‘The breath of an architect’, Fondation Cartier, Paris, 9.12.2023-21.4.2024.
As founder of Studio Mumbai, Indian architect Bijoy Jain works with his team at the intersection of art, craft, architecture and design. His artisan-like method is well-known to be a slow working process, challenging the demands of technological production, where robotics and AI have been adopted for increased efficiency. Bijoy Jain collaborates with local craftsmen, exploring the potential and true spirit embedded in different materials. The exhibition at Fondation Cartier in Paris aims to show the interconnections between art and philosophy underpinning the Studio Mubai practice.
Chris Dercon, the new director of Fondation Cartier, links Bijoy Jain’s production to a trajectory of Indian design and architecture that was inspired by Charles and Ray Eames’ The India Report. The Eameses were invited by the Indian government in 1958 to find out how to strengthen the country’s craft-based traditions and small-scale industries. The report led to the establishment of the National Institute of Design (NID), which Dercon sees as a turning point.
Bijoy Jain has received many awards, for example the Alvar Aalto Medal in 2020. His interest towards traditional craftsmanship is expressed through a simplicity and fragility in the handling of materials showcased in the exhibition space designed by Jean Nouvel. Completed in 1991 the Fondation Cartier is one of Paris’ best-known contemporary art exhibition spaces. It is filled with objects in total contrats to the High-Tech style of the building. Sculptures carved in stone are shaped into benches and chairs, while bamboo woven structures are knotted together with twine to form a whole. The lightweight seats, made of silk thread wound around the wood, contain a structural poetry, as does the large abstract geometric pattern inscribed with red pigment on limestone, representing the flow of water.
The idea of ‘breath’ in this exhibition’s theme could be understood as in Monism, as the metaphysical dimension that unites mind and matter as one essence. For Bijoy Jain this idea conveys a sense of hope, despite the current state of the world. Although Jain’s architectural studies and early career took place in the United States, his work is strongly informed by Asian spiritual experience and a mystical connection with nature, where water, air and light are seen as the elements of architecture.
As a building, Jean Nouvel’s gallery concept has links with Mies van der Rohe’s Neues Nationagalerie in Berlin. In both, the walls are all glass and offer no hanging space. On the other hand, the connection to the surrounding garden is an essential element and a fine example of the modernist ideal of the outdoor-indoor connection. Nouvel’s architecture is dominant and perhaps Bijoy Jain’s material sensibility cannot be fully appreciated against Nouvel’s heavy steel structures. This, of course, results from different choices in the presentation, curation and design of the exhibition. And while Studio Mumbai’s artworks are in a fascinating way, the antithesis of Nouvel’s architectural language, on some level the tension between the two does not result in a synthesis. As a spatial experience, the massive steel columns somehow obstruckt the link to Studio Mumbai’s subtle production, which remains a bit flat.
At the initiative of chief curator Hervé Chandès, the exhibition also includes works by artists Hu Liu and Alev Ebüzziya Siesbye, who share Bijoy Jain’s interest in the spiritual dimension of materials. However, as the display contains very little explanation of the origins or purposes of Jain’s production, these other works seem to diminish the strength of the exhibition. Perhaps Studio Mumbai’s works should have been given more room to ‘breathe’, in order to show their conceptual links?
Studio Mumbai’s architecture has also attracted some criticism, because their artisanal approach resulting in sought-after and expensive design objects could be seen as elitist in the context of India’s housing crisis. Indeed, a sense of ‘conscious luxury’ characterises Studio Mumbai’s work, but on the other hand, their design approach should be understood as an example that elevates the value of craftsmanship. Rather than direct action, Bijoy Jain’s work conveys spiritual convictions such as honesty in the use of materials, which is inspiring in itself, and an interest in the existential forms of one’s own country. This is well illustrated in the documentary ‘The Sense of Tuning’ filmed for the exhibition by Ila Bêka and Louise Lemoine.