Private View

As museums increasingly move into commercial spaces, new tensions emerge in artists’ alternative histories

Shilpa Gupta’s installation ‘Someone Else—A Library of 100 Books Written Anonymously or Under Pseudonyms’ (2011), which was part of the KNMA show, draws attention to the fraught nature of authorship, and particularly of writing under repressive regimes. courtesy Kiran Nadar Museum of Art
01 October, 2014

THE SOUTH DELHI BRANCH of the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art is in an annex at the rear of a mall on a landmark stretch of commercial buildings. For the uninitiated, it can be difficult to locate. It took me a full hour—between descending from an auto, consulting maps, asking desk attendants, and calling the gallery twice—to finally arrive at the space, which is sandwiched between a Toyota dealership and a fast-food joint. But Is It What You Think?, a group exhibition that recently concluded at the KNMA, was well worth the trek. And the private museum’s location ended up feeling like part of the exhibition’s premise: that the neoliberal promise of a prosperous India, embodied by the mall, often conceals as much as it reveals.

Art galleries and museums in shopping malls are hardly new. As the once almost universally accessible public space of the street becomes increasingly encroached upon by the private commercial spaces of malls, hotel lobbies, airports, and so forth, the number of such art institutions has grown. In India and elsewhere, the concept of public space, and of the commons itself, is changing dramatically, with ever fewer places that are “public” because they are owned by the government (and therefore by the public). Instead, there is a proliferation of spaces that are conditionally available for public use, but owned and operated by private corporations or individuals. This includes parks, universities and, of course, museums.

Like much art produced for and consumed in contemporary galleries, the KNMA show generated a tension between its subject matter and its placement within a private commercial space. The artworks in Is It What You Think? were part of a trend in the international art world: the production of creative documentation which merges art and archives to tell alternative histories in alternative ways. Here, the works challenged neat historical and economic narratives of progress, especially those put forth by successive Indian governments since the early 1990s, by interrogating relatively well-known instances of state-supported violence, including the 1992–1993 Mumbai riots, the 2002 Gujarat riots, and the rape and murder of a Manipuri woman by Indian security forces in 2004. The tension between subject matter and setting was heightened by the fact that this mall was itself a backdrop to violence during the December 2012 rape and murder of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student.

Presiding over the entrance to the museum, Subodh Gupta’s permanent installation ‘Line of Control’ set the terms for the group exhibition. The sculpture consists of steel vessels welded together in the shape of a mushroom cloud. Through everyday materials, Gupta’s piece questions the meaning of borders and conflict in the lives of ordinary people, using the stuff, perhaps, of some future archaeologist’s research. ‘Line of Control’ and the works in Is It What You Think?, which was curated by Roobina Karode, endeavour to provide accounts of unfathomable violence that go beyond official documentation and textbook narratives, using abstraction to allow for multiple interpretations of archival material. The past, the works here insisted, can be told not only as the chronological march of evidence, but also through fragmentary, affective arrangements of the archive itself.

Some of the pieces focused on revising the official stories of recent state-sponsored violations of human rights, while others dwelled on different ways of telling such stories. Amar Kanwar’s ‘The Lightning Testimonies’ is a case in point. In this eight-channel installation, each film portrays a particular instance of sexual violence committed by representatives of the state, or enabled by the state’s abrogation of its responsibility to uphold the rule of law. The broad historical events that each screen references are familiar: Partition and Mridula Sarabhai’s rescue of abducted women during that time; separatist struggles in Manipur and Nagaland; Gujarat in 2002, Bangladesh in 1971; the 2006 massacre of a Dalit family in Khairlanji, Maharashtra. But Kanwar’s piece retains specific, fragmentary details of each atrocity, and thereby avoids conflating them into a single mass of sexual violence—a common trap in mainstream and official narratives of violence against women.

A unifying moment comes suddenly, when seven of Kanwar’s screens simultaneously go dark, and one screen mounted on its own wall glows with a decade-old clip of naked women protesting the rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama by an Indian paramilitary unit, interspersed with a contemporary discussion of how the translation and performance of Mahasweta Devi’s story ‘Draupadi’ served as one local response to the incident. The juxtaposition of these other histories with this particular event sets up a correlation, metaphorically connecting the dots. In this way, Kanwar creates a space of comparative historiography, finding and juxtaposing archival material that produces related and sometimes contradictory narratives rather than privileging a single, totalising account that freezes and then subsumes individual experience.

Other works, rather than resurrecting individual testimonies of violence, recreate a moment of rupture, and invite individual viewers to piece it together themselves. Vivan Sundaram’s well-known installation ‘Memorial,’ based on a single photograph of a casualty by the photojournalist Hoshi Lal during during the Bombay riots, requires the audience to physically penetrate it. Sundaram deconstructs Lal’s original image, obscuring its unity by reproducing its component parts in sculpture and in repeating photographs. The viewer has to step over and around the pieces of “evidence,” as one would at the actual murder scene. A copy of Lal’s image, juxtaposed with the reproduced pieces, reveals the seams between representation and reality, emphasising the moment when a historical event becomes a story that is transformed as it is retold over and over.

Similarly, Anita Dube’s ‘Illegal’ requires the viewer to physically contort herself in order to access images of displaced migrants within sculptural installations. This reflects the relative difficulty of accessing a fragmentary archive versus a flat image. The art critic Hal Foster pointed out in a widely read 2004 essay that as artists strive to engage with the archive as an art object, installation becomes the logical form for their work to take. Many of the works here recalled this idea, explicitly referencing their own connections to the act of archiving. Several used the motif of the museum display case—or, in the case of Atul Dodiya, the glass-fronted cabinet—to play with the idea of “collecting” history, rather than simply telling it. In ‘Meditation with Open Eyes,’ Dodiya collects prayer beads, a figurine of a garishly muscular super hero, a quote from La Dolce Vita about the world going mad, a rare photo of Gandhi, a small clock, and a blank slate, raising questions about ideas of nationalism, power and Gujarati identity.

Together, the works in the KNMA show seemed to suggest that future prosperity is increasingly being promised in exchange for a certain kind of historical forgetting. By critiquing how the preservation and erasure of history gives shape to Indian politics, the KNMA show offered a powerful visual meditation on how we might connect national conversations about all sorts of violence—migration, riots, rape—in a more meaningful way. This is critical at a time when the state is exceeding its traditional economic borders, and private capital shares in the monopoly on legitimised violence that has long characterised the state.

But archives, like open space, have always been held both publically and privately (the more obscure ones existing as dusty collections in attics or garages). As a sort of temporary archive of contemporary artworks in a museum in a mall, this exhibition ultimately raised questions about access to alternative versions of history. Although the KNMA’s own publicity materials emphasise that it is a non-profit institution for the public good, the gauntlet of security checks and surveillance cameras one encounters on the way in defines that public in a particular way. Is It What You Think? made it clear that new forms of archiving and recording the present are necessary in order to go beyond the official histories that are put forth as the building blocks of a prosperous future—while at the same time recognising the viewer as a consumer by her presence in the mall’s museum.