Ends and Means: A Conversation with Geeta KapurClose
Ends and Means: A Conversation with Geeta Kapur
Saloni Mathur: It has been almost two decades since the publication of your book When Was Modernism: Contemporary Cultural Practice in India (Tulika, 2000), a collection of essays formulated during the specific historical conditions of the late 1980s and ’90s in India. Although the book had limited distribution outside of India and has long been out of print, it has become something of a canonical text in the subsequent emergence of discourses around “postcolonial modernisms” or “global contemporary art.” Now a fourth edition of the book will be published in India in 2020 and distributed internationally by Columbia University Press. Can you reflect on the significance of this rerelease, and on the relevance of the radical historiography of Indian modernism you undertook at that juncture to the new discursive and political landscapes of today?
Geeta Kapur: When Was Modernism was written from a partisan position within India, and with a peculiar conjunction (or in the recently decolonized world, not so peculiar) of the national with the modern. This parallels the conjunction of tradition with the contemporary, the two terms that remained in currency throughout the 1980s in many parts of the world, from Cuba to Australia. I see myself as a legatee of this particular order of consciousness that emerged in the wake of decolonization and the hypothesized and rightfully valorized formation of the Third World. There is, I believe, an agonistic three-world phenomenon in the working schema that underlies When Was Modernism.
This consciousness, translated into postcolonial “ideology,” was imbricated in the discourses on the modern (from theory to art history to art practice to museological and curatorial studies) and created a paradigm shift in favor of a radically historicized contemporary. I am thinking here of the major intellectual legacies from Frantz Fanon to Edward Said, and the pedagogical discourse of cultural studies initiated by Stuart Hall and, among many distinguished academics in the diaspora, by Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhabha. I had a sustained dialogue with Rasheed Araeen, artist-editor of the interventionist journal Third Text, with which I was affiliated for decades as an author and member of the advisory council. Parallel to this, I was inspired by my visit, on the invitation of Gerardo Mosquera, to the thrilling third Havana Biennale of 1989. Asian art came up on my horizon at APT1 (the first Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, Brisbane, 1993) and was enhanced by the exhibition Contemporary Art in Asia: Traditions/Tensions, curated for New York’s Asia Society by Apinan Poshyananda from Thailand. These exhibitions were accompanied by effervescent debates that tested the political implications of new art from Asia. More interlocutors emerged and developed their definitional scope by deflecting and refracting perspectives, by wedging into and breaking given molds. For example, the Filipino cultural theorist Marian Pastor Roces, and more recently the younger Patrick D. Flores, both demonstrate how, in what we now call the Global South, we are able to excavate a mass of new signifiers, punctual to the moment yet bearing the mark of difference associated with indigenous, vernacular, and subaltern cultures. By the late 1990s, I witnessed the renewed significance of the postcolonial as an attribute (almost) of the historical contemporary, and I ascribe this qualificatory enhancement within the arts to the then-emergent figure of Okwui Enwezor—to his inspirational discourse-related exhibitions from 2001–02, The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945–1994 and Documenta11 (which I would like to speak more about).
It is impossible to summarize the inspiration gained from my numerous interlocutors here in India. This context defines my practice and is the ground of my commitments. I owe my primary formation to artists, and offer here a few disparate examples. The first is K. G. Subramanyan, whose pedagogical template for the relationship between art and craft in the twentieth century is an amalgam of Rabindranath Tagore’s civilizational perspective institutionalized in the experimental university at Santiniketan, and Gandhi’s personal and social ethics, which include the rightful sustenance of peasants and artisans in the Indian village. Another is Gulammohammed Sheikh, whose syncretic vision derives from world art history, from genres of Mughal and early Italian painting, for instance, and whose narratives unfold communitarian complexities in an increasingly violent contemporary order. And there is Vivan Sundaram, my artist-partner, who tests the dialectic between historical archives and the avant-garde through practices scaled between the monument and bricolage. Among cultural critics, Ashish Rajadhyaksha’s radical readings of the cinematic image make me recognize the frisson between “high and low” cultures, and urge me to enter the vortex of social imaginaries. The public discourse of Susie Tharu, a pioneering feminist and cultural theorist, puts liberal aesthetics (and often my own aesthetic assumptions) into doubt. Her activism and research, reflected in edited documents on literatures of resistance, relate especially to gender and caste—to the Dalit position. This perspective pressures culture to yield extended rights, including what Tharu herself calls the “the right to the aesthetic.”1
Between the 1970s and ’90s, I received fellowships in advanced research institutes2 that allowed more systematic participation in knowledge paradigms mapping India’s contested nation-space. For instance, I needed to understand the political scientist Partha Chatterjee’s subtle deflections of “our modernity,” our democracy, contextualised by the chronicles of the Subaltern Studies collective that cut across civilizational, nationalist, and statist ideologies to build instead an archive of subaltern struggles and contemporary uprisings. And for my self-positioning as a critic in contemporary India, the analytic spelt out by Marxist economist and public intellectual Prabhat Patnaik has been important. As a communist, Patnaik exposes the presence of continuing imperialisms; how Capital places exigent demands on nations of the Global South and directs their transnational alliances. As an economist, he details how progressive public planning in “developing” societies unravels; how the compulsion to undergo neoliberal reforms regresses into authoritarian regimes. Which is what we are witnessing in India today. These sets of political theses are self-evidently necessary for assessing our cultural—and aesthetic—contestations.3
As for the generations that follow, I am, of course, gratified when younger colleagues from South Asia, or those potentially engaged with the Global South, consider When Was Modernism as performing a historiographical function—on the question of the modern. But let me also add that the tendentious arguments deemed progressive in India in the 1980s and ’90s are today set aside by a different kind of political radicality.
