Tom Burckhardt draws a parallel between Kerala and New York
I HAVE been to several Biennales in the West, and one impression I often get is that of a high degree of capitalist monetisation swirling around the — often very good — artworks. The KMB certainly didn’t have this problem.
I arrived a couple of weeks after the surprise demonetisation edict, and tried my best to figure out what effect it was having on the Biennale’s operation. As a visitor to India, what is a product of the cash crunch, and what is just the way things are done in here, regardless? I soon learned the crucial word “jugaad”.
At first, I understood it in the negative context of something not going as planned, the electricity cutting out, etc. Then I realised, the person was talking about the electrical wires shoved in the power box without a proper plug. This would be shocking from a safety standpoint in my hometown of New York City. But in the end, no one got electrocuted, and the improvisatory nature of putting the show on not only had its charms, but represented the very strengths of this Biennale.
I was contacted about a year earlier by the artist and curator, Sudarshan Shetty, out of the blue. “Was I interested in participating?” Yes, of course! I had travelled to South India with my wife about 20 years earlier, and had been to Kochi, so I had some idea of the setting. The chance to stay and create a piece in situ really excited me. I had an installation idea that held promise and could connect New York and Kerala.
The work is an artist’s studio that is flooded with materials submerged and paintings floating in the swirling waters. Every last bit, including the water, is made of cardboard and the whole room is inverted, allowing a visitor to enter the space. New York and Kerala share a vulnerability to rising seas and storm surges, but rather than address this in a meta-political way, I think the emotional content is increased if one individual’s plight is represented.
I chose to make it in cardboard for several reasons: it is something that we can all recognise, and is not a precious art material. I can work fast with it, and it is cheap — jugaad all the way, it turns out. On arriving, I did have several days of frustration — after several months of emails and Skype calls to arrange for it, there was no cardboard.
We got some rather soggy sheets in a pinch, but it wan’t going to work to put up as the walls and ceiling of my room. I commiserated with Bose Krishnamachari, and he called someone he knew, and actually had high-quality large sheets manufactured for me within a day. I had lost a few days, but was ready to really get going, with a couple of young architects, Aditya Nambissan and Pavneet Pal Singh as crack assistants.
Once I was self-sufficient, I could make progress and enjoy the process. I met other artists and had great conversations and meals with them. As the clock ticked towards the opening, the tensions rose. Many of the artists had difficulties, such as their work help up in customs and tech problems setting up complicated video projects. Was there really only one cordless drill? Much of this was the nature of the crush of need from artists for help at the very moment that the resources of people and tools are at the greatest rarity.
From my viewpoint, the workmen and women, and volunteers were amazing and deserve commendation. There were several all-nighters at the end. I understood some of the artists’ frustrations — this is your life’s work, and the longshoremen were lifting and dropping delicate works of art as if they were sacks of rice.
There were times when I thought that all this precious artwork, and the attitude behind it, could use a corrective from the situation that most of the real world lives in. It forced many instances of workarounds and improvisation, and I can’t help but think that this can keep our artworks honest. It certainly helped me feel like my work was made in India, and not dropped from some ivory tower.
In the end, without quite intending it, I felt that my piece reflected the anti-precious, DIY, jugaad spirit that helps break down the barriers between an artwork and its public.
Tom Burckhardt’s work, Studio Flood, is on display at Aspinwall House until March 29.