The West Heavens Project exhibition, under the title Place Time
Play: India China Contemporary Art, is a significant part of the 2010
Shanghai Biennale. Along with a robust lecture program, the project
has opened wide the doors to a more rigorous and vital discourse
on the role of these two great cultures in the 21st century.
By Jonathan Thomson
n his catalogue essay for the groundbreaking exhibition entitled China’s New Art Post-1989, which he curated with Li Xianting in 1993, Johnson Chang makes the observation that in the West, the modern artist is looked on “as a spirit medium, bearing oracles from Olympia and serving as harbingers for the next new age, while intellectual responsibility for the art work goes to the intellectual critic whereas in China the artist is also an ‘intellectual’ who is both socially and intellectually responsible for the cultural and spiritual well-being of his fellows.”1 Thus it may come as no surprise that, when Johnson Chang sought to explore the creative imagination of contemporary India and China, he convened an extraordinary group of artists, curators, critics, and academics, including many of India’s foremost thinkers of the past 50 years, to make work and engage in debate, and did not refer to art in the title of the program but instead called the exchange West Heavens: India China Summit on Social Thought. Social thought is a broad and ideologically charged concept. It includes art and its various forms of organization as a way of expressing certain aspects of it, but also extends into all areas of social,
political, psychological, and economic life. The West Heavens project comprises an exhibition that is positioned as a satellite program of the Shanghai Biennale and a series of moving forums and lectures that are a core part of the Shanghai Biennale’s own structure, but the program is in fact much more than this. West Heavens is also a very public series of private conversations. All of the discussions and debates and a great many of the letters that formed a part of the negotiations among all of the participants in the months and years leading up to the launch of the project in Shanghai are presented on the project website and form part of the intellectual content of the program. In reading this material it is impossible not to be impressed by the caliber and clarity of the discourse. Chang himself contextualized the program in a letter addressed to both the curator of the West Heavens exhibition Place Time Play: India China Contemporary Art, Chaitanya Sambrani and the executive curator of the Shanghai Biennale Gao Shiming: “I had envisaged the meeting of Indian and Chinese as a meeting between the post-colonial and the post-revolutionary. But it has turned out to be more complex. Mao is as alive
in Indian politics as Gandhi. The wonder of India is the multiplicity of positions engaged in conflict and argument… To act in an ideologically charged field requires discursive astuteness, and many of our Indian colleagues on this journey have demonstrated how it can be deftly employed.” He also notes, “Our Indian and Chinese experiment opens issues about creativity that have been camouflaged by the Asian art fever of recent years. In China the self-assured official narrative of art has been unsatisfactory, but the adjustments made to accommodate those who have been endorsed by the official circuit and global market are equally questionable. Under a multicultural umbrella a diversity of local voices are made audible in the international art scene, but are the voices speaking local dialects, and, when they are, do those who find favor in the art system raise significant issues or will they become like the Chinese surrealist or Indian cubist and eventually illustrate a chapter of the local modern? In this respect, the idea of multiple/alternative modernity is problematic; being alternative suggests being subsidiary and it offers a backdoor exit that leaves untouched the heart of darkness. Does it mean that in order to reclaim our own art history we
yet been an exchange of the popularization of high-end intellectual cultural exchange.”3 West Heavens refers to the way India was described in early Chinese Buddhist texts. In fact the est Heavens, which feaadoption of Buddhism by China tures the art of 11 Indian is the only serious antecedent of and four Chinese artChinese cultural transformation and ists, is China’s first mais now taken for granted to such jor exchange of contemporary art an extent that it is no longer even and scholarship with India. Chang thought of as assimilation. However, hopes “to achieve a disorientation the recent history of the India-China with this obsession with the West, relationship is not so open. India a realization that you do not have has strong memories of the border to look that far and that there is war that was fought with China in an alternative to this ‘self assured’ 1962 and remains deeply suspicious path to modernization. There is still of China’s links with both Myanmar in China, especially within gov- Gigi Scaria, Raise Your Hands Those Who Spoke to Him, and Pakistan. ernment