When Was Modernism was premised on the idea that the claim to sovereignty declared by independent India through its enlightened constitution was equipped to fulfill a “universal” mandate for social justice. Here, the concepts “modern” and “nation” are reflective of the larger constitutional paradigm where the government and the polity are together pledged to a secular, democratic, and egalitarian society—until neoliberal capitalism overruns economic planning, ensnares constitutional norms, and overpowers democratic values with the rising rhetoric of right-wing ideologies. I am now fully aware that When Was Modernism was not able to move to the next stage of the argument: the language of rights, which must entail a much more radical interrogation of caste and class, state and capital. For instance, an outstanding younger scholar of Indian art history, Santhosh Sadanandan, unravels the fabric of my text by asserting the dissenting figure of the Dalit and by providing an interrogative thesis on caste, which is left underrepresented in the discourse and politics of sovereignty presented in my book.4
Can we hope to withstand India’s authoritarian turn by referring politically and legally to the values of the republic? Progressive parliamentary parties, some Indian Marxists, and a major part of the Indian left continue to work toward this possibility. We know that under the global regime of capital the entire world has turned to the vengeful ideology of the Right and that nationalism has become pernicious. Precisely for these reasons, relative abstractions— like the global-network template termed “transnationalism”—will hardly suffice: Economic treaties and even the political commons offer only symbolic solidarities. The enlightened citizenry of the world is fighting battles from within specific structures of authority—through the ballot or through insurrection, as the historic moment and its political conjuncture require. If the nation is the ground of such bitterly contested territorialities, it is also the ground, however sullied, where democratic forces must align and resist.
I say this at the very moment, in May 2019, when India has voted in a government that rides the violent vicissitudes of nationhood. The party now in power (the Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP) is right-wing and servile before corporate pressure. It is authoritarian, divisive, and driven to empower the Hindu majority of this vast country, to promote religious obscurantism, and, worse, to support hate and murder and literally lynch the minorities and “lower caste” citizens into submission. The present regime of India is to be understood in global terms but opposed here from within the besieged nation.
Mathur: Despite the interdisciplinarity that has shaped your formation, you have been generally described throughout your five-decade-long career as a “critic,” “theorist,” “curator,” and “art historian.” Clearly, your practice is a pluralistic one that does not conform to a single vocational definition. And yet at the core of your approach to art is a steadfast attachment to the various conditions— creative, intellectual, and institutional—of the working artist in India. How do you conceive of your intellectual practice, its aesthetic and geopolitical investments and global audiences, at this point in your life? And what have been the most meaningful sources and sites of inspiration for your self-styled professional journey?
Kapur: I describe myself quite simply as critic and curator. “Art historian” is not a correct academic description for me, and I am not comfortable with the selfattribution of a theorist. Although the term “critic” seems now reduced to the blogger or the newspaper columnist, in the early 1960s, when I was a graduate student in New York, it was starkly different. Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg embodied the figure of the “independent” critic. I was also influenced by the critic Irving Sandler, who was my teacher at NYU, and by Hale Woodruff, the well-known artist from the WPA brigade, then an Abstract Expressionist painter, who conducted studio courses at NYU. I understood later that this figure of the independent critic was based on a male, modernist template of power. Yet the independent critic was also a friend among friends in the studio and the café, working in conjunction with the artist, sharing perceptual and interpretive insight. Such a critic offered a close reading of the artwork on the basis of what was prioritized in New York at the time—the formal “language” of modernist art that also constituted the canon in aesthetics and art history.
The sovereign power of the critic lodged in the New York scene had been dismantled by the time I went to London for further study in 1968. I was guided in my graduate thesis at the Royal College of Art by the Marxist artist-pedagogue Peter de Francia. The MA thesis I submitted in 1970 was titled “In Quest of Identity: Art and Indigenism in Postcolonial Cultures with Special Reference to Contemporary Indian Painting.” I still marvel that this title had all the key words that I, along with other “comrades” in the Third World, would continue to use right into the ’80s.
De Francia had been a friend of John Berger and a possible partial model for the latter’s Painter of Our Time. All this made an easy segue to the volatile figure of Berger himself (whom I was already reading in the mid- 1960s in India). Berger’s message was immediate, urgent; he was offering firsthand lessons on how to look at art, how to inhabit the world, how to be committed to a cause and to place stakes in the future—as if one’s life depended on it. Berger determined my resolve to address the situational exigencies of a particular time and place, commit to heterodox readings and risky polemics, and to enhance the practice, the praxiological energy, of art. For someone preparing to be a critic, this efflorescent style was inspirational: permanent red. He made us believe that ways of seeing art translate into ways of being in the world. Berger was our youth icon.
I might mention that I happen to have had, as a young woman, brief but memorable meetings with all three critics—Greenberg, Rosenberg, and Berger—including the pleasure of interviewing Rosenberg in 1978 in Delhi at considerable length. It was among his last interviews, I believe, as he died some months later in New York.
I read Susan Sontag around the same time and admired her ontological quest: to develop a critical stance with an authorial voice abiding at the core of wide scholarship. Here was a literary style embedded in an epistemological field that far exceeded conventional art or literary criticism and foreshadowed perhaps the concept of “criticality” to be developed later, but at a much more prescriptive end of the schema. Sontag’s criticism was captivating because it retained a style of being suited to fictional, autobiographical, and critical modes such that she could remain on the edge and quote desire, failure, pain in the very act of writing an essay.
“Peerless” is how Sontag described Berger’s ability to bring “attentiveness to the sensual world” and combine it with imperatives of conscience. Sontag was in fact his peer in the way she made an ethical entry into a mid-twentiethcentury aesthetic. With, however, a difference. Younger by almost ten years, she developed a discursive essay form that owed its intensity to a frisson in thought: between extrapolative brilliance (her American style) and the reflexive criticality of the European intellectual tradition to which she committed herself. Berger and Sontag might yet be peers: cognizant of the historical imaginary; interlocutors of the contemporary, of political camouflage and chicanery. More than anything else, both were alert to violence, to the wounding systems of power and to pain suffered in person.
Counting my debts, I must in every instance pay homage to Fredric Jameson. He has remained for me the supreme interpreter-analyst of the great texts of modernity. His own essays are exemplars of the dialectical method, and their rigor creates an exegetical discourse for and within the history of twentieth-century thought. They also address the urgency of the contemporary within the regime of capital whereby the self-generating dynamics of culture in the contemporary, its dehistoricized accessibility, are laid bare. I have admired Jameson from an immense distance and on a few occasions from close by—as when I met him at seminars in Venezuela and in the United States, and for longer periods when he came a few times to India, and specifically to Delhi.
As you can see from this itinerary, I came to the October group of critics, theorists, and art historians late. once there, the rigor and power overtook much else—at least in the field of art history. But the exclusivity of their preferred provenance—European modernism succeeded (only, or largely) by the neo-avant-garde in North America—also reinforced my agonistic stance in art discourse. This counts for an inverted privilege, one might say, in that all resistance is vitalizing! But here I mean to go a little beyond the discourse of art history. The agonistic position toward the Euro-American canon comes, as I have already said, from the larger historical dynamic of decolonizing histories and postcolonial rearticulations; through national allegories and the present transcultural templates. From a determination to embed difference, indeed contradiction, into the heart of cultural histories and thence also in art and art history.
Mathur: I am struck by the formative influence of the agonistic political culture of the 1960s on your intellectual imaginary—in particular, by the way the revolutionary spirit (and disillusionment) of 1968 youth movements in Europe and America come to interface with the unrealized aspirations of the Third World project within your thought practice in general. And yet you continue to use the vocabulary of the Third World and the notion of the Global South to position a particular kind of alternative political consciousness. Can you explain your continued investment in this vocabulary in spite of your awareness of the sense of defeat that it evokes?
Kapur: Generations of postcolonial theorists have contended with the decolonizing process and the Third World project, but the discourse today seems to point toward its “failure,” even repudiating the founding optimism of the Third World, seeing it as false ideology. Before I state my position, the lapse of this political project does need to be admitted. There was, within two decades—roughly after 1965—a dissipation of democratic mandates, a hardening of revolutionary energies, and a recurrence of repressive dictatorships. Quite soon there was indifference toward Afro-Asian solidarities and a rejection of the Non-Aligned Movement—and indeed of any common platform that spells strategic autonomy, ethical commitment, and nonaligned solidarity. This makes a devastating narrative.
Yet I do not—will not—identify these as “failed” projects of history. In that schema every aspirational gesture, and even committed forms of praxis, would be marked in hindsight to have been “failed action.” I continue to use fraught terminology because it goads me toward an already problematized orientation.
I deploy the term “Third World” not as a mere deduction from the bilateral Cold War. In its precipitate moments the “third” was a political alternative; it is also a long-lasting trope—as, for instance, when precolonial traditions are recalibrated to claim diverse styles of cultural modernity. In the spirit of seeking sovereignty, peoples’ movements, liberation struggles, and state formations after colonialism produced, in Fredric Jameson’s phrase, “national allegories” that are emancipatory as well as oppositional. This phrase has been subjected to extensive debate in postcolonial discourse but remains for me a productive proposition: The allegory, here, is usually so constructed as to reveal (more than conceal) the nation’s fault lines. Repeatedly investigated, these lineaments make up the fractured imaginary of our postcolonial citizenry.
A relatively recent revival of Bandung and Non-Aligned Movement histories, especially since the fiftieth anniversary of Bandung in 2005, has generated a dialogue around the idea of a new humanism developed during the founding moment of postcolonial consciousness. I am unable to elaborate here on the proliferating research, symposia, and publications on the subject. To my understanding, real politics and discursive reevaluations need to acknowledge the historical conditions in which choices are made, whether utopian or pragmatic. If, for instance, developmentalism or the degree and kind of modernization are now subject to a more precise critique, it is only in hindsight—with a better understanding of capitalism’s million maneuvers and a greater scientific knowledge of ecology.
Even if the institutions of nation, state, and democracy have unraveled in negative ways, a critique that is irreversible produces a morbid impasse. Equipped to subsume the aspirations of a restless demos, capital produces spectres signaling “lack” across all fronts except those that endorse its own triumphant expansionism. Even more so, then, troubled histories, in my opinion, need not be considered demonstrations of some fundamental lack.
A little aside: In the past two decades there has been a tendency in the West—genuine, strategic, sometimes naive, and hasty—to dismantle its own hegemonic position in matters of art and culture and become “inclusive.” While this is admirable, I don’t believe one can overturn self-defining criteria with a gesture of abdication. This could in effect end up extracting the radical modalities of the erstwhile other, of appropriating by ready convergence the painfully gained discourse on a heterodox modern by scholars and artists outside of the West.
In my ongoing argument, it may just be that lack itself provides the impetus for artists to call forth an avant-garde in displaced locations and diverse contemporalities. I am aware that the avant-garde depends on the particular historical conjuncture and the degree of respon siveness in the face of exigent forces. I do not want to relativize this convergent force out of existence, but rather to endorse radical claims from places and situations obscured by the hegemonic status of culture so easily assumed by both regressive and benign ideologies.
Mathur: Let me now turn to the figure of Okwui Enwezor. His recent death at the age of fifty-five, after a long struggle with cancer, has been a tremendous loss for the art world. As the artist John Akomfrah stated, Okwui was “this enormously prophetic figure, wise beyond his years, whose insights—vision, if you will—literally shaped the universe many of us now inhabit. He was like an enormous tree in the glare, whose shadow provided refuge, hospitality, generosity, and love for so many.”5 I know Okwui was for you simultaneously a friend, an interlocutor, and a fellow traveler on an intellectual journey. Can you reflect for a moment on your individual relationship, and on his influential life and legacy?
