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.