Q & A with Artist Meenakshi Thirukode

Q & A with Artist Meenakshi Thirukode
A still from “Isha: A Tell-All Tale”
(Meenakshi Thirukode)

Isha, a young Indian woman, moves to New York City with a one-point agenda — to make it big in the art world. Obviously, there’s lots of intrigue, tons of roadblocks, loads of attitude, not to mention the politics of gender, and there’s the foraying into glamorous worlds and hobnobbing, or trying to, with some of the most powerful people in the scene and fellow aspiring artists. Isha’s journey leads her from her student life at university to interning at the world’s biggest auction house, and then onto a job at a large New York gallery until she finally evolves into an internationally acclaimed independent curator. Along the way she meets the good, the bad, and the ugly that comprise the art world. That’s “Isha: A Tell All Tale” for you in a nutshell. It’s a story inspired by artist Meenakshi Thirukode’s personal experiences, and is told using elements of theatre and film, adopting the style and manner of soap operas. Although the plot seems straightforward, it gets more complicated given the range of meta- narratives that emerge. Even the format of storytelling keeps evolving since Thirukode enjoys experimenting with all the various possibilities of the story.

ARTINFO caught up with the New York based artist who told us more about the concept behind “Isha”, how it evolved, what it has to say about the position of the South Asian woman, and why when she was younger, her friend’s mother forbade her daughter from talking to her.

You mention in your concept note that the idea for Isha came about through your own experiences in the New York art world. Tell us more about the beginnings of these experiences, and how did you finally arrive at this particular format through which to showcase them?

“Isha” was co-created by Peter Hopkins and me. Essentially, the story written by us is about the journey of a South Asian immigrant woman through the art world and her quest to make it 'big' based on my experiences coming to America, studying, and working in the art world in New York City. So we see what its like for Isha to get here to America, get an education, intern and work in auction houses and galleries and find her “voice”. We also see the relationships she builds, both professional and personal. It’s about being a woman and balancing work and family — the role of wife, mother, daughter and what that is like when there are certain cultural expectations in the mix from family and society. Especially in an industry/field that’s not “typical”, stable, and is more of a man’s world. 

I’m also interested in addressing the broader perceptions within and outside the art world — like the idea of an “immigrant” or being a “woman of color” or being “brown”. I moved to the US when I was 23 and until that point I was never categorized under any of those terminologies. And so the “burden” of those signifiers is kind of thrown at you merely because it’s just easy and that’s what you “see”. I feel like every article, every curatorial project prior to Isha, has lead up to this. I don’t see curatorial as being exact and set around the idea that a bunch of works be placed under one context for a fixed period of time — at least that doesn't work for me, that’s not what my curatorial work has been about. The curatorial evolves just as an artist’s work evolves over time. For me this is how my work as a curator had to evolve — to the point where I’ve been termed an artist. But I have to say that the art world likes everything to be neatly defined and I don’t care for that. At least that’s not what I’m concerned about. I’m concerned about my work and as it evolves it will take on different dimensions. Having said that, there’s always this tension when what is perceived as an “institutionalized” tag is placed on you first or is what you pursue first, and then cross that line, in others minds, to being an artist. “Isha”, to me is about addressing all of that.

“Isha: A Tell-All Tale”, has a main narrative thread that will be told in the language of soap operas in India (also called “serials”). The role of Isha is played by my alter ego Em Tee, an actress appropriated from the “type” that graced the screens in years past — the diva, the siren, the unattainable (who has been tweeting @emtee_isha and is on FB).

The idea is to talk about all the politics in a bizarre, absurd style so you are left questioning the veracity of the whole story. Is this really a true story? Did all that really happen? Is that how it works? And yet there would be parts that, hopefully, people can relate to from their own experiences. The main narrative also breaks into meta narratives. We see slippage of race and reality with fantasies and performances all tied in. Em Tee is a performance unto itself. We also see the “actors” come out of scripted roles to talk about their own journey.

Tell us more about the decision to adopt the soap opera, serial format? How did that come about and what has the reception been?

Peter Hopkins (director of The Bogart Salon and co-creator of “Isha”) and I met over an entirely different project, which is still very much in the works and something that will materialize soon called ‘citydrift’. At some point during many conversations, this idea of a soap opera narrative about the journey of a South Asian woman that is semi-autobiographical started to take shape. Peter’s interest in terms of the programming is based on the idea of the ‘Salon’ — a place that doesn't merely put up shows but a space that is meant for discussion, interventions and this constant negotiation between viewer and art, where there is room for interaction, participation, not just passive viewership. “Isha” was one such project and its first materialization took place at the space during Bushwick Open Studios.

Soap operas hit the emotional arc of life closer than any other format of story telling. It’s a story telling style that most countries have and it’s the only narrative style in which language becomes almost inconsequential or is negated. That was perfect considering my struggle was with the semantics and language around contemporary South Asian art — “other,” “exotic,”  “identity,” “emerging market”, “brown” — it felt like I was just re-appropriating or regurgitating what others have said before me and who knows, maybe 50 years down the line we will still be talking about brown people and their identity issues... it’s the easiest context to construct… I think we give language too much credence, but language is of little consequence in soap operas, meaning you could watch it and the format itself is such that regardless of whether its Hindi, Mexican, Italian or Korean, you’d know who slept with whom and who killed whom and whose mother is actually his sister... And then there’s this whole dissonance between space, time, and characters — storylines can be broken, expanded, negated only to be resurrected. In fact, characters are more a kind of caricature or exaggeration. They embody a certain idea of an individual. So in “Isha” we have the supportive parents, creepy collectors, evil gallerist pimps, the genie antique seller, the magical painting, the loving perfect take-home-to-dad fiancé/husband, the angel lady who saves Isha, the devil aunt, the good and generous stranger… these characters do exist in the reality of our life but in Isha its an amalgamation of different kinds of people I’ve met into one. It was perfect to tell a story that didn’t have just a linear narrative but meta-narratives embedded where we see a “slippage” of race, gender, time, space and what’s scripted and what’s unscripted so as to deal with the larger political, social and cultural issues. 

