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Anna Boghiguian, detail of A Play to Play, Tagore’s Universal Allegories, 2013. Image: Thierry Bal.Courtesy the artist and INIVA, London.
The Exhibition as history. Anna Boghiguian and Goshka Macuga in conversation with Grant Watson

The following conversation takes place between curator Grant Watson and the artists Goshka Macuga and Anna Boghiguian. Both artists work with historical archives in different ways, Macuga often through a consideration of institutions, Boghiguian more in relation to literary sources and particular locations. Both bring an experimental and speculative approach to their source material, working in diverse media to produce installations that include the elements of beauty and intrigue. On this occasion the works under discussion, were commissioned by Watson as part of an exhibition that explored the legacy of Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) his approach to art and culture as well as subjects including ecology, education, cosmopolitanism, nationalism, and modernism, and these in the context of his school and utopian community Santinketan, where works in question were researched and in part produced. [1]

Grant Watson: For the exhibition ‘The Post Office’ inspired by the work of Indian poet and pedagogue, Rabindranath Tagore and his school and utopian community of Santiniketan in West Bengal, Kala Bhavana, as commissioned artists both of you produced quite different installations but perhaps there was also an affinity between the two works. [2]

Anna Boghiguian: Goshka’s work could have had an affinity with my work in the sense that she went to the school at Santiniketan and put together something on the philosophy of Tagore. She had figures in her work and I had faces that were installed on a stand, but they are very different from the faces in Goshka’s installation. Mine had masks that people usually wear in Asiatic and in Medieval theatre where they carried a mask in front of them, and the audience would read the mask rather than the actor, so the same person could be the principle actor and also be many other characters.

GW: Both of you made an installation that was responding to Santiniketan and you each tried to evoke something of that place, and its culture, but you are right in the sense that you chose different ways to do this, although they were alike in being very personal presentations – not documentation or traditional archives, but more to do with materials, poetics, figures and atmospheres.

AB: In my opinion Goshka had taken a piece of Santiniketan and brought it to London.

Goshka Macuga: My installation entitled ‘When Was Modernism?’ was first exhibited at Muhka in 2007 in a group show curated by you. My participation in this exhibition was at the beginning more focused on the collaborative design of the whole exhibition structure rather than the creation of my own piece. The research for the project was supported by a trip to India where we visited many cultural institutions as well as artists’ studios including the Kala Bhavana School in Santiniketan. I was impressed by the spirit of the place, which somehow brought the memories of my own art education in Poland. The luscious park surrounding Kala Bhavana framed in a magical way the buildings of the school, the sculptures produced by Ramkinkar Baij and the abundant artworks produced by the art students of the school. I indeed felt like I wanted to take a part of Santiniketan home with me. I decided to acquire some of the sculptures from the students and recreate a meditative installation set up of Santiniketan as my own work for the exhibition.

GW: Anna, what about your piece?

AB: I think what I did was really The Post Office. Tagore didn’t do this play as a simple thing but it was a statement about the universe, the politics of the world, and it really related to the atrocities of the world and how the world is crippled. You told me to do The Post Office and I became very interested because it passed through Poland where it was performed in the Warsaw Ghetto and was understood as a statement against the Nazis.

GW: Yes while the play is about a particular place it is also about something universal. And the idea of Santiniketan is a bit like that too - ‘all the world in one hat’ - was the phrase Tagore used to describe it.

AB: Yes, I think that it is universal because it speaks about what is beyond the mountains, beyond the village, and where the village becomes a city, and Tagore even speaks about certain things in The Post Office that he discusses with Albert Einstein.

GW: That’s right, and in fact Goshka you created a performance with musicians based on that conversation, what made you decide to shift from words to music?

GM: I was fascinated with Tagore’s initiative to bring people to Santiniketan and to generate an exchange between Indian artists and leading intellectuals from abroad. After visiting India I looked more closely at Tagore’s work and came across various correspondence and conversations Tagore had had during his extensive trips outside of India. Among many exchanges on various topics I was especially drawn to his discussion with Einstein. This also brought to mind letters from Einstein to Freud that proposed his participation in the League of Nations and its International Institute of Intellectual Co-operation, which intended to create an alternative to the political leadership of those times and to inspire people in their approach to the matters of world politics and in particular and ending the menace of war.

GW: What kind of conversation did Einstein and Tagore have with each other?

GM: Einstein’s correspondence with Tagore touches on many subjects such as the universal, truth, creativity and beauty. The language often reveals their different cultural upbringing. I learned that they both played music and I tried to imagine how one could translate the essence of their conversation into sound and how this could also represent this cultural shift as well as the complexity of their thinking. I wanted to comment on the spiritual and intellectual ideas Tagore projected in his statements by putting the human mind in a central position. When he addressed the concepts of truth or beauty, this human perspective was fundamental. In comparison Einstein looked for the truth outside of human perceptions and feelings and took a more reasoned and scientific approach. In my piece I was also interested in the fact that the equation which describes musical waves can also to some extend illustrate the movement of particles that interested Einstein but at the same time can express the spirit of the nation and its history according to Tagore.

GW: How did you go about making this into a performance piece?

GM: The performance was based on a simple structure: two musicians listen to the pre-recorded conversations between Tagore and Einstein via headphones and then performed an improvised response to their words on different instruments. These instruments were typical to the Indian and the European musical tradition and therefore in a symbolic way reflected the cultural inflections of their conversation. This was also in sync with the description of Kritan – a Bengali type of music described by Tagore, which allows the performer to introduce his own parenthetical comments to a piece of music.

AB: I think the installation Goshka made was a masterpiece.

GW: It is a masterpiece, and it interested audiences because it addressed what has been for several decades a concern with how modernisms have existed across diverse geographies including in the global south, and while rooted in different cultures can be cross referenced through their formal affinities. Anna do you want to say something about how you responded to the invitation to make a work about Tagore, just to mention that for me there were several things that suggested this. One was the introduction through Goshka, another was your strong relationship to literature, and finally your long term connection with India.

AB: I had done drawings of Tagore in 2008 and 2009, quite a number of them, and I had some very nice ones, and I was thinking of making a work with the Indian Cultural Centre, but I became sick, so I didn’t manage to make it, and then you proposed this Tagore exhibition to me. I had been going to India since 1980 for 35 years, and I think that it is necessary that if one knows India, then one should also know Tagore, amongst other Indian writers, plus Tagore is one of the writers who had come to Egypt and made contact with Egyptians, and in ways there is an affinity with some of the Egyptian writers, and so it was very important to touch on Tagore, not that I have such great knowledge of literature but I think it was very interesting because he was also a figure in the liberation of India, as well as a very important educator.

GW: How did you go about researching the different works you made at Santiniketan?

AB: Well I have been there many times it is very pleasant to be there in the summer because it rains and there are very few people. What I found fascinating about Santiniketan are trees, there are very old trees there, hundreds and hundreds of years old and very beautiful. I was there in 2013, in the summer, when I made the work, and I passed two months there, it has always been a fascinating place, because of the many different people, students, artists and upper class people, for whom Santiniketan is their winter home, so its very pleasant and it is much cleaner than Kolkata.

GW: It’s more than a regional college and a resort, but also one of India’s celebrated institutions, for culture pedagogy and rural reform, although some say no longer as significant or cosmopolitan as it was. Goshka you often make an analysis of institutions and the histories they contain, was there a commentary of this kind inherent to ‘When Was Modernism?’?

