Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 23, 2018
After Midnight: Indian Modernism to Contemporary India, 1947/1997
Exhibition schedule: Queens Museum, March 8, 2015—September 13, 2015
After Midnight: Indian Modernism to Contemporary India, 1947/1997
Queens Museum, March 8–September 13, 2015
Installation view, After Midnight: Indian Modernism to Contemporary India, 1947/1997 (photograph © 2015 Hai Zhang; provided by the Queens Museum)

After Midnight: Indian Modernism to Contemporary India, 1947/1997 looks at Indian and diasporic art from the last seventy years. Occupying much of the Queens Museum’s capacious ground floor, the exhibition, curated by art historian Arshiya Lokhandwala, is spatially as well as thematically organized along two now-axiomatic fault lines of recent Indian history: India’s independence in 1947 and the opening of India’s markets to international commercial interests under former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in the 1990s. The year 1997 marked the fiftieth anniversary of India’s independence, which has spurred critical inquiry into the state of the nation and figures as one of the exhibition’s fundamental questions, manifested in its selection of work.

Conceptually, the adjacency of material from these periods is meant to facilitate a dialogue between different generations of artistic production. The exhibition comprises a large courtyard and smaller adjoining galleries dedicated to contemporary art, with a smaller gallery focusing on modernism.

The modernists are represented by Syed Haider Raza, Akbar Padamsee, Maqbool Fida Husain, Krishen Khanna, Vasudeo Gaitonde, Ram Kumar, Tyeb Mehta, and Francis Newton Souza, who are now identified with the pivotal Bombay-based Progressive Artists’ Group. Founded in 1947, this collective is framed as a generative force behind the eruption of modernism as a counter-institutional dialogue in newly independent India. Extending into the 1970s, the walls of the modernist gallery are lined with paintings. Gathered in the center are more experimental works by the same cadre, created either during or following travel to the United States and Europe, largely through the support of fellowships awarded by the Rockefeller Foundation.

Khanna’s formal debut as an artist, the 1948 oil on canvas painting News of Gandhi’s Death, delivers the intensity of the country’s reception of the news through the rematerialization of the newspaper as a shroud-like fabric weaving together readers from different walks of life. Husain’s paintings Sisters (1957) and Rape (1970) echo Khanna’s sculptural monumentality. Rape’s ghastly forms are perpetually suspended in violence, expressing the grim condition of the Indian political climate that led to the unilateral declaration of a national state of emergency (1975–77) by former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Mehta’s painting Untitled (Lovers, 1974) features his paradigmatic flattened, fractured forms that evoke the violence of the partition of India, when Pakistan was formed in 1947.

In contradistinction, in the middle of the same gallery, the artists negotiate new techniques of artmaking. Padamsee’s film Syzygi (1970) features shifting arrays of shapes that belie the stability of geometry through their seemingly disordered progression. Other works in the center of the gallery include Husain’s photographic work Untitled (Tiger, 1975) and Mehta’s film Koodal (1970). The former intersects painting, photography, and performance art, documenting the simultaneity of its nude subject and the tiger painted onto her back. The latter is a jarring and introspective look at the foundational nature of violence to the formation of history. It collages various congregations—human assemblies, herds of bulls, and the massed flesh found in a charnel house—metaphorizing the bull as the destruction/apotheosis of the nation. The experimental vision represented by this section is perhaps most self-consciously (if not wryly) declared by Souza, who uses his novel technique of applying solvents to newsprint to note on a 1969 work that it is the “WORLD’S FIRST CHEMICAL PAINTING.”

In the courtyard dedicated to contemporary works an installation by Subodh Gupta, featuring stainless steel utensils piled atop a boat, sails alone. What does the vessel contain that the boat does not? (2014) draws from Gupta’s recognizable vocabulary of stainless steel vessels and found objects, ostensibly functioning as a conceptual anchor for this part of the exhibition through its examination of notions of home and displacement, self-sufficiency, and mobility. Sheila Gowda’s The Blanket and the Sky (2004), which features flattened tar drums formed into a shelter at the periphery of the courtyard, links with Gupta’s rough-hewn anchorless habitation, using material ubiquitous in an industrial landscape to focus on the particularities of urban poverty.