Kapur: If you will allow a personal preface to this question, I want to begin by articulating my deep grief at the loss of a person I knew for two decades but with whom I developed an affectionate and comradely relationship more recently. I respond to your question from a place lit by the luminosity of his presence, a place too soon shadowed by his passage of pain.
Okwui entered the international art scene as an African, narrativizing the history of the continent in which he was born and in which he lived until he was a teenager. His exhibition of African photography at the Guggenheim (1996) was followed by the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale, Trade Routes (1997), and the pathbreaking, explicitly political exposition The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945–1994 (2001–02). I first encountered him as a co-curator (among nine curators) in the 2001 inaugural exhibition of the Tate Modern, titled Century City: Art and Culture in the Modern Metropolis. But it was in May 2001, when he came to India to stage the second of Documenta11’s five Platforms, that I really saw him set up a miseen- scène for a dramatic discourse and perform.
What Okwui did with documenta was to enact the makings of what he called the “global public sphere.” Within that sphere, he positioned the contemporary with the inerasable prefix “postcolonial.” He argued that the entire world was galvanized by a “postcolonial constellation,” from the heart of which was released—and I proceed hereon with my own extrapolative interpretations of his contribution—a vector that would tear into the West’s (still dominantly bourgeois) public sphere and its holy ground of civil society. A vector that would expand the conceptual and demotic scale of the public sphere to a global register and open out a polemical space for genres and practices. His projects abutted art and political partisanship, curatorial subtlety and pedagogic rhetoric, the wounds, pain, and transformative force of the aesthetic, which he situated within history proper.
Through the four famous Documenta11 Platforms held in 2001–2002 (in Vienna/Berlin, New Delhi, St. lucia, and lagos), Okwui staged a dialogue of diverse and opposing movements converging around questions of democracy, truth and justice, besieged cities, and the identity question that haunts the postcolonial subject. When they reached New Delhi, the documenta team discovered, to their surprise, the great desire in India for debate and impassioned disagreement. After Vienna, where the subject of democracy was, we were told, discussed politely, everything here was suddenly urgent. At the Platform in Delhi, artists (for instance, Alfredo Jarr) spoke together with political and cultural theorists (such as Mahmood Mamdani and Manthia Diawara), formulating their contestations, producing performative frisson, and annotating the contemporary. Okwui took the stage with ease and agility in between the challenging presentations and also took pleasure in the turbulent response from the audience. I believe he subsequently came to appreciate how in India (and in certain cities and states in particular) artists, academics, and activists interrogate alternative forms of historical representation across a spectrum of positions, from postcolonial and national, left and subaltern, and transnational and global vantage points.
These platforms culminated, as we know, in a dense and massive exhibition at Kassel named Platform5 of Documenta11. The boldness of the project lay in overlaying political discourse on an exhibitory event. In Platform5, the discourse was generated in the form of direct address and unexplored imaginaries. The exhibition laid out a maze of ambitious blackbox encounters along with anarchic forms of outreach. Okwui upturned canons within the very terms of art history and institutional protocol. Included were some extreme demands, like the months of (impossible) viewing time required for the video and films presented through the exhibition. The experience was— and was meant to be—stimulating and exhausting.
I was struck then and have been since that Okwui retained the word “postcolonial.” Yet he was not content to be regionally bound: He placed one frame within another in his efforts to view the contemporary in the form of a parergon. Indeed, Okwui unsettled precisely, paradoxically, my own thirdworld/ postcolonial identity—its peculiar attachment to the modernity project, and certainly my own Indian nation-shaped subjectivity.
The postcolonial global in Okwui’s reckoning was characterized by the expanding diaspora; it was situated in locations geographically outside the West—latin America, Africa, Asia—that offer at different times, and for quite different reasons, a conjunctural dynamic propitious to radical, critical art practice. Whether we should conjure it in the form of an avant-garde was always posed as a question. Tellingly, therefore, he entitled a section of his essay in the documenta exhibition catalogue “What Is an Avant-Garde Today? The Postcolonial Aftermath of Globalization and the Terrible Nearness of Distant Places.”
We were surprised and moved to hear that Okwui had asked to be taken back after his death to Nigeria, to be buried in his father’s compound in Agulu. Okwui linked Africa to America, but how! I saw him somewhat remotely as a fierce black sun illuminating the passage across the Atlantic. He was born in the city of Calabar, on the Nigerian coast, and went to New York, where he began as a young poet, a student of politics, a night hawk in the city of all cities. But already by 1996, when he was thirty-three, he had stepped into the New York art world to become, as if by destiny, this figure risen from the Black Atlantic—able to arch himself across the ocean with courage, freedom, and passion. A bridge stretched over the horrific historical passage between the two continents. Forgive the exotic metaphors; I am well aware these are not quite permissible in academic dialogue. After his passing, there is for me, as for so many, many others, an urgency to receive and transmit the energy he radiated.
Mathur: Your image of Okwui Enwezor as a figure who spanned and illuminated oceans and continents evokes some of the geospatial coordinates he himself adopted in his last major exhibition project, Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945–1965. This ambitious show, which featured some 218 artists from sixty-five countries, was an unprecedented effort to map the itineraries of modernism on a global scale in the two decades following World War II. You contributed to the substantial edited volume that accompanied the show and delivered a keynote lecture on the occasion of the exhibition’s opening at the Haus der Kunst in Munich. Can you speak about how this project approached modernism in a way that was “global” in a meaningful sense, rather than merely inclusive?
