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The Shanghai Biennale and the Indian flavor
The 8th Shanghai Biennale defines itself as a ‘rehearsal’ and as a reflective space of performance. Here, ‘rehearsal’ is not a metaphor for a form of exhibition, but a way of thinking and operating strategy. At a broader level, what the event aims to reflect on the relations between art experimentation and the art system, between individual creativity and the public domain. The aim is to focus on the whole process of exhibition. Its mode of existence is not unlike that of the theatre. In the process, the elements of venue, narration and social participation become key concepts.

Providing a context to their effort, a curatorial essay mentions: “The responsibility of the curators is to differentiate, organize and then mobilize. Today many exhibitions are restricted in the theatre, but for this biennale, the theatre and rehearsal are not only spaces for exhibition, but methods of creation and communication. The exhibit is the theatre of contemporary art. Even when the artists enter the theatre of everyday life, they are still 'sovereign', looking down on 'the public' or on society; whereas ‘rehearsals’ invite the public into the studio to participate in artistic production. The exhibit hall acts as not only the medium for the works, but also as a changing space, to trigger creativity. The aim is to expose all stereotyped and habitual solutions through a self-performative act by the art world, and a wakeup call to itself.”

Alongside the biennale, a significant project was organized - ‘West Heavens’ - one of those rare Chinese-Indian collaborations in the field of art. ‘India Xianzhai’ was probably the largest ever display of contemporary Indian art in China, and also the first major museum show in the country, in 2009. It was held at Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) in association with Seven Art Limited, ICIA (Institute of Contemporary Indian Art) and ICCR (Indian Council for Cultural Relations).

The much awaited ‘India-China Summit on Social Thought’, arranged to coincide with the biennale, involved lecture-forums by renowned Indian scholars like Geeta Kapur, Sarat Maharaj, Homi K. Bhabha, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Prasenjit Duara, Tejaswini Niranjana, Partha Chatterjee, and Ashis Nandy. They were invited to Shanghai to engage in a dialogue with Chinese scholars. The event also included the publication of a series of books, to promote cultural exchanges within Asia. Underlining the significance of another such initiative, The New York Times observed: “The two Asian superpowers have shared little thus far in the field of contemporary art. Paradoxically - given that the collaboration is between Shanghai, a city once dominated by foreign concessions and a former British colony - the two venues are distinctly European. Both were once part of the British consul’s residence, a space that the curator termed the heart of colonial ideological machinery.” (For record, ShanghART shifted to larger spaces in Moganshan and Taopu, areas barely part of the city just a decade ago.)

From Mumbai to Shanghai via Sardar Sarovar and The Three Gorges was a journey Tushar Joag embarked upon on a motorcycle. He named it ‘Rocinante’, after Don Quixote’s horse. Atul Bhalla opted to connect recent historical sites on the verge of being forgotten, within site of inner Shanghai, as a ‘Listener’: to water, to streams, harbors, rivers, canals, wells etc. Anant Joshi’s work was based on cultural icons and architectural monuments like the Gateway of India in Mumbai, or the Zhengyangmen in Beijing. Gigi Scaria’s installation included two parallel projections - selected archival images of Mahatma Gandhi’s life and the images from that of Mao Zedong’s life. Sonia Khurana’s ‘Trespass’ explored sites of subversion, juxtaposing fragments from two parallel projects.

The 14 scrolls as part of ‘Over Land’, by Nilima Sheikh, were placed perfectly as the only one in the former consul’s spired Anglican chapel. The artist had painted and stenciled images onto flowing paper-and-silk strips. The long pieces hung delicately from the high ceiling. Softly lighted in the otherwise deserted and dim church, it carried the soothing feel of a sacred work. To inspect the intricately rendered dragons, flowers and poems - inspired by a peculiar portion of the Silk Road - viewers were needed to stand just below the work and then to look upwards. Among the other Indian participants, Hema Upadhyay portrays the pangs of migration, leading to loneliness, insecurity and isolation. Raqs Media Collective has been variously described as artists, media practitioners, curators, researchers, editors, and catalysts of cultural processes. The work of three practitioners, namely Monica Narula, Jeebesh Bagchi and Shuddhabrata Sengupta, locates it along the intersections of contemporary art, philosophical speculation, historical enquiry, research and theory.

‘Railway from Lhasa to Kathmandu’ done by Qiu Zhijie touched on many of the exhibit’s recurrent themes: faith, colonialism & the demarking/ crossing of national boundaries. Traditional artisans, who make thangka (a kind of Tibetan embroidered painting mostly employed for religious purposes, especially by Buddhist monks) were commissioned. These modern pieces, hanging in an eerie old dorm, depicted the tale of an Indian spy. Disguised as a lama, Nain Singh Rawat was hired by a British captain to journey all the way to Lhasa, in order to map the area.

The brain behind ‘West Heavens’, professor Johnson Chang, hopes that the exhibition would make the people in China view India with a fresh eye and perspective. The intention is to reshape Chinese imagination about India. This now certainly seems to be happening…