Monday, October 9, 2017

Curatorial Practice and Religions: Priyanka Kundu’s ‘Object-Icon’- Curating in Baroda VI

Priyanka Kundu
Priyanka Kundu, second year MVA Art History, MSU, Baroda, a graduate in Art History from Santiniketan has a willing artist in her hand, a ready work, a good concept and even she has ‘marked’ the space for the display. Unlike the case of both Bapan Ruidas and Sarika Kumari (with the artist deserting the former curator and a stubborn artist with the latter one), Priyanka has the dream with her and all the possible circumstances to execute it successfully. However, the question is despite all the favourable components in a curatorial project, should the sailing of a curator be smooth? In the given ideal situation, Priyanka should be faring like princess but let me tell you, even a perfect project could throw not only practical obstacles but also conceptual problems when presented in the boardroom/classroom. Priyanka’s project is titled ‘Object—Icon’ (I do not have that device in my computer to create the real symbol instead of the hyphen. It is a two way arrow split half suggesting the transitory nature of objects and icons). Priyanka, a Bengali by origin must have been watching how ordinary objects become icons during the festival days and after the festival madness is over how they turn into objects again, even mere trash.

With Priyanka Kundu and Krishnamurti
When Priyanka presents her concept, the boardroom/classroom goes silent. Suddenly I get this feeling that the peer group is not impressed. I scan the faces of the cub curators like young predators waiting to spill blood while nursing their wounds, like never say die gladiators. The silence is caused by certain points regarding location that Priyanka has chosen and also the possible slip of the object (art object) into the zone of icon irretrievably. Peer group understands that Priyanka wants to present a singular sculpture decorated with marigold petals and also she wants to present it against and apparently ‘religious’ backdrop with the area clearly demarcated in order to distinguish the sacred from the profane, and above all in a place where people could see it clearly and change their attitude towards it into semi-reverence. The silence persists and someone breaks it by asking a pivotal question: how does she want to reclaim the profanity of the object from its temporal sacredness? How do you save a work of art from becoming a religious icon as it is not the consecration of an idol but a curatorial project where the curator would like to create the ambiguity for a while and reclaim the object back to its objecthood, possibly before the audience themselves so that she could argue the case of how objects turn into icons and back within the given spaces and even within the spaces attributed with temporary divinity (as in the case of Puja pandals)?

Now it is time for Priyanka to go silent. She thinks deeply. She soon realizes that it is curator’s discretion to make the art work permanently sacred or reclaim its profanity off and on for the purpose of her curatorial point. Priyanka, like many other cub curators has not taken the danger of a work of art turning into a religious object and losing the whole point of curatorial engagement. Perhaps, she does not mind it to be passed off for an idol in the duration of the exhibition. Now I speak up; I tell her as well as the class that it is very important to decide whether you want to stand on the side of the religion and its paraphernalia or the role of religion within the secular space like an academy. May be much thought has not gone into it and the cub curators become more silent and they think hard. Some of them is the opinion that there could be ritualistic aspects involved in a curatorial project and its execution and its secular as well as profane qualities are automatically regained once the project is over. Some young curators have a doubt why a curatorial approach should always be secular? Is there any problem if the curator or artist wants to recreate the religious feeling in a project? This question remains in a couple of other projects too where obvious religious ritualism assumes a major role in the execution of the project. Madhuvanti’s ‘Cleansing’ project which is a multimedia presentation and an one-time happening and Pranoy’s ‘I step into the shoes of Harisena, today’ also have this ‘religious’ ritualistic aspect in them.

What has created such a deep commotion in Priyanka’s curatorial project? Yes, it is the work of art itself. It is a clear case of a work of art influencing the curator’s thinking process. Let me tell you it is not even the artist who has made that art object. The work of art that Priyanka has chosen for exhibiting or ‘curating’ (that is the right word in this context) is a ‘Nandi’, the mount of Lord Shiva. A closer look reveals that it is not a ‘Nandi’ of the text book understanding. Here is a Nandi, done in fibre glass with a marble like white smooth finish, with its hunch rising into the form of a Shiv Linga. Unlike the calm Nandi in front of the Shiva temples, this Nandi is a Nandi in arrested action. He lowers his head, as if in supplication, which could also interpreted as a preparation for attack or self defence. There is a tension in the smooth body of this Nandi. Priyanka says that the artist has given her complete freedom to do anything with his work; an ideal artist for an experimental curator. Only thing that he would add to this Nandi is a sort of camouflage created out of flower petals glued on the surface. I find that an interesting interpolation on the main text of the conventional Nandi as the artist wants to cover the Nandi-ness of Nandi using the flowers at the same time covertly evoke the possible religious connotation. While the artist is clear about how his ‘object’ could oscillate between being an art object and an icon, the curator seems to be in a dilemma whether to underline the religious aspect of it or not.

Before we go into the details of how Priyanka solved this issue let us take a look at the artist. Krishna Murty is a final year MVA Sculpture student at the MSU, Baroda and is a hardworking artist. He hails from Banaras and has a degree in sculpture from the BHU. He works in different mediums; fibreglass, granite, marble, wood, iron mesh, iron and found objects. A sculptor who experiments with mediums rather than an artist who runs after novelty, abandoning his innate and hard earned skills, Krishna Murty’s major theme is Banaras itself. I have observed those artists who have studied or lived in Banaras have an inescapable fascination for anything related to Banaras. It is like a Venetian living in Africa and still dreaming about Venice. With indelible marks of Banaras, its ambience, its waning and waxing moons and the constant presence of death and life of complete faith and devotion on/in his sculptures, Krishna Murty seems to have taken a great care in making his sculptures contemporary without falling much into the religious side of Banaras. However, if you ask him, there is something unshakable about Banaras in him. What helps him to come out of this cultural trap is his ability to use the materials/mediums in his works. He could be one of the very impressive sculptors in the coming years (Valsan Kolleri, the acclaimed artist is with me when I visit Krishna Murty in his studio with Priyanka, and he comments in his typical style, ‘he is in Baroda but has not yet left Banaras station.’)

