By Yashodhara Dalmia
The fleeing migrants who made the marshy, silt-ridden lagoons into one of the world’s wondrous sites for dream and desire called Venice, little realised that art itself would nestle here, making it the most aesthetic place universally. Every two years, the city is claimed by the world’s art, and dreams are re-enacted here which would be undreamt of elsewhere.
One of the most heady of these from South Asia is to re-imagine that the Partition of the subcontinent had not taken place and to map the territory as a seamless zone. In a show brought about by the Gujral Foundation from Delhi, two significant artists have been able to make this dream possible. The exhibition “My East is Your West” features Rashid Rana from Lahore and Shilpa Gupta from Mumbai, and both have made works which poignantly connect and simultaneously reveal the litany of possibilities which border their territory. Featured in the ambient setting of the Palazzo Benzon, Rana creates an immersive room where passersby can address people ensconced within a similar space at the Liberty Market in Lahore.
At Lahore, there is a surface where the audience in Venice is projected through live streaming. The live feed takes place as if separated by a glass wall, making an amazing leap across thousands of miles of territory and borders. The audiences in the two spaces become as much a part of the artwork as they are spectators.
According to Rana, “Over a series of semi-immersive settings, visitors will experience a meditation on the liquidation of time and space, which will challenge their preconceived notions of fixed coordinates in either”. In the adjoining room, the reproduction of Carvaggio’s painting Judith Beheading Holofernes breaks into multiple temporalities and erosions taking place all over the world. On the opposite wall, a similar work erected in the Lahore market interacts with constant movements of diverse activities and people below it. In these cross-zonal encounters, the painting itself seems imbued with multiple gestures and linkages of reclamation and redemption.
Gupta, who had been preoccupied with the western boundaries earlier, focuses now on the eastern Bangladeshi border. Perhaps, in her minute detailing of objects, events and situations, the most poignant is the vitrine with bone china ceramic pieces that are made mostly from the cow’s bone. While the campaign to ban beef rages in India, the regular crossing over of cows to Bangladesh fetches as much as Rs 20,000 per head making it into an astounding Rs 4 crore business.
In an adjoining room, reams of cloth made in Phulia, close to the border in India, are being inscribed, recreating abstract images such as fence, river and trees. The length of the handwoven cloth is the length of the border itself, where the 3359.59 km length, makes it the longest fenced border in the world. For Gupta, the project is an ongoing one and addresses false notions of boundaries in a landscape of human debris.
The fact that the Gujral Foundation, headed by Feroze Gujral, had brought about this joint effort is significant. It was Feroze’s father-in law, the well-known artist Satish Gujral, who had left Jhelum, where he was born, to cross over at the time of Partition, narrowly escaping death. According to her, this shared history was one reason for her decision to organise the joint show in Venice. “His losses were irreplaceable, so this is a very special project. There is never any healing but there can be a celebration, a cultural conversation, that can cross borders,” she says.
A church turned into a mosque creates another powerful nodal point at the Biennale — both for celebration and for critiquing. In a tranquil corner of Venice’s Cannaregio district, stands a handsome 10th century church, which has been deconsecrated and is a private property. Santa Maria della Misericordia has, in the hands of the Iceland-based, Swiss-born artist Christoph Büchel, been reborn as a mosque, the first in the city’s long history. Behind the venerable doors of the church is now a recognisable mosque, complete with wuzu area to wash in, prayer carpet and mihrab. It is anchored, according to Buchel, in the city’s historic connection with the East, for it is here that the first printed edition of the Qur’an was made in the 16th century, and the Fondaco dei Turchi, an elegant palazzo on the Grand Canal, was once the city’s ghetto for Ottoman traders. But the site has raised an outcry among a section of Venetians and the temporary relief on the exterior of the building reading Allahu Akbar was explicitly refused permission.
The 56th Venice Biennale, whose artistic director Okwui Enwezor, the director of Haus der Kunst in Munich, has interestingly enough titled the show “All the World’s Futures” envisions civilisation hurtling forward, unable to address the destruction it is causing. If the main pavilion is anchored by daily readings from Karl Marx’s Das Kapital in the manner of the Granth Sahib, the Sikh sacred text, it is to underscore the Biennale’s essential motif.
Marking spaces in the Giardini pathways are gigantic statues erected by the Raqs Media Collective, a group of three artists — Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula and Shuddhabrata Sengupta — from Delhi. The installations, titled Coronation Park, refer to the area in the Capital where the British statues of emperors and Governor-Generals are parked, removed from their original daises. Erected on massive black pedestals, the white statues with their defaced forms greet the viewer like nightmares from the past, stating variously the disruption of colonial intentions and a reclaiming of the future.
In a similar manner, the Kerala artist Madhusudhanan in his Penal Colony at the Arsenale creates a suite of charcoal works of dismembered body parts swarming in a black void. The 35 drawings are on the Malabar rebellion of 1921.“It is the memory of known and unknown freedom fighters that was an inspiration for me. The work depicts the ‘wagon tragedy’ where nationalists were crammed into a freight wagon and most of them suffocated to death,” states Madhusudhanan. Prasad Shetty and Rupali Gupte explore the ingenious improvisations by which ordinary Mumbaikars survive.
If anything, this Biennale is marked by the elasticity of frontiers and multiplicity of communication. The Tagore Foundation’s Frontiers Reimagined brought by the New York and Hong Kong-based Sundaram Tagore has 25 countries and 44 artists, who have claimed the elegant Museo di Palazzo Grimani. Among artists from all over the world, Sohan Qadri’s epiphanic paintings engage a wall whose arched windows overlook the cobbled courtyard below. In another room, Olivia Fraser ‘s delicate moon paintings, rather like a haiku, counterpoint the edgy wheelchairs made out of razor blades by ubiquitous Bangladesh artist Begum Tyeba Lipi.
The last word belongs to the Iran pavilion, titled “The Great Game” and curated by Marco Meneguzzo and Mazdak Faiznia, which draws upon the reclaiming of territories culturally and historically together. Huma Mulji’s gigantic camel folded inside a large trunk and titled Arabian Delight greets the viewer on entering. Inside, the black headless equestrian statue with a fountain of flowing blood created by TV Santhosh makes a powerful diatribe against colonialism. Riyas Komu’s installation Fragrance of a Funeral speaks of a lost time where the poetic image of a Mughal king smelling a rose leads to the skeletal shadow of the human form. The ephemerality of the image and its disintegration draws upon the cusp between life and death.
The wall opposite has the Pakistani artist Saira Wasim’s gouache and ink on wasli paper titled 72 Virgins to Die For. The work has a Venetian woman looking tantalisingly at the viewer and holding a skull. Surely if this is Paradise, far better to make this earth a more livable place.
Yashodhara Dalmia is the co-author of Memory, Metaphor, Mutations, Contemporary Art of India and Pakistan (OUP)