Modernity and National Identity Collide in New Exhibition

International, On View
Wednesday, March 19, 2014
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Samskara installation view. (Courtesy India Gandhi National Centre for the Arts)

Samskara installation view. (Courtesy Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts)

The upcoming 2014 Venice architecture biennale, Absorbing Modernity: 1914-2014, will question the notion of national identity in architecture and investigate the degree to which national styles have been “sacrificed to modernity.” To the credit of the Venice curators, they asked national pavilions to investigate ways in which this “seemingly universal architectural language… in significant encounters between cultures… can find hidden ways of remaining ‘national?’” Clearly the internationalization—and some would say flattening—of culture is one of the more complicated forces in contemporary culture.

Samskara installation view. (Courtesy India Gandhi National Centre for the Arts)

Samskara installation view. (Courtesy Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts)

It will be interesting to see how the various pavilions in the Venice giardini answer or grapple with this problem. Of course, architectural theorists (Kenneth Frampton, Alexander Tzonis, and Liane Lefaivre, etc.) have long seen the problems and potential of the national or local and the modern, but a new exhibition has just come to our attention that grapples with this problem in a direct and completing way. The exhibit Samskara at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in New Delhi is a project created by the Be Open Foundation and the Indian architect Anupama Kundoo, whose two-year research initiative Made in…India investigates craft in the modern world.

The exhibit, like Kundoo’s practice, claims to be driven forward by the past and creates an exhibit space that is a “reflection of the potential for heritage skills not to be swept away by technology and business, but to move forward, hand-in-hand with them, and shape the future.” Kundoo points to the inclusion in Samskara of an exhibition plinth created by a community of granite stone-chippers in Tamil Nade. These artisans “originally produced the grinding stones found in every Indian household for grinding fresh masalas—another endangered product in an urbanising India,” but today electric grinders are increasingly replacing them. Kindoo’s designed stone plinths are created by the workers “tirelessly chipping away at hard slabs of local grey white granite, in order to achieve a very specific effect, which would be impossible to achieve by a machine.” This technique naturally creates distinct textured surfaces, quite the opposite of the shiny, reflecting granite surfaces that machines deliver. It is such a beautiful convincing display of a modern idea that drives the traditional and hand-made forward.

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