November-December 2014 … The Global Online Magazine of Arts, Information & Entertainment … Volume 10, Number 6
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Posts from — January 2014

Mel Ramos/Artist Interview



Mel Ramos, Red Hots Rita, Lithograph


Making the Most of Everything

* * *

Labels are a drag but it’s difficult not to label Mel Ramos a Pop Art icon. Furthermore, Ramos himself has no problem with labels, using them to great advantage in his art since discovering early in his career that it’s a lot more fun to be a figure painter than an abstract expressionist. Especially when created in tandem with readily recognizable symbols of Madison Avenue Americana. And better for business, too.

While Ramos’ work drew the ire of feministas during the ’80s and ’90s when revolutionary feminist activism peaked, his career-long dedication to the female form in both concert and contrast to commercial depictions that play only on sex appeal and not social or political commentary, has allowed him to grow and prosper as an artist, teacher and, yes, family man. Unafraid to “borrow ideas,” Ramos declares “borrowing” is basic not only to his work, but to all Pop Artists’ work from Robert Rauschenberg to Roy Lichtenstein to Andy Warhol. With that in mind, ready your “copy machine”. We trust you’ll find something in this interview with the artist you can use in your work… and perhaps even take to the bank.

– Mike Foldes

Q)  Mel, the first place I saw your work was at Merton Boyd Gallery in Columbus, Ohio, in the mid- to late ’60s. I was blown away by how powerful a connection you made between art and fantasy, and ended up purchasing a copy of the print “woman with cheetah” (apologies — I’m sure I got that title wrong), which has been lost, now, to some unknown realm…  At the same time,  Wayne Thiebaud was your mentor, and I’m wondering how his works influenced you, or was it more the thought process and technique that was the influence, and not entirely the images he selected as subjects to paint?

A) Actually, all of the above were influences on me. His mind is so crisp and brilliant. This was a time in my life when I had a visual hangover from being a failed abstract expressionist but Wayne’s virtuoso painting technique fascinated me a lot and I became enamored of his style of painting. A style where the bravura applications of thick paint becomes a visual language for me; painterliness was a very important  element.

Q) What was it like growing up in Sacramento in the ’40s and ’50s?

A) Sacramento is where I lived for 31 years and have many fond memories of this town. In 1953 I was a senior in high school and Wayne Thiebaud came to my school on career day to speak about careers in art. The next thing I did was enroll at Sacramento Junior College where I took classes from Wayne. During the summer months the  California State Fair opened and Wayne was the director of the Art Exhibition and hired his students to work at the fair and put on a juried art exhibition. Those were wonderful memories. I was fortunate to have this opportunity because I learned so much.




Q) Did your parents encourage you to pursue art, or would they have preferred you take up another profession?  Were they artists, as well?

A) My parents were not artists. I think they considered my interest in art as a hobby. Finally, one year I entered a juried art exhibition and won first prize. So my parents finally realized that there is money to be made in art; after I fulfilled my mother’s dream of going to Hawaii for a vacation when I used my prize money to give them an all-expense-paid holiday.

Q) In addition to making art, you’ve spent decades in classrooms teaching art. What have you found to be the most important elements students must learn or understand in the process of becoming a working artist?

A) Learn how to draw. I cannot tell you how important it is to draw with passion. For many of the 40 years of teaching, 31 years at California State University East Bay, I would show slides for the first hour of class to discuss painting and to draw insights into the great art of the world. After which, I’d tell my students if they really want to be an artist, go home and PAINT, PAINT, PAINT.

Q) Who were among your favorite artists growing up, and was your continuing focus on nudes the result of something inside you, the recognition you received as the result of the work, or a combination of the two? I mean, if you’re good at something, why quit?

A) For as long as I can remember, I was very fond of Spanish Painting, Velasquez, Goya, Salvador Dali. When I was fourteen I discovered Dali and I was amazed at his painting skills. It made me want t be an artist. I have always been interested in drawing the figure and I think of myself as a figure painter. Even when I was doing abstract expressionist painting they were grounded in figuration. My work focuses around the figure in various stages of evolution. For example: Figure with commercial objects, Unfinished Painting, Hav-a-Havana, and more.

Q) I understand you’ve had a long and fruitful relationship with Catalonia, the region of Spain where Picasso was born and grew up. How did you discover that area

A) I was in Switzerland in 1972 for my exhibition. Some friends of mine said they were going to Spain to look for cheap real estate. I knew Picasso visited the village of Horta de Sant Joan where he made his first “Cubist” paintings. I went with my friends to this small village in the hills of Cataluna which made a fantastic landscape and bought a house there. Since 1972 I have been going there for 3 months in the summer every year.

Q) Syracuse is a long way from Sacramento…. What was it like teaching there, besides very cold in the winter, and were you acquainted at all with the poet W. D. Snodgrass, who I believe was there at the same time you were? Were your students of a different mind, so to speak, than the students you have in California?

A) I did not do classes at Syracuse University. I was the artist in residence. They provided me with a studio where I painted. Students were encouraged to drop by and chat about art and life. I was not acquainted with W.D. Snodgrass nor did I know if he was on campus.

Q) Did you have a lot of traffic in the studio? What kinds of direction were the students looking for?

A) Not too much traffic. But I always welcome students and collectors who ask to visit.

Q) I was pleased and surprised to see your work in the “We Are You Project” traveling art show at Kenkeleba on the lower East Side of Manhattan a couple of years ago, which is also when I met your student and friend Gabriel Navar, who helped facilitate this interview. How much influence has your Latin heritage played in your life or career?

A) First let me say I that I am not Latino. I am 100% Portuguese descent. My Portuguese heritage never really influenced me in any way until a couple of years ago; I was asked to participate in a Portuguese/American art exhibition celebrating the eruption of the volcano in the Azores (50 years ago).

Q) Would you say your art is more social or political commentary?

A) It’s both Social, Political and more. For example, is the art an appropriation.

Q) What do you mean, “Is the art an appropriation?”

A) I mean when it comes to imagery, I sometimes borrow ideas from other artists.

Q) Do you spend a lot of time sketching before you paint? Do you work from photographs, live models, or your imagination?

A) I used to make preliminary drawings before a painting was realized, but in the last 15 years, I now work from photos of models that I photograph and make images on Photoshop. This allows me to produce paintings more  rapidly. 

Q) How long does it take you to produce a painting? I know it likely varies, but if you’re working 8 to 10 hours a day, what would be ‘typical,’ if there is such a thing for you?

A) Ten days for small paintings, 2-3 weeks for large paintings (36″ x 60″).

Q) A Chinese friend said the other day that the Chinese have a saying, “Money has four legs and man has two. A man cannot chase money and win, but if the man has something money wants, it will find him.” How does this apply to business as an artist, and especially to you in your career?

A) I guess I have something that money wants, which allows me to have a studio manager (my daughter). Now, I work at making art and all non-art business matters are handled by my daughter.

Q) Looking back over your career, what would you say is – or was – the most vibrant time and place for creativity that you’ve experienced?

A) In 1960 I was wallowing in despair when I gave up painting abstract expressionism and painted something that I used to love as a kid, American Super Heroes, and I did a painting of Superman. My life changed, Pop Art was born and I was caught up in the energy of it all.


About the interviewer:

Mike Foldes is founder and managing editor of Ragazine.CC. You can read more about him in About Us.

This interview was conducted by email and was edited for continuity, not content. Many Thanks to Rochelle Leininger, Ramos’ daughter and business manager, who helped transcribe the artist’s answers to our questions, and to Ramos’ friend and former student, Gabriel Navar, for bringing us together.

January 5, 2014   Comments Off on Mel Ramos/Artist Interview

On The Run/CNF


Benjamin Burgholzer photo.

* * *

On the Run

by Benjamin Burgholzer

 * * *

I watched the way the railroad tracks and the power lines seemed to move and flow in perfect unison beside the road. The way each progressed, advanced, and continued without pause.  The way they laid perpendicular to the rolling waves of an incoming twenty-eight foot tide. The way they lay parallel to the untouched snow-capped volcanoes on the far bank of the Inlet. I wondered if anyone was on that opposing bank, watching the cars pass.

We drove south on the narrowing road between Anchorage and Cooper’s Landing, the two towns connected by roads only 60 years prior to build a gas pipeline that lay between the mountains. We drove until we saw the bright blue glacial waters of the Kenai River for the first time, full of things we could not see but thought we could find there.

Cooper’s Landing: named after the miner who found gold there in 1848, had a population of 21 at the turn of the century. 20 miners and 1 of their wives. Now the population has grown to 368, many of whom are guides, fishermen, and outdoorsmen that are guaranteed a gold rush every year between June and September when the salmon return home to spawn.

We pulled into the first fly shop we saw. Crowded and busy. Banners of every major fly fishing company that covered a large portion of front of the log cabin styled building, the first of eight with this same look in a two-mile stretch of road. The parking lot was almost full. We pulled into the last two spots and walked inside, discouraged from the days without a fish up north, hopeful for the trip south.

An employee was there to greet us as we swung open the door. He was young with a lengthy beard that smelled like wet cigarettes. Every piece of outdoor clothing he wore was expensive and unused.

“How you all doin’ today?” He smiled and nodded as he spoke.

“Ehh just came from up north. No Kings anywhere, so we headed down here. Where are the fish?” Sean asked.

“Yea bummer about the Kings. 30-year low. But the fish are everywhere man, this is the Kenai.”

“What’s the best place to go for salmon?” I asked.

“Sockeye? Oh they’re gone man. You just missed the first run. Where were you last week?”
“New York. What do you mean they’re gone?” I asked.
“Oh shit man New York? That’s craaazy far,” he leaned back when he said crazy. “I could never live in the city. But yea the Russian was averaging about 200k a week all last week.  The late run won’t start up for about another week or two. How long are you here for?”

