China Rising? India Shining? – The Art of Comparison

An inter-disciplinary arts and media international workshop
September 29-30, 2017
Duke University
Convener: Sumathi Ramaswamy

blankI. The Art of Comparison
Chair: Walter Mignolo (Duke University)

The Art of Convergent Comparison—China and India in Modern Times
Prasenjit Duara, Duke University

This paper is more methodological than empirical. In 2010 when I first saw Gigi Scaria’s Gandhi-Mao parallel photo-essay, it occurred to me that we were launched on a parallel if not convergent project. I argue that history is circulatory and not linear, tunnel-oriented and bounded by national or other boundaries, although of course institutional and local-national affairs do inflect these developments significantly.

Convergent comparisons refer to the ways in which circulatory global forces are institutionalized in different societies.  Historical forces have circulated—transmuting as they circulate—since the rise of empires in Eurasia; but the pace of circulation has accelerated since the mid-19th century.  What I call the zone of convergence is the impact of circulatory forces that demand a response; the various sub-national and national responses, in turn, form the basis of convergent comparison.

I will argue that non-discursive modes of adopting ‘foreign’ processes are crucial to their acceptance particularly since extra-national penetrations in the emergent national body need to take place below the discursive radar. They include visual, aural, olfactory and, in general, sensorial modes of vernacularization of circulatory processes. When we adopt this perspective, we begin to see the parallels among developments and forms which have until recently remained the ‘ground’ in relation to the ‘figure’ of unique developments within the nation or society.  Recognizing this gestalt produces significant transformation of our view of history—how its ownership can or cannot be claimed—and the problem of national sovereignty.

The Worldly Attachments of Transregional Comparison
Srirupa Roy, University of Göttingen

Recent scholarship on comparative analysis as a mode of scholarly inquiry has productively interrogated the idea of a stable and given “ground of comparison” (Cheah 1999) where bounded territorial areas—whether regions or nation-states—serve as the reference units of comparative inquiry. In a similar vein, this essay explores how transregional comparative scholarship might be re-envisoned as a project or process that opens up the very idea of area itself, and contributes to the making of new and different conceptual worlds. Drawing upon the collaborative experiences and insights of an ongoing project on InterAsian connections and comparisons (SSRC 2008-), I will discuss two key modes of “areal transformation” and “worlding” in and through the transregional comparative enterprise, and the distinctive questions, opportunities, and challenges that each raises:

Comparison and/as defamiliarization: Moving beyond the call to transcend area studies, I show how transregional comparison is a practice of “worldly attachment” that allows us to return to and revitalize areal knowledge by virtue of the strange and unfamiliar perspectives we gain from looking at other contexts. In other words, the transregional comparative method as conceptualized here is not about mastering a new area of study. Rather, it is about the “unmastering” of existing certitudes and analytical comfort zones of area expertise. By shifting the stable ground beneath our feet, transregional comparison can enable different ways of seeing and understanding known worlds.

Comparison and/as worldly practice: Engaging the “worldly” nature of comparison, I discuss how comparative projects could take on board the transregional comparative injunction or imperative that is very much a part of everyday life and political practice, particularly in the parts of the world that we study in Asia, as in wider contexts of the global south. For instance, how might an academic project on India and China take on board the “real world” comparisons and inter-referencing imperatives that structure social and political life in these countries, where India-China comparisons have a substantial political and policy valence and impact? Engaging comparison as a worldly practice also pushes us to recognize that different geographies of comparison are burdened and unburdened in different ways, and that InterAsian “connected comparisons” set outside the East/West binary might be particularly productive in moving us towards new grounds and horizons of scholarly understanding.

A Global Visual Economy? —Postcolonial Practices of Seeing and Being Seen
Rey Chow, Duke University

1. A type of comparison underlying much scholarship on modern Asia has traditionally been in the form of “Euro-America and Its Others.” This has created certain ways of understanding the postcolonial world, including the cultural productions, art objects, and images from various cultures. But what does this mean specifically in terms of the practices of seeing and being seen? I will offer a brief elaboration here by way of critical terms borrowed from anthropology, literary study, psychoanalysis, Marxist critical theory, and feminist theory–terms such as desire, narrative, objectification, fetishization, commodification, etc.

