Khoj, Delhi – Critic in Residence

 

Khoj Artists Association, In Context: Food, Art, Ecology – Food Ed. I, Artists Residency

 

FRAME WORKS RESEARCH AND MEDIA COLLECTIVE, India
Andrea Caretto, Italy
Raffaella Spagna, Italy
Julian Abraham, Indonesia
Shweta Bhattad, India
Alfonso Borragán, Spain

Overview

Khoj International Artists Association, established in the remarkable diasporic community of Khirki Villiage, Delhi, India, has been a seminal contemporary arts institution in India and throughout Asia, birthing mature and structured contemporary arts scene. While Khoj shares the company of other distinguished art institutions in South Asia, I feel that it represents an important point of intersection for contemporary art in Asia. With a Board that includes artists as Subodh Gupta, Bharti Kher and Urvashi Butalia, Khoj has attracted the company of art leaders as Hans Ulrich Obrist and Tate to participate in its mission to develop contemporary artists of international standing and to foster relevant contemporary art conversations through poignant programming. Through the realisation of this vision, Khoj has extended the branches of its beautiful network throughout the world.  

This international residency was the continuation of a branch of Khoj programming entitled, In Context: Public, Art, Ecology; a vehicle for exploring socially relevant and timely issues.  This residency was the first of Khoj’s programming to address the issue of food, a theme that would grow into two later editions. I was invited to participate in the first Food Edition, as the focus of my PhD research, and relevant experience was timely and appropriate for the residency. I later participated in the third Food Edition as a speaker and curator of a public event.

The curatorial challenge for the residency was to locate an artistic discourse concerning food at the intersection of public spaces and ecological priorities. Over the period of six weeks, artists researched, created, and presented artistic interventions of impressive diversity and remarkable scope.

My role as Critic in Residence was to present theoretical and critical art perspectives, and to encourage the development of the artists' projects through thoughtful conversations about their work. I utilised an interview format to achieve this critical aim. My final role was to prepare a critical paper that encapsulated the event and documented their artwork.

 

Introduction from critical essay:

Food plays a central role in any culture, yet India’s relationship with food is particularly complex – while being a practical necessity it is also intertwined with the sacred and the aesthetic. The Upanishad explains that, “Food [anna] is better than power”1; in support of this sublime dimension of food artist Subodh Gupta puts words to the common Indian truism that, “Hindu kitchens are as important as prayer rooms”[2]. While food was the central theme for the residency the additional subtopics of ‘public’ and ‘ecology’ also provided parameters for framing the artist’s work. The inclusion of all three themes served to widen the optics of the curatorial framework while also encouraging the artists to explore public spaces and examine the function of nature in an intensely urban context.

As a champion of “non-market” contemporary art which possesses a politically engaging voice, the logic of Boris Groys yields helpful analytical tools for considering the artwork of this residency. In Art Power Groys states that, “The assertion that modern art escapes any generalization is the only generalization that is still allowed.”[3] While this assertion is true of modern art it is also true of India as a whole. He continues to explain that, “[modern art] is a field where every thesis is supposed to be confronted with its antithesis. In the ideal case the representation of thesis and antithesis should be perfectly balanced so that they sum to zero.”[4] If embodying the tension of paradox is the hallmark of modern art then, absent intentionality, all of India could be placed on display as a work of contemporary art. It may also be suggested that, as such, there is no more suitable place to explore contemporary art than in India, the birthplace of ‘zero’ (śūnya).

 

Footnotes

[2] Gupta, S. (2007, December 17). Subodh Gupta: Idol Thief. Art Review. (C. Mooney, Interviewer)
[3] Groys, B. (2008). Art Power. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
[4] Ibid [3]

 

Findings

As a newcomer to art practice I was honoured by the way that Khoj embraced me into their fold. The resident artists introduced me to their individual artistic processes, each with their own methodological approach. As an institution, Khoj showed me that passion, integrity and a considered but flexible programming is the key to good contemporary art practice. The exposure that I gained by being a part of the Khoj community informed my PhD research by helping me to frame my research in a way that is relevant within the practice of contemporary art; helping me to understand and identify artistic values in a timely and meaningful way.  

 

Paper

Bromley, R F (2012), Paradox in the Birthplace of Zero, review for In Context: Public, Art, Ecology - Food Edition I , Delhi, India: Khoj International Artists Association artists residency.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Three Course Meal and a Dessert of Vomit (2012)
Shweta Bhattad, India

 

 

 

 

 

 
Shweta Bhattad, India
A Three Course Meal and a Dessert of Vomit

 

Motivated by her childhood experiences living in an agrarian family, Bhattad chose to explore the lives of those who struggle to obtain food, as a confrontation to “the privileged” who often waste their excess (Bhattad cites the example of food produced for Indian wedding feasts). The issue of the divide between the “haves and the have-nots” as well as the problem of food waste are very timely ones. Prof. Jürgen Heß explains succinctly in a video interview for Documenta 13 how more than one billion people in the world are hungry and under-nourished; meanwhile, 30% of the food in the northern hemisphere is wasted, while in “developing countries” nearly 30% of the harvest is lost due to insufficient infrastructure. These facts are placed into the context of a global population which is expected to increase by two billion within this century. Dr. Vandana Shiva puts words to Bhattad’s art by stating, "We have mastered the art of wasting the planet... We need to reclaim the ethics of the gift of food."

