Visions of India

What does the Saatchi Gallery's new exhibition tell us about the subcontinent?

Work by artists from the Indian subcontinent is on display at the Saatchi Gallery in "The Empire Strikes Back: Indian Art Today" until early summer. The show reflects the collector Charles Saatchi's recent interest in the global art scene.

If not everything is worth the visit (for example, a confusing wire-filled robot installation and an ugly stuffed camel in an oversized suitcase recall more a children's play area than the claimed issues of displacement), the show boasts some remarkable presences.

Among the highlights, both humorous and disquieting, is U.F.O., an impressive golden spacecraft made of loads of brass pots stuck together, by Subodh Gupta, one of the most collected Indian artists today. It openly addresses the Indian migrant worker's dream of escape.

Jitish Kallat, in his Public Notice 2, visually re-creates the Mahatma Gandhi's celebrated 1930 speech against the British salt tax with four and a half thousand pieces of fibreglass, bone-shaped alphabets. Kallat will bolster the growing interest in Indian art by showing in a one-man exhibition in London later this month at Haunch of Venison (opens 15 February).

While neon sculptures by London-based Shezad Dawood refer to parallels between self-righteous America and fundamentalist Islam, the Pakistani artist Rashid Rana documents contradictions and paradoxes by juxtaposing different-sized images. His Veils are softly rendered images of veiled women which, on closer inspection, turn out to be made up of thousands of small, unfocused, pornographic stills of women.

 

Flip a coin

"My Veils are about representations," Rana tells me. "The veils are synonymous of Muslim women for western men, a simplified and often distorted representation. At the same time, men in the east, thanks to pornography mainly from the west, have a distorted image of western women. It is just showing the two sides of the same coin."

The relationship between the subcontinent and America informs the work of New York-based Schandra Singh, who exhibits two large canvases of people floating lazily in a swimming pool.

"The notion of anxiety is at the centre of my research," she says. "I address questions like 'how can we lay on a river all day, relaxing with silly toys, when there are things happening around us, when someone else is sitting on the side of the street?'. It is about an existential crisis."

Singh is a survivor of the 11 September 2001 attacks. In her uncomfortably funny paintings, conflict and uncertainty appear to be intrinsic elements of everyday existence.

"India today is benefiting from capitalism," she says, "and has the ability to be sitting in that pool as I do. But I'm not safe, because the water is not safe."

"The Empire Strikes Back: Indian Art Today" is at the Saatchi Gallery, Duke of York's HQ, King's Road, London SW3, until 7 May.

ANTONIO OLMOS / EYEVINE
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How Ken Loach's radical vision won him a second Palm d'Or

In Loach's films, authenticity is everything, and when his quest for realism pays off, there's nothing as raw in all of cinema.

On 22 May, at the age of 79, Ken Loach became the first British director to win the top prize twice at the Cannes Film Festival. His previous Palme d’Or, in 2006, was for The Wind That Shakes the Barley, which dramatised the British occupation of Ireland and the origins of the IRA. This time, he won for I, Daniel Blake, the story of an ailing carpenter wrongly declared fit for work by the callous UK benefits system. No wonder Ed Vaizey, the culture minister, could issue only the most grudging acknowledgement, alluding vaguely to “Brit success!” in a tweet that failed to mention either Loach or the film.

The actor and Cannes jury member Donald Sutherland, on the other hand, called I, Daniel Blake “an absolutely terrific movie that resonates in your heart and soul”. It was an incongruous delight to see Loach posing before swarms of paparazzi. He usually disdains such frivolities; he might be red but he’s hardly red carpet. “As a film-maker, you’re forever involved in things that constantly inflate their own importance,” he once complained. Artifice, hyperbole and celebrity hold no appeal. Even film-making itself is full of irritating impediments. “If Loach could make a film without a camera, he would,” said Trevor Griffiths, who collaborated with him on Fatherland (1986).

Authenticity is everything. Unusually, Loach shoots in sequence, even if it requires moving back and forth at great cost between locations. In the days of celluloid, he would forfeit much of his fee to buy more film stock so that his beloved improvisations could roll on and on. When I visited the set of Carla’s Song near Loch Lomond in 1995, Loach gave the actor Robert Carlyle a good-natured ticking off for speaking to me between takes. “I’d rather he didn’t talk to anyone,” he said, “because then he’ll start thinking about things in terms of technique and who he really is, and it’ll all become conscious.”

When the quest for realism pays off, there is nothing as raw in all cinema. Think of the chilling attack on a family home by loan sharks in his 1993 drama Raining Stones, one of the films that began his most successful period, or the climax of Cathy Come Home, made for the BBC in 1966 and arguably his most groundbreaking film. As Cathy (Carol White) has her children taken off her by social workers and police, Loach films the entire traumatic episode in a wide shot with a hidden camera to preserve the reality. The movie led directly to the founding of Crisis.

Conversely, Loach at his worst can be one of the most simplistic sentimentalists out there. The characterisation of the salt-of-the-earth heroes in recent films such as Jimmy’s Hall and Route Irish, or the pantomime-villain Brits in The Wind That Shakes the Barley, shows what happens when action is overpowered by agenda.

Born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, Loach read law at Oxford but became seduced by theatre directing and acting: he was in a revue for which Dudley Moore composed the music, and understudied in the West End in One Over the Eight. He joined the BBC in 1963, where he brought extra earthiness to Z-Cars before finding his ideal outlet in The Wednesday Play slot that went out after the news. “We were very anxious for our plays not to be considered dramas but as continuations of the news,” he said. He made ten TV films under that banner but it was with his second movie, Kes, in 1969, that he took flight, proving that the gritty and the lyrical need not be mutually exclusive.

His politics was fully formed by this point. Though he has rejected claims that he is Marxist or Trotskyist, he admits that the analysis to which he turned after his disillusionment with Harold Wilson in the mid-1960s was a Marxist one. “The idea of a class analysis was the one we identified with,” he said of himself and his collaborators the producer Tony Garnett and the writer Jim Allen. “What we realised was that social democrats and Labour politicians were simply acting on behalf of the ruling class, protecting the interests of capital.”

This stance was consolidated by a series of run-ins in the 1980s, when he saw his work banned and thwarted by political forces. The transmission of his four-part 1983 television documentary Questions of Leadership, which asked whether the trade union leadership was adequately representing its members’ interests, was delayed and blocked by Labour string-pulling. Which Side Are You On? – a documentary about the miners’ strike – was rejected because of footage showing police violence.

Since his full-time return to cinema in the early 1990s, acclaim has eclipsed controversy. Even if he had not won a Palme d’Or, his stamp is all over other directors who have won that award in the past 20 years. The Belgian social realists Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Rosetta, The Child) have never hidden their debt to him, while recent winners such as Jacques Audiard (Dheepan) and Cristian Mingiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days) exhibit his mixture of directness, compassion and realism.

If there is anything that defines him, it is his fight, which has made it possible for him to remain one of cinema’s angriest and most effective voices. “In the long term, I guess I’m optimistic because people always fight back,” he said. “The reason to make films is just to let people express that, to share that kind of resilience because that’s what makes you smile. It’s what makes you get up in the morning.”

“I, Daniel Blake” is released later this year

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad