Exit Through the Gift Shop

Graffiti deity ... Banksy

This teasing faux documentary about Banksy and his fellow street artists is priceless – and hilarious.

by Peter Bradshaw
from The Guardian

He is Britain's newest national treasure: but he presumably won't be accepting a TV viewers' award from Ant and Dec any time soon, or making libertarian interventions in the smoking debate, or writing an annual Christmas Diary for the London Review of Books or posing alongside his mum with his CBE outside Buckingham Palace in his grey topper and chimp mask. Perhaps his mum would have to wear a chimp mask as well. Street artist, situationist and public-space japester Banksy is famed for his snogging coppers, simpering apes and for debunking Israel's new West Bank barrier with graffiti. Now he takes his career of radical cheek into the cinema with a wacky new "documentary", being shown this week in the director's own pop-up cinema in an underpass in London's Waterloo before moving on to more conventional locations.

Like many of his graffitoed images, it's a kind of cinematic trompe l'oeil. There have been notable hoax-oriented films in the recent past: such as The Blair Witch Project, Borat and the complete works of Lars von Trier. Exit Through the Gift Shop is in this genial tradition. Orson Welles made F for Fake; Banksy has made W for Windup. As a documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop is as about as reliable and structurally sound as that house-front with the strategically placed window that falls on top of Buster Keaton. As entertainment, though, it works very well.

Introducing it at the Berlin film festival last month – he appeared on video with his face in darkness – the artist himself cheerfully declared he hoped that it would do for street art what The Karate Kid did for martial arts. Like karate, street art is more difficult than it looks, particularly the trick of making a living from it, maintaining a combat-ready crew of studio assistants, and all the time persuading an ever-widening circle of professional acquaintance to keep the secret of your anonymity.

What the film does, or purports to do, is take a sideways look at Banksy and the new explosion of street artists, particularly in Los Angeles. The practitioners, at the outset of their careers at least, were unpaid graffiti-outlaws, pulling off daring and often dangerous visual stunts for the sheer hell of it: people like Shepard Fairey, who incessantly replicated his Andre the Giant image on the sides of buildings, a fat staring man over the single word "Obey". Fairey became conventionally celebrated for his Barack Obama Hope poster.

At the centre of the film is the apparent friendship between Banksy and one of his biggest fans, one Thierry Guetta, an LA-based Frenchman with a lucrative retro clothing business and a passion for making videos. Guetta got fascinated in the LA street art scene, followed the artists around and shot miles of unusable video in the hope of making a documentary. Eventually he seems to have made the acquaintance of Banksy himself, filming his "Guantánamo" stunt in the precincts of Disneyland: propping up an orange-jumpsuited life-sized doll near a ride.

With pixelated tongue in blanked-out cheek, Banksy claims that he persuaded Guetta not to make his own film, but to be the star of this one, and then to be an artist himself. In no time, Guetta is somehow producing hundreds of suspiciously accomplished Warhol-Banksy pop art-style knockoffs for a colossal Los Angeles show under his new street-art name "Mr Brainwash". Well, Thierry Guetta may well exist – but at the mention of his Mr Brainwash output, you may feel a strange tugging sensation on your leg. This could be the most startling debutant in the art scene since novelist William Boyd told us all about the neglected genius Nat Tate – but Mr Brainwash's works are available for purchase, which is more than I can say for Nat Tate.

You're under no compunction to take the film seriously: but it does offer an insight, of a teasingly incomplete and semi-fictionalised sort, into Banksy's working life. We see his helpers carry away a London telephone box, take it to pieces in his workshop, replace the wackily twisted result in its original position and film the response from passersby. Nobody scratches their head or strokes their chin and wonders if it is "art" or if its creator might have "sold out". They just laugh their heads off. They enjoy it: it is absolutely hilarious and this, to my perhaps naive and untutored eye, is the most compelling argument in favour of Banksy and in favour of this chaotic film.

