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Revisiting India: MoMA Staff Visit Kochi, Mumbai and Delhi with a Stop in Sharjah

In March 2015 MoMA’s C-MAP Asia team took a nine-day research trip to Sharjah and three cities in India. This was C-MAP’s very first field trip focused on India, however not the first time MoMA curators have conducted research in the country. Besides the Sharjah Biennial 12: (The Past, the Present, the Possible), the second Kochi Biennial (Whorled Explorations), and numerous gallery shows, the group visited art institutions and artist spaces including Khoj International Artists’ Workshop (Delhi), Devi Art Foundation (Delhi), the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum (Mumbai), National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi (Delhi), and had meetings with artists Nalini Malani, Atul Dodiya, CAMP, Dayanita Singh, Seher Shah, Amar Kanwar, Reena Kallat, Shilpa Gupta, Bharti Kher, Subodh Gupta, Jitish Kallat, Ram Rahman, Gulam Sheikh, and Nilima Sheikh, among others. This guerrilla survey was carefully planned and happened after a half year’s worth of workshops on Indian art, and it helps C-MAP to solidify and further expand the research on India for the next phase. From among the many inspiring exhibitions, exchanges, and events, the curators have selected specific meetings and artworks to write about, listed below. This local report only covers a small part of the whole trip. Check out the interviews with Nalini Malani (posted on June 18, 2015) and Atul Dodiya (coming soon). These studio visits were conducted by Stuart Comer and Gayatri Sinha, with the participation of the C-MAP team.

Author

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Stuart Comer

Chief Curator, Media and Performance Art The Museum of Modern Art Stuart Comer is the Chief Curator of the Department of Media and Performance Art at The Museum of Modern Art, New York. He oversees the department’s program of special... Read more »
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Laura Hoptman

Curator, Painting and Sculpture The Museum of Modern Art Laura Hoptman has been a Curator of contemporary art in the Department of Painting and Sculpture at The Museum of Modern Art since 2010. Since joining the museum she has... Read more »
Yuchieh li

Yu-Chieh Li

Former Andrew W. Mellon C-MAP Fellow at The Museum of Modern Art Yu-Chieh Li was the Andrew W. Mellon C-MAP Fellow for the C-MAP Asia group from October 2013 to September 2015. At the Museum, she was a co-editor of post and organized... Read more »
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Sarah Lookofsky

Assistant Director, International Program The Museum of Modern Art Sarah Lookofsky joined the The Museum of Modern Art in March 2014, as the Assistant Director of the International Program. Prior to working at MoMA, she was a faculty... Read more »
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Cara Manes

Collection Specialist The Museum of Modern Art, New York Cara Manes is Assistant Curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture at The Museum of Modern Art, where she works extensively on the ongoing displays in the... Read more »
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Sarah Suzuki

Curator, Department of Drawings and Prints The Museum of Modern Art Sarah Suzuki is Curator of Drawings and Prints at the Museum of Modern Art. At MoMA, Ms. Suzuki’s exhibitions include Soldier, Spectre, Shaman: The Figure and the Second... Read more »
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Jennifer Tobias

Librarian, Reader Services MoMA Jennifer Tobias is the Reader Services Librarian at the Museum of Modern Art. She is a graduate of the City University of New York's Art History program. Her 2012 doctoral... Read more »
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Revisiting India: MoMA Staff Visit Kochi, Mumbai and Delhi with a Stop in Sharjah MAP

https://www.google.com/maps/place/Neu-Delhi,+Delhi,+Indien/@20.048878,77.3104839,5z/data=!4m2!3m1!1s0x390cfd5b347eb62d:0x52c2b7494e204dce

Revisiting India: MoMA Staff Visit Kochi, Mumbai and Delhi with a Stop in Sharjah

