Pravu Mazumdar, Joya 2019 Jury Member interviewed by Klimt02

Interview  /  Fairs   Curating   CriticalThinking
Published: 21.05.2019
Pravu Mazumdar Pravu Mazumdar
Carolin Denter, Klimt02
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JOYA Barcelona is the main art jewelry and art object event in Spain. Gathering a great number of independent artists as well as related organizations, schools and other entities, JOYA  prepares to present excellence and innovation in contemporary art.

With the 11th edition taking place, this October the fair will be held under the topic of "Diplomacy and Jewellery", inspired by the former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, which used pins to express her moods and opinions. This is the second Interview of three. We spoke to Jury Member Pravu Mazumdar, philosopher, and essayist. 
Pravu, you are born and brought up in the eastern provinces of India and living between several languages and three continents. You lead a typically contemporary interstitial existence. Next, to several writings, you have done, this year you are selected as JOYA 2019 Jury Member. Please tell us more about your professional development.
In the course of my doctoral research on Michel Foucault’s archaeology of knowledge, I became interested in what the Germans would call Zeitdiagnostik, meaning a philosophical diagnosis of contemporaneity. Since then, all my books and essays can be seen as repeated attempts at grasping the complex nature of modernity as the (historical) “medium” in which life unfolds itself in contemporary societies. It is probably for this reason that I found myself setting my theoretical sights on everyday phenomena like consumerism or xenophobia in order to understand ourselves philosophically, which means digging up our unconscious tendencies towards becoming what we interpret as the “ultimate” and “essentially” human in us. A concrete manifestation of such a tendency is our daily consumerist penchant towards a “happy life”, in the course of which we subjugate ourselves to the great “happiness machines” of modernity like tourism, advertisement or sexuality. My first major book publication was devoted to an analysis of these machines. Another manifestation is our tendency to flee modernity itself and find comfort in the folds of an ethnic, racial, subcultural, sexual, political identity, which I have described in another book as an effect of certain “cultural dispositives” that impact and permeate us in our daily transactions.
It is in this context that I stumbled upon contemporary art jewellery. Through exchanges with friends like Peter Bauhuis, David Bielander, Olga Biro, Eunmi Chun, Karl Fritsch, Therese Hilbert, Otto Künzli, Karen Pontoppidan, Philip Sajet, Lisa Walker, Johanna Zellmer, I learnt to discern in art jewellery the workings of a powerful tool for reflecting on being human and positioning oneself in the broad spectrum of contemporary trends towards making or breaking identities. In my subsequent attempts at reading contemporary jewellery I always felt a strange affinity with the soothsayers of old, who would open up the bodies of birds and read the future in their entrails. In a similar vein, I see myself cutting up the bodies of jewellery objects to read in them larger thought processes and conceptualist forays into the future.

  • I tend to experience jewellery, particularly when worn, as a thing that hits us and speaks to us and reveals itself as something inherently political.

Diplomacy and Jewellery is the topic for JOYA 2019 and the accompanying exhibition of Artesania Catalunya. Why have you been selected to this years jury, and where did your interest in politics and social issues begin?
My own writings on jewellery are informed by a perspective depicted by Michel Foucault as a “microphysics of power”, in which things no longer appear as opaque objects or blind alleys that bring the gaze of a viewer to a halt, but as entanglements of forces exercising a logic of the “dispositive” upon us, the viewers. In this vein, I tend to experience jewellery, particularly when worn, as a thing that hits us and speaks to us and reveals itself as something inherently political. Anything, in my view, that unfolds itself as a force and begins to shape our behavior is political. Conversely, the “politics of the politicians” is always too late in coming. It is nothing other than the ultimate consequence and visible tip of a rich undergrowth of daily practices involving words, gestures, and appearances – like dress, jewellery, cosmetics – through which we connect with our social environment and influence each other. I am guessing that it is due to an approach like this, which takes into account the inherently political dimension of objects, that Paulo Ribeiro contacted me a couple of months ago in connection with JOYA 2019.

Inspired by the US Secretary Albright and her famous action on wearing pins with political messages while attending different events and meetings, this year's topic is relevant than ever. But, there are some people that think - art and politics - they should never mix. What’s your view and why do you feel it’s important to pair art with activism in this way?
I tend to regard activism as a wide range of possible acts of intervention that can be as different as a wiry old man defying colonial rule by scooping up a handful of salt from a sea beach; or a doctoral thesis on the history of madness destined to trigger off the antipsychiatry movement of the sixties; or an adolescent school girl sitting in front of the Swedish parliament with “Skolstrejk för Klimatet” written on her placard.
An obvious extension of such an understanding would be to regard art – or writing for that matter, which is my own métier – also as an act of intervention – which an aesthetic object like a sculpture or a poem indeed becomes, when it transcends its existence as an aesthetic form and functions as a starting point for signs and impacts with the potential to transform, however infinitesimally, the power constellations populating our intellectual and spiritual environments.
Being impacted as I am by Foucault’s analytical forays into the historical nature of power, I wouldn’t even know how to keep art and politics apart. For I tend to experience an object instinctively as an entanglement of signification and power; and feel the strength of a work of art or writing when it is performative in the sense of effecting an intervention and feel its weakness when it represents a political vision or utopia.

