Documenta 14: No escape from the world
South Asian artists at Documenta 14, the world's most prestigious art event, respond to the idea of crisis being the new normal
When the grapevine suggested that Amar Kanwar had been invited, yet again, to participate in Documenta 14, Indian art world insiders reacted with nonchalance. “But don’t you know Documenta cannot happen without Amar Kanwar?" a cheeky gallerist friend remarked. Were the rumours to translate into fact, this would be Kanwar’s fourth consecutive showing at the world’s largest and most prestigious quinquennial.
Kanwar was first invited in 2002 by then artistic director Okwui Enwezor, and subsequently showed in 2007 and 2012. But past participation notwithstanding, the 2017 edition would mark a seminal moment for Kanwar, the Delhi-based film-maker who has, for ideological reasons, consistently practised his art with quiet disregard for the art market. This is not just because of the Polish artistic director Adam Szymczyk’s decision to have it open, for the first time in 62 years, in another city—in the Grecian capital of Athens—rather than its home base of Kassel, Germany, but also because of the uncharacteristic morbidity of the times we’re in. As Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, curator at large, said in his keynote address at the press conference for the opening in Kassel on 7 June, “Crisis, which is supposed to be a temporary state of exception, is now the new normal."
The opening of Kanwar’s 85-minute film, Such A Morning, echoes this state of crisis, but allegorically, without any specific signifiers of time, place and identity, thus presenting its setting as part of a universal trope. There is mention of a white sun, and an eclipse that begins but doesn’t end, plunging the world into a confused state of darkness where day is night and night is day.
Kanwar’s protagonist is an ageing mathematics professor who also moonlights as a poet. To the shock of the academic world, he chooses to retire from pedagogical life and retreat into the darkness of an abandoned railway carriage. There is much speculation surrounding his resignation. One quickly dismissed rumour turns out to be the real reason. The professor is steadily losing his sight. His decision to inhabit the carriage is driven by his desire to better acquaint himself with the onslaught of blindness.
Kanwar gives us a film whose pretext is so subtle, but whose message is so archetypal, that it’s impossible for any viewer not to comprehend its allegorical references, particularly in a world where secular humanitarianism itself is under threat. Despite the seeming bleakness, Such A Morning offers an overpowering sense of hope, of the possibility of transcending blindness, the kind that could only be hypothesized by someone who is facing, first-hand, the complexity of fundamentalism in a country that’s overly euphoric about the “development" agenda.
While in earlier editions Kanwar was one of a handful of South Asian artists at Documenta, this year he is among a whole contingent, so to speak, with 15 from India alone, alongside Naeem Mohaiemen from Bangladesh and Rasheed Araeen and Lala Rukh from Pakistan.
The complexity of the developing world, the post-colonial context within which these participating artists operate, is set forth by Mohaiemen in his 85-minute film, Two Meetings And A Funeral, which, in a way, introduces the international art community to the unconventional politics that has connected the subcontinent to the global south. The film revisits the tension between the Non-aligned Movement (NAM) and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, two important moments in world history. It proposes “that the utopian hope of the Third World liberation project failed not only because of external enemies, but also the fatal mistake of a 1970s pivot from socialism to Islamism as unifying ideology". Mohaiemen re-examines historic moments through archival footage, such as Indira Gandhi addressing the 1973 meeting in Algeria where Palestine’s Yasser Arafat and Cuba’s Fidel Castro were in attendance.
Goa-based performance artist Nikhil Chopra, who arrived in Kassel on 8 June after a two-week, 3,000km road trip Athens, used landscape as a medium to decipher the terrain that separated the two sites for Documenta 14, staging his own practice, which is rooted in the fluidity of gender, with themes of migration and history.
In Athens, Chopra used clay to render the sea upon the walls of a room. In Kassel, he symbolically ended his journey by drawing the sea in his tent in blue pastel. He then exhibited the previously drawn-upon inner linings of the same tent along the walls of the hauptbahnhof, inscribing a thick red line on the platform that ran parallel to the display, thus making literal his title, Drawing A Line Through Landscape. A video with footage of his sojourn in Bulgaria continues to play inside the tent, which serves as a caravan for the Documenta visitor.
Nilima Sheikh’s scrolls at the Benaki Museum in Athens, an extension of her engagement with the politics of Kashmir, are being received with critical acclaim. In Kassel, her new work, a 16-panel tempera painting framed as an octagonal space, continues that dialogue, with stencilled excerpts from poets like Agha Shahid Ali, Lal Ded, Emily Dickinson and some contemporary voices, most notably that of the late Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula.
Photographer Gauri Gill also wrestles with the conflict of modernity versus tradition through three bodies of work. The Mark On The Wall (1999-ongoing) documents drawings composed by local artists, children and teachers in government schools under the lapsed Leher Kaksha scheme, which was initiated by the state to help children learn visually from the walls in their classroom. There is also Fields Of Sight (2013-ongoing), her continuing collaboration with third-generation Warli artist Rajesh Vangad, an Adivasi from Dahanu in coastal Maharashtra, in which she frames him against various landscapes in his village home and relevant to local history, and invites him to inscribe his imagined and remembered version of the site so that it is “reconfigured both formally as well as conceptually to arrive at new documents of multiple truths and knowledge systems". Her most recent series, Acts Of Appearance (2015-ongoing), is the consequence of her collaboration with a village of traditional Adivasi mask-makers in Jawhar district in western India.
Gill approached the acclaimed brothers Subhas and Bhagavan Dharam Kadi, their families and local volunteers to create a set of masks different from the usual mythological stories of gods and demons, and closer to current reality and self-portraits, what she calls “symbolic representation of experiential reality, across dreaming and waking states".
Works by Ganesh Haloi, K.G. Subramanyan, Chittaprosad Bhattacharya, Sunil Janah, Rasheed Araeen and even Amrita Sher-Gil serve as subtler poetic extensions of the reconfiguration of art history, colonialist narratives and world orders that Documenta 14 espouses. Standing out among them is Lahore-based Lala Rukh’s Mirror Image series at the Documenta Halle; the first in the series was created in 1997, after she was invited to respond to the demolition of the Babri Masjid on 6 December 1992. “The episode stirred mass riots in India as well as Pakistan, resulting in the desecration of temple sites in Lahore as a gesture of retaliation across the border," writes curatorial adviser Natasha Ginwala. “The artist witnessed these incidents of escalating hostility and chose to pair images, borrowed from newspapers, of sacred complexes under threat in Ayodhya and Lahore." Lala Rukh’s work encapsulates the dilemmas that are conjured by borders and her mirroring is perhaps a device by which to prefigure the “other", whose conception is often the source of all great conflict.
Despite the unprecedented spread of artworks across Kassel, and an intensive ongoing programme, it’s impossible to ignore the contributions of South Asian artists to Documenta 14. Each of them not only adds to the plurality of voices at play but significantly extends our understanding of contemporary crises.