Friday, October 13, 2017

Curatorial Practice as Erasure of Identity: Gangotree Dasgupta and the Impremere: Curating in Baroda X

Gangotree Dasgupta
Gangotree Dasgupta, final year MVA Art History, MSU, Baroda holds a Bachelors’ and Masters Degree in Sculpture from the Assam University, Silchar. She has higher hopes in studying art history and becoming a scholar as well as a curator. She has an interesting concept in her hand, which in fact not started as a curatorial concept but an art performance and experimental process. Gangotree, in one of her art experiments earlier had taken the impressions of the faces of a few of her friends on pieces of cloths (measuring the size of a big hand kerchief) by applying natural dyes or home-made herbal pastes on their faces, exactly the way girls did ‘facial’ in beauty parlours. When Gangotree is faced with the question of conjuring up a curatorial project, she does not look hard around for a feasible topic. She feels that she has one in her hands and just need to polish it, conceptualise it and execute it. In the presentation of her initial concept presentation before the attentive class room/board room, she forwards this idea of facial impressions as still life pictures made out of a different process with the participation of willing viewers. The facial impressions, according to her become the registration of a non-identity (as her previous experiments have proved) and in the process everyone becomes one and the same without showing much of diversified features reducing their facial identity into a seemingly clear skull form.

In a domestic experiment, perhaps there would be willing participants, but what about their role in a curatorial project that takes place in the full view of other audience? How would you display the results? How the participants or the viewers understand that those are ‘their’ prints? Where exactly are you taking the meaning of the whole project? What is ‘curatorial’ in this project? What is the possible title that you would like to give? How are you going to carry out the process? Questions are aplenty and the cub curators come out in full force. They just don’t consider that Gangotree is their dear friend and they need to be slightly lenient to her. Gangotree seems to have the answers for all of these questions as she is clear about the ways in which the project would take shape. But at present she does not know how much audience participation would happen when it is actually done within the campus. According to Gangotree, these non-identities that she is planning to get from at least fifty people in a way would underline the fundamental reality of human life- the identical nature of everyone’s face. They may look different in different regions and in different facial templates. There are different racial features reflected on the faces of people. But in this project, Gangotree would like to break down these differences and highlight the aspect of a singular identity of the human beings through the creation of non-identities.

Gangotree explains her case with the few examples of that she has already done earlier with her friends. The cub curators examine the result and they all say that the impressions look like ‘skulls’. Gangotree smiles as if she knew the catch. She explains that a beauty parlour is meant to be making people beautiful but here is a beauty parlour or a few of them in the campus which would make everyone who undergoes the process, ‘ugly’ or skull like. I tell her that the whole idea is moving towards the idea of ‘death’, a sort of memento mori used in the still life pictures as a reminder of human mortality. And also what comes to mind immediately is the famous ‘shroud of Turin’, which is believed to carry the imprint of Christ’s face as it was used during the entombment of the great man. Also, there was a time when photography was not as proliferated as today or rather scarce, in the villages when the grandees of families died, they used to take the foot prints of the dead in order to worship later, by applying sandal paste or turmeric paste on the soles. Gangotree smiles again and tells that she is aware of the Shroud of Turin. She also tells the class that as a curator-performer she does not want to take it to that direction where the Shroud of Turin stands because her project does not have any intention to attribute any ‘divinity’ to her work. Even she does not want to register the name and signature of the ‘sitter/model/participant’ on the print because she says that then the curatorial idea of making non-identities would collapse into identities, discernable by signature.

Initially Gangotree wants to set up this ‘identity destroying’ beauty parlour as a mobile one. The parlour would go where the people are! She would even employ a professional beautician to do the job. But a curator should be working out on her budget. When Gangotree does her calculations, such a set up would cost beyond her pockets so she drops the idea and decides to perform not only as a curator of the project but also as performer/artist of the project. With the outcome more or less defined, the whole fun of doing this project is ‘performing’ the act itself. Still one does not know who is going to be the participants. Once again a work or a process art in public space destined to be developed with the participation of an unpredictable public becomes important here. We have seen in Chandni Guha Roy’s project titled ‘Rhetoricity’ how the very presence of surveillance changed the behavioural patterns of the otherwise volatile public/the student community. Once again we are faced with same issue. But Gangotree keeps her fingers crossed and the cub curators assure her that if nobody is willing they would be there as her ‘identity seekers’.

Gangotree titles her project as ‘Impremere’, a French word for ‘Impressions’. Why a French word? It is a fad among the young curators to give impressive titles to their works so that they get more attention than the ordinary words would get them. It is an international phenomenon. We have different kinds of curators who select the titles that reveal their intentions and inclinations too. Some curators go for longer titles, as if they were explaining the theme of the show in the title itself. Some curators go for a single word and a subtitle, which is fair enough. There are curators who look for Latin or Greek or French names so that the projects would ‘sound’ better. There are curators they choose very mundane titles and the very ordinariness evokes some kind of curiosity. Some curators are very traditionalists; they just cannot stand even an English title. They go for Sanskrit titles. A good title, as far as curatorial projects are concerned, is a title that holds the curatorial idea intact, without straying far away from what the curator is doing. The direct the better, the simpler the better, that is the best policy one could adopt. ‘Impremere’ is not far away from Impressions though one needs to ask for the meaning or covertly Google it to know the meaning. Names of curatorial projects are as endearing and closer to heart as the names of the children that the parents prefer. For a curator, the curatorial project is like a child; it takes shape in the mind of the curator and it takes birth through his/her efforts. So the name cannot be just this or that. It shows the idea of the curator.

