Artist and activist SAMAR S JODHA’S latest installation Outpost is being showcased at Venice Biennale 2013. It highlights the state of mining affairs in the North East. He replied to an email by KARAN BHARDWAJ
Samar Singh Jodha is an artist who over the last 20 years has been using photography and films to address various issues like development, human rights and conservation. His work has been shown in galleries and museums in Mumbai, Delhi, Barcelona, Boston, Frankfurt, london, New York, Queensland and Washington DC. Jodha’s eight-year long project on ageing in India remains the single biggest social communication project in terms of outputs and outreach. Extracts of it were showcased at Whitechapel Gallery, london and Fotomuseum, Zurich in 2010. His five-year work on the making of world’s tallest habitat was featured on Discovery, National Geographic as well as exhibited at New York’s Skyscraper Museum. His Television project has been showcased worldwide-most recently at The Needle On The Gauge in Adelaide, Australia. Bhopal–A Silent Picture, a 40 foot installation was showcased by Amnesty International london during the Summer Olympics. latest, Jodha is presenting his work Outpost at the prestigious Venice Biennale 2013 (May 30–November 24) at Venice, Italy. He talks about the installation and his art activism.
What drives you towards the marginalised sections of societyIJ
I have worked on all kinds of issues including mainstream architecture and heritage. Issues that get largely overlooked by mainstream media or larger society are of interest because a few others find them worth their time. They are often full of facets, stories and textures that are really rich and worth seeing or listening to. At the same time they also reveal something about us in the mainstream and more privileged situation. The challenge of putting something so marginal into the middle is also an exciting part of the whole process to me as an artist. But it evolved into larger ideas about making art in a world that is getting more culturally homogenised. At the same time art is increasingly framed by commercial interests. I haven’t consciously sought out (inspired) projects. You come across things in the course of your travel or commissioned work and take it from there. For example, working with fashion in India, which is largely a young people’s thing, I got into doing the project about ageing in India. Doing work on architecture books and magazine work was the time I did a project about television in India. A corporate project about building of the world’s tallest building (Burj Khalifa) got me interested in the lives of workers actually doing the construction work.
Why did you take up photographyIJ How strongly have you used it as a medium of activismIJ
Having being educated primarily in photography, that is my first choice of artistic expression. In many of my recent projects, I have built upon that to make it a more experiential art that embraces many other art forms such as installation, film and soundscapes. As far as art as activism goes, especially in the Indian context, I have tried to push boundaries in terms of both form and content. Since a lot of work is coming out of some serious issues, the experience can leave the viewer thinking about the issue. I have been fortunate to partner with people who are able to use the same art for a larger purpose. For instance, my project on ageing in India was presented by the United Nations in different parts of India. It helped the UN in highlighting the issue. Similarly, the Bhopal show was put up by Amnesty International london and served their larger human rights advocacy agenda.
Your installation Outpost is being showcased at the Venice Biennale 2013 (May 30-November 24). Tell us about it.
A lot of my work has been with people and issues that are on the margins of society and mainstream media. Apart from South Asia, I have worked on them in Africa, Arabia and China. Outpost was inspired by habitat of migrant workers in India’s North East. I have been working in the region for about a decade. It has included involvement at a community level. It all started when I undertook a road trip from Kunming in South West China through Burma into the North East borders of India, on the famous Stilwell road built during World War II. The route had long been shut down due to political reasons. Somewhere along the time I found and began photographing and filming the vanishing Tai Phake tribe of 1500 Buddhists originating from Burma. I set up an education programme, helping fund a monastery-building project and revive traditional textile looms. On one of these many trips to this region, I stumbled upon the fascinating habitats of the miners. The magnificent metal structures that jutted into the lush and uninhabited landscape, were an unreal testimony to man’s will to survive. The region covered with tropical rain forests has one of the highest recorded rainfalls in the world and is harsh for rudimentary mining. On the installation the process involved working with team of metalworkers and craftsmen on copper, brass and mild steel. The entire exercise took place in Mumbai (also keeping in mind the humidity and moisture helped in further oxidising and eroding the metal surface). This was in line with the way the habitat and its creation back in the mining community in the NE.
Your experience at the Biennale.
It’s a diverse and yet specialised platform. There are some political bigwigs like Ai Weiwei who challenge boundaries artistically and politically. At the same time there are a few who have such serious corporate sponsorship and involvement that the end product seems closer to a corporate event rather than any inner aesthetic pursuit. To me it is a prominent platform to share my ideas and assess how well my art stands up vis-à-vis works by some of world’s most important artists. My work has migrant miners in India’s North East as the starting point but goes on to raise larger, universal questions about making and receiving art.
Which has been the most challenging project so far, from Burj Khalifa to Ageless to Bhopal TragedyIJ WhyIJ
Each project brings its own challenges and processes. Burj required a lot of complexities including documenting each of the 3500 workers as individual portraits to Ageless project with my filmmaker brother Vijay Jodha. This was an eight-year project travelling across the country interviewing and photographing over 400 individuals. Bhopal, I ended up creating a train journey in a 40-foot container (installation). The show travelled in India and finally got presented by Amnesty International during last summer Olympics in london clocking in over 1,50,000 visitors till date.