By Elizabeth Shih
I met an Indian Art Historian
At the other end of the world, there is an art historian I would have never met, had it not been for an internship I undertook this summer. His name is Suresh Jayaram and he is from Bangalore, India, and he runs a space called 1 Shanthi Road. He taught Art History at Karnataka Chitrakala Parishat, the College of Fine Arts in Bangalore, and was the Dean there from 2005-2007. Later he chose to change careers and initiated 1 Shanthi Road, a non-profit art space. I met him through the internship programme run by the AVAT (Association of Visual Art Taiwan). They hold an annual art affair of Contemporary Art Taiwan in Taipei, Taiwan. I was responsible for hosting Suresh Jayaram during the fair, from 31/08/2019 to 8/9/2019. I found the internship on Facebook and it perfectly suited my timetable. I was interviewed through Skype and luckily got the job.
India: Brief History of a Civilization, written by Thomas R. Trautmann is the book that I read before doing the internship. India is a country that is not that far from Taiwan, but not close enough geographically and culturally for Taiwan to be familar with the details of Indian life . This historical book helped me to better understand Indian rituals, and most importantly Indian ways of thinking.
Go south-west Asia!
Taiwan is situated in the very east of Asia, in the western part of the Pacific Ocean. It is always a complicated issue defining what ‘Asia’ is in terms of cultural and geogrpahical boundaries. However, this Annual affair invited 6 artists from countries that are geographically linked to Asia and Europe such as Russia, Turkey, Ukraine, Georgia,with two other artists coming from India. This project had expanded from last year, in the hope of introducing other countries on the ‘Asian Continent’ to the Taiwanese public. The people invited were mostly artists themselves, but some were also the founders of art spaces.
From the capital city of Russia, Moscow, there came an artist name Elizaveta Veselova who represents the art space Elektrozavod (Direct translation: ‘electric factory’).
Ipek Çinar is a photographer that came from Ankara, Turkey. She brought many photos of the art space that she belongs to, Torun.
From Ukraine, based in Kiev (Kyiv) came a married-couple, Yulia Kostereva and Yuriy Kruchak, both of them have been trained as designers, but later chose to focus on building up their art institution, Open Place.
From Georgia, the art space CCA-Tbilisi sent their manager Marika Jabua to visit Taiwan.
(Photo 2, 5)
Another two are from India. One from Mumbai, Nikhil Raunak, from Shunya Collective (Clark House), and the other from the south of Asia, Bangalore, 1 Shanthi Road, Suresh Jayaram.
An International Orientation
To my surprise, I discovered that the Government of Taiwan had given more support and funds to cultural events in recent years. The Impression I had while growing up was that cultural events are the least beneficial kinds of projects to fund. My generation of Taiwanese have been told storues of how successful people are mostly entrpreneurs from the technoloigcal field. However, thanks to this internship, I got a fresh realisation of the shifting interests of our government. It appears that for this event they had given more freedom to local contemporary artists, spaces or institutions compared to the international artists, who were also invited to this annual exhibition. Moreover, these artists are mostly in opposition to their governments and institutions.
The Taiwan Annual of Contemporary Art has become established with government support, especially in the last two years. Aligning with Taiwan’s diplomatic policy, the government strongly supports cultural exchange, for instance, the International Culture Exchange Program in which I participated is part of the Taiwan Annual Exhibtion 2019. In the opening ceremony, there were several government officers that came including a congresswomen, the head of the Department of Economic Development in Taipei City Government, and the secondary Mayor of Taipei. They gathered at the opening to deliver speeches, which is always a unique business and political matter in Taiwan. I helped to interpret their speeches into English for
Suresh, the Indian artist I was working with, and helped him prepare his speech which he gave later, on behalf of the other international art spaces founders.
I still remember that he ended his speech by saying ‘we are like stars of the cosmos, that are connected to each other’. Although it might sound like a cliché as I stood on the stage with him, seeing so many artists unite together around art in the name of freedom, I felt the weight of what he meant. As the political tensions and violence keep escalating between Hong Kong and China, cultural ideas are being muted. An outside can hardly imagine how freedom of speech can turn into a plague that kills free will. But what I witnessed in this exhibition is that art creates a platform for people to breathe. Artists, regardless of nations, all came to this banquet of art to listen and to discuss meanings and ideas about their artworks. As an art history student I sometimes cannot help doubting the motivation of contemporary art. However, working alongside these artists and learning their stories reminded me why contemporary art still attracts people. We are all connected through art.
The Mayor of Taipei in their speech said ‘Contemporary art creates dialogues, and forces the viewer to think what it is trying to tell. It is a chance for self-reflection, a chance to rethink the discipline of modern citizenship.’
On the first open day of Taiwan Annual, artists and curators came seeking conversations, and that’s what my work was—to help connect the Taiwanese audience with the international art workers. Before the exhibition started, I helped Suresh to install the posters that he had brought—which were all about the programmes that are offered at 1 Shanthi Road. I also helped him to set all the prints (books and projects) on the table. The hardest work was to install the TV but even this was not that difficult, as long as we had all the devices. It was exciting for me as it was my very first formal experience in helping set the scene for an artist. Little did I know at the time, that English still creates barriers for Asian audiences. I think the Taiwanese generally have a very good level of English but I noted that when all the posterss and prints are in English, they are less keen to engage. Our team all concluded that it is not that they do not understand English, but English isn’t easily accessible for the targetted audience. We had to invite them into this dialogue, so we printed out an A4 Mandarin introductions for each artist, and art booth, in order to attract their curiosity.
The bonus about this internship is that in the end, we could accompany the artists to certain Taipei art spaces before they returned to their own countries. I took full advantage of this chance to explore new art spaces, and to connect with local contemporary artists, art spaces and galleries. For instance, I met an international independent curator, Biung Ismahasan, specialising in Indigenous Art curation. He himself in an indigenous Taiwanese (Bunun Nation), and is completing his PhD qualification in the University of Essex. I realised that learning was the part of the internship that made me most excited. This internship gave me a lot of excuses to do many things that I have always wanted to try but never had the chance to do so. I communicated with real artists from other countries, and met other talented people at this fair, including curators who specialise in different subjects. Although the internship only lasted two weeks, I grew close to the artists and my lovely colleagues.
It was an amazing experience, and more importantly, I had fun and made good friends along the way.
I would like to thank the AVAT, as they gave flexibility to the interns and their staff.
Finally, thanks to my training at the University of Birmingham, I was able to easily understand and record what the artists said during the Art Forum and Art Salons.