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.

 

 

 

 

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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 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.