Bling and the kingdom - Page 2

"Maharaja" at the Asian Art Museum and "The Matter Within" at YBCA focus on India's past and present

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A 1911 portrait of Maharaja Bhupinder Singh at the Asian Art Museum's "Maharaja"

Similarly, Rina Banerjee's Frankensteinian sculptures of colonial-era antiquities and costly animal remnants, although rich with historical allusion, simply look busy compared to Siddartha Karawall's giant send-up of a horse and rider statue Hangover Man, made from wax-covered T-shirts that had originally been donated to poor communities in India by an American charity but got re-routed to the open market. The rider in question is the former Maharaja after whom Karwall's art school was named, who now appears as a Don Quixote-like wraith representative of the gulf between Western goodwill and the Indian "ground truth" of need and impoverishment it is supposedly addressing.

A different sort of disconnect haunts the Asian Art Museum's "Maharaja: The Splendor of India's Royal Courts," the other major exhibit in town currently devoted to India. Maharaja means "great king" or "high king" in Sanskrit, a status expressed in the breathtaking level of sumptuousness and luxury of the material items through which Indian rulers displayed their power.

Light on historical context and heavy on the baubles, Maharaja offers up a seemingly endless parade of such items: extravagantly embroidered textiles, magnificent ceremonial accouterments, and enough serious bling to outshine the borrowed sparkles of any contemporary red carpet. The effect is strangely flattening. Monarchy is the golden goose that produces marvelous things rather than a larger institution, the spoils of which only tell one part of a more complex and usually bloody story.

Thus, what Maharaja leaves largely unaddressed are questions of power and history, as well as the politics of display. For example, what was the cost in human labor (and perhaps lives) to spin and weave the silk necessary to make the stunning 18th Century bridal gown in the second gallery? Or to mine the diamonds, rubies, and emeralds that emblazon so many of the items displayed?

The fact that the majority of the artifacts come from London's Victoria and Albert Museum –an official co-presenter of the exhibit— speaks more to the legacy of British colonial rule than the brief gloss the Raj and its aftermath receive in the show's third gallery, which crams in most of Maharaja's history lessons. And judging from the case of various Cartier commissions from the 1920s and '30s, and the gorgeous modern furniture commissioned by Yeshwant Rao Holkar II (a jazz age jetsetter and friend of Man Ray's who is the exhibit's breakout star), India's deposed royals did pretty well for themselves, even as the times changed around them.

But then again, that the already powerful would continue being high rollers is not really news. As Mel Brooks pointed out long ago, it's good to be the king.

THE MATTER WITHIN: NEW CONTEMPORARY OF INDIA

Through January 15

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission, SF.

(415) 978-2787

www.ybca.org

MAHARAJA: THE SPLENDOR OF INDIA'S ROYAL COURTS

Through April 8

Asian Art Museum

200 Larkin, SF.

(415) 581-3500

www.asianart.org

 

Comments

I must admit that looking at rich people's junk is always fascinating in one way or another. For that reason alone, I was willing to take in the Majaraja exhibition. And while the glittering jewelry did not disappoint, I agree that the exhibition lacked necessary historical details. Even putting politics aside (which I don't necessarily like to do), the presentation was superficial and simplistic: an insult to the audience. The large wall text (What becomes a king...) was particularly silly. Once again, the Asian has gone the conservative route. Not only conservative, but dated. Even an entry-level art appreciation class would nowadays have as standard an address to some of the more troubling questions about the production of courtly art and the nature of patronage, etc.

I hope you popped upstairs and caught the Poetry in Clay show. Yee Sookyung's "Translated Vase" pieces and Meekyoung Shin's "Ghost" series made from soap made the trip worthwhile.

Posted by bulaklak on Dec. 31, 2011 @ 4:51 pm

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