Memories of the underdeveloped
Dispatch from the 14th Asian Arts Biennale, Dhaka
Several Asian countries have now entered the arena of big blockbuster international art jamborees. The biennales and triennials hosted by Korea, China, Bangladesh and India, jostle for space in the global hall of fame to compete with their more established competitors in Venice and Brazil as well as art fairs held at Basel and London amongst others. Museums in Contemporary Context: Temples or Piazzas?
-Sushrma K Bahl
The vector of Kapital leading to the materialization of transnational Kapital-driven consumer states – sundered between and organized around leisure and labour endeavours to colonize and/or purchase structured leisure, ephemeral pleasure and the entertaining arts. It is then not too stupefying that the protocol and methods of art creation/consumption would also serve the interests of the kapital unless an effort is made to create (nomadic) utopian spaces that would allow to stage the genus of arts based on the ritual of politics.
The fact that the word 'political' or its mirror twins: experimental, avant-garde, radical, etc, still functions in the art world as an uneasy reminder of the umbilical connection to the societal or the critique of social context, reveals a deep schism in contemporary art practices in Asia. Not unlike in North America, where the tendency of the gallery/institution to neutralize the political dimensions of art is rampant and all avant-garde and art world insurgencies, from constructivism to Dada to Abstract Expressionism and beyond, have suffered this representation, Asian galleries and exhibition spaces tend to prioritize artworks associated with certain commercial paradigms and histories.
In Europe, sociopolitical art, in most instances, robustly thrives and channels the experimental, the alternative, the fringe and risqué sensibilities through 'Biennale' economy, which is illustrated and documented in the continuing importance of Documenta; a celebration of the outré, on the site of the Biennial, that periodically shatters the easy distinction between notions of aesthetic and political autonomy.
The political is observable in Biennial committees, symposia, seminar and all human group interfacing. It concerns the process and method of group decision making and the acquisition and application of power, ie, the ability to impose one's will on another. Equal representation of different nations and groups is, essentially, a key notion in democratic decision-making and is necessary to the inner workings of power, and it is precisely the politics of representation that intimately binds art and politics. By questioning, and deconstructing what is allowed to appear in the art context, by testing the range of images and methods of representation in art, biennale economy and paradigm provoke to interrogate and redefine the social relations inherent in all economies of production.
Asian Arts Biennale, for many Asian citizens of Arts, despite the grand and glamorous success of Singapore and Hong Kong biennales, had inaugurated the nexus where Asians, their works, the Asian art institutions, and many different polity intersected to challenge the society of the spectacle as well as market reality by creating and representing themselves as an alternative culture baed on utopian desire. They disseminated their ideas through the use of carnival economics of biennial-pleasure politics, while at the same time overtly engaging with the dominating ideas that are radically transforming Asian cultures, economics and societies.
This article mostly brings together the essence of few conversations – which obliquely appraise the success or impact of the 14th Asian Arts Biennial – with Sushma K Bahl, Eriko Osaks and Tabais Helal, three distinguished guests and jurors. Their critical and proactive engagement in the cultural fields across borders and disciplines, produce complements to their curatorial and artistic endeavours which have been institutionally sited to enjoy the advantage of highly visible , highly influential platforms and, produced substantial projects sometimes set the benchmarks in the field.
My strategy in posing the initial questions – what makes a good biennale, their overview of the 14th Asian art Biennial–begged a host of other corollary queries arising out of considerations particular to various categories of Biennial, and to the analysis of components that together configure a show and its impact.
In taking up my questions, the participants responded directly, though very politely according to their own interpretation of the parameters laid out for them. What follows here is not, perforce, a theory-driven or academic inquiry into the nature of the exhibition but a semi-formal and structured deliberation, extended to lively and frank conversations, and exchange of e-mails to appreciate the institutional context, the logistical and critical framework for Asian Biennale's organization. to show how the organization maintains its standard and relevance.
Both Sushma and Eriko emphasized on a more focused and structured approach in organization and directed a mild injunction to extend Biennale's artistic programming beyond business as usual with tangible results. Eriko, after making a point about the energetic Bangladeshi art scene and the willingness of the government to undergo a massive enterprise like the Asian Biennial, stated that with galleries from China to Kathmundu, from Ulan Bator to Goa, increasingly situating exhibitions more on the cutting edge, introducing 'mid-career retrospectives' and educational programmmes a rethinking should be on the card. By and large these events are dictating cultural trends and acting almost as ad hoc museums and are encroaching on the noncommercial experimental space, the government funded exhibitions like Asian Biennale. These efforts should welcome all kinds of participation that provoke reactions while not alienating traditional audience. Asian Biennale should initiate meetings and forums to introduce selected people and groups to each other to establish dialogues and to exchange new ideas, since, sometimes ideas and information are almost as important as the experience of the arts and because meeting artists and viewing shows can count more than a formal art history education in this region.
In an e-mail to this writer, recalling the impression of the 14th Asian Biennial, Sushma K Bahl, wrote:
'The invitation to join the jury was a good opportunity for me to have a brief but close encounter with a spread of contemporary art from 27 different countries in Asia and the pacific region including the host nation. Although there were some commendable exceptions, much of the work from overseas did not seem very representative of the current art flow from their respective countries. But the exposure to a diverse range of creativity and all the festivity and comradeship that it brings about every two years seems to have impacted very positively in opening up the art scene in the region and especially so in Dhaka and other parts of Bangladesh. The large spread of work, its vibrancy and experimentation with installations and new media, by some of the local artists participating in the Biennale seemed impressive as was the good display. Though some of the work appeared derivative in tone and form it was a delight to see much of the Bangladeshi art retaining in a re-imagined form its unique oeuvre and aesthetic. The platform so ably put together by Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy with support from local arts fraternity including other accompanying exhibits and exposures, is commendable indeed.'
