Magazine article Art Monthly

Social Fabric

Magazine article Art Monthly

Social Fabric

Article excerpt

The cause is a crucial one: Indian textile production and consumption in relation to global trade, labour and radical politics. A complex subject well beyond the tight dimensions of a doctoral dissertation, so how to address this in terms of an art exhibition? By scaling it down to one event: the strike of the Mumbai mills in 1982-83. Textile production in India had been industrialised ever since the second half of the 19th century and the cotton mills employed over 250,000 workers. As migrants from rural regions, their local sense of community was intensifi ed through factory labour and tenement urbanisation towards radical politicisation. Their exploitation, by what Marx had already described as the 'slavery' of the factory operative, was modelled on the new technologies and the capitalist productivity of the British cotton trade: set clearly on deconstructing the Indian textile weaving industry. How the workers' activism grew through trade union formation, guided by the strong Indian Communist Party, is the subject of Project Space 2 in the upstairs gallery.

This is the most important part of the exhibition for those viewers interested in the social history of the textile strike. It is based on the extraordinary book One Hundred years One Hundred Voices, The Millworkers of Girangeon: An Oral History, edited in 2004 by Meena Menon and Neera Adarkar, which recounts the oral stories of the mill workers and their supporters. Their fascinating testimonies have been recorded for this show by actors and diffused (with some diffi culty) on earphones placed on the wall between visual documentation of the mill area Lower Parel. This is the subject of the 2001 painting by Sudhir Patwardhan, whose work as both radiographer and social realist artist has centred for 30 years on the demographic and social shifts of the mill area. His panoramic view recalls the tableau style of Gustave Courbet's A Burial at Ornans, 1949-50, as both works disturb through the juxtaposition of anecdotal details and emblems of power: pastoral and ecclesiastical with Courbet, working-class and capitalist with Patwardhan's mix of market traders, old mills and corporate high-rise.

Project Space 1 downstairs attempts a contextualisation through artwork and archives. The initial installation by Alice Creischer is generously titled Apparatus for the Osmotic Compensation of the Pressure of Wealth during the Contemplation of Poverty. First impressions of a dadaist joke soon wilt with the effort to comprehend. A wall ledger of illegible notes is announced in the catalogue as a key to avoid mystifi cation ... an 8m-long 'optical apparatus' has been bricolaged with the charm and naivety of a western primary school project on third-world poverty. Its aim is to visualise political facts and mechanisms in 'Isotyps', defined as an atlas for diffusing statistical information in a way that demonstrates the 'ethics of rationalisation, technology and modernity in alignment with the left wing revolutionary thought of the time'. But since the original Isotype time was 1929, the place was Vienna and this work was made in 2005 for an exhibition in Barcelona, any link with either the theme of this show or the current critical conditions for textile workers can only be, as indeed the catalogue warns, cryptic. The accompanying 'Legend' with 29 pages of multifarious data adds to the delirium of this piece and would have benefited the show by its absence. …

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