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Süden - The Villa Romana at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle
It’s Only a Step from a Miracle to a Disaster - Visiting the 55th Biennale di Venezia
Pictures of the End of the American Dream - Philip-Lorca diCorcia in the Schirn Kunsthalle
Enchanted Geography - Sarnath Banerjee: Forays through Berlin
The Subversive Potential of Hermès Scarves - Shirin Aliabadi discloses the desires of young Iranian women
MACHT KUNST - The Prize-Winners: Keep painting - Lovro Artukovic
MACHT KUNST - The Prize-Winners: Gray Zones - Radoslava Markova´s Emotional Landscapes
Theaster Gates: Inner City Blues
Violence and Creation: Imran Qureshi in the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle

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Enchanted Geography
Sarnath Banerjee: Forays through Berlin


His unique comic novels about the rapid changes in Indian society made Sarnath Banerjee an international name. Now he’s taken his explorations to the streets and people of Berlin. Achim Drucks visited the artist, whose works are part of the Deutsche Bank Collection, in a Neukoelln café to talk about his latest project.


“In ten pages you can describe a whole universe. That’s the power of text and image.” Giggling with laughter, Sarnath Banerjee leafs through the copies of Tyranny of Cataloguing. He hasn’t seen these drawings in a long time, and he’s still visibly amused by their absurd humor. The 2008 series in the Deutsche Bank Collection pays a very special homage to books; it’s about authors who wind up lost in a huge warehouse as they search for their publications. And about booksellers that pull the desired book out of towering stacks of volumes with somnambulant accuracy. The story begins in Calcutta, makes a stopover in Paris, and finally, via Bangalore, takes us to the English countryside, the site of the labyrinthine warehouse where a policeman finds the skeletal remains of the missing author—among the shelves, with its bony fingers clutching a worm-eaten book. Tyranny of Cataloguing is a perfect example for Banerjee’s work, in which comic-like drawings accentuated sparingly with color, succinct texts, and a bizarre, somewhat melancholy humor merge to create visual narratives that operate more like chains of association than conventional stories.

Although the artist, who was born in 1972 in Calcutta, actually studied natural sciences, it seems that getting from A to B in a direct line is pretty much the opposite of his work, his mode of narration and thought. Banerjee, who got his master’s in Image and Communication at Goldsmiths College in London after graduating in biochemistry, initially became known for his graphic novels. And just like in his works, he jumps nimbly from one subject to another in conversation. From the political situation in India to Sarfraz Nawaz, who developed a revolutionary pitching technique in cricket, to Robert Walser, one of his favorite authors. Or how it feels to be at Berlin’s Westhafen at three in the morning—not particularly threatening. He wanted to find this out because his latest project, Enchanted Geography, deals with the German capital. The series, scheduled to appear over six months’ time in the Sunday supplement of The Hindu, one of India’s largest newspapers, combines drawings, photographs, and short texts.

Around one and a half years ago, Banerjee moved with his wife, the Pakistani artist Bani Abidi, to Berlin, where their son was born in January. They had previously lived in New Dehli, but the political tensions between India and Pakistan had a direct effect on Abidi’s artistic career, for instance through the travel restrictions imposed by the Indian authorities. When Abidi was invited by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) to Berlin with a one-year fellowship, it came at just the right time. The couple decided to travel to Berlin together and to stay here for the time being.

At first, Banerjee had trouble getting accustomed to his new surroundings. “Out of a kind of desperation I decided I had to really figure out a way of dealing with Berlin. So I started this column about this guy who represents the global South, if there is anything like that. Historically the West looked at the other side and now this other side is looking back. But are they looking back in the same way, with all these stereotypes?” The artist, who had previously lived in the USA, England, and France, is in any case careful to avoid the usual Berlin clichés. He’s not interested in the “art metropolis” or the endless nights in Berghain. And the international hipster community currently taking over his neighborhood of Neukoelln is only treated in a peripheral fashion. Instead, the work abounds in unspectacular observations and encounters in which past and present overlap. They reflect the absurdity of everyday big city life and the Euro crisis, and they take Berlin as a point of departure for Banerjee’s keen-minded reflections. “I am lucky because right now European politics is going through a very interesting phase. That just tickles my imagination.”