“We’re not from the city,” I said

“About another week or two,” Larry said.

“Oh. Bad timing bros. You can catch ’em in a boat pretty easy if you hit the lake. I think we have one more drift boat still open for this afternoon, if …”

“Wait, some should still be around then I would think, no?” Sean interjected.

“Well yea. But no, not really. The fish counter is up by the top of the river, so by time those numbers come through it’s already too late to catch any of them. They’re all in the Upper Russian. You can check it out but there’s a fuckload of bears up there. There’s trout everywhere if …”

“How many bears is a fuckload?” Sean asked.

“A fuckload.” The guide laughed. None of us were laughing. “Well I mean, there are four of you so you’d probably be okay if you wanted to go check it out. You got bear spray?”

“Probably? Yeah we do, but…” Danny said.

“Yea, just don’t get in their way. You dudes will probably be fine.”

“…don’t get in their way?” I repeated.
“Yeah man,” He nodded for too long. “You boys know there’s plenty of places to trout fish if-“

“Yea. We know. We can trout fish back home.” I said.

“There’s trout in New York City?”

“We aren’t from New York City,” I said again.

“Oh. Well we’re having a big sale on trout rigs, guides, gear, flies, whatever you need we …“

We walked out of the shop with the employee still speaking.

“What do you all want to do?” Larry asked.

“We might as well go check it out. There’s gotta be some fish around,” Sean responded.

“Check what out?” I asked.

“The Upper Russian,” Sean said.

“And what about the bears?” Larry asked.

“Fuck the bears,” Danny smiled.

I thought of a grizzly story told to me by a stranger on a cold river bank in February while we waited for the sun to come up.

            “Yea them grizzly’s ain’t no joke. You’re supposed to shoot them in the shoulder blades, cripple ‘em, cuz a 1200 lb, 8 foot, wounded sum bitch won’t stop looking for who hurt them ‘til they find it, destroy it. My first time we got dropped in way north, buddy a mine flies, no roads up there, no towns, nothin’. First day we dropped in we go out and see a little male ‘bout 7 ft, 800 pounds, a little guy, in this tall grass ‘bout 200 yards out. Kept poppin’ his head up, goin’ back down. Musta been eatin’ somethin. Poppin’ his head up, goin’ back down. My buddy kept sayin’, “Wait for him to get out of that grass and turn sideways or you ain’t doin’ shit.” After ‘bout two fuckin hours watchin’ that sum bitch pop up and go back down I said fuck it, took a shot when he was popped up with the .450 and baboom!”

He was holding his hands like a rifle pointing it at me, faking the recoil with every shot.

“Watched a chunk of ‘em fly out his back the size of a softball and he didn’t even flinch. Just stood up a little taller and started sniffin’ round with that nose a his. I put another shot in em. Baboom! Right in the lung this time. He gets back down, I take him for dead but stay there waitin til he comes sprintin’ out that tall grass and goes back up on his back legs, sniffin’ ‘round. Baboom! Other lung this time. Sum bitch saw that shot, took off runnin full speed towards us tryn real hard to figure out right where we was at. Baboom! Fourth shot, gut shot, didn’t even slow that sum bitch down. Baboom! Fifth shot, finally got that sum bitch in the shoulder and he rolled out. Paced it out later, that sum bitch only had ‘bout 50 yards to go fore we was lunch. We found some slugs in his skull too, all healed over and whatnot from god knows when. Hope that sum bitch was lucky as us. Had meat for years off that sum bitch.”

“You know how many grizzly bears is too many grizzly bears? One fucking grizzly bear is too many grizzly bears, I don’t …” Larry said.

“Let’s just walk up from the Lower Russian and see where we end up and take it from there. We can’t fish the Kenai here without a boat anyway, the water’s too big, and I’m not paying for a fucking boat,” Danny said.

We all agreed and got back in the vans.

We drove a few more miles in search of a place to park and hike down to the river. ‘No Parking Any Time’ signs dictated that we pull into an access point of the Russian River. We waited in the line of cars until we got to the information booth.

“How ya’ll doin? That’ll be ten dollars per vehicle per 12 hours.”

“Ten dollars just to park? So we gotta come back here in 12 hours and pay again? Is there anything for cheaper if we decided to stay longer?” I asked.
“We can charge you all at once if you want, but you can’t sleep overnight though unless you got a campsite, but that’s extra too. No sleeping in vehicles here.”

I grumbled and handed over the money. We drove through the labyrinth of campers, 5th wheels, and RV’s. Families, children, retired couples, tourists. The spectacle of it.  We drove through another packed parking lot until we saw two spots.

People were everywhere. Some in waders, some with strollers, some with cameras. All there for the salmon, but for different reasons. We suited up. Waders, boots, rods, reels, vests, packs, polarized, pliers, knives, bear spray, cameras, zippers, snaps, and clicks.

“It’s fucking insane how many people are here,” I said, but nobody responded.

We followed the small mass of people to the trailhead. We were welcomed by signs warning of bear sightings. Signs with maps. Signs of warning about littering. To ease our adventure down to the river was a platform of aluminum stairs with aluminum railings. We followed the stairs down until the trail split and lead to a boardwalk made of composite wood that lay parallel to the river in both directions. We paused there, all confused and looking for a way into the river. The banks were closed, blocked off with mesh netting and signs every few feet in each direction stating “Closed for Revegetation. $500 fine.” The sign detailed a description of the ecosystem and the importance of the river bank for the insects, the smolts, the fish, the bears – something the Haida people had been telling their children for millennia, something we ignored.

Down the boardwalk were people standing, smiling, cameras ready wearing designer clothes watching the people lined up shoulder to shoulder fishing.

“This is fucking bizarre,” I said.

“What do you mean?” Danny asked.

“All the fucking people.”

“Yea but we’re in fucking Alaska. This ain’t the Ontario Tribs anymore…”

I thought of my father’s bedtime stories of Alaska.

“We got flown in on float planes from Anchorage. Thing was a tin can. Nobody was there with our group except the guides, the bears and the fish. I had a King take my whole fly line! Everything! Easily in the 50+ lb range. A few times these natives came flying down river in their boats shooting guns off in the air”

“I swear to god you don’t listen to fucking anything anybody says.”

“Hmm?” I said, half serious, half joking.

Danny shook his head. “I asked you if –”

“Fish on!”

Our four heads snapped up river to a girl in hip boots fighting a fish, with a 9mm strapped to her chest and bear spray on her hip.

Dozens of people started snapping pictures of her as her boyfriend netted it for her.

“See, there are fucking fish here. I bet we could squeeze in. Just like upstate back home with all these fucking people, huh?” Sean said and smiled.

“Much fucking worse. Let’s keep headin’ up river. These spots are locked up and the water sucks anyway. I don’t want people watching me all day either,” I said

Much fucking worse. We’re in fucking Alaska,” Danny said, shaking his head.

We walked upriver on the boardwalk, paused from time to time to peer into the river, occasionally seeing someone with a fish or two on a stringer.

“The Upper Russian’s looking better and better,” Danny said over the sound of a young couple’s designer stroller rolling on the boardwalk.

I shook my head as they passed.

“What’s the problem now?” Danny asked.

“Let’s just head upriver.”


danny's picture

 Danny’s picture

We walked upriver until the boardwalk turned from composite wood, to hard rubber, to dirt. Thick enough for all of us to walk beside one another, then thin enough that it required single file alongside the river. The trail held tight on the side of a steep embankment encased in small pine trees and shrubs. We all stopped to fish at different spots we thought would hold fish, each with different preferences. Sean and I had just fished a spot and seen nothing.

“Thirsty?” he asked.


We filled our Nalgenes and stepped out of the water to Steripen it and drink. Every river has its own taste, and the two of us always drank from every river we fished in.

“Pretty good, sweet almost,” he said.

I nodded. “Cold as hell, too. Reminds me of the West Branch back home,”

He nodded.

We drank in silence and watched Larry and Danny, who were looking into the water and pointing from the bank a little bit upriver. I felt some pebbles hit my feet and looked down. A few more landed there between us. We looked up and saw more, larger stones roll down the embankment and stop at our feet.

“Where are they coming from?”

Sean shrugged. “Can’t really tell with all the brush and the small trees up there.”

We watched another group fall from a cluster of bushes.

“I don’t see …”

A full-grown female grizzly peered around a group of small trees right above us at less than ten yards.

We backed up slowly, fumbling over our feet, each other, and bear spray.

The bear paused. Looked at Sean. Looked at me. Then started coming down towards us.

We turned and started walking quickly, making sure not to run and yelled, “BEAR BEAR”

“Do we spray the thing?”

“Not if we don’t need to,” I said.

Danny was still facing the other way. “Don’t fuck aroun … oh fuck.”

Larry took off upriver.

Danny took out his camera and started taking pictures as we passed him, the bear following us on the path, slow and calm but persistent.

“What the fuck are you doing?” Sean asked as we passed them.

“Once in a lifetime, dude,” Danny was laughing.

“Get the fuck in front of us you moron. We have the bear spray,” Sean said.

“Don’t see any cubs,” I said between footsteps.

I could hear my pulse beating in my ears.

We headed up river and tried to walk slow enough to not be prey, but fast enough to gain some distance. Up and down small hills, valleys, and corners, hopping, tripping, stumbling over rocks and ruts and breathing heavy until we couldn’t see the bear anymore. We stopped to catch our breath.

“Anyone still see the fucking thing? She just seems curious I think,” I asked.

“You know how many curious fucking grizzly bears is too many curious fucking grizzly bears for me?” Larry asked.

As soon as he spoke, the bear rounded the corner, her pace quickened from a slow walk to an almost run.

