Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 24, 2019
Alpesh Kantilal Patel Productive Failure: Writing Queer Transnational South Asian Art Histories Rethinking Art's Histories. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2017. 272 pp. Cloth £80.00 (9781784992545)

Rethinking Art’s Histories, the Manchester University Press publication series launched in 2010, carries a substantial catalog of unconventional and experimental scholarship that breaks away from period- and geography-centered approaches to art history. Alpesh Kantilal Patel’s Productive Failure: Writing Queer Transnational South Asian Art Histories is a valuable contribution to this growing body of literature that attempts to expand the parameters of art history and its constituent subfields, employing “affirmative criticality” and “productive failure” as methods to produce a more ethical, entangled, and transparent practice of writing (art) history. The title of the book provides a sense of this messier, expanded field, marking the text’s distance from monographic or movement-based studies of South Asian art while underscoring failure as a queer strategy and transnationalism as lived experience, through which the author understands artwork as subject (not object) and region as transcending established notions of national belonging or bloodlines. Throughout the book there is a concerted effort to challenge the logics and practices of globalizing art history through an additive, pluralist approach informed by mainstream multiculturalism.

The book’s cover image—a well-known work by Bombay-born British sculptor Anish Kapoor (Svayambh, 2007)—provides a sense of the complex questions concerning origins, diaspora, and authorship addressed within. The trope of the frame, employed by the artist and the author, evokes both conceptual containment and overflow or spillage, the dialectical interplay between which produces multipronged and self-reflexive “queer transnational South Asian art histories.” Patel emphasizes authorial subjectivity, responsibility, and methods as crucial to the construction of narratives, calling for an overt admission of affiliations and investments rather than the detached, authoritative tone most commonly associated with academic writing. He delivers on the promise of not falling back on a new art history overly preoccupied with the ideal of inclusion achieved through supplementation. Rather, borrowing from Paul Gilroy, Patel proposes a “Brown Atlantic” extending across the United States, United Kingdom, and India, a theoretical, fluid space in which the artworks and artists included in the study, ranging from Anish Kapoor and Adrian Piper to Natvar Bhavsar and Mario Pfeifer, circulate.

The book is organized into seven chapters, with the first few addressing conventional art historical categories (authorship, form, subject matter) through queer (read: destabilizing) pairings and juxtapositions, and the latter half pitched as autoethnographic studies drawn from the author’s experiences and interventions. Quoting Irit Rogoff on créolité and visual cultural studies from the essay “What Is a Theorist?,” Patel writes, “This monograph hopes to realize the potential of Rogoff’s wish for visual culture—that I extend to art history—to become a ‘field of complex and growing entanglements that can never be translated back to originary or constitutive components’” (10). In the chapter on Anish Kapoor as “British/Asian/artist,” these entanglements are unpacked through the shifting art world discourse around Kapoor’s identity between the early 1980s and 2000s, as he goes from being “Indian” to “British Asian” to “just an artist” to “Indian again.” Drawing on Foucauldian discourse analysis and Derridean deconstruction, Patel reads a diverse body of literature on Kapoor (catalog essays, exhibition reviews, press releases) “to definitively illustrate that the notion of a stable authorship or genealogy that is the bedrock of most racialized art histories is a fiction” (32).

With regard to form, a central art historical category, Patel directs his “queer formalist lens” toward abstraction, analyzing the “discursive constructedness” of a “South Asian” qualifier. He acknowledges Kandice Chuh’s unpacking of “Asian American” in Asian American studies while recalling, for this reviewer, the recent polemics around “black” abstraction catalyzed by Darby English’s writings on the subject. With Cy Twombly and Natvar Bhavsar as his examples, Patel proposes “queer zen” (42), drawn from Jonathan Katz’s writing on Agnes Martin, as a shared frame for their works in a situation where the critical vocabulary is still restricted to terms like “beauty” and “the sublime.” Bhavsar—an Indian-born artist who moved to the United States in the early 1960s and remained, working as an abstract painter—experienced a dual erasure: from the art histories of the Indian subcontinent as well as those of Abstract Expressionism and postpainterly abstraction in New York. This is only beginning to change as Patel and his contemporaries, scholars like Atreyee Gupta and Sonal Khullar, have argued for the value of “cosmopolitan belonging” and “worldly affiliations” as key to theorizing global modernisms in decolonizing, postcolonial, and diasporic contexts. 

In the chapter on subject matter, Patel engages work in various media by Stephen Dean, Mario Pfeifer, Adrian Piper, and Kehinde Wiley with the intent to “provincialize whiteness” (77). While none of these artists is South Asian (with the exception of Piper’s one-eighth East Indian heritage), Patel chooses to focus on works by them with South Asian signifiers or references that unsettle binaries, negotiate the “anxiety about whiteness,” and push back against a hasty conflation of subject matter and author. Each artist and artwork reveals a different relationship to these questions, making for compelling analysis and comparison.

In the final three chapters, the book shifts gears to address the politics of space, gentrification, cosmopolitanism, and collectivity, with Manchester as case study and site for analysis and curatorial intervention. Patel draws heavily on his experiences inhabiting two prominent city neighborhoods—Gay Village and Curry Mile—between 2005 and 2008, marking their differences from each other and the larger narrative of Manchester’s marketing as the UK’s second city (following London). Within this matrix, he considers a major public art project by the queer, female, British South Asian collective Sphere, titled Sphere: dreamz, initially staged in Gay Village with its predominantly white middle-class gay male “majoritarian affect” and then reinstalled (in part) a thirty-minute walk away in a restaurant on Curry Mile, “a space that is performed as strictly ‘South Asian’ and heterosexualist” (128). The latter reinstallation was orchestrated by the author and his collaborators in a 2007 curatorial project titled Mixing It Up: Queering Curry Mile and Currying Canal Street, which sought to “reveal the queer in Curry Mile and the transnational South Asian in Canal Street, thereby confusing the implicit assumptions on which the city’s post-millennial cultural renaissance is ultimately based” (160). While contending with the risks of being appropriated as a project promoting multicultural coexistence, Patel directs his analysis to notions of “belonging” and “identification” and their relationship to “affect.” This is further developed in the final chapter, which hones in on cases of “misidentification,” with deadly consequences, for South Asians in the United States following 9/11/2001, Jean Charles de Menezes in London after 7/7/2005, and Trayvon Martin in Florida on 2/6/2012. In order to consider these events “with and through artworks,” Patel discusses recent projects by Wiley (Mugshot Study, 2006) and Piper (Imagine [Trayvon Martin], 2013) as works that “function at the in-between of significations” and “hold out for more ethical futures” (202).

The book is replete with rich citations and references to vast bodies of recent scholarship in feminist and queer theory, visual culture, area studies, and, indeed, art history. At times Patel’s own voice is lost as he rehearses and recapitulates his readings in order to arrive at an argument, which feels insufficiently developed or diffuse. Archival research is not the bedrock of this queer history writing endeavor—it relies more heavily on theoretical observations, lived experience, and illustrations of exceptions, slippages, and leaks in the processes of historicization. The book makes a methodological contribution nonetheless, provoking readers to reconsider essentialized notions of region and geography, identity, sexuality, and genealogy, while challenging scholars to foreground their own experiences, allegiances, and desires in the work of producing art history.

Rattanamol Singh Johal
PhD Candidate, Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University