Manjari Sihare speaks with Diana Campbell about the India Focus projects at SH Contemporary, the premier Asia Pacific Contemporary Art Fair in Shanghai, China
SH Contemporary is one of the most successful art fairs in China, as it captures the dynamism of the Chinese art market as well as the spirit of Shanghai, a truly creative city that bridges business, culture and innovation. The 6th edition of the fair took place in the spectacular Shanghai Exhibition Center, one of the city’s landmarks, from 7–9 September 2012. SH Contemporary was organized into two main sections: The Art Show with over 100 selected exhibitors, and SH Contemporary Projects. The latter included an exhibition oncontemporary ink and calligraphy-related multimedia works titled Now Ink, and Hot Spots consisting of large scale and site specific projects by various artists. The Indian component of Hot Spots was presented by the Creative India Foundation and curated by Diana Campbell, the founding director and chief curator of the foundation. Campbell shared details of this project with me:
Q: Give us an overview of SH Contemporary’s India Focus?
A: For this rendition of SH Contemporary, the director Massimo Torrigiani wanted to complement the fair by supporting large scale curatorial projects. There are curated exhibitions, such as Now Ink (artists reflecting on the traditional Chinese medium of Ink and calligraphy), Hot Spots (monumental new commissions), and First Issue (curated solo projects by young artists). I was invited to add to the fair’s curatorial programming by contributing my knowledge of Indian art to the fair’s programming. What is great is this is not an ‘India’ show per se, the artists are integrated into the overall exhibition for the quality of the work. The artists included in the India Focus projects do not have galleries with booths at the fair, which shows the commitment of the organizers to showing good works and creating quality exhibitions, not just highlighting the works of their exhibitors’ artists.
Q: How did this project take fruition? Please highlight Creative India Foundation’s role in Focus and the SH Contemporary Fair in general?
A: I met Davide Quadrio, the director of ArtHub Asia, who was in charge of the special projects, because we were both speaking at a public art conference in London. He was interested in the work I have been doing, and he and Massimo Torrigiani invited me to come to China to do a site visit. I was taken with the space and the potential to present Indian creativity to such a wide audience. I also studied Chinese in school, so personally I was interested in revisiting the art of this region. The Creative India Foundation supported new commissions and my curatorial work for the fair. The Foundation is presenting the work of Indian artists, and this way the work that is displayed is not tied to a particular gallery or region.
Q: Could you talk a little about the significance of India being the inaugural country for SH Contemporary: Focus? With the Indian Highway exhibition at the Ullens Center in Beijing and now the SH Contemporary: Focus, could we say that finally this is the start of a cultural exchange between the two countries which have so far had their buzzing contemporary art scenes restricted to their own fortresses?
A. I certainly hope so! There are many challenges navigating between the ‘fortresses’, but I hope that the growing interest in India will create new opportunities for Indian and Chinese cross-cultural exchange. There is already another exhibition with Indian artists right around the corner. I am co-curating the Mumbai City Pavilion for the Shanghai Biennale (which is exploring city rather than national pavilions) and there will be 9 artists in that exhibition – it opens in a month.
Q: China is known for its censorship rules as we saw in the recent episode at the Ullens Center (removal of Tejal Shah’s work at the behest of the Indian government). Did you encounter problems of this kind with your curation? Were the proposals and final projects vetted by the Chinese authorities before, during and after the works were installed?
A: Everything must be vetted by the censorship board months in advance. None of my works were particularly controversial, so I was fine. However, there were some works that were pulled by the censorship bureau at the opening – and since one was in the catalogue – the catalogue is now banned. Sometimes censorship can create more interest (like Ai Wei Wei). Tejal Shah’s piece ironically was an Indian Embassy instigated censorship situation, they pressured Beijing to pull the video, otherwise it would have been fine.
Q: You have also co-curated the theme-based exhibition, Now Ink. Please elaborate on the works of artists featured herein: Gyan Panchal, Manish Nai and Rohini Devasher?
