THE WEST AND INDIA.
A RELATIONSHIP EXPLORED BY THREE CONTEMPORARY ARTISTS:
ANISH KAPOOR, FRANCESCO CLEMENTE AND BILL VIOLA.
Luke Elwes 2007. MA History of Art Dissertation. Birkbeck University of London.
(COPYRIGHT LUKE ELWES 2008)
Chapter 1 Beginnings……………………………………………………p.2
Chapter 2 Theoretical Excursions……………………………………….p.5
1. India: locating the idea
2. India: origins and identity
Chapter 3 India in the West: a dialogue…………………………………p.11
Chapter 4 Three Artists: a relationship reconsidered……………………p.17
Chapter 5 A New Beginning…………………………………………….p.22
Appendix 1 Illustrations to the text
Appendix 2 Artists’ biographies
Appendix 3 Bibliography
In his introduction to Orientalism, Edward Said begins with a caution about beginnings:
A major lesson I learned and tried to present was that there is no such thing as a merely given, or simply available, starting point: beginnings have to be made for each project in such a way as to enable what follows from them. Nowhere in my experience has the difficulty of this lesson been more conciously lived than in this study of Orientalism. The idea of beginning, indeed the act of beginning, necessarily involves an act of delimitation by which something is cut out of a great mass of material, separated from the mass, and made to stand for, as well as be, a starting point, a beginning.
How to approach India when there are so many Indias? Difficult to locate, impossible to define, it remains a potent source of fascination for thinkers, writers and artists, both within and beyond the Subcontinent. If I begin with a personal perspective it is because I do not write or paint in isolation and cannot stand apart from the historical and cultural space which India occupies in the western imagination.
Since I first travelled to India twenty years ago, I have, like many travellers, as much today as in the past, been overwhelmed and disorientated by the multiplicity of images and experiences it offers. I have been guided by the writings of travellers before me, (from Herodotus to Forster, Hesse and Ginsberg), and by the people I have met, and yet each time I travel I find my perceptions altered and challenged. As I change so India changes, its multiplicity defying any attempt to contain and represent the experience. And yet I continue to be drawn to it by a desire to encounter its strangeness, to be frightened and exhilarated and dislocated physically and mentally, to uncover in its unquantifiable difference something unknown to the self. If inevitably I inhabit the process I wish to explore, I can perhaps approach the complexity of this encounter at a slight distance from the interior ground of my own impressions by considering the nature of the relationship, geographical, familial and ideological, that three other artists in the West currently have with India.
There are, in the work of each, echoes of the formative ground on which my own impressions have developed; in particular they help to show, in their own way and to varying degrees, the appeal of the exotic and strange, the spiritual and fantastical, which India represents. Anish Kapoor, Francesco Clemente and Bill Viola belong to the same generation, all now in their mid fifties, and widely recognized by western institutions and the international art market as important artists in their chosen fields of sculpture, painting and video art. Each has travelled widely, selectively embracing elements of other cultures in the forms and subject matter of their work; it has become integral to their identity, both to themselves and their predominantly western audience. For Viola, ‘my work is about finding those places on earth where I need to be to have those ideas I’m carrying with me best expressed’.
On the face of it their art illuminates the relationship of the West to the East, imbued with notions of difference and otherness (see Viola, pl.1.1, Clemente, pl.2.1, and Kapoor, pl.3.1); and in this there is a connection with the cultural milieu from which they emerged, a feeling in Europe and America during the early 1970s which Clemente among many others of his generation characterised as one of sterility, of the exhaustion of modernism (at least in its reductive minimalist mode), that was also commensurate with a desire to escape and rediscover yourself, one that both Kapoor and Viola have articulated as the need to heal a divided self, to return to the spiritual (and to the wisdom of ancient texts, whether Vedantic, Kabbalistic or Sufic) in the face of the overwhelming materialism of western society. Clemente’s ‘longing’ was for Viola, ‘the absense of something essential. Knowing what we lack, feeling what we do not know’. India would serve to fill this lack - for Viola as the necessary ‘software’ to the west’s technological ‘hardware’, for Clemente as the means to envisage the self as other (evident in the animals, deities and women he uses to embody himself in his Indian portraits; pl.2.2), and for Kapoor as the means for the continual return in his work to notions of the sublime and the void (compare pl.3.2, for example, with the Cosmic Egg in pl.3.3).
So this sense of finding yourself in the other offers itself as a starting point. But as I hope to show, the distance between self and other, inside and outside, is hard to fix with any certainty and stability. For beneath this beginning lies another, which is to do with identity, and the assumption with regard to India, that personal identity is bound up in national and regional identity. To what extent can it be said that where you come from is integral to who you are? This might seem obvious in terms of ethnicity and origins. Anish Kapoor was born in Bombay in 1954 to an Indian father, even if he has lived and worked in England since 1973. Yet he has always resisted the idea that he belongs to India, and that his art is thereby separable from the mainstream of western abstract modernism in which he and others strive to place it. Viola, as an American, and Clemente, as an Italian, more clearly occupy another space, although in Clemente’s case the chameleon nature of his self image questions the terms on which that spatial and cultural distance is based. On the basis that he lives in South India for long periods, submerging himself in his work with local craftsmen and materials, he suggests that where we are (in the present) is central to who we are, or desire to be, in this moment. Over the years he has collaborated with cinema billboard painters (Madras, 1976; pl.2.3), Mughal style miniature painters (Jaipur, 1981; pl.2.4), local paper makers (Madras 1981), folk painters (Orissa, 1989), and bronze foundry workers (Tanjore, 1994).
The notion that origins and identity might be fluid rather than fixed, hybrid rather than pure, is challenged by those for whom some essential ‘idea of India’ is necessary to define its difference from the other. But if national identity is central to India’s idea of itself, as Nehru claimed at the time of Independence in 1947 (and to which in varying degrees these artists are outside of), it is uncertain where India now, sixty years later, begins and ends - with a predominantly Hindu nation, with the diverse cultures, religions and ethnicities of the subcontinent, or, further afield, with the vast diaspora of exiles and migrants? It also remains unclear, when referring to India, whose idea of India we are talking about; if it is to be the modern secular state, then what of the myriad tribal and religious identities that run beneath it? And if the ‘true’ India’s historical locus is pre-western, is it also pre-muslim? The notion of common or fixed origins, to which Nehru necessarily appealed at the moment when ‘History begins anew for us’, in many ways reveal themselves to be illusory.
