China Residencies: Is it strange being back home in India, after spending so much time in the US and China?
Jagrut Raval: It is, actually. The first month went by so quickly; I was getting to know my friends again. A lot of things are progressing here. I’m very optimistic.
CR: That’s exciting - it’s great that there’s been visible change.
JR: It was good that I went to China; it was like a buffer zone for me. I can see a lot of similarities and that’s helping me put India in a different perspective. And of course it’s competitive as well, since they are the two most populous countries on the planet. Also, a lot of post-colonial countries didn’t have the same kinds of art movements that followed in the West, modernism, post-modernism, then the contemporary. It all came at once, going straight to the contemporary. That’s really interesting. At Pace Beijing, there was a great exhibition on called “Unlived By What Is Seen”.
CR: Those kinds of projects are so important because it can be hard to remember to document the contemporary as it’s happening so quickly, through video interviews and so on.
JR: I actually managed to see it several times with different people who had different perspectives. I was also really captivated and impressed with all the work of alternative spaces like I: project space and Intelligentsia Gallery.
CR: Wait, let’s backtrack a little - what were your first impressions of Beijing?
JR: I was impressed by the huge studio! The facilities were amazing. It’s better than the pictures. It didn’t feel very different to being in India, in that village. It’s a very similar situation, where these pockets of urban villages pop up around major cities. You can see at first hand the inequality everyone is talking about, and you’re a part of it.
CR: Feijiacun is caught in between the very fancy villas and the migrant worker village.
JR: Yes, I recorded conversations with one of the migrant workers, a woman from Inner Mongolia who runs a little food stall behind the studios.
CR: It’s hard to convey how diverse China is to people who haven’t been -- but you’re right, it’s more like India with very different regional cultures, cuisines, and languages. It’s not a monolithic cultural block. People in that village come from all different parts of China and ended up there because it’s close enough to Beijing.
JR: Even without knowing the language, it’s still possible to converse by using your body and gestures. It was really fun. It can be hindering when you’re trying to make work or buy materials, but that’s also, in retrospect, a nice part of the experience. That’s when you understand the other people in a different way, by just looking at human beings.
CR: You worked on so many different projects, what was the first thing you started working on?
We Exist Here is a site-specific installation at E6/Meridian Space in Beijing, China
JR: I was interested in the world map, and looking into the idea of where we are placed now. How is it our place? And not, how is this yours, or mine? I was reading Homi Bhabha’s The Location of Culture, and we came up with the name In Between You and Me. For the exhibition at Meridian Space, I created a site-specific work, We Exist Here, the idea being that we all belong in this space that is our world or our art at the same time. Wolfgang Obermair, the Austrian artist who was there at the same time, also worked on a similar idea. We created a collaborative work, SPIT. We were having a conversation about seeing people spitting on the street, and we decided to do a performance where we would spit on each other. We were sitting on two foldable mahjong stools, which are very portable pieces of furniture that you can fold up and take with you - it’s a loose structure. There was a glass frame in between the two of us - that acted as a kind of liminal space. Spitting on someone is a form of disgrace, it’s like a clash of cultures -- reacting viscerally to not liking another person’s culture or race or whatever. We placed the glass in liminal space that’s In Between You and Me, and the glass ends up taking away and holding all the frustration of clashing cultures. We performed in the gallery space, and then the glass with our spit on it became the installation. It was very ephemeral.
CR: What was the audience’s reaction to the performance?
JR: It was interesting; we thought that people would laugh, but we didn’t want to make it a humorous piece. But people watched with very neutral expressions, as if they were watching a video or a movie.
CR: It’s interesting because during the lead up to the Olympics in 2008, the Chinese government actually tried to get people to stop spitting on the street, because they were aware that spitting was considered ‘uncivilized’ by the international audience they were trying to attract. There’s a temporal and cultural shift, and it could be that in 20 years, it’s not something that’s seen anymore - especially among younger generations.
JR: We’re having similar situation in India, but the only difference is that in India they chew paan [betel leaves] and spit out the red liquid, which creates stains on public buildings and is very dirty. But it’s also part of our culture. Why shouldn’t we spit on the street, really?
CR: It’s almost like removing all traces of human activity in cities, for the sake of hygiene or sanitation - or ‘modernization’.
JR: This idea of the act of spitting as ‘uncivilized’ is a very politically correct idea, in that sense.
