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May You Live in Interesting Times

Written by Nupur Dalmia, May 4, 2020

You might recognize this phrase, most recently, as the theme for the 2019 Venice Biennale. I didn’t give it much thought while I was at the Biennale – it seemed like an appropriately abstract and fitting mandate for the most important contemporary art event in the world.

I remembered it yesterday as I was reflecting on my time in lockdown. May you live in interesting times! It sounds like something that comes out of a fortune cookie. Self-important and full of anticipation, but not without a sneaking cynicism. Intriguing as it is, this is originally attributed to an apocryphal Chinese curse that insinuates, life is better in ‘uninteresting’ times of peace and quiet, while ‘interesting times’ bring uncertainty and tumult. Indeed, I have always found ‘interesting’ to be a particularly dubious adjective. One is never quite sure if she is receiving a compliment, statement of confusion or a polite brush off. So what came as a fleeting thought yesterday, has stayed on for several reasons. Most obviously that the recent Biennale now seems to have been making a bizarre premonition. 


When I shared my thoughts with my dad, he observed that perhaps some of the best art is being produced as we speak. Uncertainty and fear are great fodder for artists, much like war and economic depressions have been historically. It is no coincidence that some of the best art, in my opinion, comes from the mid 20th CE. What then, is the plight of the artist, we wondered. Are they subjected to said Chinese curse a little more than the rest of us? Are they more sensitive to the suffering of others, and does it in turn cause them more pain? Or agitation at least? And do they always seek ‘interesting times’?


Admittedly, I am extremely privileged to be living, quite comfortably, in a countryside home that provides an abundance of space and the luxury of nature. Despite the tranquility however, my experience in lockdown has been unnerving at times. While in the past I have yearned for more alone time and the flexibility to work from home, I now find myself missing the structure and routine of the office. Time seems to have lost its meaning in this remote corner that is unperturbed by proletarian demands. And like a third party observer, I watch the hours and days go by with the same alarming determination of my expanding to do list and expectations of productivity. A Voyage of Seemingly Propulsive Speed and an Apparent Absolute Stillness. Rather appropriately, this is the title of our current show at the Gallery. One that was meant to open a day before the lockdown. And now it handsomely sits there, waiting for the world to catch its breath.

Sarasija Subramanian, Sea Monsters / Bred in Captivity / Something’s Missing, 2020, Archival prints on archival Epson paper, 24″ x 36″ (each)

 

These are probably the most ‘interesting’ times that I have lived in, but to maintain some perspective, I am certainly relieved to not have been born in the early 20th CE. I have been struggling to get to the bottom of my agitation for some time now and I suspect it has to do with the sudden proximity with myself. In the absence of travel, social simulation, or the constant interactions at work, perhaps the staggering harmony of my surroundings, and the lack of any physical compulsions whatsoever, have left my quite alone with myself; to contend with all the fear, guilt, and insecurities that are otherwise safely hidden under more immediate stimuli. Although rather obvious, it comes as a useful reminder to take this opportunity to focus on some fundamental improvements. I hope my fortune cookie says instead, May you be more interesting than the times you live in.