In March 2015 MoMA’s C-MAP Asia team took a nine-day research trip to Sharjah and three cities in India. This was C-MAP’s very first field trip focused on India, however not the first time MoMA curators have conducted research in the country. Besides the Sharjah Biennial 12: (The Past, the Present, the Possible), the second Kochi Biennial (Whorled Explorations), and numerous gallery shows, the group visited art institutions and artist spaces including Khoj International Artists’ Workshop (Delhi), Devi Art Foundation (Delhi), the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum (Mumbai), National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi (Delhi), and had meetings with artists Nalini Malani, Atul Dodiya, CAMP, Dayanita Singh, Seher Shah, Amar Kanwar, Reena Kallat, Shilpa Gupta, Bharti Kher, Subodh Gupta, Jitish Kallat, Ram Rahman, Gulam Sheikh, and Nilima Sheikh, among others. This guerrilla survey was carefully planned and happened after a half year’s worth of workshops on Indian art, and it helps C-MAP to solidify and further expand the research on India for the next phase. From among the many...

Show More

In March 2015 MoMA’s C-MAP Asia team took a nine-day research trip to Sharjah and three cities in India. This was C-MAP’s very first field trip focused on India, however not the first time MoMA curators have conducted research in the country. Besides the Sharjah Biennial 12: (The Past, the Present, the Possible), the second Kochi Biennial (Whorled Explorations), and numerous gallery shows, the group visited art institutions and artist spaces including Khoj International Artists’ Workshop (Delhi), Devi Art Foundation (Delhi), the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum (Mumbai), National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi (Delhi), and had meetings with artists Nalini Malani, Atul Dodiya, CAMP, Dayanita Singh, Seher Shah, Amar Kanwar, Reena Kallat, Shilpa Gupta, Bharti Kher, Subodh Gupta, Jitish Kallat, Ram Rahman, Gulam Sheikh, and Nilima Sheikh, among others. This guerrilla survey was carefully planned and happened after a half year’s worth of workshops on Indian art, and it helps C-MAP to solidify and further expand the research on India for the next phase. From among the many inspiring exhibitions, exchanges, and events, the curators have selected specific meetings and artworks to write about, listed below. This local report only covers a small part of the whole trip. Check out the interviews with Nalini Malani (posted on June 18, 2015) and Atul Dodiya (coming soon). These studio visits were conducted by Stuart Comer and Gayatri Sinha, with the participation of the C-MAP team.

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1. On the Second Kochi-Muziris Biennale: Whorled Explorations

Kochi was our first stop on what was, for everyone on this leg of the trip, our first visit to India. We arrived in the major port city of Kochi, in the southwestern region of Kerala, in the middle of the night, and then shuffled into our hotel beds for a few precious hours of rest before venturing into the southern Indian sun toward the main site of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. Whorled Explorations, the biennial’s second edition, was organized by Jitish Kallat, an internationally esteemed contemporary artist based in Mumbai. Appointed by the biennial’s Artistic Advisory Committee, Kallat was tasked with envisioning a show that “responds to the environment that hosts it,” according to the accompanying exhibition catalogue. Indeed, since...

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Kochi was our first stop on what was, for everyone on this leg of the trip, our first visit to India. We arrived in the major port city of Kochi, in the southwestern region of Kerala, in the middle of the night, and then shuffled into our hotel beds for a few precious hours of rest before venturing into the southern Indian sun toward the main site of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. Whorled Explorations, the biennial’s second edition, was organized by Jitish Kallat, an internationally esteemed contemporary artist based in Mumbai. Appointed by the biennial’s Artistic Advisory Committee, Kallat was tasked with envisioning a show that “responds to the environment that hosts it,” according to the accompanying exhibition catalogue. Indeed, since its founding in 2012, the biennial’s mission has been to “draw from the rich tradition and public action and public engagement in Kerala . . . and build a new aesthetic that interrogates both the past and the present.”