circles, a very convinced 2010, 4-channel video installation, 47'. The defeat of India by China way of thinking about a certain way of Criticism should not just be against some- in 1962 over the border regions of the modernizing China, which is essentially one else’s experience that didn’t work but British-designated North-East Frontier, the experience of the West but not all should start from your own experience. which India renamed Arunachal Pradesh, of it has been a success—even in the It is not about the West or about India it has left deep suspicions of China in Indian West. Bringing intellectuals of this cali- is really coming back to China. Having political, academic, and diplomatic circles ber to China is a surprise to most Chinese more than one perspective forces you to and in public opinion. The resounding and [their ideas] are a surprise to a lot come back to yourself. Inter-Asian ex- defeat by China of poorly equipped and of Chinese intellectuals. In China there change has always been about economic poorly managed Indian troops resulted in has not been enough critical reflection. and social development but there has not a Line of Actual Control being articulated
need to make a claim on global art? How do significant issues arise? How do we re-enter a local situation if it has been ideologically coopted?”2
Above: Tushar Joag, Riding Rocinante: From Bombay to Shanghai via Sardar Sarovar and the Three Gorges, 2010, maps, motorcycle spare parts and tools, dimensions variable. Previous pages: Gigi Scaria, No Parallel, 2010, photo, video installation, 6' 42". Images: Courtesy of Hanart TZ Gallery. Photographs by Thomas Fuesser.
Above left: Tallur LN, Enlightenment Machine (Beta Version), 2010, wood, bronze , steel, grinding stone, 180 x 200 x 220 cm. Above right: Nilima Sheikh, Over Land, 2010, casein tempera on rice paper mounted on silk, 366 x 30 cm, 14 scrolls. Images: Courtesy of Hanart TZ Gallery. Photographs by Thomas Fuesser.
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ASIAN ART NEWS 75
Encounters With Place And Time Chaitanya Sambrani, curator of the West Heavens Project exhibition, entitled Time Play: India China Contemporary Art, spoke recently in Shanghai with Asian Art News’s regional contributing editor Jonathan Thomson on the project and its impact. How did you get involved with this project? I met Johnson (Johnson Chang Tsong Zung, commissioner of the West Heavens exhibition) in Hong Kong. He wanted to do something with India and the Chinese imagination and so he invited me to come on board as curator of this project. Both India and China had interesting experiences in the 20th century. Both had their moment of liberation within two years of each other [1947 and 1949 respectively] and both started with a very similar baseline—very large populations, endemic malnutrition, endemic illiteracy—and took two completely different solutions to similar problems. Because of the history of modernization in China and in India there are a lot of conversations that need to be had between these two countries directly with one another. There is the all too familiar refrain that we know quite a lot about what is happening in Europe but we don’t know what is happening next door. It is not a
situation limited to India and China. You do not find a lot of awareness [about neighboring countries]. What awareness there is, is driven by art fairs and the [art] market and occasional encounters at Biennales, and suchlike. So the idea was to have an ongoing series of events, with one of them being the exhibition, but the project as a whole is much bigger than the exhibition. What we did was travel to India with a group of artists and curators from China and then travel to China with a group of artists from India. At each place we visited, we invited people from the arts community and from academia to meet. The project developed over a long period. The trips themselves were quite short— two weeks in India and two weeks in China, with a gap of four weeks in between. But the conversations that were started at that time have continued over email and they have all been recorded and
transcribed and uploaded to the website. The idea was to see what kind of relationships between each other can be built without that having to be mediated elsewhere. The project has gone through all sorts of modifications along the way—not all of the artists that I wanted to include in the show were able to participate. What factors did you consider when you were thinking about your “long list” of possible artists? I wanted in the first instance to invite people whose work had concerns, art historical or otherwise, that could span the two conditions of India and China. In fact there are a number of artists in India who are deeply interested in Chinese art history and find it a source of great inspiration. Contacts between the two countries stretch back to perhaps the fifth century. There was a rich network of contacts between Dunhuang in the West of China and Ajanta in the South West of India [both cave complexes with important