If looking at how these artists (and by implication myself) are situated in relation to India seems straightforward at one level - how they replay and repeat the distance between two worlds, a distance also evident in their institutional and critical placement within the western art world (as against the relative marginalisation in the international contemporary art market, and in western institutions, of Indian artists) - it begins to become more complicated as some of the key assumptions on which opposing ideas of India are based start to become less certain, a situation in which their work begins to confuse, or even operate outside, any fixed polarity of viewpoints. While recognising the need to delimit the project - to ‘India’ and to three artists currently engaged with it - I hope to show how both the place and the work (and the ideas that surround them) soon depart from any notion that these limits can be truely fixed.
2. Theoretical Excursions
1. India: locating the idea.
There are certain cultural commentators, located in India and engaged in colonial discourse, who seek to reinforce the separateness of India from the West, as a necessary condition for its historical and cultural identity. I refer in particular to critics of postcolonial theory - notably Geeta Kapur, Rasheed Araeen and Ania Loomba - for whom the notion of hybridity has permitted the return of the power imbalance in western cultural institutions between first and third worlds in the acceptable guise of ‘multiculturalism’. Equally there are others, maybe more visible to a western audience for being located in the West (Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Spivak, Anish Kapoor and Salman Rushdie), who throw into question the nature of this difference, since the ‘pure’ culture and location on which it is premised is really one of ‘hybridity, creolisation, inbetweenness, diasporas and liminality’.
So if there is a gap between Viola, Clemente and Kapoor on the one hand and Indian artists on the other, in terms of what they do (or are enabled to do by virtue of who they are) and how they are perceived to deal with India from their differing standpoints, then what is the nature of that gap? Looked at from the perspective of the modern Indian artist, a position which Geeta Kapur seeks to articulate in ‘When was Modernism’, this seems relatively straightforward. What these three are able to do flows first of all from where they are, and more specifically from the persistent imbalance between the privileged space they occupy in the first world as against that of the local artist in the third world. They are free to travel, crossing boundaries (as well as identites in Clemente’s case) where most Indians cannot. The work of the latter remains different and apart from that of the former, whose various ideas of India can be more readily assimilated for a western audience (since they were grounded in western views to begin with) and whose work more firmly belongs to the institutions within which both the ownership and definition of modern art resides. It is a case of the privileged centre drawing on the exotic margins, while the reverse is not possible (or where it has been attempted leads only to marginalisation). This inbalance makes it essential for writers like Kapur and Araeen to demarcate a separate national (and geographically specific) project for Indian artists, as a way to loosen the West’s ideological hold on the modernist project: ‘Indian artists must derive the norms of their actual practice from specific aesthetic and generic issues and indeed such material considerations as they find pressing in their own environment’. Within the terms of their colonial discourse it is a political imperative; such is the position for example from which Anish Kapoor (in 1991) and Chris Ofili (in 1998) can be criticised for accepting the Tate Gallery’s Turner prize. By accepting metropolitan approbation they are denying their reponsibility to promote their distinct and separate identities.
This wish to return Kapoor to India is part of a wider attempt to promote Indian Art in the West. Mapping South East Asia (2002), a recent example, confidently proposes the reinvigoration of modernism through regional traditions. What runs through the accompanying texts is the belief that Indian modernism has been misrepresented in the West, which co-opted a ‘neat but meagre’ version of it under Greenberg’s watch, and which marginalized Indian art as too parochial and traditional. The story of modern art as a continuing western phenomenon is thus challenged by those who seek to decouple modernism from its metropolitan locus, its centrality in the west and its paler imitations on the periphery. Where it was once the case that Indian art was marginal and its modern practitioners made little or no impact in the metropolitan centres (something which may suggest a reason still for Kapoor’s deliberate distance from his origins), it is now suggested that modernism has reached its endgame in the west but continues to be explored and invigorated elsewhere, and that this is precisely why third world artists should be treated on equal terms with first world artists. Such shows serve to illustrate how they can give modernism back to the west, and they can do it by using rather than denying (as happened in the 1960s) their traditional forms and cultures.
In doing this they seek to define themselves, and the role of Indian artists, against the ‘other’ of the West. They do not want non-indians defining India for the rest of the world - they want Indians to define it. It upsets them that there are Indians in the West, Rushdie and Kapoor among them, who resist categorization and question the need for a fixed identity. This is Kapur’s charge against those situated in the West, like Bhabha and Spivak, who question the notion of pure origin and identity, and whose focus on hybridity has enabled its institutions, in equating postmodernism with multiculturalism, to simply perpetuate their dominance by other means. Kapoor, Viola and Clemente make use of India, as many western artists before them have done, without being of it. If Kapoor remains geographically and pyschologically distant, unwilling to engage with India from within, and wishing to see his work placed within a certain line of western antecedents (from Friedrich to Barnet Newman, as he is quoted as saying), then the other two (even in the case of Clemente, who often is geographically present) clearly operate as outsiders, their selective borrowings of popular forms (whether street culture or temple art) and spiritual traditions (whether Buddhist ritual or Vedic texts) indicative of an engagement which however well meant (as for example with Viola’s wish to film the Dalai Lama at prayer in Daramsala for The Missing Peace project) remains at a level that these critics would regard as superficial and insincere.
