Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 1, 2019
Saloni Mathur and Kavita Singh, eds. No Touching, No Spitting, No Praying: The Museum in South Asia Visual and Media Histories. New Delhi: Routledge, 2015. 270 pp. Hardcover $140.00 (9781138796010)
Rebecca M. Brown Displaying Time: The Many Temporalities of the Festival of India Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2017. 248 pp.; 20 color ills.; 70 b/w ills. Cloth $95.00 (9780295999944)

These two recent studies of museological and display histories in/of South Asia stand out in the fields of both art history and museum studies. The rather intriguing title of Saloni Mathur and Kavita Singh’s edited volume, No Touching, No Spitting, No Praying, is taken from a signboard at the entrance to an Indian museum that gives the code of conduct to which visitors are expected to adhere. Assumedly, the sign is intended for “unsophisticated” viewers whose everyday worlds are not consonant with the social codes that the sign specifies. The reversal of this inconsonance is part and parcel of the museum’s pedagogic mission in the postcolony, a mission whose origins necessarily take us back to the long history of British museology and the machinations of colonial bureaucracy. The sign’s encrusted postcolonial presence, however, simultaneously points to the enduring valence of socially and culturally produced counterocular forms of viewing—touching and praying, for instance—that confront “the idea of cultural difference of the museum as it has evolved in the context of modern South Asia” (6). Accounting for such differences then brings to the field of museum studies contending questions of embodiment, representation, enchantment, scientism, taxonomy, and religious belief that shape public cultures in a postcolonial democracy.

Mathur and Singh take the geopolitical space of South Asia as the locus of inquiry. Rebecca M. Brown’s monograph, Displaying Time, which focuses on the Festival of India (June 1985 through 1986)—an interlinked cluster of exhibitions, public presentations, and performances concurrently hosted by museums and cultural institutions across the United States—reveals that the resonances of the questions raised in Mathur and Singh’s volume need not remain conscribed to the terrains of the former colony. Bringing to the foreground the million minutiae that go into the making of large-scale exhibitions, Brown deftly takes up a methodological approach that resists presenting “an abstracted, universal theory of exhibition, one that somehow ‘reveals’ or ‘explains’ all things for all time,” insisting instead on “the particularities of each complex of social and political relations” within which display practices necessarily dwell (19). The ideation of exhibition as festival—an occurence that is conventionally understood as a cluster of events and enactments that occasion performativity, parody, and a general suspension of social constraints—internal to the conception of the Festival of India lends itself exceptionally well to Brown’s analytical intentions. This is perhaps most poignant in the section where Brown describes the bahrupiyas of Indian folk/religious theater (male impersonators in the guise of monkeys in this instance) descending from trees onto an unsuspecting public at the National Mall in Washington, DC, during the carnivalesque Mela!, organized in tandem with the exhibition Aditi: A Celebration of Life.

While Brown stakes out broader methodological and theoretical claims through a close reading of exhibitions and events, Mathur and Singh’s volume draws intellectual energy from its broad engagement with museum histories and display practices from the late nineteenth century to the mid-2000s. The first section opens with anthropologist Bernard Cohn’s pioneering 1992 study on systems of colonial knowledge and cultural value; it continues with penetrating accounts by historians Tapati Guha-Thakurta and Gyan Prakash that emphasize the ways in which, in the colony, metropolitan museological impulses refracted under the simultaneous yet contrary compunctions of science and magic, positivism and myth. The ambivalences that emerge in this section underwrite the next, which focuses on museology in early postindependence India. Kavita Singh’s account of the National Museum (established in 1949, just two years after independence) traces complex processes of historicization and museumization involved in the production of national culture. The anachronisms that arise in the process, Singh suggests, reveal that “India’s National Museum is national by default and not design” (130), a line of reasoning also taken up by Kristy Phillips in her chapter on Grace Morley, who left her position at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to take up an appointment as the first director of India’s National Museum. The early history of another national initiative, the National Gallery of Modern Art (established in 1954), is the subject of Vidya Shivadas’s essay. Following a shaky beginning, the gallery’s public role, Shivadas indicates, became well defined only in the late 1970s, shortly before the Festival of India, to which the institution also contributed.