Past and present certainly converge in the city of Kochi, where sixteenth-century Portuguese churches are intermingled with spice markets and restaurants on streets filled with auto-rickshaws and goats vying for the right of way. The biennial integrated seamlessly into this dialectical space. Kallat built a conceptual framework for the exhibition around an investigation of oppositional forces, as he explained when we met with him in Dubai a few days before our visit. In his curatorial essay for the catalogue, he cites two historic currents from the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries that informed his thinking—the maritime explorations of the Age of Discovery and the astronomical propositions made by the Kerala school of astronomy and mathematics. By examining the location’s history, he aimed to “reflect back or forth in time to understand the present” and to “interlace the bygone with the imminent, the terrestrial with the celestial.” Toward that end, he selected a wide range of works by ninety-five artists from thirty countries that speaks broadly to these themes. He organized the works into installations in eight venues across the city, each one a heterogeneous presentation. Free of any chronological, geographical, or medium-specific constraints, Kallat employed a seemingly more intuitive curatorial logic to create a host of unique, generative juxtapositions. Throughout the exhibition, however, a general leitmotif was discernable: Kallat seemed to gravitate toward work involving globes, compasses, maps, telescopes, and star charts—tools for plotting a course through space and time.

Encapsulating Kallat’s point of view and setting a tone for experiencing the biennial through this lens, Powers of Ten, a well-known 1977 film by Charles and Ray Eames, is the exhibition’s opening work. In it, a camera zooms out at a rate of one power of ten every ten seconds, and then back in at the same rate, so that the pictured image first expands incrementally from human to cosmic scale and then contracts in the same manner. The work is installed at the biennial’s main site, Aspinwall House, the sea-facing compound of offices, residences, and warehouses built for a nineteenth-century British trading company. The physical space itself unfolds as a series of successive rooms in loosely adjoining buildings surrounding a central courtyard, each roughly devoted to one artist or project. Other highlights from this venue include Francesco Clemente’s Pepper Tent, a giant tent painted with scenes inspired by the artist’s travels around the world, and the crowd-pleasing Descension by the well-known Indian artist Anish Kapoor, an abyss-like whirlpool cut into the existing floor, which serves as a literal illustration of the thematic “whorl” of the exhibition’s title.

Interspersed among large site-specific installations by internationally renowned artists such as these were many smaller-scale works by younger artists. Installed in an interstitial space at Aspinwall House, American artist Tara Kelton’s video work depicts a laptop screen placed against the open door at the end of a commuter train in Bangalore that is live streaming video feed from a camera placed at the front of the train, suggesting the sensation of simultaneous time travel. One of the greatest discoveries for me was the work of Kerala-born artist Unnikrishnan C. At twenty-three, he was the youngest artist to participate in the biennial. For his project, installed in the show’s Pepper House venue, he spent two months in Kochi (a few hours from his hometown) recording his observations of daily life in the city by painting figures, objects, symbols, and simple scenes onto individual bricks and arranging them into a site-specific “brick wall diary,” as he has described his project. Unnikrishnan seems to be developing a unique visual language that blends the personal and universal; I look forward to seeing more from him!

2. Notes on CAMP at the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum

Representing the MoMA Library during the March 2015 C-MAP trip to Dubai, Sharjah, Mumbai, and Delhi, I was most taken by the fascinating institution known as the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum (DBDL), its revival by Tasneem Zakaria Mehta (Managing Trustee, Honorary Director, and MoMA International Council member), and the current installation by CAMP, a self-described studio organized in 2007 by Shaina Anand (filmmaker), Sanjay Bhangar (software programmer), and Ashok Sukumaran (architect). Visiting with Mehta and two CAMPers on site helped me to grasp a particular segment of the installation—The Annotated “Gujarat and the Sea" Exhibition—as a compelling historiographic palimpsest.

As a self-aware de- and reconstruction of a...

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Representing the MoMA Library during the March 2015 C-MAP trip to Dubai, Sharjah, Mumbai, and Delhi, I was most taken by the fascinating institution known as the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum (DBDL), its revival by Tasneem Zakaria Mehta (Managing Trustee, Honorary Director, and MoMA International Council member), and the current installation by CAMP, a self-described studio organized in 2007 by Shaina Anand (filmmaker), Sanjay Bhangar (software programmer), and Ashok Sukumaran (architect). Visiting with Mehta and two CAMPers on site helped me to grasp a particular segment of the installation—The Annotated “Gujarat and the Sea" Exhibition—as a compelling historiographic palimpsest.

