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#Hashtags: The Social and the Political

#engagement #social practice #institutions #academia #authenticity #representation

Berkeley has lately been abuzz with social practice of a politically conscious nature that befits the People’s Republic. The Berkeley Art Museum is presenting David Wilson’s The Possible, an exhibition as creative platform that includes numerous artist collaborators and participatory activities for the public. Concurrent with that exhibition, UC Berkeley’s Center for South Asia Studies presented the conference “Collecting South Asia, Archiving South Asia” at the Berkeley Art Museum on February 18. One of the day’s speakers on contemporary art, Dr. Atreyee Gupta of the Haus der Kunst in Munich, presented a paper on Ghari/Ghar Pe/At Home, a social practice exhibition in Dharavi, Mumbai, in 2012. She attests that the exhibition reached a level of engagement with the disadvantaged women who were invited to participate that few such art projects have thus far managed to satisfy. At Berkeley Art Center, Weston Teruya has curated Feature, a selection of work by BAC members that includes Pallavi Sharma’s politically and socially activated work. Sharma’s performance for Feature addressed violence and servitude in the domestic sphere, touching on themes relevant to the installation in Dharavi and emerging from a similar school of thought and practice as David Wilson.

The Possible Workshop, February 9, 2014. Photo: Peter Cavagnaro. Courtesy of Berkeley Art Museum.

The Possible Workshop, February 9, 2014. Photo: Peter Cavagnaro. Courtesy of Berkeley Art Museum.

Such projects raise questions: Should art serve the public good? Does it have a reason to exist beyond the artist’s need for expression? Social Practice as an extension of performance art seems to indicate that many artists believe this is so. Public engagement complicates the idea of art for art’s sake because it functions to expand art dialogues and institutions structurally, opening points of entry for the individual perspectives of participants who do not necessarily consider art to otherwise be a priority in their lives.

This effect was palpable at the Berkeley Art Museum, where The Possible felt charged with vitality even though it was nearing the end of the day. One large gallery is occupied by production studios for print, textile, and ceramic arts, where visitors can observe or participate in making objects for display. The energy of people making and cleaning turns the Brutalist museum into a village, with spaces for contemplation and for action. Quiet spaces include a library outfitted with archival treasures from the museum’s collections and contemporary mail art from notable Bay Area artists, and a large crocheted rug by Fritz Haeg that is at once a site under construction, a space of production, and a public commons. Active spaces include the “Kids Club,” with art projects for youth, and the aforementioned working artisans’ studios. In contrast to the Department of Art Practice across the street (whose staff are well represented in The Possible’s list of participants), these facilities in the museum are available to a wide public. Still, the sense of a community art school is strong, indicating that the Berkeley Art Museum recognizes that it has a responsibility as a public institution to play a socially engaged role in education through art and culture. This is a significant shift away from the traditional collecting and archiving priorities of museums on the whole.

The Possible, installation view, 2014. Photo: Peter Cavagnaro. Courtesy of Berkeley Art Museum.

The Possible, installation view, 2014. Photo: Peter Cavagnaro. Courtesy of Berkeley Art Museum.

As the Berkeley Art Museum tries to be more active and responsive to its community, the organizers of Ghari/Ghar Pe/At Home tried to do the same for the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum in the large Mumbai ghetto called Dharavi. The project was organized by an NGO, SNEHA, with local contemporary artists, who worked with poor women in the district for a full year to develop both activist and artistic strategies to address their needs. Each participant is given credit as artist of her own contributions, rather than the project being attributed to a lead artist. One collection of objects included a stove, which had special significance as a metaphorical space to address the abuse and intimidation that many women felt inside their homes. For inspiration, the artists were shown examples of foundational works of installation art such as Womanhouse, as well as contemporary Indian art, which they did at times try to emulate. However, since the forms of such art originate in the vernacular semiotics of the home and the Indian street, their appearance here is only natural. The objects interweave different women’s histories—some joyful, many marked by cruelty—in a collective self-portrait of the struggling and neglected neighborhood. The needs of a community like Dharavi, which lacks basic services and infrastructure, are vastly different from those of Berkeley. Even so, the stories of domestic violence that emerged from Ghari/Ghar Pe/At Home are relevant to any community.

The Possible, installation view, 2014. Photo: Peter Cavagnaro. Courtesy of Berkeley Art Museum.

The Possible, installation view, 2014. Photo: Peter Cavagnaro. Courtesy of Berkeley Art Museum.

Pallavi Sharma’s performance at Berkeley Art Center demonstrated precisely how relevant stories of domestic violence and sexual assault can be in a local context, and how social-practice artists can create spaces of shared understanding around charged topics such as this. Sharma constructed a large sculpture made of three apron-like skirts, each with its own opening. She put on the sculpture one skirt at a time, allowing the remaining two to sit empty in potential occupancy by members of her audience. Sharma did not narrate her own story; instead, she performed symbolic acts of vulnerability and generosity. Rolling balls of dough, she powdered them not in white flour but in red kumkum, a pigment used in Hindu religious observance. Each was rolled into a perfectly red roti. This labor-intensive staple bread, now stained, suggested the high expectations placed on women in traditional homes. Simultaneously, the staining and folding of dough was an apt metaphor for violence’s perpetuation across generations when it is manifested in the home. Sharma invited audience members to join her, and one young woman did, expressing her alarm at a recent incident of sexual assault alleged against a former UC Berkeley Graduate Student Instructor. The student, whose experiences differ dramatically from the upbringing even of an educated, middle-class Indian such as Sharma, could experience the commonality and compassion around this issue that Sharma’s work facilitated.

Heartwarming, for sure—but as Justin Charles Hoover pointed out in a panel following Sharma’s performance (in which I also took part), performance art is not best served by artists who wish to use it as therapy. The value of social practice as a form does not derive from the broad strokes of real-world issues that it so often engages but in its capacity to foreground the perspectives of individuals, including and beyond the artist, in a way that feels democratic and constructive. As such, a project like The Possible holds enormous potential for meaningful and broad audience engagement, even if its aesthetics and form are associated with a smaller niche community of artists and artisans with specific demographics. Art institutions can provide an important platform to amplify diverse and marginalized voices through these kinds of exhibition formats, offering a necessary public outlet for dialogue through art that is less contentious and territorial than the spaces of contemporary political life.

“Collecting South Asia, Archiving South Asia” was presented by UC Berkeley’s Center for South Asia Studies at the Berkeley Art Museum on February 18. The Possible is on view at the Berkeley Art Museum through May 25. Feature is on view at the Berkeley Art Center through March 2.

#Hashtags is a series exploring the intersection of art, social issues, and global politics.

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