Shweta Bhattad began her KHOJ project by seeking an experience of hunger that allowed her to identify with the hungry; not the hunger of religious fasting where there is levity in companionship and the knowledge that the discomfort will soon end, but the stark hopeless hunger of the urban poor. Bhattad did this by venturing into the streets of Delhi and participating in this hunger for three days; an activity that inspired her exhibited work, which sought to translate this experience to others through art. Bhattad’s exhibition began with a dab of the fragrance of steamed rice placed upon the wrists of the visitors, which was intended to elicit a physical desire for food. Viewers were also encouraged to wear the white wigs of legal counsel, emphasising the moral role of the participants as witnesses to the hunger of the poor. White plaster moulds of begging hands holding out empty bowls protruded from one wall of the gallery – where grains of rice had been placed inside each bowl, upon which Bhattad had inscribed poetry written during her period of research (magnifying glasses were provided). A table had been set along the opposing wall where bowls of food were displayed, hyper-realistic dishes of rice and curry made from wax. At the bottom of a jug of water which was resting on the table Bhattad had placed a video of her grandmother who was speaking about the importance of food for their family. Finally, in the centre of the room Bhattad lay locked inside a steel coffin, immersed in a material that appeared to be vomit. The coffin ebbed and flowed with vomit to the level of her nose before waning down to her cheeks; for over an hour Bhattad lay motionless, locked inside this tomb of ‘vomit’.

 

 

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When Hunger Feels Good (2012)
Frame Works Media and Research Collective, India
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Frame Works Research and Media Collective, India

When Hunger Feels Good

Ruchika Negi / Amit Mahanti / Subhashim Goswami, India

 

In their project, Ruchika Negi and Amit Mahanti shine a light onto the shadows cast by the politics surrounding hunger by utilizing the tools of social science research and documentary film making. Negi explains that, “The idea was to step outside of our own disciplines a little bit and to see what happens when you start playing around with boundaries.” This playfulness is apparent in much of their artwork, for while their portfolio of projects could easily be described as ‘art with a conscience’ they explore these critical issues with a lightness that celebrates the resilience of the human spirit.

Rather than focussing on the phenomenology of hunger, Negi and Mahanti choose to pry into an ever-growing global food crisis in order to comment on the politics and marketization of what could be described as the ‘hunger industry’. Calling attention to the need for more political commentary in art, Groys states that, “modern artwork positioned itself as a paradox-object also in this deeper sense - as an image and as a critique of the image at the same time.” In order to achieve their critical aims, Negi and Mahanti utilise the ‘supplement biscuit’ as a vehicle to examine this contentious space, a remedy which is often distributed as a treatment of the malnourished.

“When Hunger Feels Good” comments on the notion that there is capital to be gained from the plight of the hungry. For the exhibition, Negi and Mahanti divided their space between three video projections. Mounted high on the wall, the first of these videos was a close-up of a mouth chewing gluttonously on biscuits - a throwback to Ann Hamilton’s Mouth/Stones. A second video was placed at the end of an oversized telescope, constructed with the retro surrealism of a Jules Verne, From the Earth to the Moon, book sleeve. The video being projected on the other end of the telescope was a pastiche promotional video, loudly promoting the virtues of a fantasy wonder-biscuit in a jingoist carnival tone. The third video was projected onto the floor of the room directly underfoot the telescope’s viewfinder, displaying an oversized image of a biscuit breaking apart in a cup of tea; this deconstruction was played in slow-motion, casting fragments of biscuit afloat across the gallery floor as it disintegrated.

 

 

 

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Fosfofagia III (2012)
Alfonso Borragan, Spain 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alfonso Borragan, Spain

 Fosfofagia III

 

Borragan’s KHOJ project involved working with local street food venders, providing them with an organic additive which makes food glow under ultraviolet light. Borragan set the stage for the sale of the street food over a series of evening interventions, placing ultraviolet lights above the food stalls and selecting music which created a celebratory mood. As with all photographers, the role of light is of great importance for Borragan; in the case of the Fosfofagias, the glowing light of the street food ushered in a new experience which was transmitted through the throngs of participants in a rather mystical way. The glowing light conceptually transformed the bodies of the participants into ‘cameras’ which documented the event upon the photochromic essence of their memories. With this catalyst in action, Borragan was watching for three dynamics: 1) how would news of this new event spread? 2) How would participants convey the details of this event to others? And 3) how would the memory of this new experience persist in the minds of the people who held it?