As a self-aware de- and reconstruction of a colonial museum, the DBDL is a fertile setting for a meta-exhibition. A striking Victorian structure in the heart of Mumbai, constructed in response to the 1851 Great Exhibition in London, the DBDL opened in 1872 as the Victoria and Albert Museum, Bombay. By the late 1990s the museum was neglected, but Mehta organized an innovative public-private partnership to restore and revitalize the institution, which reopened in 2008. In addition to the structure itself, two salient Raj-era aspects of the institution that survive today are the collection of “Indian manufactures” and model-filled displays presenting a history of Mumbai.

Mehta conceived of artist involvement as a key element of the revived mission. Noting that the collection was originally built with little interest in individual makers, her approach today is to “bring artists back to the center” through enlightened management of the legacy collection, building a contemporary collection, and—most relevant here—a stimulating series of interventions. In this framework, artists (especially alumnae of the related Sir J. J. School of Art) conceive installations that engage the space and the collections, often addressing local culture in light of both the colonial legacy and contemporary social issues.

CAMP’s series of installations, titled As If – III Country of the Sea, brings together segments of the group’s multi-year project examining maritime culture proximal to the western Indian Ocean. The Annotated “Gujarat and the Sea” segment revisits an installation first realized in 2011 at Lalit Kala Academi in Delhi.That project deconstructed an eponymous 2010 exhibition and symposium (and later a book) organized in the Gujarat port town of Mandvi. The exhibit, initiated by a local historical society, was composed largely of digital reproductions of artifacts held by UK archives as well as private collections, with the reproductions licensed for the duration of the show. Scholars from around the world participated in the symposium, and the show traveled to other sites in Gujarat.

The installation at DBDL constitutes primarily photos of photos of photos. For example, a photograph of a photograph of the annotated checklist (left, top) shows a cryptic and apparently damning list of the show’s organizers. In another example (left, middle), a photo of a photo of primary-source documents, which are held by what is presumably a Gujarati hand, is annotated with the oblique, “Not just Word of Mouth but Slide of Hand On a replica Gujerati navigation log dated 1644.” In a clearer example (left, bottom), a photo of a colonial map of Gujarat is updated with present-day claims by British Gas. Although it’s difficult to do a close reading at this remove, CAMP’s argument is clear: they object to the use of colonial spoils licensed back to its subjects, and they charge that limiting local informants to a caste of Hindu seafarers failed to account for the diversity of the colonial period and the present.

As an art-making strategy, Annotated “Gujarat and the Sea” is an excellent foil for CAMP’s more critical (if less edited) larger project about contemporary maritime culture in the region. Where the original show featured aura-deprived reproductions of colonial spoils, CAMP’s larger project counters with a barrage of ostensibly collaborative contemporary media (radio, cell phone data, video, shipping records) and extended (if coy) interpretive texts. If the Annotated “Gujarat and the Sea” show can be criticized as unreflective colonial nostalgia, CAMP’s work errs in the other direction: it is anthropological in its thoroughness and reluctance to draw explicit conclusions.

I conclude that this is precisely the point of the Annotated “Gujarat and the Sea” : to engender critical thinking about the historiographic endeavor. Experiencing this in person, in the DBDL context, and from the C-MAP perspective, was a wonderful object lesson.

3. Studio Visits in Mumbai and Delhi

In Mumbai we met the artist Shilpa Gupta in her studio. She gave us an overview of her diverse practice, particularly her most recent works. I was especially struck by the site specificity of her practice, since I had previously understood her work, which I had encountered in European museum contexts, as abstract and conceptual. Upon speaking with her about her most recent pieces, it was clear that most of her practice is deeply invested in the Indian context, particular the deep scars of partition that persist in the present. For instance, she spoke of a recent untitled body of work (2013–14) that addresses the Chitmahals, the Bangladeshi minority enclaves in India and vice versa—sites where 51,000 people effectively live within a...