From an Indian perspective, the situation is also underlined by the way local artists are treated separately in the international art market, either as a subcategory in modern art auctions in Europe and America, or within the orbit of contemporary Asian art. It shows once more how the institutional hold on modernism in the West renders its practitioners in the third world peripheral or invisible. However it is no longer clear, as it once was, that this is indicative of their marginal status; there are many Indians today who collect and display Indian art as an assertion of that very identity, as a way of projecting their desire for an economically strong and modern nation to take up its new place in the world. ‘People want icons they can show off’, and the way it is currently marketed reflects this; there are new ‘Saatchi’ style collections in Delhi and Bombay and weekly online auctions organised for non resident Indians (NRIs) by saffronart.com. It is a desire that also leads many of them to fund Hindu nationalists at home. And this is where the assertion of India’s separateness begins to show its vulnerablility. How does the India she represents remain conceptually stable when it begins to be undermined by the fluidity of the nation’s evolving picture of itself? If it is clear that certain artists operate on the outside, it is not clear - or any longer clear, in the way Nehru meant it to be - what or who is on the inside? India’s distinct identity may be defined as other than the West, but it becomes very slippery when it meets the firm ground on which ‘Indianness’ is supposedly based. Where, and in what, does ‘Indianness’ reside: is it specific to the Subcontinent, and is it equally present in Hindu and Muslim culture?
2. India: origins and identity.
This uncertainty is apparent in Mapping South East Asia; premised on Kapur’s claim that ‘geography and ethnicity are all important’, it is unclear how its eclectic voices suggest some common body that unites artists from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Its geographical locus also neglects the problem of the ‘fifth’ India. While these artists can be excluded as exiles, dislocated and lost to the metropolis, they nevertheless remain problematic because in exemplifying the ‘hybridity and fluidity of identity in the postcolonial world’ of which Homi Bhabha speaks, they challenge the borders that these critics and curators have sought to establish, and so undermine that very difference on which colonial discourse is based. Bhabha, Spivak, Kapoor and Rushdie, may be originally Indian but they are now outside India; their attempt to redefine, or else dismiss as illusory, a postcolonial identity in a postmodern world flows from their privileged ‘exile’ status. And yet in disqualifying them, how do they account for the evident desire by many in India to embrace them, precisely because of their successful penetration of the metropolitan centres of New York and London, as examples of India’s cultural resurgence?
Such questions have at their heart the idea of a ‘pure’ nation with an originary precolonial state which, whether real or imaginary, is a powerful source of self identity. As Hobsbawm and Ranger showed, and Said acknowledged, nations necessarily invent their own origins; ‘traditions’ (whether in the form of folk art or native craft) are created or revived to inculcate a sense of identity and belonging, one to which they can return. The need to identify with India, or at least the reality of India as a nation, as an indian artist, and the need, in the West, to identify India as other than the West (by providing what it lacks, a non-materialist alternative) are politically and psychologically legitimate even if they are not based on stable ground. A distinct ethnic and geographical entity are a necessary beginning; for Kapur,
my disagreement with the exile rhetoric of Bhabha, and even Rushdie, is predictably that I want the location of self and culture to be less shifty, less a matter of continual displacement of categories one to another. In Bhabha’s view, ‘the contingent and the liminal become the times and the spaces for the historical representation of the subjects of cultural difference in a postcolonial criticism’. I would argue for a greater holding power of the historical paradigm where differences are recognized to have real and material consequences, where agency is neither ghost - driven nor collapsed into a series of metonymically disposed identities that are but fragments spinning away into entopy.
But while nationhood may be asserted as a need and a desire, to look at national culture as a continuous formation and to mark its emergence from imperial subject status, what she and others identify as authentic, and to which Indians (and by extension Indian artists) must return is selective and prone to important omissions. The idea of a singular entity around which a sense of collective belonging might cohere, which was Nehru’s wish at the outset, was always going to be hard to sustain. As Mishra observes, there is no one India to which all belong; and even if there was, who would it include and exclude: brahmins, untouchables, muslims, converts, tribals, mixed races? Who, he asks, is ‘indian’ when there are so many Indias? The national ideal, compounded of modernity, economic progress and secularism, cannot suppress the constant return of older identites (however ‘backward’ and embarrassing to the project of new world status) aligned to faith, caste, and ethnicity. Moreover an ideal which rests on an illusion, as Mishra and Paz show, can be dangerous.
This is compounded by its history in two key respects. India was never ‘pure’ as maybe precolombian America was, cut off from rest of the world. Spivak warns against any ‘nostalgia for lost origins’ which seeks to locate the original voice of colonised peoples or ‘subaltern’ subjects. The ancient civilisation of the Indus valley is irrecoverable beneath its subsequent and continuous overlayings: the Mughal Empire which conditions a picture of India from the Taj Mahal to the miniaturists, the Buddhist culture which both drew from and fed back into Hinduism before its demise in the land of its birth, even the arrival of orthodox christianity in South India, via St Thomas, long before Europe and the new World. Recent attempts by Hindu nationalists to resurrect the ancient Krishna temple in Ayodya are based on fiction; there never was a temple on the site of the mosque they destroyed. The story only gained credence and reality after Independence.
Moreover this ancient civilisation was largely ignored in the 19th century, in a society and a religious cosmology where ‘history’ had no meaning in the western sense and where time was not delineated but was eternal and recurring (a vision of temporality appealing to both Viola and Kapoor, as can be seen in his cosmic circle, pl.3.4). It was largely recovered by English scholars and collectors, by Orientalists like William Jones, the founder in 1784 of the Asiatic Society in Calcutta, and by their recovery of those sacred texts - the Vedas, Upanishads and the Ramayana - which would give Indians the material for the separate identity necessary to their nationalism. Not only were the seeds from which national identity grew planted by Europeans, but so was the concept of nationalism itself, which was inculcated in the ruling classes by 19th century British institutions and education: Nehru, the father of the nation, was educated in Britain, as were his daughter and grandsons.
3. India in the West: a dialogue.
The fixed polarities of India and the West are uncertain in their dimensions , even if it seems clear they remain perpetually separate in some unquantifiable measure - each representing an idea of the ‘other’. Equally, neither India’s idea of itself nor the West’s idea of India are untouched, historically and culturally, by each other. However, if as the above excursion suggests, it is difficult to stabilise any idea of India, both from within and from without, it may be that the West’s idea, being largely tied up in notions of the exotic and spiritual, can be more certainly contained (or at least described). This is especially so in the cultural and philosophical field, where a clear lineage emerges from Nietzche, Schopenhauer, Emerson, Whitman and Hesse, and on to the Theosophists (whose influence, via Blavatsky and Ouspensky, was absorbed by Mondrian and Kandinsky) and the countercultural movement, in which a range of gurus were in dialogue with writers and artists. D.T. Suzuki in particular has been linked to a range of artists in the 1950s and 1960s who would go on to influence a younger generation: musicians like John Cage and David Tudor, painters like Philip Guston and Ad Reinhardt, and writers like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.