Kapur: Initiated by Okwui Enwezor and co-curated with Katy Siegel and Ulrich Wilmes, Postwar was premised on the material history of the postwar decades. Almost four hundred artworks were divided into eight thematic sections and juxtaposed on level ground. This might suggest a community of artists who have settled into coexistence within the broad parameters of modernism. The exhibition, however, compressed this inclusive history to such a degree that it imploded—and laid bare uneven terrain: disparate sites, conditions, and means of (art) production.
The curators paid attention to the known genres and to figurative and abstract, material and conceptual, avant-garde and rearguard positions. This was not an academic exercise, however, and the exhibition acknowledged the condensation of idea-image in modernist art. But interwoven with modernist formalism—from Cubism to Concretism—were such categories and genres as humanism, realism, and (more complicatedly) nationalism. This made the exhibition a democratic space where the itinerary of art movements set up complementary, often contradictory, connections. Such disalignment breaks the institutionalized incantation, the now notorious metanarrative of Western modernism, but from within a recuperative and fully viable art-historical understanding gained from positioning the interlocutor at different vantage points.
An exhibition is a good place to plot the grid favored by modernist art historians; to complicate it with the asymmetries of figure and sign; and to then mirror the disjunctive template of modernism. Postwar’s anachronistic takes rejuvenated subsumed categories: indigenous, national, diasporic. These ran parallel to globality and were thematized with further implications: that the humanist premise of European realism may translate into an allegorized nation-form in Mexico or India (in painters like Diego Rivera and Maqbool Fida Husain, for example) and bring into modernism another ideological disruption. Postwar had the courage to ignore the canon, to include “minor” works, to contravene institutional endorsement. This reworked modernism demonstrates why hegemonic art history, serving the conservative purpose of maintaining art as institution/the institution of art, is something of a lost cause.
On a personal note, I had seen four of Okwui’s major exhibitions and we had met several times in connection with seminars and publications before he invited me to write (in 2016) for this mammoth Postwar project. He asked me not to write on “Nation and Its Forms,” one of the categories in the exhibition with which I would normally be associated, but on “Matters of Form,” saying with a chuckle that he would like to hear me speak a different language! He also invited me to give a keynote for the exhibition opening, but here he said, again with a chuckle: Come and speak on the cultures of decolonization, the Third World, and the “genealogies of the contemporary,” a proposition that engaged him in recent years and that he often reiterated.
Just at the moment of his turn for the worse in his terminal illness, Okwui was planning an exhibition titled Postcolonial (1965–85), which was to be followed by Postcommunism (1985 to the present). Part of an immense expositional triptych (Postwar, Postcolonial, Postcommunism), this curatorial vision was terrifyingly prescient in its timing. Citizenship is deterritorialized; migrants and refugees must count as a viable polity in countries not their own. Okwui’s determination to chronicle the century, and our fully globalized but also fully dismembered world, was signaled at the very same moment, in 2015, in Venice. There, three volumes of Marx’s Das Kapital were presented in a staged performance—in his words, “a kind of oratorio”—in which choir, ensemble, and soloists came together with theorists and writers to perform All the World’s Futures.
Toward the end of his life he spoke about a curatorial ethics. Okwui wanted see the history of art in conjunction with the history of humanity; a proposition that is humble, self-evident, and audacious. The very terms— humanity, humanism—are not only anachronistic but deeply suspect for many in the art world. Yet anachronisms enable us to make temporal transit reflexive; to pursue subsumed forms of knowledge, lost or distorted aspirations, and different forms of recension. Such anxious relays invite hermeneutical exegeses or, at a simpler level, retrospective annotation of neglected discourse, including that of the aesthetic.
Mathur: I’m glad you mentioned anachronism, since it is a revisionist and anti-teleological strategy that you have often embraced in your own curating and historical writing. But you also refer to “anxious relays” and a profoundly reconfigured ground for understanding art-historical modernism. one source of such anxiety for some is surely the radical destabilization of the prevailing Euro-American canon. Can you speak to the implications for (and future of) the canon in twentieth-century art history thrown up by the underexamined and neglected itineraries you advocate?
Kapur: If there was, until the mid-twentieth century, a sovereign status for modernist language, it is now pulled apart by a force field of radical derivatives from elsewhere. If modernisms in Mexico, Brazil, India, Egypt, Nigeria, Senegal, Indonesia, Japan, and so many more locations have to be accounted for, it is obvious that the conventional art-historical litany of origin, chronology, precedence, and derivation will not do. And if there are any claims for a universal mandate, artists beyond the Western metropolis, and indeed from everywhere—repressed, resistant, liberated, cosmopolitan—must be seen to partake of and shape the political unconscious of the modern. This shift of focus can be encrypted in many ways: as the distributive economy of anthropologically supported sign systems corresponding to distinct cultural paradigms; as translations of the structures of feeling embedded in these paradigms; as agonistic gestures consciously positioned against the canonical modern developed alongside imperial histories.
Given the hegemonic assumptions of modernism, we need to understand the difference between canon and grammar. Canon is an institutional laudation; grammar, on the other hand, refers to the structure of language. Even if we accept a “master grammar” of modernism, it is with a caveat: Contextually (or culturally) shaped vocabularies possess their own grammar, and a globally induced contiguity of world cultures offers a grammar-withingrammar paradigm with complicated realignments and subtle imbrications. Gross generalizations about modernism obscure the complex moves by which artists appropriate, annotate, invert, and transpose signs and meaning. If there is indeed a master grammar of modernism, there is also a transactional grammar of production, practice, and use.
