"How come there's no India Pavilion?" was the first question Julie Evans asked me when I bumped into her during the opening of the 2003 Venice Biennale. I had gotten to know Julie, a painter from New York, in India over the years, where she most recently had been studying miniature painting techniques as a Fulbright Scholar. In Venice, we next bumped into Gordon Knox who, as director of the Civitella artists' residency in Italy, had hosted a number of important Indian artists over the years. Gordon was in the process of moving to the Montalvo Arts Center, a residency in northern California that had recently expanded its facilities to include video production and Gordon had been brought in to make their programming more international. Gordon immediately offered the possibility of residencies for Indian artists to produce new video installations for what we proposed could be the foundation of an India Pavilion for the 2005 Venice Biennale.
Spontaneous as its birth was, two years and approximately one billion e-mails later, Icon: India Contemporary was launched on June 9th, 2005 as an official collateral event of the 51st Venice Biennale. Our foundation retained the video installations produced during residencies at Montalvo in the previous six months. Nalini Malani from Bombay was the first artist we thought of and approached, as she had already created powerful video installations with potent political content that had been seen at The New Museum in New York, Tate Modern in London and the Istanbul Biennale. I suggested Ranbir Kaleka from New Delhi, a painter who was synthesizing his work with photography and video, and after I showed them some documentation both Julie and Gordon agreed to the importance and relevancy of his work. Thirdly, the Raqs Media Collective from New Delhi (Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula and Shuddhabrata Sengupta) were considered and agreed upon as they had been attrac ting art world attention with their inter-media installations since being included in Documenta 11 in 2002. These artists were awarded residencies at Montalvo and arrived in the early months of 2005 with substantial amounts of research, information and imagery to pull together their projects which, of course, were not properly completed until their final installations in Venice at the beginning of June.
Through a network of associates, most importantly Kathy Goncharov who had been the Commissioner of the United States Pavilion in Venice in 2003, we teamed up with Vittorio Urbani and Camilla Seibezzi of Nuova Icona. Based in Venice, Nuova Icona is a curatorial and arts management enterprise and a local partner with extensive experience in past Biennales was obviously a necessity for us. Members of our team, which had by now expanded greatly and included the partners of Bose Pacia Gallery in New York, visited Venice in the fall of 2004 to look at possible spaces for the exhibition. Our best bet, for a number of reasons, was a former convent located on the island of Giudecca, the site of a number of ancillary pavilions in 2003. The space was a curator's dream come true but seemed too large for the three video installations only and we considered including other artists working in other media to present a more in-depth portrait of the contemporary art scene in India t oday. After some deliberations and consultations, Atul Dodiya (from Bombay), Nataraj Sharma (from Baroda) and Anita Dube (from New Delhi) were invited to prepare new works for the exhibition as well, bringing painting, sculpture and site-specific installation into the fold. The curatorial process, as well as the decisions determining the interior architecture and installations for all the artists was, by necessity, organic and collaborative, with the artists themselves being extremely flexible with the parameters of their works. All of the works presented on June 9th were brand-new and it is our hope that many will be seen in different contexts in the future.
When we conceived of an India project for Venice in June of 2003 our aim was to present, through our choice of artists and the works they would make, a left-of-center viewpoint critical of the political developments in the country. At that point, an extremely right-wing government had been in charge for years and the country seemed to be sliding increasingly towards fundamentalism and an aggressive Hindu nationalism. Certainly, such a government would never support our curatorial choices and we never had any intention of approaching them. Miraculously, in the spring of 2004, the national government changed to a centrist/leftist coalition and we decided to inquire as to whether they would support our project. Through a variety of contacts, we approached people at the levels of the national museums as well as the Ministry of Culture. Asking only for a letter of support so that our project could be deemed the official pavilion of India in Venice, we were greeted with initial skepticism, then a cautious enthusiasm, only to be followed by complete inertia and silence. Our window of opportunity closing with the Biennale organizers and no letter of support coming from the Indian government, we had no choice but to pay an admission fee so as to be listed as a "collateral event" and be included in all official promotional materials of the Biennale. (In the end, all funding for the project in Venice came from sources in the United States, with the Sally and Don Lucas Artists Program at Montalvo providing the greatest support. Due to budget constraints, Icon will remain on view at the Convent SS Cosma & Damiano on the island of Giudecca only until July 31st, as the Biennale proper continues until October.) With official pavilions representing the countries of China, Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkey as well as a coalition of Central Asian Republics in Venice this year, it is unfortunate that our project could not receive the support of the Indian government. As we begin planning a project for Venice in 2007, we hope to garner the support of the government while being mindful of the danger of losing curatorial control. As one of the world's most visible and visited contemporary art events, the Venice Biennale is host to some of the most challenging and progressive art being made in the world today. To represent the nation of India in Venice with art that would not engage such a highly sophisticated audience would be both a lost opportunity and a disservice to the contemporary culture of India today.
- Fri, 1 Jul 2005