Tuesday, October 10, 2017

How Do You Curate Slow Disappearance? Shreya Harsole’s ‘Out of Time’: Curating in Baroda VII

Shreya Harsole, a final year MVA Art History student at the MSU, Baroda is perhaps the ‘senior most’ among the cub curators. Her seniority is not because of her age but because of the number of years that she has already spent in Art History Department. This is her sixth year in the department as she has done her BVA as well as MVA from the same department. Such students used to be very common two decades back and only a few seats were reserved for those students from other disciplines (mainly from Humanities and a big NO to science graduates, which in retrospection I feel that ‘is’ not a good decision because art historians should also have a scientific mind especially the ones who would later prefer to become museum personalities, professional museologists, researchers and conservationists). The founding fathers of the department used to believe that the future art historians should preferably come from pure art history background or from ‘creative’ background. Was it a short sight from the part of the pioneers? May be it was not because the education system in India was sharply divided into watertight categories such as a science, economics, commerce and humanities (that is comprised of anything that is not included in the other streams). Interdisciplinary or multi-disciplinary or cross-disciplinary educational approaches were not even heard of. Surprisingly since the very beginning of the twentieth century, there have been efforts to combine scientific spirit with creative thinking, and there were educationists who insisted that art should be the basis of all kinds of education. Rabindranath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi, Abul Kalam Azad, Kamala Chattopadhyay and so on were the proponents of such an educational system. But when the Art History Department was set up in Baroda sometime in 1967, perhaps the founding fathers (as well as mothers) thought that art history should be an isolated stream. Happy that we see now Art History is expanding its boundaries to include various disciplines and practices.

May be because Shreya has spent six years in the department, her project has obviously something to do with the department itself. Titled ‘Out of Time’, she tries to gauge the distance between a physical archive and the digital archive. When she presents her concept Shreya clearly delineates how each ‘son or daughter’ that this department has ‘created’, upon a revisit to their alma mater exclaim to the present generation of students about the times that they had spent in the hot and humid archive of the art history department. The physical archive in the Art History Department in Baroda is a thing of wonder; it is a study material in itself because it shows the constraints from within which the art history students of the yester years (students from the pre-internet and smart phone era) gather information, observed works of art, historical sites, documents and documentations using carefully and painstakingly cut and pasted visual and textual materials on card boards and meticulously catalogued and kept in boxes in several rows so that the students could look at the works in education consideration deeply and carefully to understand the nuances even from the bad reproductions. Somewhere in this series, I have mentioned how the teachers told the students to look at/for the Fauve colours in the black and white reproductions. The credit of making this archive as a wonderful educational repository goes to both Dr.Ratan Parimoo and Prof.Deepak Kannal and all those students who studied under them in those days. There had been scavenging and scouting for such visual materials in the second hand magazines and other discarded sources. If I exaggerate a bit, those famous art historians who have come out of this department had founded their future course in this rich yet humble archive.

Shreya, after spending six years in the faculty feels herself as a loner because most of her fellow students have come from other colleges and various departments. Hailing from Ujjain, Shreya accepts that she had adjustment problems in this culturally rich and educationally vibrant city of Baroda but her sole refuge was the archive though she belongs to the internet age. According to her this archive has helped her imagination soar to different levels and heights. In one such flights of fancies she had found her topic for the curatorial module. Perhaps, when I go there to guide them in the curatorial ventures, Shreya has not really articulated her concept. But soon she whets it and comes up with the concept presentation in which she emphasizes the ‘imbalance’ between the physical archive and the digital archive which is currently in everybody’s finger tips. Shreya sees this fact not only as a reality of the educational institutions but also as a metaphor of the slow condemnation or discarding of a certain ways of memory storing. For her the physical archive in Baroda is a theatrical repertoire now grown old therefore useless. As a symbol of its former glory and use, a sort of unattractive vintage, it stands there, wistfully inviting the students to come, sit and browse, however, the new age students do not feel the need to do so as online materials are abundant these days (I see my students in the Maharaja Ranjitsingh Gaekward Institute of Design –MRID- in Baroda constantly tapping the keys of their smart phones in order to register/verify/cross check whether I am teaching them the ‘right’ thing or not. There are two implications that I find in this act of the students- one, they make themselves sure that ‘it is there’ so that they could go back to it even if they are a little inattentive in the class. This going back to the source hardly happens. Secondly, unlike the students of the old times, the present day students always approach teachers with a fair amount of scepticism. They, measuring the teachers with their own modes of understanding, believe that the teachers also depend heavily on the internet sources. So what they do is a little bit of counter checking. There may be teachers who depend on internet for teaching materials but the students do not know that people like me who belong to the old school gather information by reading books and analysing the information constantly using the Indian practice called ‘dhyana, manana and nidhidhyasa).