CR: It’s interesting that the performance is mutual; it removes the power dynamic of one person spitting on someone else, especially as you’re sitting there on the same level, eye-to-eye. You’re also using the glass to avoid confrontation.This work is a collaborative performance piece by Indian artist Jagrut Raval and German/Austrian artist Wolfgang Obermair. In this work both artists sit on either side of a glass panel and spit on each other. The 'act of spitting’ symbolizes a poignant relationship of intolerance between races, classes and cultures. To a civilized person, spitting on someone is considered as an act that announces a feeling of disgrace for the other. The glass in-between represents the liminal space in between the binaries which safeguards the individuals from the vilification by the other.
JR: Yes, and we went on to collaborate on other projects as well. And the day after the performance, I was approached by Pilar Escuder to do a show at AOTU Studio in the month of February. But one month was so short that I proposed a joint exhibition with Wolfgang. I had a few things in my mind, including the world map project. I also created two other pieces. I went to Panjiayuan antiques market, and that’s how I understood how important Ai Weiwei’s work is. You see all these antiques, but they are not antiques, they are fakes that are being sold as antiques. So when Ai Weiwei drops the urns, it’s also a commentary on what’s real and what’s fake.
CR: How did you start thinking about setting up the Consuming the World project?
JR: I hung the camera from the second floor of the loft in the studio, and below was a huge table with all the food on it. Emma and I approached the neighbors and people working in the neighborhood like the electrician, and all the other artists. It went well, and very fast.
CR: How did you choose the food?
JR: I thought it would be interesting to work with Indian food, rather than Chinese food, because even though there was an Indian restaurant very close by, the people in the village had never tasted Indian food. Apparently the restaurant owner and the chef were both Chinese, but they made a great Biryani. What’s interesting is that Biryani is not originally from India. It’s also a mashup of different cultures because it came from Persia through the Persian rulers who governed parts of India. It’s very close to pilaf, a Turkish dish, called pulao here. The very idea of putting food items on the world map is something I’m still thinking about. Food is one of the most global things we have, but still we associate it with certain cultures. Even the red chilies that we associate with Chinese or Indian cooking were never from this continent - they came from South America.
CR: It really changes your perception of culinary culture when you think that Indian food wasn’t spicy until after the 16th Century, or that Italian food didn’t have tomatoes until around then too.
JR: We are living in such a well-connected time. As soon as the Nepal earthquake struck, everyone knew about it. We actually felt it here in Ahmedabad, but it’s fascinating that news spreads so quickly now. Going to China was a fantastic opportunity to understand Asia better. We consider ourselves Asian, but what is Asia, really, for someone from a different country in the region? We should be collaborating in a more aggressive way to continue to shift the paradigm.
CR: A lot of cultural exchange is unfortunately still Western-centric. English is of course a very practical tool to navigate the world right now—
JR: but especially in art or music, it’s not the language that’s important, it’s the work we make.
CR: Tell me a bit about the study you did with the sunflowers [Study - World Map with Sunflower Seeds].
JR: It was just to bring in different objects, and we were eating sunflower seeds almost every day, along with Yanjing beer. I wanted to make the world map and see how I could place things on it. I’m thinking of continuing the project here, on a bigger scale.
CR: And what did you work on for the second collaboration with Wolfgang?
JR: We came up with the title H-A-L-F-A-M-A-N, about the idea of being civilized, and progressing from an animal-like state to a human one. It’s that sort of evolution -- it’s a very shallow word -- but the evolution of our thinking. We were trying to adjust to that idea. HALF-A-MAN is also the idea that you are mixing and matching different things. I got a few propaganda picture books from the ’70s and ‘80s from the Panjianyuan market, with really nice illustrations about a foreigner coming to China. I couldn’t understand it, and I didn’t want to understand it, I just tried to re-interpret it. I scanned the booklets and gave new English titles to the works just by looking at the pictures. It’s still a work in progress. I was also very moved by the prevalence of surveillance cameras - on the streets, in stores, even in the subway. It’s a very personal idea, being an atheist; I believe that god is also an idea of an omnipresent being that is looking down on you. Somewhere now, the government or power structures are also instilling that power over us, telling us that we’re being watched, so don’t do anything bad, or else… So I bought a Buddhist pedestal to create a small shrine to surveillance, and called it Beginning of Your Servility.
CR: I always wonder how many of the cameras are even recording, or if just the presence of the camera is enough.
