A Personal View about a Biennale
Besides the sanctimonious arena of the museums, landmark locations of biennales are also significant sites where art is coherently presented to the public today. These sites intermittently re-appear as peripheral extension of the museums in their elements of throbbing mobility, contemporaneity and transience. Biennales are also crucial platforms for conceptual inquiries into the cultural and political conditions of different regions and nations that actually bring together artists, curators, institutions and viewers into intellectually and aesthetically vital interrelationships – this is how they make sense of contemporary art practices in varied mediums by a brand of art-makers whose communities are now more regionally and globally connected than ever.
But what happens when a biennale takes place without a declared curator? How to supplement the intrinsic energy, craft and knowledge that a curator generates and invests towards shaping a grand exhibition while forming and influencing opinions on art? I felt this absence of curatorial intervention while touring through the 17th Asian Art Biennale Bangladesh (1-31 December, 2016) in Dhaka, an exhibition grand in intention but one that fell short of a thematic coherence. I thought it best, therefore, to be a flâneur in the spacious halls of Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, the Biennale's venue, and try to extract meaning out of some of the works on display. A total of 478 artworks of 357 artists from 54 countries were on display. Contrary to what the title suggested, these 54 countries included nations beyond Asia: Chile, Poland, Italy, Croatia, to name a few,, thus making the title of the Biennale a misnomer.
Putting these aside, this Biennale was an occasion through which I could experience the current trends of art in Bangladesh, especially those practised by the country's younger artists who occupied a considerable portion in this Biennale. Many of these fresh talents created socially engaging works while referencing new languages of global art trends; others negotiated with folk and rural traditions and symbols as ingredients for their art. Another significant form that provided vigor to the show was the various performance art events throughout the site, a few of them integrated with installations exhibited there.
I always have a strange feeling when I walk through an immense art exhibition,
because as I walk I get to exchange passing glances with some of the art pieces lined up in a row, although the choice as to which ones I would respond rests with me. However, the advantage of an unclassified presentation is that walking through it may store surprises at any turn and they may elicit different, or even opposite, reactions. Here, let me only point out those which I liked, and enjoyed stopping at and gazing over.
Out of the three recipients bagging the Grand Award, Kamruzzaman Shadhin from Bangladesh used the astute passage from Gunter Grass's The Rat in his sculptural installation Greed in which heaps of innumerable rats, each minutely sculpted on armatures, were assembled along a run-down wall. To quote Grass, 'Wherever man had been, in every place he left, garbage remained…. By his garbage, which lay stratum upon stratum, he could always be known, for more long-lived than man is his refuse. Garbage alone lives after him.' The idea of this work evolved in a Santal village, in which Shadhin experienced a marked change in lifestyle and environment, and how hybrid crops and excessive use of insecticides had driven away foxes, owls, eagles and many other animals that helped maintain the biodiversity and ecosystem of the region. Besides, the rats that the Santals used to hunt before had increased exponentially and invaded their houses, while reversing the hunter-hunted equation.
The enigmatic painting God In The Numbers by American artist and musician Edem Elesh was an exploration into the metaphysical fabric that shrouds our world. It seems Elesh intended to document the clues of the natural elements (panchabhuta) that reveal themselves on the surface of this physical plane, through the mixed media of oil, tar, patina, sand and pencil on aluminium. His compulsive interest in numerology (of which he spoke to me later) evidently reflected in the title of this work that examined the expression of supernatural grace in the forms of multiple spirals that seemed to have mystically indicated that there are several paths or options of life – each with its own destiny, with excitements, disappointments, pitfalls, and rewards.
Elesh later said to me, 'Basically, I am documenting ‘proof’ of spiritual existence, and laying out the red carpet for the arrival of divine grace and I call my working method ‘Process and Providence’. By this process and providence, I have created the work and I am both surprised and enlightened by what is being created.' In other words, he is never sure of the outcome of his work, and this alone best explained the slippery outcome of his spiritually invoked art practice – in a way, as if conditioned by satori, like jumping into a void, to a new dimension.
The Grand Award also went to the Chile-based artist Dagmara Wyskiel's video and sound installation Joint Game that showed the journey of an enigmatic giant golf ball rolling through diverse landscapes – a desolate desert, a glacier, a crowded sea port, and even busy cities. All through its journey in different kinds of locations, there was a mystical invocation to emptiness through the use of the spherical golf ball suggesting that profound emptiness could prevail in the most deserted or crowded of places, or even in the galaxy while the ball stopped at Chile's ALMA space observatory.
Another recipient of the Grand Award was the Bangladeshi artist Harun-ar-Rashid whose spectacular installation The Restless Wave of Time comprised several pale and expressionless sculpted faces that kept rolling directionless on a multi-hued surface with psychedelic motion-graphics of ever-changing designs projected on them. In this piece, the artist referred to the divergence between the cherished social utopia and the actual social reality dramatized by the puppet-like rolling movements of these heads like the balls of a charged bagatelle game in disarray.
The roads of Dhaka may have other names, but for me they have one name – Fiasco. They are often nightmares of immobility. To move from one place in the city to the other can be a herculean task, primarily on the main roads where vehicles of all shapes and sizes push one another to simply roll by an inch, if at all they do, and often they don't. And yet, you would reach your destination if you are not frugal with your time. Roads of Dhaka, the well-lit eye-catching installation against the darkness of its surrounding space, by Dhaka-based Kuntal Barai, conveyed this metropolitan nightmare of traffic jams and gridlocks. The installation also looked like an essay about abstraction on space, a playful association between light and dark, a balanced use of vertical image and horizontal floor, and a deft blending of image-making and lettering of words. Understandably, it received the 'Honourable Mention Award'.
