Friday, May 08, 2015

Sweeping Venice off her feet

Merely in its second edition, the Kochi Muziris Biennale has begun to reveal the impact of exhibiting art in public spaces, integrating the city and its people into a narrative that is less intimidating or exclusionary than art fairs or other expositions. No wonder the 56-edition-old Venice Biennale is among the most powerful of art events worldwide, drawing in visitors to its often site-specific exhibits in the palazzos and other public spaces since its opening in 1895.

Allowing for some interruptions during the two World Wars, the biennale has remained relevant, though it has not always been without its hiccups. While artists such as Gustav Klimt, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Gustave Courbet were exhibited here in 1910, the same year a painting by Pablo Picasso was removed for its perceived shock value. Indeed, Picasso only made his appearance at the biennale in 1948 - a year after the Progressive Artists' Group in Bombay had begun to make waves in India, shocking Bombay's genteel public with their first group exhibition in 1949.

But 1948 was also the year that Peggy Guggenheim was invited to exhibit her New York collection of art that she had assiduously built up and turned into a museum, marking the importance of patronage - and collectors - in the creation of art destinations. That has not happened yet in India with organisations still paying only lip-service to collectors at a time when most state museums are stretched for funds and can no longer be relied on to become repositories of the art of our times.

India's contemporary artists have been shown at the Venice Biennale supported by promoters and curators in the West - Subodh Gupta's Very Hungry God springs famously to mind - and the only time the country had a national pavilion was in 2011 when Ranjit Hoskote curated an exhibition of works by Zarina Hashmi, Praneet Soi, Gigi Scaria and The Dream Machine. This year, the Gujral Foundation is participating with the curiously titled My East is Your West that dwells on the phenomenon of dualities with works by Indian artist Shilpa Gupta and Pakistani artist Rashid Rana. In a collateral event, Seema Kohli's Hiranyagarbha or Golden Womb series will be shown at Personal Structures, questioning the conundrum of time, space and existence.

At the time of writing, New Delhi is beginning to empty as the art fraternity heads for the cooler climes of Europe, finding a place for Venice in their travels. India's lack of a visible presence might be embarrassing, but this is the place to view the art of our times, as future stars are allowed to question and provoke, but also evoke our admiration. This year, the Iceland pavilion's transformation of a former church into a mosque by artist Christoph Buchel has created a storm of views from which some discourse might yet emerge. Venice might not famously be the Oscars of the art world but for six months now it will be at the cusp of art and civilisation, offering us a tantalising glimpse of how future generations will view our current times.

It also offers the art world an opportunity to schmooze. Here the great and the good will rub shoulders with the pretenders and wannabes. The smorgasbord of art and conversation is heady, more potent than the champagne that will be served and the cheese that will be nibbled. India's presence as participants might be fleeting, but you can be sure that among those who navigate Venice's canals and bridges will be many who hold Indian passports - and dreams - close to their chests. With the hope that, one day not too far away, its artists will sweep Venice off her feet.

Kishore Singh is a Delhi-based writer and art critic.New Delhi 

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