Friday, 30 December 2011

An Exercise in Trust [Interview with Tejal Shah re performance at Vadehra Art Gallery, Delh]

As part of a group show at Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi, Tejal Shah invited participants to take her blind-folded on an hour long walk through the city, as an exercise in Trust. Narrowing the boundaries between art and life, she became the medium, colour and texture; her experience the canvas. ‘Feelings’ became the ‘colours’ of a life-like experience for both artist and participant.


GN: It has been said that ‘Life’ is not something we discover but create in each moment. Is life the ultimate canvas for you?

TS: In some sense, life is the ultimate canvas, but for me nothing is the ultimate medium.

I engage with performance and its potentiality, exploring life-like art. Inspired by Allan Kaprow and John Cage - their thinking about life-like art and art-like art, I began exploring live performance in life-like art – what this means to the viewer and relevance of the viewer to the art, how not to de-contextualize it from life, but to engage in the process of life.

GN: Why do you work through live performance and not painting or installation?

TS: I am interested in it and living in India, the context in which one can make and produce art is limited, largely determined by commerce.

I come from a socially engaged and activist background engaging with issues of marginalization of class, religion, sexuality and gender and I wanted break down the false wall, the invisible curtain that exists between the artist and viewer - to bring myself to the viewer.

GN: Trust is intangible, yet fundamental for harmonious living. What did you hope to achieve by bringing the notion of trust as an ‘aesthetic’ into the gallery space?

TS: Trust is very loaded word. How can I explore some aspect of this through strangers? Contact was the key feature, leading to intimacy and touch, questioning the artists’ relationship with the audience.

I also wanted to work with the duality of trust and mistrust. It is relevant at this point of transition as a human society - of politics, war, colonization and technology.

GN: What does trust signify for you?

TS: There is a kind of fundamental handing over to someone else.

GN: What are the parameters by which you ascertain trust?

TS: I was sound recording the conversations which implied surveillance. Participants were not always aware of this.  I was surprised that people assumed I had completely surrendered.

Sometimes personal things were exchanged - life story experiences, where trust defined how one formed a relationship.

GN: If exploited, the exercise could have been traumatic. Was there any particular participant that tested the threshold of trust?
Tejal with Asim
TS: With Asim on the motor-bike and then also with Mary- with the kind of sharing - such openness, made me feel that there actually was great potentiality for trust between people. I also had sense of care which is related to trust.  

GN: Did anyone display a tendency to exploit the trust?

 TS: There was an artist in Beijing [where I have done this earlier]. San Juan gave me 3 choices and asked me to pick one. He wouldn’t disclose the choices. I really had to just trust, that this person is going to respect – not hurt me.

GN: What was the threshold of tolerance, beyond which you would call for help?

TS: So far I have not come across a situation where I needed to call for help. Dialogue helped as I was always in communication with the participant and could always say ‘yes’ to this and ‘no’ to that. The Gallery had the phone number of each participant and could hear us talk. The only control that I had was to choose to go along or not.

GN: You have done this exercise earlier in Beijing; what was the essential difference between that performance/interaction and this?

TS: In [Beijing] I chose no: 2. San Juan took me to an amusement part with crazy rides. Later, when we’d finished the exercise I asked what choice no: 1 would have been. He said that he would have taken me to the top of a sky skyscraper, made me stand on a parapet for 10 minutes, go down, take a photo and then come collect me.

He had decided that no: 1 would be a very dangerous thing, No: 2 – would feel very dangerous, but still safe [amusement park] and No: 3 –would be something that was not dangerous.

GN: Did this experience change your outlook in any way?

TS: I still think, ‘what if something happened’? Today if someone asks me to do something without telling me what’s happening, even in everyday things like  ‘are you free on this and this day’ my response is: ‘why are you asking, what do you want’?

GN: Your trust has become conditional?

TS: My worry is that someone is putting me in a precarious position where moving by a millimetre could be a question of life and death.

GN: Give some examples of what you and the participants in Delhi did?

TS: At the opening night someone kept asking me to guess what she looked like. She was interested in how people would perceive someone, without knowing what they looked like.
Tejal with Suruchi and Ankit
Suruchi took me to the work of Desire Machine Collective asking me to describe it. We then talked about my performance, whether it is art, not art.

A journalist took me onto the gallery terrace and asked round about questions. I am not sure whether they were meant to be metaphorical or poetic. She said: “there is an arch on a hill, like an old stone arch, its part of a ruin; [pointing me in that direction] what does it signify for me?’ I have been on that terrace many times but did not know if the arch was really there. I had no sense of what was reality and what was not. I just went with the flow.

