Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Dalit condition – a gallery full of crap

Close on the heels of charged exhibitions like the crack at Tate comes another interesting exhibition at a London gallery. Artist Santiago Sierra uses faecal matter collected from Indian toilets in an effort to draw attention to untouchables in India. The sculpture consists of 21 cuboids of human faecal matter mixed with a binder (Fevicol) collected from New Delhi and Jaipur toilets.

From the gallery website comes this interesting excerpt:
"According to government statistics, an estimated one million people in India are manual scavengers (the majority are women) whose work involves the removal of human faeces from public and private latrines and open sewers. Unofficial estimates of the actual number are much higher. Scavengers clean public latrines on a daily basis, using a broom and a tin plate. Human faeces are piled into baskets carried on the head to a location that can be up to four kilometres away from the latrines. At all times, and especially during the rainy season, the content of the basket will drip onto a scavenger's hair, clothes and body. The continuous exposure to dirt and human faeces, coupled with poor living conditions, make people employed as manual scavengers vulnerable to serious illnesses, amongst which tuberculosis is the most common. Despite various governmental acts that prohibit the employment of scavengers or the construction of dry, non-flush toilets, this practice is still common throughout the country".

This reminds me of a show we went to in Princeton that showed the untouchable’s sordid situation minus the faecal matter. It was enjoyable, direct and engaging – although my wife who had recently given birth to our second son decided that it was too depressing…

I am glad that the arts are functioning as a mouthpiece towards drawing attention to little known aspects of the currently roaring Indian tiger, but I fear that by using excrement, there is a tendency to overly sensationalize the situation rather than help it in any way – but then in today’s world, the loudest, most boorish ones are the ones who get noticed anyways. Ultimately the sincerity of the artist in drawing attention to the issue may only be judged by meeting the individual – which I have not – so until then, I reserve judgment on the sensationalist aspects and am just happy to note that artists are spotlighting some of the lesser known aspects of the country I am from…

Funny enough, as I was reading about this, another famous 'faeces-as-art' scene came to my mind. In 1961, Piero Manzoni defecated into 90 small cans, signed and sealed them and then priced each can based on its weight pegged to an equivalent quantity of gold. It is reported that the cans are in various art collections all over the world. It is also reported that many of the cans have also exploded - expanding gases in closed spaces... None of that is of worry here - the gallery has taken a lot of pains to explain that the faecal modules are super clean and sanitary...


- The Guardian covers the exhibition well here.
- Article in the National Geographic on Dalits:
- Human Rights Watch. “Caste Discrimination: A Global Concern.”

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