2. How has such entanglement between visual practices and world politics shaped inter-cultural relations, such as those between contemporary India and China, for instance? What are some of the popular images of such inter-cultural relations in circulation around the world? Are “Mao,” “Gandhi,” and other comparable national leaders of the postcolonial world part of a global visual economy in which specific types of non-Western portraiture, situation, action, and scandal tend to become visible, transmissible over mass and social media, and thus influential?

3. How do such global visual economies mediate postcolonial cultures’ self-perception and self-representation? Might we say that one effect of such economies is the incitement for postcolonial cultures to perform themselves on the world stage (or the world screen) in certain recognizable manners?

II. Artscapes
Chair: Shambavi Kaul, Duke University

Embedding the Memory Landscape:
Revisiting Asia’s Cultural Pasts in Contemporary Art

Gayatri Sinha, Critical Collective, New Delhi

In 1903, Okakura Tenshin gave the clarion call “Asia is One” in the opening lines of his book Ideals of the East. This concept of an Asia bound by the spiritualism of the East suggested cartographic limits to the spread of European industrialization and materialism. Sun Yat Sen of Taiwan and Rabindranath Tagore in India responded with a Look East philosophy and an artistic response that left a profoundly influential imprint on the aesthetic choices before the Indian subcontinent, eliding with a spirit of a new nationalism.

A hundred years later, the cartographic assimilation of Asia within Asia has altered dramatically. The histories of Asian material culture communicated mediatically have become profoundly influential in re-reading an Asian cartographic and material presence. From the bombing of the Kabul museum in 1994, to the fall of Baghdad, and in ever widening circles of violence, to material heritage, these visual documents have become images of change. From within the Indian subcontinent, ‘Looking West’ to Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, Afghanistan, Iand raq through the prism of received mediatic images, have brought about a sense of the destabilization of the cultural landscape. What German cultural historian Rudy Koshar speaks of as a “memory landscape” has unexpectedly emerged in the work of several Indian artists, reflecting dispossession and derangement of a once settled cultural history.

In my paper I seek to understand the mimetic aspect of such memorialization and commentary. What does it mean for a cultural site to be destroyed in one part and then to be artistically embedded in another displaced site even as it can travel on global artistic circuits? How does the flatness, volatility, distance and immediacy of the media image serve to foster new political and artistic subjectivities? Further how is an aesthetic of toxicity brought into being and do we read its location in a culture of pacifism?

The City as Scroll
Yomi Braester, University of Washington

As elsewhere, contemporary Chinese cities are digitally mediated. In addition to using new media for representing space, the city has become virtual, not only in being constituted through software and interfaces but also in that it relies on the rhetoric of new media. My current book project looks at key words employed to describe the city: the city is a palimpsest, a life-size model, a cinematic found footage, a painted scroll. I focus here on one artifact, namely Wang Wo’s video artwork Up & Down (2008). A record of moving through the city on the streets and underground, the piece raises questions about the representation of the city: horizontal monumentality, scale, the presence of new media, the role of found footage, varying scales, and more. I link this piece in particular to recent scroll-like video art in China.

Lost and Found in the Turbulent City: Artistic Engagements with Urban Ecologies
Christiane Brosius, Heidelberg University

As cities across Asia in the new millennium become hosts and homes to a dramatically growing number of people, including many who are in transit, the pace of change, and the diversity of everyday worlds and discourses that surface, pass by or even vanish appear overwhelming. We often seem to be short of words or lost in translation, struggling to come to terms with what the current ‘Urban Age’ is about. Under these circumstances, how do cities—and our lifeworlds in them—change and how? While many so-called ‘megacities’ across the world, and particularly in the ‘Global South,’ seem to look alike, producing similar surfaces and similar solutions to changing conditions, critical urban studies and urban anthropology have sought to develop approaches that pay attention to ‘in-between’ spaces, and to coevalness and different mobilities at work in the everyday spaces of the city. This paper engages with the concept of the ‘ephemeral’ and the ‘turbulent’ city in contemporary art. Here, the urban ecology works as excavation site on the one hand, and as stage for the production of surprising connectivities on the other. My focus will be on Delhi, and in particular, the works of artists like Sheba Chhachhi and Gigi Scaria.