I was also taken to Tughlaq’s tomb, Qutab minar, Greater Kailash II market [with Mary, where we went to a coffee shop and had coffee]
Tejal with Mary
GN: Were passers-by curious about your being blind-folded?

TS: I kept asking the participants ‘are people looking, how they are looking’? A foreign tourist interacted with us outside Tughlaq’s tomb. And when I was with Amber, some guy asked us in Hindi “What are you doing, what is the meaning of this?”

GN: Were your other senses heightened because you were blindfolded?

TS: Being cut off from the visual world created a dark space – a visual emptiness. It was amazing to lose the visual world and see how calm I felt - no anxiety about being blind-folded; it felt very natural. The sense of temperature was heightened. I could tell when we were going from shadow to sunlight, feel a change in temperature on my skin.

GN: In one recorded conversation you felt that the bike was titling to the left and said “I was scared, but obviously trusted him totally.” Could you elaborate?

TS: I have since re-questioned the idea. The bike felt it had titled, was almost touching the road. I felt desperate and needed to focus on one fixed point. I knew Asim a bit, but didn’t know if he was a safe rider. There was a lot of traffic, the sound was overwhelming. I lost my equilibrium. It was also getting dark and cold. It was not whether I trusted him or not, but a precarious situation.

GN: What specific nuances of trust did you discover through the interactions in Delhi?

Tejal with Mithu Sen
TS: I needed to keep talking. People are open and willing to engage and share, renewing my ability to trust. This is just the beginning.

Mithu was surprised her conversation was being recorded. She saw it as mistrust, making me question myself. The dialogue generated interest in the ethics of what is exchanged.

GN: The notion of trust is abstract, with no visual qualities. How does this come within the purview of the visual arts?

TS: There is something to hear and see and experience. I do not necessarily qualify this performance as visual art. Live art is more than even performance.

GN: We live in troubled times, trust is at a premium. Did the performance give insights that could help address this issue?

TS: Trust was built into the title of work. I am like an optimistic pessimist. I feel we can try and address these things. I have faith. People were willing to participate. It’s only when we engage that we can think about our limits.

GN: As a visual artist what do you experience when you become a performer?  

TS: I felt vulnerable. There was a sense of being exposed and of adventure too.

GN: What did the participants, your co-performers, experience?

TS: People lacked the experience of leading a non-sighted person. Some asked me to walk in front, to lead them and many walked really fast.

Some were vulnerable in the sharing they did.

GN: At the outset, who did you really trust - participants, the gallery, or some other element?

I started with a sense of complete trust in the participants. Ultimately, I do feel that it comes back to one’s self, as collaborative, sharing self.

Chronicles of Loss [Interview with Samar Jodha] Art India

The Bhopal Gas Disaster, disappearing North Eastern tribes, tiger conservation and the afflictions of the elderly are all explored by Samar Singh Jodha in his photographs. He talks to Gopika Nath about what drives him to work on marginalised communities.

Gopika Nath: From advertising and high fashion to the Bhopal Gas Tragedy – how did this shift take place? Was it a prick of the conscience?

Samar Singh Jodha: I could make things look amazing using different techniques of photography. But that wasn’t enough. My father was an economist. Talk around the dining table centred on development, marginalization, food security, drought, and water and wasteland management. We travelled with him to Africa, South America, the Far East and other South Asian countries and so I had early exposure to important social issues. As I watched our society changing, with its new material way of living, its lopsided development, the marginalization of certain communities and the lack of basic amenities, I wanted to talk about it.

In 1993, I worked on a book with Aman Nath called Jaipur: The Last Destination and then on Costumes and Textiles of Royal India with Ritu Kumar. Through these projects I saw another India. In 1994, I started working with Mobile Creches and HelpAge India. The latter led to the work I presented in 1999, namely, Ageless Mind and Spirit: Faces and Voices from the World of India’s Elderly.

G. N.: How does your approach vary from other photographers? Do you make a conscious effort to be different?

S. S. J.: Photography is only a tool. Skill is not the issue. I try to give the viewer an experience that is authentic and as close to what I have been through. In many ways, it is the antithesis of commercial photography where you have one meeting with a client, get your brief, shoot in the next few days, bill the client and your work’s done. There is no process going on in your head.

G. N.: The Ageless project involved a great deal of patient, time-consuming observation over eight years during which you documented the lives of 400 elderly people all over India. Did you get involved in the lives of the people you photographed? Did you investigate their histories?

S. S. J.: My brother and I would spend anything between one to five days explaining to them what I was doing. I took three flights to Calcutta for one portrait of a person living in a joint family because everybody had to be convinced. It had nothing to do with looking through the lens, but respecting the subject’s space.

G. N.: You have worked on issues like Save the Tiger, labour exploitation in the Commonwealth Games and the Bhopal Gas Tragedy – all of which are part of our history of national shame. Your installation Bhopal – A Silent Picture (2009) has been criticized for packaging ‘failed activism’ in an attractive way. What has it achieved in terms of addressing the issue?

S. S. J.: Well, in the space of three months this year, the installation has been shown at the India Art Summit in Delhi, at the Kala Ghoda Art Festival in Mumbai and at Art Chennai. No curator or gallery was interested in supporting it. I put my own money into it. An artist puts his work out there because he has something to say.

I first went to Bhopal in 2004 to work on a campaign for BBC that raised awareness about the Bhopal Gas Tragedy 20 years after the disaster. I made countless trips thereafter and kept thinking about how I could bring this issue into the public domain. In 2009, I invited Bittu Sahgal, an environment expert, and two others from an NGO in Bhopal and one survivor to speak at a public forum at the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai. I did all this because I believed that people should know about these issues and respond to them.

Independent monitoring has recorded that over 95,000 people walked through the box-installation Bhopal – A Silent Picture. There was nothing to sell in there, it was purely about advocacy. It is not that the installation will make the Supreme Court change its judgement, but it will educate a whole generation of people in this country who have no idea what happened in Bhopal. As a photographer, I am using my medium to show what corporate irresponsibility can do.

G. N.: Your portrait of the Tai Phake tribe of Phaneng Village in Upper Assam was a subtle but dark commentary on their impending extinction. The people were the focus of this project. In Bhopal - A Silent Picture, however, you have shown the starkness of an abandoned factory. Were viewers moved by this? And did you manage to make a point about the human loss?

S. S. J.: Shockingly, dozens of people, especially students, had no idea that the Bhopal Gas Tragedy had happened in their own country. Many urban Indians now live like Americans do – a certain section of the young population has started living very insularly. They only know what is happening in their region and nothing beyond. Many said, “Thanks for bringing this here. Can you bring it to our university?” As a photographer, I have used my medium to increase awareness of crucial issues.

G. N.: You are not a dispassionate observer. Your documentation of the Burj Khalifa project in Dubai, like your work in Phaneng, involved months of interaction and observation. Do spaces and people interest you differently?

S. S. J.: Human suffering or celebration does come into play when you are capturing an issue or an event. One has to deal with the human condition. But art is not about going into other people’s living rooms. It is about issues that get sidelined. My work is about how a certain consumerist way of life dominates our so-called development or, for that matter, double-digit GDP growth.

My Through The Looking Glass series (1997) was one of the first environmental portraits project which ‘excluded’ humans. The project provided a counterpoint to the various visual depictions of living spaces in India found in glossy magazines and coffee table books that emphasized stylized order and harmony.  One of the things it did was document the now-pervasive presence of television in Indian life.

G. N.: Why did you choose not to show the people of Bhopal when the gas tragedy caused physical abnormalities, transforming them in terrible ways?

S. S. J.: I did photograph people. I went to hospitals and found deformed third generation babies. I also worked in communities that live around the plant. These images would have been easy to sell but to me it was important how human dignity was preserved in the portrayals. I wanted the general public to experience a space they would never have access to. The plant has been sealed for the past 27 years. There is still a chemical residue there and snakes too. Hardly anybody’s been there.

G. N.: Presenting the installation in a container used for the transportation of industrial goods is a smart way of accusing corporations of environmental neglect. To go back to a question I raised earlier, does it speak, however, of the enormity of the human tragedy? 

S. S. J.: The ‘Box’ is at an angle and inside, there is total darkness, recreating that midnight in Bhopal when the trains were pulling into the station. People were gasping and running, and they had no idea why they could not breathe. The five photographs inside the box are lenticular images of what they would have seen through the train windows – images of the factory that was the site of the disaster. As you walk through the box you lose your balance. I had thought of covering the box with a satellite image of the factory, but eventually, put only the information about the chemical composition of the gases, the dates of the disaster and the number of the people who died, on it.

The US Holocaust Memorial Museum in New York has a room with just a pile of shoes. When you enter this space something intense happens to you. Instead of the pictures of the dead men and women you have only a heap of their sorry possessions. I believe in art that leaves room for the viewer to engage.

Review of Phaneng:  A Journey Into Personal Engagement