In previous conversations, Sushma said, in the Indian art scene, everything had been flexible and dynamic for a while and then suddenly everything changed very quickly. The zeitgeist is changed. It is not that, Sushma is against a marketable art identity but, she feels, we need platforms to maintain and showcase this moment of continuously morphing art practices that might provoke societal reactions by reframing lived social experience. She said, on top of the curatorial issues, perhaps, Biennial authority should start to think about training professional art handlers, or people who will specialize in hanging an exhibition or producing a catalogue, photograph and archive materials; perhaps, this is the high time for the Shilpakala Academy to formulate programmes on institutional pedagogies, restoration, and address practical issues like proper insurance or freight or a security system to guard the exhibition.
Eminent gulf-region artist and an honorable juror of the Biennial, Thaier Helal, to an e-mail to this writer, said:
'This was my third visit to Bangladesh. It was a wonderful opportunity to be in Dhaka and get acquainted with the fresh crops of local talents participating in the 14th Asian Art Biennial.
A short description of my experience of the Biennial, especially my encounter with the young artists will not be easy, chiefly because I am still little overwhelmed by it, and, also because these up and coming artists represent the new face of an Asian future and the new vision of the "contemporary"; their works already seem a leap towards a new formulation of "modernity" and change which is, of course, necessary, in order to mutate our lives through art. But, If I have to be brutally honest, there are a lot that must change in the intellectual and logistical preparation and adequate presentation for such an all-Asian event like the Asian Art Biennial; the organizers need to make a complete makeover of their menu – so to speak – of the style and kind of art work that they show here, just to keep proper pace with what is happening in the rapidly changing art-worlds in this region; I felt, the organizers of the Asian Biennale have their heart in the right place and they have the desire to truly represent Asian arts, it is just they lack exposure, knowledge and know-how to accomplish this Herculean task. In any case, Asian Art Biennale is an important and well-known event to the artist-communities of Asia, and we would love and wish for it to continue to be relevant; the amazingly new and unknown art and art-experiences of Asia should have the preferential treatment to be staged at the Biennial for the benefit of the public and art lovers.
The experience, insights, and lessons, Sushma or Eriko brought to our dialogic deliberation, should be directly relevant and transferable to the organization of the future Asian Art Bienniales, not only to upgrade the quality of the application from earlier efforts in both conceptual and logistical scope, but also to oversee that the existing resources are properly harnessed and all existing structures are activated along parallel lines. Situated so critically, the Asian Art Biennale functions as a ground of poetic existence, as the prime transmitter through which the continually shifting meaning of Asian art vis-à-vis "Art" and its relationship to our world is brought into sharp focus and offered to the viewer for contemplation. We ardently expect that the "success" of this year's event will inaugurate a positive-feedback-open-source-system of management and curatorial undertaking, not only as an expression of radical politico-artistic desire, but also as an edict about the need for negotiation amongst all factions and, most importantly to reveal critical insights, to short-circuit differing frame of experiences in order for a new system of connections to occur .
Sushma Bahl, MBE, an independent curator of cultural projects, headed the Arts Dept of British Council India until April 2003, leading on their cultural policy and programme and spearheading several initiatives including the first ever Festival of India in Britain and the Enduring Image exhibition from the British Museum with its numerous associated events besides collaborativing projects in visual and performing arts. Over the last few years, as a freelance consultant she has curated a series of art exhibitions including Fair & Furious based on the theme of women, Keep the Promise to help raise funds for UN's Millennium Development Goals, Contemporary Chronicles in Miniature Art of works from India and Pakistan, Ways of Seeing that won the IHC Art India best curated group show Award, Vistaar involving collaboration between artists and designers and Annanya an overview of contemporary Indian art. She has edited and written books on artists such as, Thota Vaikuntam, Paresh Maity and Satish Gupta. A book on Shuvaprasanna is currently in the making. Sushma was the Co-Director for Indian arts at the Gwacheon Hanmadang Festival in South Korea 2004, Guest Director for XI Triennale-India 2005, Co-curator for V9/U9 Indo-UK digital art project and Art Link Indo-German artists' residency for 2006 and 2007, and Project Consultant for Bharat Rang Mahotsav X11 in Jan 2010. She is a trustee/advisory panel member of several arts institutions, including the National Gallery of Modern Art Delhi and Florence Biennale in Italy.
Eriko Osaka, the director of the Yokohama Museum of Art, and the director general for the Yokohama Triennial 2011, started her career working on international contemporary art projects at the Japan Foundation and ICA Nagoya. She joined Art Tower Mito as a senior curator in 1994 and became art director in 1997. In 2007, she left Mito to join Mori Art Museum, where she served as artistic director until January 2009. She assumed her current position in April 2009. Her experiences also include serving as co-curator for Japan in the Third Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (1999) and commissioner of the Japan Pavilion of the 49th Venice Biennale (2001).
Thaier Helal is originally from a village in Syria where people still speaks Aramaic. Since his move to the United Arab Emirates, in the 90's, he emerged as one of the most interesting and prominent artists of the gulf region. A graduate of the Fine Arts Institute, Damascus, and currently a senior faculty member of the University of Sharjah, Fine Arts College, Thaier has received Al Burda International Award from the Emirati Ministry of Culture, the Grand Gold Award at the Tehran International biennial, the Award for painting at the Sharjah International Biennnial, and the Distinguished Works Award at the 15th General Exhibitions of the UAE Fine Arts Association . His masterpiece "Paradice Gate" is currently on view at Beirut's uber-chic Le Grey Hotel.