In the metaphorical transformation of the physical archive/s in Baroda or elsewhere, Shreya sees the impending extinction of this rare species. Perhaps, an archive or rare photographs, rare materials (museums), rare books, rare documents may survive (until they are electronically stored or digitally archived, of which the former is becoming fast obsolete in the age of digital storing) but a physical archive of reproductions of works of art and sites perhaps would perish in the long run. It is in this slow perishing Shreya finds her curatorial pitch; the disappearance of archive itself. And what about those ‘disappeared’ sites and objects that exist only in physical archives? Does it cause a double disappearance? Shreya explains her concept with the architectural sites that are historically documented with a lot of textual sources but very few visual materials. According to Shreya, except for the visual documentation of these sites in the physical archives nothing remains of those architectural wonders. What would happen to them if the archive itself is rendered useless and is let to go through slow decay and disappearance? That is an interesting concept but Shreya does not know how to execute this project visually. The peer group in the class room/board room is slightly sceptical about the visual possibilities of this concept and they debate it further asking her whether she wants to do it in the archive itself or elsewhere. She chooses a space, an interim space between the main hall of the archive building and the air conditioned class room at the far end of it. A nearly twenty feet long and eight feet wide corridor of a space otherwise finds as an extension of the climate conditioned classroom with six large LCD television monitors or simply a house of plaster of Paris replicas of ancient sculptures and neatly printed and framed reproductions of Raja Ravi Varma’s works.

Shreya remains confused for a couple of days and I still believe that she would unpack the sleeping archival materials and bring it out for a public display. One day she says that she is totally against the idea of opening the archival materials and displaying it because she finds it a naive move, which I accept as a valid argument. The peer group too takes agrees with her decision. Then there are a couple of days of confusion as she is offered a collaboration by a junior MVA student who would like to use all the six television monitors for curating a video-performance piece within a demarcated dark space which would somehow connect with Shreya’s idea of archival memory and her idea of death. But the junior student chickens out at the last moment and the project falls through the gap that it has created all by itself. Shreya is once again alone, lost and a bit complaining but with a smile. Every curator finds her Eureka moment at some point. Shreya also gets it soon. What about incorporating another mode of art making with the slow disappearance of a physical visual archive? She explains as her concept is further discussed in the class; according to Shreya, a particular German stone which is used for printmaking is now becoming slowly rare because it is hardly available and even if available it is very expensive to afford. Whenever this stone is used for printmaking, benzene oil is used as a base; as a result of it, there is slow decaying and degradation of the image/print. Hence, according to Shreya, the medium itself is in a state of disappearance, the result created out of this stone also disappears in due course of time; and what about these already disappeared architectural structures are transferred on this stone using benzene oil? And what about the prints as well as the archival images of those disappeared architectural structures are exhibited in the same place?

The idea seems to be very interesting and Shreya invites her sister who is also a printmaker living near Baroda. Together they work towards setting up of the project. Shreya fishes out the images of the already disappeared architectural structures from the physical archive of the department and works with her sister to collect the printmaking stone pieces from the print making department. Then they work on these pieces of stone and transfer images of these architectural structures on them. The ‘gallery space’ is divided into three zones with a clear central area where the stone pieces with images (like fossils of art itself) are exhibited on the pedestals. On the far left end of the wall she exhibits the archival materials of the non-existing architectures and on the far right end there is a television screen fitted on the wall, which she covers with a piece of white cloth to give an obscure feeling about it and then pastes a few prints of these structures on the face of that screen. These three ‘spaces’ are connected with a helix drawn with sand and pebbles. Shreya has now given her curatorial idea a visual form. Though there are accidental findings in the project (which make a curatorial project interesting not only for the onlookers but also for the curator herself), Shreya comes out successful in her project. The obscured television monitor becomes a metaphor of the digital age which is always undercover but ready to help. The sand helix becomes a metaphor of slow disappearance of materials in due course of time. Also it shows the path through which the human minds have travelled always. The pieces of expensive stones become a sort of fossilized memories and the fading images on them shows how not only the structures but also the images of it too would disappear at some point if it is not carefully preserved or handled. And the rare archival images from the sleeping archival boxes complete the circle of Shreya’s curatorial idea.

Curatorial lessons learnt: One, the ideas that begin hopelessly abstract could take a physical form any time in due course of its deliberations. Two, the curator always needs a bouncing board for her ideas as she may not be able to take her ideas into a near perfection. In Shreya’s case I always noticed a mutual scepticism between herself and the peer group. In such situations, there is no problem in depending on the trusted friends from outside. Marzanah Mimi, the first year student from Bangladesh also uses a host of friends to execute her project. While the curator invites people to join as support cast in some of the cases, in some other cases, the support could come voluntarily, as seen in the case of the final year student Pronoy’s project. Three, accidental findings and chance learning could enrich the project eventually. Four, when you collaborate with another curator/artist, make sure that the other party delivers it on time. It is always advisable to stick to individual plans than collaborative projects especially when curatorial projects are done within a limited and stipulated time frame. Five, it is imperative to discuss and take opinion and observations from the peer group at the same time a lot of introspection is always needed. And more importantly no introspection should be done in a complaining tone. You march alone, others march along. When you sit and mope you mope in isolation. Believe that you have five fingers in a palm and there is always a middle finger reserved for the world.     


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