We kept moving but she was moving faster.

40 yards.

35 yards.

30 yards.

“We gotta cross the river,” I was out of breath. “She’s just going to keep coming, she has nowhere else to go except this trail.”

Everyone agreed, and we all jumped in. The water was too fast, too strong, but there we were ankle deep, knee deep, waist deep, chest deep. Slowed steps. Anchored steps. Your feet are your eyes in a river.

I shuffled beneath the current. Searched for rocks, stumps, holes, snags. I looked around. All of us held our backpacks and rods above our heads. I felt some water creep in the back of my waders, cold as it fell from the middle of my back to my feet.

“You’ll never win a fight against a river,” Dad cupped his hand and shouted as he watched me at twelve years old struggle to get to the opposing bank of the Pennsylvania stream.

I heard the splash of someone falling and turned sideways to see Sean half submerged, tripping, stumbling, drifting downstream. He corrected himself just in time, spitting water. The bear kept coming.

You always gotta go to the other bank huh? Can’t ever just stay put anywhere,” he said, shaking his head as I made it to the shore.

“There’s too many people over there,” I shouted back.

20 yards.

15 yards.

10 yards.

We were all at mid-river or better when I heard a girl scream. We looked upriver to see a girl in hip boots had fallen in and was drifting downriver towards the rapids on her back. Her boyfriend just stood there, too shocked to do anything. She still had her rod in her hand.

In one smooth movement as she was about to pass by, Danny threw his stuff on the shore, grabbed her rod and held her there as she dangled in the current.

“Don’t let go,” he told her.

“I need some fucking help here,” he yelled, teeth gritted. Larry was already on the other bank.

Sean and I forced ourselves upriver, and grabbed her too. The bear was even with us now, watching from the bank with her feet in the water as we dragged the girl to shore.

“Thanks for the fucking help, Larry,” Sean said.

“I told you mother fuckers I wasn’t fucking with any bears. I want as much river as possible between me and that fucking thing,” he pointed, “Besides, you three had it under control anyway.” He smiled.

We all stood on the bank, most of us wet and dripping. The bear paused to look at the human spectacle across the water. She sniffed, her nose undulating in the air. She took two more steps into the water. We all started yelling, clapping our hands, throwing rocks. She stood there and studied the splashes that each rock made beside her. One splash hit her nose startling her, and she wandered her way up to the next big pool, walked onto a rock and jumped in belly first. She submerged for several seconds, and then popped her head back up, shaking her head free of all the excess water. She dove back under again and again, above and below, and swam back and forth from bank to bank. She splashed her front paws into the water whenever she pleased as she stood on her hind legs in the deep pool. We all watched and smiled and snickered until she walked out of the water with a fish, shook off, and headed back upriver on the path, the fish still in her mouth.

“All that and the bear just wanted to go for a swim,” the girl’s boyfriend had worked his way down river.

We all laughed, but the girl didn’t.

“You think the locals have a name for her?” I asked.

“What? Why?” Danny said.

We parted ways and the four of us continued up river and fished that same slow deep pool the bear had swam in, and we all caught our first Alaskan salmon there after all the fishless days up north. We made the trip back to the vans and cooked salmon on a fire and ate and talked and laughed beneath the midnight sun until we were too tired to stay awake.

The next morning when we went back there was a new sign on the trailhead alongside the others. A female grizzly was shot and killed ¼ mile up river from where we were. The bear had gotten too close to tourist and his kids on the trail, and he killed her with a .45.




A few twelve hour passes later, the fishing at the Russian had come to a standstill. But we were still there walking the boardwalks and dodging tourists.

“I really can’t stand in this one fucking place anymore. Who else wants to leave?” I said.

“Ehh, I kind of like it here, honestly,” Sean said.

“Yeah, me too. Feels like home with all these fucking people around don’t it?” Larry said.

“Yeah. I know it feels like home. C’mon, the fishing’s dead anyway. We need to get low by the ocean and wait for ’em to come in,”

“Yea you’re probably right I guess, but I do like it here. It’s like Pulaski on Columbus Day weekend with better scenery,” Danny said.

The three of them laughed, but I didn’t.

It took some more convincing, but we finally got back to the vans and headed further south to Soldotna towards the mouth of the Kenai to wait for the second run to hit. Any day the run would go from 2,000 or 3,000 a day, to well over 300,000 per day for four days straight, and trickle down to 2,000 again after another two weeks. At 2,000 a day, you’d be lucky to witness a few get caught on a chunk of river as far as you can see in either direction. By day three of 300,000 a day, you can catch them with your hands. A month later, you would never know they were even here.

We stopped at a fly shop when we got to Soldotna. I ran in to ask for info about local spots.

“How you doin’ today?”

“Well, and yourself? There any free access points on the Kenai?”

“Sure are, but I hope you don’t mind crowds and tourists,”

“We just came from the Russian, so we should be alright,”

He smiled. “This river makes the Russian look like a desert island. Where you from anyways?” He handed me a small map with the free access points circled.

“New York.”

“Damn, you’re far from home. I could never live in a city like that myself.”

“Same here. Thanks for the map.”

“Welcome. Good luck against the tourists, and the fishing, too.”

I walked out.

The spot that was closest was by an old airport runway. Rows of massive RVs lined up the entire runway. We found a spot at the end by a beat up RV and a pickup truck and walked down to the river on a paved sidewalk that lead to another aluminum boardwalk with stairs descending to the river. I stood there atop the stairs. Here the crowds were thicker, the boardwalks short with platforms full of people with no interest in anything except the spectacle of it all. The banks on either side of the river were blocked off with neon orange meshing four feet high with the same signs of warning about stepping on the banks. People in the water and out of the water yelled because they caught a fish, because they lost a fish.

Sean and Larry ran down the steps, the aluminum clanging beneath them, to fight their way into a spot. I stood there leaning against the railing and watched the circle of birds falling from the air and diving into the water to feed. Tucking their wings and diving nose first, then emerging again and flapping, dripping water. Danny was last to the river and stood next to me.

“What the fuck are you staring at?”

“Just watching this fucking mess.”

He shook his head and headed down the steps.  I stood there watching the birds. Hiding behind polarized lenses from the way this place made me feel that same choked decay I feel in cities, shopping malls, in crowds. Hiding with my hat low from how I thought I shared this feeling with three friends, but learned that I didn’t.

“How’s the fishing been,” I asked a man coming back up the stairs.

“You should have been here a few days ago. Couldn’t stop hookin’ ’em,” he said, as he passed.

I said nothing and went back to watching the birds each take turns to circle, dive into the water, some returning with fish, some with nothing.

An older gentlemen with a fly rod slung on his shoulder nearby must have overheard his statement.

“Nah, you should have been here 30 years ago. Alaskan fisheries are in a state of complete collapse, don’t let anybody fool ya. Where you been fishin?”

I told him about the Kings up north, the list of all the closed rivers, the boardwalks, the pavement, the tourists.

He looked me in the eye while I spoke, nodding with a smile of recognition.

“You know you used to be able to walk into most of those rivers all summer and catch any species. Those days been gone for awhile now. Only us old guys know about that. You notice how every third day seems to get real slow?”

I hadn’t.

“That’s cuz they let the three mile nets out in the ocean every third day. You look close and the ones you do catch here will have net marks and cuts all over em. The only ones that make it through are cuz somebody on the boats fucked up one way or another. ”

“Is there anywhere to go with less people?”

“Not that I know about nowdays. I’m too old to be hikin’ into spots anymore. I come down here from time to time to watch the show. Think about things. Usually just makes me wish I hadn’t come. Won’t be long ’til the real push comes through though. It’ll be easier to deal with. Just keep watching them birds until then. Sure are something aren’t they? Fish better than almost all these stupid tourists. Best of luck.”

I smiled, “Thanks.”

I walked down the steps to take a few casts. The three of them were fishing shoulder to shoulder, in carefully synched up casts. I walked above Danny.

“We’ve hooked a few fish here,” he said.

I said nothing.

I stood staring at the five foot wide plot of river I had to cast in. The orange mesh that covered the river bank. The “No Trespassing” signs that marked the river upstream. The people everywhere with brand new gear who were there for the novelty. I took a few casts. Every other cast someone from above snagged my line. Snagged on someone’s hooked fish from up river. The mesh behind me. One of my friends. We stayed here for four more days, my friends fishing while I fished long enough to be reminded why I was spending more time not fishing.

On the fifth morning, I asked Danny for the keys.

“You have your cell on?” I asked Danny.

“Yeah, why?”

“Because I’m getting the fuck out of here,”

“Where exactly are you fucking going? You haven’t even fished in fucking days. That’s why you’re miserable. You’re in your goddamn head too much, ruining it for yourself,” Danny said.

“This place is already fucking ruined. Just shut the fuck up and give me the keys. I didn’t come here to hang out with fucking tourists in a salmon theme park. Call me if it finally pops.”

“Whatever dude.” He threw the keys at me. I got in the van and starting driving.

I looked on a map of every major road that could possibly lead to the river. Every side road. Every street. Every dirt road. Always the same. Public accesses overflowed with people. Private property signs. No river access signs. No trespassing signs. Private plots of land owned by lodges. Different parking rates for every chunk of river. Different rates per person, per rod, per boat. Always with people fishing shoulder to shoulder, always at a price. Eventually I was at the mouth of the Kenai at the Cook Inlet, walking the beach, picking up rocks. Watching the veins of water flow from tidal pools out into the river, out into the sea. An eagle flew overhead and dipped into the water to grab the remnants of a salmon fillet that had drifted downriver. I rounded the corner of the sand dune and saw the dip-netters for the first time. During sockeye season Alaskan natives are allowed to stand in the river with large nets often five feet wide on handles well over ten feet long that they keep submerged until the sockeye which consistently run up the shallow banks of rivers, swim into it –  a practice shown to the first settlers by the Haida and the Karuk people.



