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Art Basel 2020: Indian galleries react to borders and surveillance states

In their online presentations, the three participating galleries from India explore ideas relating to our post-truth world

Jitish Kallat, 'Circadian Rhyme 4'. Courtesy: Chemould Prescott Road
Jitish Kallat, 'Circadian Rhyme 4'. Courtesy: Chemould Prescott Road

With Art Basel having cancelled its physical fair in Switzerland in the wake of covid-19, galleries are now showcasing their works on a virtual platform. One can see a continued engagement with the online viewing room format, which Art Basel first launched for its Hong Kong edition in March 2020.

The ongoing fair features 282 viewing rooms, spread across four sections: Galleries, Edition, Feature and Statements. This year, participating galleries from India include Jhaveri Contemporary, Chemould Prescott Road and Experimenter, which are showcasing works by artists such as Jitish Kallat, Shilpa Gupta, Bani Abidi, Sohrab Hura and the late Mrinalini Mukherjee. Each showcase has a quiet, meditative quality, as the works reflect on the pressing issues of the day, including the notions of time, boundaries, nature and mobility. Here are the highlights:

Exciting discoveries at Jhaveri Contemporary

The online viewing room by the Mumbai-based gallery is a revelation. It presents different facets of well-known artists such as Mrinalini Mukherjee and Anwar Jalal Shemza. “Mukherjee’s etchings from the late 1970s and early 1980s and Shemza’s photograms (also from the early 1980s) have only just come to light," mentions the curatorial note. These are presented with hand-printed photographs in colour by Simryn Gill and bronze sculptures by Mukherjee.

This was initially planned as a solo presentation of Mukherjee’s works, but was expanded to include works by the other two artists once the physical fair was cancelled and plans were announced to go digital. “Sculpture is not best suited to online viewing and it is well known that a solo presentation is riskier than a group presentation. Therefore, we seized the opportunity to show works by Simryn Gill and Anwar Jalal Shemza. Together, the artists speak to a theme explored by Mrinalini Mukherjee in her works, which were particularly relevant to our present moment," says Amrita Jhaveri, director, Jhaveri Contemporary.

Anwar Jalal Shemza, Untitled, c. 1980-81, Photogram, Courtesy: Jhaveri Contemporary
Anwar Jalal Shemza, Untitled, c. 1980-81, Photogram, Courtesy: Jhaveri Contemporary

Each of the works on display is particularly poignant at a time when nature has been reclaiming urban spaces during the lockdown. “Simryn Gill’s work speaks most directly to this theme," she says. The artist snuck into an abandoned beachside development of weekend homes in Malaysia, which had been abandoned and was decaying—victims to intrusive powers of tropical nature. “The same tropical nature is documented in Mukherjee’s prints and sculptures, at once benign and threatening," explains Jhaveri.

Meanwhile, in the curatorial note, Iftikhar Dadi speculates that photograms by Shemza—who was born in Shimla and later worked out of a studio in Stafford, England—made by placing botanical specimens directly onto paper and exposing the sensitised paper to light points to the history of British colonialism in India, in which botany and its documentation played an important part. “We knew that Shemza was constantly experimenting with painting, ceramics, printmaking and with materials and textures. However, we had no idea this body of work existed until last year. The photograms were discovered in a folder alongside detailed notes on the basic principles of expressive photography," says Jhaveri, who hopes to continue research and writing around these fascinating works.

Interpreting shifts of time at Experimenter

The presentation by the Kolkata-based gallery at Art Basel anchors itself within moving image and photographic work by Bani Abidi, CAMP and Sohrab Hura. Both Priyanka and Prateek Raja, founders of Experimenter, think of this online viewing room as a “highly deliberated exhibition", which is equally suited for a brick-and-mortar space as well as on a two-dimensional screen. “The three artists have very different approaches to their practice. But if you look at the works that we have presented, you get a sense that each is cataloging time, and hence the title of the show," says Priyanka Raja.

