Session "21st Century India and the Process of Transformation"

Panelists:  Deepak Ananth (art historian, critic), Raqs Media Collective (artists),
Ushiroshoji Masahiro (Professor, Faculty of Humanities, Kyushu University),
Nanjo Fumio (Director, Mori Art Museum) and Miki Akiko (Curator, “Chalo! India”)
Date:  14:00-15:00 Monday, 24 November, 2008
Venue:  Tower Hall, Academyhills 49, Mori Tower 49F

"Chalo! India" is one of the largest exhibitions of Indian contemporary art ever held in Japan. This session, held to coincide with the opening of the exhibition, focused on the recent changes that have occurred in Indian contemporary art and Indian society in general.

The first part of the session opened with a lecture and performance by exhibition participant Raqs Media Collective. Introducing their own and other artists' video works, they talked about methods of "narrating," "reading," and "listening," along with understanding, interpretation, and the kinds of misunderstandings that can arise within those processes. They even touched on Heian period criticism of waka, or traditional poems, by the poet Kino Tsurayuki. Does listening come before understanding, or is it the other way around? They said that the history of human relations and intercultural communication is to be found in the shadowy corners of "the indecipherable" and "the inaudible." They also referred to the historical connections of communication within human relations and between cultures. Next, they explained that their work The Euphoria Machine: Preliminary Reverse Engineering Field Laboratory (2008), which is exhibited in "Chalo! India," and Dear India, their collaboration project with the Mori Art Museum, are projects that make comprehension possible.
In response to a question from Miki Akiko, they said mankind has watched as over the last 100 years many phenomena within people's lives have become standardized and made easier to understand – and this despite the fact that the act of deciphering or interpreting is a creative one to which time should be devoted. They asked whether during these past 100 years mankind has not endeavored to make things easier to understand and interpret. They said they want to pursue knowledge on the basis of the understanding that ease of interpretation can itself be the source of confusion. Further, in response to a question about how they conceive of the Indian contemporary art scene, they said that a proper art scene has still not developed. They said that a lot of Indians can now travel to places far away, that this is an age in which international travel is itself a product to be consumed by the masses. People can now travel around the world and then revisit their own culture. They said that this means many new kinds of subjective discoveries are being made, and that the art scene is thus being fed by many elements.

The second part of the session began with Nanjo Fumio's presentation, in which he showed a selection of photographs taken during his research trip to various parts of India with Miki Akiko. Nanjo showed just how much India has changed since he backpacked around the country in the 1970s, along with artist studios built in new residential areas and the private Devi Art Foundation, which opened in 2008.

Next, Deepak Ananth explained how he introduced Indian contemporary art in France in his "Indian Summer" exhibition in 2005. Describing how exhibitions that are themed around a single country have an important role to play, he also said that some people nevertheless view them as problematic because they have a tendency towards nationalism.

Ushiroshoji Masahiro, who delivered the final presentation, traced the transformation in exhibitions of Indian art held in Japan since 1970, including the "Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale" with which he was involved directly. He also pointed out that both the exhibitions and the artists' own interests have gradually shifted to a focus on aspects of everyday life. To finish off, he related an episode when he had tried to show Subodh Gupta's work, My Mother and Me (1997), which incorporates cow dung, in Japan. Unable to import the cow dung, he had proposed using Japanese cow dung as an alternative, but recalled that element of the work could not simply be transferred into a foreign context. He had learned at that time, he said, that it is the things that "can't be moved," or "can't be understood" that are important.

In his closing remarks, Nanjo asked what contemporary is and how it is connected to the world. The countries of Asia are still grappling with that question, he said, and debate on the subject must continue in the future. Miki said she hopes the many seeds sown by the exhibition and the day's discussion would eventually sprout fruit.

Raqs Media Collective
Photo: Watanabe Osamu