There is in this a certain historical constant, a romantic and spiritual picture of India that continues to resonate with the ‘unhappy children of modernity’, as a necessary contrast to western materialism and as an image of what is lacking in their world. The desire for enlightenment, either as a positive search or as an escape (often connected to drugs), re-emerged through the anxiety and self doubt that pervaded the 1960s and 1970s, particularly in America. Arthur Danto described it in 1973 as ‘the contemporary ethical ferment’. The new world (particularly on America’s west coast, where eastern teaching and spiritual practice had been present since the 1900s) was not only looking but returning to the old world, paradoxically enabled by their nation’s material prosperity to travel further and live more simply and cheaply elsewhere. Such is the generation to which Viola, Kapoor and Clemente belong.
Both Viola (born 1951) and Clemente (born 1952) grew up in this newly receptive culture, and both travelled east in the course of the 1970s. For Viola it was a desire to fill a lack through a dialogue with Oriental ritual and tradition: ‘ One of the great milestones of our century has been the transporting of ancient Eastern knowledge to the West by individuals such as the Zen scholar D.T.Suzuki and the Sri Lankan art historian A.K. Coomaraswamy, an event on a par with the re-introduction of ancient greek thought to Europe’. It was, moreover, a desire he could enact as first hand experience since the advent of portable video cameras in the mid 1970s would allow Viola to work with new precision in remote locations. For Clemente, at least to begin with, it was an escape from Europe and a wish to experience the ‘fertile soil’ of India’s mystical traditions: ‘I wanted to be somewhere else, and I thought that was as far as I could go and I had the surprise of my life. I mean, I just couldn’t believe my eyes’. For both there were existing role models. Clemente saw in the shamanic attitude of Joseph Beuys (whom he had met in 1974) a refreshing departure from the self-referential formalism of modern art at the time, and his response to Ginsberg’s Howl would lead to later collaborations between artist and poet. For Viola there were obvious Buddhist references in the sound and performance experiments of John Cage, and in Nan June Paik’s experimental dialogue with the newly pervasive medium of television.
Since he travelled to Japan in 1976 (and subsequently to Indonesia in 1977, Ladakh in 1982, and India in 2005), Viola has continued to align his mystical urges with the eastern practices he observes: ‘When the need to know becomes stronger than the need to be, when our immediate surroundings cannot fulfill our desire to see beneath the world of appearances…we have no choice but to engage in travel’. His exploration of his physical and temporal identity is infused with ‘the other side’, from the sufic mysticism of Ibn Arabi to which he consistently returns in his working notes, to, more recently, the ritual forms of Tibetan Buddhism (see pl.1.3 and pl.1.4). He reiterates the gap he desires to fill with his idea of eastern software and western hardware, the union of technology and revelation which, as is evident in the enlightened figures in Bodies of Light 2006 (where the digital body literally dissolves in bright light), reveals ‘as much esteem for the circulatory system as the circuit board’ (pl.1.1 and pl.1.2). It is his own formulation of a pantheistic urge, which is not new - Paz for example notes the many affinities between sufic mysticism, Hindu cosmology and Neo platonism - but which has been especially prevalent on the Californian coast to which he moved in 1981, where the influx of eastern ideas particularly since the early 1970s had revived the dialogue between ‘back east’ and ‘out west’. This dialogue has also tended to depend on the presence in the West of teachers perceived to be holy men, from Tagore to Krishnamurti and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi; the need for a contemporary voice with ‘avatar status’ is filled for Viola, as for many others, by the virtual presence in the global media of the Dalai Lama (pl.1.5). His most recent journey in 2005, and the piece which stemmed from it, was to visit him in Dharamsala in India (A Blessing, 2005, pl. 1.3). The embodied spirit which he presents to us in The Messenger 1996 (pl. 1.6), for example, has been likened to ‘a photograph of an enlightened swami’ (see pl.1.7, of Ramakrishna meditating).
From a different starting point Clemente arrived in India too, stimulated by his involvement with Alighiero Boetti, with whom he travelled to Afganistan in 1974, and the Arte Povera movement, with their use of traditional craftsmen and poor materials; he wanted to escape the ‘conceptual bankruptcy’ of European art by going East, where he might recover a sense of wholeness by exploring an alternative identity. ‘The gods who left us thousands of years ago are still in India, so it’s like going home for me’. He wished to fill a perceived void, to recreate himself, to metamorph, to fantasise himself as other. He was also inspired, on his first trip to India in 1973, by a living tradition of philosophical dialogue, long absent in the west: ‘an oral tradition concerned with correct behaviour, with the fact that knowledge is a proportion between what you are and what you know’. Clemente had also read about Krishnamurti, the guru discovered by the theosophists in Madras in 1909, and it had a direct bearing on his decision to base himself there (even to the extent of staying in the Theosophical Society residence established by Annie Besant in Madras). The syncretism of Theosophy and the idea both of union - a unity of two halves, of man and woman, sacred and profane - and metamorphosis, the one becoming another, were illuminated for him (so giving him permission to exceed the boundaries of his self image in a way that was normally suppressed in western culture) in the multitude of figurative forms, high and low art, that he found: the chola bronzes, the erotic temple figures and carnal images, and the everyday ‘fantastic forms born from the hands of anonymous craftsmen’. Through these extended trips to India (in 1976, 1977 and 1978, and thereafter bi-annually) he has amassed a vast body of drawings which have served as a repository of images for his work (for examples, see pl.2.5 and pl.2.6).
Kapoor appears to have travelled, at least geographically, in the other direction, even if his journey out of Bombay, hitchhiking across Europe from an Israeli kibbutz in 1971 to England in 1973, was also enacted in ‘the utopian post hippy period’. His education and establishment in London, via Hornsey Art school and the Lisson Gallery, has conditioned his subsequent outlook; his awareness of India, sparked by his origins, was initially evident in his use of popular Indian forms and colour (the piles of exotic and brilliantly coloured powdered pigment he began to use after returning to India for the first time in 1979 – see pl.3.1), before being submerged in his more recent work into the more numinous sphere of Indian thought. For Kapoor, who often refers to Barnett Newman as his favorite artist, there are the evident parallels between the western concept of the Sublime and the mysticism, particularly the notion of the void and the circularity of time and the cosmos, which characterises powerful strands of Indian thought (particularly, as we have seen, in the western mind).
For Paz, what India offers, ‘in its highest moments’, is what Kapoor and Viola desire: ‘the incarnation of a totality that is plenitude and emptiness, the transfiguration of the body into form that, without abandoning sensation and flesh, is spiritual’. Viola’s pursuit of the invisible over the visible, his ‘Bodies of Light’ suspended in silence and darkness, is what Kapoor seeks to embody in stone (see Untitled 1991, pl.3.2); it is a material space with a hollow core, recalling the ‘garbha grha’, the womb like empty chamber at the heart of Hindu temples. (note the similarity to Indian wall shrines, pl. 3.5). This piece, like many others, is substantiated by an internal void which contains everything and nothing (as in the red void of Untitled 1990, pl.3.6): ‘I’m thinking of the kind of space that there might be in an image of a meditating Buddha, where all the attention is focused inward.’ The recurrence of circles and columns (see Endless Column 1992, pl.3.7, and the blue circle in Mother as a Void 1992, pl.3.4) in his work also refers to the circularity of time, to recreation and infinity, all expressions of, ‘the passion for unity in Indian thought’. In a different medium this concept is presented as an endless loop, as in Viola’s video cycle, To Pray without Ceasing (1992).
So at one level they exemplify a particular idea of India, a desire to universalise human experience for the (western) spectator, a desire seemingly alien to those who wish to concretise and hold on to indianness as the privilege of Indians. All three use certain and persistent ideas of India which reinforce the perception for their primary audience of a place as spiritual, exotic, fantastical; it is consonant with a long tradition of the West’s imagining of India, and with a line of Orientalist artists stretching from the Daniell brothers in the 1800s to Howard Hodgkin today. It is a long way from the reality of a world, as writers like Mishra wish to remind us, that is ‘chaotically fractious’, increasingly materialistic and impatient with the stultifying image of sadhus and mystics. What persists in the life style and self enlightenment movements of the West, the gurus, ashrams and and yoga practices of which each variously partakes - Clemente’s tantric yoga and Viola and Kapoor’s Buddhist practice, as well as their current engagement with the preservation of Tibetan culture - is remarkably absent in the images that Mishra conjures up in his writing: of caste discrimination, war in Kashmir, bombed trains and burning mosques, of Bollywood movies, western fashions, English call centres and computer service industries.
4. Three Artists: a relationship reconsidered
This picture on both sides seems to accord with Said’s thesis in Orientalism. In a sense Viola, Kapoor and Clemente are clearly ‘western’ artists; their work is bought by major institutions and they travel freely, literally and metaphorically, deploying Indian ideas and forms in the wider concerns of their work. In Kapoor’s case, Kapur and Araeen would argue that, although Indian by birth, he is not located in India and is disengaged from his origins. He plays no part in the necessary role that the region’s artists (however defined) must play in forging a national modernism. Moreover the way his story is told, for example in Tate Modern where his piece Ishi’s Light 2003 faces Barnet Newman’s Adam (pl.3.8 and pl.3.9), is as a modern artist in the Greenbergian and Kantian mould and not as an Indian artist. If the sculpture resembles a cosmic egg, the allusion to India is simply a way to enrich his dialogue within the Western canon.
For those who hold to the separation, in the face of multiculturalism, of India from the West, and third from first world, they remain outsiders. National and regional identities are the ground (whether real or imagined) on which individual identities operate, the artists, Indian or Western, needing to ‘coalesce with living collectivities’. However the relative fixity of this representation continues to be undermined by postcolonial texts which privilege hybridity and the fluidity of identity. Bhabha criticises Said’s Orientalism for suggesting that colonial discourse is all powerful; what, he asks, has it really done for us? In The Other Question, he seeks to show that the notion of alterity, even where politically necessary, remains ‘an articulation of difference contained within a fantasy of origin and identity’. It has no fixity because it was never a structure; rather, ‘it is a site of dreams, images, fantasies, myths, obsessions and requirements’, which, through the structuring of colonial discourse as an ‘apparatus of power’, leads to a static system of ‘synchronic essentialism.. a site continually under threat from diachronic forms of history and narrative, signs of instability’. The usefulness of Bhabha’s writings to postcolonial discourse is signalled by Loomba, who concedes that colonial identites - on both sides of the divide - are unstable and in constant flux: ‘This undercuts both colonialist and nationalist claims to a unified self, and warns against interpreting cultural difference in in absolute or reductive terms’. In what sense, for example, are Ananda Coomaraswami and Rabindranath Tagore ‘Indian’, when the former is part Tamil, part English, and the latter, despite becoming an iconic ‘national’ artist in his later years, was heavily influenced by modern European artists?
There is, moreover, the issue of postmodernism; whereas Araeen and Kumar locate this as a space for the infusion of modernism with Third World forms and identities, there is the alternative proposition that it names the historical space beyond modernism. Danto defines this as ‘post – historical’, on the basis that it succeeds that period running from about 1905 to 1964 when modern art undertook a massive formal investigation into its own nature and essence. It is in this sense that Clemente is censured for his ‘unbridled eclecticism’ and his use of art historical references as ‘so many cliched quotations to decorate the usual modern painting’ (as can be seen in his many borrowings – for example his copy of a moghul drawing in Self Portrait as an Ailing Courtier 2006, pl.2.7, pl.2.8). Within the postmodern there is neither the possibility of critical distance nor ‘grand narrative’; rather than articulate a space for the other, it denies its existence as separate and essential.
