The Power Plant

Canons and City Life

JUN 03 2011
by Srimoyee Mitra

In December 2010, I visited Anish Kapoor’s first major exhibition in India. Posters and billboards promoting the exhibition spread across the city. Wherever I went—from the airport to the bus stop, from the shopping mall to the bookstore—they beckoned me. It was a homecoming for Mumbai’s golden son; his relations to the parent nation starting to thaw. For the first time the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in Delhi partnered with the British Council and Lisson Gallery to present a multi-city retrospective of this famed artist. Most of Kapoor’s works were presented in the NGMA with the off-site project taking place at Mehboob Studio, a quintessential film studio in Mumbai.

It was a beautiful, sunny day when I visited Mehboob Studio. Tucked away behind the non-descript iron gates characteristic of most private properties and residential compounds, I could see two cube-shaped buildings. I walked into the compound, enjoying the breeze under the foliage of trees that lined the walkway, but I was stopped at the entrance by security guards. I was sent back to the entrance to register my name and contact details at the counter, check my purse and pick up my visitor’s pass. Then, only after the security guard patted me down with a metal detector, was I allowed to enter.

Stepping inside the studio was like stepping through a mirror. It was the diametric opposite of the space-starved city of Mumbai brimming with people, smells and sounds. Inside the large cavernous space of Mehboob, measuring 40 by 40 meters with 17-meter high ceilings, it felt as though the city was the underbelly and the Studio was utopia. The glistening stainless-steel sculptures that we have come to associate with Kapoor’s oeuvre were spread throughout the studio. Gradually, I settled into passive art-viewing mode: losing track of time, I moved around the space, from one end of S-Curve (2006) to the other. I circumambulated Non Object (Spire) (2008) and simply walked around Iris (1998). Although I had never seen these works before, when I finally encountered them inside the bizarre non-space of the film studio-turned gallery they emanated an uncanny sense of familiarity, or was it déjà vu?

I noticed a man in a blue jumpsuit walk up to the canon placed in the corner of the room and load it with one of the canisters that were arranged in neat rows next to it. Within seconds a loud explosion shook the entire room. The canon pelted out a wax missile that smashed against the wall. The remnants—a heap of red sludgy wax—accumulated on the ground and spread out on the floor. The explosion reverberated throughout the space as everyone lapsed into a moment of stunned silence. The materiality of the wax and its colour resonated with the images of violence and carnage that Mumbaiites are too familiar with. Meanwhile the palpable machismo and sexuality was impossible to miss: the canon ejaculated red pellets onto the white walls with great force, cleverly critiquing the notion of abstract expressionist art as simply the splattering of paint on canvas. The canon referenced the British colonization of India and the long histories of exploitation and destruction that were prerequisites for establishing the Raj.

The canon jolted me out of the passive art-viewing mode and into reality, challenging me to engage with the context in which Shooting into the Corner (2008–9) was staged. The bloody, fleshy quality of the wax seemed like a mere fetishization of violence—too simulated, seductive and isolated. I stepped out of the Studio and got inside a cab, heading on my way to meet a friend for lunch at Soul Fry, my favourite restaurant. The taxi stopped at a signal when a woman came to my window with a little baby on her hip. The child’s head was bleeding, somehow bandaged with what looked like strips of fabric. I winced in the back seat. “Can we take her to the hospital?” I asked the taxi driver and he shrugged, saying “it’s all for show, it isn’t real. They just do it for the money.” The signal changed and he drove off before I could protest. Déjà vu gripped me: this was everyday life in the city of Mumbai. And I was the passive viewer.

Curator and writer Srimoyee Mitra was appointed Curator of Contemporary Art at the Art Gallery of Windsor in June 2011. Prior to that she was Program Coordinator at the South Asian Visual Arts Centre (SAVAC) in Toronto, and is a graduate of the MA program in Art History at York University. Her recent curatorial initiatives include Changing Stakes: Contemporary Art Dialogues with Dubai which opens at Mercer Union in the fall and Crossing Lines: An Intercultural Dialogue at the Glenhyrst Art Gallery (2009).