So here we are with a resolved artist but an unresolved Priyanka, the curator. After much deliberation, she comes up with a solution; she would do justice to her concept of a work of art moving between its object-hood and iconic nature by devising a display strategy which would underline the religious nature of the object and the object nature of the icon. Her whole idea is about making an apparent art object into a temporary icon by placing it right in front of the faculty gate against the backdrop of the huge banyan tree so that people could suddenly find an icon which is ‘not yet icon’ there for two days. But these are Navratri days and in Baroda, students become so serious about Garba dance as if their lives hang on that dance. They pick up the hard particles from the dance ground with such focus and devotion which they should have shown in the library, a place that seems abandoned like a haunted graveyard. Nobody could keep anything right in front of the gate as it would block dancers and vehicles from coming inside. Perhaps, the project would be seen as an obstacle than a serious effort of a curator and an artist. Hence there is a suggestion from the whole class to change the location and display strategy.

Finally, Priyanka gets a place which is absolutely wonderful for her presentation. The old building right in the middle of the campus has now studios of BVA students and its steps are generally used by the girls and boys who look like unaware of the world and give out the impression that they are on the way to evolution but delayed for a while, as their hang out. There is a portico that has now become a through fare. Priyanka, has this perennial itch to keep the Nandi sculpture in the portico, turning its face towards the building’s first hexagonal room. I look at her. The class looks at her. Think out of the box. Do not fall for the religious prescriptions. True, Nandi sits outside the sanctum of the Shiva temples looking at the idol. But here we are not in a temple; but in a space, which is alterable by nature though not by structure. Now Priyanka is imaginative. She finds the space right in the middle of the hexagonal hall. She finds a space to fix the spot light. She marks the space along the wall with a coloured tape, cleans the room and prepares for her final display. There is a sudden obstacle. As perspective and architectural drawing classes are held in that room, there are certain markings on the floor with paper frames stuck on it, enabling the students to continue drawing from the same spot without changing the perspective even for an inch. So these are technical and educational markings. The teacher in charge just wouldn’t allow Priyanka to remove them. We all recognize the fact that those markings would definitely mar the visual effect of the display but we are helpless as we are in a different territory that comes under a different department. I ask her to go with what is available. Priyanka sets up her final display. The teacher who has objected her from removing those markings comes around to check out what is going on and finds that his objection is just illogical. He comes to Priyanka and tells her that she may remove the markings. I understand he is an artist with a visual sense!

In the final display, we have the Nandi figure right in the middle under the spotlight that Priyanka managed by pulling all the strings possible (a good curatorial move because there is no such light before there in that room) , covered with marigold petals, the room very lightly resonating with a buzzing sound from indistinct chants and the heavy fragrance of incense sticks which Priyanka lights occasionally and fills up the room with its smoke (like a true curator she even puts a note at the entrance saying that there is some smoke in the room which is not hazardous to health but if someone has a breathing problem could keep themselves out. I have instructed my students to follow the curatorial protocols to the last point). Together, the display looks like a temporary sanctum but everyone feels that the curatorial underlining is not on the religious nature of the art object or its consecration for the time being, but the possibility of an object turning into an icon of worship provided a certain amount of ambience is created, and at the same time its reversal of it back into its object-hood as nobody is asked to follow any religious rituals or rules to look at the work, go near to it and admire it particularly and the curatorial efforts as a whole. Even without instruction, some people before entering to this ‘sacred’ space remove their shoes and sandals at the door; we have certain cultural habits that never fade off.

Curatorial lessons learnt: One, however we try to make an object into an icon, if the display is happening in the museum premises or in a gallery context, it would shed itself off of all religious connotations. Then what remains is the only possibility of its mobility. For example, there are several godly icons in our museums; we never do rituals there instead we take selfies. We caress their breasts and touch their private parts. But imagine, if we take the same sculptures and place them in a sanctum, then we wouldn’t dare to selfies with gods or touch them improperly. Two, at the same time, any museum objects have a sort of sanctity and iconicity. The moment a work of art is displayed in a museum or a gallery, they assume a god head by default. That’s why we are always asked not to touch the exhibits. Modernism and times later tried a lot to deconstruct this god headedness of the gallery/museum objects. Three, there cannot be religious parameters to assess a work of art even if there are references. If we do, we will be repeating Husain, Chandramohan, Tom Vattakkuzhy episodes. Four, hence each curatorial project should be handling this issue quite sensitively. A work of art selected for curating should be treated as an object beyond all ‘values’. Its value is of it being a work of art and a curatorial project is to frame or un-frame this ‘valueless-ness’ and use it for a different discourse that involves aesthetics and philosophy. Five, a curator’s job is not to create financial value of/to a work of art on the contrary his/her job is to ‘preserve’ and ‘document’ and ‘articulate’ its invaluable nature. Let all other value creations be on the work of the curators.

Postscript: Priyanka Kundu has decided to curate the works of Krishna Murty for his final display in May 2018 and the artist has agreed to work with her.

1 comment:

Cultural Heritage said...

Amazing.... I hope you have conceptualized the thing such a nice way..!!! best of luck...