“Etymologically, to curate is to care. For me it’s important to nurture a space within my exhibition-making practice where identities get to tell their own truth, but equally to create a space where they get to form their own fictions too. To be absolved of an absolute truth, to be able to change your truth can be an incredibly powerful way of looking at yourself. I’m interested in how fact and fiction coalesce in this act of meaning-making,” reveals Phalguni Guliani, who likes to rightly call herself not just a curator but an exhibition-maker. Having worked with eminent artist Bharti Kher, she has had an all-engulfing experience of working in the art-world, from looking for a little pin at the artist’s studio to dealing with high-end art collectors. Naturally, this has seeped into her current practice as an exhibition-maker, where she is involved in every minuscule aspect of a show, working tirelessly to not just make an exhibition but also think of its afterlife, “the legacy of an exhibition,” as she calls it during our chat over a candid and insightful Zoom call. Below, she acquaints us further to herself, her work, and her new exhibition called Just Wide Enough To Hold The Weight, recently shown at Baxter Street, NYC.
How were you led towards the art-world.
I began as an outsider to the art-world since I was trained as an economist – a vantage point that I still cherish very deeply because of how it allows me to step in and step out, and see this beautiful beast for what it is, and to see it in that analytical way social science teaches you to look at the world. And yet I knew very early on that not everything that happens around us can be explained in a number, that not every feeling in your bones is a statistic. What I knew, without having a language for it at the time, was that making art is its own way of looking at the world, of making sense of your zeitgeist. I tumbled into this world because I liked making books and I liked making them with artists. Publishing is what got me here, and I suppose pushing (the bar higher) is what keeps me here. Thinking alongside artists, bringing alive their narrative worlds, the joy of making meaning with them is what I enjoy.
Tell us about your first exhibition.
At Mumbai Art Room where in addition to the show, I also made a publication with the Danish artist-duo Hesselholdt & Mejlvang. Even more formatively, when I was at Young India Fellowship in Liberal Arts, I had the tremendous good fortune to cross paths with Mona Ahmed. I dare not say I photographed the most celebrated person in contemporary Indian photography, but Urvashi Butalia who was my tutor at the time was kind enough to let us experiment with the interview as an exhibition format, which still influences my thinking about the after-life of exhibitions to this day.
What kind of art do you gravitate towards as a viewer?
Art that speaks to you. And I’ve found that often the thing inside you to which it speaks is some kind of primal truth we all share. The things that bring us together as a species, as a people who are tasked with holding the weight of the human condition, are not always pretty. Neither is truth. It shifts and turns and defies absolutism in every way. And yet you and I can grasp it because no matter how different our experiences, the ether in which they pass through us is the same. I am interested in art that touches that ether, and art that is therefore unconcerned with where you come from or at whose altar you kneel.
And what kind of art and art projects do you like to engage yourself with as a curator?
I don’t think in mediums, and the way I have come to understand this agnosticism is that I am an artist-first curator. For me the message is the medium, so in my exhibition-making practice, to actively create the space for the work to do the talking is everything. If you let the work lead the way, and if you listen very closely it will tell you exactly where it needs you to take it to and how. There’s something quite prayerful about making art, you have to surrender to be let in. You have to trust the hours.
Could you tell us about Just Wide Enough To Hold The Weight’s inception?
When I was making this show, I was thinking a great deal about the weight of images, the weight of each small gesture you do in the course of a single day or a single life. I was thinking about the weight of meaning, and how we throw it across an abyss of otherness, especially with photography where there is the inherent “other” who makes the image. When you’re in the gallery space, the cadence that you sense of each distinct work holding its own, comes very much from that kind of rhythmic think- ing about interior and exterior spaces that informed my making of this show.
I’ll go back to that cadence again, because the hum of an exhibition is important to me. Take Marvel Harris’ images here, there’s a certain rawness in them that plunges you into the deep interiorities of the body. There is no effort to hide the scars. Instead there is a lot of tension in the way he holds the transforming body, almost as you would hold a moment in time where something is on the cusp of happening. When I was looking at these, alongside the dreamscape quality of Soumya Sankar Bose’s images, I was quite conscious in choosing a sequence from the Full Moon series that would frame the space the body occupies. The narrative in Soumya’s work twists and turns, never telling you where you stand — in medias res of an embrace one moment only to be estranged like a lone tiger the next.
And it’s in this dance of space that a queer body holds both within and outside of itself, that I was also thinking about the space of the exhibition; of how sometimes in the making of art, the most courageous of acts is to draw a line. A gesture as simple as that can free the paper, and in turn the hand that draws it. I wanted to make a similar mark across the space of the exhibition, to cut it, to release it. And the dimensionality of Siddhartha Hajra’s I See You Better in the Dark series allowed me to do that. Its illuminative structure stretching across the length of the room, really completes that circle of going from looking at yourself to looking at an intimate other – who is your friend, the person who walks with you in the dark. And that way of looking — one that resists darkness as a state of fecundity, but celebrates the potential for a new kind of sightedness, of being seen — is something I was drawn to with all artists in this exhibition.
Could you give us a glimpse into your creative curation process for the show.
I see my practice as lying in the interstice — between image and text, between sense and viscera, between seeing and unseeing. I am interested in what happens in the in-between space, when a moment is pregnant with change. With this exhibition, the framing device I’ve used to think about that transformative moment is a crack — a space that exists for a moment in time before the whis- per becomes a bang. By offering an articulation of LGBTQ identity that forefronts queer voices, this show hopes to offer a crack in perception of gender identity. It’s these small cracks that are “just wide enough” to cause larger tectonic shifts that I am chasing in my exhibition-making.
Your thoughts on tangible art versus digital art.
If the Zoom saturation or NFT bubble(s) is anything to go by, there is something very fundamental about our bodies on why humans will always need touch. There is a reason why it’s the first sense to be activated when we come in this world. Before you see, hear, taste, smell — you feel the air touch your lungs, the nurse’s linen shroud envelop you. Call me old school, but I like the thrill of making things with your hands and letting others experience them that way too.
What kind of impact do you think the current pandemic has had/ will have on the art world and the way exhibitions are viewed?
Whether you make a show in the metaverse or in a white cube, the fundamentals of how an exhibition sings remain the same. I don’t see it as a brick and mortar versus digital divide because it really isn’t about whether you can touch an artwork or not. It’s about whether the artwork can touch you.
Lastly, could you share with us any projects you have in the pipeline for the rest of the year?
Just Wide Enough to Hold the Weight will travel to Europe later this fall. I recently closed Can You Hear Me at Vermont Studio Center – the first showing of my exhibition series that spotlights emerging female voices from South Asia. A lot of feminist scholarship exists on the topic, but I’m interested in asking the question of who is going to write the history of our generation; who is going to tell the story of my time? I’m thrilled that a second iteration of the series will open in New York later this summer, as I work to expand the exhibition concept to incorporate the interconnected art-histories of the Global South.
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Text Nidhi Verma