Beyond the Biennale: Imagining a Museum for Contemporary Arts in India

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. This is the concluding part of the series.

You can read part one here, part two here and part three here.

The Many Faces of Islam, 1997-99, First Printed in the New York Times Magazine, Sept 19, 1999Image: Shahzia Sikander, Many Faces or The Resurgence of Islam, 1997-1999. The work is part of the 4th Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale 2009, Japan. The theme for this triennale is ‘Live and Let Live: Creators of Tomorrow’. 

Situating Contemporary Arts in the Millennium
In the last few pieces, I have taken readers on a journey that traces the genesis of contemporary arts in India’s metropolises, delving further into the place of art in modern Indian museums and the contours of contemporary arts in South Asia. In doing so, I have highlighted the historical role of museums – or their lack of a role – in being an active participant in the production of contemporary arts movement. I would also like to refine the focus of the time frame I am engaging with: The largest body of work I am commenting on was produced within the last 25 to 30 years.

However, the trend of the annual and biennale festivals and fairs gain popularity between the 90s and the beginning of the new millennium, in Asia. That is not to state that this type of exhibition was not a known means of showcasing art work, but its frequency and the countries/cities where it was organized became exponentially higher in the years under observation. For example, the predecessor of the Fukuoka Triennale, the Asian Art Show had a history of 25 years, showing every five years since 1980, to be more precise.

Perhaps the changing nature of arts practice has taken into account the city as a site for display, on one hand, and built architecture and former institutional structures as backdrops and canvases for the contemporary narrative, on the other. As an overarching framework to situate these four pieces, I hope to frame these questions toward readers, in a bid for critical reflection. I would also go on to say that while some trends have a firmly traceable catalyst, in this context I think that the catalyst is change itself. The arts and arts practice have always been in a state of flux. It is this flux that often distinguished art forms and styles from each other.

Shackled By Notions of the Traditional

Along with the national anthem, the national emblem, the national festival, a nation needs its national library, its national archive, and its national museum. For poor indeed would be the country that could not lay claim to enough history to fill an archive, enough scholarship to fill a library, and enough artifacts to fill a museum! Shortly after Indian Independence, thus, the project of a National Museum for the country was begun. Here, as in most Asian, African and Latin American nations at the moment of decolonization, the erection of a grand national museum became an act of great symbolic importance, for it was a visible assertion of newly-gained sovereignty (Singh, 2002).

National Museum, New DelhiImage: National Museum, New Delhi. The Museum has in its possession over 200,000 works of art, of both Indian and foreign origin, covering more than 5,000 years of the cultural heritage of different parts of the world.

As a final set of comments on the issue of the modern and the museum, I would like to use this piece as a way of reflecting on the meanings associated with the museum as well as the art exhibit. So what is this museum that I am speaking of? I refer to the large, old school spaces that house our heritage. Here, the heritage is both, of the past, as well as the idea of the national or nationhood that manifests in modernist creative practice. While the museum as an institution has been thought about in both academic and critical thought, there has been little direction on why contemporary art almost always looks for different kinds of spaces. Is it trying to escape the colonial stamp that would get imprinted on work if displayed in a traditional museum? Or is it trying to leverage its medium as a way of outfitting or redefining other kinds of spaces?

What is it about contemporary art that it can only locate itself within the alternative spaces of festivals, fairs, biennales and triennales?

The Exhibition as a Meta-Narrative
Let’s take the example of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. The festival is imagined as a means of building a new aesthetic that interrogates both the past and the present (Bose Krishnamachari, 2014). The Biennale and its makers see it as an artist-led initiative as opposed to allowing curators to direct the exhibition process. The Biennale forms the grand narrative that encompasses several smaller processes and methods: it explores the operational and intellectual dimensions of the art world and also directly engages people through a wide range of cultural activities (Bose Krishnamachari, 2014).

The wording of this is also significant as it points toward an engagement on three levels, one with the public, then with history, and lastly, with the present space. If one looks at the definitions presented of museums, then these spaces also engage with the same elements, but on a different scale. While the museum is a defined physical space, the exhibition format need not be constrained by spatial boundaries. The Biennale has also been structured such that the entire production and processing is handled by a group of curators executing a number of sub-exhibits/showcases, making the case for a collaborative form of work.

Aspinwall HouseImage: Aspinwall House is a large sea-facing heritage property in Fort Kochi on the way to Mattancherry. It’s now  a primary venue of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. 

This is particularly interesting for me as I am studying these collaborative structures and the art produced therein. The point of similarity here is the structure of the exhibition, which is a meta-narrative of interrogation playing out, with smaller narratives that deal with different forms. For instance, if a series of talks presents the history and perhaps a theoretical framework for the exhibition, a curated film festival presents diversity of vision. Therefore, the meta-narrative is inclusive in its form and this could be a new direction for thinking about a museum for housing contemporary arts. While the ‘stuff’ of contemporary art and the museum are perhaps different in appearance, they are creative outputs and in effect, the material remains of contemporary art form part of our cultural inheritance.

End Note
I am tempted to write a ‘conclusion’ as this seems an appropriate end for a series of deliberations on the museum and contemporary art in India. But this is a work in progress and I have looked at these writings more as conversation starters, then end points. I would like to see discussions among museum professionals and artists that talk about leveraging the museum – that interrogate the history of the museum as well as the spaces they inhabit.

There is a need to shift the ways in which we look at museums and at works of art. If the exhibition is interrogating the past and people’s experiences of the past, then the museum also needs to initiate these interrogations as they are emblems of heritage, carrying the burden of both nationhood and colonialism. These spaces manifest as text and therefore can be read in different lights. The ways in which the museum and contemporary art have been constructed in our minds, if interrogated can allow us to develop these spaces in ways that are perhaps more relevant to the times we live in.

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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