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Unboxing India
Text by Parmesh Shahani
Published: Volume 20, Issue 3, March, 2012

Parmesh Shahani compares his experiences at two Delhi-based events – the India Art Fair and the Unbox Design Conference

At the Speakers Forum panel before mine at the India Art Fair, Kiran Nadar bemoans the lack of an adequate art gallery or museum going public in India, amidst the general lack of art-related infrastructure, and I think, ‘Oh no, that’s not true at all’. It might be thought of as true if we think of the art world as the white cube air-conditioned class-based walled garden that most art galleries, museums or indeed art fairs construct themselves as. But this is not to say that there are no art audiences or there is no art-going culture. I have seen hundreds of people milling around the Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai’s Byculla for example, playing excitedly with Tallur’s ATM (anger therapy machine), or swarming through the Jehangir Art Gallery’s multiple spaces, and I have seen thousands crowding around the public exhibits at the Kala Ghoda festival, interacting with the works.

Thankfully, I had my very own panel to air my views, called You Don’t Have to be a Millionaire to Collect Art courtesy the fabulous Maithili Parekh of Sotheby’s. When I wasn’t ogling at my co-panelist Sonal Sood’s jewellery (check out her line En Inde – tres chic), or in tears over the film about the Vogels that Maithili showed us before the panel (about a New York-based postal clerk called Herbert and his librarian wife Dorothy who together assembled a contemporary art collection with thousands of significant works, and then donated it all to the Smithsonian museum!), I was enthusiastically giving gyan about what and why I collect. As a middle-class non-millionaire collector, I follow the 3S model, which is sacrifice (allocate money regularly, often at the cost of other worldly pleasures like a car and driver), support (buy young artists because they need your patronage the most), and share (what is anything really, without sharing it with others?). Feel free to adopt this model for yourselves, dear readers, even if you’re not middle class, and let me know the results!

I thought the fair was a mixed bag. Some parts, I liked, such as the 47 acres of Okhla space, the elaborately constructed tents for different activities and a nice Park Hotel-managed café where you could share a table with folks like the lovely couple – Manish Nai and Aaditi Joshi, after bumping into Vivan Sundaram’s Gagawaka models in the booth area. Something that I found strange was that over half the galleries were foreign. All the big names were there, whether galleries like Lisson or institutions like the Guggenheim and the New Museum, but there was very little that the presence of these international galleries and museums is doing for the art ecosystem within the country. From what I experienced at the fair, it seemed they were here merely to talk to each other, not to engage in a meaningful dialogue with the rest of us. Also I heard serious rumblings coming from the Indian galleries (who were supposedly given 24 hours to get their stalls ready versus the foreign galleries, who got 48) and Indian journalists (who were supposedly allowed entry into the VIP preview three hours after their foreign counterparts).

What I did like this year, just as much as last year, were the ancillary events. The crowds packing the Vadehra Art Gallery in Niti Bagh to listen to Roselee Goldberg (founding director of Performa) talk about Yoko Ono’s work, Alwar Balasubramaniam’s ethereal solo, Nothing From My Hands, at the Talwar Gallery, where climbing up each new level revealed new wonders, the Skoda prize show with the works of controversial winner Navin Thomas (who had to remove his live pigeons from the salvaged electronic junk sculpture he had created because of protests from animal rights activists), or the packed to the brim – and spilling over Blue Frog, where the 12th Khoj Live was held. Pushpalama performed on a throne as Bharat Mata on the stage in the courtyard after Hemant Sreekumar’s heart-rate disrupting sonic situations were played inside, thousands of Dilliwallas swilled about shoving each other till the floorboards cracked; it was all quite lovely.

At the fair, two works stood out, for me. One was A Different Gravity by Raqs Media Collective, a part of four connected works that they had assembled at the Project 88 booth. This particular work comprised a Flying Carpet, a Time Table and a Mirror Stage – furniture, juxtaposed with text. The other three were videos, photographs and metal sculptures, which all came together to suggest a range of impossible possibilities. The second piece that I liked was a proto-architecture sculpture created by MIT-trained Somnath Ray. Called Exquisite Fold, it proposed as an intellectual construct: an abstract machine, which when set in motion proceeds to ‘form’ the ‘infinite’ morphological possibilities dormant within a two-dimensional geometrical plane using the logics of ‘folding’. To create the sculpture Somnath set up certain particle fields using computer software. He also set up abstractors that disturbed the particles. The unpredictability of these disruptions was what interested him. The final design was then created in Sonepat at different factories using tools that were primarily designed for industrial purposes, with millimetre level precision.

Somnath and some of his MIT colleagues have set up a new kind of collaborative design studio in Hauz Khas village called dPlay, that explores further, the kinds of intersections between computation, design, and art that was evident in his sculpture. When I visit him next week as part of the Unbox Festival’s walkthrough, I’m excited to see their designs for foldable bikes, something that I hope goes into production soon. Walking through the village, seeing studios like his and Ishan Khosla’s, I think that India’s design scene is so much more exciting than the art scene. However lucrative, the art scene is still largely about market making. The design scene on the other hand, is really pushing the boundary and becoming more about solutions and innovation that can change the future of our country.

