Post 5 – The exhibit opens!

Both Jerri and I have been doing exhibits for many years.  Sometimes it’s our own work, sometimes that of other artists.  For the past 25 years, most of my exhibits have been done with my partner Frank Madsen through our museum exhibit design firm Teller Madsen. Even after hundreds of exhibits, there is something still magical about seeing ideas communicated through space, about choreographing visitors’ movements so they may have an emotional response, a new perception, an enhanced awareness of the world around them.  This has always been my goal in exhibit curation and design.  It has to look spectacular—and mean something.

I think we did it here.  Thanks to the Indira Gandhi National Center for the Arts for providing this large and beautiful space for our Following the Box exhibit.  Each of the 12 participating artists responded to a different aspect of the still-anonymous soldier’s photographs from so long ago.  Each brought their own creativity and culture to play as they interpreted the images.  The end result is a cross-cultural exploration of historical imagery, perhaps the first time this has even been done.  We are enormously proud and grateful for the opportunity afforded to us first by the Fulbright grant; then by two subsequent grants from the U.S. State Department; by the faith the Indian artists had in this project; and by the legacy left to us by an unknown soldier/photographer who unwittingly changed the lives of two artists seventy years after the end of the war.

 

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Post 4 – Unpacking the Crates & Installing the Exhibit

Everything actually made it in one piece–nothing broken, nothing destroyed, nothing lost. It took several days to set up the exhibit, hampered by the electricity going out and our sitting in the dark for hours on end, waiting for generators to be brought in, which proved difficult because of a recent terrorist attack that made fuel deliveries nearly impossible.  FYI–Installation by cell phone flashlight is not effective.

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Post 3 – An Unexpected Evening

I thought this blog would be about our successful unpacking of our well-traveled crates filled with art, how everything arrived intact and about our experiences beginning to install the exhibit.

But that will have to wait until tomorrow.

We had wondered whether, 4 trips into India, we had exhausted our quota of remarkable and unexpected experiences, that the Serendipity Gods might have turned their attention to other worthy souls. Not a chance. Things happen to us here that are hard to explain and that leave us smiling at the ever-expanding nature of existence.

We were just finishing our work installing the exhibit, progressing nicely by the way, when we started talking to Anil Verma, one of the art conservators at the Indira Gandhi Center whose office is in our gallery space. We mentioned that we were steeling ourselves for a likely confrontation with a more than likely avaricious autorickshaw driver (a “tuck-tuck”) when he offered to drive us back to our B and B in the Para Ganj neighborhood.   He then asked if we might like to join him for dinner, a home-cooked meal at his uncle’s house in that same neighborhood. We readily agreed…and got far more than dinner.

Anil drove us to a cramped side street in Old Delhi, where we carefully maneuvered past tiny stalls and street vendors, children, bicycles, motorbikes and assorted animals until we reached a building under renovation. We walked upstairs and found ourselves in a newly constructed Sikh research center, the Rashtriya Sikh Sangat. Anil’s uncle, Avinash Jaiswal, was the national secretary of the group.

We were offered tea and sweets and began a conversation about Sikhism, Hinduism, religion versus politics, the nature of God. It was one of those memorable conversations that reinforce a belief that indeed we are really one, that differences are exacerbated by circumstance or manipulated by others, that brotherhood and sisterhood is indeed possible, that neither ISIS nor Donald Trump represent the future. We were then introduced to Sardor Chiranjeev Singh, the 85 year-old highly respected founder of the group, who has devoted his life to India and to creating a better world. We seem to find people like this…or they seem to find us.

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Sardor Chiranjeev Singh

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Anil then told us that they were so honored that we joined them, so pleased with the work we are doing, that they wanted to perform a special ceremony in our honor. We were given orange shawls and makeshift head coverings. They sang some brief songs, said things that of course we could not understand but intuited the meaning nonetheless, and took out their iPhones to photograph the event. We the sat down to an absolutely delicious vegetarian meal.

We invited all of then to the exhibit opening. We will no doubt see this group again. As we left, the power in the entire neighborhood went out and we walked carefully downstairs, passing people using their phones as flashlights. It was very dark. A thin, speckled cow led the way, foraging in mounds of garbage strewn in the narrow alley. We made it back to Anil’s car and he drove us home.

It looks as though this adventure is just beginning.

 

Post 2 – Catching Up

We arrived in Kolkata on December 16, after a difficult 32+ hour trip that entailed Swiss Air losing one bag and destroying another on the way to Delhi, the drama of which caused us to miss our connecting flight to Kolkata. A true shame, since we were arriving at 4:30 in the morning and some friends had agreed to pick us up…and we couldn’t call them because our India phones were not yet active. And the next flight was 6 hours later. And while we had talked our way into Swiss Air allowing us to put 5 suitcases in baggage with no extra charge (you are now only allowed ONE free bag, the 2nd is $100 and the 3rd $200!) we had no such luck with JetAir, which hit us up for $200 on the spot. We were not happy campers.

We took a taxi to the same flat we’ve now rented 3 years in a row. Our same security guy greeted us. Then, bleary-eyed, we noticed a skinny young man leaning against our building looking in our direction. It was Max! He had planned this surprise for months. He had been in Mumbai doing a TEDx talk/performance (link posted soon) and flew down just for a few days. He was concerned that we hadn’t yet arrived, since he knew our original schedule. Turns out, he got there 5 minutes before we did. We were in the same taxi line at the airport but hadn’t seen each other. What a way to forget your troubles.

We spent the next 2 days showing Max the neighborhood, introducing him to friends, our artists and neighbors and taking care of exciting things like re-establishing our phone service and attempting to get internet, which should be easy in hi-tech India…but isn’t. Max brought his dulcimer and played his gorgeous music for a few friends, who seemed transported.

Max left on Friday morning, after which we began the task of packing up our Following the Box exhibit and getting it shipped to Delhi.

FedX made 4 trips to the Birla Academy, where our exhibit was stored, before they decided it was too difficult to carry the huge crates up from the basement. BlueDart had no trouble. They had 10 young Bengali men lug the crates up the stairs and onto waiting trucks. It took an hour and our precious cargo was on its way to Delhi.

Post 1 – Back in India!

This is now our 4th trip to India and while some things have become invisible and expected in their familiarity (cows in the road, horns blaring, air you can see, sleeping dogs undisturbed no matter the crowd sidestepping them, people finding shelter anywhere they can, tiny stalls selling everything imaginable one on top of the other) others are still miraculous.  The small, intimate shrines on every street, the always curious and helpful people, the remarkable music, the vibrant life that surrounds you at every turn, the random encounters that soon don’t seem random at all. Serendipity rules. How it is possible that in a city of 13 million, everyone knows everyone is beyond me, but it’s true.

We are back in Kolkata, courtesy of a small grant from the U.S. State Department, to pack up our Following the Box exhibit. It had sat patiently in storage at the Birla Academy, the museum that hosted its inaugural exhibition last February.  Now it is being shipped to its next venue, the Indira Gandhi National Center for the Arts in Delhi.  The exhibit opens 11 January.  This blog will chronicle the journey of the show, but more importantly, the journey of two artists, obsessed with a shoebox filled with negatives, photographs and stories from long ago.