Madeleine Albright with her pins.

What is your personal interpretation of this year’s topic? Any thoughts?
Madeleine Albright employed jewellery as a kind of non-verbal communication functioning as an “ice-breaker” or “opener” for her diplomatic endeavors, as she formulated in an interview. I guess, she had a basic instinct for the political energy of jewellery, even if the term “political” can only be taken in a narrow and obvious sense in the context of diplomacy. One sees this in her gold-plated dove brooch, which she received from the widow of Yitzhak Rabin shortly after his murder and wore at subsequent peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians; or the brooch with the three monkeys who would not see, hear or speak evil, which she wore at a meeting with Vladimir Putin, where it was not possible to mention the obvious with respect to his war in Chechnya. Putin was not amused when he asked what the brooch meant and received her answer without any diplomatic sugar coating.
But jewellery obviously involves a far wider choice of political options. Albright’s pins are a visible tip of such possibilities and therefore good as a starting point for further explorations, which, as I imagine, will be triggered off by this year’s topic.

  • I am curious, how the global crisis we are going through will be articulated in material assemblages and will look out specifically for positions and statements on the ecological quagmire we find ourselves in.

There are many ways to deal with political problems and Zeitgeist. What do you think is required to make a political statement in art and design that actually resonates with people, and makes a difference? 
Making a difference through art can involve a unique combination of courage and intelligence required for creating (and wearing) an object that can function as an act of transgression. An example that comes to my mind immediately, is Lisa Walker’s great flat brooch (2011), in which a newspaper photograph is inserted in silver, fabric and lacquer. From close quarters, one sees in the picture a large array of Muslims in prayer, kneeling and touching the floor with their foreheads. From a distance, the individual figures blend into an abstract structure of diagonal lines.
The brooch can be criticized from both sides of the aisle. It can provoke liberals and Muslims due to its irreverent depiction of people in prayer as the mindless elements of a repetitive pattern. But it can also draw fire from right-wing Islamophobes, since it articulates an exaggerated reverence towards what they would term a religion of violence, flaunting on the body of a wearer an image of bloodthirsty terrorists in prayer. Through the sheer form and content of the image, the brooch becomes performative, impacting the behavior of its viewers and making them talk, regardless of which side of the conflict they find themselves in. By pure chance, the piece could be seen in an exhibition near Nice during the time of the attacks and attained a meaning which had never been intended and drew the expected responses from the viewers.

Brooch by Lisa Walker, 2011. Materials: Newspaper, lacquer, fabric, silver. 12 x 10 x 0.5 cm

As a judge for the 2019 JOYA Award, what do you expect to see? What is the aesthetic specific you are looking for and what are your criteria or your visions for the selection?
I am curious, how the global crisis we are going through will be articulated in material assemblages and will look out specifically for positions and statements on the ecological quagmire we find ourselves in. It should be particularly interesting to find out if it is possible to experiment in crafting pieces as gestures, which can be extended to and tried out in other spheres of contemporary life.

As someone who is not using a fair as a tool for sales, what do you think of the fairs as a communicative event and/or for career development?
I think a fair cannot be free of the contradiction that lies at the heart of the art market itself and consists in attaching a price to something that cannot be measured. On a different plane, the relations between the participants in an art fair replicate the same contradiction. As far as their works go, the artists involved are competitors. But at the same time, they are also potential cooperators, as far as the social relations enabled by the fair go. Beyond their structural rivalry, they can regard themselves as involved in a common quest for truth, method, quality. I tend to regard art fairs as an opportunity to study such contradictions that issue from the heart of capitalism itself as soon as an immaterial entity gets a price tag attached.

There are some Jewellery fairs worldwide. What do you think is special about the JOYA Jewellery Fair in Barcelona?
I would say that I am struck by the conceptual horizon of JOYA as a common platform for the arts and design scene, displaying every year an enormous diversity of forms and materials employed in contemporary practices of artistic communication.

About the Interviewee

Pravu Mazumdar studied physics in New Delhi and Munich and has a doctorate in Philosophy from the University of Stuttgart. He writes in German and English, and his books, which use themes like migration and consumerism to unfold a diagnosis of modernity, are closely connected to French Postmodernism, in particular, the philosophy of Michel Foucault. His book on jewellery was published in 2015 under the title: "Gold und Geist: Prolegomena zu einer Philosophie des Schmucks" (“Gold and Mind: Prolegomena towards a Philosophy of Jewellery”), Berlin: Matthes & Seitz.