Review of Displaying Time: The Many Temporalities of the Festival of India

Displaying Time: The Many Temporalities of the Festival of India
by Rebecca M. Brown

University of Washington Press, Seattle, Washington, 2017
248 pp., illus. 20 col. & 70 b/w. Paper, $30.00
ISBN: 978-0-295-74198-7.

Reviewed by
Jane Hutchinson
February 2019

A ‘Festival of India’ was celebrated in the United States during 1985 and 1986. It comprised of over 200 India-related exhibitions, installations, and demonstrations by craftsmen and women, bahrupiya (impersonators), magicians and puppeteers, dancers, poets, and musicians. The ephemeral and distributed nature of this festival is thoroughly explored as the author weaves a narrative through an investigation of temporality, discussions of making and materiality, and the negotiations, compromises and mediations between politically infused relationships, observers, and artists.

Rebecca Brown explains how the friendship between Reagan and Indira Ghandi, the developing relationships between government and cultural institutions in the U.S. and India and the cultural, political and economic openness of the 1980s, meant a large-scale international event could take place. Key elements of the festival were however already being planned. Mela (meaning fair, festival or celebration in Sanskrit) and Aditi, for example, were incorporated into the 1985 iteration of the annual Festival of American Folklife, and Aditi had previously been presented in New Delhi (1978) and London (1982), increasing in scale and complexity with each re-staging.

The book’s principle theme is time: the transformative nature of time, of “short durations”, “slow decay” (p. xiii), and the distance and distancing of space and place as manifestations of time in bigger historical flows (p. 160), all explored through rich and detailed descriptions of the festival events and exhibited work. Following the introduction, the author presents ‘An Interruption’ in order to explain how her theoretical approach to temporality, drawn from the work of Jacques Derrida and Edmund Husserl, influenced her thinking throughout the book’s project. She explores a number of examples in her discussions of the different temporalities of the festival. These include (in ch. 2) the changing materiality of clay as it is transformed through the process of making, the ‘irruptions’ of visitors into the galleries (ch. 3) and the placing of contemporary work alongside historical and ‘traditional’ work (ch. 5). Although the book’s theme is time, the introduction, ‘Flickering Light, Fluttering Textiles’, explores light, and light is a thread through the narrative: lighting the exhibits, diffused light through the material of the exhibition tents and canopies, and the light and the relative darkness of their painted and embroidered interiors.

Brown uses the tent as a metaphor for her book’s project and for the Festival, which she describes as “a large set of overlapping tents” (p. 7, p. 153) that encompass creative spaces and shelters. Two tents feature in this text: a seventeenth century Mughal Emperor’s tent and the architect Frei Otto’s painted and embroidered tent, which was created through an experimental re-working of material grounded in tradition, in collaboration with Gujarati artists and craftswomen and men for the Golden Eye installation at the Smithsonian Design Museum (Dec. 1985 through Jan. 1986). Brown explains how the wider aspirations of India were embedded within the traditional designs of the Frei Otto tent panels, one depicted an astronaut, a parent’s anticipation of space travel in a scientific future of their young child. (p. 155)

In Displaying Time, Brown explains how the spectacle of ‘other’, and of the ‘exotic’ (in the guise of education and understanding) provided by the Festival was an event in a long history of similarly purposed fairs and expositions (chs. 1 & 3). Brown argues though that the exhibitions of the previous century were not simply representative of colonial power, as is commonly stated, but involved the same complexity of political and cultural manoeuvrings and acts of resistance as those of the 1980s. Richard Kurin, who was director of the Smithsonian’s annual Folklife Festival’s staging of Aditi, described the event as “a living exhibition” that, just like Living Villages and ‘working’ industrial sites, attempted to reconstitute its original context through a mix of action and static installation, objects not to be touched and objects available to buy, with the added appeal of being made “in front of your eyes.” These all required a mediation of the work through interpreters who would facilitate discussion between makers and conversation between the visiting public and the crafts people.

Rajeev Seth’s design and staging of Aditi was intended to represent the cycle of life from birth to maturity. (Aditi is both mother and daughter in the Hindu Vedas). This intention is apparent in other elements of the Festival, for example, in chapter 4, which examines Golden Eye in depth, Brown describes the skills and traditions involved in the creation of handcrafts that are taught by father to son, mother to daughter (p. 87) in a cycle of production. One that has been considered since the 19th C to be in need of preservation, a moral task of “anthropological salvage” (p. 92) assumed by (Western) outsiders to be achievable by transforming local commercial networks into international trade. One of the Festival’s broader aims was to encourage business enterprise and the development of a market for Indian work in the U.S., but this, Brown explains, focused upon the commercial potential of the notion of the authenticity of craft work and did not include representations of India’s other industrial and scientific achievements. She does also point out, however, that in India, craft work is considered as industrial rather than cultural. Although the Golden Eye exhibition was entitled ‘An International Tribute to the Artisans of India,’ it was focused upon the economic potential of the artisans’ skill rather than simply displaying them as “glories of the past.” [1] Rajeev Sethi, who was involved in the festival’s conception and in particular the transformation of a Smithsonian gallery into a ‘living’ Indian village, continues to align the cultural worth of artisan-made objects with a commercial value.

In Chapter 6 of Displaying Time, Brown explores global temporalities and conducts a detailed examination of how the organisers of the three festival exhibition venues [2] who determined to include contemporary work, attempted to work through tensions consequential to the limited temporal scope (p. 144) of Western concepts of traditional and contemporary, and conceptions of India in time and space as exotic, distinct and distant. They also had to find a way to assimilate these temporary exhibitions into their permanent collections and to introduce the work to a mixed audience of “elite urban […] culturally astute viewers” (p. 127), national and international tourists and others, many of whom, she suggests, were more likely to be familiar with portrayals of India in cinema blockbusters than with any notion of contemporary Indian art. The cyclical and multi-layered nature of the Festival is apparent in this chapter too as Brown explains how these three events drew upon previous exhibitions of contemporary Indian art. She reviews their catalogue texts as examples of scholarship and research into India’s 20th C art at a time when it was rare (p. 137) and concludes by suggesting that the legacy of these exhibitions needs to be examined and reconsidered within a reassessment of India’s art history.

The particular appeal of Displaying Time for this reviewer is its connection, through the influence of Derrida’s discussions of origins, re-iterations and repetition upon the author, to the work of performance theorist Richard Schechner, whose book Between Theatre and Anthropology [3] explores analogies between the cyclical nature of ritual and performance. Where Schechner’s model of Restored Behaviour describes social actions and cultural performances as collaborative cyclical re-enactments that shed old and incorporate new elements with each iteration, for example, the “transmission of behaviour between master and novice” (p. 36) and the annual ritual of Ramlila in Northern India, Brown describes the Festival as a metaphorical tent that is “set up, taken down, patched and restored, added to and re-formed” (p. 153). This is also realised in the actuality of the Golden Eye exhibition of Otto Frei’s tent, where the panels that were not incorporated into the final creation hang alongside it, their presence still important in the overall affective experience.

In her conclusion Brown draws again upon the metaphor of the tent. She describes tents within tents as exhibitions become transient features in public and commercial spaces (p. 158), such as the tented village of the shopping mall which offers a range of exhibitionary practices. She explains how the temporality of the Festival of India is not only of its time but incorporates references to the past and is open ended into the future through the recounting of events in text and aural accounts. It also persists through catalogues, images and the objects that were created for and during the events. Displaying Time is she explains, itself but one element in a continuing deconstruction and re-making of the Festival.

Displaying Time can be read as an innovative and engaging approach to exploring, through its overarching theme of temporality, the complexities of staging a large scale international festival event and will be of interest to those concerned with the presentation of art and cultural histories through museum and exhibition practices. It is also valuable though through its offering to the reader the means to ‘refocus their temporal lenses’ (p. 5) in order to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of the web of moments and durations, flows and interruptions, linear, cyclical and layered temporalities, and the temporal resonances that are all constituents of such exhibitions and events.

Displaying Time is one of the interdisciplinary series ‘Global South-East Asia’ and its author, a specialist in South Asian Art, has written previously about the cultural, economic and political status of art and artisans in India. The book contains black and white images alongside related text for ease of reference and colour plates of installation photographs and art work plus a comprehensive bibliography. Notes: [1] India Today, 22 Jan. 2014. [2] Phillips in Washington D.C., UCLA Frederick S. Wight Art Gallery and Grey’s Art Gallery, NY. [3] Schechner, R. (1985) Between Theater and Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania Press.