GM: Yes, in the sense that the title of my installation ‘When Was Modernism?’ was taken from the title of a book by the Indian art historian Geeta Kapur. By choosing this title I wanted to address the problematic issue of categorization and periodization in art. How art is categorized (what is good or bad or even contemporary) is mainly in hands of the art historians and curators and not so much in hands of artists. The character of the artworks, produced by students of the Kala Bhavana School that I used in my work, for me almost belong to the past. It felt very nostalgic to witness people studying the human figure or the human head as I did in Warsaw at my secondary school during the 1980s. This was somehow far removed from my experience of further education in the UK and more generally the art produced in the West today. I loved its honesty and magical quality but also felt embarrassed about making such categorizations without truly understanding the context in which the work was made. I feel that this problem repeats itself often in the contemporary art scene and it surfaced clearly for me in the context of Santiniketan. The current tendency of the western art institutions is to expand to take in these new contexts, including developing countries such as India.

Geeta Kapur talks in her essays about the complexity of the Indian culture and its engagements with the issues of nationalism or globalization. She also talks about non-Indian artists and thinkers such as Raymond Williams from whose work the title ‘When was Modernism?’ derived. The projection of the Western or European model of art has been very problematic and Geeta Kapur reflects on this by scrutinizing the relationship of Modernism (as a Western term) and how it can be understood in relation to the Indian art of the 20th Century.

GW: Anna can you say something about the process of making your work in terms of how it incorporated a reading of Santiniketan in Tagore’s time as well as today, perhaps in the way that the institution emphasizes the rural and a connection to local indigenous groups such as Santhali tribal people?

AB: Yes, I went and I visited all of the villages around Santiniketan, it is very important, because when I read The Post office I felt that I should go and see the kind of people that were mentioned in it. I went to see Santhali villages, but you know the Santali people are getting less and less, the Santhali people are being exterminated somehow. The boy in Tagore The Post Office, was a Santhali you see.

GW: When you went into the villages, did that help you to think about how to make the work, did you use that experience for your research? Is that where you took the photographs for example?

AB: Yes I took the photographs there, because I found The Post Office of the little boy in the village, when he says I want to be a milk man I want to be a postman, I want to be this and I want to be that, it was really all there. In this village you could see little boys exactly like the one in the play. I even found a sick little boy who was sitting there and watching people, musicians, swamis and so forth, so it was very interesting to find a modern version of The Post Office.

GW: You found the characters and you made the photographs that depicted those characters and then you painted on the photos, what about the objects, the figures, how did you come up with these?

AB: Because I thought it was a theatre play, so I had to make a stage, and it was necessary to make the characters to go on the stage out of papier-mâché. And the characters are different aspects of Tagore at different stages in his life, because in his stories and his plays he writes about himself and in the end it was himself that he is writing about, his own innocence. So he is in a way the child’s lost innocence, the Indian in him, the child who is trying to find things out. I also think that it was written during the separation of Bengal, and so it is also about this situation, about what is happening to India, what is happening to Bengal. He was not a nationalist, so that is why he is writing about love and innocence compared to the nationalism, which is also love but in an extreme form.

GW: Goshka, you often explore how larger political narratives exists side by side with cultural institutions and phenomena, I am thinking of the installation that you made for the Whitechapel Gallery in London, where the tapestry version of Guernica by Pablo Picasso loaned from the UN building in New York was installed for a year, in relation to both the war in Iraq as well as a history of Guernica coming to the Whitechapel in the 1930s. And again of the Walker Arts Centre piece that looked at the ‘American’ story as secreted within the building up of a museum collection, did anything of that kind signify for you in the installation?

GM: At the Walker Art Center I looked at the history of the American institution and the personal story of its founding father T. B. Walker. His fortune came from the lumber industry – to be precise the cutting down of the Native American forests. Walker invested his fortune in collecting art and craft as well as founding the museum now called the Walker Art Centre. The European model of the institution was perhaps founded by the Walker as means of purifying the history of colonization and the exploitation of the Native American land. Santiniketan’s association with rich upper classes immediately proposes a similar problem particularly in relation to the indigenous Santhali tribal people but perhaps it’s pedagogy and the history of rural reform at least in theory makes a difference. My project for dOCUMENTA 13 also tried to address the issue of the problematic nature of Western art institutions such as dOCUMENTA expanding to countries that are already in a political conflicts with the West. The economy of art reflects the global economy and that it is the reason why one should carefully acknowledge and address the context of one’s work.

