I Spy

I’ve been meaning to write about Jitish Kallat’s show, “Fieldnotes: Tomorrow Was Here Yesterday”, at Bhau Daji Lad for months. It opened around end-April, if I remember correctly and I went soon after it opened. It took two more trips to get what I needed to write a post: photos. The Bhau Daji Lad Museum is one of those places that is idiotically paranoid and doesn’t let you take photos once you’re inside. This is particularly imbecilic because of how beautiful the museum is inside. It took years to restore the building and INTACH did a wonderful job of this. Step inside and the beautiful opulence takes your breath away. The colours are vibrant, gold gleams everywhere, it’s just gorgeous. But you can’t take any photos. Not only do the chaps at the entry tell you to switch off your phone when you enter (no one does, obviously) but there are uniformed men on the prowl in the inside. Which means taking photos in there is very, very hard. I don’t understand this ungenerosity. Photos are not evil. They help me (and I presume anyone who wants to take photos at an art show) remember the exhibition and details of works. How that threatens Bhau Daji Lad, I don’t know. Grrr. Ultimately, I managed a few photos, of which one I’m going to put up here. The rest of the pictures in the slideshow below are nicked from the museum’s website (the link is in the first line of this post). Of course the real reason for not writing this post sooner is simply that I got distracted by the crash boom bang of real life.

Walk in, and the first thing you’ll notice is that the museum looks like it’s undergoing repair. The bamboo scaffolding that is a familiar sight outside so many buildings in Bombay can be seen all over the museum. I’ll admit that I saw the bamboo and rope structures and thought, “Great. They couldn’t even finish repairs in time for the show.” Within seconds, however, I mentally rapped my knuckles because the bamboo isn’t bamboo. Those are faux bamboo poles made out of resin and coir rope. While I’m not the biggest fan of Kallat’s faux bones (so bored by that trick now), the fake bamboo is fantastic. The only way you’d be able to tell is if you look closely enough and see that the poles have animal motifs carved on them. If you’ve stared at Victoria (or Chhatrapati Shivaji) Terminus, then then vicious looking animals will look very familiar. Howzzat for a fun and intelligent way of fusing the city’s history with its ongoing love of renovation and redevelopment? The scaffolding is suitably primitive, historical as well as contemporary, which is also a neat description of Bombay. What’s particularly awesome about this ‘sculpture’ is that it actually makes you notice the architecture of Bhau Daji Lad, in addition to making all its erudite references to Bombay’s history and present love for demolition and reconstruction.

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There are a few works that are easy to spot, like “Annexation” and “Astronomy of the Subway”. “Astronomy of the Subway” is a long line of text written out using alphabets that look like they’re made of bone (it’s resin again). When you climb up the stairs to go to the first floor, the text is perched upon a panel. “Annexation” is a huge kerosene lamp that is intricately carved with animal motifs taken from Victoria Terminus. It squats like a big, black bug on the ground floor and is quite unmistakably an art work.

If you haven’t visited Bhau Daji Lad Museum before, you might think that it always had neon-lit Roman numerals on its main archway on the first floor. That, however, is another Kallat installation. It’s one of my favourites in the show, just because of how simple and subtle it is. It makes the arch resemble a sundial but of course there’s no time to be measured. It’s whatever o’clock you would like it to be. Once again, the historical elements of the arch, the sundial and the Roman numerals are in stark contrast with the bluish-white neon, yet they don’t clash. I felt like I was looking at a time machine that would have made H.G. Wells nod approvingly. Other works that you can’t miss are pieces like “Artist Making Local Call”, which shows Kallat making — you guessed it — a local call. If I remember correctly, this particular work was in the little room that is supposed to be a gallery for historic photos of Bombay. I love the impish arrogance of Kallat. He took out photos talking about the city’s past and instead put in a photographic work that tells his own story. There’s one work (I think it’s untitled; at least I haven’t seen or heard of it before) in which he projects images on a relief map of Bombay. It’s not the hardest to spot if you look out for the projection.

History for Kallat is in the details and this micro vision is perhaps best seen in “Anger at the Speed of Fright”. Bhau Daji Lad Museum has big glass boxes in which figurines show the history of various communities. Chetna will kill me for saying this, but they really are rather tacky. Kallat fills one of these boxes with a street-view version of modern history. “Anger at the Speed of Fright” shows miniature figures fighting: cops beat up an everyman, gangs pound crouching, petrified people. Using 62 figurines, Kallat shows urban violence — the snarls, the mayhem, the mindlessness — in the cutest form ever. You’ve really got to keep your eyes peeled for this work. It really does blend in with the rest of the display boxes in the museum.

I must admit, after seeing these works, I wasn’t wildly enthused by the works that are in the area reserved for modern art. I thought “Forensic Trail of the Grand Banquet” was fun but since I’d seen a variation of this work at Chemould Prescott Road, it didn’t pack as much of a punch. The video work shows X-ray images of food stuff like samosas. However, I will say this: Kallat’s whooshy video felt more credibly 3D than most of the 3D films I’ve seen. Sitting in front of the video felt like being in a Starship and whooshing through a strange galaxy.

“Lipid Opus” and “Chlorophyll Park” just don’t have the same kind of dynamism that the embedded works do. “Chlorophyll Park” shows the city’s traffic superimposed upon a bed of virulently green grass. Considering how bad the traffic jams are in this city, it’s quite funny to see these photos as a literal version of the saying “letting the grass grow under your feet”. This grass, incidentally, isn’t fake. As far as I know, Kallat actually spent months growing grass in his studio and then photographed it. Not that you’d ever believe that anything natural would be quite so… green. Which is, of course, part of the point of the works. “The Cry of the Gland” is an installation of photos taken of different people’s shirt pockets. Some are empty, some bulge, some sag… it may not be compelling but it is an interesting piece. I don’t think the breast pocket is quite as popular with the rest of the world as it is with us. In so many of the photos, you can guess the man’s profession from his breast pocket. For all these people, that pocket is like a snapshot of themselves, carefully or artlessly arranged to tell you a little bit about the wearer of the shirt. There’s something strangely intimate about “The Cry of the Gland” if you spend long enough before it.

“Fieldnotes” is a show that really, really made me miss my camera because this is one of the best examples of a site-specific installation that I’ve seen in ages. It’s clever, mischievous, insightful and an insane amount of fun. So far, Bhau Daji Lad Museum has hosted three art shows. Nikhil Chopra did one of Yograj Chitrakar performances (in which he dresses up as different characters) and Sudarshan Shetty had a little retro of sorts. Shetty’s work, gorgeous as it may be, sat awkwardly in Bhau Daji Lad. (I whined about the museum’s anti-photo policy in that post too.) I, for one, couldn’t help wishing that a few of the museum’s permanent exhibits had been shifted out to make space for Shetty’s art work. If Shetty’s show was anything to go by, then contemporary art didn’t belong in Bhau Daji Lad Museum. Enter Jitish Kallat. For “Fieldnotes”, Kallat has used the museum’s architecture and its exhibits beautifully to create an exhibition that has all the thrill of a treasure hunt. Thanks to Kallat’s imagination, contemporary art fits into Bhau Daji Lad seamlessly. And here’s the best part: Kallat keeps adding stuff to the show, which means there’s something new to look forward to with every repeat visit. You can get a legend of sorts but I would really recommend you try to ferret out the works. It’s great, great fun and an education in terms of how the most intransigent of spaces can be fashioned to meet an artist’s needs and articulate their concerns. “Fieldnotes” goes on till August.

I can’t wait to go back and see if I can spot the new entries.