Transcribed and revised by Ali Van
On the occasion of Deutsche Guggenheim’s exhibition, Being Singular Plural: Moving Images from India [Berlin: June 26 – October 10, 2010], Asia Art Archive in America invited Sandhini Poddar, Guggenheim’s Assistant Curator of Asian Art, to engage AAA-A and art colleagues in a conversation about contemporary video art from India.
Jane DeBevoise (JD): Contemporary video art from India is a fairly unexplored area for many reasons; it’s hard to see (there are a few venues that show it), and it can be quite demanding. Asia Art Archive is committed to providing a better understanding of this challenging art form, which is oftentimes political, and certainly diverges from what regularly circulates in the auction market. So, we are honored to welcome Sandhini Poddar today to talk about video art from India in the context of an exhibition she curated at the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin, opening on June 26th. Sandhini, thank you so much for coming.
Sandhini Poddar (SP): Jane, thank you for having me. Some of you have seen the Anish Kapoor commission at the Guggenheim, which was originally shown in Berlin in 2008 before making its way to New York. The exhibition that I will talk about today will also open at the Deutsche Guggenheim and is called Being Singular Plural: Moving Images from India. The planning for this exhibition began when I was invited last year by [Guggenheim’s chief curator] Nancy Spector to develop an exhibition on India, which I think is a very difficult mandate. Although I grew up in India, I never wanted to do a [nation] specific exhibition; whereas nation specific exhibitions may be relevant when looking at traditions of modernism, it becomes more problematic when looking at contemporary art, which is much more cosmopolitan, diverse, and really can’t be so easily pegged into these kinds of cultural and nationalistic categories. So, I found putting this exhibition together a challenge.The subtitle of the exhibition [Moving Images from India] was chosen for institutional reasons, however, from my perspective, it’s a moving image exhibition looking at film and video. All the practitioners, artists and filmmakers happen to currently live and work in India, but that’s it. There is nothing else about it that is specifically Indian.Therefore, I had wanted to entitle the exhibition solely as Being Singular Plural, but [Guggenheim’s Senior Curator of Asian Art] Alexandra Munroe advised me that it was too obtuse, too obscure, that I needed to help the audience find a way to enter the exhibition. So I took that seriously. There was a very beautiful book published in 1996 by the French philosopher Jean Luc-Nancy, whose work is often read by PhD students of contemporary cultural theory and political theory. Nancy is someone who very much believes in community, in the idea that the individual should always be seen in relation to the social, that I can never really exist without we. So, last summer, when I was planning this exhibition, I started thinking about what it was I didn’t want to do and thought: I didn’t want to do anything with artists I already knew, I didn’t want to do anything with a medium I already knew, and I didn’t want to have anything to do with the market.’ (I’m sharing these thoughts so you know a little about the curatorial process, at least what I underwent.) I wasn’t so familiar with film and video; it’s a very technical format and very process-oriented, and many of these artists have spent five to six years on a single project. It’s certainly not something that is distributed or circulated through auction houses or the art market, and it’s definitely not collected avidly, but in terms of research, in terms of engagement, in terms of perception, in terms of demanding a slowing down of viewership, it is why this project came to me and why I wished to engage in it.So far the fact that they all live and work in India is their only commonality. I didn’t want to do a survey show, or anything that could be easily packaged or easily identified. My colleagues at Deutsche Guggenheim in the course of planning the exhibition remarked that it is a very intellectual exhibition. (Laughter) And I thought ‘Yes, I’m sorry, but it is’. Hopefully it will also be a very beautiful one, once you experience it – and the good news is, it is coming to New York.Question: When?SP: Early 2012, which actually makes sense because a lot of the works you’ll be seeing today are works-in-progress; I didn’t want the artists and filmmakers to feel pressurized by the culminating event of an exhibition – I wanted them to feel that this was a point in time, like the moving image, which is itself a point in time. From this perspective the artists have the opportunity to go back to the drawing board, revise or rework and finish some of these projects so that they will be more complete two years from now.Question: So the exhibition that will be coming to New York should have evolved from what will be opening in Berlin?SP: In a certain sense, but I haven’t started to think about it at this time. The space [here in New York] is about one and a half to twice the size of Deutsche Guggenheim. Because I wasn’t sure if everyone was familiar with the Deutsche Guggenheim’s space, I have included a few slides to share at the end, so that you can consider not only the kinds of works we are showing and the artists who are involved, but also the relationship between art and cinema as these cinematic pieces enter the white cube.