Clemente and Kapoor’s work challenges the notion that a dialogue with India presupposes an identity that is distinct and separate from the other. Their relationship with India starts to operate, as Salman Rushdie points out in writing about them both, in a space that is more fluid and transnational. The terms on which they construct this exploration are not subject to the limitations imposed by national identity. Who they are and where they are form an indeterminate part of a construction that has no inside or outside, one where roots and identity remain endlessly fluid and conditional. Clemente can choose in the course of his self exploration to become Indian, while Kapoor can choose to be Indian and western simultaneously (since, like Rushdie, he is both).
Thus the terms of the debate become less certain than they initially seemed. Kapoor was born in Bombay, and his paternal origins are Punjabi Hindu. But through his mother he is also Iraqi Jewish, something that made him feel ‘an outsider at home’. Once in London, he defined himself within the ‘New British Sculpture’ movement that rose to prominence in the late 1970s, a movement he was no less a part of than Shiraz Houshiari (Iranian born) or Anthony Gormley (British born). He resists being cast as Indian - being curatorially located in ‘Mumbai’ by Kapur - even if he returns to it, the place of his father, the site of his birth, the images of childhood, in his abstract language (as in the womb of Untitled 1990, pl.3.6). For him, ‘the space for new art’ requires no passport. He is Indian in India, Western in the West. It is not either/or since his art is not predicated on the difference. His abstract forms are shaped by the fluid nature of the cross cultural dialogue which precedes him - his notion of the Sublime developing out of the dialogue between those eastern models mediated by Tagore and Mookerjee amongst others (compare Mookerjee’s egg with Kapoor’s, pl.3.3, pl.3.10), and that of Kant and Burke as it was reinvigorated in western abstraction, a revival that was itself mediated in the 1950s by the impact of Suzuki in particular on the thinking of Kapoor’s role models, Rothko and Newman.
If the notion that there persists some fixed distance between East and West, one which Viola and Clemente are assumed to capitalise on, it is to neglect the way in which notions of ‘self’ and ‘other’ constantly interpenetrate and change according to individual necessity. Viola’s articulation of Eastern thought, especially in the way he draws out the concept of ‘pure vision’ from a mixture of Suzuki’s zen teaching and Coomaraswamy’s mysticism, is not of some separate metaphysical and spiritual tradition but one in itself based on these teachers’ own reading of, and dialogue with, the Romantic conception of the numinous and its deeper roots (for Viola at least) in the writings of early Christian mystics like Meister Eckhart and St. John of the Cross. Viola is not starting from some separate western origin; the east was amply present in his west already, and had been at least since the early 20th century. Like Kapoor, he is not dealing with a singular concept but one that occurs in discourse (in 2006, for example, Bodies of Light could be experienced in two contexts at the same time, once as part of the Dalai Lama show in Los Angeles and once as part of The Tristan Project in Paris, based on Wagner’s opera). It is a dynamic process in which, for Mikhail Bakhtin, ‘There is no existence, no meaning, no word or thought that does not enter into dialogue or dialogic relations with the other, that does not exhibit intertextuality in both time and space’.
The levels of interpenetration evident in this relationship are, if anything, even more indeterminate in the ‘decentred’ postmodern space in which Clemente operates, where notions of the self and other are in constant flux (and where ‘the changeable self’, Rushdie suggests, ‘lies close to the heart of things in Indian mythology’). At one level, the suggestion made by Rushdie that Clemente may be Indian despite not being born there seems implausible. For anthropologists like Christopher Penney, the artist is using India as a fantasy realm, borrowing its popular and mythical forms in order to play with different and exotic representations of himself (compare Self Portrait as a Bengali Woman 2005, pl.2.9, with the Kalighat women, pl.2.10, pl.2.11). From this perspective, Clemente’s notion of alterity is judged to be a ‘Disney version’ which ignores India’s cultural difference. However it is a distinction that Bhabha would reject, since anthropology is premised on locating difference and otherness, which he argues it has failed to do.
It could equally be argued that it is Clemente’s desire to play with the very concept of individual identity (whose body does he inhabit and whose memories?), to make his fantasy self an integral part of his reality, which allows him to become ‘Indian’. Rushdie deploys the labels of nationality to confuse the very notion - Clemente is an ‘Indian Italian’. He makes this point very deliberately, in a way that recalls the Moor in The Moor’s Last Sigh, to undermine the notion of a pure ethnicity and origin. In what sense should his presence in Madras be conditioned or qualified by his distant Neapolitan birthplace? Like Mishra, Rushdie shows the difficulty of locating the genuine Indian identity. Amrita Sher-Gil (1913 -1941), for example is an artist whom Kapur and Mitter (p194) identify as important to the history of a national modern art. She was, like Kapoor, also of hybrid origin (being part Hungarian), yet Kapur, in When was Modernism, neglects to mention this while asserting her importance as an Indian artist. In The Moors Last Sigh, written in the aftermath of Bombay’s 1993 riots, when Hindu fundamentalists destroyed the Babri Mosque, Rushdie chose to model the Moor’s daughter on Amrita Sher-Gil, making her Indian identity constantly questionable to others and to himself.
This uncertainty is consistent with the author’s belief that Clemente can be as Indian as any Indian. The artist’s chameleon nature is a fantasy which allows him to become the other in his work, to continually deny the structure of difference as he slides in and out of the skins of India and the West, of man and animal, and of male and female. (see pl.2.2). He becomes absorbed into the India he inhabits, a private theatre that reveals another reality: of hermaphroditic deities, sexual transgression, and animal incarnations. The changeable nature of the body in Hindu poetry and sculpture is something that Paz explores, reminding his western readers that it should not be classified as perverse in a Freudian sense. Clemente’s Hermaphrodite 1985 (pl.2.3) replays the union of Shiva and Parvati (pl.2.12), while Vishnu as a Tortoise (pl.2.13) is mirrored in the fantastical fish from his Pinxit series 1981 (pl.2.4).