Gulammohammed Sheikh, CITY: Memory, Dreams, Desire, Statues and Ghosts; Return of Hiuen Tsang, 2010, raw canvas primed with papiermâché mounted on plywood; relief in papier mache, painted in casein with crayon and color pigments, painting 281 x 701 x 366 cm. Image: Courtesy of Hanart TZ Gallery. Photograph by Thomas Fuesser. 76 ASIAN ART NEWS
shrines and collections of early Buddhist paintings] and are contemporary with one another. If you were to visit both places, you would be amazed at how much has been shared. Ajanta is one of the great fountainheads of Buddhist art and there has to be reciprocal influences—it cannot be coincidence. We have not recorded the names of artists but it is certain some traveled back and forth. There have also been “mad” travelers seeking for truth. The 20th century is more problematic because the rich history of contact became a sort of cold diplomacy and, at one point, open warfare. So what can be resuscitated from that rich network of contacts was one of the considerations. The other consideration was to bring artists who are going to work outside of their comfort zone and go out on a limb and take the chance to go and work in China where they do not speak the language, where they don’t know their way around, and don’t have their home studio facilities. A number of the artists did in fact make their work in China. In the case of Tushar Joag it was made on a 53-day road trip between Mumbai and Shanghai. All of the artists were tremendously generous. Where does the title of the exhibition come from? The idea of the title is to play with place and time; the idea being that you encounter a different sense of geography (place), a different sense of temporal location or history (time), and then engage in a feeling of playful activity that is not only life-affirming but also inherently subversive. Play does not recognize hierarchies or inhibitions. It can be open and it can be critical in a playful way. There is also a lot of relevance to the idea of play in both Daoist and Indian traditions. Gods can be naughty and playful. So it makes that bridge possible. I did not want to start making claims about national identity because I think they are limited and too easily susceptible to subversion or hijacked for the purposes of jingoistic proclamations. Was the notion of play as performance or theater or as something that requires rehearsal a deliberate choice, given the theme of Rehearsal for the Shanghai Biennale? When I was working on the exhibition I did not know that the theme of the Shanghai Biennale was going to be that so it is a nice coincidence. The exhibition NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2010
was developed independently of the Biennale. Gao Shiming did travel with us to India and it was at that time we both learned of each other’s proposals. The exhibition was spread over two venues—the lobby of the office tower at 128 West Nanjing Road, opposite the Shanghai Museum of Art, and in the former British Consul Chapel and Seminary at South Suzhou Road, near the Bund. Did this cause any particular problems? Also there were some difficulties meeting the original published opening date that was timed to coincide with the opening of the Shanghai Biennale. What happened? There were some logistics problems in part because I am based in Canberra, Johnson is in Hong Kong, the exhibition is in Shanghai, and the artists are from different parts of India. It was a mammoth task coordinating everything. Also we do not have a host institution in Shanghai. The exhibition is not in a museum but in a number of makeshift spaces. There has been a long series of negotiations about venues. We are actually using spaces three, five and six. Our first two choices and our fourth fell through. For venues five and six [the former British Consul Chapel and Seminary at South Suzhou Road, near the Bund] the lease has just recently been transferred to the Peninsula Hotel group and we were only given tentative approval on the Sunday (six days before opening) and had the venue confirmed on the Wednesday (three days before opening.) Also a number of the large works were held up in customs, because apparently certain key staff in the customs department were not available and we only received them three hours before the opening. Then, when the work did arrive, so did Typhoon Meji.
by the Chinese and all subsequent diplomatic maneuverings towards a mutually satisfactory solution have foundered on the lack of real agreement on where this border should actually be. The relationship is regularly described in carefully worded diplomatic communiqués that give nothing away while in reality it festers as neither country can agree with the other about what territory might be forsaken and where exactly the line should be drawn. In addition, suspicion of China runs deep among Indian military analysts who fear encirclement both on land and at sea. Despite closer economic cooperation in recent years and visions of mutually beneficial connections as integral parts of the global ideas economy, the relationship between the two is still colored by this deep strategic mistrust.
