by Sukanya DebJan 04, 2022
There’s a specific manner in which I approach my glimpsing of an unread email whose sender is either a person or an institution from whom I dared to seek something—a grant, a publication opportunity, a residency, or some other variation of validation. I brace myself. I pause. I begin, beforehand, the process of consoling myself as I quickly browse through the body of the email for the relevant apologetic keywords informing me of my non-acceptance. Immediately, I force myself to move on with my life. So, I was genuinely surprised when recently, in the midst of my performance of these behavioural rituals, I found the expected regret on the part of a particular sender was substituted by delight. They were enthused by my proposal and wanted to consider me seriously as a candidate for the opportunity under consideration, one that would not only help me secure a future in Europe, the continent I moved to last year from India, but that also offered enough financial assistance to help me focus my energies on the two books I am hoping to finish in 2021. The next step involved an interview. To prepare, I decided to re-read my proposal, since it had been almost a month since the submission deadline. I paused mid-way through the first paragraph, at a sentence I had clearly authored, but which felt so tightly wound, so blatantly true, I momentarily questioned whether I had indeed been its mid-wife. I was summarising the contents of a recent conversation I had been part of as an invited guest speaker by Verein K. “I posited that one could perceive my writing practice as an evolutionary response to rejection, having to constantly exercise authorial agency in hostile, patriarchal, racist art worlds”.
Indeed, rejection has been a life-long companion, not only in my career, but also within the realm of my personal relationships. Growing up dark-skinned in a racist, casteist, patriarchal country, I, like so many others, internalised the emotional consequences of being rejected, always taking it personally, allowing it to affect my sense of self-worth. It was thanks to my best friend’s advice that I began to apply for things more audaciously. “Just submit and then forget about it,” was her sage command as she reminded me that in most instances, I lost very little by applying. She was speaking from personal experience as an acclaimed journalist who had to struggle similarly in order to ‘make it’. If I were, today, to be asked if I considered myself successful as an art critic and writer, my answer would be a resounding yes, but it would be conditional to my more nuanced understanding of what constitutes success—being able to navigate situations wherein one allows oneself to be vulnerable, by constantly applying for thing knowing rejection was often certain while frequently finding myself in situations where I am on a jury and am responsible for vetting or evaluating proposals by relying on a combination of professional intuition alongside clearly stipulated criteria. This doesn’t mean I think the system to be fair, or premised on genuine inclusivity. I remain staunchly critical of the hierarchies and levels of gate-keeping that dictate success and am more committed than ever before to reshaping problematic structures. However, I have also been learning from artists whose practises regularly incorporate profoundly insightful contributions to the subject.
For instance, an artist like Mithu Sen, who has a metabolic approach towards art making, considering every dimension of her production as by-products of her performative existence, regards rejection as a renewable source of energy. Working closely with her on her forthcoming monograph, I was drawn to an artwork by her that no one has ever seen except for her. It is a 2011-dated unrealised work called No Thing, that she had proposed back then for a group show that was to take place in a private collector’s museum on the subject of ‘home’. “I imagined an empty room that would be occupied by nothing. Since, for me, home is not resolved, the emptiness felt like a compulsion I wanted to question the desire to possess material objects when all I had to offer were (un)collectibles in a state of no thing". Her proposal was rejected. Sen holds dear the bulk of correspondence between her and the curator as a record of the work’s rejection. To her, the project exists by definition of its absence. ‘The fact that it escaped materialisation sublimated the nothingness at its core to a solid immateriality,’ she writes. Claiming the work’s existence within her artistic trajectory, for her, No Thing consists of basic documentation. She subverts the capital-intensive notion that a work of art must assume a tangible form by accommodating the unrealised work in every presentation about her practice. "I show a blackened slide with No Thing and I explain that there is no-thing to see or fill, only an experience of the void."
Sen’s gesture unwittingly extends a continuing artistic discourse on rejection. Another poignant example is Sophie Calle’s extensive and elaborate treatise on the subject created for the French Pavilion of the 2007 Venice Biennale, curated by Daniel Buren, that derived its title and exegesis from the last line of a break-up email sent to her by a lover ‘X’—Take Care of Yourself. Calle obediently followed the ex-lover’s dictum by asking 107 women to interpret the letter, ‘To analyze it, comment on it, dance it, sing it, dissect it, exhaust it, understand it for me, answer for me.’ The ensuing body of letters, writings and videos was her way of taking care of herself, transforming the emotional currency of the rejection into something fecund, febrile, and generative.
Beyond the public articulation of rejection exist all the decisions made by artists at the level of the intensely personal within the sanctity of the studio. I came closest to it when I met Arpita Singh in her studio in 2018, and was astonished to discover a small pile of her rejects. She let me peruse each one, and I was astounded. I realised that to any eye that isn’t hers, it’s hard to comprehend why these works didn’t ‘make the cut’. The logic she offered was at the level of a carefully honed intuition and had little to do with its overt materiality, unlike in 2019, when Rameshwar Broota had shown me his rejects, failed experiments with epoxy resin. He was looking for transparency, not murkiness, or ‘milkiness’, which characterised his setbacks.
In an artworld in which one’s career trajectory has become increasingly dependent on applying to open calls, or for residencies, grants, awards, etc, there is a fatigue that creeps in, no matter how evolved one’s relationship to failure might be. With each application you inevitably build a fantasy in which your proposal feels real, is flesh-and-blood, and every subsequent proposal feels hinged to whether the previous one might prove successful. There’s fragility and vulnerability at every corner, to the extent that workshops exist to train artists to write better applications, which can feel humiliating to artists whose first language is not English. One wonders if such a growing dependency on conditionally realising work might impact how artists feel impelled to produce, or alter, in some way, the nature of their own compulsions. It certainly explains why many who hit upon a formula that seems to ensure acceptance continue to then flog the same ideational horse, repeating themselves constantly to stretch the boundaries of the artworld’s embrace, while those who, instead, prefer to engage with what I call the cognitive delight of not knowing end up making work primarily for themselves, re-directing the energies that demanded an outward gaze towards inner fulfilment.
The writer and critic, Jinghua Qian, expressed with poetic urgency the exhaustion that creeps into one’s artistic consciousness from having to constantly put oneself out there, especially in pandemic times, while preserving the delusion of a meritocracy. In an essay titled, I Can’t Apply for Another Grant, Jinghua questions the motives behind grants, whether they are charity or investment? “Each time I felt like I was handing in my CV and portfolio at the soup kitchen counter. Each time my shoulders seized, awaiting judgement, anticipating rejection. This is not relief,” Jinghua writes, ending the essay by doubling down on the precariousness that afflicts most creative practitioners. “Funding shouldn’t be a prize or an honour, it should provide a living wage so people can make art without some other source of wealth or income. We’ve all been talking about this for such a long time and I’m so tired of it. I don’t want to tinker with this system, shifting the priorities and massaging the language. I’m not excited about heralding a new cohort of gatekeepers. I’m not interested in diversity and inclusion. I just want to overthrow capitalism already”.