TO CHANGE THE SHAPE OF THE VESSEL
By Natsuko Odate
Circumferential horizon of a vessel (2016), part of the installation “REDUX REDUX: Enter by the Side Door” for the Aichi Triennale 2016. All images: Photo Yoshihiro Kikuyama, courtesy the Aichi Triennale 2016.
One of India’s rising young artists, Shreyas Karle is based in Bombay, where he also runs the alternative art space CONA Foundation, which he founded in 2012 with his wife, the artist Hemali Bhuta. Known for his installations combining found and constructed elements to create quasi-fictive spaces, Karle has participated in international exhibitions including the New Museum Triennial 2015, “Surround Audience”; the Changwon Sculpture Biennale 2014; and the Kochi Muziris Biennale 2012. This year, for the Aichi Triennale 2016, he took over two floors of an old building in Okazaki, which he turned into the environmental installation “REDUX REDUX: Enter by the Side Door.” During the opening of the Aichi Triennale, ART iT met with Karle at the site of his installation to learn more about his activities.
The Aichi Triennale 2016, “rainbow caravan,” was held from August 11 to October 23 at multiple venues in Nagoya and other cities.
ART iT: One of the interesting things about your project for Aichi is the opposition you create between the public and the domestic, rather than the private. Can you talk more about how you understand the differences between the domestic and the private and the public?
SK: With this project I was interested in particular in looking at the idea of the domestic through an archival approach, thinking about how things are domesticated, how they are archived, and how the domestic object is objectified further. In this sense I was trying to create an idiom that exists somewhere between the idea of the museum and the anti-museum – an in-between platform.
For me, the private is not necessarily domestic, whereas the domestic can become private, because the domestic is about an identity that is common to a specific group of people. For example, a cup is a domestic object, but the kind of cup I use is a private issue. The idea of the cup refers to the domestic identification without specifying whether the cup should be made in bronze or copper or gold – that is a private identification. Maybe the cup belonging to the emperor would be made in gold, while that of one of his subjects would be made of some other material.
ART iT: So you think of the domestic as a common ground?
SK: Kind of – because the domestic destroys hierarchies. Even if I am the emperor, I cannot just drink water out of air. I still have to use a glass. And even if I am a common man, I still use a glass. So for me what is interesting about the domestic is that the idea of the object stands apart from all the hierarchies that the system has created. The object exists within a typological system which allows it to be identified, and the thing about typology is that it deals in commonalities. It identifies not on the basis of design but of purpose. To me, that’s what the domestic stands for.
Installation view of “REDUX REDUX: Enter by the side door” at Okazaki Omote-ya Building.
ART iT: Earlier you mentioned the idea of the museum, and how there are always two kinds of museums, the public and the private, but there is no such thing as a “domestic museum.”
SK: In the text that accompanies the work I was getting at the idea that museums and institutions can never be domestic because they have an inherent sterility. The museum purifies itself in talking about history by erasing identity from history. It talks about history in a very clinical way. But history is not clinical. History has never been a white wall. It is always raw and intense. The museum or historical institution cleanses away that intensity. It tries to remove the entire idea of the domestic from the history, and that’s how it has conditioned us to view history. The museum considers things from the viewpoint of a perfect human, a human who cannot age. It is an ageless institution, but it projects the idea of age onto the visitor. There are dates for everything on display, but there is no date for the museum itself, because it considers itself to be an ageless medium.
So for me the idea of the domestic is about the idea of aging. It’s about understanding that the pain in your hand means something is wrong with your body, and if something is wrong with your body, then that means you are alive, and that allows you to go further and not get stuck in one place.
ART iT: But for example in your installation at the New Museum in New York, Museum Shop of Fetish Objects (2012), you seemed to take more of a museum-style approach.
SK: I am not trying to project one idea that supersedes everything. I am also interested in using systems that have the power to validate other things. In the case of the installation in the New Museum, I thought, if it’s going to be in the museum, then how can I use the museum as a pedestal to talk about objects that look like they were found on the street or may not have any value?