any of the artists in this exhibition address these deep divisions. Tushar Joag’s artwork is part performance, part documentation, and part installation. He undertook an arduous journey by motorbike from Bombay to Shanghai via Sardar Sarovar and the Three Gorges Dam. The journey took 53 days and presented him with many difficulties. Some of these were administrative, as when he needed to be personally escorted through Tibet, and others were cultural and physical. He named his motorbike “Rocinante” after Don Quixote’s horse as he saw his journey as being more quixotic than heroic. He was inspired by the journey that Prince Siddhartha Gautama took on his
What are the future plans for the West Heavens project? One is for a reciprocal exhibition in India. There is enormous good will to make it happen. Space may again be an issue because the only venues large enough to accommodate the exhibition are state owned. However, another option is to engage with a consortium of commercial galleries and there are very good ones in Mumbai that are very professional and very enthusiastic and very sympathetic. It is also an enormous privilege to be a part of a program that includes such high-caliber academic speakers. ∆
Liu Dahong, Travelling Worldwide (work in progress), 2010, oil on canvas 3 pieces, upper panel 85 x 85 x 135 cm; lower panel 135 x 154 cm. Image: Courtesy of Hanart TZ Gallery. Photograph by Thomas Fuesser. ASIAN ART NEWS 77
horse, Kanthaka, when he saw the sights that changed his outlook and led to him becoming Buddha. His horse, of course, could not follow him and so in Shanghai Joag dismantled his motorcycle and immersed it in a series of tubs filled with water taken from the Yangtze River. He called this piece The Realization of Kanthaka as both an homage to Kanthaka and a symbol of his journey’s completion.
comprises a rotating platform that stands some 1.2 meters high and four meters in diameter. The top surface is comprised of three concentric circles. The innermost disk is made of stainless steel and is static. Beyond it a disk of foam rubber spins quite quickly clockwise while an outer disk of inflated air mattress material spins counter clockwise. A group of volunteers animate the work by sitting on the outer ring and reciting a number of prepared texts as they rotate. The mission of the group has been described as offering an archaeology of the present, picking apart the current state of life in urban India.4
he video works by Gigi Scaria also helped to make explicit the connections between these two opposing positions. In No Parallel he places two video monitors side by side. On one he displays documentary photos of key events in the life of Mahatma Gandhi and on the other photos from the life of Mao Zedong. He selected his photos carefully in order to highlight the similarities in the lives of both men. Scaria notes, “Gandhi and Mao can never be at the same level in anything—ideas, political ideology, or philosophy—but in looking back there are parallels. For example, in 1930 Gandhi undertook his ‘Salt March’ to the sea in order to protest the Governments salt tax and in 1934–1935 Mao led the Long March in order to unite China.” The transitions between the slides are presented in a digital form of the sort of billboards commonly seen in train stations that have a matrix of disks that flick between black and white to spell out departure times and destinations. In a similar way his work describes a temporal and spatial journey as it seeks to find common ground between the two countries through the lives of their leaders. In Raise Your Hands Those Who Spoke to Him he recorded the recollections of people who had actually spoken to Mao. This project, undertaken by necessity in China by an Indian artist, aimed to examine the impact of the passage of time on changing value systems. With some difficulty, the artist was able to find
Hu Xiangcheng, Choice, 2010, mixed-media installation, dimension variable. Image: Courtesy Hanart TZ Gallery. Photograph by Thomas Fuesser.