The canon, by contrast, is a principle of condensed form, a stable and universalized criterion, an auraticized concept. In postcolonial discourse, canons are seen to be modern art’s sin. But are they not also transitive specters? To be confronted, overturned, and let be. . . . What in actual fact happens when Charles Esche shows in the Van Abbemuseum in the Netherlands an exhibition of lissitzky and Ilya and Emilia Kabakov together? The canon as it resides in the name of both is subtly displaced. Writing for the catalogue, Boris Groys offers intercut expositions of the Soviet avant-garde and of the underground “avant-garde” just preceding the collapse of the Soviet Union.6 The utopian moment is presented in relation to a melancholic admission of socialism’s failure—but within a paradigm that favors the conjunction, thereby refusing the cheaper exposés that turn utopias into dystopias. In Groys’s extended writings on Ilya Kabakov, the artist’s installative enactments are rendered so as to persuade the reader toward a redemptive nuance, which is not, in my understanding, a canonmaking approach.7
So, how shall we battle the bogey of the canon? It is not the case that we add and subtract, participate and deflect: That is nothing more than a kind of graft long associated with postcolonial and postmodern tactics. We might look to an artist or movement that wedges into the established template of (say) modernist formalism and, by torquing formal vectors within the canon, arrives not only at a different stylistics but at “new” constellations of (historically, culturally determined) signifiers that offer a different semiotics within the template of modern art history and aesthetics.
We must face the canon, then, with the power of contradiction: linguistic, ideological, and historical. With such scrutiny, the canon may become more like a trace that is useful in nothing but laying fresh ground—in the way of a palimpsest—for art-historical discourse.
Mathur: Your vision for imagining new constellations of the modernist canon is obviously predicated on the dismantling of a monolithic understanding of modernity itself, especially from the vantage point of so-called “other” modernities. Can you say more about how artists from the non-Western world have participated in this process of dismantling and reinvention, even as they confront the real challenges of alterity and the global relays of appropriation and reinscription? I ask because these entanglements between past and present seem to everywhere animate and intensify the conditions for critical art practice in the twenty-first century.
Kapur: Postcolonial investigations confirm that while colonial modernization served the purpose of gross exploitation, modernity was co-produced by the West and its colonized subjects. our shared modernity bears the wounds of history, and, like many in the postcolonial world, I would rather that this wounded body survive through good care.
With some irony we might say that the crime of colonialism is, if anything, alleviated by the project of modernity. This was the case with many third-world countries that developed their modernity in conjunction with Marxist-socialist tendencies, deploying contradictions to de-fetishize canons and to calibrate modernist language in relation to their communitarian ethos and to their emergent contemporaneity.
Working at a tangent from the Western “institution” of modern art, an artist from the non-West draws on those destabilized contexts of the modern where cultural otherness and political exigencies make up the scene; and where the contemporary, shaped by the politics of postcoloniality, poses a productive paradox. This double consciousness of an artist processes two simultaneous and ostensibly incompatible modalities: a confidence to claim international art, both canonical and avant-garde, and to face the vicissitudes of the national imaginary as it peaks and survives and deconstructs its own prospects on the ground.
There is a voluntarist ring in turning default situations into discursive categories and formal devices. But artists and artworks function precisely on that speculative edge, so I extrapolate further. Several decades ago, the postcolonial vantage proposed another avant-garde that is politically responsive and annotates the relationship between art and life within the semantics of existing, transforming cultures. I am thinking here of latin America in the 1960s, its interventions in the fields of visual culture and cinema—resistant, advanced, explosive. In the 1980s, such initiatives spread through Asia and Africa and have more recently appeared in West Asia.
Throughout this period, cultural theory became actively partisan. Homi Bhabha, for instance, offered the trickster category of hybridity; and when hybridity was made over into an appropriation euphoria (handy for Western and non-Western players alike), the proposition changed into a transfigured alterity. These tropes include intrusion, inversion, misuse, misunderstanding, subversion, and above all translation, which was so well argued by Sarat Maharaj—that which he described as “perfidious fidelity” in 1994.8
What this means is that there has been a continual reinvention of cultural- linguistic codes; of sign-laden, performative, expositional, and discursive practices that cite canons in order to produce counter-canonical works. You exercise authorial command, on the one hand, and, on the other, invoke community and commonality, based on material culture and situational demands working across all levels, from the indigenous to the urban and metropolitan.
As the monumental modern fractures, fragments of meaning materialize as bricolage. This is already a form privileged within modernist and avantgarde art. The point, then, is to redistribute and repurpose this grand wreckage. Art from outside the West but inside the international—this opens possibilities whereby criteria, meta-canons, and teleologies projected by West-centered avant-gardes come to be radically dispersed. If radicalized spaces where “third” options surface are continually mapped, this remapped space is where my argument is located.
Yet even as we acknowledge the sovereign command of history and translate diachronicity into avant-garde discourse, the radicalism we seek in the contemporary is challenged in the twenty-first century: liberatory rhetoric is rudely set aside; historical consciousness is divested, disinvested, or subsumed; political agonism is masked by neoliberal “parities.” Can an artist turn the argument around and run it in reverse? In a way that cultivates subjectivity, engages mortality, and figures collapse before attempting retroactive recovery? Such a thought repositions the time of the now. There is renewed value in recursive narratives that persistently reposition our understanding of the contemporary. As much as I argue for a redefined avant-garde, I persist in a paradoxical pitch for the utopic, the poetics of which echo—if liminally—within history.
Mathur: Readers of your work outside of South Asia tend to be familiar either with your broad theoretical essays that have responded to the international conditions for contemporary art or with your substantive contributions to a number of important exhibition catalogues. Yet a large corpus of your work has been concerned with the careers of individual artists from India, past and present. Moreover, there are certain artists—like M. F. Husain, Bhupen Khakhar, and Nasreen Mohamedi—who have commanded your attention for decades, resulting in an almost uncountable number of essays about each from the 1960s on. Your recent essays revisiting the legacies of such figures posthumously are, to my mind, among the most intense, passionate, and substantive texts you have ever written. While this compulsion to return to certain artists again and again could be mistaken for repetition, it actually betrays a method of critical reinscription through which the subject matter— a single body of work—becomes somewhat inexhaustible. How and why has revisiting the same artist or diving deep into a singular corpus sustained your practice of criticism in the way that it has?
