This work is exhibited at the MAAT Museum, Lisbon, as part of the show, ‘X is Not a Small Country, Unravelling the Post Global Era’ curated by Aric Chen with Martina Muzi. The exhibition runs from 18 March to 6 September 2021. Team: Rupali Gupte, Prasad Shetty, Ronak Soni
While the movement of goods between India and China are usually discussed in terms of trade, these imported and exported objects have lives that far exceed their financial value. They enter into dialogical relationships with people and their desires, values and practices to create new interactions, concepts and spaces—a politics that complicates conventional understandings of geopolitical exchange.
Itinerant Desires looks at the lives of some ‘usual and unusual commodities’ as they travel from China to India to inhabit a transactional object/space, a scaffold. This scaffold draws its form from the urbanity of Mumbai, where high densities and intensities of built form create new vectors for activities, networks, and livelihoods while providing, in the museum, a space for intimacies and rest.
BARDStudio in Conversation with Aric Chen, curator of the exhibition, ‘X is Not a Small Country, Unravelling the Post Global Era’.
In this project, you refer to “usual and unusual commodities.” How would you define, and distinguish between, the usual and the unusual—or are these fluid designations?
While a lot of utilitarian devices and objects like electronic goods, shoes, appliances, etc. come to India from China, there are also ear scratchers, invisible ink pens, various types of massagers, that arrive. Our idea of the unusual relates not only to the unfamiliarity associated with some of these objects, but also to ways in which these objects unassumingly respond to some very instinctual desires. Also, objects like these, so far, were never in the realm of mass production. They were produced largely through cottage industries.
What types of objects have you included in the installation, and how did you decide on them?
The imports from China are not only specialised technological devices that are not produced by India, but a variety of everyday objects that have been historically produced in the country. Along with this there are other strange objects that people had only imagined, but were never produced as they were perhaps found unfeasible in terms of a demand-supply logic. So, while we have televisions, mobile phones, shoes and furniture, we also have back scratchers, ear diggers, invisible ink pens, spy cameras, idols of gods, large plastic plants etc.
In your installation, you offer narratives, in the form of books, that describe the ways in which some of these objects acquire new uses and meanings as they circulate. Could you give some examples?
The objects become part of everyday lives of people – they mean many things – from being utilitarian commodities (like shoes, appliances, etc.) to enigmatic and sacred symbols (like statue of gods and other ritualistic objects), to objects of desire and pleasure (like the invisible ink pens, the spy cameras, etc.), and to objects that create experience and identity (like LED lights, plastic flowers, and other decorative things). The narratives are termed ‘itinerant desires’ and are thick stories of people’s everyday relationships implicated in this trade and its after life. They also take us to various geographies and spaces that get entangled in the narratives of transaction
What is the significance of “desire” here?
Take the case of the invisible ink pen – it is made in some factory in China, sold in the Mumbai local trains for 10 rupees (20 cents), and people actually go ahead and buy it. These are not children who buy such bizarre objects, but full-fledged adults. Why do they buy these objects? Obviously, the objects are not of any particular use, and probably get added to the number of objects that lie around in their homes, gathering dust, to be thrown away one day. People buy these for that moment, when they let themselves float in imaginary worlds, where they may be spies, or detectives sending secret messages. This absurd, but very instinctual desire creates the demand here. And to think that there is someone in China, who is actually designing for this madness – perhaps not thinking of the desire of the user, but in a trip to innovate, testing the possibility of creating such a pen. The objects transcend transactional logics here.
As you were working on this project, the longstanding conflict between the Chinese and Indian governments over their disputed border in the Himalayas flared into a series of deadly skirmishes. In the ensuing diplomatic row, the Indian government banned the use of Chinese apps within its borders. How has this sudden cut-off in trade and exchange, and the potential for more to come, affected your thinking, or how might one speculate about its impact on the embedded narratives in your objects?
The aggressions in the Himalayas are not new and are typical of exchanges in border areas. We think that the sudden highlighting of this aggression and such bans are superficial attempts to hide some other powerful narratives and are quite temporary. Things will mutate and emerge in different ways. However, there was some nationalistic euphoria created due to this highlighted crisis and people demonstrated by throwing away Chinese televisions, etc. But soon they realized that their new TV was produced in Vietnam in a factory owned by a Chinese entrepreneur. The ties are far more material and deeper to be destroyed by the abstractions of nationalism, etc.
Currently, the Chinese government is promoting an economic policy of “dual circulation” by which, on the one hand, technology and capital are developed and sustained internally in the name of self-sufficiency, while trade and other flows remain open to the outside world. Could we consider your “itinerant objects” to represent a kind of dual circulation (of meanings?) and, if so, in what ways?
The Itinerant Objects have their own dual circulation – the trade circulation through factories, shipments, warehouses, shops and houses; and the lived-life circulations through innovations, journeys, desires, meanings, etc.