four people who had met Mao and the videos of their oral histories were presented on four screens side by side. Their recollections are given greater poignancy by means of the artist inserting pauses into the narrative of three of the speakers while the fourth is speaking. This seems to suggest that each of the speakers is engaging with one another’s memories and generates room for reflection on history and the coloring of that history through memory. The passage of time is alluded to in the work of Tallur LN as something that may sharpen or erode cultures. He presented two machines—one monolithic, somehow agrarian in nature and primitive, and one that would not be out of place in some high-tech electronic research facility. The monolithic machine called Enlightenment Machine (Beta Version) comprised two massive wooden wheels, each weighing 750 kilograms that were set on edge and joined by an equally massive wooden axle. Built into the axle was an
old fashioned foot-powered pedal-driven grinding wheel and next to that the artist placed a number of brass cultural artifacts—one a statue of an Indian goddess, and the other a Chinese god. Visitors to the exhibition were invited to pedal the machine and grind away the features of the icon in order to either erase it or to transform it into something else. The other, called Apocalypse (The Coin Polisher) is an electromagnetic industrial polishing machine normally used (for example) to finish components for mobile telephones. Tallur adapted it to polish coins of any currency into worthless disks of metal. His wall text described how polished is a term used to describe a process of becoming well mannered or civilized and invited visitors to the exhibition to render their money “civilized.” Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula, and Shuddhabrata Sengupta formed The Raqs Media Collective in New Delhi in 1992. Their work Revolutionary Forces
ulammohammed Sheikh offered a more explicit archaeology in his work City: Memory Dreams Desire Statues and Ghosts; Return of Hiuen Tsang. This large work has two parts—one is a large seven-meter-wide illustrated map of the city of Baroda presented as a panorama and in front of it a semicircular relief sculpture of an excavation of the city. A tourist promotion website of the city describes Baroda as “one of India’s most cosmopolitan cities with hundreds of different identities, where everyone participates in all activities so that the culture of the city is not just history or heritage but is dynamic, ever-changing and alive.”5 What the website fails to mention, but which Sheikh wishes to reference in his work, is the fact that Baroda was caught up in the sectarian violence of 2002 in which more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed. Sheikh describes it as a genocide in which the State was complicit.6 A number of the Chinese artists also use maps in their work. Qiu Anxiong’s Cubic Globe comprises a series of models
Qiu Anxiong, Cubic Globe, 2010, installation (wood), 120 x 60 x 60 cm 5 pieces. Image: Courtesy of Hanart TZ Gallery. Photograph by Thomas Fuesser.
of the earth but instead of being spherical, he presents the planet as a cube. Some “globes” depict political divisions, while others depict either typography or the planet swathed in clouds. His work helps focus deliberations of the nature of centers and margins. Qiu Zhijie uses a map to document a number of journeys made by British cartographers seeking to define the borders of India and the distribution of military and other strategic resources. He also uses a map to document a journey of his own from Lhasa to Kathmandu on foot whilst wearing a pair of heavy shackles joined by a chain.7 The lecture program devised by Johnson Chang as a key part of the discourse between India and China began with a lecture by Sarat Maharaj titled in the
Above left: Atul Bhalla, The Listener from the West Heavens, 2010, light box and video, 135 x 95 x 20 cm 9 pieces. Above right: Raqs Media Collective, Revolutionary Forces, 2010, dynamic sculptural installation with text performed by volunteers. Images: Courtesy of Hanart TZ Gallery. Photographs by Thomas Fuesser.
Anant Joshi, Musical Chairs, 2010, sculptural installation (wood, call bell, copper funnels, paper-cut, flip-book), 214 x 221 x 51 cm. Image: Courtesy Hanart TZ Gallery. Photograph by Thomas Fuesser.
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program as India / Asia’s / Global Drives to Modernity and the Biennale Institution but subtitled by him during his presentation as Small Change of the Universal as he used the insignificant small coins that we may be left with after some minor transaction as a metaphor for the universal and contingent conditions of modernity. His presentation opened a great many avenues for further discussion, including speculation on the various models of what may constitute modernity. He noted that India has some 64,000 Gods. It can thus perhaps offer China (and the world) valuable insights on diversity, plurality, and multiplicity. ∆ Notes: 1. Johnson Chang Tsong-Zung, “Into the Nineties,” China’s New Art Post-1989, Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong, 1993. 2. Johnson Chang West Heavens Website http://westheavens.net 3. Interview with Johnson Chang in Shanghai on October 23, 2010. 4. HG Masters “Ongoing Thinkings” West Heavens Website 5. http://www.baroda.com/aboutvadodara. php#History 6. Interview with Gulammohammed Sheikh in Shanghai on October 24, 2010. 7. The participating artists in the West Heavens exhibition are: Atul Bhalla, Tushar Joag, Anant Joshi, Sonia Khurana, Tallur LN, Raqs Media Collective, Gigi Scaria, Gulammohammed Sheikh, Nilima Sheikh, and Hema Upadyay from India and Hu Xiangcheng, Liu Dahong, Qiu Anxiong, Qiu Zhijie, and Inga & Wu.
Jonathan Thomson is the regional contributing editor for Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. He is based in Bangkok. ASIAN ART NEWS 79