Monday, October 23
Why has it taken me so long to get to India, a country which has aroused my fascinated curiosity since childhood? The opportunity at last arose a year ago, at a party at RoseLee Goldberg’s house in New York, where I met a young curator from India, Anushka Rajendran.
Anushka was kind enough to propose I do a Delhi version of my ‘Other Voices, Other Cities’ project, through the Prameya Art Foundation for which she is an art consultant. So here I am, explaining to 12 art students and young artists that we are going to investigate what it means to them to live in this huge megalopolis, capital city of India. Here, as writer William Dalrymple has pointed out, the equivalent of half the population of England daily crosses the city from one end to the other – and back – just to get to work.
The traffic is totally insane. Lanes are meaningless. The huge illuminated signs saying ZIG ZAG DRIVING IS PROHIBITED are less than meaningless.
Cars, buses, trucks, tuktuks, swarms of small motorbikes often with three riders, and the occasional bullock who decides to stroll across the highway compete desperately (except for the bullocks who are very relaxed) for the next gap to thrust themselves forward, leaving mere centimeters to spare as they hurtle swervingly onwards.
So ‘traffic’ and the time-consuming way it impacts on their daily lives is one of the first negative factors the students list when they talk about Delhi. And smog. One can hardly see across the street through the haze, and one week later, the city will announce that any exercise taken outside could be hazardous to one’s health.
We also discuss student protests, the difficulties of finding a place to live as a young person without the fear of being chased out if someone covets your room and the ongoing results of the brutal 1948 partition of India on families to this day. The father of one student still has the newspaper clippings from those days pasted around the room.
Tuesday, October 24
This morning, we are still talking. Delhi’s fantastic food culture is mentioned as one positive. And its hybridity. So many influences from all over India.
The lists of comments have been written on sheets of brown paper, stuck up all around the walls, and now the students vote on the one they think most true.
The statement that gets most votes is DELHI, WE KNOW YOU, BUT WE DON’T KNOW YOU. A reflective statement on an extremely challenging city that is loved, that is often difficult to live in, and where one can never fully comprehend the complexities of the varied cultures that surround one.
Someone suggests we write the name Delhi in Hindi. A great idea.
Tomorrow we will look for the right location to photograph the work.
Wednesday, October 25
The idea of standing in front of one of Delhi’s numerous historical monuments has been discarded – the statement refers to the Delhi of today. We start in the road which runs down from New Delhi station, and is packed with small shops. The road is quite wide, but constantly packed with traffic. Is this a possibility?
At the other end of the city is Mehrauli market, with a much quieter feeling. One possibility is a little square with a mosque and a Hindu temple which share a common wall, and another is a temple with an almost Bollywoood-esque banner.
Thursday, October 26
Today, we will make the letters. India is internationally famous for its creative and colourful hand painted truck signs, which implore those drivers behind to HORN BLOW or KEEP DISTANCE. We will adapt this style for our text.
This evening, I have been invited to dinner by eminent art historian Geeta Kapoor, and her equally eminent artist husband, Vivan Sundaram. Vivan has been invited by Okwui Enwezor to have a retrospective of his work at the Haus der Kunst in Munich in 2018, and we have a long discussion about his work.
Friday, October 27
Back at the workshop, the students paint the letters in hot pink, a colour referred to by legendary Vogue editor Diana Vreeland as ‘the navy blue of India’, and in yellow, and blue/green.
This afternoon, I give a lecture on my work at Jawaharlal Nehru University, an event Geeta Kapoor has arranged for me.
Saturday, October 28
Today is the shoot! We have finally decided on a location in the market road near New Delhi station. The photographer will be Vaibhav Bhardwaj, and we decide on a spot where there is a long perspective down the street, with an old mosque on one side of the road, dozens of shops, a poster of a local rightwing politician wishing by passers Happy Diwali, two ancient shop mannequins, and an unceasing flow of traffic of all kinds.
Vaibhav plants his tripod near the curb, avoiding a dead rat nearby, and we start setting up the shot with the first word – DELHI. In the end, the traffic is remarkably patient, lining up behind the students as they take up their positions and adjust letter heights and angles, and waiting while the shot is taken.
As soon as each shot is finished, the traffic pours through. As we are shooting BUT WE DON’T a group of Hare Krishnas, in full voice arrive, stopping to sing a chorus before pushing on – fortuitous signifiers of the age-old western search for spiritual enlightenment in India.
Monday, October 30
The new work will be central to an ‘Other Voices Other Cities’ exhibition at the new premises of Shrine Empire, a Delhi contemporary art gallery owned by Shefali Somani and Anahita Teneja. The Prameya Art Foundation is a not-for-profit platform run by Shefali and Anahita to support projects reflecting the intersection of culture and social engagement.
The Delhi workshop has been taking place in the old Shrine Empire gallery, but Wednesday night will be the opening of my exhibition in the brand new space, the elegant basement of an apartment building in upmarket residential area, New Defence Colony.
The only problem is, the space is still very much under construction, and I can’t see how it will possibly be ready by Wednesday. Apart from the Voices series, we are also showing the two-channel video piece, It’s a pleasure to meet you, which has still to be installed. There are holes in the ceiling, the marble floor tiles need grouting, there is dust everywhere. Anahita and Shefali remain wonderfully calm, assuring me “it will happen, it will happen.”
In the meantime, gallery manager Gaurav, takes me across town to the printers, to have the new work printed out. The printers will do it today, ready for pickup tomorrow.
Tuesday, October 31
The gallery is still not finished. The videos are installed, but not yet synched. At 7.30 p.m. we start hanging the work, while the floor grouting goes on around our feet.
Wednesday, November 1
The video is now in synch. All the work is hung. Everything is ready. A TV team comes to the opening early to do an interview. The opening is to be preceded by a conversation with renowned Delhi artist Sonia Khurana, and chairs have been set out in one room. Questions follow the discussion.
The gallery is quite crowded, and as so often happens at openings, people struggle to hear the video soundtrack above the general conversation. But the atmosphere is lively. All the students are there, and many photos are taken.
The evening finishes with an excellent dinner in the outdoor restaurant of Lodi Gardens. The Shrine Empire people, Shefali, Anahita, Anushka and Gaurav have been fully involved with the project at every point.
It’s been an amazing ten days. It did all happen.