The same goes for Banksy's Diana tenners: he shows a cardboard box full of real-looking £10 notes with Princess Diana's face on instead of the Queen's. These things could get him arrested for forgery. Like Mr Brainwash, they are inspired counterfeits. Perhaps the point of Banksy's art is that it inhales the wild spirit of forgery: his work makes free with brand identities and the symbols of authority, it replicates them, debunks and devalues them, it is a form of benign subversion. And he could be an important artist or just a silly fad – either way, in the street and with this film, he's providing pleasure while he lasts.

Art-fair musical chairs

Field, by Ai Weiwei. Ming Dynasty-
patterned Chinese ceramic structure
in front of Art 41 Basel’s entrance
(courtesy of Art Observed).

From The Economist

Global frameworks

Contemporary art is a futures market in which “derivative” is a bad word. Art Basel, which ended on June 20th, heard a lot of phrases adapted from the financial markets. To be a good bet against near-zero interest rates and unpredictable currency fluctuations, art needs the potential of a global market. Thus, “local artist” has become a synonym for insignificant artist and “national” damns with faint praise. “International” is now a selling point in itself.

Aided by banks and royalty, international art fairs are spreading belief in contemporary art. UBS sponsors Art Basel and its sister fair, Art Basel Miami Beach; Deutsche Bank subsidises London’s Frieze Fair and the Hong Kong International Art Fair. In the Middle East, local rulers are patrons of Art Dubai and Abu Dhabi Art.

Art fairs accelerate the transnational exposure of artists and Art Basel is the unrivalled leader in this, partly because it has always defined itself as international. This year, its 41st, the fair featured 300 galleries from 37 countries. Careful curation is required for this global mix to be properly diverse. As Lucy Mitchell-Innes of Mitchell-Innes & Nash, a New York gallery, warns: “It’s a problem if four or five booths have the same artist’s work. A good international fair wants Chinese galleries to bring talented Chinese artists, not another Antony Gormley.”

There are many components to the globalisation of art. Marc Spiegler and Annette Schönholzer, co-directors of Art Basel, suggest that private collections internationalise in the process of becoming more serious. “Collectors often start by acquiring art from their own nation, then their own region, then finally internationally,” explains Mr Spiegler.

The hierarchy of fairs is different from the auction market. The top three cities for auctions are New York, London and Hong Kong, in that order. But the hierarchy of fairs is in dispute. Everyone agrees that Basel comes first, but it is unclear which comes next: Miami or London. Or if New York, with the Armory Show and Art Dealers Association of America show, or Paris with FIAC, is third. The situation in the lower tiers is even more volatile. Madrid’s ARCO fair used to be the most important fair for South and Latin American galleries but it has been usurped by Miami. Now ARCO is perceived as an afternoon of cultural exposure for Spanish punters rather than a pressing business occasion.

Two newcomers are shaking things up. The Hong Kong International Art Fair, which took place at the end of May, boasted 155 galleries from 29 countries. Hong Kong is the financial and geographical centre of Asia, a transport hub where people from West and East feel equally at home, and there are no duties on art. Lehmann Maupin, a New York gallery, was one of many delighted with the results. As the primary dealer on a range of Asian artists including Do Ho Suh, a well-known South Korean, Lehmann Maupin’s inventory proved attractive to the pan-Asian audience that had flown into town.

The other fair that is the subject of much discussion is Abu Dhabi Art. Last November it welcomed 50 galleries from 19 countries as a first move towards interesting visitors in a vast museum building project that will see its first openings in 2013. David Zwirner Gallery was convinced to participate in the next edition of the fair by Richard Armstrong, director of the Guggenheim Museum. As Mr Zwirner explained, “The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will open soon, so it has to get cracking with its acquisition programme. The fair is therefore a key venue. My business model relies on museums educating the public.”

The globalisation of art is not all about money. A growing number of not-for- profit biennials are being developed alongside the market structures. Massimiliano Gioni, a curator based in Milan and New York, who is overseeing the Gwangju biennial, which opens in South Korea in September, recalls that the avant-garde was “built on a transnational community of kindred spirits,” adding, “sometimes I long for that.” Art has often aspired to universal values. Perhaps it is finally in a position to have them.