Dip-netters. Benjamin Burgholzer photo.

 * * *

The dip-netters were lined up on either side of the river stood in perfect silence. Many families sat on the beach beside each other, passing off the net from time to time with a dedication at 2 pm on a Wednesday with the salmon run at a low that spoke of a need for sustenance rather than experience. I sat there in the sand and watched them, my head the quietest it had been the whole trip.

Hours and a half tank of gas later, I went back to the runway and parked the van next to the same beat up RV. I took off my waders and sat on the tailgate of the van staring at the dirt.

“Where your friends?” A shirtless man and his dog emerged from the RV.

“Down there,” I pointed towards the river.

“Makes you feel crazy don’t it? Fishin’ by all them people all day not movin’ or nothin’.”

“Yeah, couldn’t take it anymore,”

“Jim Norton, Arkansas,” he said with an outstretched hand.

I told him my name and where I was from.

“You from the city?”


“Good. But hell, I live 100 yards from that god damn shit show, and I don’t go down there ‘til the numbers get crazy. Fuckin’ tourists. Hell man, you best off tryin’ to meet people til it pops. Make connections for next time. Everybody up here knows somebody who flies. Plenty of rivers off the road system only a few people have even seen, I reckon. You hike deep enough up north you can probably name a peak after yourself, too. Ain’t nothin’ like it. I tell you, first time I came up here I did all that touristy shit, too, with my brother man, but I met some people that stuck in my head man. Told me stories. Most of it was probably damn bullshit, but it stuck anyway.”

I laughed.

“Few years after that same brother dropped dead at 43. Heart attack. I was workin’ at some shit steel mill. I got to thinkin’ and said, what the fuck am I doin here? I ain’t dyin’ of no heart attack in goddamn heart attack in Arkansas from workin’ like a goddamn dog to make somebody else rich. Sold everything I owned, got on a plane, been here since. Bought this RV cheap, bought this truck cheap. Piece by piece you make this place your own. Started up a mining business up north past Fairbanks that I run most of the year, right now’s the off season. Fish and hunt when I’m hungry. Got the dog here keepin’ me compny. Fix up some houses when I need some extra loot. Anyway, cheer up mother fucker that river’s about to pop off any day now and you’ll be catching so many fish you won’t give a goddamn ’bout any of those tourist fuckers anyway.”

I laughed again. “Thanks.”

“No problem.” He walked back inside the RV and shut the door.

Later a pod of 93,151 sockeye entered the river. Followed by 247,084 the next morning. Another 215,636 that night and 117,785 the following morning.

“Are you done complaining now?” they all asked when I got back.

“Yeah,” I said, lying behind a pair of polarized glasses with my hat low.

We haven’t fished together since.


Everyone was sleeping by the time the plane took off. I sat looking out the window as we ascended above Anchorage in the half-lit night of the Arctic, looking at the perfect rows of city lights from the air. On the other side of the inlet were the volcanoes, their snow capped peaks now hidden by the clouds. I wondered if anyone was on that opposing bank, watching the lights of the plane overhead and what Jim and the dip-netters were doing. And I wondered how many places are left unframed and untouched and how long they could stay that way.

* * *

About the author:

Benjamin Burgholzer is a creative writing graduate student at Binghamton University interested in writing, fly fishing, and anything involving the outdoors.





January 5, 2014   Comments Off on On The Run/CNF

Janice Yu Cheng/CNF


Post Script

 by Janice Yu Cheng


The majority of the events detailed in this story take place in Taipei, Taiwan, during the country’s most opulent years as one of the four Asian Dragons. The narrator eventually leaves Taiwan to attend college in New York, where she writes these letters. 

– Leslie Heywood, CNF Ed.


1. Dear Mom,

You said that when you were pregnant with me, you dreamt of lotus flowers and calligraphy ink, and you knew I would be a girl.



“You were trouble from the beginning,” you said, a wrinkle of laughter by the corners of your eyes. “I spent the last trimester in bed because you were upside down, and the doctor said I should stay still. For three months! So I took maternity leave, went to Blockbuster and rented movies by the shelf. Then I sat in bed and watched them one by one until the day of the C-section.”

Over the three months, you put on weight and developed a fondness for Woody Allen, both of which you have kept to this day. You lived with your grandmother in your own apartment in Taipei, and she took care of you. You weren’t on speaking terms with your mother because you had divorced her politest and wealthiest son-in-law.

“Didn’t Grandma try to stop you when you told her you wanted a divorce?” I asked.

You ran a hand through your fine hair, always kept at chin-length because too much hair was a hassle. “She didn’t know. I didn’t tell anyone, not even my sisters.”

“But don’t you need witnesses?”

“They didn’t have to be present, just their signatures on the papers. I faked your aunts’ signatures, filled out the rest of the form, and then dragged your father’s ass to city hall.”

I gaped. “And Daddy just went along with you?” It was difficult to imagine five feet four of you dragging my six-foot father anywhere he didn’t want to go.

The corner of your mouth lifted in a pinched smile. “When it was over and we got out of the city hall building, I wanted to kick him down the stairs. I don’t know why, it was something that I just had to do. So I lifted my leg and kicked at his backside, totally overextended, and fell down the steps with him.”

I laughed so hard I wheezed, the pillow I was holding squashed to a lump in my arms. You uncrossed your legs and stretched them out on the bed where we sat, and stared over my shoulder into the past, still smiling that little smile. “In retrospect, it was probably pretty dangerous,” you added, “since at the time I was three months pregnant with you.”

I was eighteen when you decided to tell me all this, the story of what happened between you and Dad. Everyone in the family steered clear on the topic, so I had been forced to improvise and assemble the story myself, using little bits and pieces I picked up from random conversations. With my imagination, the history between you and Dad resembled a script for Days of Our Lives more than anything else. Large inheritances, evil mother in laws and spurned childhood lovers, the works. Now that I was eighteen, you judged that I should be old enough to finally handle The Truth.

“So if Aunt Jean or Aunt Tina ever decide to tell the officials that the signatures were fake,” I asked, “the divorce never legally happened, and you and Dad would technically still be married?”

You tilted your head a bit and nodded. “Technically.”

That’s so screwed up, I wanted to say, but held my tongue because I knew there was more and I wanted to soak it all up, this behind-the-scenes portion of my existence.


2. Dear Mom,



When I was a baby, you published a book called 13 Letters, a compilation of letters you wrote to Dad chronicling the decade you spent together. After you told me the Truth when I was eighteen, I hunted down a copy of the book in the corner of an old shelf in Grandma’s house and asked you meekly if I could read it. You ran a finger down the spine of the small paperback and said, “Just don’t let your father see it.” So I tucked it inside my backpack and took it on the plane with me to go back to New York and freshman year in college. I started reading as soon as I buckled into my seat, and was finished by the time the flight attendants had served all the drinks and packets of cashews.

It was strange enough to be holding a piece of literature that my mother had written. It was even more uncomfortable to be inside your head. You rarely talked about yourself unless I was persistent with asking. When you were young, Grandma used to pick the lock of your desk drawer so she could read your diary, and you raised me to understand that a breach of privacy was, after murder and unkindness, the worst thing people could do.

Your father had penned the foreword to 13 Letters. “I never really know what my eldest daughter is up to,” Grandpa wrote, and I could hear his rumbly, tobacco-raspy voice, “but I am often told of her remarkable talents and achievements. This book is testament to not only that, but also to the wonderful spontaneity that makes up the core of her nature, as none of us knew she was writing this book until it was about to be published.” Sitting there on the plane, I wondered if Grandma also refused to talk to you when the book first came out. Grandma hated spontaneity.

The first letter was a love note. You called Dad your best friend and soul mate, and declared, “We are going to be together forever.” This was the beginning of your story, and the part that I am most familiar with. You met Dad at the advertising company where you both worked, after you quit being a flight attendant with Taiwan’s biggest airline. The names in the book were changed, of course; for yourself you used a meaningless Chinese phonetic transliteration of your English name, Michelle, but you called Dad Mungshen, which meant “one promise, one lifetime.”

The second letter described the story of the Oxford man.

When Dad laid eyes on you and decided you were going to date, you already had a boyfriend. He was a kind, soft-spoken man who worked in a prestigious architectural firm, and was soon headed to Oxford on full scholarship for a doctorate. He taught you how to appreciate true dark roast, and listen to classical music. I imagined you and him sitting in a café drinking Colombian coffee, the scene seeped in Brahms and Cezanne and the sepia tone of the early 80s. I imagined you in a white pleated skirt down to the floor and an oversized sweater, an outfit borrowed from a college photo I’ve seen of you. I imagined the Oxford man explaining the strains of the orchestra and the subtle key changes while squeezing your shoulder. I imagined your hands cradling the coffee cup, the polite smile you held in place because you were there for the music and not the man.

Dad showed up at a coffee date just like this when you rejected his initial advances. He showed up at the café, sat down at your table, and proceeded to give the Oxford man a comprehensive list of reasons why he was not a proper boyfriend for you. Anyone would have thought the situation ridiculous and the Oxford man fumbled through arguments, but at this point Dad was making six figures in media and communications and could talk a person out of their pants in public. The Oxford man paled with every passing minute.

“I didn’t say a word,” you wrote in the letter, addressing my father. “I just kept sitting there next to you, and that was what finally broke his back, I think. It was you and I together and then him alone on the other side of that table. I think I was already a little in love with you then, even if I didn’t know it yet.”

