IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 17 | Asian Art


New Media Art from India: 16th World Wide Video Festival

In the past sixteen years the World Wide Video Festival has grown from an experimental event to a renowned international platform for the presentation of the newest productions of media art for an increasing public. This year again the festival programme was distinguished by a rich diversity: installations, site specific work, performances, videotapes, CD-ROMs, and websites. To enhance the mapping of the developments within media art, a seminar was about the ontology of the electronic image, narrative structures in media art, and how to create exhibition spaces for it. International speakers analysed media art at this moment in time, when this art form seemed to be breaking through to a much wider audience.

By Johan Pijnappel, translated to English by Pat Raff

As a meeting place for modern experimental art, the World Wide Video Festival has followed the developments in performance art. In the eighties video was no longer being used solely as a recording device in performance art, but had taken its place as an integral part of the art form. Performances started to assume the character of multi-media to a growing extent. The new and revived developments in performance art recently, show an intermeshing of very different disciplines. This is not confined to the Western world, but is also found in South America, Asia, and Africa. These innovations affect form as well as content and can be broadly summarized as follows: computer and digital editing, blending of highbrow and lowbrow (no hierarchy), total experience and new dimensions/worlds and interdisciplinary collaboration.
This year the World Wide Video Festival paid extra attention to media art from India. India has a big film production system and a strong documentary history but media art is a relatively new phenomenon. Research in India revealed a strong relationship between politics and contemporary art. To get a better idea of the modern art scene on this Subcontinent, the festival arranged a lecture by Geeta Kapur. As an art critic Kapur has written extensively on contemporary art in India. Her recent work brings to the fore ideological matters that are clearly connected to modernism in India and Third World culture and its relationship to the Western world. 'Today it is the secular cultures of the postcolonial era that are premised on a countering impulse. It is this heritage which is to be carried over into the present post-modern to evolve a more definite commitment to praxis. This will incur perhaps a dispersal of the regimental movement of the Euro-American avant-garde into more differentiated moments which we can now begin to see as radical interventions in the ideologically regressive one-world system.'

Nuclear testing
The new production 'Remembering Toba Tek Singh' (1998) by the Pakistan artist Nalini Malani is a direct reaction to nuclear testing. On May 11, 1997 nuclear tests were carried out by the government of India in preparation for the production of nuclear weapons. More nuclear tests by India followed and Pakistan followed suit. In all the discussions it looked as if no simple rational solution was possible or even desired. Political parties used this momentum to stir up old frictions between Hindus and Muslims again. India, the largest democracy on earth, still felt the wounds of the separation of 1947 from Pakistan and Bangladesh.
In front of a quiet, dark room there is an image of smoke - the smoke of bombs, of the pyre of the hearth. On either side there are large black and white images of women, in the act of folding a saree, in slow motion. They seem to come together to fold the edges of the garment - but cannot really meet - separated by the passage that is the room itself. We hear recordings about the sorts of absurdities that exist between nations the world over. In between are stories, one is 'Toba Tek Singh': a couple of years after the Partition of the country, governments of India and Pakistan exchanged inmates of lunatic asylums, in the way as prisoners were exchanged.
After the installation 'Remembering Toba Tek Singh' has been exhibited in Amsterdam, it will move on to New Delhi and Bombay where it is certain to contribute to a critical discussion.
In her work 'Is it what you think' (1998) the Indian artist Rummana Hussain questions the stereotype of the Muslim woman, projected by the media and by the West. Considering the wide geographical spread of Islam which is accompanied by vastly dissimilar practices and rituals, is it possible to create an image of the universal Muslim woman? Therefore Hussain only asks questions, to which there can be no fixed answers. Besides conveying this message the performance is also about the translation of notions of war and love and how they become connected with the woman's body. It begins with Sufi chants, which could be about a lover or God or both at the same time. She narrates a story about a woman who fought for the freedom of her country. She reads out questions from a book, as if she were chanting from a holy book. As Rummana Hussain chants, there are slides projected on her body, of newspaper images of Muslim women. When she finishes reading, she picks up the veil lying on the floor, folds it and places it carefully on the stool, removes her prosthesis and walks out.

Unknown destination
The title 'House/Boat' (1994) literally describes what this first media installation by Vivan Sundaram consists of. The cube-shaped house is constructed of walls of thick, handmade paper with rusty metal connectors. In this humble self-made dwelling, of which you see millions in India, is a metal cube upon which sits a large dish of water with a glass bottom. Video images of burning gas flicker through it. Only the common basic elements of water and fire are present. The big boat next to it seems to be stranded on a dozen railway sleepers, the last useful leftovers of British rule.
The transportation of people who have been driven from their homes for political or religious reasons to an unknown destination has been a constantly recurring tragic occurrence throughout India's history. With this work of art Sundaram again seizes on a politically loaded event, a position that in the past in India was not really expected of artists.
The artists selected for the 16th World Wide Video Festival, Rummana Hussain (1952, India), Nalini Malani (1946, Pakistan), and Vivan Sundaram (1943, India) have shown a strong commitment to the religious and political situation on this Subcontinent in their work over the years. Unlike the mainstream of modern art being produced in India, their paintings, installations, and performances are attracting growing attention at an international level. The media element in these works is still quite slight and can be explained by the relatively high production costs of media-related art, certainly when seen in the context of the standard of living in India.
The subjects of Malani, Hussain, and Sundaram continually bear witness to firm social commitment to the problems of modern India involving nationalism, neo-colonialism, feminism, and ecology. Video holds an exceptional place within this wide-range of media categories. It is still rarely used in India by modern artists as an independent medium, although it is used for documentation.

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 17 | Asian Arts