Indian Highway

By Terracciano, Emilia | Art Monthly, February 2009 | Go to article overview

Indian Highway


Terracciano, Emilia, Art Monthly


Indian Highway

Serpentine Gallery London

December 10 to February 22

We see an aerial shot of Bombay at dusk: incandescent streams blaze down the city's two main highways and recede into darkness. Dayanita Singh, known for her black and white portraits of well-to-do Indian families couched in their suffocating, domestic surroundings--like Privacy, 2003--has lately turned to colour to portray urban nights. Singh's colours, however, offer neither comfort nor solace. The artist recently confessed that she had intended Dream Villa 11--2007, 2008 (her shot of city traffic in twilight) to convey the image of 'lava pouring down the streets of Bombay' and now felt the analogy to be uncannily appropriate. But in the Serpentine Gallery's 'Indian Highway' the photo has been scaled up as 3m-high wallpaper. Pixelated, rough and cheap in appearance, the enlargement blurs the modernist crispness of the 45cm original, diffusing the image and defusing its compelling attraction. To the left, Singh's series 'Blue Book', 2008, invites the viewer to share the pathos of disused factory interiors. One interprets these photos as nostalgic symbols of the monuments of a bygone industrial architecture linked to a public culture of organised labour. However, the absence of captions leaves the observer bemused as to the 'wheres' and 'whens' of these photos, a choice maintained throughout her most recent experimental work, for instance in Dream Villa.

As the stock market continues its downward trend, Indian art still registers striking returns at both international and domestic auctions. Starting with China and continuing westwards towards India and the Middle East, the Serpentine Gallery's curatorial programme tracks the shift in emerging Asian economies. Coinciding with two London exhibitions, Phillips de Pury's 'The Audience and the Eavesdropper: New Art from India and Pakistan', in collaboration with New Delhi and Berlin-based gallery Nature Morte, and Aicon Gallery's 'Signs Taken for Wonders: Recent Art from India and Pakistan', 'Indian Highway' would seem to be the most ambitious attempt yet to make sense of the surge of contemporary art emerging from the Indian subcontinent.

A show of elephantine proportions, at least in respect to its host gallery, 'Indian Highway' draws together 28 artists, both modern and contemporary, from southern Asia. The viewer is to believe that all the works bear a connection to the Indian highway theme and is told that, while some of the artists reflect on the importance of the road for the flow of human capital, others consider the frail link between rural and urban communities. Yet others direct attention to the 'information superhighway', or issues around environmentalism, religious sectarianism, globalisation, gender, colonialism, sexuality and class. In brief, there is little that the umbrella concepts 'Indian' and 'highway' do not include. As if this is not varied enough, an additional small exhibition of videos curated by Raqs Media Collective is offered as a show within the show.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Adjacent to Singh's wallpaper is Subodh Gupta's installation Date by Date, 2008. Celebrated for his iconic brass kitchenware, bronze casts of Gandhi and scooters with milk churns, here Gupta focuses on corruption and the perennial procrastination in the development of Indian democracy. Inside an abandoned government office the arms of a fan cast a broken shadow on the nicotine-stained ceiling. Around the room, inactive typewriters rest on worm-eaten desks. The sense of deterioration is emphasised by two precarious wardrobes whose drawers overflow with dusty, yellowing papers. One wonders, however, whether Gupta could have created a more critical piece rather than merely restaging the props of political and social obsolescence.

The main space is filled with works by Maqbool Fida Husain, Sheela Gowda, Nalini Malani and NS Harsha. The room is crammed and distracting, and it is difficult to focus much attention on each piece. …

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