Global Art at the Margins of Empire

by Bhaskar Mukhopadhyay

For an alternative artistic approach between an ephemeral global village and a reactionary appeal to tradition.

The emergence of art as a global institution (backed by a global art market) as one of the consequences of the process of financialisation, is an epochal event of our times that has rarely been commented upon. Commentators on New Capitalism have waxed eloquently about ‘informatization’ and ‘dematerialisation’ and, about the ability of capital to valorise processes and objects which were outside the erstwhile value circuit (affect and art are two prime examples) and to invent new, intangible, objects (e.g., financial derivatives), but what remain unsaid in that account is the fantastic concordance of artistic flows with financial flows leading to a certain Saatchification of contemporary art. In the mid-90s, Thierry de Duve wrote about an epochal transition – from Modernism to Postmodernism – premised upon art’s becoming a wholly self-referential category defined entirely by circulation rather than by some extrinsic criterion (beauty or truth). While the tendency towards dematerialisation has been exacerbated in the subsequent innovation of ‘Conceptual Art’ followed by more ‘ephemeral’ forms of non-representational art, a parallel process in geopolitics culminated in art’s globalisation or biennialisation which would remove the last vestige of art’s anchorage in specific places and times. Despite Clement Greenberg’s expansive claim about art as such (art did not go global until the late twentieth century) around the middle of the last century, think how localised was the context of his pronouncements – determined largely by his own location within the US ‘culture industry’ and the Cold War ideology which shaped it. And when you contrast him with comparable figures of today who can make claims on behalf art as such (rather than this or that – American or Japanese – art) – say, someone like Nicolas Bourriaud or any other curator/theorist of stature who shuttles across the globe with the ease of a business traveller and negotiates with non-western or even ‘tribal’ artists with a flourish, it becomes quite clear that the law of general equivalence (which is not the same thing as homogenisation) has permeated what can be called The Global ArtWorld Inc. Art’s de- and reterritorialisation in recent decades calls for a radical departure from theories (Bloch or Adorno) which valorized artwork’s transcendent qualities.

In our radically delocalized world, upholding the claims of a tradition is bound to sound hypocritical and reactionary. In the context of the ongoing Tate Triennial, Bourriaud (the curator) has rightly asserted that Postmodernism, which was obsessed with the idea of an indentifiable origin and tradition, is no longer relevant for the world we inhabit. The state of the artistic world today is such that one has to, of necessity, start from “a globalized state of culture – [the artists] not anymore working as logotypes of their own culture, or their own tradition. The question is not anymore where you are coming from but where you are going to?”

Yet, no one, except a miniscule and privileged minority of jet-set globetrotters, actually lives in the famed global village – it is counterintuitive. While lived places are pulverised and undercut by centripetal global forces, there can be no denial that groups to benefit from this mobility are usually the privileged ones – it is the powerless underdogs whose fate is to remain localized. In fact, the same forces that engender mobility and movement also create enclaves, ghettoes and camps where the ‘dangerous’ populations are confined, trapped and un-homed. Glocal art does not espouse a certain fetishism of place, instead it destabilizes the very fixity of place by asking: who makes places out of spaces? What are the stakes in this? What is the politics of place today? And it is precisely in these ‘zones of exception’ – refugee camps, borders, ghettoes of illegal immigrants, depraved slums, zones crisscrossed by petty smugglers who cross borders regularly for making a living and other ‘dangerous’ subaltern population groups who are being deprived of their mobility and livelihood and are being steadily localized by the operation of the global surveillance machinery – that the politics of place manifests itself. These places have nothing to do with the sense of sheltering autochthony associated with the erstwhile idea of place.