When the Oxford man had run out of counterarguments and napkins to wipe the sweat from his forehead, he pulled out his ace. “I plan on marrying Michelle,” he declared, looking straight into my father’s eyes. “I can support her if she comes to England with me, and we will get married as soon as I finish my studies.”

My father smoothed an invisible wrinkle from the pant leg of his suit, and smiled. “What a terrible idea,” he said.

The meeting ended several minutes later, when the Oxford man stood up and excused himself from your life forever. “Funny thing is,” you said to me when I asked you about this incident after reading it, “he immigrated to America after he got his Ph.D. So if I had married him, you wouldn’t have been born in Taiwan at all.”

The book had thirteen letters, but they were all yours and I never knew if Daddy ever wrote back. You also never told me if you actually sent the letters or not. Maybe you were wrestling with yourself and put it down into words as a way to end all the fighting. Maybe assembling the story on paper gave you something of your own, something you could keep tucked away in a locked drawer.


3. Dear Mom,

Thank you for telling me about the borderline personality disorder. For a long time now I’ve known that something was bothering you, that there was a reason behind all the sleeping and the mood swings that flickered on and off like a broken lamp. My research tells me usually the symptoms of BPD become prominent in a person’s early to mid twenties, which, I think, was the case with you. In your mid twenties you were promoted and became one of the youngest female managing editors in Taiwan. You would have lunch with a senator for an interview and then have afternoon tea with his wife. You were several years into dating my father then, who was also climbing the administrative ladder in the company. Both of you had money to burn, and the BPD wasted no time in manifesting itself in your reckless spending habits. You walked into stores like Chanel and Tiffany and was immediately greeted with employees who knew not only your name but also your favorite drink.

“We were both so young then,” you told me. “We thought spending money was the only way to show that you appreciated something, or someone.”

The BPD meant not only did you spend like a queen, you had unrealistic demands for the world. Friends and family tread carefully around you, as if you were the center of a mine field. Dad soon tired of handing over half his paycheck for extravagant dinners and throw pillows, and began to spend less and less time at home. You couldn’t figure out why, so you went out and bought more throw pillows and china to match. After you married, Dad’s two children from his deceased first wife officially became your responsibility. You did not understand children, especially ones that were already six and nine years old, so you looked after them the way your own mother looked after you, with strict rules and a broom. You were never very acquainted with housework, and the BPD made it nearly impossible. Your sister-in-law watched with narrowed eyes as you ruined yet another one of Father’s suits.

By this time you were approaching 30 and Dad had already met the Japanese lady.

“Everyone at the company knew,” you said, shaking your head. You grabbed and twisted a fistful of the blanket on your lap, let it go, then grabbed it again. “He didn’t exactly keep it secret, but I was so focused on making money and spending money that I never noticed. Every one at the office knew he was cheating on me with the new sales manager from Japan. People saw her leaving with him in his car and then arriving with him in the morning. I should have seen it coming, really. Neither of us were the same people who started a relationship together years ago.”

“Why won’t you come home?” you wrote in Letter #7. “This is the second weekend you’ve spent in Japan this month. Your secretary says that you are going to Hawaii next week. Are you taking her with you? What about me, your wife? Where should I go?”

You told me once that dating Dad was not unlike dating a genie from a magic lamp. Your every wish was his command. He drove you to and picked you up from work and shopping trips every day. He took you to the best restaurants in town and pulled out your chair for you. You needed to only look at a purse before it was yours. “He was everything a girl could hope for,” you said. “But he couldn’t ever make up his mind. He wanted a slice of every cake, and when he could only have one, he ran. He wanted to be with both her and me. Well, when we both got pregnant, he couldn’t run anymore.”

Desperate to keep up appearances and, I think, not really knowing what to do with the two children he already had, my father implored both women to abort. He would pay for everything, he promised.

When you told me this, you studied me closely for a reaction. I didn’t bother to hide my astonishment. My father adored all his children. When I was growing up, Dad stopped by to see me every day, and willingly took care of every single one of my expenses, from a pacifier to four years in a college overseas. I never had cause to doubt that he loved me; to know that in the beginning he had not wanted me was close to unimaginable.

“What did you say to him?” I asked.

You had that pinched smile again. “I said hell no. You were the only good thing that came out of that marriage, I knew it then as clearly as I know it now. I was going to have my baby, and nothing was going to stop me.”

The same could not be said for the Japanese lady. As the mistress, she had to play her hand carefully, and what she did resulted in Letter #11.

“Your mistress called me today,” you wrote to Dad. I imagine you were so furious that the tip of your pen stabbed tiny holes in the paper. “She said to meet her for coffee, and I said, why not. Isn’t it funny your mistress confronted me before you did? So I met her for coffee and I am so tired of playing a game with no rules, I asked her what she honestly wanted, and you know what she said? She folded her hands in her lap and said, ‘I want to be his wife.’ I asked her was it so her baby would be legitimate, and she said no, she already had an abortion. She did it because you promised her on your knees that you would never have anything to do with me or my baby – our baby – again. You’re pathetic, you know that? You didn’t even get on your knees when you proposed to me. That was when I decided I’m leaving you. This will be my last letter as your wife. Good fucking bye.”

I think you handled it well, Mom. I probably would have stabbed her in the eye with a cappuccino spoon.


4. Dear Mom,

It was 10AM in the hospital room, the day of the C-section. You shed you baggy maternity clothes, moving slow and exhausted like a caterpillar that stripped itself of its cocoon only to discover it was still a caterpillar. You did not tell Dad you were there. Your sister wrapped you in a splash of blue that was the patient’s gown and wheeled you into the surgery room. Your sister was a nurse at the hospital and you took some comfort in having her there, but mostly you were just nervous. My aunt is the first member of the family to hold me when I gulped my first breath of air. She peered at me over the white medical facemask and I promptly peed all over her scrubs.

Dad arrived at the hospital after I had been deposited in the room with all the other babies. He hadn’t wanted to come, hadn’t seen or talked to you for several weeks. He was making headway in convincing his family to let him marry the Japanese lady. He didn’t have to worry so much; he always got his way in the end.

Grandma met him by the elevators outside the maternity ward. As he followed her down the hallway he started to feel dizzy; the walls there were painted a very light mauve, and the smell of baby powder made his palms sweat. His leather shoes ricocheted on the limestone floor like cracks of a gun and he was afraid the sound would hurt the babies somehow. Grandma rounded a corner and there it was, the baby room with the big display window, spotless despite the amount of family pressed up against it.

Grandma pointed to the cot where I lay, a tiny bundle of pink. “There she is. Seven pounds.” My father stepped up to the windowpane and looked down into the crib. I was awake, and looked back.

“It was love at first sight,” my grandmother told me later when I was much older. “Nothing could keep him away after that. He came every day and insisted on feeding you himself. Baby gifts poured in like a flood.” She sighed. “Which is why I don’t understand how he’s still with that Japanese woman. She will never let you into their life.”

This was true. Dad married his mistress six months after I was born, but he still came to see me almost every day, put me into my half-brother and sister’s arms so they could fall in love with me too. His new wife refused to leave her family in Japan and move to Taiwan, so Dad flew to Tokyo every month to spend a week with her and she came to Taipei for every major holiday. More than twenty years passed in this fashion. This arrangement made it easy for Dad to visit me, but you always detested it. There were no photos of me in my father’s house, and all traces of me had to be wiped clean after I spent the weekend. Dad erased me from his phone every time he flew into Japan, just in case his wife decided to go through it. I couldn’t add my brother or sister on any social media, lest the Japanese lady found me through connections. When my sister became engaged, I was forbidden to attend the wedding ceremony because she would be there.

“Is he crazy?” you said when I told you this. “So you can never go to any family function? What happens when your brother gets married, too? What happens when your grandmother or – heaven forbid – your father gets sick and has to be hospitalized, are they going to ban you from visiting the hospital?” You were so angry you picked up the phone to yell at my father, and I retreated to my room because I knew there was nothing anyone could do. 13 Letters was twenty years ago now and my father was still pretending to honor a promise he had never intended to keep.


5. Dear Mom,

When I told you about Dad’s falling out with his wife, you didn’t seem as surprised or angry as I thought you would. You just stirred your tea and sighed heavily into it. Dad and I were walking back from the movie theater, I said, when his phone rang. The way he shrank away from me told me it was the Japanese lady, and I fell a few steps behind so he could talk to her. I was 20 years old and used to keeping quiet wherever the Japanese lady was concerned. When the conversation was over, Dad tucked the phone back into his pocket and we resumed our life.

“Thing was,” I said, pausing for effect, “she called him using Skype, and you know how Daddy doesn’t really know how to use touchscreens. He thought he’d hung up, but he didn’t, so she was still on the line.” She listened to us walking home, listened to our chatter about the weather. She listened to my father’s hand fishing for keys in the other pocket, listened to the metallic swing of the front gate, the whirring hum of the elevator. When she heard my father say, “I’m going to the bathroom,” she hung up. Ten minutes later she called again.

Less than thirty seconds in, my father’s eyes were bright with hysteria. He gestured for me to go to my sister’s empty bedroom, but even there with the door closed I could hear him yelling.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. “There’s nobody here, just me, I’m alone at home – I don’t know who you think you heard – when I say there’s nobody here, I mean there’s nobody here.”

His voice was high with panic, not his usual charismatic drawl. “I know she’s there,” the Japanese lady said, her voice unnaturally loud like her mouth was pressed flat against the receiver. “I heard everything. I know you’re seeing her – that woman’s daughter – I know you’ve been lying to me!”

“What part of nobody’s here don’t you understand?” my father exclaimed. “I told you, I was alone.”

“I’m not an idiot,” she spat back. “You know what, fine, if you’re really alone, I want you to say that you only have two children. Say ‘I only have two children,’ loud and clear. Shouldn’t be a problem because it’s the truth, and if you’re completely alone, right?”