Even as a lifestyle, the vibe is totally different on the design scene. Take a café like Elma’s in Hauz Khas, run by the grand dame of the village, Smitha Singh Rathore. Sunday brunch brings all the city hipsters to Elma’s – where they mingle with out-of-towners like blogger-photographer Manou – fresh off his Art of the Trench showing at Burberry. In Mumbai, I see stores like Ajoy Advani’s Filter in Kala Ghoda that houses the works of illustrators, photographers, graphic designers and product innovators. There are new magazines like 100%, started by Sameer Kulavoor from Bombay Duck Designs and Lokesh Karekar from Locopopo Studio, which is India’s first visual art-zine. Each issue has 100% focus on one topic. I loved their debut issue 100% Sound, and can’t wait to see what comes next. Even art-focused magazines like Take on Art are releasing special design issues. Their release party at the India Art Fair was fab (pav bhaji in margharita glasses, Geetu Hinduja on the guitar in the voluminous packed Sura Vie.)

There are multiple design conferences sprouting up all over India, like Rajshree Pathy’s upcoming India Design Forum, which has global heavyweights like Karim Rashid scheduled to attend, and of course the Unbox Festival is the mother of them all. It blew my mind away, second year in a row. While the main Unbox conference has talks and panel discussions on themes like new media and social activism, brand-building, re-building the crafts ecosystem and so on, there are also festivals that run parallel that explore food (Foodlab), music (Technodrome) and visual art (Eyemyth) at different venues in Delhi. Eyemyth actually travelled to Mumbai as well, where they took over the old Edward Cinema for a night of awesomeness.

At Unbox, I spoke at and moderated a panel called Curating the New Culture, where I brought together two other curators – Archana Prasad who has built Jaaga in Bangalore, and Richard and Pepjin from Holland who run a conference there called What Design Can Do. We problematised what was so new about culture in the world today, what was the value of curation and whether it was being over-hyped, what gets left behind in the process and what role curated platforms or institutions achieve in today’s world, where people have access to content first hand and curate their own lives, wardrobes, tastes, Facebook and Twitter feeds. To me personally, curating isn’t just collecting – it is connecting, and it involves transformation. Placing things or people next to each other enables you to make connections between them and the experience transforms you as well as the people involved. I also feel that curation is also about relevance – in today’s world people have information but not relevance – the act of curating can be a step towards relevance.

My favourite presentation was by Marije Vogelzang, who calls herself the world’s first ‘eating designer’. Not only does Marije think deeply about what is on the plate, but she also thinks about everything that surrounds the act of eating. The atmosphere, the people involved, the stories behind the ingredients, the taste and texture, sound, smell and colour of food and the way it is prepared and served. At Unbox, she spoke about the rituals, colours and the psychology of eating, around which she has conducted many experiments, many of which are documented in her book Eat Love.

Some of these include creating an all-white ‘funeral dinner’ for homeless people in the Netherlands. Or a conceptual Christmas dinner – where the tablecloth was fixed vertically on the sides of the table. Guests had to put their heads into the slits and see only each other’s faces while eating. Marije also plays with settings. Sometimes, plates are cut in two and one side of the table has melons on these half plates, the other side has ham on their half plates. People are forced to share and interact. I was very moved by her project Eat Love Budapest, a performance in Hungary that created a bond between people who wouldn’t normally interact or be allowed to interact with others in similar social situations. The project had Roma gypsies, some of Europe’s most victimised people, feeding anonymous guests through a partition with their own hands, while sharing intimate stories, poetry, songs, memories and musings. The feeder and the person being fed couldn’t see each other. Kant said that if you break bread with each other, you can’t break each others’ necks; likewise Marije conducts these experiments to make people interact with each other and break down boundaries. In the video we saw, people started crying after the experience, many of us at Unbox had a lump in our throats after watching it.

Food is also used to exploit, and seeing the video made me think of how such things still happen all over the world and certainly in India. Read any newspaper even today and there will inevitably be a story of a Dalit whose hand was cut off because he drew water from the wrong well. And honestly, how many of us continue to have separate glasses and plates in our homes for our maids or servants, that is, if we let them eat with us at all?

Another speaker that impressed me was Thorsten Kiefer who started talking by noting that 600 million people in India defecated in fields. Their waste would fill the stadium that India won the World Cup in to the brim. Daily. He also noted that India also has more mobile phones than toilets. However, the solution to this crisis wasn’t to just build more toilets because building toilets isn’t the same as using toilets. Toilet use is about behaviour change. Thorsten’s company WASH (Water Sanitation and Hygiene) United uses sports stars like Didier Drogba to celebrate toilets, and show diarrhea the red card in Africa. Kiefer shared their India plans, which were huge. They are going to organise a Wash Yatra India during the next 20-20 World Cup. This will include a series of activations designed to get the sanitation message across. Linking cricket to sanitation is really super and they’ve already got stars like Suresh Raina and Irfan Pathan on board.

Then there was Dus Architects which builds cool public architecture in the Netherlands. Like hotels made of China bags filled with dirt. People can stay in them for free as long as they make an improvement to the space. Or they host public parties on the street using umbrellas as the building blocks, connected to lamp posts that draw electricity illegally. Hendzel+Hunt from London’s super chic Made in Peckham line also impressed me a lot. They make things from found objects and discarded wood from the streets of Peckham. These are not simple objects, but incredibly complicated cabinets, locks, furniture installations and more. We do similar stuff all the time in India whether in recycling, whether in re-appropriating spaces, or innovating with less. What is good about countries like Holland and the UK is that they recognise their re-purposers as artists and future leaders and want to celebrate them. We on the other hand want to wipe ours away from our slums!



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