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March 08, 2016

Interview with Sumesh Sharma and Zasha Colah of Clark House Initiative, Bombay

by Chelsea Haines

In April 2016, ISCP will welcome Lugar a Dudas from Cali, Colombia for an institutional residency. Here, take a look back at ISCP’s institutional residency with Clark House Initiative, Bombay in 2012. ISCP former Program Fellow Chelsea Haines sat down with Clark House to speak about their exhibition for ISCP.

Clark House Initiative, founded by Sumesh Sharma and Zasha Cola, is a curatorial practice about a place, which in sharing a junction with two museums and a cinema, mirrors the fiction of what these spaces could be. Clark House organized the exhibition Yay-Zeq: Two Burmese Artists Meet Again at ISCP along with a series of discussions and performances that featured the two Burmese artists Htein Lin and Sitt Nyein Aye.

Chelsea Haines: I am curious to know how Clark House started. What was its intended goal and purpose? 

Sumesh Sharma (SS): Clark House acts as a space in a city that often leaves few venues for a discourse on art to emerge. Since 2010, Clark House has grown symbiotically attached to the printmaking studio of the Sir JJ School of Arts, where we mentor the students through a series of workshops and invite artists to introduce them to conceptual art practice. Through the workshops we were able to publish print portfolios that were sold to garner funds for scholarships and a corpus for the activities of the students. The students often aid us in our activities by helping us out with our curatorial projects. Last year a young collective, Shunya (Zero), came into existence. It was initiated by seven young graduates from three different art schools who have been associated with Clark House either as interns, or as participants in our workshops.  It is through Clark House that they, along with others young artists, meet, discuss, and research.

Secondly, we are an artist supported collaborative. We come from a lineage in initiatives such as Open Circle; its founders, Tushar Joag and Sharmila Samant, helped prop up Clark House during its initial phase and have since been our most trusted advisors. We also work on an alternate art history project through which we uncover art practices ignored by an art historical approach that is often informed by the market.

Lastly, Clark House is not about the physical space it inhabits, and we have often endeavored to open up spaces to visual art practice that hitherto had not been seen as exhibition spaces. Our project with Padmini Chettur was one such example where we worked with contemporary dance, situating the performance within the last cotton cloth-mill in the erstwhile industrial district of Bombay. Juxtaposing her project against the mechanical movement of the machines as the displacements of dance became the metaphors for the gentrification of the district that is replacing the mills and the housing colonies. We have collaborated with a make-shift temporary shrine that comes up each year during a religious festival to host a performance by a young artist Amol Patil, which took place on one of the busiest streets of downtown Bombay to circumvent police permission for this project which otherwise would have made it impossible.

What role do you see Clark House fulfilling in the Bombay art scene?

Zasha Colah (ZC): At the end of 2010, we were very impatient for a curatorial practice that would cut closer to the skin. We were so exhausted with waste of all kinds in this consumerist approach to art that did not seem to give as much as it took away. We began to cut off and make very abstract, even absurdist gestures, which was understood in its context, perhaps by more people than we could have foreseen. The climate was rather bleak and we were in the midst of a recession. So we realized that we would have to experiment with new models of economic sustenance. The warmth with which our first gestures toward a different kind of practice were greeted gave us an inkling of the kind of friendships and networks the city was equally impatient for.

We began to make photographs, drawing in the changes we wished to see in the city, and gave them metaphoric dimensions that related to political events in other parts of the world. These became theoretical curator’s notes. And till today, these notes inform how we work. We realized we wanted to do very small things, even as we planned long-term projects involving years of research. We could envision a practice that engaged public infrastructure for art, but was not restricted by it.

What do you see as some of your key projects over the past few years?

ZC: Previous projects have tended toward the political, or where a sense of anguish accompanies the history of certain places: projects to find vocabularies to theorize the mill areas of Bombay from where so many were displaced, through dance; or the exhibition Right to Dissent which took place in a labor union. Other projects intertwine content with the history of the objects inside Clark House itself, as in Arranging Chairs for Ai Weiwei. Another exhibition traced the history of the Roma in Europe to their mythical Indian origins while commenting on the rise of a fascist right-wing in Hungary. Against AFSPA, was a project of flags made by artists to protest a legislative act that protects brutality and abuse of power by the state. Other projects have pursued an alternative visual arts history, such as the exhibition reviving a pioneering Indian modernist artist AA Raiba, by recreating his studio space.

How was Clark House invited to the institutional residency at ISCP?

ZC: Kari Conte invited us to be the second institution in residence at ISCP. It is her curatorial idea, and we, from our context, could really appreciate its core premise of mutual exposure, where an institution relocates to another city to carry on its activities as usually as possible. This is exactly what we did. Our experience of collaborating with Kari and her team was a careful honing of ideas to something very precise and mutual.

Why did you decide to organize the show ‘Yay-Zeq: Two Burmese Artists Meet Again’? Did Htein Lin and Sitt Nyein Aye already express a desire to meet again or did you propose this?

ZC: We have been working on this project over the last five years. The story of their first meeting is the subject of a captivating series of drawings made by Sitt Nyein Aye, which documents their meeting in the Indian forests after the 8888 Uprising in 1988. It was in the forest camp that Sitt Nyein Aye taught Htein Lin art for two years, on two sheets of A4 paper and often drawing in the mud of the forest floor. Htein Lin expressed the desire to see his teacher again to us.

Their meeting is also the crossing of two journeys of thought at a particular juncture. For Sitt Nyein Aye, the path was one of non-violence. His icons were Aung San Suu Kyi and Gandhi. He devised a path through art and culture; to be an artist was to be political. Therefore, in his bleakest moments, he began to teach art, and won the interest and passion of Htein Lin. For Htein Lin, then a law student, his reading at the time led him to Che Guevara. He believed that a guerrilla war with the military regime was the only way forward. In a few months after leaving Sitt Nyein Aye’s company in India, he would recall his friend and revise his position, choosing an ‘Artist’s Life’ – and this for the two of them has very deep philosophical and political meaning.

Htein Lin called this convergence the dream of a Tree-Gun Revolution, for many of the students hewed guns from branches in order to train, dreaming each night, that one day they would have guns to fight the military. Htein Lin has now made cultural resistance his own, but I was interested in his path towards it. It brings in Brechtian questions of violence and I was keen to formulate this crossing of philosophical, contemplative journeys, in the form of an exhibition, and ultimately, a public conversation between these two artists, which we recorded, and which to me, is quite historic.

Many of the works shown or performed in the exhibition are quite emotionally and politically intense. What was your interest in reflecting on the Burmese political situation in New York? What was your intended reaction from the audience?

ZC: These intense works, to me, are a survival kit for dealing with extreme political egress, but we realized early on, that this is also the human condition, and that each one of us needs these cultural, mental tools.

SS: Within the south Asian region India is often seen as an insensitive neighbor that is indifferent to the geopolitical realities that their surrounding countries face. Over the last decades India has been supporting the Military Junta in Burma, so much so that during her recent to visit India Aung San Suu Kyi rebuked it for abandoning the legitimate struggle of the Burmese people for democratic freedoms.

The exhibition often faced logistical challenges in terms of visas that were not granted to the artists and a general lack of support. Through funding from FfAI (Foundation for Arts Initiatives) in New York and the ISCP residency we were able to produce the project in New York where Sitt Nyein Aye and Htein Lin finally reconnected. We were welcomed by a large community of Burmese political exiles in New York and the show itself saw responses from a large and diverse audience.

The exhibition has now traveled to the Kochi-Muziris biennial. Can you explain a little what the biennial is and how the exhibition may have changed as it traveled there? 

SS: The exhibition in Kochi is situated at Mandalay Hall, a 17th century colonial structure once home to a Jewish family that traded with Mandalay, the imperial capital of Burma and the hometown of Sitt Nyein Aye. The idea of refuge characterizes the city of Kochi as it has been the recipient of many communities fleeing persecution such the destruction of Jewish Temple Jerusalem, or the Portuguese Inquisition of Goa. It was also a port that traded with ancient Greece and Mesopotamia, and it is here where Christianity entered India just after the death of Jesus and Islam reached through the Arab traders. Thus the city became a most adequate venue for this exhibition that could contextualize with ease India’s complex relationship with Burma seen through a prism of common colonial history and centuries of cultural links.

March 08, 2016

Kari Conte and Michael Jones McKean in Conversation

by Kari Conte

This conversation from ISCP’s archives took place between ISCP alumnus Michael Jones McKean and Kari Conte at the conclusion of McKean’s 2010 residency.

Kari Conte (KC): Your work often combines artifacts with present-day objects – what is your interest in creating this recontextualization?

Michael Jones McKean (MJM): I like how time embeds itself inside objects very differently. Take an iPhone, it has a very particular time signature, a steep one, so that today when we look at an iPhone 4 it lives on the edge of newness, but in five years it will look positively archaic.  On the other hand, a meteorite, a piece of petrified wood or a Windsor chair all have more protracted time signatures – they move so glacially through a continuum we can’t understand their time stamp. By docking and grafting different kinds of objects together I’m trying to build an object harmonic that collapses some imposed hierarchies, builds some new metaphors and hopefully finds a fragile, momentary solidarity between objects.