Kapur: But just look at the modalities of thought and practice I can tackle with only these (and a few more) artists. With Maqbool Fida Husain the Indian art world developed its voluntarist bid for an image-mythology of and for a nation. Husain’s oeuvre can be read through a frame much larger than the artist could actually envisage: His project aspired to shape the community ethos into a representational “system” with democratic, partisan, and progressive values dedicated to the construction of a new nation-state. Husain, like many of his generation, secularized civilizational mythologies into national allegories—in the sense meant by Jameson, as I’ve already noted. Their historicizing strategies encourage me to plot the ideological position of artists transitioning from colonial to postcolonial cultures, in which I participate as an evolving, struggling fellow citizen.
With K. G. Subramanyan, a student at Tagore’s university at Santiniketan and a follower of Gandhi, you get, on the other hand, a project upon which to build a lexicon, a grammar, a language of signs that demonstrably configures the numerous cultures of this vast nation. Modernist vocabulary was purposefully deployed and placed within this matrix—as a crucial component in the destiny of mid-twentieth-century India—to be translated into systematic reflection on art, craft, pedagogy, and cultural policy. Subramanyan’s astute, often ironical “picture of the world” mirrored the contradictions of a heterogenous culture, innumerable communities, and a possible modernity.
Then take Bhupen Khakhar, and we arrive at community from a wholly different position: that of the modest vibrations of a provincial community life that does not aspire to be a nation and maintains with Gandhi its everyday humanity—if also a subversive sexuality that embraces the community’s many gods—and sets the stage for importunate and embarrassing intimacy. With Khakhar, we get a view of urban popular culture; of subaltern lives; and, at the existential level, of mortality, morbidity, and the persistent masquerade of the gay middle class in India. Khakhar remains unique in India (and indeed among artists of his generation anywhere in the world) for revealing the efflorescence and anguish of the sexual body; for exhuming subjectivity unto death—and in extremis. These insights I could only gain from repeated acts of writing about a subject whose complexities unraveled as he came into his late style and whose painting bore witness to his devastating death.
Contrast this intense subjective realm with the pure abstraction of another artist on whom I have repeatedly written, Nasreen Mohamedi, and you will see that I am not an ideological bigot in the national, postcolonial mode! While pursuing Khakhar’s “blackmailing” subjectivism (a reciprocal reference to his mockery, his stripping bare of himself and the other), I return over and over again, for more than three decades, to the formal grace of Mohamedi’s work. In the last two decades of her life, she worked exclusively with ink and graphite on paper. It was a solitary and disciplined practice. She drew the classical grid with precision instruments; she drew chevrons with lines that became their own shadow, that vanished like arrows and reappeared like vectors. And in the last phase, she floated elliptical forms in what always remained not sky but blank, two-dimensional space. Her pristine formalism contrasted with an admission of anguish—at her bodily frailty. She pursued a metaphysics that touched upon the purely transcendent aspiration of sacred geometries; of a formal perfection in the Islamic cultures that predate modernist abstraction and to which Nasreen felt drawn, as she did to the phenomenological experience of the desert. But she always valued her contemporary position as an abstract artist within world art. It is my repeated engagement with Nasreen’s work that opened out the compound language of female abstraction in the mid-twentieth century.
I am currently in the process of completing, for my forthcoming book Critic’s Compass: Navigating Practice, my longest texts ever on three artists: Vivan Sundaram, Navjot Altaf, and Sheela Gowda. Here I formulate, extrapolate, and conjecture on installation art (for want of a better designation for this complex and heterodox practice). I refer to works that chart historical trajectories through constructions produced in staggered time zones and stressed situations. I have argued, in almost microscopic detail, for marking difference—not difference as an a priori category within the discourses of the postmodern and the postcolonial, but difference as a situational necessity within the politics of the contemporary world. Just as Chinese installation and performance art dating from 1989 yields a very specific narrative, in India as well, the installation form emerges in the early 1990s at a moment of crisis in this nation’s self-definition and its assumptions around modern, secular, and democratic values. The shift of language and form must then be conceptualized in significantly different ways, deducing from within a specific context the manifest dynamic that torques any template prepared on behalf of world art history. In these three essays, I will have tried to define the field, the material/materialist aesthetic, and the precise modalities of construction, techne, and facture—if I may use this vocabulary from the era of the historical avant-garde.
Vivan Sundaram was the first to introduce the installation form in India, at a very particular juncture in Indian political life, when the right wing started to gain ascendance—when Hindutva brigades began targeting Muslim citizens on a mass scale, uprooting the constitutionally scripted idea of a secular polity. In Memorial (1993–2014), Sundaram developed an installation practice in order to induce the viewer to face death on the street— offering a disjunctive experience that then commits the viewer to mourn, symbolize, and resurrect the victim within a precipitate moment of history. In contrast, Sundaram’s site-specific installation History Project (1998) scaled the architectural hubris of imperial history and developed a monumental mise-en-scène for a historical archive of Indian modernity presented as an elaborate, almost classically defined bricolage of image, object, script, sound, and cinema. Political archiving continues in another historical project, Meanings of Failed Action: Insurrection 1946 (2017), co-authored with film theorist Ashish Rajadhyaksha, where the interior of an architectural, ship-size container turns into a mise-en-scène for an extensively researched documentary recitation of a naval insurrection dedicated to the last phase of Indian independence.