Tell us more about the actual format of the show. What can a viewer seeing it for the first time expect?

The format of the show is episodic — like in soap operas. There’s one single narrative that is linear. None of the actors are professional. Instead we consciously cast those who have some sort of relationship within the art world or a similar situation within the script. For instance Seema and Sunil Khurana who play Isha’s parents are parents of a brilliant and talented artist and a close friend of mine Swati Khurana. They, in essence, had their own “Isha” story in Swati, so for them to play the parents of a daughter who wants to pursue a career in the art world worked for us conceptually. Seema and Sunil also come out of the scripted role to speak of their own experience as first generation immigrants who moved to America in the 70s. Others in the film and/or meta included successful women entrepreneurs who also came to the city with big dreams and are success stories. One of them co-founded Kate Spade New York, one of the biggest designer brands in the world and the other owns Lucky Rice, a company that represents some of the top chefs in the world — both successful women entrepreneurs. 

Do you ever plan to bring this to India, if you have already, tell us more about its critical reception?

We are definitely looking to bring it to India! Currently we are still filming and we should have the final film ready by fall this year. We have been selected to show at SAWCC’S Annual Visual Arts Exhibition in the Queens Museum. We are actively pursuing platforms both within and outside the art world. 

You mentioned that the play is also a look at the various roles that women have to play, mother, wife, caregiver, in addition to pursuing one’s dreams. Tell us more about this particular angle...

Well as I mentioned it is a story of balancing work and family, about priorities. And being a woman, there are cultural, societal expectations (when you should get married, to whom, and when you should start having kids, and of course not having kids is not even an option unless you cant have them. God Forbid you choose not to make babies!). I’ve always felt that growing up I experienced this at some level too — this disparity between the way my parents brought us up and the values they instilled in us and what everyone around us expected me to be — I went to a conservative high school and I remember a period of time when I was ostracized from my circle of friends because I talked about sex. You know, because good girls don’t talk about sex or the desire to have sex. That’s slut/man talk. (A friend’s mom told her never to talk to me because she read her daughter’s diary and in it she wrote that she learnt how babies are “really” made from Meenakshi. Ha ha.)

But I grew up in a very nurturing family environment where we were told to be ourselves and my sister and I were brought up to trust our parents — we told them about boys, parties, and more. So there was this weird situation where my parents never judged me or made me feel like I had to speak, dress, and live my life a certain way because I’m a woman, but a lot of people around me, some even with the best intentions, would demarcate what a girl could do and should do. “Isha” is about these things in a sense. It’s not talking about the particular event so much as in talking about things that lead up to the kind of woman you grow up to be and then go out there with a burning passion to do what you love. To be a strong young woman who is ambitious and knows what she wants, doesn’t necessarily know all the politics of the industry, and meets people with whom there are constant ego clashes, but she also meets people who appreciate and encourage big thinking and she makes it. I’ve experienced that and I know it’s a world that seems insular, and it is abstract and unapproachable… and I felt that a lot of the perceptions of what it is to be a woman and what she should aspire towards is inherent in the art world. Making art, if we can call it that, and life are pretty much the same… so to tell a story about a woman in the art world is to tell a story about any woman who moves out of home, seeks to live an independent life and is ambitious and passionate and how she negotiates her way into achieving her dreams.

The format of “Isha” seems to be constantly evolving to accommodate new forms of story telling…

“Isha” started to take shape as an art project, but from the start we were quiet clear about the project taking on different and yet very consciously sought out platforms. Platforms from which one story can be told perhaps in myriad styles to viewers coming with different perspectives, from 20 somethings living in Brooklyn to 70 year olds living in Madurai. That’s the kind of “art-making” or the idea/act of cultural production I’m interested in. It’s what Boris Groys writes in his essay “On The New,” “A new artwork looks really new and alive only if it resembles, in a certain sense, every other ordinary, profane thing, or every other ordinary product of popular culture. Only in such a case can the new artwork function as a signifier for the world outside the museum walls. The new can be experienced as such only if it produces an effect of out-of-bounds infinity, if it opens an infinite view on reality outside of the museum.”

You see a lot of trans-media elements within filmmaking and television. That’s something we are developing for “Isha”. The first iteration was at The Bogart Salon under the Bushwick Open Studios context. There was a screening of the first rough edit, live filming where we filmed four scenes, we filmed meta where audience members played the role of Rahul and Isha. We created sets in there as well. “Isha” will now become a web series once we finish the rest of the filming and editing. That should be by fall this year. We are treating it like a pilot in a way and based on funding and other resources we will write in more episodes. So those are some of the avenues we are pursuing now. The project will still be shown within the art world, museums, fairs, etc. and outside of all that as a web series, film, TV series and perhaps in more interesting out-of-the-box ways.