Regarding my research for this exhibition, there were three initial points. The first was the idea of non-fiction butting up against fiction; what is the relationship between fiction and non-fiction? The next was, how does this manifest into film and video, and lastly, who are the people I really want to engage in conversation with? It’s been a very intense year of research and collaboration. Simple questions like: who am I, who are we, how do we speak to each other, how do I speak on behalf of you, how do we communicate; through interviews, through voice-overs, where is the self, where is the self in the artist, where is the self in the filmmaker, and how is this being projected through the moving image were also engaged over the course of the collaboration.
The first work I am going to show tonight is by Amar Kanwar, a wonderful filmmaker who was included in Documenta in 2002 as well as in 2007. This work was shown at the Hausderkunst [Munich, Germany] in 2008 and is called The First Torn Pages. It took five years to put together and initially the first videos, which are a series of single-channel projections, were conceived as individual free circulating videos. As he continued to do his research, he decided to combine them into an installation format. It looks at the struggle for democracy in Burma, a country that can’t entirely be identified with South Asia, or Southeast Asia. In fact, a lot of sociologists and historians have a hard time locating it. Relevant here in that we are looking at an artist working and living in a democratic nation like India looking at Burma, a non-democratic state.
As a filmmaker, Kanwar is the most overtly political in this exhibition. In curating the exhibition, I wanted to avoid the exhibition being typecast as ‘activist’, so I have selected a range of different kinds of communications, from extremely perceptual abstract moving images to fairly political themes.
As you enter this installation, depending on your point of view, you can engage with each video separately if you’d like. There are 19-channels, individually projected on beautiful floating sheets of paper, and the use of paper harkens back to the reason for this story; the commemoration of a Burmese bookseller who tore out the first page of every book before he sold them. So this piece refers to these magazines, yellow pages, novels and recipe-books circulating in Burma that Amar actually received through some of his friends who were a part of the Burmese diaspora living in Delhi. The reason the bookseller tore out the first pages was because on them would have been printed the military junta’s slogans for how a good citizen should behave – certain economic, social and political rules and regulations about how individuals should live in society. Of course, these slogans go against anything that could be considered democratic or free. In this private act of courage and resistance to the military, the bookseller tears out the first page of each book, and it’s that kind of commemoration you are seeing in this very beautiful installation that uses the page as its projection surface. Amar also published a book, which you can take a look at later that documents the kind of involved rigorous research project that he undertook for five years. He was hoping that beyond the exhibition, beyond what museums and galleries can do – which are very limited forms for display – this artist-book would be able to have a much wider distribution among the community.
Kanwar’s video consists of three parts: in the first part, there are a number of fragmented singular vignettes that look at individual Burmese students, writers, artists, who were all at one point in their lives put in jail by the military junta for their pro-democracy activism. At the end of my talk tonight, I will show you Amar’s work called The Face. It’s about the visit of Than Shwe, the head of the Burmese military junta, to Mahatma Gandhi’s memorial site in New Delhi in 2005. I recently received an email from Amar, and he mentioned things we don’t usually see or hear about in the Western press. There are students being tortured, Aung San [Suu Kyi], the Nobel Prize Laureate is still under house arrest, and a lot of these kinds of false, pseudo elections that, from the West, we think will lead to some sort of proto-democracy, some sort of revolution, but in fact the military has everyone under their tight control.
None of Amar’s work is overtly didactic; it is done in a way that is emotional and humanistic, and the fact that it’s on these very fragile pieces of paper reminds one of the fragility of life. Here are images of just a few more videos from it – here is one of the students who was in prison after the 1988 student uprisings; another student who was shot at thirteen and is being carried by two medical students; this is a pixilated digital photograph he received in a fairly corroded format and it’s in post-production right now, where Amar actually zooms in and out off this dilapidated image, as if to try to recreate some of the holes in the history and one’s own engagement with it – because he doesn’t really know what is going on himself. It’s very hard to get any information out of Burma these days. And as mentioned, another video looks at this kind of lapse in Aung San’s life and the fact that she is still under house arrest.
