Brain cells that store memories die, decay or collapse. Hard drives that store digital memories ‘crash’. Remembering and retrieving are the remedies to regain memories and hard drive storages. We no longer remember the phone numbers of our closest friends. External memories carry them for us. Memory/brain used to be an archive. Albums and scrap books used to do the same. Libraries carried vast amount of memories. But a library could be unpacked and re-installed elsewhere if it is not burnt down. Today, archive is dead and is reincarnated in the forms of digital storages. Archiving used to be a strategy to deflect the State’s wrath on citizens. Archiving used to be a way of the State to remember its own past.
(North Malabar Thiyya Marriage Videos and Pictures, a project by Janaki Abraham)
Today, archive is a part of our collective nostalgia. When curators attempt to showcase the idea of archives through the works of art, artists attempt to make new archives for re-living the idea of archives. For Marcel Proust, T.S.Eliot, Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin, archiving was a political act from the micro levels. For them archiving was not the production of a spectacle. Instead they collected their memories in codes. Encryption was necessity and strategy. But today artists in India, when asked to think about archiving, produce spectacles. Archiving has become a forced act; a collective act and a funded act. But anything that evokes certain nostalgic moments is to be appreciated. It could be the foot wears collected from different countries, it could be the digitizing a personal collection of catalogues or even it could be a make-shift spectacular library.
(A display from Janaki Abraham's project)
However, in such projects, the presence of contemporary ‘artists’ become more important than the actual idea behind curating. Janaki Abraham, who has extensively archived the VHS tapes of the marriage videos of a particular caste group in Northern Kerala, Abul Azad who has extensively photographed the artists, musicians and social activists in India, Ram Rahman who has registered the pivotal movements and moments of a ‘secular’ post-modern India are no longer seen in such archival projects. Instead, we see artists by fluke presenting their works. A documentary maker like Amar Kanwar is treated as an archiving artist. Raqs Media Collective, which actually is a research organization, is forced to make a ‘work of art’ than presenting its own archiving activities.
(Amar Kanwar- a Visual Artist by default)
(Archived by Market Success- Researchers turned artists- Raqs Media Collective)
When a curator thinks of doing a spectacular show, it happens. Abhishek Hazra, whose projects are often incoherent for those non-enlightened people like me, has done one project with the archives of a major Kolkatan Library. I remember it has something to do with the writings of the scientist Jagishchandra Bose and in a project where he could have been fit into, does not even consider him. Some curators force the artists into the concept and one could see the results in such shows.
(A still from History is a Silent Film by K.M.Madhusudhanan)
Against this context I would like to see one particular installation of Shankar Natarajan done in a show at BMB Gallery, Mumbai. This is installation of made of more than thousand photographs taken by the artist himself. A post graduate in art criticism and a self-trained photographer, Shankar Natarajan turned his creative energies towards documenting artists’ works for their shows. By 2006, with the art market boom, Shankar became one of the most sought after photographer in Mumbai who specialized in taking the photographs of the art works both in and out of display. Galleries started commissioning him to travel with the artists and shows all over the world to do the documentation.
(Shankar Natarajan's project at Gallery BMB, Mumbai)
When Shankar was invited to participate in show at the BMB Gallery, he decided to open up his archives from his hard disk. These thousand photographs show the works of most of the Indian contemporary artists and interestingly thanks to the proliferation of information technology and cataloguing most of the images are familiar to the diligent art viewers. However, when the photographer, claims these images as ‘his’ works, they assume the character of archival materials. According to the artist, it is a kind of revoking the memories; memories of a time and fervent activities of artist during this time. This work is also a way of externalizing a personal memory by negotiating images between their status as the result of visual registrations and as the residual of such registrations.
(Another view of Shankar Natarajan's project)
Shankar himself disputes the uniqueness of the component images in his installations because of these images are seen elsewhere in other formats. However, once conceptually mediated as an installation on a gallery wall, these memories/images achieve a sort of uniqueness, which is capable enough to debate the core issue of memory, artificial memory, storage devices, copyright and above all the personal attachment to the product and the waste/sub-product. Interestingly, in Shankar’s project, residual images play a pivotal role as he himself accepts that the number of pictures that made their way into the installation is many times less than the number of pictures that remain in his computer/hard disk.
(Installation view of Shankar Natarajan's Work)
The archival intensity of this installation becomes intense as the artist/critic/photographer/documenter/archivist himself feels that there these photographs together creates a different meaning by registering the peculiar qualities/aesthetic productions of a given time. “At a very basic level , by displaying over a 1000 photos I shifted the focus from individual images of artworks used by indivudals and institutions for a specific purpose to something like an overview of what was produced in a particular period : 2006-2010,” Shankar says.
Unfortunately, the curators who devote their time to debate the issues of archiving go behind the usual suspects. I wonder how Amar Kanwar is treated as an artist and K.M.Madhusudhanan who has extensively worked with the history of photography and theatre (History is a Silent Film and Maya Bazar) is not. Ten years of research seems to have gone waste when it comes to curatorial practice.
Yes, all these while I was talking about ‘Against All Odds’ curated by Arshiya Lokhandwala at the Lalit Kala Akademy, New Delhi. This show has a sub-title: A Contemporary Response to the Historiography of Archiving, Collecting and Museums in India.’ I could not see anything about historiography in this show. Nor could I see anything on Museum debate.