The Covert Nationalist: Reviewing an ‘In-Progress’ Art Exhibition

There are many good reasons to attend art openings. There’s the art, of course, but also the company, the conversation, and if you like, the wine. Often, these may all turn out to be varying shades of swill, but it’s always worth being surprised. I was lucky enough to be just that, at a recent show in Delhi.

The exhibition, entitled ‘Regimes of Truth: an in-progress viewing’, is one in a series of curatorial projects called ‘Allies for the Uncertain Futures’ by Shaunak Mahbubani. The show, which opened on April 26, was held in the space shared by Gati dance studio and the Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art (FICA) Reading Room in Khirkee Extension. The projects under ‘Allies for the Uncertain Futures’ are themed around the increasingly pressing subject of nationalism and patriotic fervour. The title here is taken from Michel Foucault’s term for societies governed by a class that imposes a singular version of reality on the population and treats all other narratives as dangerous lies. When we consider the way news media has been compromised nationwide – education has become rife with propaganda, science and history are being infiltrated by superstition and journalists are violently silenced – art has a more vital role to play than ever. In this regard, ‘Regimes of Truth’ offers an eye-opening insight into the experience of fear and uncertainty in the current political atmosphere.

Performance art at the venue. Credit: Allies for the Uncertain Futures- Facebook

The show began with a performance, which is why I wasn’t keen on visiting early: performance art, though not as intimidating as it used to be, still makes me nervous. If you tell me that an artist is going to perform in the next ten minutes and I become one of those confused, frightened first-time visitors to an art gallery, wondering which unassuming grey bench is the installation and which one is the seat. (Pro tip: art’s first task is to unmask its own illusion, so both benches are installations, but only when sat on).

I have had some bad experiences with performance art. Quite recently, some friends and I watched as an artist made a pile of his own work, some mosquito coils, rope, a handful of walnuts and in a tediously derivative move, set the whole thing on fire.  Then as the flames climb up to the ceiling, he ran out and locked us in. As smoke filled the windowless room, we hammered on the door and heard what sounded like maniacal cackling (derivative again) coming from the other side. Only when an old, rotund asthmatic man slumped unconscious against the wall and began to congeal into a thick puddle did the artist finally open the doors. What wouldn’t I have given then, for the relaxed perplexity of a sofa or a mere line across a canvas.

The performance which opened Regimes of Truth was thankfully devoid of pyrotechnics and aspiring arsonists. The performance – choreography by Mandeep Raikhy, sound design by Samar Grewal – combined different gestures of patriotism into a series of fluid, scripted motion. They were sometimes sluggish and sometimes abrupt. The dancers were not on a stage; they were in the crowd, navigating the spaces between people with their hypnotic movements. The few seconds it took to distinguish those who were merely standing around, from those who were performing, made for eerie watching. I would often get startled when the person next to me suddenly snapped to a different pose, and I would realize that they too were part of the dance. Or conversely, I started staring at people who were perfectly ordinary, trying to catch them out; I became unsure of what exactly constituted non-performance that evening. The experience was unnervingly similar to the dilemma of the two benches.

Credit: Allies for the Uncertain Futures- Facebook

Whether it was in continuity with this aspect of the performance or not, the rest of the exhibition had a similar effect. The first works I saw were the easiest to spot. One was a video by Asim Waqif, which appeared at certain times like a newsreel and at others an advertisement or promotional message – and this is also an apt description of many news channels today, which often cater to both government and corporate agendas. The other was an installation by Payal Arya: a television and a cloud of smoke in a glass room. The TV screen showed a slowly burning building, whose smoke, it seemed, was filling the room – a succinct comment on the way inflammatory stories conjure the reality which they claim to report. However, the other works in the exhibition (and I knew there were more) were harder to find. I went around the three-storey building, looking in every room, asking people a question that started sounding silly even to me: “Where is the art?”.

Arko Datto’s installation was imprinted on a shoe rack. But since the ground floor is a dance studio and dancers presumably have shoes, the installation blended in perfectly. A set of photographs were pasted to the ceiling, and an artist book by Sandip Kuriakose (in which he redacts the 2013 Koushal judgement, except for the negations) was placed in the FICA library. In short, the art had to be hunted out, found by word of mouth, trial and error.

Credit: Allies for the Uncertain Futures- Facebook

Questions like ‘what isn’t performance?’ or ‘where is the art?’, when applied to nationalist fanaticism, go from playful to downright malevolent. It reminded me that whether we are online, in the streets, in the train, or even at an art exhibition, one can never tell who the nationalists are, or when they might reveal themselves. The paranoia induced by citizens reporting other citizens is an increasingly worrying phenomenon worldwide, and one that is particularly reminiscent of fascist regimes. One becomes careful about using certain terms (2002, Kashmir, Hindutva, Muslim, Feminism, gay rights) in public places, for fear of violent reprisals from the unknown nationalist nearby. It is a paranoia that leads to self-censorship and the suppression of a nuanced personal viewpoint in order to merge with the system. It turns each of us into a megaphone for the reality that the State wants to broadcast and make us believe.

Mustafa Khanbhai is a 25-year-old artist based in New Delhi. Find him on Instagram @musta_fakay