Another of Kanwar’s is this very beautiful installation that was shown at Documenta 11 and at Marian Goodman in March, called The Lightning Testimonies, this is a complex multi-channel video installation that starts with a single image spread across eight screens, which then begins to fragment. It tells the story of the history of sexual violence in Bangladesh, Pakistan and India, but again, is done in a way that is extremely personal. He went to interview some of these people in the north east of India, looking at tribal people, looking at city people, looking at issues in Kashmir and the Northeast like Assam – places that the central government ignores. At the end, it returns to a single-channel video, shifting from this very complex, multi-fragment, multi-channel video back to a single-channel cinematic experience. So, along with the content of the work, the formal aspects are also very interesting because he’s playing with different kinds of viewership and formats of communication within the realm of video art.
Question: Is Kanwar allowed to show this work in India?
SP: Yes. This is an interesting question, and problematic. On one hand he’s interested in museums and galleries in so far as they are venues for display and engaging in discussion, but he’s also interested in showing these as single-channels. Multi-channel videos are often reserved for the realm of art. On the other hand, he goes to a lot of universities and shows them as single-channel videos. He has said that he’s not just interested in museums and universities, but film festivals too – any kind of forum he can find, because these films can adapt depending on their setting. So, it’s really about circulation and reaching out to different kinds of audiences, to get them to think about these things, and to have them find their own relationship with these works. Here are some stills – they are really very beautiful; the whole cycle is about 30 minutes long. And, the way he communicates is really through straightforward documentary; through interviews, but also with passages of poetry, literary texts, and prose. So the textual element is fairly important to him too.
Kabir Mohanty is an artist who is turning fifty this year, and has practically gone unnoticed. He is extremely reclusive too; I had a hard time finding him as he is not someone who participates in exhibitions often but who is one of the most well read and well equipped artists working with video. He’s a true technician; he studied here in the States and has also given classes on electronic arts, film and video, and has been so busy in his own practice that he has kind of forgotten about the rest of the world. (Laughter) I love him for that though. So, through a friend of a friend, I found him. In respect to organizing this exhibition, I didn’t want to go through the normal channels to find artists who had already participated in exhibitions. Instead, I went to filmmakers and artists I respected and asked for names of artists I should be looking at, at this time. I went to India about four times last year, and visited many studios. What I learned through this was that many artists are very disillusioned with how curators work these days, and on how they conduct their searches. Quite often, international curators visit for a couple days and artists are asked to visit their hotel rooms and show their art on their laptops; there is little personal engagement, collaboration, and friendship that develops as a consequence to the meeting. One one hand, as a curator of the Guggenheim, I know I need to maintain certain professional distance, but I also really wanted to get into the work and process.
Kabir is someone who is interested in the perceptual or phenomenological aspects of video. The work that we are showing in Berlin is actually a work-in-progress, about four and a half hours long. It’s very immersive and demanding, but it’s a life’s work. He spent a decade working on it, so I felt that we should be able to spend four hours watching it. These are not straightforward videos; rather, they are all video installations and the exhibition rooms are designed to make the videos quite meditative. They slow you down and in a way prepare you to encounter these works. These are just a few stills from parts one and two called Songs from an Ancient Land, which is a personal rumination of what it’s like to be working and living in India. It’s about India’s people, its history, its democracy…but nothing within the videos appear to overtly signify any of these things. He loves playing with the camera and is very technical, so you’ll see periods of long exposure, the pin-hole, the physicality of the reel, of his hand, the craftsmanship that goes into the making of the work. There is a relationship between the hand and the eye, which you physically feel when you watch these videos. While these images [here] may not do the work justice, this sequence starts to give you a sense of what I mean of the physicality of video, and the technical maneuvering that he employs to engage with the subject matter.
For this sequence about the Bombay Bandra Reclamation area, Kabir contacted a number of photographers who archived the riots that took place in Bombay in 1992-93. He went into the photographic archives and created his own photographic contact sheets and re-photographed them with the moving images. So you see the original photographs, and then you see this very manic shift, where Kabir pans the camera quickly over the contact sheets. He has explained to me, ‘I’m looking at the chaos of the image, and the chaos of the image is predicating the chaos of the maneuver’. So the camera is following the content of the work.
Question: So, what sort of sound is accompanying the work?
SP: That’s a good question. He actually worked with a sound designer in Rome. The sound in this work is quite difficult to describe; it has very low frequencies and very high frequencies, so trying to find a way at Deutsche Guggenheim to isolate the sounds was a challenge – I didn’t want carpets or curtains, so we’re hiding the sound buffering in the walls themselves. We are also trying to find a way to lead people from one encounter to the next without creating isolated experiences, which is how most museums deal with problems with video-sound. Sometimes, you’ll hear a voiceover; a philosophical muttering or a poetic muttering, which gives you some sense of what you’re looking at, and sometimes sound is in the form of classical music, and sometimes it’s just ambient sound recorded on site. It’s a combination. But it’s extremely precise, so it really tunes your eye and ear into immersing yourself in the here and now. It’s not the type of video that allows you to be passive; they are meant to really engage the viewer and hopefully, to cause the viewer to sit and give it time as you would for a Jackson Pollock or a Rothko, maybe. He’s also very interested in the fact that video doesn’t have any fixed format – unlike film – and that it doesn’t have to sit in a cinematic frame, so he’s done videos that are literally on four-inch LCD monitors that of course he handled and hand-designed (Laughter). To view them, you sit at a table as though at a bar, but in fact you’re looking at these beautiful little video sketches. When I encountered them, I thought they were almost like preparatory drawings for a larger epic work, because some of the techniques that he used in his larger video you can better sense in the smaller, four to five minute sketches. Kabir is very interested in abstraction and painterly-ness. He’s almost like a painter working with video. Even though the subject matter is non-fiction, you can’t describe it that way.
Next are works by Desire Machine Collective, young filmmakers who I had a hard time finding because they live in Assam without much connection to the Internet, or telephones or GPS or any of that fun stuff like that (Laughter) and turns out it did take me about a month to find them. They have shown in film festivals but again, not in an exhibition format. The name, Desire Machine Collective, comes from a Deleuze-Guattari text called Anti-Oedipus. Anti-Oedipus talks of desiring machines, and desiring machines are really those who have this schizophrenic world view where the relationships between the human, the machine and the nature breakdown. And it’s not about the end product but instead about process and sublimation. Because I had this anti-market point of view, I loved the work. When I went to them, they said ‘Sandhini, there is no way we can get anything ready by the 26th of June’ and I said ‘Don’t worry about it, if it’s incomplete, we’ll show it as incomplete. I just want to engage you in the research that you are doing’.
So, they had been working on mini-DV, which is not, to be honest, an ideal video format, but when you don’t have a lot of resources, that’s what you use. That’s all that they had available to them, but they really wanted to work with 16mm film. I was able to find a way to help them get 16mm film. The piece that they are working on is being shot on 16mm film, to be transferred to digital video, and looks at their mutual environment in Gawahati, a tiny town in the Northeast. It looks at their coal history, the wars that had been fought for natural resources in the Northeast and the kind of lobbying, which is really controlled by Calcutta, that took place there. It’s so enigmatic; here the connection of nature and the machine is very succinctly put. And that’s what Desire Machine Collective is about. They started off in 2005 with fairly overt political videos looking at violence in the Northeast, and then later moved onto works that were much more abstract and difficult to define. Sonal [Jain] and Mriganka [Madhukaillya] work on their videos separately and then help each other when it comes to sound editing and post-production.
Sonal is very interested in what she calls ‘micro-narratives’; the lives of people in the Northeast who completely go unnoticed, even by the central government. She’s moving into these realms that are becoming more abstract, and she’s also doing research about Kashmir that I’m hoping will be included in part two of the exhibition at the Guggenheim (in New York). It will be a large photographic mural that incorporates the moving image. So, what you see here, somewhere in these windows will be a plasma screen with a moving image that looks at abandoned sites in Kashmir. In response to a question about the time it was taking to finish the piece about Kashmir, she said ‘You know, I know the Northeast because it’s where I am from; I know the politics, I know the army and I know the culture; it’s my ground, it’s my soil, but Kashmir isn’t; I feel like I need to do much more research in order to be able to say something about it’. I liked that. There are so many artists today who engage in politics and quite often do it in rather superficial ways.