My father hung up on her.

I spent the rest of that night watching him crumble. Slumped over one side of the couch, he revisited each line of the conversation a dozen times, assembling and reassembling the broken pieces of his marriage to try and form a bigger picture that just wasn’t there. I had never seen him so miserable. His two lives, the one he had with his wife and the one he shared with me, had been so meticulously kept apart. With a single Skype call they had collided with the force of a supernova.

“I’m so sorry,” he said into his hands. “I know I’ve put you through a lot because of this – the phone calls, your sister’s engagement, everything else – but know that I love you, daughter. I tried my best to do what I thought was right.”

“I love you, too, Dad.” I didn’t know what else to say. I hated the Japanese lady when I was young, would hang up on my father whenever he mentioned her and imagine elaborate scenarios for her villainous demise. As I grew older, Japan felt galaxies away, and her existence mattered less and less compared to my own life. Now the old resentment rose in a sinister simmer, and I hated her irrationality, her meanness, this woman who I had never met but wielded so much control over those I loved most.

“It’s almost over,” my father said. “I just have get you through college, and everything will be over. You’ll be an adult and you won’t need financial support from me and she’ll finally be OK with everything.”

When I told you this, Mom, you snorted and turned to make another cup of tea. “Like hell she will,” you said. “She hasn’t been able to conceive since that abortion. You are the child that she couldn’t give your father. She would throw herself in front of a bus before she would lay eyes on you.”

I put my head on my arms and tried to digest everything. Though she refused to have anything to do with me, she had dutifully become stepmother to my brother and sister, who had both been sent separately to live with her in Japan for several years in order to learn the language. She must have wanted to have her own children, and my father wouldn’t have opposed. Could something really have gone wrong with the abortion?

You looked at me and the sadness in your eyes was a quiet roaring. “You know how fiercely your father and I both love you?” you asked gently.

“Of course I do,” I said, and it was the truth.


6. Dear Mom,

When you and Dad started dating, one of your husband-hunting girlfriends dragged you to a fortuneteller. You sat there examining a hangnail while your friend and the medium pored over celestial charts. Forty-five tedious minutes later your friend knew she must travel overseas to find her destined soul mate, and it was your turn.

“Can’t we just go?” you pleaded.

“It’s about time you think about your future,” your friend insisted, pulling you up by the elbow and ushering you into her seat. “C’mon, the session’s on me. What are you going to do with all these relationships? Maybe this time it’s the one.”

You wanted to argue that you didn’t believe in The One, that you’ve had a dozen relationships so far and still hadn’t determined what The One really meant. You wanted to argue that it shouldn’t be as easy as looking at stars, but your friend was already giving the fortuneteller your birthday, and so you submitted to hearing your fate.

The fortuneteller’s skin was dark and stretched tight over his cheekbones. His fingers angled like spider legs, the nail on his left pinky a good two inches longer than the rest. He specialized in birth charts and communicating with the dead, and was famous, which meant one forty-five minute session was as expensive as an hour with a lawyer. He shook a fat bamboo tube full of fortune sticks to shuffle them. The flat sticks inside swirled around and clattered like the patter of rain. Then he handed you the tube.

“Ask your question, then shake it until you feel ready,” he intoned, his voice wispy like the incense smoke that made your eyes itch.

You stared at the dark, smooth surface of the tube in your hands. “Tell me about my past lives,” you said. Your friend beside you opened her mouth, but it was already too late, you had already started shaking the tube, sending your fate rolling round and round inside. You felt triumphant, because whatever the fortuneteller had to say was already in the past, done and over with, and you wouldn’t have to find out anything about the future you didn’t want to. You put the tube back on the desk between you and the fortuneteller, and he pulled the top off and gestured for you to pick three out of the wooden sticks inside. You drew them out at random. They looked like Popsicle sticks, with numbers etched on one end. The fortuneteller laid them on top of your birth chart, and interlaced his spider leg fingers.

“Hundreds of years ago,” he said, “in your very first lifetime, you were a fox.”

Sitting across from him, the same age as I am right now, you blinked.

“The man you are with right now,” the famous fortuneteller continued, citing my father’s birth date correctly without being told, “is an old acquaintance of yours. When you were a fox, he was a hunter from the local village, and he accidentally shot you one day while hunting big game. He appealed to the gods to forgive him for an unnecessary killing, and the gods decided he must spend seven lifetimes in repentance. During these lifetimes he and the fox would be reborn as different people but will always become lovers, and the hunter would always be indebted in some way to the fox, and never be able to deny you anything.”

Seeing as how you were still speechless, your friend asked, “So which lifetime is this?”

“You are close to the end,” the fortuneteller said. “Fate binds you to this man, and he will always feel compelled to fulfill your wishes. You will never be rid of each other.”

You have no patience for something so fickle as fortunetelling, but I have always been curious about the idea of dipping into the past and divining the future. It’s true that Dad can never deny you anything, money or divorce or a child. If you and Dad have been reborn as inevitable lovers for seven lifetimes, I wonder if I have always been your child?


7. Mother,

Last night I told you how much you were starting to act like Grandma because I knew it would hurt. When you were young Grandma hired all sorts of tutors to groom you into the perfect daughter, and that only pushed you to grow in the complete opposite direction, finally to leave the country all together. “I will get sick,” you said to me last night, “I will get insomnia if you tell me I’m anything like your grandmother. I will kill myself.”

“I was joking,” I said, but you knew it was a lie. BPD isn’t strictly hereditary but there is more than a hint of Grandma’s brand of ferocity in your mood swings. You were afraid of turning out just like your mother, and I was the same.

Letter #13 begins with you dressing me to go to the nanny’s. Officially a single parent, you slid back into work right after giving birth. Your job paid lucratively but the hours were long. You moved your grandmother into your apartment to take care of food and chores, and found a nanny who would let me live with her four days a week. You spent weekends waltzing around the city with me in a stroller, dropped me off first thing Monday morning.

“Yu hates going to the nanny,” you wrote to my father. “It always takes close to an hour to get her outside the door. The nanny told me she only recognizes Friday because it’s the day I come for her. I don’t know how she is so attached when I barely see her throughout the week. She looks too much like you.”

The older I grew the more obvious it was that I took after Dad in both appearance and temperament, and you knew it wouldn’t do.

“Last night Yu threw a temper tantrum when I tried to give her a bath,” you wrote. “I dunked my head underwater and stayed still until she learned about death. Supportive as you have been as her father, it’s just me and her now. She has to learn that.”

When the gods bound the hunter to the fox, did they include a child? Will the three of us never be rid of each other?


8. Dear Mom,

I’m sorry I haven’t been answering your calls lately. I promise that most of the time it was because I was busy.

I used to tell you everything. You knew the names of all my friends and their relationship statuses. You knew the details of every quarrel and dramatic episode. Now that I’m in college seven thousand miles away, it’s harder to keep you updated. By the end of the day I find myself with only enough energy to relate the most important things to you, and even then it was the abridged versions. The rest, I thought, I could handle myself.

This is why when I finally told you my boyfriend of three years wanted to marry me, it was almost a full month after it had happened. The shock had worn off by then and I tried to pretend it happened recently, but I think you could tell. You could always tell.

“What did you say to him?” you asked. Your voice was even and undisturbed, a trait you developed ever since you became a family and marriage counselor several years ago.

I shrugged even though I knew you could not see. “Nothing, really. I think I thanked him and told him it meant a lot. Which it did, obviously.”

“Obviously,” you said.

“I think he’s afraid I wouldn’t be able to find a job after I graduate,” I continued. “Then I’ll have to leave America. He said he doesn’t want to let me go.”

“Of course he doesn’t, you’re quite a catch,” you said. There was the sound of the balcony door sliding, and I knew you were stepping out for a cigarette. “You’re the catch.”

I shrugged again. “Maybe. I don’t think I’ll do it, even if I don’t find a job. I’m only 22. It wouldn’t be fair to either of us. But if we do stay together for a couple more years without any problems, I don’t think I’d object to marrying him then.”

“Your father will probably protest.”

“He doesn’t have to know.”

There was a second of silence, during which my body flamed then froze over at the realization of what I had just said. Then you gave a short, breathless bark that was meant to be a laugh. “You would get married without telling your father? You? Our daughter would get married without telling us? Our daughter – ”

“I meant he doesn’t have to know at first,” I said. “My sister got married when she was almost thirty, I can wait until I’m close to that age before I tell him.”

“You’re an adult now,” you said, laughing in earnest, “so you can do whatever you deem appropriate. But know this: If you let me know, I will tell your father everything. I will never keep a secret from him. The time for that has passed. No more secrets between the three of us.”

It was my turn to be silent, as I thought about all that has come between us in the past few years. The amount of money I spent and hurriedly covered up by working overtime, the difficulties I had talking to people, the amazing places I traveled to, the pregnancy scare. All things that I still keep in a locked drawer, but on paper because this way I will know that they happened, they happened. You’d think after lifetimes of practice we would be better at talking to each other, better at figuring out our lives without gods and fortunetellers.

But for better or for worse, this lifetime is not yet over. You still dream of kicking life in the rear but end up falling, and I am there with you. Dad and the Japanese lady are back on speaking terms but the frequency of his visits to Tokyo has fallen, and he often comes back more tired than when he left. I am there with him. I stand at the cusp of graduation and the start of my own life. I would ask the gods for their blessing, but there is no truth stronger than making mistakes that are your own.

I have to go for now, Mom, but we’ll talk soon – I know. You’ll call me.



Your Daughter


P.S. – I love you.


About the author:

Janice Yu Cheng grew up in Taiwan, Michigan, and New York. She is a creative writing graduate from Binghamton University.