Complicating anything related to a curatorial project does not limit itself to naming a project. It also goes into the very writing of concept notes, wall texts and catalogue writing (I am not talking about Gangotree here). If you write in a language which is simple and direct, people may think that the curator or writer does not know the depths of things or he/she lacks in profundity. If you use a complicate(d) language and use certain jargon which nobody understand in one go or even used only in the academic circles just to assess the users’ intellectual abilities, and never used elsewhere, everyone who tries to read it would appreciate it only because they don’t understand a thing from it. That means, there is a huge amount of hypocrisy in our academic writing which is often passed off as intelligent writing. For me, such intelligent writing is obscure writing and deliberately done so. During 1990s there used to be an argument that the complex thoughts could be expressed only in complex language. They just refused to believe that complex thoughts, if the thinking has clarity could also be written in simple, direct and expressive language. Sometime in 2005, when the noted art historian Geeta Kapur wrote a concept note for some project (I think it was a proposal for a Delhi Biennale) and circulated around via emails, I tried to read it and failed miserably. I made a counter mail saying that if someone could decipher it in simple English, I could offer my Maruti 800 car (those days I was driving one) as a reward. Nobody came forward. Interestingly, such kind hypocrisy is still prevalent in places like the Arts and Aesthetics Department of the Jawaharlal Nehru University. Recently I heard a postgraduate from there debating an issue in the social media; he just does not talk to the point, instead he would quote different European theoreticians and say something else in a language which would scare the other people away. I got scared and left the debate. My policy in this matter is simple; clarity in thinking, clarity in expression. I say, all the curators should follow this policy, if they want to communicate.

Coming back to Gangotree’s project, ‘Impremere’ is a huge success. Gangotree herself goes to the market, buys raw turmeric, rose petals, beetroots, multani mitti and many other herbs, gets them ground in the mixer at the college canteen (I should say the young lady at the cash counter is not a frowning lady Shylock but a smiling sister to all the girls in the campus). She fills the paste in different bowls and places them in a table-case with glass top as used in museums. She gets the set up done in front of the auditorium- a comfy chair with a head rest, a table, fresh cool water, lot of paper napkins, a dust bin, a hair band and a large mirror for the participants and the onlookers to take a good narcissistic look. By 11.30 in the morning on 21st September 2017, Gangotree gets her first customer who seeks a beauty face lift and to erase her own beautiful self in the process and become a skull like impression. Gangotree has already tied a long cloth line between two trees. The first impression goes up there and everyone gasps. A skull. A beautiful girl has become a skull like image there. Then the word spreads. Girls rush to the spot. There is a crowd around to watch Gangotree working on the faces of willing viewers. There is more willingness than shyness, soon we see it. It is Garba time. Girls think that it is good to get a herbal facial for free. There is a long line before Gangotree. Boys are shy in the beginning. Then they too sit. The impressions increase. Gangotree is tired but she has a good adrenaline rush and she does not want to leave the spot. By six o clock in the evening still there are viewers waiting to do the impressions. Finally Gangotree calls it off. She has overshot her target. The next day the impressions would be on display.

Is it just because of the facial there is a huge participation in Gangotree’s project? This is here once again the idea of public comes to play. Public is not just a group of people with no mind of their own or rather a mind of a mob. Often we say that the public has a herd mentality and they would be promoted to do what a few members of it do. That is not the case with all kinds of public. Always a public is not mesmerised by demagoguery. The public could actually construct and deconstruct itself and find individualities within the crowd. Especially when the public gathers around a magician or an artist, within the gallery/museum or street, the willing people who decides to participate in fact establish their individuality as different from the crowd there itself. This re-individualising from within the crowd is one important part that makes the crowd carnivalesque, varied and diverse. In Gangotree’s project, each willing participant comes there to regain the individuality (unlike the ones who participated in Chandni’s project and were desperate to hide their individuality) though eventually their impressions become generic. The most interesting curatorial outcome of Gangotree’s project is that the next day, the participants come back to the spot where now there is no makeshift parlour but a display of the impressions in a triangular fashion, and look for their faces which now have gone irretrievably ghost like. But the most important human aspect that comes out is the urgency of each participant to scrutinise each impression with utmost curiosity and see first of all which one is his/her and secondly what makes his/her impression different from the other. It is a great curatorial outcome; the individual comes back to the crowd scene to see his/her trace, exactly the criminal comes back to the crime scene, magically attracted by his own deeds. Identity is a crime! Erasure of it is a sort of liberation. But between liberation and crime there is a narrow strip, which is called life. Gangotree’s project is all about that.

Curatorial lessons learnt: One, a well thought out project with a trial run could prove supremely successful without throwing up any hurdles and added participation by the onlookers. Two, there may be certain real time adjustments in the location and process, but letting it happen is the curatorial flexibility. Often, when faced with a change in the original plan the curators go jittery. There is no need to do that. One could adjust with what is in hand which would bring success. In Gangotree’s case, her original plan of multiple parlour stations in different parts of the campus slowly changes into one unit moving from one place to another and finally becomes one unit parlour where the curator herself dons the garb of a beautician. Three, sticking to the original idea is important even if the execution could be tweaked as per the situation. Gangotree’s original idea is to erase identity and not to have any trace of it via name or signature. There have been several moments of temptation for her to get the images signed as senior and famous artists sit for a facial. But she could resist that and now the identities would remain only in her documentation. Four, this project could grow, ethnologically, racially, age wise, region-wise, relationship wise and so on. Gangotree seems to be all geared up to do that.

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