Another project by Design Machine Collective is Periferry. For this project, the artists have taken over a barge on the river, and have invited artists from all over Southeast Asia to come together to do residencies in Gawahati. They wanted to find a way of traveling, to de-territorize the experience. So in September, we’re actually bringing it to Berlin. Not physically, but ideologically; we are recreating this barge project as a public program in September, where local filmmakers and artists – who are plentiful in Berlin – have a chance to engage and talk about their practices on the water.
The last work is by Shumona [Goel], who studied here in the U.S. at Bard, and Shai [Heredia], who studied documentary filmmaking at Goldsmiths in London. Again, they are fairly restrained and resistant filmmakers. Again, they are not people who normally participate in this kind of activity. Here, Sumona and Shai have made a new work called I am micro. This image here is a fairly pseudo-Bollywood image; again it’s a very new work, 16mm black and white film with sound. I am micro and Residue are still being edited. So, I’m going to see it for the first time along with everyone else in Berlin next week – which I also like.
Shumona is married to another documentary filmmaker, Ashim Ahluwalia, who is making a film called Miss Lovely, a kind of Bollywood side-kick film, a take and spoof on Bollywood. Shumona went and infiltrated his set. Here is an image of Shumona photographing on Ashim’s set. Along with questioning what is the female filmmaker doing on her very mainstream filmmaker-husband’s set, it’s also a commentary on the infrastructure that is available to filmmaker-women. She interjects it with images of defunct cinema halls and lab processing spaces in Bombay and Calcutta that once were part of a thriving film industry but now have completely fallen because no one really cares about them anymore. Then, she has also interviewed this very famous filmmaker and he provides the voiceover for the film, a man who reached the acme of his professional life in the 1980s but then quickly disappeared because he was part of this one big movement of filmmaking and was completely forgotten, like everybody else. The piece is really a personal rumination on the current state of affairs there. I haven’t seen it and had to beg for these images just so that we could publish something in the catalogue.
This next work was an installation made in 2008, where she took over an abandoned apartment in Bombay. Again, the artist was fairly hesitant about coming into the institutionalized space of a museum, preferring the work to exist in spaces that are under-repair and free of the specific viewership of the art world. She’s also interested in reviving old slides and cassettes and these kinds of outmoded devices as a way of commenting on 35mm film and high-definition modes of video. Here are a few images; she’s very much the archivist.
To give you some idea of the exhibition layout, I will show you a plan of Deutsche Guggenheim, to show you where all of this material is going to be situated, and the space we had to transform. It’s a 5000 square foot space and I didn’t want to do an exhibition that completely negates the architecture or the site-specificity of the space. It’s a fairly bland space, and all of the artists were like ‘Oh my god what are we going to do here!’ so here are just some initial sketches to show how we thought about creating relationships between Shumona, Amar and Kabir without carpets or curtains, which is the way one normally does it, and which I find hideous. Then, we came up with a solution, which took about six to eight months of engineering and research, which allows us to keep the windows open, to recognize the path that this exhibition will have from June through October. It creates these kinds of thresholds, where you have Residue, and then Amar’s large installation, and then a passageway…again the windows are open so there is some kind of relationship to the outdoors…and then you turn around and walk inside and you have this beautiful viewing room for Kabir’s videos; and then there’s a reading room up here that will have the catalogues and such, and as you walk up, Shumona’s piece will come into view. At this point, we weren’t even sure if Shumona was going to have four different videos, or only one, and this is our slightly old image, as of last week (Laughter). Today, we have just been informed that this is going to be a single-channel video presented first as digital video, and then towards the end of the summer as a multi-channel video.
JD: Video, as an art form, is challenging; how you study it, how you present it, how you engage an audience who don’t always have the time…Perhaps you can talk a little about this.