Take, for instance, CAMP’s A Photogentic Line, which is a 100 feet long branching installation of cut-out drawings from the photo archives of The Hindu, the 140-year-old newspaper, thus creating a fictional timeline of actual events across a fractured South Asia.

'Intercommunication Devices' by Bani Abidi. Courtesy: Experimenter.
'Intercommunication Devices' by Bani Abidi. Courtesy: Experimenter.

Another perspective on time comes from Bani Abidi’s Film Reels, which features photos of the stock room of Nishat Cinema, Karachi, which was burnt down on 21 September 2012 by angry religious mobs, protesting a controversial video posted on social media. “It is these charred film reel boxes that were left behind from everything that the insurance company was not interested in," says Raja. These photographs of urban decay have earlier been shown as part of Abidi’s 2014-video and photo installation, Funland, commissioned by the 8th Berlin Biennale. “Also interesting is Bani’s A Table Wide Country —photographs taken in the home of fictitious characters—which looks at make-believe worlds and human eccentricities. The absurdity comes through with this character, who collects war models, thus reacting to the history of a conflict in his own way," elaborates Raja.

The third presentation is Sohrab Hura’s The Lost Head and the Bird, a 120-minute film, which is played in a loop. “It is a very political work, made with found footage and WhatsApp forwards, reflective of the moment in time that we are in presently," says Raja. As mentioned in the curatorial note, the video explores a frighteningly fast-changing, post-truth world where actions are fuelled by appeals to emotions and facts are increasingly ignored.

Finding new meanings at Chemould Prescott Road

The gallery has been trying to reimagine ways of presenting works during the lockdown, be it through the online showcase at the Hong Kong edition of Art Basel or In Touch, a platform for online art exhibitions created by 10 galleries from India and Dubai. Gallerist Shireen Gandhy has taken on the learnings from these previous digital forays to plan this one. “We altered some of our choices for the Art Basel online viewing room. There was a new kind of urgency, or perhaps an altered sense of urgency,

or should we say, the urgency had vanished," she says. Titled Crossing Over, Staying Still, the online viewing room brings together a set of six contemporary artists: Jitish Kallat, Shilpa Gupta, N.S. Harsha, Desmond Lazaro, Rashid Rana and Anju Dodiya. “While some of the works have been seen before, we have tried to be as fresh in approach as possible," says Gandhy. Ever since the showcase started, she has been having “interesting conversations" with collectors—both new and familiar—from across the world.

A work by Desmond Lazaro. Courtesy: Chemould Prescott Road.
A work by Desmond Lazaro. Courtesy: Chemould Prescott Road.

One of the highlights of the presentation is Dodiya’s series of photo paintings, Other Echoes Inhabit the Garden, which “brings together a chain of sublime pauses, depicting the inevitable passage of time and as a commemoration of the mundane," mentions the curatorial note. “Even when we did Anju’s show recently at the gallery, I had thought of taking these works to Basel. The other work that I had thought of was Jitish’s 2013 work, Circadian Rhyme-4, which is about surveillance. Post 9/11, surveillance has been about border checks, evoking a sense of paranoia," says Gandhy. This work showcases small figurines of people, frozen in awkward poses, when stopping for the intrusive security checks. “There is this interaction between bodies—of security personnel and visitors. However, in the time of the pandemic, the reverse has started," she adds.

Some of the other highlights include 1:2138 by Gupta, in which a rolled-up jamdani sari, highly-prized in India, gets smuggled unnoticed across the border. The artist looks at the history and memory imbued within the object. Then, there is Harsha’s Ascent of Descent to Reality, which questions hierarchical orders by placing a ladder horizontally instead of vertically. “Desmond, in his new Cosmos paintings, looks at how early star maps represented the heavens as a series of concentric circles. It is interesting how time has begun to have a potent new meaning in each of these works," says Gandhy.

Art Basel 2020 online viewing rooms are live till 26 June. You can see them here.

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