As Laumeier Sculpture Park opens its Adam Aronson Fine Arts Center to the public, exhibited works will be designed to bridge international and local communities. Among those whose work is featured in the first show, which opens Friday, is Raqs Media Collective.
“They’re kind of setting the tone for the international scope that we have for the next five years,” said exhibit curator Dana Turkovic, “It’s more about representing these different voices from different areas of the world.”
The Raqs exhibit features an outdoor component “If the World is a Fair Place Then…” and indoor component “Art in the Age of Collective Intelligence.”
The outdoor aspect consists of laser-cut metal bands of words wrapped around trees scattered throughout the grounds. The words were culled from more than 500 responses to the request to finish the phrase: “If the World is a Fair Place Then…” from which the show draws its name.
Inside the park’s new arts center these responses take new shapes as text photographed against passages from important literature. These images are displayed alongside a mock-library that includes the various texts documented in the imagery. The project explores various meanings to the word “fair” and how responses to the artist’s inquiry expose various social, economic and racial influences on public perception of this word.
“When you put a question out ‘If the world is a fair place then?’ what do people hear, what do they imagine, what do they hear, and what do they say?” asked Monica Narula, one of the collective members.
Planning the exhibit began approximately two years ago when Turkovic’s interest in Raqs was reignited by an dealer who specializes in New Dehli art. The collective is made up of Narula and her collaborators Jeebesh Bagchi and Shuddhabrata Sengupta who all work from the north Indian city.
Laumeier brought Bagchi to the U.S. to visit the sculpture park grounds and the wider St. Louis region. Turkovic brought the artist to the Missouri History Museum where he spent time at their collection from the 1904 World’s Fair hosted in what is now Forest Park. He brought his experience back to the rest of the collective.
For the collective, the word “fair” reflects issues of class, morality and race.
For many, the World’s Fair was a moment to show off wealth and class by producing a lavish event on an international scale. Raqs initial prompt was developed as a way to investigate how people might respond to that idea of “fairness” as it exists now. The group was also intrigued by the idea of a “fair” being a joyous event unrelated to the display of wealth.
The project was additionally shaped by questions of fairness as related to racial discrimination in the region. During the project’s development, Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson by Officer Darren Wilson and the group began following the protests from half a world away, becoming increasingly interested in questions of fair treatment among different communities in St. Louis.
The group’s interest in this issue was directly tied to its members' own experiences.
“We come from India where when people say, ‘She’s very fair’ [meaning light-skinned], it implies that she’s very beautiful. Or people say ‘She’s dark but beautiful,’ so caste and color are very implicated because the upper class is usually more fair,” said Narula.
For the collective, the definitions of fairness, and the connection between the word’s various usages in St. Louis and in New Delhi, inspired the project. Does the word "fair" mean light in color, or moderate in action; just or done without cheating? The group intends the art to confront people with these questions at a moment of reflection. As a person steps into the natural world of the sculpture park they are confronted with manmade objects and ideas.
“For us there is no such thing as a return to nature in a profound sort of way,” she said. “These texts are like a choir singing in the forest, a choir singing in the forest, a music heard by those who want to hear it.”
Although the project began more than two years ago, Laumeier Executive Director Marilu Knode said an exhibit focused on exploring these issues across cultures couldn’t be more well timed.
“St. Louis now has an international reputation and the community is recognizing that growing our foreign-born population and welcoming immigrants is really key to creating a more robust economy,” said Knode.
The Raqs exhibit is shown alongside a collaboration between St. Louis-based video artists Zlatko Cosic and choreographer Ashley McQueen’s “Harmony in 3.” The exhibits run from Oct. 16 to Feb. 14 at Laumeier Sculpture Park.