Other-ingThe Kathmandu Triennale was the most awaited event on Nepal’s art map, just as the two international festivals that came before it were.
The Kathmandu Triennale was the most awaited event on Nepal’s art map, just as the two international festivals that came before it were. It grew on the hope, as expressed so eloquently by the Nepal Tourism Board’s CEO, that it would create a ‘unique opportunity to showcase Kathmandu among international visitors and top artists seeking to feel the pulse of Kathmandu in its true form; a historic city coming out of its moulds on its way to meet globalsation’. In this respect, am sure, the Triennale has not failed us.
Or has it?
It surely has had a curator of international repute, an artist list of international repute, and considerable international coverage. It must have brought representatives of the global art economy swooping down for a few days at least into our new republic. It has opened the entrails of Nepali contemporary art for global viewing as never before. And the entrails have surely proved their worth, standing proud. Almost every one of the Nepali artists finding representation in the Triennale has produced work that is at par with the rest of the regions’. The selection by the curator has been immaculate in this respect.
I missed the first week of the event, so the performances and symposium eluded me, but I did make rounds of almost all the venues once I was back in town as the Triennale closed only on April 9. This was exactly a day after Documenta 14 opened in Athens.
One cannot but notice certain resonances, do hold your breath here, between Documenta 14 and the Kathmandu Triennale’s first edition. This mother of all contemporary art shows has divided itself into two venues for the first time in its history and moved to include impoverished Greece heaving under a refugee crisis. A Polish curator, Adam Szymczyk, had descended with his curatorial team to bring focus upon Greece’s Athens, a city that is largely ignored as a contemporary art destination but one with a mind blowing cultural history. Szymczyk has, however, self consciously stayed away from giving out a formal curatorial statement, and has reiterated that ‘learn from Athens’ with an eye on the Global South was key to his endeavour; and very relevantly but conversely, ‘that unlearning everything we believe is the best beginning.’
On a similar note, Belgium’s Phillipe Van Cauteren of the SMAK museum had arrived at Kathmandu at the behest of the Siddhartha Art Foundation to revive its international art festival. Van Cauteren has been very clear that his focus on the city of Kathmandu (the Triennale was called ‘The City, My Studio/The City, My Life’) would be, firstly, an exploration of its rich cultural heritage, and secondly, ‘an invitation to express differences, to embrace idiosyncratic artistic practices...that will enter in a dialogue and generate a composition which will be a tribute to art and its vital role in society.’ There is no ‘unlearning’ or structural openness hinted at here, and we therefore must approach the Triennale as a greenhouse in which the local and international artists must encounter exotic Kathmandu and renew it for us. And we must also take note of the fact that the curatorial thrust sidesteps the economic impoverishment of Nepal.
But glorifies its cultural legacy and possibilities. It is as if the economic backwardness is such a given that it deserves no space for re-articulation or demands no restructuring.
I mention this certain closed-ness because I reencountered it as we wandered through the many main and collateral venues stretched across the city. I soon realised that the artworks were mostly lacking in conversation among themselves. We, who are just getting trained in the idiom of a globalised art world and are beginning to get used to the language of biennales and art festivals, already know that it is these inter-work conversations that are of the highest interest. For it is this invisible and inaudible conversation, skilfully catalysed by a curator, that sparks off an unlearning process in the viewers and jolt us into awareness of our social, political reality. Conversations that set the ball in motion for eventual, widespread changes in sensibility. When works are displayed so that they become objects or processes to be merely viewed or consumed in isolation, the vital justifications for a periodic art event disappears. I would say the overall show resembled more of a museum display than a short-span art event with credible synergy or cohesion. In fact some of the collateral venues looked more cohesive than the main.
Also, as I have mentioned above, works by the Nepali artists were extremely well executed and stood in clear contrast to the visiting artists’, except perhaps of those from Bangladesh. The Triennale website read, ‘international selections have been made on artists’ capacity to develop their work in Kathmandu within a limited timeframe prior to the exhibition, and also on their commitment to engage in capacity building for Nepal’s art scene...that they have the capacity to “transform almost nothing” into a valid artistic proposition.’ Unfortunately, on quite a few occasions, the transformation of nothing nearly ended up in nothing. No doubt this happily upturns what is usually seen when international artists descend on countries that are not economically privileged, but one does wish that the upturning was not made so very obvious. It took away from the overall experience of the Triennale, and also somewhat took away from the hard-won achievement of the home contingent.
One must remember that Nepal does not host too many international art events. The Triennale was much awaited and was meant to bring us a glimpse of the best of global art. Van Cauteren surely helped the visiting artists to find the ‘other’ in Kathmandu, but he also missed out on the chance to let us experience an ‘other’ for ourselves. We were left watching and experiencing a defamailiarisation, an other-ing, of our own selves. This was a one-way process for both sets of artists, unfortunately. In my opinion, the Triennale worked from a Eurocentric position and opened Kathmandu out to the world no doubt, but did not bring the world to Kathmandu. And this was a bit of a damper since we have had international art festivals here before, festivals that might not have been tightly curated but they surely did not pin themselves on alienating the self. I now look forward to the next edition, which will surely bring us more experiments but more importantly, more of an exchange with the world.