In fact, the installation was originally made for a project called “Cinema City,” about objects that came from the politics and the sensuousness and the visuals of cinema. I had to underline the objects somehow to make the viewer understand that they had that particular identity. With the title I was using the notion of the museum shop to talk about objects that might otherwise be completely unimportant. So it’s interesting how on some occasions we can use these validating agencies and at others work against them. The ideal is to be able to do both without getting stuck in one or the other.
On the other hand, in the case of the alternative artist space we run in Bombay, CONA Foundation, I would not use those agencies to validate it, because then how could it be an alternative? And the thing about contemporary art is that it gradually tries to bring all these alternatives into the mainstream.
ART iT: Are you opposed to that?
SK: I’m not opposed to it because I don’t consider rebelling an option. I always say that the moment you rebel you don’t know what you are rebelling against. Rebelling is an act, not a philosophy. So if you don’t know what you are rebelling against, then why do you need to rebel? Instead of being a rebel, one should work in the voids the system has created. It’s impossible to suddenly change a system that has been built up through the long, narrow passage of history. What we can do is add layers to the system.
ART iT: So why did you feel the need to create your own alternative space and residency program?
SK: It was very simple. My wife and I are both artists, and we always have critical conversations about our own works and other people’s works. We realized it might be interesting to share our views with other people – because if it’s just the two of us talking together for the rest of our lives we might become a system in ourselves, and assume that everything we do or say is right. So we wanted to develop a collective understanding, but at the time in Bombay there was no place encouraging this. Even today, if I go see an exhibition, it is difficult to speak critically about it. That’s pointless. People don’t understand that what you create is nothing without a context. They need to realize that in creating something you are adding to the language of art making. You cannot just exercise the language by using the established grammar or vocabulary. Each and every work has to contribute to the language, and that’s how it grows. But nobody thinks about this. Artists only think about how to grow as individuals. If you look at literature or other creative fields, they are constantly trying to understand how to grow the language, whereas in the visual arts there is a tendency to use language as a stunt, rather than help it grow further. So our space is a space for growing the language of contemporary art.
Installation view of “REDUX REDUX: Enter by the side door” at Okazaki Omote-ya Building.
ART iT: Is it more like an agora or forum then?
SK: In Hindi we would call it an adda, a space where you can just come and have a smoke or cup of tea or something like that – a place that gives you the political and social freedom to express your views. You are not bound by any cultural, religious, social or political identities. You can debate them. This was the notion we started with.
Also, because we are primarily artists, we knew our immediate community would be artists. I don’t know many physicists or architects – or accountants, for that matter. So we started with a community of artists, but the agenda was always to go beyond that to look at people like cultural theorists, anthropologists, theater people, or even someone who makes coffee, and ask that person, what is the pleasure of serving x number of coffee cups every day? We want to understand how each and every discipline works in its way and whether there is any possibility for something to happen when two disciplines collide.
Actually, I like to work in an anthropological way when I make art. Had I known about it as a student, I would have chosen to study anthropology, but I only learned about it after I started working as an artist. Then I realized maybe I don’t have to be an anthropologist to view things in an anthropological way. I can still do that as an artist. And maybe an anthropologist could also see things as an artist. These spaces are really interesting and need to be excavated further. So we bring together people from different disciplines, like a physicist and an architect, and cross-pollinate them to see what everybody can get out of it.
This idea of dialogue is rooted in the notion of Bauhaus. We are deeply influenced by Bauhaus and how it destroyed the idea of the private. If you look at the members of the Bauhaus, they each had their own practices as artists and architects but were able to come together to form a common identity and pedagogical structure. It’s not that we want to recreate Bauhaus, but we are interested in the possibility of creating a pedagogical structure that responds in a similar way to our current situation. So the residencies became important because they allowed us to invite people who we felt would be interesting and contribute to the space, and then we started having people over for talks and discussions, and we kept growing from there.
But there is no single model that we follow. We are constantly evolving. That’s the beauty of having a space that doesn’t require a permanent identity. It can be in a state of flux. It’s like water. It can take the shape of any vessel into which it is put.
ART iT: Are you purposely avoiding becoming an institution then?