GW: Anna, there is also a political narrative in your work, for example the little birds, which appear on the stage alongside the figures, which you say have an allegorical meaning.

AB: Yes, the birds are there because Tagore wrote a poem about a bird that was in a cage, and once the bird had been set free the bird did not know how to act anymore, or how to fly, and for him this is like India being in a cage, or a person being in a cage and when we are set free and we find our freedom how do we behave? We do not know how we will function. Like it is happening now, people suddenly go rid of their tyrant, and they did not know how to behave, they did not know what to do, because it is a freedom that is a vacuum, suddenly a vacuum is created.

GW: You mean in the Middle East?

AB: Yes, you have to know how to fill the vacuum, and this is what I think the birds were, but unfortunately Tagore died before independence.

GW: As well as the drawings and photographs there were also other small cut out paper figures in the exhibition.

AB: Yes, the characters that you used to make a mobile. Because I was confused about the drawings I made some cut out characters in order that I could understand and relate better to the play, I thought that I would put them up on the wall at different heights and create a wall piece with these characters like a theatre, but then you and Goshka did it as a mobile, and I think that it was even more interesting, but I also think people had to know about The Post Office to relate to it.

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Anna Boghiguian, detail of A Play to Play, Tagore’s Universal Allegories, 2013. Image: Thierry Bal.Courtesy the artist and INIVA, London.

GW: True, but it was very beautiful because it moved slightly and you could look at the characters from different angles and in different relationships to one another. That installation was something that I worked on with Goshka, as on a relatively informal basis we helped to install your works together. Goshka, this way of working on an exhibition, with friends, reflects something that goes back to the beginning of your practice, in early non-institutional projects like the exhibition ‘Show me the money.’

GM: I was very exited by the works Anna produced for the exhibition at Iniva and naturally wanted to be involved in the process of arranging these works. This was indeed very informal and felt more like the joy of exchanging ideas about the display rather then officially collaborating. I have a history of working with you, Grant on projects in the past, some of which were addressed and named as collaborations, but we also have a habit of simply discussing ideas and my own projects together. It’s through the work and these conversations that our friendship was formed. I love Anna’s sensitive approach to making work and see her as an inspiration. We met during the installation of dOCUMENTA 13 and immediately formed a friendship. We have since been in regular contact via email and viber, touching base on our work and our lives. For years I have been working with friend on art projects. This in a way is fundamental to the method of my work. In recent years I use references to other artists as well as their actual works. I also collaborate with people who are more rooted in scientific as well as technical fields, rather than fine art but this is related to the nature of the projects I am currently engaged with, and some of them will probably become my friends once the projects are accomplished.

GW: This also goes back to the show we worked on together more formally from which the work ‘When Was Modernism?’ is derived.

AB: What was that exhibition called?

GW: ‘Santhal Family’ and it was an exhibition about a 1938 sculpture of that name by the artist Ramkinkar Baij that can be seen on the campus at Kala Bhavan School. I commissioned artists to make a response to different aspects of this work, which contains a composite of motifs and artistic styles. It depicts sharecroppers (itinerant laborers) so some artists responded to that, others to the figure of the subaltern, the Santhali people that Spivak also writes about, some looked at the formal quality of the sculpture, the fact that it mixes a modernist aesthetic with influences from tribal and temple sculpture as well as Socialist Realism. Alongside these artistic responses I also made a series of archives of cultural practices linked to left politics, such as the Indian People’s Theatre Association, which were part of the cultural front of the Communist Party, the writing of Mahasweta Devi, a film by Riwick Ghatak who made a documentary about Ramkinkar Baij, and more recent material from The Kerala Radical group who are of course not from Bengal.

AB:How does that exhibition relate to this exhibition?

GW: With the Tagore exhibition, I wanted to follow it up, but it was a more concise project, so the installations by you and Goshka created two environments responding to Santinketan. One of the pleasures of doing this was to see ‘When Was Modernism?’ again and particularly in Berlin to re-install it differently – Goshka, how do you feel about the protocols versus the flexibility of this piece, also in terms of how it could be shown in the future?

GM: Generally I feel that most of my installations that were initially designed to be site specific should in theory evolve and adjust to their new environment. ‘When Was Modernism?’ has now been exhibited three times and each location there was a shift in the design for the display. It’s interesting to keep this kind of relationship with a work that often doesn’t belong to me any longer in a physical sense. This in a way keeps the work alive and gives me an opportunity to re-think various aspects of it.

GW: Finally, the third element in ’Tagore’s Post Office’ exhibition, was that a research group became operational within your two installations, set up in collaboration with Andrea Phillips from Goldsmiths; we met four or five times - in London, at Santiniketan and in Berlin, where the exhibition toured to nGbK and included new elements from Landings (Natasha Ginwala, Vivian Ziherl), and a wallpaper by The Otolith Group, which had some of the material produced by the research group as imagery contained within it. [3] Both of your installations provided information about Tagore and Santiniketan, in your case Anna there was a bookshelf with books about Tagore as well as sketchbooks and art works of your own, for this we looked at photographs of Japanese inspired furniture from Tagore’s house.

AB: I liked the books because they were really the source of the whole work and then they were also a reference library for the audience. You know all these books of Tagore you cant find them any more in India, some of them are completely out of print, you know I had a book on Tagore and Einstein, that I got a long time and it was in my library but someone who came to visit me stole the book.

GW: I thought it was generous of you to put all of your personal books out in the exhibition for that very reason.

AB: Well I brought them with the money you gave me.

GW: Yes but you also put your sketchbooks out on the self, which was pretty generous spirited as there is always a possibility that someone might take them away, but I also thought this was important they be seen because the sketchbooks are a key to the development of the rest of your installation.

AB: There was a lot of work in the exhibition and that it could have been just a bookshelf that would have been enough.

GW: But one of the other things on the bookshelf and something that I loved about the installation were the letters that you wrote from Tagore to people in different parts of the world, can you say something about these?

AB: Yes the letters were very important, some people told me that this was the most important part of the exhibition, the letters were also very important for Tagore, he was a man who passed his time writing a lot of letters. I think as a method of communication, the letters, really said something about him and the people he knew – for example there are a lot of books published about Tagore and the letters he wrote to his friends, letters of Tagore from Russia, letters of Tagore from the Middle East, and so it was very important that I would write the letters that he would have written if he was alive today.



Notes:

[1This exhibition was shown first at Iniva, London in 2013, where it was called ‘Tagore’s Universal Allegories’ and then at NGBK, named ’Tagore’s Post Office’, Berlin in 2014.

[2The Post Office was a 1912 allegorical play concerning the imaginative Aman who fantasized about receiving a letter from the King or even being his postman after the construction of a new post office nearby to the house where he lay ill. It was written in four days. It was staged in London in 1913, Calcutta in 1917, and in Germany during World War II. Juan Ramón Jiménez translated it into Spanish.

[3This research group called Tagore Pedagogy and Contemporary Visual Cultures was convened by Grant Watson and Andrea Philips and funded through the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). It brought together international academics and visual arts practitioners to discuss and explore the legacy and continuing relevance of Rabindranath Tagore for contemporary art and visual culture. As a group from different disciplinary backgrounds, and often taking idiosyncratic, unorthodox approaches to the subject, its aims was to think outside of the established conventions of Tagore scholarship. The group included Anshuman Dasgupta (Lecturer, History of Art at Visva Bharati University, Saniniketan) Rustom Bharucha (Professor, School of Art and Aesthetics, JNU) Natasha Ginwalla (freelance curator) Vivien Ziherl (freelance curator) the Otolith Group (artists) Shanay Jhaveri (art historian) Goshka Macuga (artist) Anna Boghiguian (artist) and Sanchayan Gosh (artist). It was a collaboration between the Department of Art, Goldsmiths, University of London and the Institute of International Visual Arts (Iniva).

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