Kanad Chakrabarti’s sense of cultural rootlessness translates into his video and installation work in complex and thought provoking ways, combining analytical approaches with visceral sensibility. After a stimulating conversation about his installation work at SpringBreak art fair, curated by Jason Andrew from Norte Maar, we had the following interview.
AS: I was introduced to your work in the group show curated by Jason Andrew at the 2018 Spring Break art fair. Can you tell me about your installation there? I am curious to know more about the found objects and your process of putting them together.
Kanad Chakrabarti: This installation looks at the Mediterranean, and Sicily in particular, where one sees an enormous layering – Phoenicians, Magna Grecia, Fatimid emirs, Normans mercenaries, the Hohenstaufen, Angevin, Aragonese, Bourbon, Savoy dynasties, and finally, the Italian Republic. Palermo, in particular, an amazing city of bombed-out palaces and Mafia-built carbuncles upon the sea, now has neighbourhoods with African and Bangladeshi immigrants. In fact, within the Ballaró market, I was excited to find an arts space staffed by, and serving food from, the Global South, filled with young people as well as trendy Palermitani from the city’s wealthier northern parts.
The found objects, primarily the ropes, cables and fixings, reference the influence of the sea – the clinking of halyards at the port, colorful nets glinting on a bejewelled sea off Trapani. The broom comes from India – called a phool jhadu (grass broom) – I vaguely remember one being used to sweep away the omni-present red desert dust from my mum’s family house in Delhi.
AS: Can you tell me more about your cultural, educational and professional backgrounds and how do you think they inform your artwork?
Kanad Chakrabarti: I was born in India and have lived between the US and Europe. I read computer science at MIT and worked in finance and technology for many years. This history impacts the work in multiple ways. Obviously there is a South Asian influence, but more important I think is my sense of a continuum between North India and Southern Europe that stretches, via Gandhara, through Afghanistan, Central Asia and Persia. This continuum presents itself most obviously in the architecture, language, media, but also in food (pulao, pilaff, paella, plov). I pick up some of these themes in the videos Shift+F9 and Fire Dome.
Markets and money are also really interesting, as social cultural phenomena, almost metaphysical – you have this thing (money) that lives much longer than we do. But how does one convert wealth into immortality? In the Renaissance, wealth bought power, and power was understood as expressing itself in nation-building and conquest. But, importantly, power also consisted in commissioning and supporting the beautiful: musical, literary, architectural or pictorial.
Since the 1800s, capital has become unchained from a formal theological or politico-juristic power, and therefore the market has acquired a certain autonomy in many respects. Patronage, or collecting, as we call it now, has mirrored this tendency, as paintings are bought and sold like stocks and shares, never to leave the bonded warehouse at Geneva Freeport. Collectors put inordinate effort into passing their money to the next generation tax-efficiently, they build art foundations or family collections, which go on to buy more work, and indeed, often support artists, curators, educators and the entire arts ecosystem.
AS: Tell me about the genesis of your art career
Kanad Chakrabarti: I started out in film photography, and in computer graphics – before and during undergrad, I was involved in computer vision research, as well as how humans can use visual aids to interpret massive data sets. Both of these influences persist today – the threshold between the simulated, digital world, and real world, constrained by physics and geometry, is a recurrent formal theme in the work. My photographic archive, much of it analog, was re-purposed to make the video at Spring Break, and the notion of telling a time-based story through still images, à la Chris Marker, continues to be an important idea for me. The still image, owing to its connections to reportage as well as to the book, introduces a certain ambiguity and forces the viewer to participate more fully in building a narrative. It has an affinity to painting for these reasons – the still-life continues to be something I return to repeatedly.
AS: How do you see your installation at Spring Break in context of your other art work?