A: Gyan Panchal, Rohini Devasher, and Manish Nai join a group of East Asian artists who explore the very traditional use of ink in new ways. In Gyan Panchal’s work Pelom 2, he transforms a found piece of marble which had been artificially painted green. He subtly removes the green ink trying to get back to the stone’s original color, and the result is quite beautiful.
Rohini Devasher’s beguiling video Arboreal uses video feedback to produce beautiful tree like forms which resemble ink drawings, but actually do not use ink at all. Manish Nai uses watercolor to transform photographs of cracked walls by adding further dimension to them. This exhibition has been incredibly well received and has been invited to show in Venice during the Biennale as a satellite exhibition.
Q: Please tell us about the new projects by Shilpa Gupta, Aaditi Joshi and Raqs Media Collective commissioned by the Creative India Foundation?
A: Shilpa Gupta was an ArtHub Asia collaboration, and their team searched the country to find a calligrapher who could write the Chinese Arabic script called Xiao er Jing. The piece says “I Live Under Your Sky Too” in English, Chinese, and Xiao er Jing, and with ArtHub’s support will travel to a public place in Shanghai soon. Shilpa is also in the biennale – so she is having quite a China moment. She also designed the costumes for the Paris Opera having to do with China earlier this year.
Aaditi Joshi created and completed works in China. It was her first time out of India, and she had a production based residency and collaborated with Chinese workers. She created a beautiful mountain like sculpture which graces the west wing entrance, and the plastic form is reminiscent of Chinese scholar rocks. Her work has been invited to show in a UNESCO Heritage building called Bund18, so the project will take a longer life.
Raqs’ work, Whenever the Heart Skips a Beat, is a work I have a long involvement with since I commissioned the original video for the India Art Fair projects I curated last year. They created stills of the clock work and translated them into Chinese – and these projections were displayed in monumental size in the main hall.
Q: This is actually the second time that SH Contemporary has prioritized India, the first being in 2008 to showcase the Best Discoveries project by Delhi based curator, Deeksha Nath. Would you have any insights from the Fair organizers about the perception and reception towards Indian art in 2008 and now?
A: The fair has had many changes in leadership (which is one of its criticisms) so no one has been discussing the past projects.
Q: SH Contemporary is considered to be the most important art fair in China having preceded ART HK in its inception. How are the two different, if at all? Do the tax free import and English language environment give ART HK an edge over SH Contemporary?
A: I would think the user friendly logistics of Hong Kong would make it a much more internationally friendly for exhibitors. However, for the Chinese market, SH Contemporary brings the best of Asian art domestically and serves this market beautifully, and there are real tax benefits to buying overseas. I was at dinner with directors of Art HK and Art Stage Singapore last night, and I think all three can co-exist and thrive together as they don’t necessarily have the same client base. SH Contemporary’s curatorial projects were a strong addition to navigating the chaos of an art fair. I was intrigued by Pablo Rudolf’s (Lorenzo Rudolf’s son) plans for Art Stage Singapore with an Indonesia Pavilion with completely new commissions. I sponsored a project for Art HK in the past and I think the way the booths were organized wasn’t that friendly to the smaller Asian gallery exhibitors – I think this is going to change now that the leadership is Art Basel, though. I think the India Art Fair is definitely at risk when it comes to Art HK, at least with having international exhibitors.
Q: What has the response been like? China is known to represent the new breed of international art collectors. Have these collectors expressed any interest in Indian art?
A: The response has been great, and there’s been good interest in Indian art, especially Manish Nai. There are many new museums opening in China and they are beginning to have a more pan Asian focus.
Diana Campbell is Founding Director and Chief Curator, Creative India Foundation, Hyderabad, a private foundation which advances Indian contemporary art globally and is developing India’s first international sculpture park. She is a guest contributor on our blog. To read her previous posts, please click here and stay tuned for more.