Everyone Agrees: It's About to Explode is poet-curator Ranjit Hoskote's title for the Indian pavilion located within the Arsenale, appearing as it does, for the first time as a curated, nationally-sponsored pavilion. Using the "deep spatial" subcontinental archetypes of the Hindu-Buddhist mandala and Islamic chahar-bagh as an architectural cosmogram for arranging his exposition, Hoskote proves that the "release of various temporalities" is the linking thread in the complex religious, artistic, and political histories and realities of the subcontinent.
An imaginary diagonal connects the video-works of artist-duo Desire Machine Collective (DMC) based in Guwahati in the northeast, to a quadrant where we see the work of New Delhi-based Gigi Scaria, originally from the southwestern coast. Scaria's Elevator from the Subcontinent addresses the negotiation of caste and class in the metropolitan mainstream, while DMC's subtle approach to dealing with conscription to a national cultural fringe by an accident of geography, is seen in their 35mm film, Residue, set in an abandoned thermal plant.
Amsterdam-based, Kolkata-born Praneet Soi's slide-projection Kumartuli Printer belies his engagement with global modes of production while in the fourth quadrant hang New York based Zarina Hashmi's debossed maps in Home is a Foreign Place, reminding us of the perpetual condemnation to psychological and material refugee-ship that was engendered by the irreparable and mutant-engendering cultural fracture of the 1947 Partition (of the one India into India and Pakistan as we know them today).
Tracing a single line from Aligarh, town of Hashmi's birth, to Guwahati in Assam (close to the shared border with China) where DMC live, down to Soi's Kolkata (the until-recently communist-ruled capital of the Indian part of partitioned Bengal) and through Scaria's Kothanalloor, Kerala on the peninsula, into New Delhi, New York, Amsterdam and finally, Venice, cultural theorist Hoskote's map becomes material evidence proving his theory that displacement, location and points of origin and exit are the foundation for narrating any meaningful contemporary art and cultural history of the subcontinent, and indeed for returning to starting points as a way in to the "discursive destination called the nation" and to the project of re-imagining what Sunil Khilnani calls the "idea of India".
I think Bice Curiger's own metaphorical application and separation of the term "nations" from her larger ILLUMInations theme for this Biennale, is much aligned with Hoskote's own long-standing preoccupation with defining the subcontinent as necessarily "transcultural", and not unlike Curiger's reference to smaller groups, collectives, activities and mentalities as forming exceptional spaces of engagement and potential dialogue. She celebrates the Arsenale's "para-pavilions" as charged sites for exchange, and I would foreground this idea in reading the creation of India's first-ever entry as a full-fledged national pavilion.
To engineer a pavilion to represent a shape-shifting Indian identity in the world-map that Venice becomes every other summer, is a task fraught with dangers, not least from the national arsenal. In foregrounding limit, displacement, difference and diverse "regional modernities", aesthetic modes, and religious lineages in his choice of artistic praxes to represent a national idea, Hoskote, to my mind achieves a particularly poetic balance located in a Venn-space between the spatial, aesthetic and political, while focussing on the available "alternative loci of significance" as a deliberately chosen aspect of his rhetoric.
The rigour and language employed by each of the artists activate at once local and outside-in views. While confirming the common ground they are selected to represent, they convince us to view India as a "conceptual entity" not limited by linear histories, divisive state borderlines or reductive cultural narratives and economic cycles. In using the pavilion as a laboratory, Hoskote transforms it into an eye looking into itself, an experiment where there is always the glorious danger of a possible explosion.
Editor, Domus India