For Enchanted Geography, the artist reactivated Brighu, one of the protagonists of his first graphic novel Corridor, published in 2004, which tells the story of the life of an urban-minded generation of young adults in New Delhi in episodes. “This character is a mix of the Khalifa Harun al-Rashid, who walked around the streets of Basra, gathering information about his subjects, and the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa, a bourgeois flaneur. Basically a detective who does not have a case to solve. Brighu follows things and people, stands outside their doors for hours, but he is not waiting for anyone.” The series helped Banerjee discover new ways of looking at Berlin: “Suddenly the city exploded before me, became resplendent with hidden meanings and codes, half-told stories, untold desires, transplanted memories. Suddenly life was beautiful again.”

Among the memories the artist transplanted to Berlin is that of a Jewish-German composer he met in Tompkins Square Park in New York. The old man told Banerjee that he needed the feeling of space in order to be able to work. He walked around the park repeatedly, as though he somehow held it together. In Enchanted Geography, Brighu meets him on the wide expanse of the former Tempelhof Airport, where the composer makes his lonely rounds on a bicycle, his long hair and cape streaming behind him and a conductor’s baton in his hand, like someone from the time of Franz Liszt beamed into the 21st century. In Barnerjee-typical manner, this episode begins with the death of a news anchor in Delhi who, bored by life, jumped from his window; it ends in nighttime Tempelhof, where the moon shines down on the tarmac and Brighu is reminded of the logo of the TV station the suicide worked for. “In my works fact and fiction collide in strange ways. That can only happen in your head.”

This collision also characterizes Banerjee’s graphic novels, which have not only been published in India, but in England and France as well. It’s the most recent volume published in 2011, the Harappa Files, that particularly breaks open the genre’s boundaries: in 41 micro-stories, he creates a kaleidoscopic portrait of an Indian society undergoing profound change. The stories address everything from stagnant bureaucracy and Brighu’s sexual escapades to the wealthy new middle class living behind the high fences of its gated communities. The narrative structure and visual language of the Harappa Files is as heterogeneous as its themes: some of the episodes develop in an almost cinematic manner in a sequence of medium-shots and close-ups, while others make do with only two images. Brightly hued, watercolor-like drawings are placed next to reduced graphic images in black and white or reworked photographs. In his graphic novels, Banerjee plays off both classic American comics and the Hamzanama, the manuscript from the Mughul era that relates fanciful stories in highly detailed scenes, some of which combine image and text.

More recently, however, he has taken leave of graphic novels. “After a time the storytelling becomes very conservative, the approach and how you tell a story. It is only through my gallery practice that I can do these experiments. With my drawing installations I can break the linearity of a book.” Banerjee has been a name on the international art scene at the very latest since his Gallery of losers (non-performers, almost-winners, under-achievers, almost-made-its). He created the work in 2012 in the context of Frieze Projects East for the London Summer Olympics; he was invited by the curator Sarah McCrory, who discovered him in 2009 at the Frieze Art Fair, where the Mumbai-based gallery Project 88 showed a series of Banerjee’s drawings.

The artist is suspicious of winners. In order to counter the top-achievement-oriented, record-breaking Olympic Games with something more human, he celebrated the losers, whom he presented on 48 poster walls all over East London—the pole vaulter who was suddenly seized by a fear of heights, the discus thrower sitting at the dinner table with his family, who are staring at their plates in shame. Next to it is the short sentence: “The memory of a missed Bronze can bring about bad mood even after twenty years.”

It’s situations like these that Banerjee captures in his drawings in a simple, clear, and precise form. Whether it’s in Harappa Files, Enchanted Geography, or the new series Temporary Autonomous Zones currently on view at the daadgalerie in Berlin—the artist visualizes complex social and existential themes without falling prey to cliché: “I always try to simplify things, whether it’s a complicated political situation or a financial crisis. You have to be intelligent to make things simple for yourself as well as for others.” In this work, it’s particularly the interplay between image and text that is essential: it sets the viewer’s thoughts perhaps more powerfully in motion than a mere image would, because the two levels have to be placed in relation to one another. This gets the brain and the imagination going, like a discussion that can unfold all on its own. Banerjee compares his work to “a long conversation in a tea shop. There is no agenda. Conversations are very important. Human beings evolved through dialogue, they moved to the next step, intellectually. Whatever I do, for me it’s a conversation.”




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