U. Kanad Chakrabarti
11 June - 21 June 2015
Curator Michael von Clemm interviews U. Kanad Chakrabarti
MvC: Thanks very much Kanad for agreeing to be interviewed. Needless to say, we’re delighted to see your work installed and looking forward to hearing more about it, but perhaps for the benefit for those who haven’t been able to see it in person, could you please quickly describe what we’re looking at?
UKC: Thanks Michael for organising the exhibition and indeed the residency - it’s been an amazing experience ! I suppose it’s a riff on a banker’s office, circa early 1900s, the sort of thing you don’t really see these days, or perhaps only see at old-school private banks in small European towns…
MvC: …kind of like IOD Capital…
UKC: Yes! I suppose that’s right. It’s a room furnished with quasi-comfortable furniture, to the extent Bauhaus and mid-century Modernism ever was that great to sit on. But that’s all placed on a substrate of the antique, reflected in the carpets, the paintings, the cigars, the dust, and of course, the inferred or implied history of the building itself - neo-classical in this case. Then there’s the ‘art’ per-se, you’ve got the Raphael rip-off, the Kawara rip-off, and Serra pastiches, and so forth. Lastly, there are all the ‘contemporary assisted ready-mades’: terms sheets, PowerPoints, Senate report, books, desktop screens, even the video, in parts, that take the imagery of work, particularly in that most immaterial of businesses, banking, and place them, in a more or less un-modified, or un-aestheticised, way, within this architectural framework of ‘banker’s office’….
MvC: Just hang on there….this is quite dense…please don’t take this the wrong way - as you know, we at the Sammlung have long been fans of your work - but an unkind viewer could view this as a sort of grab-bag, or yard sale, of assorted bits of art-history ephemera and tropes, industrial materials, with a pile of documents and books thrown in. Is there a logic or idea that ties it all together? What are you trying to say here?
UKC: Yes, I think that could be a valid opinion - the installation is unashamedly maximalist. It is jumbled, or rather, stacked, in the way that the signals and phenomena of the world are jumbled, piled higgledy-piggledy on top of each other. However, it is not a mere copy of a chaotic world - the installation is shot through with visual, formal and textural rhymes that are meant to give it structure. How well that structure communicates itself to the viewer, is I suppose one major measure of the success of the installation as a whole…so yes, there will be viewers that this doesn’t reach, and that’s fine.
In thinking about the installation, during and ex-post its making, I keep getting back to Wittgenstein, and to some extent Michael Fried’s reading of him in relation to Jeff Wall. Wittgenstein has this idea that philosophy, ties itself into knots by trying to develop all-encompassing theories to explain the world, when one would be better off just looking at the world and describing what one sees, dispassionately and without judgement.
MvC: the sub specie aeternitatis argument?
UKC: Yes that’s right…this, of course, is one of the reasons visual artists are so fond of him, and I kind of see that in my own work. I find this interesting trend in some contemporary art, to adopt an intensely opinionated and critical perspective. Whereas, I wonder if it’s not equally valid to just put the material out there, without necessary forcing a view, a ‘position’ , loudly onto the viewer.
MvC: Let’s come back to that, as it’s potentially quite an interesting point that could chew up a lot of time! On a lighter note, what’s the fish obsession all about?
UKC: I guess the fish operate on many levels. I was thinking of the pathos inherent in watching live fish asphyxiate on the dockside fish market in Marseille’s Vieux Port, or the ritual slaughter of the tuna in the, sadly now defunct, Mattanza of Sicily. During the Mattanza, the fishermen sing a song of Arabic origins, the rhythms of which help them work the nets and pull the tuna into harpoon range. One of these songs, Aia Mola, shows up in the video.
Also, I suppose fish have a personality, a sense of movement and colour, that cattle simply don’t have, there is a sense of the hunt about them, there is the vastness of the sea, they are a finite resource, there is the history of the Mediterranean in them. I recall, at the excellent Mandralisca museum in Cefalu ….
MvC: Sicily- near Palermo?
UKC: …yes, there’s that great Norman cathedral built by Roger II in the 1100s. At the Mandralisca, I saw a Greek red-figure crater, depicting a man buying tuna from the market. It’s a marvellously evocative image, you can almost imagine the buyer carefully watching the fishmonger to make sure that he’s not shortchanged, or worse, given a sinewy cut.
