India: Art Now at the ARKEN Museum of Modern Art, Copenhagen

ARKEN Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Lars Skaaning

Manjari Sihare in conversation with the Director of the ARKEN Museum, Christian Gether

Copenhagen: On August 18, 2012, a large conglomeration of visual and performing artists, filmmakers, fashion designers, authors, business professionals and scientists from India descended upon the city of Copenhagen for a much awaited project hosted by a mix of premier Danish institutions including the ARKEN Museum of Modern Art, the CPH Pix Festival, the Royal Danish Theatre, the University of Copenhagen and the Copenhagen Business School. Titled India Today-Copenhagen Tomorrow, this massive Indian-Danish culture project is aimed to acquaint Danes with modern India and its vibrant culture and dynamic economy. The project was inaugurated with a large exhibition of contemporary Indian art and fashion at the ARKEN Museum of Modern Art. Located 15 minutes south of Copenhagen, the museum is known for its modern and contemporary art exhibitions, one of the most important public collections of iconic British artist, Damien Hirst, and its building structure in the shape of a ship in marine surroundings. The art exhibition titled India: Art Now is the museum’s biggest exhibition ever. Participating artists include Rina Banerjee, Hemali Bhuta, Atul Dodiya, Sheela Gowda, Shilpa Gupta, Subodh Gupta, Jitish Kallat, Reena Saini Kallat, Rashmi Kaleka, Bharti Kher, Ravinder Reddy, Vivan Sundaram and the artist duo Thukral & Tagra. I am delighted to have had the opportunity to speak with Christian Gether, the Director of the ARKEN Museum, about this exhibition and the museum’s programming and collection.

Vivan Sundaram, Aztec Deity, 2011. Courtesy of the artist.

Q. Could you please tell us a little about the project India Today-Copenhagen Tomorrow? Please also throw some light on the choice of title?

A: We are deeply fascinated by India. It is a nation with a tremendous tradition and a very dynamic relation to the rest of the world. From this a very energetic and interesting art scene has arisen. We are convinced that the Indian way of thinking today will play an important role in the way that Copenhagen will develop tomorrow. Hence the title.

Q. How did the idea for this project come about? Why India?

A: For a long time we have been interested in showing contemporary art from India, as India is the next focus point for international art collectors. We were then approached by The Holck Larsen Foundation which is established by one of the founders of the construction company L&T (Larsen and Toubro India) which said: If you will produce an exhibition on contemporary art from India, then we will pay the costs. So our wish of showing contemporary art from India suddenly came true.

Rina Banerjee, Preternatural passage came from wet whiteness and mercantile madness, paid for circular migrations, she went thirty six directions that is all the more different, where empire threw her new born and heritage claimed as well, this lady bug was not scarlet her wound was rather shaped like garlic seemed colored, a bit more sulfuric, could eat what was fungus her cloth punctuated by tender greenness she seemed to be again pregnant, 2011. Courtesy of Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris-Bruxelles

Q. I understand that the selection of the 13 artists in the show is made with the intention of revealing dimensions that extend beyond ideas of an ‘exotic’ India. For decades Indian art has been plagued with the term ‘exotic’.  How did this conceptual framework come about?

A: In the art circles of today, a hot topic is ‘migratory aesthetics’. That is the new visual expression that arises from the dialogue between a local culture and the global impact. What we have tried to do is to show the art that is a synthesis of the Indian and the global culture. Indians are very open-minded and they travel and settle all over the world – and they have English as their common language so there is no barrier between the Indians and the rest of the world. Therefore they take in the best of the global culture and combine it with their experience of existence in India. A new visual language is established which fascinates the rest of the world. That is what we found unfolded in the 13 selected artists in the show.

Q. Some of the works are especially commissioned for the show? Could you elaborate on these works? 

Rashmi Kaleka, Chhota Paisa (Small Change), 2012
Surround sound installation with video component
Courtesy of the artist and the Swiss Arts Counsil Pro Helvetica in 2011-12

Jitish Kallat, The Cry of the Gland, 2009. Courtesy of Haunch of Venison, London

A: One of them is an audio installation by Rashmi Kaleka titled Chotta Paisa.When we saw Rashmi Kaleka’s work at her house in Delhi we were immediately deeply fascinated. With a modern recording device, the video camera, she had registered the early morning on the roofs of Delhi and combined it with the sounds of the street vendors and other sounds from a metropolis that is wakening. It is an intense revelation of a common daily ritual that we can all relate to.

The other is Jitish Kallat’s work where he has produced at series of photos of shirt pockets filled with notebooks pencils and rulers, which signalizes identity and importance of the owner. It is a very accurate observation on symbols of power structures in a society.

