The whys and why nots of a residency
An artist residency is like a construction of utopia, as in these in-between-times, to summon Miro Zahra, 'dreams can change into spaces which it is worthwhile to occupy and then to defend.' It is also the space for transition where artists initiate a state of transformation while protecting its transparency to meditate, communicate and create. An important aspect of the residency is to safeguard its indefinite state and to celebrate the cross-currents of ideas of the nomadic artists who are given a temporary haven to spend time together and work.
It was this indefinite state of different artists assembled from disparate countries and backgrounds that threw up the challenge to Sumakshi Singh and Paola Cabal to mentor Religare Art Initiative's 'Connaught Place: The WhyNotPlace residency programme 2010'. Launched in 2009, this residency programme is a yearly programme of the RAI that invites emerging and mid-career artists to exercise their own conceptual and artistic sensibilities within a broad thematic framework suggested by a mentor. The idea of WhyNotPlace evolved when the RAI team was discussing the pros and cons of holding art shows at its gallery at Connaught Place in New Delhi during the afflicting heat of the ensuing summer months. At the same time, however, Connaught Place was about to undergo a transformation with repairs, decking-up and an influx of migrant labour, thus pulling the gallery as well, by virtue of its location, into the vortex of transformation. 'If the purpose of art,' wrote the RAI in its prologue to the residency, 'is to be both a mirror and a window, then this was a space where its practitioners could unleash its power to expand our mindscape to observe, understand and reflect upon these transformations at both a physical and spiritual level. Within and Without. So we said, why not.'
The mentors Singh and Cabal, who were once colleagues in the arts school of the Institute of Chicago, do themselves fit into the model of displaced nomadism by virtue of their origins and their lives. For them 'home is a state of mind and nationhood a transient reality, a transforming state.' They underwent a month of online mentoring and finally chose sixteen artists from India,
Europe, and the US who have either been in Delhi their whole lives – thus living the change, those who had intermittently visited Delhi – thus witnessing the change, and those who had never been to India before – and thus locating these changes in some theoretical context.
Delhi today, along with Rome, is part of an architectural palimpsest juxtaposing both the old and the new within its urban site and thus live simultaneously in many centuries. However, the desperate face-lifting of the city to host the Commonwealth Games was another marker to this transforming palimpsest and Connaught Place, as the city's commercial hub had been a part of this upheaval of reconstruction and repair. During the residency, the artists were asked to immerse themselves in this chaotic space in the midst of transformation and process, digest and perhaps question their impressions of the external and internal landscape in somewhat open-ended ways along with optional exercises, dialogues, slideshows, field trips, and studio visits. The outcome of such ambitious aspirations was the month-long curated (by the two mentors) exhibition 'The Transforming State' at the gallery of RAI from 10 to 31 August.
The selection of artists, however, seemed almost a bipartite divide between Indian and American participants with the rare exceptions of a British and an Italian-French one. Was it that few from other parts of the world responded to the online residency invitation or did the mentors, with their Indo-American backgrounds, chose to pick them up from their familiar turf? What I saw, nevertheless, was very diverse approaches, styles and treatments from the residents which compensated this sort of selection. Further, on the other hand, there were also intrinsic liaisons between apparently disparate art-makings. How weaving and knitting could attain different epistemic meaning could be seen in the cases of Megha Katyal from Delhi who from her childhood shares the practice of sewing with her mother, and Rebecca S. Carter from Dallas who made text fragments with threads around pins on the wall in her 'Saudade' series.
Katyal absorbed the stitching as a metaphor of what she called tanna banna (warp and weft) that knitted together every micro and macro aspects of her life and society. Her 'Home Sweet Home' was an installation of painstakingly woven white threads on and around wooden frames to reconstruct a 'perfect' room of perfect linearity with chosen objects in them – a promised land of order, stillness and perfection – as if she aspires to weave her own life in complete harmony with the threads of social forces. Carter on the other hand wove broken word phrases on the wall that evolved from diverse sources like corporate marketing, civic signage, hand-painted vehicle didactics, personal emails, and Elizabeth Bishop's last book of poems, Geography III. Her thread-drawings of words like 'an oh! of pain' coalesced at the centre but frayed into strands all around the edges like linear tangles of shrieks or lachrymose maze – lines that traced her emotional barometer although the text looked severed from any context, while accumulating new traces with the freedom to re-enter fresh circulation.
