IN A sprawling hall at the Giardini, where the first Venice Biennale began in 1895, a splattering of red on the walls and floor provides an ideal accompaniment to a reading of Das Capital. The return to Karl Marx in the historic Central Pavilion of the 56th International Art Exhibition, or the Venice Biennale, has been curiously inspired by India. Or, to be precise, by the ‘Akhand Path’, a recitation of the Sikh holy book Guru Granth Sahib, continuously over several days by a relay of readers.
As the curator, Nigeria-born Okwui Enwezor has set out to present the pervasive structure of disorder in global politics, environment and economy, even as capital takes centrestage in a fresh appraisal of art’s reaction to the world today. “Capital is the great drama of our age,” says Enwezor, also the artistic director of the 1996-98 Johannesburg Biennale and Kassel’s Documenta 11 in 1998-2002. “Today, nothing looms larger in every sphere of experience, from the predations of the political economy to the rapacity of the financial industry,” he says.
‘Akhand Path’ is not the only Indian ingredient in Enwezor’s attempt to comprehend the current disquiet. At least seven artists from India are in the main curatorial section of the Venice Biennale this year, spread over the historical venues of Arsenale and Giardini, separated only by a water taxi ride. The biennale, titled All the World’s Futures, began on May 9 and will be ongoing till November 22 this year. It has 136 artists from 53 countries—89 for the first time in Venice.
Joining in the seven-month-long event, which has inspired many other biennales around the world, are 89 nations with their own pavilions. Apart from the seven Indian artists in the main curatorial section, there are more Indian artists in one of the biennale’s collateral events and in the Iran pavilion this year.
Art in Venice
New Delhi-based Madhusudhanan is a curator’s delight. Enwezor picked him for Venice in Kochi after seeing his 90 charcoal drawings titled Logic of Disappearance, A Marx Archive. It was one of the highlights of the second Kochi-Muziris Biennale, which concluded on March 29 this year. In Venice, Madhusudhanan, a Kerala-born artist of the radical movement, adds 30 more drawings in a new work, Penal Colony, exhibited in the 46,000-sq-m Arsenale. The Arsenale also has the Bengaluru-based Mariam Suhail, and Rupali Gupta and Prasad Shetty, who run the Collective Research Initiative Trust in Mumbai. Madhusudhanan’s Penal Colony is about the massacre of prisoners in north Malabar by the British while transporting them in a wagon. Seventy people were killed in the incident known as the ‘Wagon Tragedy’. Thirty of Madhusudhanan’s original 90 drawings represent Logic of Disappearance, which is mounted at the Giardini. The works reflect the fall of Marxism, which, the artist says, was the “greatest dream seen by the human race”.
When Enwezor came to India last December, his first stop was the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi. A new exhibition of the Raqs Media Collective was starting and he was there for the inaugural event, Untimely Calendar, by Raqs founders Monica Narula, Jeebesh Bagchi and Shuddhabrata Sengupta. Their new work, Coronation Park, is the first thing a visitor sees at the Giardini venue of the Venice Biennale. Spread over two main walkways between the Central Pavilion and the country pavilions, the nine fibreglass sculptures echo the relics of the Raj in Delhi. As per the artists, Coronation Park, an assemblage of plinths, sculptures and plaques, commemorates neither victory nor defeat, but offers “meditations on hubris”. “Coronation Park is a provocation to think about power’s deepest anxiety: the inevitability of abdication,” they say.
Urbanists Gupta and Shetty, whose works in the past 15 years have reflected their engagement with cities, believe in new ways of looking at urban spaces. One of their recent works, Gurgaon Glossaries, was a compilation of terms that emerge while a new city gets settled. Trained architects, the artists carry on the theme of contemporary urbanism in Venice with Transactional Objects, which is mounted at Arsenale. In Transactional Objects, the artists present nine
objects—such as an astrologer’s chair, a shop under a staircase and a caterpillar library—in works combining art and architecture.
East is West
For the first time, India and Pakistan share exhibition space in Venice in a collateral biennale event, which has been conceived by Gujral Foundation’s director Feroze Gujral. A major patron of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, Gujral brings together the two Indian and Pakistani artists to examine the essence of a divided people. Titled My East is Your West, the exhibition shows the works of Mumbai artist Shilpa Gupta and Lahore’s Rashid Rana at the canal-side Palazzo Benzon in San Marco. “We come from a shared past, we have a divided present and we hope for a collaborative future,” says Gujral about the exhibition that proposes cultural cartography through installations, a video, a performance and digital print-based works.
Five Indian artists—Shilpa Gupta, Amar Kanwar, Riyas Komu, TV Santhosh and Hema Upadhyay—are part of an exhibition, The Great Game, in the Iran Pavilion in Calle S Giovanni. The Great Game explores the historically and culturally distinct territories of Iran, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Central Asian Republics and the Kurdish regions. Artists from these regions discuss the “great game” for supremacy in Asia playing out since the 19th century through works that intertwine political, economic, religious and social circumstances.
“There is a united energy flowing from India to the Venice Biennale,” says artist and Kochi Biennale Foundation president Bose Krishnamachari. “There are no more fights between artists and everyone wants to help the other,” he adds. Krishnamachari, however, rues the lack of a similar sentiment from the Indian government. “It is disappointing that India does not have a national pavilion in Venice. Even small countries have pavilions, and presidents and prime ministers come to inaugurate their countries’ exhibitions,” he says.
The last and the only time India had a national pavilion in Venice was in 2011 when cultural theorist Ranjit Hoskote curated the show, Everyone Agrees: It’s About to Explode. Indian artists say the government must act and invite a curator for the next Venice Biennale, and give complete freedom and funds to put together a national pavilion. Hoskote was in Venice at the opening of the biennale on May 9 as a member of the biennale’s international jury to award the Golden Lion for the Best National Participation, among other prizes. Also present on the occasion were art collector Kiran Nadar, Feroze Gujral, Bose Krishnamachari and other Indians participating in the main draw, and collateral and country pavilions.
The Kochi-Muziris Biennale and the India Art Fair are certainly strengthening the confidence of more and more Indian artists to venture beyond the country’s shores. The presence of seven Indian artists in the main curated section of the current edition of the Venice Biennale, compared to a lone Riyas Komu in 2007, Gigi Scaria in 2011, or Dayanita Singh in 2013, is a reflection of that confidence. Now, it’s time the government, too, shows the same confidence in the country’s artists.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer.