Monday, June 18, 2007

Trust: India In Sight

Having known Ryan Davis and Jason Sellars since they returned from their travels in India (amongst other places) roughly two years ago, I eagerly anticipated the opening of Trust at the old Timemasters location adjacent to the War Memorial in downtown St. John's.

I have noted previously on this blog the ease with which individuals can apply for funding from the NLAC, and have suggested more stringent guidelines (or guidelines of any kind, for that matter) be put in place to limit the number of applicants to those with a demonstrable, long-term commitment to an art practice, or showing in peer-reviewed galleries. I've heard too many stories about first time grant recipients failing to complete their proposed projects, realizing too late that this art thing we're all talking about actually requires a lot of hard work, dedication, intelligence and consideration, and isn't just something you can slap together in a weekend.

As both Davis and Sellars lack formal art training, and have limited exhibition experience, not to mention they're both friends of mine, the June 15th opening for Trust brought a great deal of anxiety for both professional and personal reasons. Happily, my worries were almost completely misplaced.

Davis' colour photographs juxtapose the many ironies of contemporary India: a giant Real Estate billboard proclaiming a new house as the way to impress your future wife dominates the street corner under which dozens of filthy beggars congregate. In another, an old woman huddles beneath the word "TRUST" painted on the wall over her head. A third shows an ice cream man sleeping atop his ice cream cart on a deserted, wind-swept beach.

Davis obviously has those two vital skills necessary to being a good photographer: compositional sense and wonderful timing. The photos wouldn't look out of place in some slick, high-end travel magazine, or on someone's living room wall.

Sellars' suitcase installations are more poetic in their manifestation of the artist's experience of India. Using drawings and text from the actual journals he kept while traveling, in addition to sound recordings of trains, snatched conversations and a multitude of other ambient noises, Sellars presents a kind of mythic journey through a haunting, magical and frightening jungle whose ancient secrets can never be known.

But as I walked around the jam-packed opening (the two collaborators know how to throw a party), I found myself wondering about the people in those photographs, and whose voices I heard on the tape recordings, and couldn't shake thinking about the capital (cultural and otherwise) Davis and Sellars had accumulated as a result of this project. Could it be considered exploitative for two Western artists to use the poverty-stricken masses of India in the creation of a cultural product to be consumed by a mostly white, educated, middle-class audience? I thought of Martha Rosler's Bowery photos.

True, the artists did have a box at the door where you could donate some money for one of the schools where Davis and Sellars taught while overseas, but as I watched the crowds of people heading off to the bars, or to their clean quiet homes after the festivities were drawing to a close, I wondered if the subjects of the show would have considered it enough.