Roots in the past, shoots to the future

In India for the Kochi Muziris Biennale, Chris Dercon, director of Tate Modern, London, talks about India’s place in the arena of global contemporary art

Published - December 19, 2014 09:31 pm IST

Chris Dercon in Kochi. Photo: Thulasi Kakkat

Chris Dercon in Kochi. Photo: Thulasi Kakkat

On the second day of the second edition of Kochi Muziris Biennale (KMB), 2014, many works are still in progress. Unlike the last time, there are no complaints, no fretting about this unready state. Strangely, grumble has given way to wonder among viewers and a sense of participation. And again, unlike the last time, more venues, by their own volition, have opened their doors to host shows. More artists have pitched in their resources, before collecting remunerations , to be a part of a Biennale that is evolving organically. It is almost all hands to the pump.

As director of Tate Modern, London, one of the most-frequented modern art galleries in the world, Chris Dercon has observed this change, noticed the desire of people to participate, of the broader ramifications the Biennale has and is set to have.

He, as one who closely watches trends in international art exhibitions, global practices, and the challenges faced by artists, positions KMB as singular in almost all aspects — inception, processes, funding and presentation. It is also one which he foresees as having a deep futuristic impact.

Excerpts from an interview:

What are your impressions about the second edition of Kochi Muziris Biennale? It is still in its infancy?

This is a Biennale made by people. Last time, people seemed to complain that the works were not ready; now they are not saying that anymore, because they are part of the progress. The whole idea that something is not ready is not important to me. I feel privileged to watch the art of making; that is the reason why this Biennale is so different. I love to see the works in progress, of Valsan Koorma Kolleri, of Dayanita Singh, of Anish Kapoor. The process of making should never end; Valsan should never be ready.

This Biennale is not about marketing a place; it is not about what is for sale; it is not about the power of the galleries but about the power of the people. This is a bottom-up Biennale . It is a bit like the illustration of Ned Rifkin’s idea about sharing economies.

You have established yourself as quite the fundraiser. What about fundraising for KMB?

I hate the word crowd sourcing. I love the word sharing economy. Inclusivity instead of exclusivity. Projects like this should be a mixture of public-private participation. It should be wrong to let the Government out in the shadow. They have to contribute. They should know how much the KMB means culturally and economically. It puts India on the map. There are local artists, craftsmen, producers who are working on this; it is a form of micro-economics. Kiran Nadar , Lekha Poddar, Praful Shah, Pinakin, the Alkazi Foundation, etc. are wealthy people who do share, and support art in new ways. One should take an example of these.

What are your views on the contemporary art of India at this point?

Suddenly contemporary art here is discovering that their legacy is not only International art but their legacy is also here. It is looking backwards and forwards. Artists are looking back at Santiniketan, at Dashrath Patel, at the informal group of Mumbai, at Baroda and Chandigarh and also forward to their privileged links with Dubai, Sharjah and London. There’s amazing elasticity at this juncture.

So does that change the role of the artist?

The role of the artist here is very interesting because they don multiple roles as researchers, artists, writers, curators and publishers. They even produce, sell, buy and market. The project on artist books by Samit Das at Yousuf gallery; the little museum and photo books of Dayanita Singh, works of Amar Kanwar are examples. What is also very interesting is that we in the West broke up the connection between art and craft in the 19th Century. In India this was broken in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Dashrath Patel tried to maintain it. Now this split is being reconnected vigorously. It is an incredibly important thing. Contemporary art has begun, in some cases, to imitate other disciplines like sociology, anthropology, architecture, urbanism and industrial design. It is like a sponge that can soak up everything. In India the sponge has begun to dry and is giving back in initiatives, such as Clarke House and Raqs Collective. In the West, curators and critics demand that biennales, which are not in America and Europe, should deal with post-colonialism. It is almost desired or requested that way, which seems another form of Western dominance. Kochi is proving that it can be different with other ‘themes’ and structures.

The art made for the Indian art market had become a cliché. But this Biennale and other such initiatives are prime examples that you don’t have to make commodities to survive. Why should you make big and expensive art? What I see here is taking art to a higher form of cultural expression. Slowly, young artists are liberating themselves from that hold of the market.

What is the future of museum architecture, taking cognisance of the changes that you brought about in the Tate Modern?

Museum architecture in the future is going to be completely different from what we know. It will see simple, humbler structures; not one space but many small spaces. What is happening in Kochi is a good example of future museum architecture. Tate Modern is a good example of something in transition. It is, maybe, the last example of the vast monolithical space.

What is the relationship Tate shares with India?

We have many Indian patrons. We are part of the KMB with Shristi School of Design. Through SAAC (South Asian Acquisition Committee) we buy Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi art, such as Dayanita Singh, and the fantastic work of Mrinalini Mukherjee, and Zarina Hashmi among others. Indian photography is very important to us. We are to hold a retrospective on Bhupen Khakar in 2016.

Some of our Indian collaborations are BP Art Exchange with Shristi, Brooks International Fellowships in cooperation with Delfina Foundation which invited young, Indian scholars and artists and the Tate Project Space venture with KHOJ held last year. We have a good working relationship with the NGMA and its director Rajeev Lochan. We did a retrospective on Amrita Sher-Gil together. He has been a personal mentor together with Vivan Sundaram and Geeta Kapoor. Without them I would have navigated India blindly.

As a curator what are your views?

The first thing is that I am interested in things I don’t know yet. Secondly without culture we have even less. The more unequal the world gets it is better for the art market but I don’t accept that. Once the order has been found everything can be changed around. We want to produce culture not commodities. I believe that looking at the stock market is not work, buying art is not work.

I am struggling with received ideas.

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