Sunday, July 15, 2007 : India through unblinking eyes

As much a political-science lesson as an art show, Hungry God squarely confronts the issues of the subcontinent

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

July 11, 2007

The current exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Hungry God: Indian Contemporary Art, is a success, though a diminutive one.

Excerpted from the much larger exhibition that opened last year in Beijing, the touring exhibition was whittled to its current state (just five of the originally 12 artists) by AGO head of programming Bruce Ferguson.

On the whole, it appears he has wielded his penknife masterfully, striking from the Toronto show some of the work that looks from the catalogue to be weaker and less resolved. What we get is the core, and it has real resonance for Canadian viewers who share India's post-colonial legacy, with the attendant discontinuities of privilege that arise from it. This exhibition directs your attention squarely at the social conditions of the subcontinent, and as a critic evaluating it I found I had to keep my wits about me. Is this good art or good political science? Having an interest in both, I found myself vacillating back and forth between two different kinds of satisfaction.

The standout work in the show, quite literally, is Jitish Kallat's 422-centimetre-high black lead sculpture of a boy holding an armload of hardcover books. Instead of shoes, his feet originate in crude shed-like structures, which seem to root him to the ground. Kallat has said the image is drawn from the street life of Mumbai, where the artist lives. There, young street children can be found peddling books in the midst of blistering afternoon traffic jams, often quoting verbatim learned quotations about the novels as they make their sales pitch. The irony, of course, is that almost all impoverished Indian children are deprived access to education. In this work, Kallat gives them their books, and a full belly too; The boy's soft flesh swells above the waistband of his track shorts. This is a monument to the possible.

In Kallat's other work in this show, titled Death of Distance (2006), the artist turns an analytical eye on the economic system underpinning these social inequities. A giant rupee coin, cast in lead, stands upright, the size of a man. On the wall behind it, lenticular panels tell two tales; the first, the death of a 12-year-old Calcutta school girl who committed suicide when her mother denied her one rupee's worth of food (valued at about two cents); the other, a news report about the launch of the One India plan, providing further benefit to the already privileged users of cellphones in India.

Starting last year, users can place calls anywhere on the subcontinent for just one rupee a minute. With the increased volume of calls, the telephone company has become even wealthier, while normal citizens, like the mother in Calcutta, are left behind in the dust. I can't say this is a particularly gratifying work of art from an aesthetic standpoint, but, coupled with the other work by this artist here, it left a strong impression.

Of the artists in Hungry God, Subodh Gupta is the best known on the international stage, known largely for his compilations of shiny stainless-steel cookware, which he displays sometimes in piles and sometimes on racks. This show includes one such work, Curry (2005), an orderly inventory, one presumes, of the vessels required in the making of this famous traditional dish. In contrast to a typical home, with its funky, cobbled-together domestic accessories, Gupta's display conjures the institutional sterility of the hospital or restaurant kitchen, evoking an urban rather than a rural space.

Here, Gupta appears to reflect on the new twin gods of Indian society, commerce and consumerism, paying homage to their powers to seduce. His large painting, installed nearby (from his series Idol Thief), presents a slightly blurred field of vision; a pile of pots and pans seen in extreme close-up. As viewers, we can't stand back to take the measure of where we are; instead, we are mesmerized by the lustrous surfaces and their dazzling newness. Decorative, highly coloured or shiny surface treatments have always been a feature of sacred Indian art. Gupta similarly relies upon the visual allure of these objects to fix our attention on his society's current obsessions.

Tallur L.N. is also showing work the brings old and new worlds into collision. Harvesting abandoned wooden religious carvings that he finds in his native coastal region of Karnataka, he retools them as contemporary artworks. In one, a crudely carved wooden tiger appears on a cart above a stack of Indian daily newspapers, making (to my eye) a rather pedestrian point about our collective indoctrination by the media.

His other sculpture in this show is more successful. A roughly carved human figure, barely discernible from all the insect damage and ravages of weather, appears in a silver gilded palanquin fitted out with black velvet cushions, as if prepared for a holy procession.

Around its abdomen, the artist has placed a shiny bronze girdle, a startlingly new contrast to the degraded wooden carving. These are presumably intended as acts of restoration and re-imagination, but with their jokey titles (this one is called Bulimia - God knows why), I was inclined to see them as sight gags.

My favourite pieces in the show, though, are Bharti Kher's dizzying large-panel works arrayed with bindi dots, which she applies to the surface in surging, swirling patterns. Traditionally, the bindi was applied to the skin of women's foreheads using fresh ground pigments; the resulting mark designated a woman's caste and marital status.

Today, its traditional significance has been diluted to the point where it has become a fashion accessory. Bindis are now available commercially in the peel-and-stick format Kher uses to make her art.

In these multipanel works, she seems to unleash them in a flood that overflows the strictures of hierarchy and decorum. The dots and multicolored and many-sized, suggesting a maverick multiplicity.

Most bindis are round, but these days even these ancient modes are up for revision. One panel, from her triptych Itch, Scratch and Raw (2006), is covered with bindis in the unmistakable shape of human sperm. As a design for female adornment, it is more than a little surprising in this still restrictive society, but Kher jumps on it. Appropriating this male fertility symbol, she makes of it a churning sea. Nature and culture collide in a free-for-all. A new world is in gestation.

Hungry God continues until Oct. 7 at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto

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