Post 12: Art

An example of the arrogance of the West—or possibly of the New Yorker that still forms my core—is assuming that major, cutting edge art spaces could only be found in New York, LA, London, Berlin, Paris, Venice and perhaps a few other cities. This of course is nonsense. There are vibrant centers of creativity all over the globe and they are to be found not only in the US and Europe. They may not garner the attention or the sales, but they are genuine places where serious explorations are taking place, often in superbly designed spaces, where there is a history of accomplishment, sometimes going back for generations.

We arranged for our exhibit to coincide with the Delhi International Art Fair, in the hopes that we could entice a few visitors to see Following the Box. We also wanted to begin conversations with other institution as potential future hosts for our work. Jerri was recovering slowly and the fair was a considerable distance from our B&B, but she nonetheless gathered her strength and we toured the enormous fair, easily comparable to art fairs in Chicago, New York or LA. The majority of dealers were from within India, but there was representation from Europe, America and Japan.

One local newspaper complained, however, that an enormous number of people were taking selfies in front of art works they found interesting; at least for the length of time it took to snap a photo. Apparently India has the highest number of selfie deaths in the world—people who step into oncoming traffic while taking a shot of themselves in front of something that seemed momentarily important, or fall of off trains, or out of windows or whatever. As a young community photography instigator, back in the sixties and seventies, my goal was to put photography—this magnificent tool—in the hands of the masses. Technology caught up with me—and now we have billions of photos of pussycats; no understanding that the frame isn’t random; no awareness that all moments are NOT equal. And of course, no physical prints, no albums, no possibility that someone 70 years from now will find a box of photos and follow them half way around the world.

After putting Jerri in a cab so she could get some rest, I went off with two of our participating artists, Aditya Basak and Chhatrapati Dutta to Lado Sarai, a street filled with art galleries. There, in the midst of used tire dealers, roaming cows, sleeping dogs, an occasional religious shrine, street food vendors and assorted evidence of vibrancy, were some 20 first-rate galleries, all with openings to capitalize on the art fair visitors. And of course, there were parties to go along. Art and wine seem to go together universally. An occasional samosa thrown in doesn’t hurt. It was the last day of the fair, and the last day of Following the Box in Dehi.

The next day, we took the show down with the help of Mamta Bhatt from the IGNCA Conservation lab and packed up the exhibit. Through the generosity of Sanjoy Roy, we were able to load everything into a truck and have it securely stored. It now rests safely in a Delhi warehouse until the next venue is identified.

As I was leaving, I went to see the other major exhibit then on display at the museum. It was a retrospective of 90 year old Satish Gujral, a major Indian artist, who studied with the great Mexican muralists Rivera, Siqueiros and Orozco, and who went on to do significant work in painting, sculpture, even architecture. It was an enormous show, but in gallery after gallery, I saw no one—I was the only visitor. Finally, at the last gallery, I saw 2 people in wheelchairs talking with a young woman. It turned out to be Gujral and his wife Kiran themselves. It was sad to see this magnificent and important artist, with a beautifully designed exhibit…and no visitors. Art is a very strange life. We work so hard, grappling with our inner demons; mastering techniques; probing our minds and souls; struggling with whether we wish to communicate with others or simply explore with no regard for reception; struggling financially; understanding finally that success is a chimera but that it doesn’t really matter. We have to seek joy and appreciate whatever gifts we might have along the way. Perhaps those are some of the lessons learned in India.

