. Art that embraces the idea of looking at indigenous practices and incorporating that aesthetic in works and the other that disengages or rejects the nationalist narrative that asks for a return to traditional forms. There is also the set of artists who rejected the art institution or the institutionalization of arts practice. This is the rhetoric of the avant-garde.

Clifford CharlesImage: Clifford Charles Five rooms of Clouds Room 5, Profound Profanities. Mixed media, site-specific installation at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale.

Geeta Kapur argues that if the avant-garde is a historically conditioned phenomenon and emerges only in a moment of real political disjuncture, it will appear in various forms, in different parts of the world, at different times. She then goes on to make a context for the avant-garde and in one sense this is where creative practice is going today. If the Asian artist is indeed an avant-garde, this form will come to fruition if one of two things takes place: The first, a move that dismantles the hegemonic and conservative features of the national culture itself, and the second, a move that dismantles the burdensome aspect of Western art, treating the avant-garde principle as an institutionalized phenomenon, recognizing the assimilative, therefore, sometimes paralyzing capacity of the (Western) museums, galleries, critical apparatuses, curators, and media.

Can Contemporary and Institutional Co-Exist?

Which brings us back to the idea of the museum. Often, gallery displays within a museum choose to freeze a certain art form in time. With the dynamics of creative practice changing in the past few decades, it is no longer enough to simply place works of art or art objects in a museum. Perhaps the most significant shift for the showcasing of contemporary works of art in Asia has been the emergence of the festival or recurring exhibitions like the biennales and triennales.

Artist Daniel Connell.jpgImage: Artist Daniel Connell from Australia created two huge faces of his friend Justin Alan Magridge from Port Augusta, South Australia. The artist imagines that people from this very place migrated to Australia 60-80,00 years ago to form the aboriginal population there.

For example, three of the earliest of such formats were the Indian Triennale, the Bangladesh Asian Art Biennale and the Fukuoka Asian Art exhibition in Japan. The climate of arts practice itself is seeing a turn towards being more political and socially conscious. There are more works and groups working toward social justice issues that use creative practice. As for work that id produced today, the engagement with the work is more personal, more about immediate issues rather than a detached sense of aesthetics. The museum also becomes a contested ground as it is representative of Western aesthetics and dominant narratives of the same.

Using the example of the recurring exhibition or the biennale / triennale, the 2nd edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale is an example of how the art world has responded to the almost laid back attitude of the state towards contemporary arts practice. This is perhaps the first time when the crowdfunding model has backed an international festival, pointing towards a shift in the way funding works in the contemporary art world. While crowd funding is not new for other festivals like Experimenta and the Bangalore Queer Film Festival, a large scale exhibition like the Biennale is imagined as a slightly different medium.

sheela_gowda_kochiImage: Sheela Gowda’s installation of abandoned grinding stones collected from a village in Karnataka at Aspinwall in Fort Kochi.

To describe the curatorial exercise of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in more detail, Jitish Kallat contextualized it as ‘a juxtaposition of sharp turns in history and the shifting geography of the world’. He called for a questioning of the bonds between the local and the galactic, the regional and the intercontinental. It was planned as a response to history. This festival was about spaces and the many pasts that they play host to. It played up the notion of locating the works in the same geographies as previous works of the first edition of the biennale.

This form of curation is a useful tapestry for thinking about the museum. The museum acquires a history with the works it displays. If, in one way, this biennale model of having work interact with history, more from the point of view of the spectator, would not the ways in which the museum is imagined change?

In the final part of this series, the author explores how institutions and the public understand, define and co-label contemporary art. Does the atypical, unconventional and narratively unhinged art not work well within a museum?

About the Author

Sumitra SunderSumitra Sunder is a PhD scholar, currently working on contemporary urban arts practice at the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bangalore. The main focus of her work is to locate contemporary models of creative process and practice in the larger fabric of the history of art. Before commencing doctoral work reluctantly, she has worked with IGNCA, Khoj International Artists Association and Eka Cultural Resources and Research in Delhi and Apparao Galleries in Chennai. Follow her on Twitter.

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