A few things – firstly, this work was visceral for me – I have been involved with Sicily for a long time, and have seen it change from the dark days of the late 1990s to the über-hip cultural destination it is today. Secondly, this was an intensely visual and tactile installation – things I want to get back to after working in video/software for a couple of years. The installation element in how moving-images are presented I think is really important, as media migrates increasingly online, the phenomenological aspects of the art encounter become absolutely critical. I loved that Spring Break was held in a corporate space, on the 23rd floor, staring out at other, similar offices. I felt that the work was alive, engaged in a potential dialogue with the built environment, in a way that was more difficult in its previous iteration at the London ICA’s ‘white cube’.
AS: Your art work seems to involve a fair amount of digging into cultural and social texts / references. Can you give me an idea on your typical source material and how do you get started making work?
Kanad Chakrabarti: I read a lot – the Financial Times is oddly a great inspiration for me, not least for its superb arts coverage. I am constantly looking at Twitter – mostly feeds on finance, AI, nuclear weapons, and mathematics. My Italian is terrible and French is non-existent, but I find the culture sections of Corriere della Sera and Le Monde often inspiring. But our home library, probably 1,000 books, is something I mine the most – for a current project I am re-reading Arnold Toynbee’s marvelous “Between Oxus and Jumna”, about his travels in Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
AS: Who has influenced your work?
Kanad Chakrabarti: Artistically, it has been people like Kiefer, Kounellis, Twombly – really heavy, lyrical stuff (materially and historically). I think you can see that in the materials I chose. I’ve been hugely into Arte Povera recently, coming out of a long-term engagement with Italy.
My moving image work is more connected to people like Manfred Mohr, Hollis Frampton, and also Godard, for his ability to connect formal experimentation with this broad sweeping overview of history, and for his almost ideological commitment to Europe, which perhaps paradoxically given my own background, I’m sympathetic to. I also look at artists like Rauschenberg, Rikrit Tiravanija or Iza Genzken, who in different ways reflect our world through a range of media.
AS: How do you see your work in art historical context?
Kanad Chakrabarti: I don’t know. I think that is very hard to see from the inside – history is hard to write in real-time, so I prefer to leave that to someone else. Making art in the contemporary context is a slightly quixotic endeavour.
AS: What particularly appealed to me in your installation was a satisfying balance between cerebral elements, emotional resonance and visual stimulation – a tough juggle. What’s your take on “conceptual art” and how important is the formal side for you?
Kanad Chakrabarti: It is a juggle. Perhaps the central one in my practice. I would prefer the work to be accessible on a few levels – purely conceptual work is very difficult indeed, just as exclusively retinal or spectacular work is perhaps quick to bore. I suppose that is why I prefer the installation format, where a complex, often un-graspable idea ties together disparate works, sometimes with text that informs and contextualises without being excessively didactic. It also addresses relevant questions about how to limit or reduce the ‘market-friendliness’ that is such a feature of art today, by having elements that cannot be easily reified. My favourite work is often one where one can not tell what is art or what is not; there is an undecidable, ambiguous element that sticks in one’s throat.
AS: You have recently moved with your wife to NYC from London. How do you think this change has affected your work or is it too soon to tell – what can you share on this experience?
Kanad Chakrabarti: It has been a bit of a challenge – my practice is so linked to travel, peripatetic. I have found inspiration in the streets and markets of Sicily, the islands and ruins of Greece, but also the hubbub of Russian, Italian and Turkish in cobbled London. There is an immediacy to the foreign-ness of London. Although it is an island, it has been, up to recently, part of Europe.
In NYC, one loses this version of the cosmopolitan (most people become American, New Yorkers, pretty quickly), but it is replaced by a relentless optimism and a fantastic energy. Having said that, I think it is difficult to ignore some of the social strains that this American optimism cheerfully masks. But we are drinking the Kool-Aid for the moment !
AS: Would you like to share what you are working on now?
Kanad Chakrabarti: I am working on a ‘procedural video’ that deals with the connections between USSR’s atomic testing programme, the Soviet version of the internet, and the colonialism that was, and continues to be, present in whole nuclear weapons question. It is quite a hairball of ideas, but making sense of it comes down to the edit! I would love to see it presented as an installation, perhaps in a politically charged space — one of the US national laboratories or the equivalent in Europe/Russia, the current geo-political climate notwithstanding.