III.  Photo Fever
Chair: Ranjana Khanna, Duke University

Déjà Vu? Gandhi and Mao in Gigi Scaria’s No Parallel (and Beyond)
Barbara Mittler, Heidelberg University & Sumathi Ramaswamy, Duke University

The anchor for our joint presentation is Gigi Scaria’s six-minute video installation No Parallel (2010). This art work audaciously juxtaposes a series of photographic images of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Mao Zedong. Scaria is not the first Indian artist to place the Mahatma and the Chairman within the same frame: India’s most famous modernist M. F. Husain had already done so in 1992 in a large acrylic titled Portrait of the 20th Century. In 2010, British-Indian pop artist Ketna Patel began creating her “Asian Grandfathers” series in which she brings together the two iconic “Asian” men, as well. What distinguishes Scaria’s work, however, is the mobilization of a large archive of photographs, setting in motion several pairs of “parallel” narratives for these fatherly figures. What is the work done by the photograph as it is reused thus by a contemporary artist, and why does he resort to the photograph to do this work? These questions are important to ask given photography’s much acclaimed “indexical,” “evidentiary,” and “truth-telling” capacity. Indeed, the photograph has been taken as a metaphor for the “documentary.” Yet, Scaria’s work, by using parallel views of Gandhi and Mao, plays with this metaphor on several levels and thus opens up new possibilities for thinking them together.  In looking beyond Scaria’s work, reading it “in parallel” with other image archives and art works of Gandhi and of Mao by Chinese and Indian artists, we also ask what it means to recall and restage these two iconic men with the aid of the repurposed photograph. How are “familiar” narratives of these two “Fathers of the Nation” thus disrupted, disintegrated, and at the same time re-assembled and re-considered, and for whose benefit?

Photographic Intimacy in a Trans-cultural Archive
Ajay Sinha, Mount Holyoke College

Gigi Scaria’s video installation, “No Parallel” (2010), brings together the father-figures of two nations, India and China, into a visual intimacy of a family album.  I will explore a space of similar intimacy produced by photography in an example that exists perhaps only at a different scale.  My paper will build a case for trans-cultural encounters in a group of photographs of an Indian dancer, Ram Gopal, taken by an American photographer, Carl Van Vechten, in New York City in 1938.  The photographs, now part of the Van Vechten collection in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscripts Library, Yale University, lead us to test what Okwei Enwezor provocatively calls “archive fever” in contemporary art.  Enwezor’s term suggests the insistence with which artists investigate historical photographs as “statements” regarding the larger legislative and discursive systems of the archives that contain them (Enwezor, using Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida).  The dancer’s photographs do not enunciate the archives in this resonant way.  Instead, they lead me to a question of scale.  In what seems to be nothing more than a record of private indulgence, these unpublished images show a young man taking dance poses in front of the camera while the photographer engages in visual experiments.  The images reveal an underrepresented history of cultural exchanges in early-20th century between the worlds of India and the U.S. only when I ask:  What is the Indian dancer showing to the camera?  What is the American photographer seeing from the other side of the lens?  The photographs not only show an interplay of differing investments in the image, but also make the intimacy between the Indian dancer and the American photographer to be “photographic” in that the exchanges are mediated by the camera.  In the era of national icons and cultural mythologies with which contemporary art deals, the photographic dimension of those exchanges become virtually invisible, even unrecognizable, leading me to offer my final question:  at what scale do historical images need to be in order to enunciate the archives?