SP: This question of ‘how do you represent the moving image on the printed page’ is an important one and many catalogues unfortunately haven’t been able to show well. And that’s not to disrespect anyone else’s work. It took us a long while to figure it out and one of the ways we tried to do it was not just use a number of film stills but also include the time codes so that you’re reminded of the fact that this is a temporal activity. For our catalogue, we actually got all of the artists to go back and do screen-grabs of all of the videos. None of these images have ever been published before, so that was part of the challenge too.
Comment: One of the issues is the fact that technology changes and what museums are doing is trying to set up ways in which artists, while they are alive, can help out, especially when the technology changes and you can no longer show a film the way we are about to see it here. Questions like what do we do with that material, what happens to that material and what is the next step to having that material preserved, are all important.
SP: Preservation is another issue. Actually, our conservator at the Guggenheim is excellent and she’s a filmmaker herself. She did a one-hour crackdown symposium on how a collector, whether an individual collector or a museum, should preserve the work going forward. And yes, it’s none of the obvious stuff. For example, she said ‘DVDs, forget it. Five to seven years, and that’s it’. But most of us think exhibition-copy DVDs are fine, and a lot of collectors I know just stay on that basis too – they don’t go to the beta-cam, they don’t go into the interpositive of the 16mm film…they don’t know what to ask for.
Comment: And that’s why, communicating with the artist ahead of time, before the artist is gone, to be able to say: what is acceptable, do you acknowledge that this is going to be a problem for us in seven to ten years, how can you help us to make sure that this work can be perpetuated; it’s not a time frame that’s limited.
SP: Yes. Do you know the work of Fiona Tan? She was the artist in the Dutch Pavilion at the Venice Biennale last year. She’s on top of it. Included in the work one acquires are the equipment, the sound, the mixers, the master copies, and the exhibition copies too. All of the technology and equipment is part of the acquisition price, and that makes perfect sense. The archiving is simultaneously taking place as you collect it. And that’s what our conservator at the Guggenheim was saying, ‘Go back to the gallery, go back to the artist, as soon as possible, even before you acquire the work’. I mean, she’s giving me a hard time too with this exhibition (Laughter) saying ‘Before you officially bring anything back Sandhini, you better think about all of these things first!’
JD: So let’s look at one final video, The Face, by Amar Kanwar.
SP: Yes, so this is one of the nineteen videos by Amar Kanwar that started The Torn First Pages, and it’s the one where the Burmese General – the head of the military junta, Than Shwe – comes to Delhi to visit Mahatma Gandhi’s memorial. Obviously, it’s a very hypocritical act; you have the head of the military junta going to pay his respects for one of the greatest non-violent leaders of the 20th century. So what is India’s political relationship with regards to Burma? It’s an open-ended question, which is obviously quite problematic.
This video contains both silent and sound sequences. Experiencing silent video sequence. Up to this point, Amar was doing the camera work, and then at this juncture, he has just been shut down by the police. So, he had to find someone else to conduct the filming on his behalf because you had to have a special pass.
‘Excuse me Sir, excuse me! One more time Sir, one more! One more time, one more!’
(Than Shwe throwing flowers onto Mahatma Gandhi’s memorial site and simultaneously smiling for the camera)
JD: Sandhini, thank you very much. That was an extremely interesting video and talk.. You have presented some very compelling work. We look forward to continuing the discussion. Thank you.
Sandhini Poddar joined the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in March 2007 as the institution’s first Assistant Curator of Asian Art, part of the museum’s Asian Art Program. She is responsible for developing exhibitions, educational programs, and acquisitions of modern and contemporary Asian art.
She is the curator for Being Singular Plural: Moving Images from India, which was recently on view at Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin, and will be traveling in an expanded format to the Guggenheim Museum in early 2012. Poddar is a member of the curatorial working group for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and is involved with the Guggenheim Museum’s Young Collector’s Council. Previously, Poddar curated The Deutsche Bank Series at the Guggenheim: Anish Kapoor: Memory, a commissioned project for Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin (2008), which was on view in New York in 2009–10. She also served as the assistant curator for Cai Guo-Qiang: I Want to Believe (2008–09) and The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860–1989 (2009), and was a jury member for the 2008 Hugo Boss Prize. Poddar graduated with a Master’s degree in Visual Arts Administration from New York University, and has additional Master’s degrees in Indian, Islamic, and South East Asian Art History and Aesthetics from Bombay University.