EmFacing the Defaced: The Art of Portrait in the Era of Displacement

Paradoxically, some of the most prosperous zones of the globe have enclaves teeming with the disenfranchised. Squeaky clean Singapore happens to be one of the wealthiest states of Asia (in terms of per capita income) but its red-light district, Gaylang, has a large population of immigrant, illegal sex-workers from China, Vietnam, Indonesia, India, Thailand and Malaysia. Many of them are not even professional sex-workers: they are housewives, daughters, young factory workers and college students from the large Asian hinterland where the operations of a globalised, ‘disorganised’ capitalism in recent times have brutalised, ravaged and disoriented traditional life-style and patterns of expectations. They all worship the mighty Singapore Dollar and cross borders to make some fast buck. The heat of poverty and the dust of dispossession have driven them to such extreme alienation that traditional notions of honour, shame, wellbeing – have all been forgotten. Theorists of ‘affective labour’ do not adequately recognise the degree of dispossession and degradation entailed in sex-work in the squalor and brutality of the Asian sex-industry. Joan Marie Kelly, an American painter who teaches drawing and painting at the Nanyang Technological University (Singapore), was shocked to find out that painting these sex-workers was not easy. The resistance came from the sex-workers themselves who felt inadequate and were reluctant to be represented: they felt that they are merely part of some anonymous and commoditized ‘flesh’!

In this era of ‘conceptual art’ and ‘performance art’ when painting has almost been relegated to limbo, experimenting with portrait painting would appear to be anachronistic. The end of art-as-we-knew-it is a logical outcome of the exhaustion of the classical (post-Renaissance) problematic of representation whose aim was verisimilitude. The advent of photography and cinema in early twentieth century not only made painting, (qua representation) somewhat superfluous but also gave rise to a certain reflexivity which, instead of thinking of painting as a window to the world, began experimenting with the materiality of the surface of the canvas, with the nature of colour and lines — without any reference to the ‘world’. Around mid-twentieth century, this tendency exhausted itself, culminating in high abstraction, ‘ready-mades’ and minimalism.

The wheel has come in full circle and today artists are asking, once again, with Nicholas Bourriaud, whether, through art, “it [is] still possible to generate relationships with the world” in a way that would circumvent the problematic of ‘representation’. Joan Kelly is a self-conscious practitioner of ‘relational aesthetics’ (an art taking as its theoretical horizon the realm of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space). She looks at portraiture more as an ethnographic encounter rather than a mimetic activity: the purpose is not simply to paint a face but to generate an encounter between the artist and the social milieu of the subject to be painted. The idea is to use portraiture as a form of ‘conceptual art’ in order to engage with marginal communities in different parts of the world – illegal sex-workers in South and South East Asia, the unemployed and the homeless in the US, the refugees and the immigrants in Europe, factory workers in China who lost their limbs in accidents and were thrown out of their jobs — living on the margins of society. As is well known, the purpose of traditional portrait is to re-present a person’s inner persona. Kelly’s portraits, far from wanting to capture a subject’s expression, seek to valorise the process of interaction itself (between the artist, the model and his/her milieu) and the resultant portraits are the material remains, or witnesses – to this inter-subjective exchange and the resultant establishment/reinforcement of sociality.

The face is what represents the person. To be human is to have a face. To be a person, to be acknowledged as a person, means to be acknowledged through one’s face. It is not possible to contemplate a relationship of love, hatred or friendship with a faceless person. Human beings without faces are not quite humans. And yet, social marginality – professional sex-work and the kind of affective labour it entails – is precisely a way of rendering the sex-worker faceless. To concentrate on the face of a sex-worker is thus to redeem his/her humanity on the face of a ‘reality’ which seeks to reduce him/her to mere flesh. Kelly’s invocation of Levinas’ ideas on ‘the face of the other’ (he wrote about the ‘defenseless nudity’ of the face of the other – the ‘widow, orphan or stranger’) — is significant. According to Levinas, in the human face is found the original ethical code. From a look into the face of the Other we become aware of basic human responsibility and meaning. To emface the faceless through artistic encounter (Kelly attracts crowds of onlookers whenever she paints the sex-workers in public) is thus to restore the human in the dispossessed other.

