We are in a café on the Grand Canal in Venice, not far from St Mark’s Square and just opposite the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. British artist Marc Quinn’s gigantic lavender nude sculpture of an armless Alison Lapper Pregnant, with a crew cut and stunted legs, looms menacingly large. An earlier version of this sculpture, perched for two years on the fourth plinth of Trafalgar Square in London, was made of Carrara marble and weighed several tonnes.
The new one, an inflatable called Breath, is over 12 metres high and almost obscures the façade of the imposing San Giorgio Maggiore Church. Intermittently, it goes pouf and collapses into an ugly little puddle of whatever inflatables are made of—only to rise again, like a hyperactive phoenix. Inflatables are sometimes made of the material used for making parachutes, and a thought crossed my mind: is this an example of parachute art, of a forced landing on this city of islands boasting exquisite Renaissance architecture and art? The legendary Andrea Palladio who designed the San Giorgio Maggiore and much of the ecclesiastic architecture in Venice must be rolling in his grave.
Many in Venice are not amused, especially this impossibly beautiful city’s mayor, Giorgio Orsini, who described Breath as “inappropriate” because the sculpture performs (yes, that is what it does really) next to a house of worship. But as my Venetian friend, who dabbles in the world of art and design, explains, the thrust of the 55th Venice Biennale (June 1–November 24) is towards a hard-nosed breakaway from 20th-century art.
Massimiliano Gioni, the 40-year-old curator of the current Biennale, is trying to showcase post-millennial art and is pushing the envelope when it comes to cutting-edge work. Art critic Jackie Wullschlager describes various aspects of Gioni’s mission succinctly in an article in the Financial Times: “One is the search for the Picasso of the Facebook generation, a cubism of cyberspace—for artists who utilise and explain the seismic cultural changes engineered by the Internet and social media.”
My Venetian friend, who inexplicably wants to remain anonymous and is no stranger to India, throws a gauntlet at me. Angola, debuting at Venice this year, won its top prize, the Golden Lion, which is like an Oscar in the world of art. Where, he asks, is India? Indeed. India, a country of over a billion people and an army of globe-trotting, lionised-at-home artists, is missing in action, while Angola, a country of barely 20 million and a turbulent birth and recent history, walks away with the honours.
Something is rotten in the state of . . . contemporary Indian art. Why couldn’t our mandarin bureaucrats put together an India pavilion? There are national pavilions from 88 countries, including several which are debuting this time. Apart from Angola, there is Tuvalu, one of the smallest and most remote island countries, located in the South Pacific Ocean. Bahamas, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Ivory Coast, Kuwait, Lebanon, Kosovo, Maldives, Paraguay—a few of which have fairly impressive pavilions—are participating in the Venice Biennale for the first time. And, yes, the Holy See (Vatican City) has also entered the picture this year with a pavilion inspired by the biblical narratives in the Book of Genesis.
This is Bangladesh’s second turn at Venice and its pavilion did not go unnoticed. The Samdani Art Foundation, which hosted Dhaka’s first art summit last year, gave a dinner party in Venice this year which had many boldfaced names of the international art world on its guest list, including Alain Seban, president of the Centre Pompidou. Invited as well were Lakshmi and Usha Mittal from London, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan bin Khalifa Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi, art collectors and patrons Feroze Gujral and Sunita and Vijay Choraria as well as gallerists from India: Peter Nagy, Amrita and Priya Jhaveri, Aparajita Jain and Sunitha Kumra Emmart.
Rajeeb and Nadia Samdani’s soirée had a purpose: they were making known their support of the Bangladesh pavilion through their funding of an art project. They also wanted to spread the word that their foundation was funding the second Dhaka Art Summit next year.
Fortunately, Indian artists are not quite homeless in Venice. Other national pavilions had adopted them in their quest to transcend boundaries and be more cosmopolitan. Germany, with its crowd-pulling but tepid installation Bang composed of nearly 900 wooden stools by Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, also had Dayanita Singh’s poignant book File Room, her “elegy” to paper which she displayed as art. Projected as well was Mona and Myself—images of her friend and eunuch, Mona Ahmed.
Glass Stress: White Light/White Heat, a fascinating exhibition of glass sculptures organised by Venice Projects in different locations of the city, includes the work of Sudershan Shetty and New York-based Rina Banerjee. While Shetty’s witty play with glass is on view on the fabled island of glass-blowers, Murano, Banerjee’s imposing installation is in the Veneto Institute of Science, Letters and Arts. Samar Singh Jodha’s impressive photographic installation Outpost is being shown at the old Arsenale Nord, the former armoury of the Dukes of Venice.
The discovery of Venice for me is the
exquisite and subliminal work of Bangalore-based Prabhavathi Meppayil, whose work was picked for the main exhibition at the Arsenale. (The Venice Biennale has two formal venues: the Giardini, a park where the national pavilions are located, and the Arsenale, a complex urban estate which has many of the younger artists.) Meppayil comes from a family of goldsmiths, and she has imaginatively used the traditional techniques of her ancestors to incorporate copper wire and other metallic strands into lime gesso.
So, finally, Indians are not missing in action, even if India is. Actually, there was a laurel that did come our way—but only partially, barely a half measure. There are two Golden Lions: one for a national pavilion, the other for an individual artist. This year it went to Tino Sehgal for his eloquent performance piece in which a few people take turns to hum and beatbox (vocal percussion and musical sounds produced by using the mouth, lips and tongue) while slowly moving on the floor. I almost walked past them while looking for Sehgal’s work: I thought they were visitors relaxing. But once I stopped and watched, it was mesmerising.
Nobody here, not even my Venetian friend, is aware of the fact that Tino Sehgal is part Indian; he is always described as British-born even though his father is Indian and mother German, and he is based in Berlin. The artist’s star is on the ascendant. He has been nominated for this year’s Turner Prize for his performance at Documenta in Kassel, Germany, and for his piece in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern last summer. For the latter, his performers told “intimate stories” to visitors, something similar to what he did at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
Watch out, Mr Anish Kapoor. You have company.