Aeneas Wilder: Writings WeAreTheArtists No 8. Update: Edinburgh
Dear Jim, Once again we miss each other, and I must instead correspond with you by letter. It is somewhat ironic that I am in Edinburgh while you are in India. I hope the lecturing tour goes well and that you are adjusting to the cultural differences there.
My guests from Bangalore arrived the day you left and I was half expecting to see you at Edinburgh airport as I waited for them. It had been three years since I last saw Nandesh and I was delighted that the project budget allowed for him to travel to Edinburgh with the two billboard painters. As it happens the project could not have been realised without his constant attention. As you are aware the project should have been straight forward. Get a budget awarded and bring over two bollywood billboard painters to paint two faces as part of a conceptual work being presented in the centre of Edinburgh for one month. Indeed so far so good, the guys painted Flora McDonald and Bonnie Prince Charlie * with great skill and I even had delusions of the National Portrait Gallery purchasing the work for the nation. No, the problems arose because myself and the other artists at the Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop, where the work was executed, treated the two artisans (as anyone would) as amongst equals. Unfortunately I did not heed the words of Nadesh upon their arrival, "First we do the work, then we treat them to beer". Our collective actions undermined Nadesh's authority to dramatic effect.
Culture shock runs both ways, and the deeply moving impressions gained from a trip to India are nothing compared to those of a low cast manual labourer, who can neither read nor write, with no school record, tax number, or knowledge of what a passport was (Nandesh had to organise their visas and passports).In Bangalore I remember well, watching them cook a carrot and onion curry with some twigs for fire wood, in a dent in their earthen floor studio, during the painting process of the first billboard in 2003. This time was their first time outside of southern India and they must have thought that it was the land of milk and honey, arriving in the second most expensive city in the UK. Certainly the generosity and kindness bestowed upon them was unimaginable outside of their basic family units back in India. There perception of Edinburgh was understandable and I could not even get too upset when they managed, by day three, to expect us all to wait on them hand and foot. I suspect the independent film crew and the BBC radio interview didn't help in this matter. Unfortunately they saw Nandesh as their meal ticket and basically attempted to blackmail us into paying them double the money. Of course this was not possible. A land of milk and honey to some it may be, but the supply is always finite. Not that the two painters understood this. If it costs the equivalent of 87 rupees just to step onto a bus in Edinburgh then everyone must be loaded with money. 87 rupees, as you are now finding out Jim, will buy you three square meals a day with money left over in many parts of India. The bus I took into Trivandrum from Kovalum was a forty minute ride and cost 5 rupees. For people who neither read nor write, who have been squeezed by their system all their lives there is only one thing to do when opportunity knocks-squeeze those who you can, harder that you were ever squeezed yourself. I fear that Nadesh will be harassed for more money now they are all back in Bangalore.
A few days after they left , with no hard feelings, I was in Rotterdam. I had the good fortune to attend a talk by the artist Eric van Hove. He works with text and has exhibited in a number of countries. One audience member asked whether it was appropriate for a European artist to impose his values on the good people of Ghana or Egypt etc. where he had been working. The white mans burden of the art world, as it were. This made me ponder the thought. Had I not imposed my European values on the two billboard painters and instead treated them with the contempt they are more familiar with, while Nadesh worked them like Husky dogs, showing no mercy, would the project have gone smoothly. The answer to that question is a rather distasteful yes.
This opens up a number of issues that I will not go into here, we can take the discussion further once you have returned. However, as it turns out the billboard has been spray painted twice so far. In both cases a moustache has been sprayed onto the face of Flora McDonald. As the text above the portraits heads reads - "To see ourselves as others see us" indeed. It is fairly predictable behaviour from the culture loving masses of my homeland. However I would have hoped that the Scottish art world might have taken an active interest in my work. On the one hand I have the conservatives - Prof Duncan Macmillan - managing to completely ignore a 5m x 5m billboard in his review of the exhibition in the national press and on the other, Dundee Contemporary Arts who replied recently with a letter stating: Unfortunately there are no opportunities for your work to be presented here at Dundee Contemporary Arts at present. I enclose a copy of our current guide, which will give you some sense of our activities. I am returning the information you sent. Thanking you for your interest in DCA and wishing you every success with your future projects . The rather tastefully produced DVD I had sent them was still in its wrapper. As usual I am not going to make much of an inroad in my homeland without an influential backer. If you do not have an influential backer then you will always be a singular door-to-door salesman. Housewives covet their neighbour's goods only when they have been convinced through manipulation. I think that sort of thing goes on at art fairs, but I could be wrong.
Take care out there, India may still have one of the lowest crime rates in the world, but Delhi Belly can strike at any time. Bring back some fresh black pepper if you can, with best wishes, aeneas*Your Scottish history was never your strong point Jim: Charles Edward Stewart had laid claim to the Scottish throne and arrived in Scotland from France in 1744. Having failed to defeat the English army he fled his last battle field, Culloden, in 1746 and became a hunted man. While hiding in South Uist he was taken by rowing boat to the Isle of Skye where a ship was waiting to carry him to safety. The woman who took Charles across the sea to Skye was Flora McDonald.
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