India manages a presence at the Venice Biennale this year, but the country needs a permanent pavilion
The 58th Venice Biennale’s curator Ralph Rugoff was in Fort Kochi when the fourth Kochi-Muziris Biennale opened in December last year. The American curator’s trip to India fetched him three participating artists at the international art exhibition that began on May 11 in the Italian floating city. There were two photographers—Delhi’s Gaury Gill and Kolkata’s Soham Gupta — and Mumbai-based contemporary artist Shilpa Gupta.
Rugoff saw Gupta’s work, titled For, In Your Tongue, I Cannot Fit, at the Kochi biennale where she mounted a multi-channel sound installation on the works of one hundred jailed poets from around the world.
Like Gupta in 2018, Gill was a participating artist at the Kochi Biennale in 2016, commenting on nature and nomadic communities through her photographs of graves in a desert in Rajasthan. “Ralph was in Kochi to see the works at the biennale. He spent a lot of time watching them,” says Kochi Biennale Foundation president Bose Krishnamachari. “The presence of three participating artists from India, especially in the main curated event, is important,” he adds.
“We should feel proud that India has participating artists and a pavilion at the Venice Biennale this time,” says Krishnamachari.
While Rugoff’s selection of three Indians in the main event (titled May You Live in Interesting Times) — to “reflect upon precarious aspects of existence today, including different threats to key traditions, institutions and relationships of the post-war order”— lifts Indian contemporary art, the pavilion leaves a lot to be desired.
That is because an Indian pavilion at the famous art exhibition is mostly an afterthought.
While smaller countries have a permanent presence in the national participation section of the Venice Biennale, an Indian pavilion comes after a gap of eight years, and only for the second time at the 124-year-old biennale.
For a country that swears by its ancient history and diverse culture, that is certainly not enough.
Calling for a national pavilion
“It is our responsibility to promote our artists,” says Krishnamachari, who chose Venice to announce the first Indian biennale in 2011. “It is a serious matter that such a big country like ours doesn’t have a representation. I am happy we have a pavilion in this edition, but we should have a permanent pavilion. Each country builds its own pavilion. We must take up a place and build one for our artists,” he says. Krishnamachari recalls the Argentinian president coming to Venice once to inaugurate his country’s pavilion at the biennale. “We should keep aside funds for such an important project as a permanent pavilion in Venice.”
The strong line-up at the Indian pavilion shows why artists are calling for a permanent venue at Venice to display their works. A collaboration between public and private institutions like the National Gallery of Modern Art and Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), the Indian pavilion at the Arsenale in Venice has modern and contemporary artists from the country. There are works of Nandalal Bose and MF Husain along with those of Atul Dodiya, GR Iranna, Rummana Hussain, Jitish Kallat, Shakuntala Kulkarni and Ashim Purkayastha.
“The India pavilion revisits, through diverse art forms, the indelible memory of Mahatma Gandhi, his philosophical ideas, and the many facets of Gandhi that continue to inspire, provoke and challenge the public, intellectuals and artists alike,” says Kiran Nadar, founder and chairperson, KNMA.
Curated by KNMA’s director Roobina Karode, the pavilion’s theme is Our Time for a Future Caring, reflecting the 150-year celebrations of Mahatma Gandhi. “The overarching theme critically engages with the figure and philosophies of Mahatma Gandhi, reflecting on his enduring impact and the contemporary relevance of his ideals. Gandhi acts as the focal point for different artistic interpretations, delving into broader issues of India’s history and nationhood, as well as more conceptual investigations into notions of freedom, non-violence, action and agency,” explains Nadar.
“These eight significant Indian modern and contemporary artists come from across India and their work reflects strikingly different responses to the figure and philosophies of Gandhi,” she says. The India pavilion, she adds, presents “a discursive, timely exhibition, which explores Gandhi’s enduring presence and considers history, memory and identity.”
Letter from Gandhi to Hitler
Jitish Kallat, who curated the second edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, has an installation, titled Covering Letter, a piece of historical correspondence beamed on to a curtain of traversable dry-fog. “It is a brief letter written by Mahatma Gandhi to Adolf Hitler in 1939 urging him to reconsider his violent means,” says Kallat. “There is a sense of perplexity in the way that Gandhi words his address. As the principal proponent of peace from a historical moment, he greets Hitler, one of the most violent individuals of that era, as a friend. Like many of Gandhi’s gestures and his life experiments, this piece of correspondence seems like an open letter destined to travel beyond its delivery date and intended recipient—a letter written to anyone, anytime, anywhere.”
The pavilion also has Haripura Panels by Nandalal Bose, paintings showing ordinary people like farmers and artisans that he made for the Congress’ session venue in Gujarat’s Haripura town in 1938. India is also participating in a collateral event in Venice. Sudarshan Shetty is once again among the 20 invited artists from across the world (including Ai Weiwei) chosen for the Glasstress exhibition. Curated by Brazilian artist Vik Muniz, artists will work with glass to explore how it “redefines perception of space”. The Venice Biennale will run up to November 24.