Navjot Altaf brings to bear a different kind of materiality. Her practice grasps the ground, the land, the earth. Engaging over decades with indigenous/rural communities in Bastar, a region in the heart of India— mineral-rich and relentlessly exploited—her “collective” at the village and district levels helps conceive and install functional public structures on site, like ergonomically designed plumbing systems and hand pumps hospitable to village women in their daily trek for water; or large play arenas conducive to innovative games for their children. She also continues to oppose oppressive ideologies and to translate her resistance into elaborate installations in exhibitory spaces across cultures. Calibrating the relationship between physical structure, image geometry, and moving image, she integrates these into a documentary mode where the witness is present and absent in the subtlest of transpositions. At this juncture, she is able to sustain a complex positionality where traditional communities and historical collectives begin to signal potentially insurrectory action against a state rapidly becoming authoritarian.
With Sheela Gowda, by contrast, materiality is charged with an aesthetic that refers to and then displaces what might be read as the magical potency of indigenous resources. With a style of signification that has ritual and symbolic value, Gowda proposes how nature may be re-enchanted to fulfil not sacred but a secular regeneration of cultural norms. With a frugality of means that has ethical value, Gowda approaches the complex legacy of Gandhi and also touches upon the question of caste oppression: for instance, the fetishization of touch and the pernicious ideology of pollution. And, through releasing constellations of signifiers that have distributive possibilities and a style of performative praxis, Gowda creates—subtly and precisely— a segue into the linguistic “rules” of modernist language, setting up subversive play with art-historical canons.
These artists, their work, and my texts will offer, I hope, dense annotations to the art-historical lineages of installation art available to, say, the North American viewer/reader.
Mathur: I have a question about this word “practice” in the subtitle of your forthcoming book. on the one hand, the concept of practice is useful because it encompasses a broader constellation of ideas, decisions, and impulses that surround the physical activities of art production. on the other hand, the term has become fully institutionalized in art schools and MFA programs and seems increasingly attachable to anything: social practice, multimedia practice, intellectual practice, critical practice, and so on. How does one “navigate practice” amidst this proliferating and increasingly nonspecific vocabulary? Put differently, what is your approach to practice in this new collection of essays? And what kinds of activities, sensibilities, and possibilities are galvanized by this concept?
Kapur: Practice is a serious business. It is more specific than vocation and less severe and tight-ass than discipline. It is material practice always, and when it refers to advanced technology I will bow to others to find the vocabulary.
How can I, or any artist or critic, not be committed to practice? It is a given, a tautology within the discourse of art. A certain deployment of materials and mediums may be referred to as multimedia practice, but that is not the question we are discussing here. Practice is rehearsal, repetition, drill, drudgery, and slowly acquired skill. It is also, paradoxically, quick and dazzling virtuosity. But informal work is also an instance of practice. For example, the disintegrated object and the “random” mark—whether these are in the aftermath of great violence or of accident, whether these are the outcome of abjection or of reaffirmed spontaneity, they are, within the aesthetic of form, confirmed practice. If practice is seen to be a rendering of both rules and free signifiers, then this leads us to understand that practice is not necessarily committed to success. It is marked by labor; playful yet pro-ductive—in the transformative sense of “bringing into being,” as theorized by Giorgio Agamben—and sometimes revelatory.9 When we speak of practice we seek a plane of signification involving contradictory virtues like the artist’s labor and the work’s material immanence.
Practice is inalienable from the means, from the ways of doing things. When you place practice in the template of ends and means, practice tilts toward means and forces a deconstruction of the more universalized discourse of ends. And it is practice or, more appropriately, praxis that then bonds means to transformational ends and inserts them into history.
Mathur: I’m also struck by the image of the critic’s compass in the book’s title. It recalls for me your 2009 essay “A Cultural Conjuncture in India,” where you playfully privileged the symbol of an oscillating compass to situate various priorities and directions within the aesthetic field.10 The device of the compass is noteworthy because it seems like a genuinely old-fashioned tool, one that is threatened by all manner of navigational systems of the digital age, like GPS and location-tracking apps. Can you say more about how this vocabulary of navigation relates to your art criticism, and the necessity it seems to invoke of finding one’s bearings and coordinates in today’s world?
Kapur: Berger once said: “I’m no navigator—absolutely the opposite,” presenting himself as a “lookout guy” full of curiosity about instruments and things but actually happy to just look at the ocean and make what he called “imaginary travel.”11 We know that he was a navigator. He steered a couple of generations out of the hold and offered such of those leftist freedoms that could and did nix aesthetic constraints.
In the essay you mention, “A Cultural Conjuncture in India,” I refer to the critic’s compass as a tool that helps me navigate the circumference of a globe-form that swirls to reveal and re-chart the many genres and movements of contemporary art. A decade later, I seemed to have returned to my more “determinist” position: In the text titled “Proposition Avant-Garde: A View from the South,” I set the compass (that is designed to point north) to point south, the preferred destination in my partisan schema.12 In the forthcoming book, I hope to develop yet other ways of handling spatial perspectives and contextual configurations now made more complex by the concept of the rhizome that treats the ground as accretive of superabundant outgrowth.
What lends efficacy to my life as a critic today? Clutching at my compass, I try to steer away from convergent conclusions in my thought process and look for detours, indirection. If there was ever an impulse toward teleology, it now recedes. Instead, the figure of the ellipse surfaces. Within such recursive loops, the transposed imaginaries of artist and critic create a turbulence. This inspires me to configure practice—in Sontag’s soul-baring words—where the stress falls.13
More recently, I sense a temporal pressure that inducts into my texts an interstitial narrative of the self. My voyage as a writer-critic enters the zone of the “untimely” and in turn introduces elisions into the more classical forms of historical exegeses. The quest is now, in a good sense, revisionist. I wish henceforth to focus on the protean capacities of form, and to pursue a method that reconstitutes contradictions into less predictable, more intricate, obsessive modes of inquiry.
Saloni Mathur and Geeta Kapur: Ends and Means: A Conversation with Geeta Kapur, in October No. 171 (Winter 2020), pp. 115–138.
© 2020 October Magazine, Ltd. and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.