A conversation with Sudarshan Shetty, curator of Kochi Biennale 2016
Photograph: AJ Joji
Titles are important to Sudarshan Shetty. They contain a laconic wit, an appreciation of irony: this too shall pass, for instance, the title of a 2010 show at the Dr Bhau Daji Lad museum in Mumbai or, The more I die the lighter I get, a show that same year in New York, at the Tilton Gallery. Other titles are words so curiously juxtaposed that they arrest attention, are strange but beautiful. A 2011 show at the Galerie Daniel Templon in Paris, for example, was called Between the teacup and a sinking constellation. Shetty, still dashing in his mid-50s, has been enjoying a surge in international popularity. He has shown in Tokyo and London, been a resident at the Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh and a fellow at the New School in New York, but he has now put his own art aside to serve as curator for the third Kochi Biennale, beginning on December 12 , 2016. Shetty brings to his curating the attributes that have distinguished his art, an openness to experimentation, a multifarious perspective and a love of words. As he says, a curator is not a repository of all knowledge and culture but someone entrusted with starting a conversation.
You exhibited at the first Kochi Biennale, what was that experience like?
It was great. I take a lot of cues from that event, from the opening of the Biennale where 60 per cent of the work was not ready and people were still setting up the show. I think it worked out very well. It seemed like a disaster to begin with but people became a part of it. Before the Biennale opened, people said where does this word come from, it’s an Italian word, this import of foreign culture, and do we really need it? But today the Biennale is the Biennale—a word in Malayalam, they use it in the newspapers.
And also the people’s participation is amazing. The other day a rickshaw driver came to me and said, “Hello, you are the curator?” He had befriended two artists from the first Biennale and has visited them in their respective countries. He said to me, “If you need any suggestions for South American artists, let me know, I know a few.” Only in Kochi could that happen! They had half a million visitors at the last edition, which is more than any other biennale in the world as far as I know.
Are the hordes of people who visit the Biennale able to grapple with the kind of work on display?
To flip this question, if you think of a doha—I’ve been reading a lot of Kabir which led me to Gorakhnath, Surdas and other poets—the form itself is very interesting. The first line proposes an image, and the second line comes with a completely different image. Connections are made, or you extract your own meaning through your own experience of the world, through that opposition. Kabir says, and I keep repeating this one line: Lagan bina jaage na nirmohi. If you don’t have intense devotion to something you will not find the detachment within yourself. There is devotion and detachment within the same line, so how do you negotiate that? It’ll be different for each of us, it must change in your rendition of it, in your interpretation of it. This bandish may have been there for 2,000 years but you have to sing it the way you can—and you ought to. It comes from a solid tradition but yet it needs to change.
Let’s talk about your approach as a curator…
When I was asked to be the curator, I agreed only with much trepidation because I’d never curated before. So I thought let us start from the beginning. And what we did was start conversations with people who are seemingly outside of the expectations of the Biennale space. Especially in India, there are practices which I think are eminently contemporary but what are the points or mediations that can bring them into this space?
I know that that can be a lifelong work but we started from there. And it started opening up doors. So it’s somewhat of a conversation between those spaces—there are poets, there are theatre people, there are people from dance, one person from music, also people who have been working with other mediums challenging the notion of a gallery space, challenging the notion of a contemporary art space.
What did you find in, say, Raul Zurita’s poetry that made you think he must come to Kochi?
My effort was to look at people who reflect contemporary life in many ways. Now when you say contemporary, what does that mean, is one of the first questions. Is there a way of looking forward without looking back? That was something of a loose theme that we started with: can we reflect back upon where we came from, to be able to define our own contemporary realities?
The Biennale can be seen as something which flows in many streams. I see my role of curator as someone who can recognise or map those trajectories. We’re also bringing in the performative aspects of making and dissemination into the Biennale. So the work you see at the Biennale is not necessarily “finished”.
Some work might evolve during the Biennale. So a lot of people are going to be there making the work and there will be a lot of performance artists. And also artists who come from conventional backgrounds of painting or sculpture, and you’ll be able to see them in action. The idea was to flip the idea of the biennale as something that was a conclusive event or space towards something that was in constant flow, as I said, like a stream.