January 5, 2014   Comments Off on Janice Yu Cheng/CNF

Larry Hamill / Photography

           Screen Woman ©2013 Larry Hamill

Year 4 | Screen Woman Dreaming


A post a day:

Four years and counting

Larry Hamill’s work continues to intrigue. Day after day, now, for more than four years, Hamill has posted a new photograph on his web site incorporating special effects and standard digital capture to come up with both strange and satisfying images. Hamill only recently passed the four-year mark and while his work has appeared several times before in Ragazine.CC, we figured it never hurts to celebrate a milestone with a friend. With so much to choose from, we asked the photographer for a couple of images he likes best from each of those four years. So here you go… enjoy. And if this isn’t enough, check out Hamill’s sites…

— Mike Foldes


YEAR 1 | favs

Heartberry  Oil on Canvas

Year 1| Heartberry | Oil on Canvas

Year-1 NZPath-8

Year 1 | NZPath-8

Mountain Impasse /Oil on Canvas

Year 1 | Mountain Impasse |Oil on Canvas


Larry Hamill / Year 1


YEAR 2 | favs


Year 2 |Steps 

Hot Water

Year 2 | Hot Water

Year-2 Spiral Stairs

Year 2  | Spiral Stairs

Ink Study/China

Year 2 |Ink Study | China


Larry Hamill / Year 2



YEAR 3 | favs

On another side

Year 3 | On another side


Year 3 | Eyescape

3rd St. Southward-1

Year 3 | 3rd St. Southward-1



Larry Hamill / Year 3


YEAR 4 | favs

Color Forms-3

Year 4 | Color Forms-3

Slippery Path

Year 4 | Slippery Path



Larry Hamill / Year 4


Visit Larry Hamill’s Blog

January 5, 2014   Comments Off on Larry Hamill / Photography

On Location/India’s Art Boom


Thukral & Tagra, Science, Mystery and Magic II (superman), 2011


* * * * *

India’s Art Rising Again

It took two decades, individual initiatives, and an art market boom for Indian contemporary art to finally find its place in the sun. 

 by Shreya Ray

On the southern edge of New Delhi lies the satellite city of Gurgaon. Once a mass of agricultural land (gaon means village in Hindi), and now the country’s third-richest city, the story of Gurgaon encapsulates several other stories.  It tells for instance, of the transformation of a stuttering socialist economy to ‘Asian tiger’; the mall-studded utopia alongside sprawl of slums, telltale to India’s rising inequalities. Gurgaon is the story of decentralization – no longer does power and privilege reside only within the inherited bungalows of central and south Delhi, the noveau riche can buy his way into Gurgaon’s glitzy high-rises. Gurgaon is the story of the outsider who made it big.

Gurgaon echoes the journey of contemporary art. Once confined and crumbling in the city’s power and thukral1geographical centre — the culture ministries, fine-art centric art academies – art found new language and resurrection only in the city’s far reaches. With success, came status and the art that was once in the margins, was now in the spotlight.

Fittingly, Gurgaon is home to some of the biggest entities of contemporary Indian art – the country’s first contemporary art museum, and some of its biggest stars. One such entity is GurgaonOne, a towering structure positioned between Old Gurgaon Road – the rundown rustic ancestor to Gurgaon — and Maruti Udyog, the factory of Suzuki, the Japanese car manufacturer that came to India in the early ’90s. Dusty on the outside, and shiny on the inside, this architectural edifice of New India, is also the “office-cum-thinking space” of artist duo Thukral and Tagra, the youngest artists to have taken the world of Indian contemporary art by storm.

Dressed in fitted suits – one all-purple and one white with Jodhpur trousers – Jiten Thukral and Sumir Tagra reflect on how the position of their building says so much about their art, and indeed the current state of Indian contemporary reality. “The references to pre-liberalised India, the Maruti Suzuki showroom (which represents the start of a new era in the country), and the plush building itself, is the perfect place for us,” says Tagra, through his trademark gold-rimmed glasses.

The office interiors are similarly balanced between this old, changing, and changed India: subtle grey walls, venetian blinds, and wooden flooring, adorned by colourful and quirky artwork by the duo: there’s a wry comment on India’s population problem, tiny cell-phones – a reminder of jet-setting urban India — etched on the wooden floors. When you sit down, you are greeted by the good old Indian beverage: the milky, light brown chai.

It’s been a busy last week for the duo – first an opening of their exhibition ‘Longing for Tomorrow’ at the residence of the German Ambassador in Delhi, followed by a family function in his hometown of Jallandhar, for Thukral. “The two evenings were such contrasting affairs – in one we were being celebrated, in the other, I was asked by an uncle what I did. I’m an artist, I said. “But how do you earn an income?” said my uncle.



From V10N1, Shreya Ray, Art in India, Arken Installation


Last seen, Thukral & Tagra exhibited at the India Today show at Arken Museum in Copenhagen, and before that Centre Pompidou in Paris, Mori Museum in Tokyo, Kennedy Centre in Washington, as well as the Basel Art Fair in 2012. But instead of being offended by his uncle’s question, Thukral recounts the episode with a chuckle, for this innocuous query posed by his uncle, is an essential piece of the India puzzle, a key concern in the work of Thukral and Tagra. Constantly tapping into the interplay between old and new, and the constantly changing definitions of India and Indian, is what informs the work of Thukral & Tagra.

In Longing for Tomorrow, for instance, they use the elitist brand of Meissen Porcelain from Germany trademarked with their brand of irreverence. They married the exquisite pieces of traditional German craftsmanship with Indian imagery with decidedly pop overtones. Every corner of the ambassador’s home has been “infected,” to borrow a word from the official event press release.

A few months ago, Arken Museum in Copenhagen had been similarly infected with their immersive installation. “Centred on the theme of migration, the entire gallery including carpets, chairs, artwork on the walls, pinball machines, and an iPad app were all playing on the notion of migration,” says Thukral. The traditional Punjabi motif of the ‘phulkari’ woven into the carpet mimicked the patterns of an aircraft carrier to evoke the scores of Indians from the Punjabi community migrating to foreign shores. “The entire gallery was a cross between a pinball arcade and an airplane machine,” says Tagra. The pinball, he says, stands simultaneously for, an antiquated machine, as well as young Indians, bouncing around the globe, constantly being pushed in different directions, be it tradition, modernity, religion, or family.

“Art is always a reflection of its times,” says artist Subodh Gupta. “Renaissance Art was evidence of that time. Similarly, the art of today is a representative of people’s lives, times, and artists work as a reaction to that life,” says Gupta, seated on the second floor of his massive studio in Gurgaon.



Subodh Gupta, Untitled (Pot), 2004, Oil on canvas; 168×229 cm

Gupta, one of the biggest names in contemporary art, pays homage to the life of ordinary India using everyday objects like kitchen utensils to form spectacular installations. The utensils remain a recurring ingredient in his works, referencing at once India’s changing economy, the link between rural and urban, (steel tiffin carriers are extremely popular in the takeaway lunch industry, herein also lies a comment on class dichotomy with the tiffin guys serving people in air-conditioned offices).

“These were objects our generation grew up on – now, hardly any kitchen features steel utensils, in fact in urban kitchens, steel utensils have made way for corel and china,” he says. “My work addresses the mundane, but the mundane is an important signifier of its times,” says Gupta, whose personal journey from Khagaul to Gurgaon, echoes that of contemporary art, from periphery to centre. Gupta’s works have flown off international auction shelves – Across Seven Seas sold in 2006 for Rs 4.5 crore, Sunday Lunch sold in 2008 for Rs 1.86 crore, Untitled, a sculpture of family on Vespa sold by Sotheby’s in 2007 for Rs 1.11 crore.

* (A crore is a unit in the Indian measuring system. A crore is represented by ONE followed by 7 zeroes, which is: 1,00,00,000. This translates to 10 Million.(10,000,000). [Wikipedia]. Thus, 1.11 crore/rupees is worth about $178,000.00 US.)

Historically Speaking

The year was 1999. Much before he became the name that people dropped, Subodh Gupta was a struggling young artist from Khagaul, Bihar, trying to make way in India’s capital. At a workshop for emerging artists in Modinagar, an industrial town on the outskirts of Delhi, Gupta did a performance piece. Smearing mud and cow-dung all over his naked body, he laid down on the ground. The work was reference to his childhood and identity as a Bihari; it was also as well a play on the ideas of pollution and purity — cow dung is considered sacred in Hindu religion and is ubiquitous to the rural Indian landscape (although in urban India — which has shaken off many of its traditions — it is hardly something you would smear on your body).

This was the second-ever workshop for the artist-led Khoj International Artists Association which Gupta, along with 10 colleagues – including artists Bharti Kher (also Gupta’s wife), Anita Dube, Manisha Parekh and curator, now Director, Pooja Sood – had founded in 1997.

The India of the 1990s was a very different place, says Sood. The country had just liberalized in 1991, and globalization, and its allies consumerism and communication were at nascent stages of development. The idea of art itself was very different. “Painting and sculpture were big; at a public debate, the noted painter Anjolie Ela Menon had dismissed the idea of installation art,” says Pooja Sood. “Encounters with international art were limited to exhibitions brought in by the cultural arms of foreign embassies or the Indian Council for Cultural Relations; opportunities to travel abroad came only via personal invitations or scholarships offered by the Inlaks Foundation and Charles Wallace Trust. Public museums were apathetic and the few commercial galleries that existed, extremely conservative. The spotlight was not on India. We felt ‘third world’, isolated, on the periphery,” says Sood, a few weeks after Khoj turned 15, in March 2013.

