Friday, September 9, 2016

Civilizing Rituals: Guernica Stretcher in MoMA and the Works of Art in Our Cultural Institutions

(MoMA find the Guernica Stretcher from its Storage)

Yesterday I happened to read an article in the MoMA, New York website. It is about an accidental finding of a stretcher which had initially held the legendary work ‘Guernica’ by Picasso. What surprised me was the way in which the topmost museum in the world celebrated the finding of this stretcher from its stock after almost half a century. The article meticulously traces the ‘journey’ of this stretcher and also scientifically proves how this was the original stretcher that held the famous Guernica together in place in the beginning. I am impressed by the efforts of the MoMA to make the very stretcher minus the work of art a thing of relevance itself and I am sure in the absence of the painting this stretcher would attract public attention now onwards. This obvious strategy of capitalist museum practice could make anything and everything into a work of art provided those accidental ‘findings’ once held some important work of art. It could be a plate, a crate, a nail , a rack, a railing, a vault, a wall, a storage, a corner, an attic, a trunk, a chest, a country house, a box or anything of that sort. It is one way to say that the association with a valuable signature could impart value and historical relevance to anything. The day is not far when people visit that particular room/gallery in MoMA where a naked stretcher is exhibited with a note, a headphone, a brochure, a handout qualifying it as the original stretcher of Guernica.

Should one be militantly against such capitalist art practices? What I mean by capitalist art practice is some art activity or art related activity that could produce excessive profit and false histories around it. Exhibiting or celebrating a stretcher could, in the long create a precedence of sorts and we could in future have a museum of stretchers and crates, where we could queue up to see what once held the great works of art. In the absence of the original great works of art, today the semblances do the job; either the originals are permanently missing but the acknowledgement of missing it by the authorities would cause a great rupture not only in the historical discourse but also in the economic discourse generated around the said works of art or they are kept in safe custody for the fear of depletion due to climatic exposures as well as for the fear of theft. Hence, we could say such dummy practices could eventually create a situation where people would see only the copies and never the originals. Though Walter Benjamin had said it in a different context, we could read it in the renewed context of seeing copies in the museums saying that while consuming a cultural product which already has got an approved history, it becomes less pertinent whether we are seeing/consuming the original or the copy. This could also be applicable in the case of a future museum of stretchers and storage materials of the works of art.

 (Guernica by Pablo Picasso)

Carol Duncan in her ruminations on museum practices (Civilizing Rituals) has tangentially pointed out how revealing of findings could collapse the existing museum discourses that includes as I said before both historical discourses and economic discourses. Hence, the obfuscation of historical findings is a way to maintain status quo or reiteration of the false histories which have been already built around the works of art. It is time to read Duncan in a reverse format; we need to say that the new findings could also become a part of the new display without affecting the already existing histories and could become a point of comparison if not simple wonderment. What makes an eleven feet stretcher important is its original association with an illustrious painting, Guernica by Picasso. While MoMA creates its own provenance using historical, documentary and scientific evidences, there could be a parallel practice sparking off its journey; so many stretchers and containers would be found sooner than later.

This would lead to a situation what Guy Debord had emphasised in his essay the ‘Society of Spectacle’. In the process of spectacularization of anything and everything, the objects create meanings and values in their relationships with other objects rather than creating a meaning intrinsic to it. For example, a mango will be remembered when someone drinks a mango juice with its packaging saying clearly that no fruit pulp is involved in the making of it and it contains only artificial flavours. What stands between a mango and the fruit juice minus fruit pulp is a model like Katrina Kaif who drinks the juice as if she were having an orgasm. These three disparate images generate the idea of an original mango fruit and all our childhood memories associated with eating a ripe mango. Translating the very idea into the museum practice, we could say in the spectacularization process we no longer see a Picasso, a Ravi Varma,  a Tagore, a Nandlal Bose, a Shergil, a Baij or a Souza but the crates and stretchers that once held their works. We would happy to have a museum of such auxiliary artefacts.

 (Civilizing Rituals by Carol Duncan)

If MoMA is too strict in verifying the veracity of a stretcher, we Indians are too callous about it. I remember an experience I had when I got the opportunity to visit, flip through and assess the three to four thousand works in the storage of the Central Lalit Kala Academy a few years back. Stored in a damp and dark underground floor, the authorities did not even have proper lights to show me the works of art. One of the persons who accompanied me to the storage switched his die hard Nokia phone on, which had a good beam of white light. I need not say that I was witnessing the works of the doyen of Indian modern art rotting there, with their stretchers coming off and canvases folded, eaten by moths and termites and so on. This is where, despite all the theoretical positioning of us against the MoMA’s practice of celebrating a stretcher, we have to appreciate how respectful, strategic and proud they are about their works of art, their collection, their national pride and their national modern heritage.

We are a country that claims a cultural history of more five thousand years. The United States of America does not even have a history of five hundred years. Our cultural issues have been reduced to who eats what and who wears what. We have quick fix solutions come from the top leadership; it goes like this- we should not eat beef, the country will be alright. The visiting foreign girls should not wear skirts, if they do, they could be raped. Our cultural issues have been reduced to the protection of our geographical boundaries, it has been reduced to the digging of cricket pitches or preventing noted singers and professionals performing on Indian soil. Our biggest cultural issues have become cleaning up of Ganga, Kumbha Mela, Maha Aartis, Ganesh Festivals and all such religious practices. We as a people with a cultural heritage have become so callous that we do not even bother whether our Lalit Kala Academy is functioning or not.

 (Central Lalit Kala Academy, New Delhi)

When someone like me writes about these issues, they say that there is an element of ‘rant’ in it.  Rant, according to the dictionary is an angry speech (which is not a hate speech). If it is not said in derogatory fashion (which often is), I am happy to be accused of being a rant because someone has to say these things. The national institutions like the National Gallery of Modern Art, the Lalit Kala Academy, the National Museum, the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts and so on have been spending money to collect works of art or procure works for a long time (for around five decades to be precise). Except for what has been exhibited none knows what happened to all those collections in these institutions. Nobody know whether they are rotting or in good conditions. It is pertinent for these institutions to bring their collections for public perusal and create catalogues and documents so that we could understand what has been our modern visual cultural heritage or what has been the collecting parameters of these institutions. There will be a question then. If these works turn out to be trash and do not add grace to our cultural heritage, what could be done with them? I would say, we could discard them including the stretchers. But unfortunately, the important works of important artists too are rotting in these institutions, including the stretchers. Yes, we have a lot to learn from MoMA, how to do things in a museum and also how not to do things in a museum.

No comments: