Are some curators luckier than the others especially in the context of a curatorial workshop as a part of the academic curriculum? Do the early birds get fat worms? In the case of Ramiya Arry, the final year MVA Art History student, hailing from Ludhiana is one such lucky curator. To begin with Ramiya too tells me that one wouldn’t find hugely successful artists or curators. But I have a lot of names to counter than argument; successful artists, art historians, gallery owners and so on. As if she reads into my mind Ramiya tells me that only those people who have gone out of Punjab have made it big elsewhere in the art. Then I want to tell her that in most of the states in India, those artists and art related people stay back or go back to their home states in one way or the other become complacent if not strategic politicians to keep their positions intact. That is the curse of the home states as far as a creative entrepreneur is concerned; first of all the home ground does not accept the exceptional talents, secondly because of this cynicism the home ground does allow the talent ones to grow. Often the complacent ones remain in the home grounds and fight for a few available positions. Ramiya, just like any other young and vibrant minds wants to make a difference to this. She would like to go back and make a difference. I wish her all the best.
However, I do not want to accept the ‘luck’ and ‘early bird’ theory in the case of curatorial practice. All my students gasp when they listen to the project proposal and concept note of Ramiya. Later those who come to see the final execution of the project also express the same feeling. In short they all like her project and the way she has put it up. “Usko bana bana hua cheezein mili hai,” (She got all readymade stuff) should have been the common refrain, I anticipate. Everybody underlines how lucky she is. I think in different terms. The chance was given to all the students alike. They were free to roam around and find their spaces and develop their ideas. This is where the early bird theory in the curatorial practice fails. Even if ten people visit the same site with the same intention (or visit the same artist’s studio or approach the same work of art with the same intention to curate him/her/it), their responses to it need not necessarily be the same. Each person is different and each person approaches a work of art differently, despite the art historical understanding, I repeat. By the second day, as my lecturing ‘down’ comes to an end and by the third dawn opens, Ramiya is more or less sure about her concept. Only thing is that she wants whet it at the stone of the class/boardroom. She has to face the peer group discussion.
Ramiya does what a cub curator would do in a given situation. She roams around the faculty of fine arts as if she had lost her mind. I notice that most of the students are visibly disturbed by third day morning. This disturbance is not the kind of agitation that one feels when one is in love or when one fails to finish an assignment or even diverted the hostel fee for buying a pair of clothes or enjoying some momentary luxury. This agitation is creative and magical. The churning in their soul and mind is palpable. Ramiya moves around looking for the right space first of all and then the right thing to execute. She is a post graduate in painting, a trained artist (as most of the art history students turn out to be) hence her eyes search for the right kind of art from the faculty itself. She accepts the fact that she wouldn’t be able to work with any fellow artist within the given time. Secondly and more importantly, she wants to work with a gallery or gallery like space. Here is the lesson for all the cub curators: you could start your curatorial ideas with a fixed space in mind or a fixed work of art in mind. If you start with a fixed idea about space in mind then it is imperative to find out the right kind of works of art to exhibit there.
If you start with a (few) works of art in mind then it is important to find an adequate space for it. Remember that is not the final word or final aim of a curatorial practice. At times having a space could change your views on the works of art that you would otherwise have chosen to exhibit there. Inversely, at other times having a few works of art in hand would change the idea of space which you could have chosen for exhibiting them. Both space and works of art liberate you from your pre-fixed knowledge and ideas. I insist that when a cub curator should remain flexible in his/her approach, it does not mean the discarding of the fundamental knowledge about art, space and history. What one is expected to do is to innovate while not letting the art historical understanding goes astray. There are some clever curators, especially those who are trained in the western schools, who tend to let everything open ended; while I say keeping things open ended is a virtue as far as curatorial practice is concerned, keeping everything open ended and letting the viewers to figure out the rest would be like scattering the pages of dictionary before the reader and telling him/her to make a novel/poem/short story out of it. Curatorial liberties are stretchable but if it breaks the rubber will slap at the face of the curator.
Ramiya moves around and her imagination holds her hand; I think it even puts a consoling hand over her shoulders. In no time, she reaches her moment of epiphany. She has been observing the abandoned sculptures all over the campus, near by the departments and at the backyard where these abandoned works of art have assumed fossilized forms, covered completely or partially by the roaring growth of weeds and neglected completely. Ramiya in her concept presentations says that these works of art could have been ‘masterpieces’ provided the artists who made it had a different vision about them or rather they were rich enough to carry those with them as they left the college. Some would have met with their natural abandonment, death and decay. Many lose their life to greatness simply because they are abandoned. Ramiya finds a metaphor of life in these abandoned sculptures. She decides to ‘retrieve’ them from their various states of decay and abandonment and she wants to prop them up as proper works of art (sculptures) in a gallery space. According to her, they are going to be the ‘masterpieces’ for two days (during the period of exhibition). Despite the curiosity and charity angles that Ramiya considers, the concept grown into unimaginable directions.
At the discussion table, the peer group is curious about the display of these retrieved works. Ramiya wants the exhibition to happen in the Fine Arts Faculty Gallery. The concept is discussed further and the major question that she faces is the post-exhibition life of these sculptures. Ramiya is sad as she knows that she wouldn’t be able to treat them as ‘sculptures’ once the show is done. But she has different ideas about how she would go with these sculptures. According to her concept, Ramiya would like to see them whether there are any ‘claimants’/’authors’ for these works once she puts them up online. To our surprise, a couple of works, when cleaned and kept at the foyer of the department come to have claimed by some senior students who come to hang out near the canteen in the evenings. I assure the young curator that perhaps she would find more online suitors for her curatorial components. Ramiya does not stop there either; she would like to nurture this project in the coming years and see whether she could do this project in her Ludhiana college campus, then in the other fine arts faculty, until the project grows naturally into a national project. Coming back to my original argument; it is not the early birds that get fat worms, but the ones with good imagination. That does not mean that the other students are not imaginative. Ramiya’s is spontaneous at the same time as an artist, this question about the abandoned sculptures must have been in her mind for a long time as a latent pain; the aborted journeys into greatness.
The concept is discussed further and most of the students approve it without much grilling. As I mentioned, they are just curious to know what next. Ramiya, as per the curatorial protocol, writes the department heads, dean and other authorities if any for the picking up of these sculptures (that’s how it is, you could put your feet on it when they lie abandoned or sit on them. But the moment you want to exhibit them you have to take permissions. Curatorial practice involves a lot of permission taking and a lot of disappointments at this front too). Ramiya wants to exhibit the works in the Faculty Gallery. Approvals are sought. Then comes the disappointment part. After initial consideration the authorities reject her application; they cannot give permission for just three days (one day for preparation and two days for exhibition). That’s how authorities work. It is not necessary that they have a point or logic there. Authorities’ words, in a university, are final as far as student projects are concerned. Would you like to call it censorship or objection? I wouldn’t call it so. I would say, it is yet another challenge thrown at a cub curator. What next? If the plan A is not working (I had lectured them in the first two classes) then they should be considering Plan B and Plan C. In Ramiya’s case she looks at her Plan B and that is in the main hall of the Art History Archive. It is as spacious as a gallery hall with lights along the wall not towards the centre, which would later prove a joy-killer. But Art History Department Head, Dr.Poduval immediately approves the application and even agrees to remove the permanent display of the art historical replicas and wall hangings to give Ramiya a ‘white cube’ in her mind.
Curatorial practice involves a lot of collaborations not only from the ideating team but also from the supporting staff that involves courier agents, manual labourers, printers, documenting staff, photographers, press people and so on. Ramiya patiently works with her supporting staff, here her class mates and juniors, especially Dwip and Rafiyan, and the PhD student Jitto George. The works are manually procured from various dump yards and thickets of foliages and weeds; each one is cleaned up, checked for strength; a few are discarded for their lack of aesthetic finesse; pedestals are borrowed or collected; they are repainted (I too paint one pedestal) with white emulsion paint that is borrowed from another student curator who is doing a participatory mural project in the vicinity. As a young curator with no experience in display Ramiya starts off with placing one work on the pedestal and lighting it up, then moving on to the next. I point out how wrong is that method. Huge disappointment is in the offing, if one goes like that. I ask for the display strategy which Ramiya conjures immediately. Now she displays the works based on her design instinct, rule book and more importantly the availability of gallery lights. The display turns out to be impressive. The show finally opens and each work that has been abandoned in the campus for years is now looked at and abandoned not only by the young crowd but also by the seasoned exhibition goers and senior artists who come to visit the project. They all marvel at the beauty of the works!
‘The Retrieved’, functioning from a conventional space with conventional works and a conventional display strategy however presents a curatorial innovation especially when it seen it in the same temporal context of Damien Hirst making up works as if they were retrieved from the innards of the sunken ships left to rust/rest in the submarine worlds for ages (Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, Venice). I do not make an improbable parallel between Hirst and Ramiya; rather I would say that both works on an idea of retrieval, while Hirst makes it up, Ramiya finds it out. Ramiya uses history as a retrieval system and finds metaphorical parallels from within her limits and limitations. This bold experiment however has opened many eyes in the faculty itself. There have been intense debates on how the abandoned works to be treated and so on. Ramiya too has been put questions regarding her ‘exhibits’. She answers that she would put them back to respectable places, definitely with the permission from the authorities. But she knows that the future course of those works is not in her hands. I am told that Ramiya, after I left Baroda, kept those sculptures along a line between the Art History Department and the Sculpture Department so that they could get their due ‘respect’ at least till this academic year ends.
Curatorial lesson learnt from Ramiya Arry’s project ‘The Retrieved’ is simple; anything could be a work of art provided they are approached curatorially. Though conventional in look and feel, Ramiya’s was not a conventional art show; it was a conceptual exhibition where the curator approached the idea of abandoning and retrieval through the procurement and exhibiting of the abandoned works. Projected on the human conditions, the same exhibition could be seen as something metaphorically telling us how given a chance anybody could achieve excellence and greatness. The temporality of the exhibition also shows the weakness of human establishments that abandon something by imposing uselessness over them. There is a latent critique on the existing art systems in this project; anything could be put as a great work of art provided you have enough money and muscle to back it up in the market. Perhaps, Ramiya was not foraying into those areas and if she is keen, she could carry forward this curatorial experience in realizing larger projects as she has undergone all the tribulations that an independent curator would face when she meets the establishment with a concept note in hand.