Indian artists at the 2008 Biennale of Sydney

The 2008 Biennale of Sydney showcased works of more than 180 artists, including over fifty newly created artworks presented alongside some of the world’s most significant art from the avant-gardes of last century. Five Indian artists were invited for the Sydney Biennale, namely Nalini Malani, Ranbir Kaleka, Bari Kumar, Vivan Sundaram and Sharmila Samant.

The exhibition billed this year as a celebration of the defiant spirit, brought together several revolutionary artists from the twentieth century alongside ‘the shining stars of today’. The artistic Director of the Biennale of Sydney, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, elaborated on the theme: “The 16th Biennale of Sydney serves as a constellation of historical and contemporary works of art, which celebrate and explore these dynamics, both in art and life.”

Through installations, performances, texts, an evolving online venue, conversations and other events, ‘Revolutions - Forms That Turn’ articulated the agency embedded in forms, which express our desire for change. Such literal and formal devices are charted for their broader aesthetic, psychological, radical and political perspectives, the curator mentioned.

The ‘space' explored by this exhibition was the gap between the first part of the title – revolutions that suggested a directly political and content-based exhibit, and the subsequent phrase - forms that turn that alternatively suggested the autonomy and isolation of the art object, detached from daily life and spinning on its own, or the energy and potential latent in forms themselves.

The curator of the Biennale revealed her fascination for Indian contemporary artists. Among those featured at the Biennale, Nalini Malani’s shadow play installations, including ‘The tables have turned’ expand on the layering that appears in her paintings and drawings. The artist paints on transparent, rotating cylinders onto which light is projected, filling the room with shadows.

Her art practice encompasses drawing and painting, as well as the extension of those forms into projected animation, video and film. Committed to the role of the artist as social activist, she often bases her creations on the stories of those ignored, forgotten or marginalized by history.

Ranbir Kaleka’s paintings, both on paper and canvas - in oils as well as mixed media - are almost surrealist in their treatment of scenes from day-to-day life. The lines are suggested, rather than sharply traced, and the colors almost deliberately restrained. On the other hand, Bari Kumar’s work operates at the intersection of knowledge and obscurity. The versatile artist creates paintings, fiber-constructions and video works that portray a mélange of seemingly disparate icons layered with fragmented, censored, and abstracted human forms.

As an artist whose creative vocabulary is derivative of placing oneself within multiple communities, he is drawn to exploring the multiplicity of visual culture. His video work, Army of Forgotten Souls, a poetic celebration of the rickshaw, was placed next to Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel (1913).

Vivan Sundaram’s recent work is conceived as a cultural product or debate. It relates to socio-political history, the environment and to historiography itself. He often conceives multidimensional projects that call for audience participation, erasing the distance between spectator and art performance.

Another significant artist on view, Sharmila Samant has successfully employed new media for expressing herself, tackles sensitive issues of identity within a global context, looking at the homogenizing effect of commodification in relation to developing economies. She created a tribute to the agrarian crisis in India and to its victims.

Emphasising the relevance of the works by Indian artists, the curator of the show noted: “There has been Indian representation in the Biennale before. However, the 2008 Biennale showcases Indian art more (prominently) than ever before, perhaps because of my own understanding of the meanings and long relationships with the Indian art community.

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