Q. What are some of the highlights of the exhibition?

A: I am very keen on Subodh Gupta’s installation with the brass pinnacles, which are bound together with thin, but strong strings. It shows the dialogue and interdependence of different religions. Ravinder Reddy’s women heads are also fascinating because they refer to a classical Indian tradition and to modern pop art simultaneously.  It is Indian in the modern world.

Subodh Gupta, Terminal, 2010. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Anders Sune Berg

Ravinder Reddy, Untitled, 2007-08, Courtesy: Private Collection, India

Q. The project has an important online and social media component to facilitate exchange in the form of Co-Create Now an online platform facilitating conversations, inspiration and exchange of experiences between Indians and Danes. Please elaborate.

A: Here at ARKEN we are extremely focused on the dialogue with our visitors. We reach out to everybody on different media platforms and like to involve the visitor as much as possible. We would like to have the visitor to employ his or her own experience of existence in a mental dialogue with the experience of existence which you find in the art work. Thereby the visitor becomes wiser on himself and on life as such.

Q. How has the response to the exhibition been?

A: The response has been overwhelmingly positive. The critics love the exhibition and so do the visitors.

Q. The Arken Museum has an active acquisition policy for international contemporary art mostly from the 1990 onwards. Are there any works of Indian artists in the collection? Could you tell us about the museum’s future acquisition plans for Indian art, if any?

A: We do not have any works of Indian origin in the permanent collection, but hopefully we soon will. I cannot reveal any names, but of course we are very fascinated by the artists that we have selected for the exhibition. We hope to find a private benefactor who will help us to buy art from India.

Q. What are some of the highlights in the museum’s collection?

A: We have one of the world’s biggest public collections of works by Damien Hirst. It was established with the help of a private donor and the great support by Damien Hirst himself and the owner of White Cube in London, Jay Joplin.

We have a fantastic video by Bill Viola called ‘Silence , Gold and Silver’ which we bought many years ago when we could still afford it. The same applies to our big installation by Mona Hatoum which we also bought more than 10 years ago.

Recently we acquired nine huge works by Anselm Reyle, also with the help of a private donor. Otherwise it would be completely impossible as most art museums have very tight budgets nowadays. To make these big and important purchases we need private donors who will help us get the best art pieces. That also applies to our wish for including art from India.

Damien Hirst, Love’s Paradox (Surrender or Autonomy, Separateness as a Pre-condition for Connection), 2007. Photographed by Prudence Cumming Associates © Damien Hirst & Science Ltd. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2011.

Mona Hatoum, Misbah, Photo Anders Sune Berg

Anselm Reyle, Wagon Wheel, 2009
Photo: Per Morten Abrahamsen

Q. Which exhibitions over the past few years has been a particular source of pleasure for you?

A: I think that INDIA TODAY for a very long time will have a special place in my heart. It has been a fantastic experience to get to know a little corner of the contemporary art scene in India – and it has been a great experience to meet the dynamic culture in India and also the kindness and generosity of the Indian people.  Earlier on we have made big exhibitions on artists such as Edvard Munch, Chagall, Dali, German Expressionism and contemporary art from Berlin etc. Recently we had a colossal exhibition by the Danish artist Olafur Eliasson. All good art is fascinating and unforgettable.

Q. Which exhibitions in the next few years would you recommend? Is there anything else related to Indian art on the cards?

A: If we have the possibility i.e. money, we would like to expand our relation to art from India by including Indian art works. In the coming years I can mention a show by the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera. We will also show Picasso, and in 2015 we will show Monet. In addition to that we will show a series of contemporary artists from all over the world. In that series it is very likely that we include artists from India.

India: Art Now is on view until January 13, 2013. Read more. 

Thukral & Tagra, THE ESCAPE! Resume/Reset, 2012. Courtesy Thukral & Tagra Studio and Gallery Nature Morte

Indian Art at SH Contemporary 2012

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. 

Gyan Panchal, pelom 2, 2012
Now Ink
Courtesy: Jhaveri contemporary, Mumbai

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. 

Rohini Devasher, Arboreal, 2011
Now Ink
Courtesy: The artist and Project 88, Mumbai

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, Untitled, 2012 (front and side views)
Commissioned by the Creative India Foundation

Aaditi Joshi, Untitled, 2012
Commissioned by the Creative India Foundation

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 Media Collective, Whenever the heart skips a beat, 2012
Commissioned by the Creative India Foundation
Courtesy: The artists, Project 88, Mumbai and Creative India Foundation
Image courtesy: Diana Campbell

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. 

Manish Nai, Untitled works, 2012
Now Ink
Courtesy the artist and Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke

Read more about SH Contemporary 2012

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. 

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