The Global Within: Indian Art at the YBCA [Review]

The Matter Within | Saturday, October 15, 2011 – Sunday, January 29, 2011 | YBCA | San Francisco

Whether you’re conscious of it or not, when you go to an exhibition dedicated to India, you expect to encounter pieces that address certain cliches. Maybe not Bollywood or beggars, but at least the IT industry. Thankfully, “The Matter Within” stayed away from “branding” the country (unlike, for example, the YBCA‘s “Brazilian” exhibition “When Lives Become Form” that happened a few years back). The exhibition is international in outlook, taking on such themes as the legacy of colonialism, nationalism, homophobia, and exclusion. One could easily imagine that framework applied to exhibitions dedicated to a variety of regions, from Africa to Latin America to the former Eastern bloc. Maybe some works chosen for those imagined exhibitions would even turn out to be similar to those in “The Matter Within.” Whether this would be the case for a show centered exclusively on a “First World” country, such as the U.S., is a thought-provoking question–but that’s another story.

Sudarshan Shetty, No Title (from "this too shall pass"), gold leaf on fiberglass, mild steel, coin box, etched brass, 2010 — credit: Anil Rane

While some exhibitions are impenetrable thematic monoliths, others do not cohere into a full-fledged story, hinting at things and letting threads hang loose. “The Matter Within” falls under the second category. What is immediately apparent is that the exhibition is very uneven–it’s like a game of emotional tug-of-war, wherein emotionally intense works are neighbored by political one-liners or “light” and decorative pieces. On the other hand, the show is very consistent on a visual level–large color photographs, exquisitely crafted films, and huge sculptures are predominant. The latter account for the wow factor. There is a dinosaur made of shampoo bottles that is supposed to symbolize the monstrous stomp of capitalism (Thukral & Tagra), the words “LOVE” and “VOID” made out of scented candles (Anita Dube), a Don Quixote made of black market T-shirts (Siddhartha Kararwal), and a gilded statue that will probably stand erect if you give it enough money (Sudarshan Shetty). Those types of works impressed me the least.

I have to say that, aforementioned unevenness aside, the show includes a very decent number of works that absolutely deserve further exploration and analysis at length. For the purpose of this review, I will just point out my personal highlights.

Nikhil Chopra, Yog Raj Chitrakar: Memory Drawing VI (16:00), 2010 — credit: courtesy of the artist and Chatterjee & Lal, Mumbai, India

When you walk onto the galleries from the main lobby, you are greeted by two works that explore the construction of identity. Each of Pushpamala N.’s photographs features the artist as the heroine of a characteristically “Indian” image (such as that of Kali), revealing such “icons” as first and foremost starting points for play. In his terrific performances Nikhil Chopra weaves absurd fictions about an anachronistic outlandish being that assumes various guises (something like a deity, or a 1920s-style bohemian lady, or a colonial-era gentleman) in relation to the styles of his drawing. Another photographed performance, and an impeccably elegant one, presents two women (Tejal Shah and a collaborator) connected by the extremely long sleeves of their straightjackets and adapting to the architectural space. The work is, I assume, a critique of the invisibility of LGBT people in a patriarchal society and the constraints they have to endure. The performance documentation is, as I said, impeccable, but I personally prefer the other piece by Shah (on view in the main gallery), a series of simple and dignified photographic portraits of androgynous women. The works’ subjects smile, but the adjacent wall has a word cut through it: WOUND (another piece by Anita Dube). A smart move by the curator.

Tejal Shah and Varsha Nair, Encounter I, digital print on archival rag paper, 2006 — credit: courtesy of the artist

Sunil Gupta orchestrated a photographic remake of Chris Marker’s La Jetée with gay characters. The images are remarkable in representing intimacy, but their mood is ominous, since the theme of the remake is AIDS. Melancholy also reigns in two films that, for me, were the absolute centerpieces of the exhibition and are alone worth the ticket price: The Otolith Group’s Otolith III and RAQS Media Collective’s The Surface of Each Day is a Different Planet. The former is a complex, visually rich narrative presumably based around the concept of the “alien.” In it, the characters from an unrealized Indian sci-fi movie come to life and search their way through multicultural London. The latter is a haunting elegy for the masses of people who are continuously erased from history.

The Otolith Group, still from Otolith III, HD video (colour, sound) — credit: The Otolith Group and LUX

To finish my review, I would like to mention two more pieces, which, again, seem only loosely connected to the other works in the exhibit. Though they have little else in common, both focus on families living in poverty and precarity. Gauri Gill’s black-and-white photographs are of people living in a remote Indian village. Instead of exoticizing them, some of her more obviously staged works point to our common humanity, i.e. our common interest in performing. The group CAMP finds another way to avoid exploiting its subjects, in this case Palestinians living in abhorrent conditions in East Jerusalem, by giving them cameras to film their surroundings themselves. I sincerely hope that all those people were rewarded.

“The Matter Within” is not the only “Indian” exhibition in town this season. The Asian Art Museum preoccupies itself with the country’s past. The exhibition “Maharaja: The Splendor of India’s Royal Courts” will be open until April 8, 2012.


Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

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About Julia Glosemeyer
I like art. I also like dancing, very heavy music, watching MMA, and having long interesting conversations.

2 Responses to The Global Within: Indian Art at the YBCA [Review]

  1. Pingback: Left Coast Leaning @ YBCA [Review] | eventseekr blog

  2. Pingback: Left Coast Leaning @ YBCA [Review] « eventseekr

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