A Lost Future
23 February, 2018 - 28 January, 2019
Review by Louis Soulard
A Lost Future is a yearlong exhibition on view through January 28th, 2019, at the Rubin Museum of Art. The exhibition is part of the Rubin’s yearlong exploration of “the future,” a theme that in this context is applied specifically to Bengal and South Asia.
The exhibition presents work by Shezad Dawood, Matti Braun, and the Otolith Group, in addition to three rotating installations in the gallery’s central cove. The first is Dawood’s interactive virtual reality work ‘Kalimpong’ (2018), which enables the viewer to explore multiple sites and time periods in the eponymous town.
The three featured artists infuse contemporary themes of virtual reality and modernity into their respective approach to the region. “These artists are challenging received cultural and political histories of Bengal,” explains Beth Citron, curator of the exhibition. “Each brings new, rigorous research and knowledge production, as well as visual acumen, to illuminate the potential futures of Bengal in relation to critical moments in its luminous past (…).”
However, the fact that none of these artists actually come from Bengal undermines the exhibition’s mission set out by Citron. Dawood and members of the Otolith Group were born and live in London and Braun is a Finnish-German artist living in Germany. This has direct consequences on their work and the vision of South Asia that they put forward – a sacred land shaped by external powers and an overbearing history.
Photographs by the Otolith group are digital collages showing life in Santiniketan, India. In each image the past and present intertwine through the superimposition of archival images. In ‘Sriniketan after Santiniketan’ (2018), early 20th century photographs of students working on leather handicrafts are fused onto the image of a contemporary art studio at Visva Bharati University. Evoking nostalgia, the montages are visually elegant and surprisingly apolitical - Santiniketan is depicted as a deserted town inhabited by ghosts from its past.
In the next room, abstract canvases by Matti Braun refer to the multitude of visual cultures in post-colonial India. Devoid of subject matter and representational elements, the mediums used by Braun are where one should look for a connection to South Asia. Batik and silk, two major objects of trade between Europe and Asia, form the main surface of the work and add a, albeit thin, layer of cultural significance to an otherwise featureless body of work.
The work of Shezad Dawood most closely references the themes at the core of the exhibition. The virtual reality installation, the centerpiece of the artist’s series, is a worthwhile experience, as it takes the viewer-turned-performer through an immersive tour of historically-significant sights in the town of Kalimpong. They include the town’s famous Himalayan Hotel, underground caves, and the Phodong Monastery.
The main narrative of the experience is grounded in a series of historical events and episodes of Western intervention that shaped the town’s past and present. Other aspects of the work, like the deliberate discrepancy between low-quality visuals and more advanced graphics, have deeper meaning and participate in the artist’s reflection on the slippage between reality and illusion grounded in esoteric Buddhism. Dawood’s virtual reality experience is informative and even fun, but not as rich in meaning as his paintings, on display in the adjacent room.
Through layers of acrylic paint and textiles assembled onto large canvases, Dawood creates Bengali landscapes infused with complexities of meaning. ‘House 1’ (2018) reflects the distinctive panorama surrounding Kalimpong and provides an impressionistic glimpse of the town’s architecture and the Himalayan Mountains in the background. A colorful piece of textile covers the painting’s forefront, suggesting that the textile industry remains an integral part of the town’s identity. As seen in the virtual reality experience, pixelated dots form the outline of the clouds and add a supplementary layer of meaning, which suggests the integration of digital visual editing technology into the artist’s vision. Dawood’s paintings achieve a tough balance in both creating an original artistic language and saying something meaningful about the town’s various forms of contemporary mutations.
The works on view reconcile the present with a not-so-distant past by emphasizing the effects of globalization, technology, and economic development in Bengal. Ambitious in its claim to dissect layers of time and to consider speculative futures, the part of the exhibition in which the future comes into play remains unclear. Ultimately, A Lost Future feels more like a contemporary reinterpretation of the past rather than a glimpse of the future that is somewhat underwhelming save for the interactive exhibition experience and Darwood’s rich body of work.