Quixotic and intrepid, Tushar Joag’s fifty day journey from India to China
engrossed all who followed his travelogue, which he updated almost daily on
the blog Riding Rocinante. hod and madness in the
project with Girish Shahane.
GIRISH SHAHANE: YOUR FIRST BLOG POST INDICATES THE RIDING
Rocinante project began quite hastily. Could you elaborate?
Tushar Joag: When I was invited by Chaitanya Sambrani to show in
China (Place · Time · Play: India-China Contemporary Art Exhibition,
curated by Sambrani, was held in Shanghai from the 30th of October to
the 20th of December 2010), the idea came to me that I could travel by
road, following travellers we learned about in school like Fa Hsien and
Hsuan Tsang. I’m not very good at riding motorcycles, though I owned
one when I was in college. And I’ve never used a sidecar before. There
was also the issue of driving in China on the other side of the road
which created its own complications. So you could say I was
G. S.: The blog describes some extremely cold places. They are probably
impassable much of the year.
T. J.: Yes, there’s a small window when a trip of the kind I planned can
be made, and I got through just before it closed.
G. S.: Riding Rocinante was obviously an art project, but can it be
described as an art work? Is there some physical element to it apart from
T. J.: I can’t create very conceptual art. I feel the need to make things.
And so I planned to create an installation in Shanghai based on my
travel. The final work involved two metal cut-outs, one of a horse shape,
and one of myself lying curled up. Around these I placed parts of the
dismantled bike and objects I’d collected on the way. To give an example
of what these were: One thing that surprised and annoyed me in China
was the lack of traffic signs. I could memorise pictograms and manage
where signs were present, but I’d often come to a T-junction and find
no indication which way to go; since nobody speaks English,
communication was hard. Getting directions required removing my
helmet, gloves, and fishing out a notebook and asking people for the
address marked on it. To avoid this, I took to having someone at the
places I stayed write out my next destination in large letters, and I’d
wear that as a patch on my jacket, so all I needed to do was to point to
it. These patches were part of the final installation. Also, early in my travel, when I changed a tyre, I kept it. This wasn’t because I felt I could
use it later, I just didn’t feel like throwing it away. Although this weighed
the sidecar down quite a lot, I kept tyres and other parts that
malfunctioned, and in the end displayed those as well.
G. S.: How did the concept for the final project evolve during your time
on the road?
T. J.: Actually, I don’t think it evolved at all. The basic idea was in my
head when I left. And I worked out the rest after I reached Shanghai.
On the road, I was completely preoccupied with getting to my next
stop. With the exception of Tibet, when I had company because of
Chinese government rules, I was on my own throughout, often in
isolated places that were very cold or pouring with rain. All I could do
was continually hope my rickety bike didn’t break down. Between
concentrating on this and absorbing the landscape around me, I had no
mental space for thinking about the artwork I was going to create.
G. S.: The project involved connecting the Sardar Sarovar dam and the
Three Gorges Dam. How did the connection evolve in your mind and
influence the work in Shanghai?
T. J.: One of the striking things about the landscape around the
Narmada dam is the trees that have been submerged: tall trees with only
their tips sticking out. The Three Gorges dam is a big attraction for
domestic tourists; some come to admire the structure, others to lament
what has passed. I wanted originally to mimic that sense of
submergence by immersing the dismantled motorcycle in a huge cutout
metal horse. But some technical issues prevented that from
G. S.: Did the journey change your perspective?
T. J.: It’s hard for me to express how my perspective has been changed,
though I can feel it has. After returning there was a period when I felt
just numb; it was difficult to connect with things…
G. S.: I was thinking more about your political perspective, related to
big dams, for example…
T. J.: Well, not so much about dams, but the picture of China I had
based on visiting big cities in the past has been modified. People are very
reluctant to speak their mind; there’s a real sense of fear in many places.
In Tibet, I got a sense of how locals feel their culture is being crushed.
G. S.: You are an artist and also an activist. How do these two parts
interact? Do they merge? Personally, I don’t believe interesting art can
possess political instrumentality. Could a project like Riding Rocinante,
deeply interesting within the context of contemporary art, affect the
politics and discourse about dams?
T. J.: It’s important for me that my political beliefs inform my art. I
think we as a society are too unequal, and I must express this feeling,
this belief. But I’m not sure how effective it can be. I struggle with this
all the time. I’ve destroyed a lot of my work because I felt it wasn’t up
to the mark, not necessarily for political reasons but also as art. I was
quite happy with the Unicell series, but otherwise my work has often
left me unsatisfied.
In the Riding Rocinante project, I wondered if I’d let Medhatai (Medha
Patkar) down in some way. When I met her and NBA activists, she said
that if I’d given them more notice, they could have made more elaborate
plans for me to meet people and understand the issue more deeply. I ask
myself if the final result does justice to the struggle of these people, and
I can’t say it does.