Lipstick Zihad and the Sex of Things

By now it is widely acknowledged that the commodity is ontologically heterogeneous: it does not mean the same thing everywhere. Mia Jafari is a British-Iranian artiste who has been drawn to Iranian public commodity culture and her artistic work (textiles and photomontages made from staged photographs taken in Iran) on Iranian women’s engagement with mundane, mass-produced western consumer goods deserves critical interrogation as glocal art. Iran is one of those few places in the world where a self-conscious anti-globalization, anti-consumerist agenda permeates the state ideology and public culture. Predictably, most Iranian art (diasporic art included) today is undergirded by a certain artistic angst about the illiberalism of the Islamic regime.

As is well-known, the Islamic regime of Iran is critical of consumerism and for some strange reason consumerism is viewed as ‘western’ (while the crassest of the consumerist dystopias are located in the Middle East and South East Asia). While it would be difficult to brand Jafari’s work either as pro- or anti-consumption, what is clear is that a certain irony about the semiotic status of mass-consumer goods in Iranian feminine imaginary is pervasive in the textiles she makes. The subtle perversity of the façade of a washing-machine made from shiny, shocking-pink rough fabric (with a golden door and instructions written in Persian) arises out of a shrewd play with the politics of gender in contemporary Iran. The transposition from cold, smooth white metal to warm but rough pink not just feminizes this mundane gadget but also seeks to characterise the defiance of young Iranian women whose affiliation with visible markers of westernisation (loud make-up, flashy clothes, shiny trinkets, high heels etc.) shocks the conservative public. It is chic, wry and simultaneously disturbing and attractive.

Jafari’s photomontages depict staged scenarios of semi-veiled young Iranian women in colourful clothes playing with replicas of various mundane gadgets. What gives these scenes a certain dream-like quality is the background: a derelict but rugged and picturesque landscape (rural, sparsely inhabited areas outside of Tehran) reminiscent of absence, emptiness and aporia. It is in this utopic non-place that the romance of young Iranian women with western gadgets unfolds.

Jafari’s Iranian works compels us to rethink not just Islam but also the ontology of commodity. The received binary of use- vs. exchange value is of little use in making sense of Islamic feminine engagement with consumption. The thrust of feminine consumption is on mass-produced mundane gadgets of quotidian use (the regime disapproves of ‘conspicuous consumption’ – western cosmetics, for example) whose semioticity is nearly zero because these are use-values – utilities. Yet, as modest and non-spectacular metonyms of the western commodity imaginary, these do not remain mere passive things. It would not occur to anybody here in England, for example, to ask: what does a washing-machine mean? Our quotidian familiarity with household gadgets has rendered them banal: a washing-machine or a refrigerator does things for us (washing and cooling, respectively) – these have no meaning beyond their functionality. The ontological precariousness of the branded washing-machine in Iranian feminine imaginary arises out of the fact that its semioticity surpasses its functionality. Their artistic re-presentation in Jafari’s art-works becomes doubly enigmatic when she characterises her own work as ‘kitsch’! In sum, her work on commodities in other places makes us rethink not just the problem of alterity but of our engagement with things as such.

Glocal art at the margins of empire is not about the ethnographer or the activist taking over the artist. These artists claim no ‘authenticity’, nor do they have any hang-ups about ‘tradition’. They are plain outsiders in the terrains where they work. But in important ways their engagement with life-worlds embedded in specific places – passages of coming and going, territories deterritorialised by the violence of states and wars – marks a clear departure from a line of thinking that would attribute an unthinking homogeneity to art practices. The global/local binary, conceived under the Enlightenment episteme which opposes universality to autochthony, is no longer adequate for articulating the planetary experience of unhomliness: our world is no longer double, it is many.

This article originally appeared in European Alternatives.

A father of modern photography

At a transit camp for displaced persons, a woman who had been
an informer for the Gestapo is denounced.

"Of all forms of art expression, photography is the only one which seizes the instant in its flight. We look for the evanescent, the irreplaceable; this is our constant concern, and therefore one of the characteristics of our craft...In what we see and reveal to others we are witnesses of the world around it."

Henri Cartier-Bresson

“To photograph is to place in the same line of sight the head, the eye and the heart."