Home as a space shaped and defined by shifting urban and geopolitical conditions also finds articulation in Shreshta Rit Premnath’s photomural Plot (2004), which projects the image of the pavilion of India at the New York World’s Fair of 1964 onto the image of a billboard for a residential complex in Bangalore that advertises “New York living in Bangalore.” Placing in conversation the modern commercial drives of the billboard’s “east meets west” invocation and the nationalist imperatives of World’s Fairs’ country pavilions, Premnath thoughtfully looks at shifting discourses of internationalism in the casting of India and the Indian home.

Lining the walls of the courtyard, eclectic works speak to a diversity of contemporary art practices, linked, though not heavy-handedly, by shared concerns with history making and memorializing, the urban condition, and authoritarian statism and inequity. The worn steel and decayed fiber of Gupta’s installation converses with the burnt acrylic mirrors of Jitish Kallat’s Public Notice (2003), on which is emblazoned the historic “Tryst with Destiny” speech given by India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, at the birth of the nation in 1947. This reflective work, created by Kallat in the wake of the sectarian riots in the Indian state of Gujarat, which resulted in a massacre of the state’s minority Muslim population, provides a space for viewers to contemplate India’s contemporary political climate against the challenges and imperatives set forth at its independence. Other works also comment on the threat of the unchecked state to its most vulnerable populations, including Anita Dube’s wall installation, The Sleep of Reason Creates Monsters (2001), and its myriad enameled eyes which gaze ceaselessly at its viewers. Referencing Francisco Goya’s eponymous work, Dube comments on the ideal (dream) of the state as one of nightmarish surveillance. Shilpa Gupta’s installation of marble slabs, 1278 unmarked, 28 hours by foot via National Highway No 1, East Line of Control (2013), memorializes those who have fallen in the sectarian violence over the disputed territory of Kashmir and remain nameless in death.

Sprinkled throughout the exhibition, video installations provide flickering counterpoints to the monumentality of such works as Public Notice. The artists Shaina Anand and Ashok Sukumaran’s collaboration, CAMP, is represented by the film From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf (2013), which intertwines narratives of travel and sociable and commercial exchange. Documenting the journeys of seafarers from the Gulf of Kutch, as well as from Baluchistan, Sindh, and Southern Iran, CAMP’s contribution examines ports and their linking maritime corridors as spaces of cultural formation. The video diptych Strikes at Time (2011) by Raqs Media Collective chronicles the repetitiousness of the labor of the working poor. Displacing the third-person narratives of the abovementioned video installations, the artists of the Desire Machine Collective explore the social and cultural milieu of their home state of Assam in the film Noise Life I (2014).

Dayanita Singh and Atul Dodiya invite the viewer to contemplate the physical spaces of history making. Singh, in the serial photographic work Fileroom (2012), examines the archive’s metaphorical performances as storage units of history, disordered places of memory, and endless mazes of bureaucracy. Dodiya’s mixed-media installation, Three Brothers (2012–13), looks at the ways in which archival displays fossilize trauma through the ordered placement of artifacts within self-contained storage units, devitalizing the tension of lived experience through staid representational practices.

In After Midnight, one is struck by the diversity of methods, media, and subject matter selected by Lokhandwala. Ambitious, and following on the heels of the well-received eponymous symposium held at New York University’s Asia Pacific Institute in 2012, this exhibition uneasily straddles the genres of the national-cultural and thematic surveys, while still falling shy of the comprehensiveness expected of the survey genre. Perhaps attributable to the galleries’ unusual dimensions and layout, the exhibition shifts gears abruptly between modernist and contemporary art. The spatial separation between the two limits their narrative linkage, rendering opaque the purpose of their joint placement in the exhibition. Furthermore, the logic of the organization of the contemporary section is not easy to discern. The grouping of works is not necessarily determined by shared concepts, medium, or year of production. At the same time, the unexpected adjacencies of works facilitate novel and unexpected links. For example, the relative closeness of Premnath’s projection-based Plot and Dube’s watchful wall installation The Sleep of Reason Creates Monsters brings the surveillance ideal of the state to bear on the commercial imperatives of urban construction.

Using art as a prismatic lens through which to view generational shifts in the processes of history production and contestation, Lokhandwala nonetheless avoids easy generalizations and categorizations through allusions to linked geopolitical concerns rather than heavy thematic framing. As a result, the onus is placed on the visitor to tease out broader narratives, encouraging multiple visits and varied engagements with the works.

Rashmi Viswanathan
Postdoctoral Fellow of Global Contemporary Art, Parsons School of Design, New School University