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Contemporary Art

A bindi for the dragon


ONE FOR THE ROAD: Bharti Kher's 'The Internal Workings' (left) and a work by Nalini Malani (below) form part of the exhibition

If the Indian and Chinese economies have been compared constantly so have their art markets. Here, too, as on so many other indices, the dragon boom trumps the desi one. Comparisons aside, there has been little contact between the two countries in an artistic context. In 2009, the Institute of Contemporary Indian Art in Mumbai organised the first large-scale, public exhibition of contemporary Indian art in China at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Shanghai. But the promise of greater interaction wasn't realised. Now, another landmark show - Indian Highway - has opened at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art located in the heart of Beijing's buzzing art district 798. More than 60 works of Indian art that include sculpture, painting, video art, installations and performances are part of the show. So will Beijing appreciate Bharti Kher's bindis, Jitish Kallat's resin bones and Sudarshan Shetty's quirky installation where mandirs interact with modern buildings?

The show is credited with putting contemporary Indian art on the international art map. When the show made its debut at London's prestigious Serpentine Gallery in 2008, few in the UK had heard of many of the artists on display. TOI-Crest spoke to Hans Ulrich Obrist, co-director of the Serpentine and one of the curators of the show, about the China outing.

Apart from this show you also curated a major exhibition of Chinese contemporary art in the UK in 2006. Now you've brought Indian art to Beijing. How important is it for these emerging centres of art to connect?

Indian Highway is the second chapter in our focus on the arts of three major cultural regions, China, India and the Middle East, reflecting a shift from Western to emerging global economies. This installation, the sixth, is particularly meaningful because of its location: China. After an extensive tour around Europe, the exhibition now finds itself in the capital of the other great ascendant, ancient civilisation in Asia. Needless to say, we are thrilled to be part of this development. Knowledge of India and its vibrant creative scene has been slow to take root in China. In what to many will be an introduction to contemporary art in India, this show brings together the work of India's greatest creative minds.

The show has travelled from London to Oslo, Denmark, Lyon, Rome, and now Beijing. Where next, and why did you conceive it as a touring show?

Indian Highway pioneers a radical model of curating, in which curators will be invited to develop a 'show within a show' inside the exhibition. At the Serpentine, Delhi-based multi-media artists Raqs Media Collective invited documentary film-makers to participate. At each subsequent international venue, over the next years, a different Indian artist or group will invite their contemporaries to exhibit, allowing the exhibition to grow and develop in new and unexpected ways. A touring exhibition allows us to explore this model of curating.

The show changes with each outing. What's new in Beijing? Can you talk about some of the works?

As the exhibition has evolved with each showing, with host institutions curating a 'show within a show' and making additions to the collection, together with UCCA we added new works by Sudarshan Shetty, Bharti Kher, Dayanita Singh, Hetain Patel, and Ayisha Abraham especially for the Beijing exhibition. Hetain Patel, a UKbased performance artist, is presenting work relating to a residency he undertook at 501 Arts Space in Chongqing, China, where he collaborated with visual artists, choreographers and musicians. Sudarshan Shetty is presenting a large sculptural installation from Listening Outside This House, which takes the city of Mumbai, in all its visual abundance and diversity, as its main source of inspiration.

Were any of the new works selected with the Chinese audience in mind? What are the themes and issues that a Chinese viewer is likely to identify with?

The works were selected to reflect the vibrancy of the contemporary art scene in India. We were, of course, sensitive to the context of Beijing and China more broadly. For instance, after much consideration, we chose to show a smaller selection of video works that were exclusively in English and expand upon the sculptural and two-dimensional works in the show. Some artworks in the exhibition have been selected for their connection to the theme of Indian Highway, reflecting the importance of the road in migration and movement and the link between rural and urban communities, which is particularly relevant in the Chinese context. Other works make reference to technology and the 'information superhighway', which has been central to India and China's economic boom. A common thread throughout is the way in which these artists demonstrate an active political and social engagement, examining complex issues in a society undergoing transition, which include environmentalism, religious sectarianism, globalisation, gender, sexuality and class. These are themes that resonate strongly in contemporary China.

When the show first opened in London, some critics said the selection was tailored to appeal to a Western audience. Was that criticism justified and how tough was it to select a few works to represent such a big and diverse country?

India and Britain share a common history. Although culturally distinct, there exist strong resonances and affinities, which made the exhibition appealing for a British audience. Conceptually, the exhibition draws upon ?douard Glissant's notion of mondialitê, which seeks to foster dialogue while resisting the homogenising forces of globalisation. At each venue on the international tour, a group or individual based in India is invited to add their curatorial voice by engaging the participation of artists, architects, filmmakers, academics and designers, adding a dynamic, responsive element to the exhibition.

The Serpentine Gallery has another India connection. This year's pavilion has been bought by steel magnate Lakshmi N Mittal and his wife, Usha. How did that come about??

As principal supporters of the project, Usha and Lakshmi N Mittal have played a vital role in the realisation of the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2012. They are ongoing patrons of the arts and architecture, and have sponsored this year's Pavilion as well as purchasing it for their collection. The Pavilion commission, conceived in 2000 by Gallery director Julia Peyton-Jones, has become an international site for architectural experimentation, and follows a decade of Pavilions by some of the world's greatest architects. This year's Pavilion has been designed by Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei, the design team responsible for the celebrated Beijing National Stadium, which was built for the 2008 Olympic Games. Each pavilion is sited on the Gallery's lawn for three months and the immediacy of the commission - a maximum of six months from invitation to completion - provides a unique model worldwide.

The show will be on in Beijing till August 19

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