At the same time Clemente does not live there in some westernised bubble; he is, as Kapur admits, part of an identifiable stylistic discourse inside and outside India - a movement towards allegorical figuration in the late 1970s that emerged as a reaction to the formal purity of late modernism. There are, in this dialogue, identifiable cross currents between the paintings of R.B. Kitaj and Nalini Malani (another artist Kapur identifies as central to contemporary Indian identity), Clemente and Bhupen Khakhar (see for example An Old Man 1995, pl.2.14). Nor is this just an engagement with recent Indian art; Clemente has long been fascinated with the 19th century Kalighat school of painters, whose images were themselves a stylistic mixture of moghul miniatures and western realism (pl.2.10, pl.2.11). He also deploys the skill of local craftsmen, papermakers in particular, both on a small scale, as in the Pinxit series with miniaturists, and on a large scale, as in Four Corners 1985 and Hermaphrodite 1985 (pl.2.1, pl.2.3) with poster painters. In place of a single authorial voice in his work there emerges a polyphony of voices, simultaneously Indian and Italian. If it is true at one level, as Penney sees it, that he is borrowing the popular and mythical forms of India in order to represent his fantasy self - as is evident in the more obvious appropriation of another’s work in Self Portrait as Ailing Courtier - at another level it can equally be shown that what he seeks is the recasting of his form in India and the submerging of his persona, for the time he is present there, within the work and images of local artists.
5. A new beginning
Clemente and Kapoor resist the charge of postmodern appropriation on the one hand and political disengagement on the other, just as Viola and Kapoor resist the implication that their work only applies to a western mindset. By privileging a personal over a national identity, they aspire to universalise their experience for the spectator; ‘The real investigation is of life and being itself, the medium (like the place) is just the tool in this investigation’. What they wish to return to is another kind of (ideal) beginning - a world without the need for a ‘passport’ to identify themselves. If this remains a privilege, it is, for Viola at least, one that carries a moral responsibility; he sees it as incumbent on him to champion issues of personal freedom from a position of centrality rather than marginality or invisibility. He can speak for those who cannot, his technology preserving ‘moments of prayer to be circulated in far away lands’
Their work exemplifies a constantly shifting relationship, each moving between cultures as they explore, reveal, and return to the mystery of their own identities. India’s part in this is as an uncircumscribed idea and space available to all. Kapoor’s language of universal abstraction, his dark voids and numinous spaces, partakes of a dialogue that is as close to Tagore (pl.3.11) as to Barnet Newman. Through the agency of their monumental sculpture (evoking awe in the spectator, as in Marsyas 2002) and video and sound pieces (evoking a similar sense of saturation through temporal and spatial manipulation), Kapoor and Viola seek to explore the other as part of (and within) their selves; while in Clemente, self and other continually cross over, challenging the spectator to locate any singular identity in his myriad images. The ‘delicious narcissism’ of Clemente’s work is redeemed by his ‘hindu insistence’ on the underlying principle of unity in the universe.
If they deny the fixity of nationality and an identity tied to it, it is so they can move beyond the binary concept of self and other which both western and Indian writers, critics and curators impose on them. Edward Said, in his Afterword to the 1995 edition of Orientalism, sought to counter a too rigid interpretation of West and East; national boundaries and cultures must not act in a coercive way on our imagination, or on our thinking, ‘which is very much a procedure of crossing, rather than maintaining, barriers’.
Notwithstanding their differences, both sides would argue for a more democratic and open space for modern art, for a space without boundaries - for Araeen so that there is a more equal dialogue within it between first and third world, and for those who incline towards the postmodern and post-national, so that a multiplicity of voices and traditions are available to all (practitioners and spectators) regardless of national boundaries and identities, and where both sides can refer to and incorporate the continually uncertain ground of the other. If the space of Western art is available to all (the desire expressed by Araeen as the way to overcome the perceived imbalance of power in current cultural discourse), so the traditions of a culture he and Kapur wish to preserve as the demarcater of a distinct identity should be available to those wishing to supplant the barriers that differentiate inside from outside, East from West, with a space that celebrates their intermingling and fundamental indeterminacy. A space where the universalising instinct evident in the work of all three artists is regarded less as a suspect form of appropriation of one place by those who inhabit another, or the homogenising of many places and cultures into a tenuous and selective unitary space, as the expression of a hope and dream that artists and their increasingly multifaceted audiences might divest themselves of the notion of difference and separation and engage with a discourse that is more thoroughly fluid and transnational.
