Aric Chen on 'Absence/Presence of Cultural Commentary in an Emerging Economy'

At STIR Gallery in New Delhi, the writer and curator shared thoughts on culture, design, economies, and ecosystems, in the presence of artists and designers across disciplines.

by Almas SadiquePublished on : Jan 12, 2023

For those not engaged in the habit of practising perfect semantics, the theme, the point of discussion—Absence/Presence of Cultural Commentary in an Emerging Economy—that rustled the calm and wintry night of January 6, 2023, at STIR Gallery in the southern quarters of New Delhi might sound like elaborate and obscure jargon, a reaction that sits in stark contrast to the event’s intent. Hence, let’s simplify.

What do we mean by cultural commentary?

Are they works of art, design, and architecture, that at once leak past well-prescribed borders while also marking their territories with a distinct creative language? Are they conversations and discourses that raise questions with the intent of understanding things better and birthing new ideas and perspectives? Or are they calls to action, an act that Aric Chen—general and artistic director of Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam, the Netherlands—declares as “no longer action enough.” Moving past the act of pigeonholing cultural commentary within a formal definition, the arguments raised during the interactive round-table event within the premises of the STIR Gallery in Chattarpur, although varied, fulcrumed on the need for visibility, of the mode that disseminates or intends to disseminate a commentary on culture. Hence, for a painting, a product, a building, or an opinion, showcase platforms must exist—for them to stand a chance to become part of the cultural commentary and narrative—while opinions on their cultural relevance and permissibility can endlessly be debated on.

This brings to the surface another question. What economies are recognised as ‘emerging economies’ and how does the absence or presence of cultural commentary manifest in different emerging economies?

Moderator of the event, Pooja Sood—an Indian curator, an art management consultant, and the founding member and Director of the experimental visual arts not-for-profit practice Khoj International Artists' Association—drew parallels between China and India, both part of BRICS, and welcomed Aric Chen to talk about the similarities and differences between the cultural infrastructure that pervades both these countries. Calling himself an ignorant observer, Chen said, “When I come to India now, it feels a lot like China felt when I moved there in 2008. When I stepped out of the plane a few days ago in Delhi, the air felt chilly, with the smell of the car exhaust, and it was foggy. It really felt like Beijing in 2008. You are stuck in traffic a lot. It’s a city where things are not really meant to be seen but once you find your way, you are always surprised that these amazing things are hidden away.” A comparison such as this, although superficial, establishes commonalities between two countries attempting to climb the ladder towards economic excellence.

In drawing parallels between the neighbouring countries, Chen also appreciated the passion and resilience that guides creatives in both countries. He said, “The cultural infrastructure such as it is in India reminds me of the way things were in China in 2008, very active and passionate group of people, who are probably also frustrated, and sometimes, maybe even feeling a little bit beleaguered, but nevertheless moving forward, in a very sensitive way, manouevering their way to new things, through the system.”

Artists, designers, and architects at the STIR Gallery | Absence/Presence of Cultural Commentary in an Emerging Economy | Aric Chen | STIRworld
Artists, designers, and architects at the STIR Gallery Image: Courtesy of STIR

Although a lack of formalised infrastructure in India was recognised as a palpable reality during the discussion, an acknowledgement of various independent spaces operating and spearheading the cultural renaissance—albeit progressing slowly and subtly—in the capital city and other important metropolises was also recognised. Sood, in acknowledging the cultural ecosystem in China that helps propel creatives onto the global stage, said, “Infrastructure in China, in terms of support by the government, is way more than anything we have seen in India or can even imagine can happen. I think that’s because China has really tried to push soft power. From the Shanghai biennales to hosting the Olympics, every big blockbuster thing that could happen has happened in the country, in addition to envisioning the huge gallery system and support for schools, as well. There are almost 3,000 to 4,000 art students that come out of the universities every year.” Adding to this argument, Chen brought to focus the foreign embassies, and not the government bodies, that tend to usually support the cultural production in both countries.

Aric Chen, Amit Gupta, Pooja Sood, and Rahul Kumar browsing through the artworks at the gallery | Absence/Presence of Cultural Commentary in an Emerging Economy | Aric Chen | STIRworld
Aric Chen, Amit Gupta, Pooja Sood and Rahul Kumar browsing through the artworks at the gallery Image: Courtesy of STIR

Beyond the diplomatic and economic agenda that encourages foreign embassies to get involved in the cultural development of a region are the market opportunities and consumer tastes, that propel such enthusiastic participation. Chen’s assertion about the progression of the cultural scene in China of 2008, and its comparison with the present-day scenario in India is perhaps an indicator of the economic growth apparent in both countries, at different times.