KC: For your work included in the Quebec City Biennial you purchased 50 acres of land in Canada – what was the impetuous behind this project?

MJM: I got very interested in a relatively small piece of land in Northern Quebec in a remote area about 400 miles north of Montreal. The site is in the middle of hundreds of square miles of forest. Not surprisingly one of the major industries in the area is logging, so land use has a direct and palpable relationship to the area’s economic well being. To complicate matters – the land I purchased was nearly entirely clear-cut – rendered essentially worthless in the relation to the local economy.

The region has this peculiar feeling of being deeply isolated, yet everywhere a human imprint is aggressively visible.  Imagine driving 16 hours through mountains and forests, 3 hours on dirt roads to arrive in this primordial land with no sounds, no people – yet you find yourself within an endless grid – a forest of trees gridded for cost-effective harvesting and management. But everywhere within this engineered reality nature is silently trying to reclaim a more fluid, if to us, chaotic order. The experience was totally uncanny – like something out of some Borges story.

KC: Why Canada?

MJM: The project compressed all these small artifacts from around the world and I wanted to have an actual, real section of Canada in the work. When I say it, it sounds extreme, but there was something very logical to me about this decision.

For the exhibition I was given this funky space in downtown Quebec City. In it I organized a black lacquered piano, a hand knotted rug from Afghanistan, a meteorite from  Argentina, a piece of petrified wood from Arizona, some bags of topsoil, Nivea skin cream, Tiger Balm ointment, orange juice and some Evian water I bought at a dollar store across the street. After these objects were in place, I arranged on the floor two groupings of Polaroids I took of the land. These Polaroids were then re-photographed creating a photographic doubling of the space. For the exhibition the original Polaroids were removed leaving this nearly invisible gesture – photographs of photographs – as the only evidence of the land. They became a fragile echo, a nearly undetectable hinge psychically binding the land within the installation.

The idea of ownership factored into the project heavily, a concept that has lived in previous projects as well. I think when you divest yourself of liquid capital and trade it in on object, a thing, a certain amount of bullshit melts away. Something abstract becomes factual, definite, and direct. By extending an artwork into the realm of stewardship, one becomes not only conceptually invested, but also physically, legally and economically wed.

KC:  So what will you do with this piece of land?

MJM: I’m going let things revert to a more nature order. The idea that within this huge forest of bastard trees exists a small plot of land that disobeys the surrounding logic, unaffected and undomesticated is very exciting to me.

KC: There are a few great precedents of artists buying pieces of land.

MJM: Sure there is a long history – like Gordon Matta-Clark, Andrea Zittel, Judd, Roden Crater, more recently Rirkrit Tiravanija.

KC: Often your work very specifically points to the origin of the materials that you use–for example petrified wood from Arizona, an Anthropologie blouse, OP (Ocean Pacific) windbreakers – what is your intention in this specificity in the representation of your work as opposed to a description of ‘mixed materials.’ It seems like a key part of how you present your work.

MJM: In some small way I’m trying to understand our conceptions of materiality and the ways that meaning attaches itself to objects – hermeneutics, semeiotics, economics, poetics, emotional, spiritual, political, gendered, commercial, racial, erotic, the list could go on. So an Ocean Pacific windbreaker operates as a placeholder for several kinds of emotions and concepts that conjure a very different discourse than say the reverie a Starter Jacket evokes. But really your question is about relationships – each object, each technique, each material has many jobs to do conceptually and compositionally within a sculpture. They are finding a way to be in concert within a field of other objects and techniques and images where nothing is ever neutral.  And there is nothing algebraic about this arrangement – I feel like I have to relearn everything each time I make something.

KC: You produced an 80-foot rainbow over your studio in Virginia – how did this project originate and what was the trial and error process?

MJM: I started working on it almost eight years ago. It spawned from an accident while I was documenting a project that contained a misting component – suddenly a faint color prism appeared, very much by accident. I put a memory-hold on that moment with thoughts that maybe there could be a way for an actual rainbow to exist within a project. A few years later I was working on a public project and was struggling with how to reconcile the way my work behaved indoors within sanctioned art spaces in relation to a more borderless outdoor space – the translation was failing. This crisis dug up the memory of my accidental encounter with the rainbow. I began to think that if I were to ever work on a public project again it would be a huge mistake, a missed opportunity really, to simply tweak my work, whose DNA is so bound to the rules of codes of galleries and museum spaces to fit into the public realm. The rainbow was something that could operate on a civic scale, yet be spatially untethered, placeless, fleeting. Born out of a crisis, that epiphany stirred up a list of technical problems to be solved to make it actually work, ones I’ve been working on for years now…

There’s open-endedness to the rainbow that’s very attractive to me. The project doesn’t settle down as one might expect into its more kitsch, graphic symbol – it lives as an actual rainbow does, ghostlike and strangely unknowable in all its phenomological insistence.

KC: The British artist Simon Fugiwara creates fictive archaeological digs that also reveal his own history and identity is subtle ways. Your cv indicates that you were born in Micronesia –  does your work also include elements of autobiography?

MJM: Some artists embrace autobiography as their subject matter – it becomes part of the content of their work, how we’re intended to engage the work.  I don’t use biography so explicitly in my work, but of course I can’t escape all the things that make up who I am: the books I’ve read, the people that I’ve met, stories I’ve been told, technology that I use, all the tacit yet essential details of one’s life like growing up in an empire or always being able to plug stuff into a wall and energize things. These details become part of the white noise we’re enveloped within while making work – I’m just not trying to modulate that noise so specifically as to render it the content of my work.

KC: But it seems also like your work, somehow must be tied to this fact that were born there and this kind of epic exploration and adventure…

MJM: It is possible, but I also wonder if this has something to do with our yearning for more cogent narratives.  That said, I totally agree that being born on a remote island in the Pacific is a hard bit of biography to escape. I remember having this big globe in grade school growing up. All my classmates would point out where they were born, most found a small section along the eastern seaboard – Michigan was unbelievably exotic… But to spin the globe totally around and say “I was born there” – that was crazy.

KC: I was wondering how you approach the systems and the ‘power of display’. In some of your work, you include objects that are reminiscent of pedestals and in other work you include vitrines. So, are you interested in the underlying politics of display?

MJM: I’ve always been interested in how objects and object placement can work as signifiers and this, in someway, relates to the politics of display. But when I think about the phrase ‘politics of display, and even ‘signifier’ it conjures up this discourse that seems late – like it had a moment. Not that the intellectual kernel of those queries aren’t relevant to us anymore – it is more that the language we have borrowed and constructed to discuss them has ossified their development and meaningfulness for us today – but this is tangent…

On the most basic level a sculpture is simply a small, volumetric displacement that has a slightly different gravitational pull than the space the sculpture sits in – a slight shift in harmonics. Sculptors try to manipulate this harmonic  – if one puts an object on top of a table there is different kind of politic involved than deciding to put it on top of a white MDF cube. Arranged objects in a grid perform differently than a pile. A vitrine? A shelf, mosaic or veneer, knee high or waist high, a stage or a plinth, a flower on a fish stick box – it’s endless yet these decisions makeup the essential DNA of a sculpture. When we look at an artwork we are really standing in front of a series of ‘yeses’ that the artist made. But this narrow bandwidth of ‘yeses’ is miniscule in relation to the overwhelming number of ‘no’s’- some silent and already determined, others in play, hard fought and painful, to make a work manifest.

KC: You’ve shown your work a lot outside of ‘art centers’ in the US. Can you illuminate on the trajectory of your career and practice working outside of these ‘art centers’ in more regionally based institutions?

MJM: It wasn’t a strategy to exclude places like New York or Berlin or LA early on – my logic was more straightforward – I simply worked on projects where people asked me, but this is how most artists work. In retrospect, I suppose in many ways the arch of my practice has not followed a typical path. I went to a small liberal arts college in northern Pennsylvania where I played basketball for four years – from there I got a masters degree in ceramics. I was lucky to get a few residencies right out of grad school, but they put me in locations far outside art world hubs – off-the-grid places like Provincetown, Omaha, Kansas City, Montana, Central Michigan and to a lesser extent even Houston.

KC: I imagine that working in a place like Kansas City gives you the opportunity to build large-scale new commissions that might not happen at such an early stage in your career if you had not gone all over the country bit rather worked in New York.

MJM: Yes, I think that’s true. I’ve been fortunate to make some large-scale projects, ones that probably would have been impossible to make if I had moved directly to New York City after school. One’s conception of space is so different when you live in New York City versus, say, Omaha. It is not that one city grants more psychic latitude to work more ambitiously, it’s just that in Omaha it is actually physically and economically easier to pull off larger materially based projects. But it is also essential to remember that this ease is purchased at the price of other important things that New York City affords to artists…

KC:  You generally tend to work very large-scale. The size of your studio at ISCP has necessitated that you work on smaller-scale projects – how has this affected the way that you work?

MJM: Moving here I knew that my studio would be smaller than where I’ve recently been working. That said, I showed up at the ISCP interested in trying to make some smaller, more discreet sculptures. I got into a very solid rhythm and ended up being very productive. I suppose in a classic sense the restraints created a fruitful tension that  freed me to make some work I probably won’t have given myself permission, or even thought to make at my studio in Virginia. It’s counterintuitive, but working in a small space actually opened up a lot things for me.

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