by Dilpreet BhullarDec 23, 2019
Hidden in plain sight, on the floor cornering one of the viewing galleries of the Tyrolean Folk Art Museum in Innsbruck, is an LED screen with German text rolling in a loop. It read like a rhetorical question, but, since the first two nouns didn’t exist yet in my limited vocabulary, I called out to my native German-speaking partner, who was surveying the woodwork instruments nearby. I asked him to interpret it for me. We were in a particularly fascinating gallery that had a spectacular collection of Tyrolean objects related to different registers of use, from the occupational to the domestic to the agricultural. The LED screen was easily obscured from one’s attention, and like my partner, many viewers had passed it by without necessarily pausing. Having previously come across Jenny Holzer’s truisms in similar museum contexts, in Vienna, for example, I ambled around it, eager to receive its message, despite the absence of any caption indicating its source. The text, in German, read—“Reichtum und Wohlstand ist im Museum leicht zu dokumentieren. Aber Armut, die nichts besitzt?”—Wealth and prosperity are easy to showcase in a museum. But what about poverty, which owns nothing?
I was actively stumped by this intervention. It’s not every day you stumble upon a self-reflective ethnographic European museum that’s critical of its existence. It really was a remarkable folk-art museum. I am not sure if it’s because I felt connected to the objects, since I had married a South Tyrolean and had been reading so much about the region’s unique cultural heritage or because the arrangement was genuinely politically considerate. I was amazed to find so many objects from South Tyrol—whole rooms in fact. It was a bit bizarre to have travelled a two-hour distance across the border between Italy and Austria, only to enter a museum that refers back to where we travelled from. My partner’s aunt told me later that many objects had been sent to the Folk museum in Innsbruck around 100 years ago, when the region was being colonised by Italian fascists. They never came back. This, though, is anecdotal hearsay that I have yet to verify. The curators had woven in a seasonal timeline on the floor, arranging the objects on display in terms of what point in the year one was likely to need or encounter them. Contemporary artworks by Anton Christian were also lodged within the display, provoking disturbing narrative ruptures.
I hadn’t really contemplated such a question before as the one that had been casually asked. If museums were historically perceived as being store houses for antiquated treasures or archaeologically excavated loot from colonised territories, did these institutions ever accommodate poverty as a construct? How do you depict or document a pervasive condition that every ruling (therefore decision-making) class prefers to erase from discourse instead of caring to eradicate? I thought about many of the permanent collections of museums I had visited around the world. I hadn’t witnessed any form of discursive interrogation of the lived experience of either localised or global poverty.
A month later, at an opening at the Lanserhaus in Eppan, South Tyrol, of a show titled Schöne Scherben // Die Kunst der Reparatur (Beautiful Shards // The Art of Repair), it occurred to me that one could potentially find points of entry into documenting poverty within a museum space through the domain of repair. I had a flashback to one of my many trips to the neighbourhood cobbler growing up in Mumbai. When the sole of my sandal would come apart, I would pay a visit to his street-side shop where he sat on the floor surrounded by his tools. I rarely needed to explain what needed mending. He would see the broken slipper and simply begin to fix it. First, he would glue it together and wait for a few seconds for it to dry. Then he would take a thick thread and needle and sow the sole back on. I always watched attentively and derived immense pleasure from the pride he took in his work. I would pay him between INR 2 to INR 5 and go on my way. This was how my lower-middle-class family prolonged the life of things when we didn’t have the in-house expertise. When he confidently had the know-how, my father would take it upon himself to fix anything that was broken, or to do things himself, from plumbing to hemming curtains. No museum I have ever been to had ever wrestled with what it meant to live precariously. Contemporary art tackles the subject, surely, but this is seldom the case with permanent collection displays. Perhaps because museums were built and designed as spaces to host what a set of people ‘had’—the wealth of their resources, conquests, subjugations in the form of objects that were preserved, recovered, restored, or memorialised in order to be displayed as a form of cultural currency. What could it mean to document what was never lost by those who occupied the margins because it was never really in their possession or existed but was consistently devalued; like female, indigenous, and enslaved subjectivities? Could repair offer a philosophical-materialistic-conceptual domain through its pluralistic manifestations to attest to human ingenuity, resolve and resilience in the face of material lack?