Throughout the period of the residency three variations of the Fosfofagia took place, culminating in a fourth on the occasion of the final exhibition. Borragan’s fourth intervention was unique in that it began in two separate spaces – 1) inside of the exhibition space, and 2) in the street in front of KHOJ. The two spaces, divided only by a doorway, differed markedly in their environmental factors but also in the awareness of art, expectations and limitations, demographic realities, and boundaries of the people who occupied them. Within the KHOJ exhibition space visitors helped themselves to glowing lemonade from a huge PVC tower while waiters served trays of phosphorescent food. The Fosfofagia was instigated when a marching wedding band began performing its chaotic music while parading through the gallery space. The band then marched back out onto the street, drawing the exhibition visitors out with them, continuing to perform in front of the street vendors who were serving the Ryan Bromley KHOJ In Context: Public. Art. Ecology – Food Edition I 15 May 2012 3 glowing food. People from both the street and the gallery danced together and shared a glowing meal as they enjoyed the music under the wash of ultraviolet lights.

 

 

 

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Karma Wine (2012)
Julian Abraham, Indonesia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Julian Abraham, Indonesia

Karma Wine

 

Abraham’s project promotes proper practice in the preparation of home-made wines while also utilising wine as a currency of transaction. Fermentation has been a theme in Abraham’s previous work, including his collaborative Intelligent Bacteria project, where the artwork was explained as a protest against the harsh regulatory measures of his Indonesian government towards home-made alcohol while also offering instruction on the proper method to ferment wine. Initially, Abraham intended to pursue a similar concept in his KHOJ project but he quickly reshaped his work to address the idea of wine as a medium of transaction in a ritualistic, material society. The reason for this change of course was that, while people would undoubtedly benefit from home-brewing instructions, the concept faced significant practical obstacles in the current context; not least of which was a recent alcohol-related decapitation nearby the residency workshops.

Abraham’s interactive sculpture, Karma Wine, presents a mannequin which was sculpted to bare his own likeness - the exhibition space was adorned as a shrine in which Abraham’s statue was presented as a deity. Embellished with coloured LED lights in its afro hair, the statue was wired to respond to voice stimuli which, upon answering a series of questions from “worshipers”, would become animated. Once activated the deity would remove its own head, lower it in front of its chest, and spout home-brewed tamarind wine from its mouth into a chalice crafted out of the foot of the mannequin before returning its head to its shoulders. The wine had been brewed from locally purchased tamarind in the weeks prior to the exhibition. The use of the idea of Karma was meant to imply that, if worshipers were to bring offerings of tamarind juice to the BioPunk “guru”, adding their juice to the shrine’s existing wine (by doing so, more wine would be produced), then a balanced system would be created and wine would always be returned in exchange for offerings; however, if this cycle was broken then the guru would quickly exhaust its wine supply, leaving the worshipers empty handed (or footed, in this case). Abraham’s concept is a nod to the prevalence of rituals in modern urban life, with the innuendo that perhaps the essence of our rituals are forgotten in the demystified context of a consumer-driven material society, where the consumption of pleasure is the sole pursuit.

 

 

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untitled (2012)
Andrea Caretto & Raffaella Spagna, Italy
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Andrea Caretto & Raffaella Spagna, Italy

Untitled

 

While food composed the central theme of Caretto and Spagna’s project only one dimension of their multifaceted work related to its consumption. Instead, materials as cow dung, colloidal silver, water, “super-grains”, soap and a street vendor’s cart became the ingredients of their concept, each representing a separate experience relating to food in a broader sense. These materials were transformed into individual art pieces which were utilised together in two public interventions. Caretto and Spagna’s project illustrated the complex interrelations between people, materials, organisms, ecosystems and society, pulling together all of the themes of the residency in a wonderfully understated way. Caretto and Spagna’s vending cart became the stage for their project, serving as menagerie to their crafted objects, mediator of commerce, and centrepiece to their performance. It also played into the social realities of street vendors by becoming like them, however, the individualisation of their cart made gesture to the fact that they were playful visitors in a world that they ultimately would not become a part of. The objects that Caretto and Spagna crafted included:

  • Cow dung casts of their bodies - in India, the valued commodity of cow dung is used as a cleaning agent2 , fuel for cooking fires, a building material and soil fertiliser (among other uses).

  • Silver leaf soap - reference to the edible silver used in Indian sweets as well as the necessity for habitual hand-washing. The purifying quality inherent in colloidal silver was intended to be punctuated through its use in homemade soap.

  • Gold-plated super-grains - reference to the wealth of varieties of grains available in India which are little-known in other parts of the world, as well as to the edible gold used in Indian sweets.3

  • Prints, dye on paper - “A Conversation with the Yamuna River” highlighted the importance of the river in social and ecological systems by engaging it as a living organism. The ‘conversation’ began by clearing a passageway through the waste that encrusts the river’s banks in order to scatter organic dyes over the water. Questions were then asked, such as “What is most disturbing for you amongst all that floats over the surface of your water?” They then harvested the dyes patterns, which floated a reply, on sheets of paper.

These crafted objects were then placed into the cart and wheeled into a nearby street market where the artists engaged the public by bartering their artworks in exchange for fruits and vegetables. On the night of the exhibition the cart was placed into KHOJ’s central courtyard where Caretto and Spagna transformed the food items that they had acquired from the trade of their artwork into a meal which was served to guests.

 

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