"Indian Highway"

Bharti Kher's The Nemesis of Nations at the Serpentine.

by Charles Darwent
The Independent, December 2008

This Westernised view of the subcontinent's contemporary work does a disservice to artists and visitors alike

You might think that squeezing a show which purports to represent the art of a nation of 1.2 billion people into a single gallery would be a difficult thing to do, the more so when that gallery is the Serpentine and thus on the small side.

And you would be right. The curators of Indian Highway (Serpentine Galley, December 2008 - February 2009) point out that India is not just a big place but a complex one, and that the art being made there reflects these truths in addressing "environmentalism, sectarianism, globalisation, gender, post-colonialism, sexuality and class". So how do you shoehorn all of that into half a dozen not very big London rooms?

The answer, if you are wise, is that you don't. Indian Highway makes a link between the subcontinent's road system and its recent harnessing of the information superhighway, although I'm not sure the point of this is really understood. What that link suggests – and this suggestion is the subject of much of the work in the show – is that India, since time immemorial, has had systems of order imposed upon it: Moghul roads, Raj railways, Athenian democracy, the virtual protocols of global computing. And through all this, India has remained heroically chaotic, a place whose essence defies logic, whose philosophy and daily life subsist on a different truth.

To edit the entirety of India's contemporary art down to 20 or so practitioners is to fall into the trap of imposing order on a thing that will just not have order imposed upon it. The result is that we come away from the Serpentine with the idea that Indian art is a pallid form of Western art, albeit with a mild curry flavour – a view so exquisitely patronising as to make you wince. If, after 61 years of independence, India's artists are still preoccupied with colonial attitudes, then Indian Highway explains why.

Maybe it's a market thing. Unless you are a specialist, it is unlikely you will have heard of many of the artists in this show. This makes the labels attached to their work something of a surprise: Subodh Gupta is represented by Hauser & Wirth, Dayanita Singh by the Frith Street Gallery and Amar Kanwar by Marian Goodman in Paris. Hauser & Wirth also represents Martin Creed and Louise Bourgeois, of whom you certainly will have heard; the gallery is known for just such high-end, ideas-driven art as theirs. So where does an artist like Gupta fit in?

Date by date (detail), 2008, Installation,
Dimensions variable, 'Indian Highway',
Serpentine Gallery, London, 2008. Photo:
Hugo Glendinning

His work typically homes in on the creaking join between East and West as instanced by Ambassador taxis and airport carousels laden with cardboard luggage. Gupta's piece for this show, called Date by Date, re-creates the kind of bureaucrat's office you can find anywhere in India, furnished with battered deal desks and manual typewriters and awash with manila files. The installation's centrepiece is a breakfront cabinet so crammed with these last that it has had to be bound in a tight steel cage. It all looks quite logical until you realise it isn't.

As with the work of many young British or German or American artists, there is a whiff in the air of Beuys, the constructing of an order whose sole perverse point is its orderliness. What makes Date by Date different from these other works is its national specificity: this is Indian art because its subject and materials are Indian. Likewise, Bose Krishnamachari's Ghost/Transmemoir differs from all the other screen-of-talking-monitor installations you'll have seen, in that its screens are held in used tiffin tins, hang from hemp rope and speak Hindi.

Ghost / Transmemoir, Bose Krishnamachari. mixed media
installation, 'Indian Highway', Serpentine Gallery, London, 2008.
Photo: Andrew Jaffe

So what is my problem with all this? It is that much of the work in this show isn't very good, but has been included anyway because it looks Indian – or, rather, Indian enough. The one artist who really impressed me was Bharti Kher, whose cut-paper wall piece, The Nemesis of Nations, has no obvious national identity at all. What it is, though, is a highly original and visually compelling work – a bit of formalist madness, as though Jim Lambie had gone in for spot-painting.

For the rest, you get the sense of this show's curators sitting down to decide what "Indian" was most likely to mean to a Western audience and tailoring their choices accordingly. The result is that Indian Highway feels condescending, both to that Western audience and to the artists in the show. I'm sure there is a great deal of good art being made in India today, and equally sure that it is not to be seen here.

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