The exhibition at Lanserhaus, curated by Hans-Jürgen Hafner, didn’t seem to echo this sentiment. It was invested more in the aesthetics of repair, rather than its poetics or politics. “The way we engage with things—be it objects or systems, especially when they are broken or imperfect—points to a complex dialectic relation between value and deficit,” Hafner wrote in his statement. It’s insightful in that it points out the role of repair within the framework of economy. I wished that Hafner had taken this idea forward, but he cut himself short by choosing to focus squarely on the aesthetics of repair, clinging to the value generated through the mediation of the artist’s gaze or handywork, not daring to delve deeper into repair as acts of either desperation, fragile necessity, or radical intervention. What would a feminist curator have done differently, I found myself asking.
It is a beautiful show. If you go to a gallery to find aesthetic succour, this show won’t disappoint. I felt like I was in the company of many self-conscious objects that had been brought together on account of a curator’s whimsical magic wand. But there was an air of preciousness to the whole affair, which infused the gesture of repair with the aura of a fetish. In the English translation of the curatorial summary, we are alerted to the curator’s fascination with the polarity of repairing strategies where care is taken to invisibilise the act of having mended and those that involve showcasing the sutures. Predictably, he cites Kintsugi, which did make me want to roll my eyes. And, to be honest, even as I admired and appreciated the various works on display, I did perform a mental eye roll.
I wasn’t sure if I was upset over or envious of Hafner’s gaze. Did it enrage me that, as a white man—or what Sylvia Wynter might call Over-Represented Man—he had the luxury of thinking about repair from a purely superficial standpoint? Or was I secretly jealous that he had the privilege of looking at art so apolitically? As a critic from the Third World now dwelling in the First World, am I fated to always carry, like second skin, the burden of seeking empathy? He uses the word ‘defective’, and I word-associate with Sarojini Nagar in New Delhi, where clothes produced in South Asia but marked by that attribute—therefore deemed unfit for Western markets, were offloaded and bought by people like me who couldn’t afford to go to most boutiques even during a sale. He speaks of deficits and I think of activists back home on hunger strikes trying to fix broken systems. He speaks of the subversive artistic value to be found in the excess of imperfection embodied by a broken thing or its leftovers, and how such artworks “resist the linear temporal regime rather than escaping history at all”. I read it as an act of fetishizing. He mentions use, and how things break down, but not the inequalities responsible for the fault lines. “Cracks in your teacup or a frayed collar point to the fact that something was easy at hand or in heavy use and still has beauty or is more comfortable than any other shirt you find in your closet. Hyper-production and global trade suggest that broken things are always easier to replace than to properly fix. This obscures the complex nature of value, be it intrinsic to an object or system, or ascribed.” I don’t deny these are possibly profound observations, but do they not also fundamentally neglect to contemplate the identities of those non-artist-identifying identities who perform the labour of repair? Is this lack of consideration a form of erasure?
As I continue to process his curatorial perspective while simultaneously wrestling with the rhetorical question I encountered at the Tyrolean Folk Art Museum in Innsbruck that hasn’t yet left my consciousness, I find myself thinking about the function of bubble wrap in insulating fragile objects from being wounded by gravity. In a world that is falling apart at the seams with its perforated ozone layer, melting glaciers, man-made forest fires and an unabating pandemic, all punctuated by surging hyper-patriarchal-racist-capitalist ideologies, where never before has it been so urgent to dwell on feminist systems of care, nurture, and restoration, can we even afford, especially from a curatorial standpoint, to fetishize the art of repair?
(The exhibition Schöne Scherben - Die Kunst der Reparatur (Beautiful Shards - The Art of Repair) is on display at Lanserhauss, Eppan, Italy, till November 15, 2020.)