Having heard many good things about it, I was disappointed by "You can't afford to have emotions out there...", Baptist Coelho's solo at Project 88. The exhibition is, ostensibly, about Indian soldiers posted on the world's highest battleground, Siachen. But Baptist Coelho never got anywhere near the glacier, something that was apparent to me as soon as I entered the exhibition space. Or it was clear that if he had, indeed, visited Siachen, and come back with the images collected in this show, it was a worse outrage than my sister going to New York and only getting me that lousy T-shirt.
Coelho travelled as far as Ladakh, but visiting Ladakh isn't worth jack. Couples go to Ladakh for their honeymoon. Soldiers go to Siachen to die, and not from enemy fire. Seriously big difference. If you want to do a show about Siachen, go to Siachen, you're bound to find something interesting there. In Ladakh, Coelho found a sentimental narrative that he could pretty much have made up in Bombay or London. Poor soldiers sent miles up in the mountains, cut off from family and friends, suffering from frostbite and altitude sickeness, under-equipped etc etc. In one video, layers of clothing are peeled off a torso to reveal hairy, slightly paunchy flesh. The piece is titled, in case you didn't get the message, Beneath it all... I am human... Another video is split into two screens: on the left a small girl makes black paper airplanes, on the right, a seated armyman with his back to the camera tosses them into the snow. All rather reminiscent of J.P.Dutta's Border and LOC. I found myself humming Sandese aate hain, humein tadpaate hain while watching the piece.
If Coelho had got to Siachen, he might have found truths not composed of such easy sentimentality. I felt this very keenly because, the previous day, I'd given a short talk to introduce a festival of Werner Herzog films organised by Max Mueller Bhavan, to complement a show of photographs of Herzog and his productions captured by Beat Presser. As part of the prep, I saw some of the German director's movies again, and read once more about the lengths to which he goes to seek what he calls the ecstatic truth, travelling from the mountains and jungles of Peru to the fierce heat of the Sahara desert to the intense chill of Antarctica. The point of such exertions is the belief that out in those extreme places are lying images which will challenge any preconceived ideas one might have. The image itself will convey a kind of truth, which is neither moral nor sentimental.
It might be unfair to juxtapose a young Indian artist's production with that of one of the world's best known film-makers, but this blog isn't about reviewing shows the way I would in a journal. It is about conveying my state of mind in a more personal way, and that was the state of mind I brought to bear on "You can't afford to have emotions out there..."
I do believe, in general, that a lot of art being produced and applauded in India does not go that extra mile required to achieve true excellence. It is complacent work, though it might not seem that way to artists, who always have stories about the difficulties faced in achieving this image or that sculpture.
If you're looking for pearls, make sure you dive deep, for you won't find any oysters mid-way between the surface and seabed.