Kiran and Sarish

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Post 10: Delhi Part II

Ever since we came to India, we have been struck by the tremendous number of serendipitous occurrences that happen here on a regular basis—the seemingly random meetings that have profound consequences; a chance event taking us to places of which we’ve never dreamed; the overheard word that leads to entirely new chapters. That’s what happened at the Oxford Bookstore in Kolkata back in December. We were meeting there with Jon Ward, a friend from the US Consulate. He arrived before us, overheard the word “jazz” from a nearby table and joined the conversation. We are now good friends with Sudipto Sanyal (“Deep”) an English literature professor specializing in popular culture; Amitangshu (“Amit”) Acharya, an environmental reporter and his wife Sushmita Mandal, an expert on water quality. Amit and Sushmita live in Delhi. Not only did Amit come to the opening of our exhibit, but a few days later, he, Sushmita and their friend Swati Parashar, a professor of Women’s Studies at a university in Australia, took us to Purana Quila (the Old Fort) and the National Handicrafts Museum with its spectacular Lota Restaurant. This was one of the few days where we played “tourist,” where we did NO work and simply enjoyed our remarkable surroundings. Basically, we work all the time, not separating weekdays from weekends, even day from night. It takes a tremendous amount of work to organize a show such as ours. So despite being in remarkable surroundings, we often fail to appreciate what is in front of our eyes. This is why we need friends—to wake us up.

Another friend, Rahaab Allana, Director of the Alkazi Foundation, a remarkable archive of historical photographs of India from the 1840s to the 1940s, invited us to an exhibit of his grandfather’s work. Ebrahim Alkazi is one of the most important theatrical directors and teachers in India, basically bringing India into the 20th century of theater. The well-designed, inspirational exhibit explored his life and struggles.  It is such a privilege to enter these worlds, previously unknown to us. Aside from the general cultural knowledge base that surrounds anyone, there is a specific layer for artists and intellectuals, a necessary knowledge of the history of our chosen medium and its relationship with others. Knowledge an Indian artist takes for granted is new territory for us. On the other hand, most Indian artists are well versed in Western cultural history. This clear imbalance reflects centuries of inequality, a colonial legacy that is slowly withering away.

Jerri had not been feeling well for some time, some stomach issue that would not go away. She finally went to the doctor and was eventually admitted to the appropriately named Max Hospital, the best hospital in Delhi, an hour away from our B&B. I dropped her off at the ER, then took an Uber back to the museum where we had previously arranged a film screening, then, accompanied by Ramesh Jain, a trusted friend from the Embassy, made it back to the hospital. Jerri remained there for 4 days, a miserable time for all of us, despite the good care she received. SelfieEveryone asked her where her “attendant” was and were shocked to learn she was by herself. The tradition is for a family member to sleep at the hospital—they even set up a couch, bring food, blankets, etc. In the poorer wards, families roll our rugs and sleep on the floor. Nurses had a hard time understanding that I was working. Eventually, I ended up sleeping on the couch too.

My cousins Paul and Susan from New Jersey had arranged a trip to India around the dates of our exhibit, and were coming into town the next day. I took them to Following the Box, which they really enjoyed, then to the Craft Museum, our Pahar Ganj neighborhood…and then to the hospital to visit Jerri. Not exactly a planned part of the tour, but appreciated nonetheless.

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At Faruk’s store, which has had a loyal Israeli clientele for 30 years.

 

Post 8 – Delhi Part I

Here’s the problem with Delhi if you are a white-skinned foreigner—people assume you are a wealthy tourist, there to see the sights and buy things. So they try to sell you something. Anything. Incessantly. In Kolkata, they are genuinely interested in what you might be doing in their beloved city. They ask questions, are fascinated by the answers, love the fact that you love India and their city. Usually, within a few minutes, they invite you to dinner. This time in Delhi wasn’t as bad as last time, but I did have to yell at an auto rickshaw driver who stopped his “tuk-tuk” in the middle of a trip. As soon as he turned around and started talking, knowing what was coming, I forcefully interrupted and said, “I am sorry but no, I am not interested in going to your brother’s shop. I am not interested in going to your uncle’s restaurant. No, I do not have 5 minutes to just take a look. I am sure you are all good people. I just need to go home now.”