So if it’s a performance, does it repeat itself for different audiences who will be coming in during the Biennale? How do you negotiate the span of time—108 days—over which this will stretch?
When I was talking about the idea of water, I was thinking of the great rivers in India. About one of them being a hidden river, existing only in the dreams and imagination of people. How do you represent that? If you have missed something in the beginning, maybe you won’t be able to catch it later. But it might reappear in different forms—performances that are recorded and turned into little books that become evidence of something that has happened.
At a time when politically and socially we seem more divided then ever—east/west, local/global and other, deeper divisions—how have you negotiated these oppositions?
Someone once asked me, “Can art be universal?” I have come to the conclusion that it cannot be. It is so located in where you come from. A simplistic example: a lot of great poetry that I know has not been translated into English because it cannot be translated into English. If I refer to Gorakhnath’s poetry in some artwork I make, it’s not going to be understood by most people in the West. How do you negotiate that opposition? You just have to accept it, take it in your stride.
If art is not universal, then how are you translating or locating it in a way where a primarily South Asian audience can decode it or access it?
The challenge of trying to understand is important. Whether I’m successful or not is another matter. A lot of the time I find myself completely at sea. Some artists provide manuals to help decode their work, which is interesting. But more often than not you look at an object and it always refers to something which is out there, which you need to decode through the presentation within a certain space. I’m interested in things that move into the area of the imagination as well. They propose something completely imaginary or they propose a lie so that it confronts a certain truth within that work, breaks into that truth. That truth is not singular, it can be multiple, so what is a lie and what is real becomes contestable. That is what we are trying to achieve through this Biennale as well.
The spaces that the works will now be occupying have a history of two previous editions…
It’s a constant conversation between what has happened and what will happen. So even within that short history, you’re creating conversations. Can you change it? Can you just go along with what worked well? How do you create those narratives? What comes after what? Then there are practical problems. If someone is going to watch a video for one hour, is this space comfortable for him or her? If we have to place a sofa, what does the sofa look like as opposed to a bench? All of these conversations are part of that narrative.
Your generation of artists grew up without a market. And now, we see the creation of so much art that cannot be sold, the ephemeral nature of projects is becoming more common. Perhaps it’s a return, a re-recognition of the fact that the market is not reliable…
Even before my generation, when I came out of school, there were maybe 50 artists who were selling and could have shows. And we had no space. Look at the amount of residencies now in India. And Khoj was one of the first and also instrumental in creating that space outside of the market system.
We have to see where it goes. Artists and their practices are so diverse that I often wonder how curators bring it together. How do you make sense of all this art Hanna Tuulikki comes from Scotland and works with Scottish folklore that I know nothing about. But a proposal is made that allows me some kind of entry into that world, and that’s enough for me to assimilate it within a certain complex structure that may be defined through the time of the Biennale.
My attempt, from the beginning, was to see if one could sidestep that image of a curator who is a creator of culture and knowledge. The curatorial theme then emerges from within the practices that I encounter. That is why this biennale may appear to be very diverse in voices and disciplines and mediums. I’m constantly trying to think about the relationship between various practices. And I find myself surprised by the connections.
When you look at fundamental education in the arts, whether it’s at school or college, there is still a lack of access to resources.
It’s a much larger problem then just art schools. We have to look at not just art education but education, period. There are a lot of gaps that need to be filled. I don’t even know where to begin in terms of our art schools right now. Partly us artists are to blame because we’ve been looking at the West for so long. It’s time for us to rediscover our own ways of deciphering the world.
When we were students we were lucky that Akbar Padamsee would come and visit us sometimes. He was already very established by then. I remember him introducing us to the history of cinema. He came with his own projector and spools of film to show us Eisenstein. We’d watch Battleship Potemkin and for the rest of the afternoon he would take us through it and discuss every shot. That was a complete eye-opener.
We had a teacher who introduced us to North Indian classical music. And this was apart from the curriculum. A broad education is so important and it could only happen in art school, where we were encouraged to explore multiplicity in the company of like-minded and engaged people.
This interview was published in the Oct-Dec 2016 issue of The Indian Quarterly.