The significance of the festival is certainly underscored in the edited volume. It was also central to Arjun Appadurai and Carol A. Breckenridge’s treatment of public culture after neoliberalism in their seminal 1992 essay, which is reproduced in the third section of this volume. With the benefit of hindsight, the following two chapters, one by Mary Hancock and the other by Mathur and Singh, interrogate the politics of heritage in neoliberal times, effectively extrapolating the push and pull of economic forces on the one hand (Hancock) and differential claims of ethnic-religious communities on the other (Mathur and Singh). The book concludes with a breakout segment framed by thirteen ethnographic case studies conducted by a team of young scholars who participated in “Museology and the Colony: The Case of India,” a research project led by the editors and funded by the Getty Foundation. Demonstrative of painstaking research in over eighty museums, the texts simulate a sensation of movement through multilayered histories, thus refusing any sedentary notion of what the museum complex in South Asia might entail. To the many vectors traced in this book, we might wish to add the post-1990s biennial cultures and the hybrid public-private institutional networks that these engendered. The book is nonetheless admirable in scope and scale. As such, it is poised to serve as a reader on South Asia’s exhibitionary and museological constellations.

Brown’s monograph remains dialogically threaded to the conceptual arc sketched out in the edited volume. The account of the Festival of India is animated by an attempt to think through the seemingly static materiality of museum display and its relation to the “small durations of making,” some “interminably slow,” others “instantaneous” (5), that serve as the matrix of all exhibitionary practices and curatorial initiatives. As the introduction indicates, for Brown, the provisional bivouac offered by a tent serves as both object—that is, an object displayed in several exhibitions organized for the festival—and metaphor—that is, an allegory for the conditions of contractual academic and intellectual labor that many of us are all too familiar with. This is further parsed out in a segment titled “Interruption,” which elaborates the theoretical stakes of the project via Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Paul Virilio, and Jacques Rancière, among others. If, with Brown, we can imagine the Festival of India as “a large set of overlapping tents,” then the various events gathered under its folds become, in themselves, smaller campsites, “occasionally housing actual tents, next to and jostling with the larger encampment” (153). The idea of encampment is crosshatched with aspiration and forfeiture; we live, after all, in a time of tent cities. Brown, for her part, examines the Indian aspirations woven into the figure of the astronaut that appears in the tent panels that the German architect Frei Otto created in collaboration with Gujarati artisans for the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum’s The Golden Eye exhibit in 1985.

Rich with archival insight, the chapters that follow approach the festival through multiple lines of inquiry. “Material Transformations” considers the use of clay and its transformation into artifact through the historical valence of terra-cotta sculptures, on the one hand, and into spectacle through demonstrations by Indian potters in museum galleries on the other. Focusing on performance demonstrations, “Time, Interrupted” traces the ways in which Indian practitioners of folk theater both were objectified by and exerted pressure on the expectations and anticipations of curators and viewers alike. Brown then turns to the implications of the festival for American cultural practices in “Entrepreneurial Exhibits,” which highlights the circuitous web of cultural diplomacy, economic expectation, and entrepreneurial collaboration within which the festival was programmatically enmeshed. The next chapter, “The Contemporary, at a Distance,” serves as an intermediation on the presentation of contemporary art at the festival. We are inclined to think about contemporaneity as a form of simultaneity. Brown, however, provocatively unpacks the tensions generated by the ideation of a “distant contemporary” that the context of the festival generated. This notion of distance also flutters (to use Brown’s metaphor) through the last chapter of the book: the Festival of India was a monumental enterprise but not all found representation, as Brown shows. At face value, a flutter may seem merely transient. But the discursive work that Brown generates from it boldly unfurls novel ways of thinking through, and with, exhibitory practices of the past, the present, and the future.

Atreyee Gupta
Assistant Professor of Global Modern Art, Department of History of Art, University of California, Berkeley