Henri Cartier-Bresson

ALL IT takes to be a photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson once said, is “one finger, one eye and two legs”. He visualised photography as a way of engaging with the world. He quietly stalked his subjects—Balinese dancers, Mongolian wrestlers, New York bankers—until that “decisive moment” when the right composition filled the frame. It all came so naturally. He rarely used a light meter or checked his aperture setting, and he seldom took more than a few shots of a single subject. With the instinct of a hunter, he knew when to click the shutter: “I prowled the streets all day, feeling very strung-up and ready to pounce, determined to ‘trap’ life—to preserve life in the act of living.”

Born in 1908 in Paris, the eldest son of wealthy cotton-thread manufacturers, Cartier-Bresson had a lusty, rebellious hunger for travel. With a head full of Rimbaud and a copy of “Ulysses” under his arm, he set off for west Africa in search of adventure. (He aspired to be a painter, but Gertrude Stein suggested he drop the brushes.) He bought his first Leica in the Côte d’Ivoire when he was 23. Light and quiet, the camera had just come onto the market, and it was a revelation. It fitted into his pocket, along with a few rolls of film. “Nobody took pictures that were better at exploiting the portability of the camera,” says Peter Galassi, the chief curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where “Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century” is on view.

The show, many years in the making, is drawn primarily from the huge archive of work held by the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation in Paris, founded a year before he died in 2004. From the thousands available, Mr Galassi has selected 300 images from 1929 to 1989, a fifth of which have never been seen publicly before.

As cameras grew smaller and picture magazines bigger, Cartier-Bresson became a globe-trotting hired hand. But though he had a knack for being in the right place at the right time—in India at the time of Gandhi’s assassination, in China during the Cultural Revolution—he did not really have a nose for a good scoop. What he excelled at was seeing things in a different way from most other people.

The visitor is greeted by a wall of four photographs: a crowd of flag-waving, bespectacled Nixon-supporters in Texas in 1960 (the illustration above shows a couple of more sedate fans in Indiana); a cluster of Chinese youth gawking at a television in Beijing in 1958; a mass of French mourners in coats holding hands in 1962; and a group of wizened and rather menacing old men in Sardinia, lounging in straw-like grass, also in 1962. The juxtaposition of these images shows not just Cartier-Bresson’s range but also his gift for group portraits. When snapping a spectacle—a coronation, say, or a parade—he trained his camera on the unsuspecting bystanders.

The show is divided into sections, starting with some of Cartier-Bresson’s most arresting surrealist work from the 1930s, such as a sunbather in Trieste, Italy, whose white body echoes a sliver of white in the grass, and his self-assured prostitutes in Mexico City. Then came the war (he was a prisoner in Germany for three years before escaping) followed by his career as photojournalist and portrait photographer.

There is much to marvel at, such as the pictures of China in 1948, which capture the photographer’s powerful sense of formal composition. Some of the curator’s choices seem a bit odd and the written descriptions, which add little, are occasionally heavy-handed. One section, for instance, is introduced as Cartier-Bresson’s criticism of “American vulgarity, greed and racism”. But the visitor is left with a remarkable chronicle of the transformations of the 20th century—the rise of industrialisation, the fall of colonialism, the spread of commercialism and the grand-scale shift in world order—all captured by a lone man and his camera.

From The Economist

View a slide show of some of the exhibition images here.

End of empire

A Glimpse Of India from Cambridge University on Vimeo.

A collection of almost 300 films which offer a unique glimpse of life in India and other parts of South Asia during the final days of the British Empire has been released online.

The archive, which is owned by Cambridge University's Centre of South Asian Studies, will be available from Thursday (March 4th) from the link here, where users will be able to watch and download the footage for free.

It contains approximately 50 different private collections, all made by people who lived and worked in India and other parts of Asia between 1911 and 1956, just as British rule in the region was coming to a close.

The silent films cover a huge range of topics, including harrowing scenes shot during the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, images of labourers working on railways and dams, and pictures of the funeral of Lord Brabourne, a former Governor of Bombay and Bengal, in 1939.