(Left to right) Vishal Dar, Sanjoy Roy, Rahul Kumar, Gunjan Gupta, and Gayatri Singh | Absence/Presence of Cultural Commentary in an Emerging Economy | Aric Chen | STIRworld
(Left to right) Vishal Dar, Sanjoy Roy, Rahul Kumar, Gunjan Gupta, and Gayatri Singh Image: Courtesy of STIR

Marching ahead with the discussion, thoughts on censorship were exchanged. Chen explained how, despite censorship, people in China have, over the years, learnt to manoeuvre around rules, and are able to dauntlessly display subversive art and host controversial showcases. Offering an alternate view on censorship and its subjectivity, textile designer Sanjay Garg of Raw Mango said, “I recently came across one of Ai Weiwei’s interviews where he was asked what kind of democracy is perfect for everyone across the globe, to which he answered ‘none'. This is because one person’s democracy is always at the cost of another person’s freedom. Hence, it is always difficult to determine how much censorship or how much liberty is optimum for all.” Alluding to this thought, Chen explained how black and white delineations of right and wrong, as is the case in Hong Kong, often end up restricting more than the organic and shifting censorship witnessed in China.

Vibha Galhotra and Aric Chen at the event | Absence/Presence of Cultural Commentary in an Emerging Economy | Aric Chen | STIRworld
Vibha Galhotra and Aric Chen at the event Image: Courtesy of STIR

Backtracking to Aric Chen’s assertion, “a call to action is no longer action enough,” one can salvage learnings and muster the courage to deal in real actions, in palpable efforts. While private sectors and government bodies do little to upend the scenario in favour of creatives, Chen invites people in independent cultural institutions, people in third spaces and liminal locations, to utilise their unique position to do “what government and private sector can or will not do for whatever reason.” Chen continued, “Instead of just presenting ideas and discourses and being places of debate and discussion and posing questions and raising words, can we actually become testing grounds for enacting some of these ideas that we are proffering because we can, right? I mean, it's our job to do things differently. It's unencumbered or less encumbered by whatever restrains the government and the private sector. Things are always weird before they are real, and that is what we need to examine.”

(Left to right) Swati Janu, Vikramaditya Sharma, and Sanjay Garg | Absence/Presence of Cultural Commentary in an Emerging Economy | Aric Chen | STIRworld
(Left to right) Swati Janu, Vikramaditya Sharma, and Sanjay Garg Image: Courtesy of STIR

Chen intends to follow his words with actions by designing spaces and systems that not only encourage but also facilitate collaboration. An online game application developed by the Het Nieuwe Instituut, designed with an interface similar to dating apps, but intended to connect creatives from different places and practices, is a means to that end. Chen believes that since design is subjective and is interpreted differently by different people, real-life problems cannot have a unanimous design solution. Instead, they must be imagined in collaboration. “One person's solution is another person's problem. You know, it's too complicated. Instead, what we need to be doing is negotiating different scenarios and that's what design really helps us do,” Chen shared during the event.

Amit Gupta sharing his thoughts on the topic | Absence/Presence of Cultural Commentary in an Emerging Economy | Aric Chen | STIRworld
Amit Gupta sharing his thoughts on the topic Image: Courtesy of STIR

As the conversation progressed deeper into the night, the indigenous model of Zoöp that enables ecological regeneration in tandem with the interests of non-human living creatures was discussed. Other topics of discussion included debates around blockchain, the barter system, the position of craft and design in the Zoöp ecosystem, the dynamic between power and design, the evolution of social structures, and the role of cultural institutions. Creatives who participated in the informal discourse also included managing director of Teamwork Arts, Sanjoy Roy; artists Jiten Thukral and Sumir Tagra; artist and designer Gunjan Gupta; textile designer Sanjay Garg; artist Vishal Dar; designer and founder of New Form, Vikramaditya Sharma; architect, artist, activist and founder of Social Design Collaborative, Swati Janu; artist Vibha Galhotra; founder and director of Art Incept, Gayatri Singh; and artist, and Editor, Arts, STIR, Rahul Kumar.

Prima Kurien’s dishes, all set to be savoured | Absence/Presence of Cultural Commentary in an Emerging Economy | Aric Chen | STIRworld
Prima Kurien’s dishes, all set to be savoured Image: Courtesy of STIR

The event, hosted at STIR Gallery by Amit Gupta, Founder and Editor-in-Chief, STIR, witnessed a warm concoction of thoughts and ideas by artists, designers, writers, and curators on myriad subjects, and an appetising brew of authentic Kerala cuisine prepared by chef Prima Kurien.

Click on the banner video to watch the entire conversation.

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