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In Mumbai we met the artist Shilpa Gupta in her studio. She gave us an overview of her diverse practice, particularly her most recent works. I was especially struck by the site specificity of her practice, since I had previously understood her work, which I had encountered in European museum contexts, as abstract and conceptual. Upon speaking with her about her most recent pieces, it was clear that most of her practice is deeply invested in the Indian context, particular the deep scars of partition that persist in the present. For instance, she spoke of a recent untitled body of work (2013–14) that addresses the Chitmahals, the Bangladeshi minority enclaves in India and vice versa—sites where 51,000 people effectively live within a hostile nation. Gupta’s presentation made me ponder two important phenomena that impact the global circuits of contemporary art: on the one hand, it is often the more metaphorical and conceptual works that circulate internationally and, on the other, works that have a local specificity take on a more metaphorical meaning once they leave local audiences and their frameworks of reference behind.

In Amar Kanwar’s New Delhi studio, among other topics, the documentary filmmaker discussed his forays into what could be described as narrowcasting (as opposed to broadcasting to the widest possible audience): screening his films directly to the people who are depicted in them and most affected by them in turn. He has put very considerable investments of time and funds into a continued presence in the remote Indian locales on which his films have focused. For Lightning Testimonies (2007), the site of filming and later screening was the state of Assam; and, for The Sovereign Forest (2012–), a place of continued display was established in Odisha. This direct involvement importantly exists alongside Kanwar’s ongoing screening and exhibiting within both cinematic and artistic contexts, making his practice a unique example of one that engages activism and art at the same time. Kanwar was very insistent that he does not see a contradiction or problem in inhabiting these multiple contexts, and thus different spheres of comprehension, at once, arguing that the problems his works engage—whether sexual violence or economic disenfranchisement, to name just two important examples—are of the broadest consequence.

As our conversation was closing, Kanwar mentioned something that has stuck with me: once he has documented something or completed a film, he is always deeply preoccupied with what he experienced in the moment of shooting but, nevertheless, did not manage to record. This insight struck me as profound in the context of a world that is evermore mediated. Despite our increasing capacity to record everything, there is still so much, for better or worse, that will continue to elude capture.

4. TRANSFIGURATIONS: The Sculpture of Mrinalini Mukherjee

On the flight home from Dubai, I couldn’t stop thinking about Mrinalini Mukherjee. For me, a jam-packed trip always creates a collection of lingering afterimages—Dayanita Singh’s collection of “museums” installed in her studio; the brightly colored boats in the Sharjah Creek, which we followed to find Michael Joo’s installation; the gently turning forms of the wind garden that Haegue Yang had installed in a small courtyard in Sharjah’s Heritage District—and occasionally an image that’s insistent, refusing to fade, staying at the front of my mind until I can get back to the library and start digging up more.

Mrinalini Mukherjee (1949–2015) was a leading sculptor of her generation in India. However, her work wasn’t widely exhibited...

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On the flight home from Dubai, I couldn’t stop thinking about Mrinalini Mukherjee. For me, a jam-packed trip always creates a collection of lingering afterimages—Dayanita Singh’s collection of “museums” installed in her studio; the brightly colored boats in the Sharjah Creek, which we followed to find Michael Joo’s installation; the gently turning forms of the wind garden that Haegue Yang had installed in a small courtyard in Sharjah’s Heritage District—and occasionally an image that’s insistent, refusing to fade, staying at the front of my mind until I can get back to the library and start digging up more.

Mrinalini Mukherjee (1949–2015) was a leading sculptor of her generation in India. However, her work wasn’t widely exhibited internationally, and so for me, the monographic exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, organized by Peter Nagy, was revelatory. I had seen three intriguing examples in the Gwangju Biennial last fall, installed there with photographs by Lionel Wendt, but this show covered it all. Her practice comprised an in-depth material experimentation and relied primarily on dyed hemp fibers for nearly five decades, before she turned to embrace ceramics and later bronze. Her works simultaneously suggest figurative and botanical forms, arising from both nature and modernist strategies, capable of both structure and formlessness.