They also open a window both on to some of the lesser-studied facets of Imperial history, such as women's experiences in colonial India; and aspects which otherwise would simply have gone unrecorded.

Alongside stereotypical images of dignitaries attending official events or spending a day at the races, viewers will be able to watch royal weddings, tribal dances, people working on farms and children playing or going to school.

"It's one thing to get an understanding of a place by reading about it or visiting 60 years later; to be able to see people at the time and watch events such as partition actually taking place before your own eyes is quite another," Dr. Kevin Greenbank, archivist at the Centre of South Asian Studies, said.

"The films are the equivalent of modern-day home videos. This makes the collection particularly valuable because it shows some of the things which aren't recorded in documents or books - like the interactions between people, or the way that the British behaved towards their servants. It's a fascinating resource for analysing how these two societies, British and Indian, worked - or perhaps didn't work - together."

The films were shot on 8mm or 16mm reel and have not been extensively available or used until now. In some cases, they had never been viewed until they were digitised.

They were originally gathered by Mary Thatcher, the Centre's first archivist. In the 1960s, she set about compiling an archive of memoirs of the British in India, while many of those who had witnessed the sun's setting on the Empire were still alive.

After one interviewee offered her a collection of old films which he otherwise planned to burn, Thatcher also began asking for old reels, eventually amassing almost 80 hours of unique moving images from the era.

"Amateur films have only recently become an accepted academic research topic, and material from the colonial age has received less attention than other areas of study," Dr. Annamaria Motrescu, an affiliated scholar at the Centre, who oversaw much of the digitisation project, said.

"Nowadays, home movie-making is an accepted part of many people's lives. For school children, watching home movies from the 1930s in India is an opportunity to see images documenting a time in a different manner than other sources, a historic time that in some cases is still shrouded in stereotypical representations."

Some of the most moving clips appear in two collections which deal with partition. The division of Pakistan from India took place in August 1947 and displaced millions of people. Hundreds of thousands died in widespread violence as Muslims and Hindus both raced to cross the borders and settle among a religious majority.

The archive contains clips taken both from the air and the ground showing trains crammed with emigrants trying to reach safety. Scenes from refugee camps bring home the scale of the tragedy, with pictures of the sick and dying, corpses being pecked at by vultures and the digging of mass graves.

Elsewhere, sequences show the immense scale of engineering works that took place under the Empire. The footage shows huge numbers of Indian labourers working on railways, bridges and dams, some of which were completed in remarkably short spaces of time. In one case, an entire collapsed bridge was rebuilt in between two scheduled services.

Much is revealed about the under-studied lives of women, both British and Indian. "By looking at the way in which British women presented themselves to the camera in these films, we start deciphering things about their experiences," Dr. Motrescu said. "It rapidly becomes clear that often they weren't necessarily enjoying spectacular lives of leisure and wealth. In very short scenes they show us signs of anxiety and boredom."

The Centre of South Asian Studies is now seeking funding to link its film collection and its oral history archive, which contains more than 300 recorded interviews and was released online last year. It is hoped that the two will, in time, be available as a single package that can be used in schools, universities, and by anyone with an interest in film or Imperial history.

Not all bad, some worse than bad

Her Suburban Dream (2009) by Huma Mulji, at the Saatchi Gallery,
London. Photograph: Jonathan Hordle/Rex Features.

by Adrian Searle
The Guardian
2 February 2010

The Empire Strikes Back is a wet punch. One might expect Charles Saatchi to show just the sorts of things that are presented: a stuffed camel in a suitcase, a taxidermied dog morphing with a furry vacuum cleaner, photographs of veiled women whose burkas turn out to be pixelated with tiny porn shots, yet more of Subodh Gupta's over-familiar sculptures made from cooking utensils, a black medical cot piled high with tarry mattresses that breathe wheezily to the power of compressed air. There are painted gags about Jasper Johns, dystopian jokes about technology, including a rattling old Xerox machine with half its gubbins missing, and an army of figures made from old floor lamps, neon tubes, discarded bits of plumbing. I see a GCSE-level art project coming on.

