Patriotism and the art pavilion

TNN - Ranjit Hoskote,

Every second year, when the Venice Biennale comes around, the Indian art world asks why we are not officially featured at the oldest of the

world's biennales. Inaugurated in 1895 and currently in its 53rd edition, Venice has consistently presented global contemporary art at its stimulating best.

While individual Indian artists have been invited to participate (this year's edition, curated by the Swedish-born, Frankfurt-based art theorist Daniel Birnbaum, includes Anju Dodiya, Nikhil Chopra, Sheela Gowda and Sunil Gawde), India's presence in Venice has previously been manifested through officially recognised `collateral events'. These include an exhibition mounted by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) during the 1980s, and iCon, a platform developed for the 51st Venice Biennale (2005) by a curatorium including Peter Nagy, Gordon Knox and Julie Evans, supported by the Bose Pacia gallery.

Does India really need a national pavilion at the Venice Biennale? I would offer a contrarian view. We should not even contemplate such a pavilion until we can demonstrate the self-critical maturity to transcend local politics and sustain it at an international level of excellence.

A national pavilion in Venice would register a triumphal note of arrival both for the Indian art world and for the Indian nation-state. It must embody the cultural accomplishments of the former and the soft-power ambitions of the latter. From bitter experience, we know that the Indian nation-state rarely articulates such ambitions with elegance and wisdom at high-profile international cultural venues. Similar exercises at the Frankfurt Book Fair, for instance, have ended in acrimonious displays of internal discord.

Let me make plain that I write, not as an observer with nothing at stake, but as a participant closely involved in these processes at various levels: as co-curator, with Okwui Enwezor and Hyunjin Kim, of the 7th Gwangju Biennale (2008), and as a member of the Lalit Kala Akademi's general council, addressing the revitalisation of the Indian Triennale. Not irrelevantly, also, I was the curator of the might-have-been India pavilion at Venice 2009. Funding for this collateral event, planned for the imposing Palazzo Cavalli Francetti on the Grand Canal, fell through at the last minute in the face of last year's global financial meltdown.

The first hurdle that I foresee is this: Who will decide which artist or artists will represent India? A national pavilion cannot exist without the government's imprimatur, and the government is vulnerable to demands for inclusive representation: meaning regional quotas. Many non-governmental curatorial representations of Indian art overseas have suffered equally from the desire to include artists across generations, idioms and regions, resulting in an appalling mess with no shape or direction.

Unlike China, which uses every international cultural venue to demonstrate its soft-power, India remains indecisive and incoherent on how to deploy its soft power. Meanwhile, the logic of national pavilions has come under fire in recent years. The Venice Biennale's embrace of this logic was understandable: in 1895, Europe's imperial nations appeared unassailable and few could have predicted the seismic end of industrial and colonial expansion.

Venice has held on to national pavilions through the rise and fall of Italian Fascism, Austro-German Nazism, and other forms of virulent nationalism. They remain convenient for reasons of tradition, as well as logistics and architectural convenience in a tightly stacked, labyrinthine, sea-menaced city.

But today, artistic and curatorial production has become increasingly transnational. Artists, curators, critics and collectors are constantly mobile. The studio can be as large as a 200-person workshop, as small as a laptop, as ephemeral as a conversation recorded on a flight. Is the nation-state still a compelling unit of cultural measurement?

Even in Venice, the logic of national pavilions has been undermined. For this year's German pavilion, the curator, Nicolaus Schafhausen, chose the British artist Liam Gillick, who works between London and New York and calls himself a "European socialist". Despite residual murmurs of nationalist sentiment, curators in the industrially advanced nations are free to choose their artists without regard to the played-out theme of national identity.

The tragedy is that we are demanding our right to sit at the high table when the high table is vanishing. The real challenge is to invent our own table to sit at.

(The writer is a cultural theorist and independent curator. He was co-curator of the 7th Gwangju Biennale, 2008)
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