Serpentine Gallery Brings Indian Highways Artists To London

By Ben Miller | 18 December 2008
A picture of a piece of art with hundreds of multi-coloured circles drawn close to each other on a single canvas

(Above) Bharti Kher - The Nemesis of Nations 2008, bindi wall work. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, Zürich, London. © Bharti Kher 2008

Exhibition Review - Indian Highway, The Serpentine Gallery, London, until February 22, 2009

At the entrance to Indian Highway, the Serpentine Gallery’s eye-popping new display, lies a video called Flight Rehearsals, in which Kiran Subbaiah embarks on a confessional, amusing rumination, practising defeating gravity to achieve his dream of flight.

It could act as a metaphor both for India, which continues to spread its wings at a staggering rate, and for this exhibition, which is a rare and welcome insight into Indian art with an expansive roster to match.

A picture of a wire, mesh and chicken feathers piece incorporating intricately intertwined lines

Sakshi Gupta, Landscape of Waking Memories, 2007. Galvanised wire, mesh and chicken feathers. Courtesy GALLERYSKE, Bangalore. © Sakshi Gupta 2008

At least two dozen artists are on view, and you could either resent the gallery for trapping such a flamboyant show or admire it for attempting to accommodate so much. Either way, it feels like wandering into a jumble of scattered projects within the relatively small confines of the Serpentine.

A picture of a screen with a Buddha's head on it

Raqs Media Collective, Sleepwalkers' Caravan (Prologue) 2008, © Courtesy the artist 2008

All manner of modern art exhibition features are here, from installations to videos, props spanning rooms, random experimentation and panoramic murals. It’s at once dazzling and claustrophobic, bursting with far too much innovation to fully absorb in what is essentially an old tea room.

A picture of black stained tin drums on a stone floor

Sheela Gowda, Darkroom, 2006, tar drums, tar drum sheets, asphalt and mirrors. Courtesy Shumita and Arani Bose Collection, New York. © Sheela Gowda 2008

A plethora of screens in the front section compete with each other, all critical issues and political clout vying for worthy attention.

Tejal Shah’s I Love My India, set against the backdrop of genocide the minority Indian Muslim community suffered in one region, has a man applauding India’s liberal democracy in the same breath with which he describes the ease of causing a riot (“you just throw a pig’s head in a mosque and a cow’s head in a temple.”)

A picture of dozens of whistles hanging from a belt

Shilpa Gupta, Untitled, 2008 - Security belt with whistles. Courtesy the artist and Galleria Continua, San Gimignano. © Shipa Gupta 2008

Ayisha Abraham’s You Are Here crackles with visions of Indian transport on film transferred from eight and 16mm reels, The Boycott decries the impact of brand culture on the country’s culture, and Batti Bandh speaks out against global warming. Stirring, informative and impassioned stuff, but it feels like a lot to take in before you’ve even entered the main space, let alone walked ten metres.

A picture of a makeshift office with chairs, cabinets and desks

Subodh Gupta, Date by Date 2008. Mixed media installation. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, Zürich, London. © Subodh Gupta 2008

Nikhil Chopra’s performance, touted as a focal point for the exhibition, is at the centre of the main room – or at least it is if you catch him while he’s in the building. At the moment, his presence is relayed on a big screen, broadcasting from his tent outside the gallery.

The debris of his day’s work – a bucket, various textiles, a mane of lopped hair, bits of cloth – decorate the floor, and trying to work out what to make of it is a bewildering process. He spent the opening three days drawing in the park, a homage to the work of his grandfather, an outdoor painter in Kashmir.

A picture of video screens from afar lined up next to each other

Jitish Kallat, Cenotaph (A Deed of Transfer), 2007. 20 Lenticular prints. © Jitish Kallat 2008

Nalini Malini’s Tales Of Good And Evil, a storyboard-style mesh of fables in ink on bamboo, adorns one wall, seeing the highways as symbolic of a lack of infrastructure in India, predominantly serving the consumption of wealth.

She witnesses “a web of lust and desire, where retro forges get the upper hand and there is no desire to change the historically unequal relationships between people.”

A picture of an acrylic drawing of various people sitting next to each other

N S Harsha, Reversed Gaze (Detail), 2008, acrylic on wall. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro Gallery, London. © 2008 N S Harsha

MF Hussain, the apparent wild child of Indian art whose controversial style forced him to flee threats of violence in Mumbai, is equally unimpressed with what Malini calls “mistaken modernity”. “Why does history repeat itself?” asks the subtext to his angry painting, The Rape of India, comparing the state of the country with the rape of Europa.

It’s a vivid, vaguely biblical piece of modernism, but it’s somewhat hard to ascertain how it could cause such outrage – it takes a commentary stance suggested constantly throughout the rest of the exhibition, albeit less subtly.

A picture of a man in a lacey, regal embroidered white gown

Nikhil Chopra, Untitled from the series Yog Raj Chitrakar: Memory Drawing II, 2008.Digital photograph. Courtesy Chatterjee and Lal, Mumbai. © Nikhil Chopra 2008

Between this incendiary pair stands Sheela Gowda’s Darkroom, an industrial set of tar drums (used by road workers), sheets, asphalt and mirrors, turreted in a climbable installation which is at once unwelcoming and imperious.

It gives a tangible, brutally physical sense of terrain, contrasting with the aural sensation next door, where Shilpa Gupta broadcasts revolutionary speeches of independence from India and Pakistan, delivered by female voices on microscopes fluttering on stands.

A picture of a lush red work in acrylic

N.S. Harsha, Melting Wit, 2005. Acrylic on canvas. © N.S. Harsha 2008. Pic: Pavan K J

Subodh Gupta’s Date By Date fills an adjoining room with the contents of a makeshift office, drawing cliché-inducing, obvious sentiments about being unable to escape systems. It feels churlish to nag at the only space in the gallery which doesn't feel crowded, and there are the makings of a salient – and certainly heartfelt – point.

A picture of an acrylic drawing of a red and yellow-coloured creature

M.F. Husain, Naad Swaram...Ganeshayem 2004. Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy Yogesh Mehta. © 2008 M.F. Husain

Dayanita Singh’s overhead photo of India at night, in which city inroads are turned into burning estuaries of flame, encapsulates the precept of the exhibition – indeed, it is its principal promotional image.

It’s a beautiful and powerful, blunt attempt at symbolism, best considered as a broad stroke of the intricate issues discussed in the films swirling around it.

A picture of a photo taken from above of an Indian city at night, with the roads swathed in fire

Dayanita Singh, Dream Villa 11 – 2007, 2008. C-print. Courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London. © Dayanita Singh 2008

You could carry on trying to digest everything for several weeks, from the psychedelic explosion of colours in Bharti Kher’s myriad of tiny circles, The Nemesis of Nations, to Amar Kanwar’s The Lightning Testimonies, a selection of films cloaked in the darkness of a separate room, portraying the poignant, often heartbreaking plight of women in India through the decades.

Ultimately, from a nation whose art and culture is so unknown and unexplored, such a stuffed selection offers a dizzying mix of quality and sharpness as an inevitable by-product.

Perhaps the philosophy behind it predicted an audience eager to replace starvation with gluttony, concocting a vast range to befit the premise. In any case, there are enough moments of inspiration to render the deluge worth delving through.

For details of events during the exhibition visit www.serpentinegallery.org or call 020 7402 6075.

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