This isn't to say that The Empire Strikes Back is all bad. Some pieces are worse than bad, others just obvious. A speech by Gandhi spelled out in bones adds nothing to any argument. It just took a long time to make. T ­Venkanna's reworked versions of Douanier ­Rousseau are fun and sexy, and so is Chitra Ganesh's cartoon of a liberated Indian ­superwoman. Rashid Rana's pixelated view of an endless sea of rubbish is queasily beautiful, and – best of all – Yamini Nayar's photographs of half-abandoned rooms take us somewhere strange and oddly threatening.

A lot of the work looks exoticised for the gallery, the artists playing up their post-colonial otherness as a gimmick, rather than making art of substance. This exhibition gives us no clearer view of the art of a subcontinent than did a recent Serpentine gallery exhibition (read the review here). There's also no film or video – areas where some of the best work is made.

A view from Europe

Through the peephole: How to approach contemporary art from India as a curator from Europe

A lecture by Dr. Barbara J. Scheuermann, Curator, Museum of Contemporary Art, Berlin.

Tuesday, 2 March, 6.30 pm
CIMA Gallery, Sunny Towers, 43 Ashutosh Chowdhury Avenue
Kolkata 700 019

In this illustrated talk the curator raises questions that sooner or later occur to everyone who deals with transcultural matters in the visual arts: How can one understand culturally defined aspects from a culture one hasn’t grown up in? Is it necessary to gain expertise on a certain world region in order to understand its artists? Or can one just walk over to any country and use the learned criteria and rules to judge art? How much context is necessary to understand an artwork?

The talk will be illustrated with images of the outcome of Barbara J. Scheuerman's ongoing curatorial research trip to centers of contemporary art practice in India.

Barbara J. Scheuermann is a free-lance curator and author based in Berlin, where she also heads a “BABUSCH - Project Space for Art from and about Elsewhere” in Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg. She has previously worked as a curator at TATE MODERN in London, where she was involve din the John Baldessari-retrospektive “Pure Beauty” as well as “Pop Life: Art in a Material World” (both in 2009). her previous positions where at: HAUS DER KUNST in Munich and K21 KUNSTSAMMLUNG NORDRHEIN-WESTFALEN, Düsseldorf. She completed her doctorate in 2005 on narrativity in contemporary art. She has since also been contributing to various art magazines and publications.

Oxford Launches Eastern Art Online

Standing Parvati, Tamil Nadu, mid-10th century AD

From Press Trust of India (PTI)

12th February 2010

For the first time, images of rare objects and artefacts from ancient India and other Asian countries have been made available Online by the Ashmolean Museum at the University of Oxford.

Called Eastern Art Online: Yousef Jameel Centre of Islamic and Asian Art, the centre will provide global access to the university's Islamic and Asian Art collections held at the Ashmolean.

The collections span the Islamic West Asia, the Indian Subcontinent, Southeast Asia, China, Japan and Korea, and comprise a wide range of media, including ceramics, textiles, sculpture, metalwork, paintings, and prints.

The centre will initially focus on the objects and themes featured in the Ashmoleans new galleries for the Islamic and Asian Collections, with over 1,400 of the Museums great treasures of Eastern Art accessible online at launch.

This resource will be an invaluable tool for historians and students for research purposes, for craftsmen and designers seeking inspiration, and for an interested and curious public all over the world.

Mr Yousef Jameel, Hon. LHD, is a Fellow of the Ashmolean Museum. In 2005, he made a substantial benefaction to the Ashmolean to establish the Online Centre for Islamic and Asian Art, as well as the Centre for the Study of Eastern Art.

According to Mr Jameel, “Knowledge should be accessible to everyone, everywhere, at any time. The Online Centre for Islamic and Asian Art will be a major step towards achieving this goal. I envisage the Centre as the hub of a future worldwide network exploring how different cultures learnt from each other and enriched peoples’ lives as a result.”