In the architectural installation titled Reading from of the Gendered Land by Sanchayan Ghosh from Santiniketan, India, three circular spaces were padded up with sandbags under textile shamiyanas (awning). Here, at specific times, a group of women performed while reading chosen excerpts from epics, plays and contemporary feminist and environmental discourses. The work took its cue, as Ghosh indicated, 'from the notion of “land” from Plato's Cave to Hitler's Bunker as a basic structural framework of patriarchy, war, occupation and incorporates the idea of motherhood as a natural organic space in between that epitomizes compassion and care.'
Almost everyone cherishes some dream or the other, or keeps engaged to chase touch-me-if-you-can illusions. Although there are quite a few others who are too lazy even to dream or to exert any effort. The Bandung-based Indonesian fashion artist Tiarma Sirait, however, wished to celebrate her dreams through her Won't Ever Be series of hyper real acrylic paintings on canvases. She is known to have explored themes of mass consumerism, love and lust, and contemporary foreign influences on Indonesian culture in her paintings and fashion designs. In these works, she painted herself in skin-tight swimsuits, floating on her back in a swimming pool while striking multiple gestures. The paintings with their photographic qualities, further ratified by the reflection of grid-like net in each of the pool’s waterbed, could also lend themselves to a variety of interpretations according to the viewers' own terms.
Oman-based Moosa Omar's composite assemblage of cloths and acrylic paints on overlapping layers of jute was a new approach to art-making on canvas. Entitled Myths Buried in Silence, it evoked excavation fields, with mummified mementos, meant for unearthing the lost stories now forgotten.
Melbourne-based Australian illustrative artist Eddie Botha's highly detailed drawings and paintings were filled with recurring doodle-like drawings of human faces and bodies, and animals, and their apparently strange mutual interactions. Combining street art, draftssmanship, collage, lettering and electronic manipulation, Botha's art is usually marked for being capriciously droll and sarcastic that addresses the human follies, fixations and the ills of the society that he perceives around him. His mixed media creations are kind of patchwork that usually combines the spirit of comics, or street art with the sensitivity of meticulous ink-drawing, which metaphorically depicts the vagaries of human nature, politics, sexuality, mass media and so on in jocular, cartoonish vein. However, a second reading of them can cast shadows of irrevocable despair on the works. His Love Your Neighbour was one such work in mixed media in which a welter of human faces and figures were all severely conjoined in a cumbersome, although playful, morass. His Full Circle with Indian ink, collage of printed texts, resin coating along with an electronic component, dealt with the wretched absurdity of violence that we have been experiencing in the world. It was a farcical depiction of human figures penetrating either into each other or into animals, and mindless, ill-advised pairs of soldiers aiming 'into', rather than at, each other while the barrels of their interfacing firearms forming a single unit. And yet, as is his wont, he hid the gravity of the subject with an apparently perky use of a technically-controlled button for animating the work like a game.
Nepalese artist Rabindra Kumar Shrestha's War or No War: We are All Connected was a point of departure from the theme of human interconnectedness from Botha's exegesis of the ridicule to the sublime of human unity in their differences. He presented ink thumb prints of numerous people on miniature canvases to evoke how these different fingerprints of diverse individuals, each of them unique in revealing a particular identity, could be connected together in our ravaged world. Given its broad implications, Shrestha has been working on it in different mediums and sizes towards extending it as a Global Peace Project.
A group of four welded sculptures titled Me, Philosophy Endangered and Dream by Shyamal Chandra Sarker of Bangladesh presented four expressive animals – deer, horse, dog and cat – that characterized different human behaviours. It was evidently the sculpture’s expressive, welding techniques that fetched the ‘Honourable Mention’ award for him: the horse was welded with iron junk, the cat with small stainless steel parts, the dog with copper utensils and the deer with parts of aluminium machineries. Another sculpture – in fibreglass – titled Matrika by Sameena Karim evoked a mother's vital bond with a child. Its fleshy folds signified the recesses of her shelter for the child while its exaggerated base perhaps took its cue from the ancient figurines of mother figures firmly ensconced to provide assurance and security to the child.
And, there was a remarkable pen-and-ink drawing called Painter's Protest by Kolkata’s prolific octogenarian painter Dhiraj Choudhury, depicting, with his deft lines, the ugly faces of violence, war and death. Choudhury is an exquisite draftsman of powerful and expressive lines that he pioneered several decades earlier. Another impressive canvas in acrylic was Rejaul Karim's Mourning of Tungipara, a misty, impressionistic take on a lamenting crowd gathered around the dead body of the assassinated leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
To conclude, let us consider that the curatorial gesture leaves a potential nexus for conception, experimentation and critique, dramatically usurping the position of the art critic in the current global artistic map. It has become increasingly important to contextualize and frame the production of artists and art trends around the world while mounting art exhibitions. However, to maintain dynamism, coherence, high standard, and impartiality, the conceptual elements of a biennale, worth its name, should be best left to the hands of able and innovative curators from outside the geographical and cultural orbits of the host – and, as Hans Ulrich-Obrist once remarked poignantly in his foreword to On Curating, ‘We should always be open to surprise so that the unexpected happens.’
Romain Maitra is an art critic, independent curator of contemporary art, and Ex-Fulbright Fellow at CUNY, New York City, USA.