Wont to document her claustrophobic native Mumbai city through sketches, photographs and video, Kavita Singh Kale's take on Connaught Place's sporadic facelift 'Fragile, Strings Attached' was a tall wooden construction that framed ordered piles of acrylic boxes containing sculptural appurtenances of puny anthropomorphic forms and other objects signifying the dehumanization of urban folks. Her encased sarcasm in these transparent cubes contrasted the claustrophobic developments in a metropolis with the psychological degradation of its inhabitants with pungency. For inveterate New Yorker Becky Brown, however, art works are not vehicles for the transmission of set ideas, but conscious beings that grow and evolve according to their own logic. In fact, her usual 'found objects' (in fact what she is wont to find on her own for free in her native Manhattan she had to collect them here from Delhi's junk market), in her very pop reconstructions were 'redirecting their courses' as disruptive interventions as opposed to productive 'extensions of their lives' in her city back home. With rows of installed window frames and the likes – along with assorted objects and papers, colourful as if an entire paint-box was upturned, and paints – her 'Passages' was a kind of colourfully decorative sprinkle caroming between dynamic spread of consolidated streamlining of her fancy and spirit-numbing welter of optical kitsch. Her hybrid work blissfully defied categorization, but looked compositionally ordered.
As a painter, American artist Brad Biancardi used his wall space as if embossing on a concrete cloth, or mingling the two artistic mediums into each other – art and craft combined. Spreading repetitive kaleidoscopic designs that spread Islamic monumental sites on a pair of superimposed drawings of auto-rickshaws in 'kroW Work' he subverted the figurative and the non-figurative into a new environment in order to place the Delhi he wished to imagine.
A residency accommodates both art practices, one that arrives quietly in unexpected forms and that which is conceived consciously out of conceptual parameters. A few exhibits were not 'visually' christened which exhibition of 'art' finally is all about: the spirit of residency is one thing, exhibiting is another. An exhibition is more than mere translating the ideas that rolled in the Residency space; it requires skill, technique and visual appeal too! A very interesting concept of Chandigarh's Jitesh Malik on the multiple layering/un-layering upon the physical architectural dictates of a city that 'develops' continuously had a very bland reflection in his 'Whitewashed' exhibit. The public and private boundaries of his reconstructed plastered columns of Connaught Place cried for more visual appeal.
Another bland exhibit, an internalized take of the residency's theme of 'the transforming state', was by the Parisian Italian Raffaella Della Olga whose jigsaw art practice of artistic success and failure ('auto-derision', she told me, as she failed in her mission at Delhi's Lodhi Gardens to attract any listener although she carried a heavy iron ladder-stool and a loud-speaker there) may have an ironic link with Mallarmé's poem titled 'A Roll of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance.' She also intervened with her own art-brick in the row of bricks lying on roadside but did not wish to create much of a visual or arty impact as, in her words, 'art should affect me viscerally' instead of its visual impact.
A perfect example of fulfilling this question of visual appeal, on the other hand, was the inversion of volume conjured up in the mountainous 'Volume of Strings' by the Japanese artist Onishi Yasuaki. His use of freely gathered strings from Delhi's helter-skelter, the ignored by-products of urban culture, and then having them glued to build a hollow and empty mountain snatched all my attention due to the work's superbly minimalist visual impact, apart from its spell of pulling forth the reverse side of a stupendously solid object like a mountain with trivial means. Calcutta's Koustav Nag looked for the multiple temporal layers of the past and the present of Connaught place in a projection onto a book he had made. His dramatic suggestion of multiple layering was with bands whose forms looked like cells while using real time video with the use of CCTV camera on the backdrop.
We don't attend to the ripples, as Brian Massumi once pointed out, when we move habitually and half-consciously from one drop of life to the next. In other words, we just pass on to the next thing, hardly noticing what the last one was like. Does artistic practice trace the 'previous' in the 'present' – which is 'fixed' eternally in the present? Art that arrives quietly in unexpected forms, that creates an experiential connection to our world outside, that lingers with us subconsciously because of its refusal to immediately reveal what it means, that makes us re-investigate taken-for-granted territories, that reminds us that a singular vantage point isn't enough and neither is our first quick interpretation of an experience and artistic perception, is the one that also asks us to centralize the peripheral considerations and alternative texts. However, although such issues do always, and should, linger in the fecund territory of an art residency, it is artistic appeal that should have its final celebration.
ROMAIN MAITRA is an art critic and independent curator of contemporary art resident in Kolkata. He is also a cultural anthropologist by intellectual persuasion and worked as a consultant at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris.