The Saatchi Gallery’s current exhibition, The Empire Strikes Back: Indian Art Today, depicts the problems of industrialisation, wide spread poverty and the challenge of sustaining the world’s largest democracy. But, there is something lacking from the exhibition; people and colour. The artists seemed disappointingly preoccupied with objects and materials and, for me, this exhibition never captured the life, the buzz, of the vibrant and eclectic culture of India. The wreckage of a Xerox machine (Sakshi Gupta) painstakingly put back together, the collection of brass water utensils pieced together in the shape of an U.F.O. (Subodh Gupta) and the ‘breathing’ pile of mattresses (Tallur L. N.) are reminiscent of a collection of useless debris from a road side; leaving an uninspiring and depressing outlook on Indian life. This preoccupation with materials is evidenced in Hama Bhabha’s sculptures in which wood, chicken wire, styrofoam and clay are the focus, the anthropomorphic qualities arise merely as a side show, something to hold the amalgamation of materials together; the country’s refuse is presented as its cultural heart.
The difficulties of post-colonial culture are forcibly presented in Huma Mulji’s sculpture in which the full body of a taxidermied camel is grotesquely contorted so as to fit into a suitcase, evocatively representing the feeling of displacement and the conflict between nations trying to re-discover their place in the world. The exhibition reveals a complex, troubled and impoverished country, grappling with its past, present and overwhelmed by the challenges of modernity. Kriti Aurora’s sculptures of tar men were inspired by the men she witnessed building roads through the mountains of Kashmir, such roads which are crucial to the development and livelihood of the region. Yet the suffocating layer of tar covering the men and their tools forcibly impresses the burden of such an arduous and inconceivably huge task. The depiction of the tribulations of the region is such that its people seem to fade into anonymity – identity gives way to political, social and economic struggles. Ajit Chauhan’s paintings of vinyl album covers with the faces wiped out of them perfectly depicts the ephemeral nature of the individual in contrast to the pervasive trials facing Indian society.
The malaise I felt when looking at the camel squashed into a suitcase is synonymous with my feelings towards the whole show – I left strongly aware of the difficulty of transporting a culture, with such a rich and diverse history, into the clinical white space of an art gallery in the centre of a flourishing Western Capital City.
The Empire Strikes Back: Indian Art Today is showing at the Saatchi Gallery until the 7th March 2010.