But the fish market operates on a conceptual level as well - it is one of the most pure markets out there. Buyers and sellers, rapidly going at it, finding a price, trading on a perishable commodity, processing the order, getting it out of there, quickly to the sushi restaurant. I saw a lovely documentary about a Tokyo sushi-chef, Hiro, and there was a scene of the tuna auction at Tsukiji - absolutely fascinating, hand signals, code words, scraps of paper recording trades. I believe, you can’t actually see it live in Japan anymore, as tourists are too clumsy, getting in the way of the motor-trolleys that carry the gleaming carcasses around - tourists are now banned from the auction proper. And Tsukiji is moving anyway…
One more interesting recollection - when I was a fledgling at Bankers Trust, I remember the head foreign-exchange dealer, someone called Frankie, an enormous fat ball of a man, but dangerous looking. He, along with another Italian-American, Buddy DeGeronimo, were, legend says, picked out from the nearby Fulton Street fish market by the bank’s global head of trading - Kelley Doherty thought Frankie was just about the best trader of fish that at Fulton market, hell, why couldn’t he deal in dollar-yen, dollar-mark, cable [dollar-sterling], etc. I remember him shouting out orders to his sales guys, as the bank would get long billions of one currency or another, screaming at them to start dumping inventory to all their clients.
I guess I see fish, sushi, the marble or carpet covered tables at the Apulian or Sicilian fish markets as pure and evocative metaphors for market capitalism. But aesthetically they’re amazing things - light, colour, texture, movement…
MvC: The Fire Dome video references Aeschylus - is that content that is internal to the video, or does it relate to the rest of the installation? I know you’ve mentioned the Agamemnon before - what is its significance to you?
UKC: I’ve worked with bits of the Oresteia for a few years, and always wanted to make a film of it. My interest in it is possibly slightly different from the standard view which focuses on the tension between Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Aegisthus and the Orestes/Electra dramas. I’m more into the blood-letting that precedes the trilogy, indeed the Iliad, namely the feeding of Thyestes’ sons to him, by Atreus. I’m interested in the machinations of the Gods in all this, primarily Hermes, Apollo, and Athena. But for Fire Dome, my focus was on the last play in the cycle, Eumenides. It has an absolutely marvellous portrayal of the Furies, (funnily, Eumenides translates as ‘the kindly ones’), at one point slumbering and whining, then enraged at the perfidy of the gods, and finally, like tired old dogs, accepting of Athena’s counsel. The dialogue is amazing. But there is an important idea here - it’s the change in societal models - a movement away from inter-generational blood-feuds to a trial-by-jury - basically the ‘civilising process’ that we think of as the evolution of democracy, is played out over the trilogy. I wanted to use that as a framework, perhaps to think about how this civilising process may be unwound, perhaps if some of the contemporary challenges we face, were to spiral out of control, whether it be inequality, or environmental collapse, or the rise of an unstable multi-polar world.
MvC: I think the experience of having an outsider, an artist, embed themselves into a quite discreet, if I may say so, investment manager, has been quite a challenge for us, in terms of pure logistics, client confidentiality, as well as from the perspective of convincing the firm’s management about the wisdom of this project. I suppose over time we’ll get a better feeling for how it’s gone, but do you have any initial comments on whether and how this was valuable to your artistic practice?
UKC: It’s been great working in your offices. Hugely stimulating, and a difficult but rewarding process of bringing forth the aesthetics that are inherent in what goes on in the company. So much of contemporary office work, or labour, or whatever you call it, is immaterial, almost invisible…I was interested in trying to bring that our visually. So the terms sheets, PowerPoints, etc. were one way of doing that - but it needed to be richer than just putting them on a plinth. The performance…
MvC: The graffiti and subsequent flip chart actions?
UKC:…yes. The performance element was another strategy to try to ‘bring forth’ what I saw going on around me. I suppose the real world - whether it be finance, mathematics, oil platforms, industrial riggers, whatever - is more interesting, to me, than the narrow formal or theoretical concerns of art. Duchamp famously talks a lot about this in that slim book of interviews. The action, the tension, I suppose is in being able to hold this real world next to or in opposition to the formal methods of art. At least that’s what I’ve tried to do here…
MvC: You seem to have focused on bonds in this installation - any particular reason? From what little I understand of financial matters, most people think of stocks and shares, as they say in Great Britain, as what the markets are all about - yet you seem to look at bonds…and perhaps commodities…can you talk a little about that?
UKC: Bonds are fascinating things - first and foremost, they embody time in a quite explicit way that is internal to their construction, in the way they are contractually drafted, the payment of interest, and so forth. They also bring up all these associations - usury, the Renaissance bankers, such as Fugger, Chigi, Medici, the fantastic theological contortions that the Church had to put itself through to justify money-lending, when previously usury had been frowned upon, because without debt there would be no money to fight wars.
We see the contemporary version of this in Shariah-compliant financing - you have these contracts that are essentially debt, but dressed up to look like equity or profit-sharing agreements - sukuk is the most well-known instrument. They need to be signed off as being acceptable under Shariah by a ‘religious scholar’, who is of course paid generously for his opinion.