As a student at the University of Baroda, Mukherjee was exposed to the pedagogical philosophy of K. G. Subramanyan, which embraced equally craft and “high art” techniques and strategies. This intersection can often be a thorny one, difficult to navigate, and it is one of the topics that’s touched on in the current exhibition Scenes for a New Heritage: Contemporary Art from The Collection. Mukherjee addressed this issue head-on in a 1994 interview, noting, “In India the arts have always existed alongside each other, at different levels of sophistication. India has an enormous wealth of craft, and I believe in an integrated approach to art and craft, so I enjoy working with the linguistics developed by the practice of craft. It is through my relationship to my material that I would like to reach out and align myself with the values which exist within the ambit of contemporary sculpture.” (“An Interview with Mrinalini Mukherjee.” In Mrinalini Mukherjee: Sculpture, 11. Oxford: Museum of Modern Art, 1994.)

5. Beom Kim at the Sharjah Biennial 12

Beom Kim (Korean, born 1963 in Seoul; lives and works in Seoul) is a conceptual artist who has used many mediums including, most notably, drawing and video to display his particular kind of dry humor, which is delivered with words, figurative drawings done in a childlike style, and multimedia installations. A central figure in the contemporary art community of Seoul for the past twenty years, Kim has become increasingly well-known internationally in the last decade. I first saw his work in the Istanbul Biennial in 2003, but it has subsequently been included in the 2005 Venice Biennial, in a one-artist exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art, which traveled to Redcat in Los Angeles, and in a number of surveys of contemporary Korean art....

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Beom Kim (Korean, born 1963 in Seoul; lives and works in Seoul) is a conceptual artist who has used many mediums including, most notably, drawing and video to display his particular kind of dry humor, which is delivered with words, figurative drawings done in a childlike style, and multimedia installations. A central figure in the contemporary art community of Seoul for the past twenty years, Kim has become increasingly well-known internationally in the last decade. I first saw his work in the Istanbul Biennial in 2003, but it has subsequently been included in the 2005 Venice Biennial, in a one-artist exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art, which traveled to Redcat in Los Angeles, and in a number of surveys of contemporary Korean art. One of his best-known works is a small installation called A Rock That Was Taught It Was a Bird in which a video of the artist lecturing a stone on avian transformation plays on a screen located within a facsimile of the set in the video.

A selection of Kim’s drawings and a single-channel video work were on display at the Sharjah Biennial 12, as was a group of Kim’s works that was notably different from any work by him that I had seen before. A cycle of thirteen paintings that the artist began creating in 2008, it was collectively entitled Untitled (Intimate Suffering). Extremely simple, even austere, the series consists of shaped canvases in a variety of sizes that are covered in rough, sepia-colored linen. Some have minimal interventions in black that resemble readable symbols like a dash or a cross. These paintings were displayed in several galleries at the Sharjah Art Museum. The last canvas in the series, Untitled (Intimate Suffering #13) was created specifically for the biennial and hung at the SAF Art Space. It consists of a sixteen-foot-high canvas that has been systematically covered with black crosses so that the whole creates a kind of maze-like pattern that causes, when looked at, what Bridget Riley has famously called a “visual tickle.” The elegant simplicity of this group of paintings is a surprising turn for an artist known neither for his minimalist aesthetic nor for his work in this medium. In fact, this work is less connected to Kim’s oeuvre of humorous, mildly absurdist multimedia installations than it is to the history of Korean avant-garde art and, specifically, the work of the Dansaekhwa group, who began exhibiting in the late 1960s. The name Dansaekhwa, which means “monochrome,” refers to artists who were experimenting with the idea of the non-metaphoric painting/object in which space is expressed through concrete, non-illusionistic means that might include staining the surface of the canvas or punching holes in it, or replacing canvas with more porous materials like burlap or paper. In his Sharjah canvases, Kim deliberately places himself in a Korean avant-garde context, one that belies the more generic lingua franca of the Biennial-type installation for which he is best known. This statement of allegiance, clearly abetted by the curator’s choice to represent Kim in this startling way, is visually stimulating, but also exemplary of a personal politics and a point of view. The paintings as paintings are beautiful, and the gesture, as a conceptual move in a varied career, is as bold as it is moving.

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Revisiting India: MoMA Staff Visit Kochi, Mumbai and Delhi with a Stop in Sharjah

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