“Home” in Delhi made all the difference. We stayed at “Diya B&B,” a project of the Salaam Balaak Trust, a program to help street kids started many years ago by Mira Nair who made the film Salaam Bombay. Recommended by friend, early supporter of our work and board member Sanjoy Roy, a remarkable man who founded the #Jaipur Literary Festival, #Eye on India Festival in Chicago and perhaps 20 other such ventures, the place was a refuge. In the normally noisy and crowded Phara Ganj part of Old Delhi, this beautiful place was on a quiet side street, an easy 15-minute tuk-tuk ride to the Indira Gandhi National Center for the Arts, home to our Following the Box exhibit. Because the place was new, we had a small apartment almost entirely to ourselves. Dilip and Danish, former street kids, ran the place. They were absolutely wonderful and Dilip’s daughter Diya, for whom the place is named, was a constant joy, talking non-stop in both Hindi and English, constantly pointing to things and naming them, rearranging the produce we had sitting on a tray, constantly moving. The place has a rooftop garden, which we would have used more if it hadn’t been so cold. I know it’s cruel to complain about temperatures in the 40s and 50s when everyone back in New York or Chicago is digging out from several feet of snow and struggling with sub-zero temperatures, but hey…

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The neighborhood alternated between the craziness of the main market street, as exemplified by a wedding procession complete with the groom on a white horse and the quiet beauty of an old building, with art-deco traces of its past still clinging to its surface. This place is simply magical.

 

Post 7: Ripples

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This project is filled with unintended consequences—that’s one of its most exciting aspects. These old photos really resonate. There was no guarantee that we’d find interested artists or that they would react so strongly–or trust two outsiders to showcase their vastly different interpretations. But they did and we developed a creative and caring community, all inspired by our serendipitous find. We are still trying to figure out what it is in us that has kept us so obsessed, traveling now 4 times to India, seeking funding to bring the show around the world, even closing my design business. What meaning does this quest hold for us? It seems that Following the Box is a vehicle, a perfect storm of our abilities, experiences and interests. It is a window into other worlds, both within our selves and within the complexity of India, something that allows us to travel through time and space and unlock our own creativity in a surprisingly safe environment. The Fulbright award validated years’ worth of largely unrewarded work, both professionally and personally. It signified that our insights, observations and practice were indeed valid. No one should need such external validation…but it doesn’t hurt! For me, it also comes at a time of my life when I’m feeling the tangible presence and pressure of time. I don’t feel “old” and many of our friends are considerably older. But I feel I need to make up for lost time, that I want to cram in as much living as I possibly can. Time speeds up as you age; I intend to speed up with it.

It has been beyond rewarding to see the project’s continuing impact; it’s ripple-like outward movements. A Gurkha soldier stationed at the site of the former Salua Air base near Kharagpur wrote a short story in the Gurkha language about 2 Americans who find an old box of photos and bring them home! We met a ceramic artist who decided to incorporate some of our photos in her work. One of our artists was considering a curatorial career after the experience of working on Following the Box. We spoke to hundreds of students. Perhaps, years from now, some faint flicker will surface and affect their life’s direction.

The most dramatic, however, is Arunima Choudhury. Arunima was participating artist Amritah Sen’s teacher. She loved our exhibit, and came to see it 4 times, constantly finding something new and intriguing. She told us last year that she wanted us to visit her home, that she had some ideas about using our material in her work. We readily agreed and took a cab deep into one of the many parts of Kolkata that still lie unknown to us.

Arunima showed us her work—hundreds of drawings and paintings; large enamel plates; jewelry.   She and her husband, both artists, have been working quietly for years and filling their home with the results. She showed us an old quilt and thought that that format might be interesting to explore with our WWII-era photos. We gave her a digital set, excited by the prospect of the ever-expanding nature of our project.

But we were not prepared for what greeted us on our return, 8 months later.   Arunima had made 2 nine foot high pieces! One titled “War is Over” used several of our 10th PTU images, coupled with text and parts of the quilt she had shown us earlier. The second piece “War is Not Over” used Ragu Rai’s well-known image of a child victim of the Bhopal gas disaster of years ago, along with the now iconic image of the little boy whose body washed ashore, fleeing the Syrian conflict. These are disturbing and powerful pieces, inspired by our project. It’s the most dramatic evidence I’ve seen that our work does not stop with our work, that there is no discernible end point to impact, that we have no idea where our words or acts or creativity may lead. It was too late to incorporate these pieces into our already tightly curated and designed exhibit. But Arunima wanted us to have these pieces and do something with them. We are seeking a suitable home, her message needed now more than ever.

 

 

 

 

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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