The Saatchi gallery is a marvel. The gallery spaces are immaculate, vast, and free to visit; I would recommend it if only for that. However, their current show, The Empire strikes back: Indian art today, leaves a lot to be desired.
A rare successful installation is Rashid Rana’s The World Is Not Enough, a large composite image made from photographs of social waste from around his home city of Lahore in Pakistan. The images are vivid and overwhelming, providing a stark epitaph to a world slowly filling up with rubbish. Rana’s other piece in the show is likewise a photomontage. In Title of Piece pornographic photographs are used to produce large images of faceless women in burqas. The anonymity of the women in both situations, and way it is presented here, is undoubtedly an intriguing issue. However, one questions whether the drawing together of these two disparate subjects is a successful critique of either ‘negative stereotype’, as the exhibition catalogue claims, and is not simply an antagonistic jibe.
Though I found much of the work in the exhibition both grandiose and gross, highlights included Huma Bhabha’s sculptures which play with materials, the modernist legacy and the motif of the mask.
References to surrealism also run throughout the exhibition, from a Meret Oppenheim-influenced vacuum cleaner with the head of a dog by Bharti Kher, to more complex readings of the genre, such as Atul Dodiya’s Fools House. This is a tribute to Jasper Johns, containing a painted postcard of Man Ray’s Cadeau. Far from emphasizing the painting as a gift, as the reference would suggest, it has an air of aggression. This undermines the painting’s integrity, and raises interesting questions about what can be transmitted when the art object is reproduced.
The Whitechapel Gallery currently hosts Where three dreams cross: 150 years of photography from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. With the work of around 180 artists it speaks with a multiplicity of voices, examining the social history of these countries. The exhibition is split into categories such as the portrait, the family and the body politic, and my only criticism is that there is almost too much to see. It is staggeringly diverse; 1920’s Bollywood shots to Huma Mulji’s inkjet print photographs such as SIRF TUM (Only You) depict dolls having a romantic moment on a park bench. Ayesha Vellani’s Planting Padi series was also subtly photographed, but very moving.
Both shows are very different. The Whitechapel’s vast, almost archival exhibition engages with life through a camera lems, whereas the Saatchi display, though it presents a great variety of artists, falls slightly flat.