IV. ImpersoNations
Chair: Harshita Mruthinti Kamath (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill)

To Enter the Icon: N. Pushpamala’s Embodiment of Liberty
Monica Juneja, Heidelberg University

The spirited re-enactments by the photo, performance and installation artist Pushpamala N. of exemplary figures that stand for the life of the nation, take the act of impersonation, as it figures in the contributions to this conference, through a full circle. They do not stop with morphing a photograph into a body, nor proceed from a dead hero to his contemporary (re-)incarnations. By choosing a Benjaminian mode to situate herself “inside the image” through a performative act, the artist (and her crew) travel in a further step to create a new genre of photographic image that fixes the body as image-memory. My paper investigates the modes through which the camera image is exposed as a mechanism that can simulate the past and situate it in the present, to signal the gap between the power of the still photograph to register memory as also its capacity to become a substitute for it, especially when images move into the public arena and rescript a plenitude of stories told within the larger narrative of the nation.  I will focus here more closely on Pushpamala’s “enlivening” of the allegory of Liberty that, like the map of India, stands for a concept to be grafted on to the nation, and yet signals beyond it to claim the domain of the universal, even as it works to paper the contradictions built into the formation of modern democracies. In what ways does the act of impersonating an icon, of becoming its double, open it up to a new context of actions and relations to bring forth a form of excess that is disruptive of canonical meanings? Can our visual imagination of Liberty ever be the same after its recent embodiment? What does this performative transaction entail, what are the future paths it points to in the lives of nations? As the work of scholarship compares modes of nation-building and its iconographies, the “undisciplined” (Irit Rogoff) knowledge produced through art – so I argue – takes us beyond our comparative and connected histories of nations, to signal towards a possible retrieval of the universal, not as a mode of inclusivity but as a possibility of intervention.

Being Mao in Postsocialist China
Paul G. Pickowicz, University of California, San Diego

This paper seeks to understand the lives of people in twenty-first-century China who make their living by impersonating Mao Zedong.  It does so by locating the activities of such people in the distinctively postsocialist cultural, social, political, and economic formation that has steadily evolved in post-Mao China.  What is it like to earn a living by impersonating a uniquely socialist Mao in a present-day environment in which socialist/communist revolution is widely regarded as having failed long ago and is thus not taken seriously by citizens?  How, exactly, does one go about “being Chairman Mao” under such circumstances?  The paper focuses on an especially striking visual source – – an independent/non-state-sector documentary film entitled Ready Made (现成品) completed in 2008 by Beijing Film Institute graduate Zhang Bingjian (张秉坚).  Among other things, this provocative film raises the question of the “meaning” of Mao to the many millions of Chinese citizens born long after his death in 1976.  What are postsocialist subjects supposed to do, to say, and to think when they “see,” “hear,” and even “meet” the legendary Chairman Mao up close and personal?  What do Mao impersonators themselves and their families think about Mao impersonator work?  What are the long-term consequences of launching monumental cults of personality in places where the utopian/revolutionary practices of the Great Leader have been rejected but where the state still embraces and propagates key aspects of the original cult?

Ganesh Yourself: An Experiment in Incarnation
Emmanuel Grimaud, CNRS-LESC, Paris

How far can we experiment with God and its incarnation? The SF writer Philip K. Dick imagined one day that God could be a walkie-talkie that everybody could wear as a device. The robot we conceived with Zaven Paré, called Bappa 1.0, is not very far from Dick’s device. Looking like Ganesha, it was a tele-operated interface enabling anybody to incarnate the voice of God during a conversation. This experiment, primarily designed to test the stretchable limits of ‘polytheism,’ turned quickly into a political experiment as soon as we arrived in Mumbai. Astrologers, pandits, political activists, ecologists, but also ordinary people proposed themselves as ‘incarnators.’ And for a few weeks, people addressed the robot with many questions (metaphysical subjects as well as social issues) that they couldn’t address to an ordinary idol which is silent. In Ganesh Yourself (2016), the people were the real experimenters, sitting sometimes for hours until they could decide whether the device could be a good medium for a deity.