JR: So many of them are fake too, actually. But in the same way, even though I knew Facebook, Twitter and Instagram would be blocked, I still didn’t anticipate the frustration. It’s only when you don’t have freedom that you understand what freedom is. I don’t even use Facebook all that much, but I had a VPN so I actually ended up using Facebook much more in China. And it seemed like a lot of people I met didn’t necessarily mind that China was closed off in this way.
CR: And you went to Hong Kong to teach at SCAD afterwards?
JR: Yes, I gave guest critiques and an artist talk. It’s a very new campus, only four or five years old, and it’s in a former magistrate building. They have a courtroom, which is where I gave the lecture, and even a few prison cells. I also had the chance to stop by Videotage and Blindspot Gallery. Hong Kong is much more cosmopolitan, as were the students in the school. And I got the chance to get out of Beijing a little too; we went to a wild part of the Great Wall. I even took a piece of the wall.
JR: I brought one block back to my studio in Beijing and I cut it into small pieces and gave it to different artists, one to Joshua Lue Chee Kong, the Trinidadian artist, one to Ann Hastie. I have two pieces with me here in India.
CR: How has being in China affected your work?
JR: It made me more aware of power structures. I never thought my work would take a turn into political commentary, but it’s unavoidable in China. Art is political. As an artist, you are always trying to make art that challenges the ruling ideology, to make something that’s doesn’t exist in the social realm right now.
CR: You also started working with new mediums during the residency, including performance.
JR: Yes, the residency also helped me a lot in terms of meeting lots of different kinds of artists, like Christiane Huber, who worked in performance. I was looking forward to experimenting with new mediums in China. Even using those three words, We Exist Here, was the first time it really struck me that it’s the idea that’s more important than the actual objects. That piece is really just vinyl letters on the wall. I really enjoyed moving away from materiality in artworks. I’m continuing to explore that further, too.
CR: That also somehow reflects your background, in that you started with architecture and design, then moved to photography and now you’re moving away from objects even more. Your earlier works are also tangible representations of intangible concepts, like clocks for time. And what are you working on now?
JR: I’ve started a new body of work since I’ve been back, and I’m setting up a studio in my house. I’m working around the sentence “You are a slave of ideology”, translated into Hindi.It will be printed on different materials, and will go into advertisements and be posted on streets. I’m trying it out, but I want to re-establish my base and home in Ahmedabad. I also found a file with newspaper clippings I had collected from the riots between Hindus and Muslims that took place in Ahmedabad in 2002. I don’t know why I was saving them but it works well for what I want to convey. I want to focus on religion, and explore how an artist can look into what religion does to today’s society.
CR: Do you have any unfinished projects from your time in Beijing?
JR: I would love to continue the picture book project. I would love to also interview migrant workers to understand where they came from, go to their hometowns and try to understand what they are looking for. What’s interesting about migration is that you call the place where you are from “home” but then you go and work in some other place, and you also call the place where you are “home”. And when you return to your original home, you get nostalgic but at the same time, has every place I’ve ever been to been “home”? Three of the artists and I were taking a taxi back, and we were telling the driver: “Don’t worry, we know the place, we’re staying there, it’s our home.”
CR: That’s very much embodied in your We Exist Here project, because whether it’s by choice or by force or by chance, you need to make your home wherever you end up. Especially if you can’t stay where you were born for economic or political reasons, “home” is kind of an arbitrary concept.
JR: As is the world map with all its borders.
CR: Yes, definitely. You chose to show the world map in its Eurocentric version, but there is also a China-centric world map.
JR: Yes, I was making world maps in their own centric ways. But for this performance, I used the map from the United Nations because it’s something very neutral, even though it’s still Euro-centric.
CR: Though when you make the map out of rice, the borders disappear. And borders are subjective and so disputed.
JR: There are three disputed borders between China and India, actually.
CR: Apparently, when you look at online maps when you’re in India, it will show the Indian stance and when you look from China, it will show the land belonging to China. The tech companies are showing people what they want to see.
JR: Yes, I had three windows open in my browsers showing Arunachal, the disputed area. Baidu shows it as a part of China, google.co.in shows it as part of India, and google.com shows a dotted line!
CR: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk in depth about everything you got up to.
JR: And thank you for selecting me for this opportunity!This interview was conducted over the phone by Kira Simon-Kennedy and edited by Iona Whittaker for China Residencies.