David Graeber, if you know him…
MvC: The Goldsmiths guy…the philosophical brains behind Occupy…
UKC: …that’s right, his book on debt does a great job building a historical and anthropological context around lending, relating it to the origins of banking in the temples of Mesopotamia and India, Karl Jaspers’ Axial Age, international trade, slavery. Naturally he comes at it I suppose from a left-wing and anarchist perspective, but his treatment weaves a fascinating and very complex web.
MvC: Speaking of Occupy, what’s your position…many of the viewers these days, 7 years after the start of the financial crisis, they’ll see an installation that references banking, and immediately see red or simply lose interest, how are you going to reach them? If you do reach them, what do you want them to take away?
UKC: Well, this exhibition uses references and uses banking, just as it references and uses religion. But it’s not really solely about either one of those subjects. I’m using those subjects to create associations and connections for the viewer, connections that I think are of contemporary relevance but also have strong historical antecedents. We’re talking about models, how those models change, how they break down, ruins…that’s all a lot broader than just banking, or art, or the Church.
Sure, there will be viewers who hate bankers, and that’s fine. The fact remains that banking has been around for maybe 4,000 years…as long as we’ve had organised religion…even the god-less Soviets had banks. As to the responsibility of bankers for the 2008 crisis, and the complex set of circumstances that played into that - regulators, politicians, a glut of capital, demographic changes, and not least, a consumption culture that seemed to fetishise house-ownership, particularly in the U.S. - I don’t really have much to add to that, which hasn’t already been said.
MvC: There’s a lot of religious imagery here - are you religious? What’s the significance of the Catholic here..pardon me…but you could more obviously have used a Hindu, Buddhist or Muslim framework?
UKC: [Laughing] that’s not very politically correct, you’re not allowed to say that! Just kidding..to be honest, I’m not remotely religious - for me, organised religion’s primary interest is in how it incorporates power and money, the corruption and ambiguity that accompanies it, often cloaked in a thick layer of piety. That, certainly, not to deny many priests, churchmen, imams, whatever, do good work and have great intentions.
But for what I’m interested in, the Papal State becomes really relevant - this was, for over a thousand years, as much a temporal force, as a spiritual one. They fought wars and made empires, often without substantial troops of their own, relying mostly on guile, excommunications and money. Of course, that money often came from the believers, and it was the rapacious spending, and funding via indulgences, that eventually led to the Reformation. I’m interested in this idea that many of the Popes, in order to get to that position, were often wily, amoral Renaissance princes, say Julius II. While others were lavish patrons of the arts - Leo X is a great example. The Papacy continues to be fascinating - witness the shenanigans in cleaning up the Vatican Bank!
Funnily enough, my early years in Jesuit and Catholic schools, followed by years of hanging about Italian churches has made me more familiar with those rituals, sounds, smells, and colours than those of Hinduism or any other religion. Maybe that’s a future project?
MvC: Last question - how does location influence how you install or think about this work?
UKC: Well, I first started thinking about this as more of a project involving technology…so Bloomberg terminals, raised floors, cabling, etc., so somehow speaking more to the architecture of the trading floor. I think that’s both fascinating and timely, because these massive trading floors, like UBS or RBS have in Greenwich, are disappearing, depopulating, as the banks dramatically shrink, as automation takes over from humans.
That would obviously be a very different work, and I didn’t have the funding or logistical support to get that done, but it’s on the cards. It would be an interesting anthropological experiment to simply install this exhibition in one of the glass offices on a trading floor, sort of a vitrine or tableau vivant, that people could look into. Maybe do a performance in there. Who’s the monkey? Similarly, I’d love to put this installation in a church. In both cases, very different aspects of the installation would be keyed.
In a sense, the Slade is visually a mostly neutral space. Yet politically nothing is neutral - I haven’t actually done this, but it might be interesting reading to see how much of UCL’s funding comes, perhaps indirectly, from banks, corporations and the financial industry - hence, indirectly, making most of us at the Slade, if unwittingly, complicit in a capitalist enterprise. That institutional critique, if I could call it that, obviously applies every time we walk into a gallery space, whether it be Hauser, the South London Gallery, the Whitechapel. It’s the more so for the non-commercial, explicitly socially-engaged institutions - you only have to look at who has sponsored their shows to see many of the most prominent capitalist names, Bloomberg, Deutsche Bank, AXA, not to mention individuals.
MvC: Okay one more - so after this wide-ranging conversation - you still haven’t explained what the installation is about! What’s it saying? How do you tie together Aeschylus, fish, Leo X, financial terms sheets, institutional critique? I haven’t even mentioned the On Kawara references !
UKC: [Laughing] Maybe there’s no relationship at all and…I don’t really have a clear-cut answer, besides our time is up for this interview!