Luke Elwes copyright 2008
Illustrations to the text
1.1 Bodies of Light, 2006, video diptych: 21m 27secs (no sound). Courtesy Haunch of Venison
1.2 Bodies of Light, 2006, video diptych: 21m 27secs (no sound). Courtesy Haunch of Venison
1.3 Still from Dalai Lama; A Blessing, 2005, video (2m 6secs.) for The Missing Peace, 2006
1.4 Diwali, Festival of Lights, India (photograph by A.Mookerjee, from Ritual Art of India)
1.5 The Dalai Lama (still from Dalai Lama; A Blessing, 2005, for The Missing Peace 2006)
1.6 The Messenger, 1996, video and stereo sound installation. Collection of The Bohen Foundation, gift to The Guggenheim Museum
1.7 Ramakrisna at Prayer, photograph (19th century, unknown, from Ritual Art of India)
2.1 The Four Corners, 1985, gouache on handmade paper. Private collection, Milan
2.2 Self Portrait of the Other, 2005, oil on linen. Gagosian Gallery
2.3 Hermaphrodite, 1985, gouache on handmade paper. Private collection
2.4 Francesco Clemente Pinxit, 1980 – 81, series of 24 paintings, all gouache on antique paper, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond USA. (fish)
2.5 Hanuman drawing, 1986, ink on paper. Artists collection
2.6 Postcard of Hanuman, Madras 1985. Artists collection
2.7 Hashim (?), Dying Inayat Khan, Mughal drawing, 1618 (from Indian Art by P. Mitter)
2.8 Self Portrait as an Ailing Courtier, 2006, oil on linen. Gagosian Gallery
2.9 Self Portrait as a Bengali Woman, 2005, oil on linen. Gagosian Gallery
2.10 Jasoda & Krishna milking a cow, c.1890, watercolour, Khaligat school (V&A collection)
2.11 Woman & dog, 1865-70, watercolour, Khaligat school (V&A collection)
2.12 Shiva & Parvati as hermaphrodite, Chola, 11th-12th century, bronze
(from Indian Art by P. Mitter)
2.13 Vishnu as Tortoise, gouache on paper, Khaligat school 19thc (from Ritual Art of India)
2.14 Bhupen Khakhar, An Old Man from Vasad, watercolour 1995. Artists collection
3.1 As if to Celebrate, I discovered a Mountain Blooming with Red Flowers, 1981; pigment, wood, cement. Tate collection
3.2 Untitled, 1991, marble & pigment. Lisson Gallery
3.3 Cosmic Egg, date unknown, natural stone, Benares (from Ritual Art of India)
3.4 Mother as a Void, 1992, fibreglass & pigment. Lisson Gallery
3.5 Wall Shrine, Hindu temple, photograph by A. Mookerjee (from Ritual Art of India)
3.6 Untitled, 1990, earth & gouache on paper. Tate collection
3.7 Endless Column, 1992, mixed media. Private collection
3.8 Ishi’s Light, 2003, fibreglass, resin, lacquer. Tate collection
3.9 Barnet Newman, Adam, 1951/52, oil on canvas. Tate collection
3.10 Sketchbook drawing for Marsyas project, 2002. Artists collection
3.11 Rabindranath Tagore, Untitled, mixed media on paper (c.1930)
Bill Viola (born New York 1951) is considered a pioneer in the medium of video art. During the 1970s he travelled to Italy, the Soloman Islands, Java, Bali, and Japan. In 1980 he lived in Japan for a year, studying Buddhism with Zen Master Daien Tanaka. His most recent journey was to Dharamsala, India, to record a prayer blessing with the Dalai Lama (2005). There have been major shows of his work at MOMA (1987), the Venice Biennale (1995), the Whitney Museum (1997), the Guggenheim (New York and Berlin, 2002), the Getty Museum, Los Angeles, the National Gallery London (both 2003), and the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo (2007). In 2004 he began a collaboration with Peter Sellars on Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, which recieved its world premiere at the Paris Opera in 2005.
Francesco Clemente (born Naples 1952) moved to Rome in 1970. In 1972 he travelled to Afganistan with Alighiero e Boetti. Since 1973 he has frequently resided and worked in India. In 1981 he moved to New York. During the 1980s he collaborated with Indian sign painters, miniaturists, and papermakers. During a 1995 trip to Mount Abu in the Himalayas he painted a watercolour a day for 51 days in between taking walks and meditating. He now divides his time between Madras, New York and Rome. Major exhibitions include the Philadelphia Museum of Art (1990), the Royal Academy, London (1991), the Pompidou Centre, Paris (1994), the Sezon Museum of Art, Tokyo (1994) and the Guggenheim, New York (1999 - 2000).
Anish Kapoor (born Bombay 1954) moved to London in 1973. His first use of powdered pigment for his sculpture followed a return visit to India in 1979. His first solo show was at the Lisson Gallery in 1980. Since then he has had shows in New York, Paris, Tokyo, Tel Aviv, Madrid , Milan, Oslo, Cologne, Helsinki, Ottawa and Los Angeles (but not India). He was awarded the ‘Premio Duemila’ at the Venice Biennale in 1990, and the Turner Prize in 1991. Major recent installations of his work include Taratantara, Baltic, Gateshead (2000), Marsyas, Tate Modern (2002), and Sky Mirror, Rockefeller Center, New York (2006).
Clemente, Francesco India (California:Twelve Trees Press, 1986)
Clemente, Francesco Fifty One days on Mount Abu
(exhibition catalogue, Anthony d’Offay, London 1997)
Clemente, Francesco The White Shroud, with Allen Ginsberg (Kalakshetra Press, India, 1983)
Clemente, Francesco The Creative Eye, (Exhibition catalogue text for The Asia
Society, New York, Nov 2001 - April 2002)
Clemente, Francesco conversations with Raymond Foye in Francesco Clemente, Three Worlds (Rizzoli, New York, 1990)
Kapoor, Anish Anish Kapoor, Tate catalogue (London: Tate Publishing, 2003)
Kapoor, Anish Anish Kapoor, Drawings, Tate catalogue (London: Tate Publishing, 1990)
Kapoor, Anish Anish Kapoor, Video (London: Illuminations, 2002)
Kapoor, Anish Anish Kapoor, London Hayward Gallery,1998, with exhibition catalogue essays by Homi Bhabha & Pier Tazzi
Kapoor, Anish Blood Relations (in collaboration with Salman Rushdie) Exhibition Catalogue, London: Lisson Gallery, Oct 2006
Kapoor, Anish Notes for The Missing Peace (Exhibition catalogue, UCLA Fowler Museum, Los Angeles, June - Sept 2006)
Viola, Bill Reasons for Knocking on an Empty House
Writings 1973 – 1994 (Thames & Hudson, 1995)
Viola, Bill Lecture, Tate Modern, 16 June 2006 (www.tate.org.uk)
(with a showing of Dalai Lama & Tristan Project videos)
Viola, Bill Artist’s website (www.billviola.com), together with conversations with Graham Southern, Director, Haunch of Venison Gallery, London & Zurich
Viola, Bill The Messenger
(Exhibition catalogue, Durham Cathedral, 1996)
Viola, Bill Love/ Death: The Tristan Project
(Exhibition catalogue, Haunch of Venison Gallery, London, June - September 2006)
Viola, Bill Notes for The Creative Eye, (exhibition catalogue text for The Asia Society, New York, Nov 2001 - April 2002)
Viola, Bill Notes for The Missing Peace (Exhibition catalogue, UCLA Fowler Museum, Los Angeles, June - Sept 2006)
Viola, Bill Interview with Barbara London, unpublished,1987 (archived in Video History Project Online, accessed on www.experimentaltvcenter.org, 03.04.2007)
1. Postcolonial Discourse and Issues of Identity
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2. India: Indian Culture and Modern Art
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