When we met with curators Diana Campbell and Susan Hapgood in Mumbai in August this year, they were both in a pretty frantic state. Our informal conversation with them was frequently interrupted by telephone calls from gallerists, and artists and everyone in between. As the official curators of the Mumbai Pavilion at the 9th Shanghai Biennale, Campbell and Hapgood had their work cut out for them. Things were never going to be easy, but the duo managed to pull it off, and in style, with an impressive array of work on display.
ARTINFO India caught up with them over email post the mayhem of the opening week of the Biennale. They told us more about the immense obstacles, the lessons learnt, and the rationale behind their selection of artists whose works were featured at the Mumbai Pavilion.
Tell us about some of the fiercest challenges that you had to face while setting up the Mumbai Pavilion?
The scope and scale of the 9th Shanghai Biennale were daunting, and so it was readily apparent to anyone approaching the physical situation, and the timeline in place, that there would be challenges in terms of simply getting any part of the show up and open. We also were dealing with two economies, with developing infrastructure for the import and export of international art, so we were dealt challenges from both ends.
How did you go about selecting the artists to feature at the Mumbai Pavilion?
We selected a range of artists based on how compelling we felt their art was in the first place. The impetus to make a new selection of less recognized artists, with very few exceptions, and to present a varied take on the Mumbai art scene was also foremost in our minds. We wanted a range of work, a range of mediums and approaches to art making, and some lesser-known names, without compromising in terms of the interest generated by the art. We also wanted to capture the sense of the diverse backgrounds of artists who find their creative haven in Mumbai. Gyan Panchal lives and works in Paris, Pablo Bartholomew lives in Delhi but has photographed around the world, and Neha Choksi was born in the US and educated there. Regardless, all are an important part of the art practice of Bombay.
Give us a sense of the space. How was it designed, what were some of the things that were kept in mind in the process of designing it?
We began with one huge room (approximately 340 square meters, or 3700 square feet), and then we looked at the artists’ work and how it would best be displayed. An architectural component was designed to break the room into two areas – a smaller, more intimate space, and a larger space with a performance platform, steps, and a display area built into it. We placed the largest sculptures, by Kausik Mukhopadhyay and Neha Choksi, in the large space, animating it greatly with two highly divergent works – one jury rigged, kinetic and scrappy, the other contemplative and sleek. The long uninterrupted side wall was the perfect place for Pablo Bartholomew’s elegant datum of black and white views of Mumbai, bookended by Manish Nai’s iconic sculptural wall pieces. Shilpa Gupta’s hanging microphone sculpture with sound was just inside the door beckoning viewers as they entered the space, and all audience members had to navigate over Sharmila Samant’s “The Bump”, a sculpture on the floor that was a bit camouflaged, and which quite intentionally impeded any ability to glide right into the space. Mansi Bhatt’s cryptic and evocative performance work took place throughout, and on the red platform, where her character’s accouterments were kept. In the smaller space behind, the works that needed a more quiet environment were comfortably installed – Sharmila Samant’s sardonic wood sofa piece, Hemali Bhuta’s video and framed two dimensional works, made with the most everyday materials, rubber bands, and Gyan Panchal’s elegant minimalist-style works made from cast off plastic and artificially colored marble.
How was the work received?
Very well – we started getting text messages even before the opening from people saying word on the street was that our pavilion looked really strong! Hemali Bhuta’s work was critically acclaimed and specifically referred to in the educational component of the Biennale, known as the Academy of Reciprocal Enlightenment. Some referred to it as the most poetic work on our floor, which housed 10 city pavilions. We have not read many reviews yet but look forward to hearing critics’ reactions.
You did have quite a few problems with procuring funds. How did you eventually go about it? Do you think the relevant authorities could have better handled things?
We had difficulty getting funding from the national, state, and city governments of India, unfortunately—and for such a major international exhibition, that was surprising. We were quite fortunate to receive sponsorship from the Inlaks Shivdasani Foundation, and from Creative India, however, which allowed for the Biennale budget to expand, and to cover some of the artists’ travel expenses, and will enable a separate catalogue to be published. It was the private initiatives that allowed the exhibition to happen, and the Chinese Government funding that allowed the backbone of the exhibition to come together. We had no Indian Government support financially, but did have support from the Chinese government.
What does India’s participation at the Biennale mean for contemporary Indian art? What is its significance? And was this at all a question that you were concerned with?
One key feature of the 9th Shanghai Biennale was to create a group of satellite pavilions focusing on individual cities rather than nations—quite intentionally implying that urban environments are more appropriate sites for capturing creative contexts rather than national parameters, which can so easily fall prey to political boosterism and national instrumentalization of the arts. So we were really honored to be looking at the creative environment of just Mumbai, and connecting it to a broader international artistic vocabulary. In fact, during some of the previews, there was no signage up yet that identified which pavilion it was, and many people agreed that the work on view was of great interest primarily on its own terms, and that it was difficult to identify any of it as specifically “Indian” art. As true supporters of art made in India, yet not wanting to straitjacket any of the artists according to nationalist criteria, we were pleasantly surprised.