SK: Perhaps so. If we were to become an institution at any point, it could be the death of our idea. Who knows what the future holds? Maybe we will grow into a major institution 20 years from now, but maybe that would also mean we have failed.
ART iT: In many places around the world, including India, we are seeing more and more private museums opening. What do you think about this phenomenon? Is it something you want to avoid?
SK: I don’t think there is any need to avoid it. Everything has a particular function. Even a small space has a reason to exist, as does a big museum or a commercial gallery or a private museum. The function is time- and space-specific. I think it is more interesting to consider and respond to the specificity of each particular structure, rather than rebel against it. Because if it’s doing what it’s supposed to do, then I feel that’s what it is for. I cannot be a museum and I cannot open a museum. But if there is someone who can do it, maybe they should do it.
ART iT: Well, you already make fictional museums in your own work, so maybe you don’t need a physical museum.
SK: Yes, my fictional museum exists more as an idea. But I’m not the only one working with this kind of language. There are many other artists. I also have to be careful not to rely overtly on this language. I can only use the language in particular cases. I cannot make it into a theory or formula. It is not always a case of x = y. Sometimes x can also equal z or 1 or anything. So for me to grow as an artist I have to constantly question myself and everything I have done in the past. Am I settling down? What settles down is the dirt. I don’t think you should settle. I think you should try to float.
ART iT: This is something we are seeing right now with many young Asian artists who are familiar with Western culture and trying to come up with alternatives to the institutional assumptions of Western culture. They seem to be fine with just floating, and constantly changing and adapting to the context.
SK: Yes. I think there comes a point where certain systems are no longer capable of transforming themselves. I don’t mean to say that museums are useless, because they have served their purpose. But if they are unable to diversify or adapt, then it’s interesting to add a new layer to it. All things have their time. They are born and then they die. It’s important to understand that cycle.
ART iT: What would you do if you were invited to make a museum?
SK: I would love to make a museum. I have lots of ideas. These are the dreams you keep on dreaming. If I was given a huge space in Bombay, for example, it would be a museum that keeps changing itself with everything you bring in and take out.
Above: Exterior view of Okazaki Omote-ya Building. Below: Shreyas Karle.
ART iT: So how is it for you being both an artist and administrator or organizer?
SK: I think it’s interesting – all the more so when I am invited to these big exhibitions. It’s like an out of body experience. You are outside the body of the artist and you are looking at yourself, and you are also looking at the system and trying to understand how the system works. Every time I talk with the curators here in Aichi, I ask them, how did you choose this artist? How did you decide on this space for that artist? How did you choose the people who are working on the project? So for me it’s fascinating because I get a chance to clarify these questions.
When I was invited to the Changwon Sculpture Biennale in South Korea in 2014, the site to which I was assigned got rejected and so I had to go back and choose another site. As the curators took me around, they showed me site after site that had been rejected. So I got interested in this idea of why sites get rejected. I started asking them, how do you go about choosing the sites? Who do you approach, and what kind of permissions do you need? I ended up making a project about the rejected sites. I came up with proposals for all the rejected sites as a way of trying to understand the limitations of each site. All the works in the proposals could theoretically be realized in those sites. Of course, I didn’t actually make the works, but I made a manual of the ideas corresponding to the rejected sites, and potentially that manual could be used by any other artist. So for me the system was important. It’s not about putting myself forward every time as the artist.
ART iT: It’s impressive that you are willing to think through these problems and share your solutions with others.
SK: It doesn’t serve any purpose if I keep it to myself. I did the research and made the manual, and now anyone can use it. I also told the biennale organizers that they can use it, too. Maybe we can propose the project to all the other biennales around the world, because I’m sure all of them go through the same thing. It would be fantastic to make a book of all the rejected sites of all the biennales around the world. You would be able to understand the politics of each space and situation.
In Korea I actually went and met the owners of the sites, and saw the negotiations that are required to help them understand why we want to show in their place. And I’ve done that myself as an administrator in the past. I feel that’s the beauty of it. Because you have to consider it from the other side too: what is the incentive for working with the biennale? These are the challenges that make me enjoy working as a curator or administrator, because I am able to do all these things an artist would not think of.
Shreyas Karle: To Change the Shape of the Vessel