Khoj was set up as an “experimental art lab” — as founder member Anita Dube describes in the first Khoj khojcatalogue — a place where Indian artists began interacting, and where they could dialogue with artists from the sub-continent, and the rest of the globe. There was also special emphasis on establishing a dialogue amongst third-world artists. Some of Khoj’s earliest workshops had a Japanese artist Fuji Hiroshi spending a week cleaning a sewer to enable goldfish to live, the Cuban artist Tania Bruguera collecting the workshop’s used teabags to make comments on memory and history, or India’s Sheba Chhachhi resurrecting personal stories of abandoned mill workers in Modinagar;  Anita Dube’s work on human bones creating a crisis of belief for the Australian indigenous artist Fiona Foley, or the South African artist David Koloane’s paintings contrasting his experience with apartheid. “In these workshops, stereotypes were challenged and cultural differences pried open,” says Sood. The art historian Kavita Singh wrote about Khoj: ‘Outside the market, beyond and before it, Khoj and other artists’ networks set up in the past ten years in India have been a crucially important part of the experience of globalisation in Indian art.’ In the years since, Khoj graduated from its workshop space from the outskirts of the city, to an office-studio space in another peripheral space: the Khirkee extension in south Delhi. Although located in the elite hub of the city, Khirkee itself is inhabited by working class and lower-income migrant groups.

Around the same time as Khoj was unearthing new artistic languages, three media practitioners were also out on similar quests. Monica Narula, Shuddhabrata Sengupta and Jeebesh Bagchi – formed the Raqs Media Collective in 1992 at a time “the idea of the artist was beginning to get examined,” says Narula. “It was by the late ’90s that it began to be extended to include wider aspirations, disciplines and media. We ourselves were trying to understand these shifts. With the advent of the internet and of new media art, the conditions of the production of art work came in for serious dissection,” says Narula. Raqs has explored themes of urban experience, the idea of creativity, the narratives of history in their work, over visual, text, sound and architectural media.

By the early 2000s, the experiments of the ’90s were beginning to pay off. The installation – which according to Tagra, even until a few years ago people didn’t respond to, very much the outsider in the world of art – was becoming the new buzzword. Photography came into its own as an art form, as did video. There was also the beginning of performance art in India. “Artists of this generation had succeeded in taking Indian art out of its ‘fine art’ category, into a ‘visual art’ culture, says art historian and curator Alka Pande.

India was changing, and the idea of India was changing. “No longer were we about the exotic, the sensual, no raqslonger were we synonymous with 10-handed Durgas (a goddess),” adds Pande. The Raqs Media Collective, also around this time, began to receive invitations to participate in conferences, workshops and master classes in new media. “The decade from 2000 onwards was a very important one for contemporary art and culture in India. Initiatives like Sarai (the programme run by Raqs), like Khoj, and in the wake of our early interventions at Sarai, other groups, collectives, publications and coalitions in different places like CAMP in Mumbai, Periferry in Guwahati, Maraa and Jagah in Bangalore changed the scene in significant ways. All of these were done without the support of the state or the market, by leveraging grants, mainly from international foundations and networks. This created the climate of openness and experimentation that we see the Indian Art Scene benefitting from today,” says Bagchi, Raqs. In the years following Raqs has showed works in Documenta, the Venice Biennale; as well as co-curated of Manifesta 7, The European Biennial of Contemporary Art which took place in Trentino-Alto Adige/SüdtirolItaly in the summer of 2008.

raqs 2

A scene from “Four Looped Videos. India Art Fair, 2012, Delhi (Solo booth, Project 88)”

Suddenly, Indian art was no longer relegated to the South-Asian section of international galleries, it was occupying central space in international art circles, says Pande. In 2002, Pande along with curator Gavin Djantis helped put up the The Tree from the Seed, the first-ever exhibition of Indian contemporary art in Europe, at the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, Oslo featuring artists who in the years to come would become big-names in the world of Indian contemporary art: such as Subodh Gupta, Bharti Kher, Jitish Kallat, Reena Kallat, Anita Dube, Hema Upadhyay. In 2003, the Louis Vuitton flagship show in Paris opened with an exhibition called Indian Summer. In 2004, The Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth organized Edge of Desire: Recent Art in India, a show of 37 artists encompassing various media. In 2006 Tate Britain started UBS Openings: Saturday Live Mumbai, putting together performances and visuals celebrating India’s vibrant metropolis of Mumbai . In 2007, America joined the club with two big shows of Indian contemporary art in the United States: Public Places, Private Spaces: Contemporary Photography and Video Art in India curated by Gayatri Sinha, at The Newark Museum; and  Tiger by the Tail!: Women Artists of India Transforming Culture, at Brandeis University.

This period also coincided with the boom in the art market and art was now being seen as the best investment. “People would buy an artwork work one day, and sell it the next for a killing,” says Pande. Being associated with monetary success also did lots for the status of art and artist.

The periphery found itself at the centre of attention. And in this era, India was found having entered the era of conceptual art and the politics of production. “The artist did not have to make any of his artwork himself or herself, he merely supervised it,” adds Pande.

The Evolution of Praxis

February 2013 might well be the most important month in the contemporary art calendar of India: the country’s first-ever biennale, Kochi-Muziris, in the southern-Indian port town of Kochi is in progress, as is the 5th edition of the India Art Fair. It’s day-two of the art fair and the Speakers Forum, a private ‘invites-only’ enclosure, has a panel discussion in progress. Five artists are discussing ‘Art as Self Realisation – Praxis in an Age of Flux’: the Pakistani artist Rashid Rana, along with the local artists – photographer Dayanita Singh, Sheela Gowda, Anita Dubey, along with the biggest star in the contemporary art constellation: Subodh Gupta.

When Gupta takes to the stage, he points to a screen next to him. The picture on the screen is that of his installation displayed at the three-month long Kochi-Muziris Biennale. An enormous boat carrying dusty utensils, lanterns, an old television set, is suspended on a set of wooden stilts, in continuation of his preoccupation with ordinary objects. Gupta talks about the actual assembling of the piece, and the number of collaborators such a massive structure demanded. The discussion turns to the importance of collaborators, although Gowda makes the point that perhaps collaborators may not be the right word to use for the people who are essentially executors of your idea, cogs in the wheel of a machine driven by the artist.


gupta boat


Gupta’s Kerala boat sculpture exhibited at Kochi-Muziris Biennale

The debate of the word aside, all artists acknowledge the use of collaborators/assistants on their work. For instance, Thukral and Tagra’s work at Arken involved having locally-woven carpets, locally-sourced chairs, an iPad app, all of which were outsourced and their task was that of assembling each of these units into a piece of art. Raqs’ solo show The Great Bare Mat and Constellation”at the Isabella Garden Museum in 2012 Fall had a piece called Drawings of a Conversation – a physical representation of the conversations the three have with each other – a web of lines woven into a carpet by three women in Bulgaria. Pande cites the book The Art of Not Making (2011) by Michael Petry on artists outsourcing production, which mentions Gupta.

In the 1980s, when the artist Vivaan Sundaram — possibly the only one of his generation — started conceptual art, nobody else was doing it, says Pande. “But with increased interaction with international art marked the beginnings of conceptual art in India,” she says. Furthermore, a dialogue with international art has become common occurrence now. Atul Dodiya’s paintings reference Russian constructivists and Picasso, Jitish Kallat’s date paintings echo works of the Japanese artist Onk Wara, and Gupta famously pegged the “Damien Hurst of Delhi” by the Guardian, UK, in 2010 made ‘Et tu Duchamp’, a sculptural take on Duchamp’s mustachioed Mona Lisa, L.H.O.O.Q., made in 1919.

Bharti Kher’s latest solo show in Delhi in Janurary 2013- Bind the Dream State to Your Waking Life—has as its centerpiece, with the same title, a wooden staircase pierced through by two wheels, which says Kher, reminds her of Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase.  “In her piece, both the staircase and the wheels signify movement, but the wheels also interfere with the fluidity of time.” This sort of tension created by contradiction is a favourite trope used by Kher. For the same show she did a set of sculptures called Portraits of Memory, gestural sculptures showing sari-clad women dancing or gesturing – the fluid and translucent sari fabric against the immobility of the sculpture. Kher draws inspiration from the French-American artist Louise Bourgeouis who subverted traditional feminine imagery in her works. Two gigantic mirror works, from her latest show, show shattered mirrors smothered in bindis. The bindi – a dot of colour worn by South-Asian women to symbolize fertility – used by Kher initially as a mere experiment, over time acquired became synonymous with Kher’s work, and is now used by her to reference her own work. This piece too uses the idea of contradiction – the destroyed mirrors, symbolizing bad luck and domestic violence, versus the bindi, almost the maternal, healing touch.

Although now known for these installations that are simultaneously stunning and sinister, Kher started out as a painter trained in London. Only upon moving to India, experimenting over the years, did she increasingly get fascinated by the immense potential of material. Kher’s studio in Gurgaon is where she keeps collecting everything from tea-cups, egg-shells, mirrors and more. “Each artwork is a combination of an ongoing thought, and perhaps some material that is around, but there is no clear answer here. The studio is like a great kitchen in which several things are on the boil at the same time. You plan to make something, but discover there’s fresh vegetable that needs to be used – at the moment for instance, I have just remembered that I have some great clay I need to use fast,” she says.

Individuals vs Institutions

“It’s an interesting time to be an artist in India today – as it has been since its liberalization – yet in terms of institutional support, there is nothing,” says Kher. It’s only this year that the country had its first biennale, and this too, like Khoj, and some of contemporary art world’s most exciting initiatives, was started by an individual, not institutions. “And it had a few glitches here and there, but the art world came out in full support, it was almost as though they were saying we are here because this biennale needs to happen. It reminded me very much of the first Khoj workshop,” she adds.

While government institutions still treat contemporary art as a step-child – there is no museum dedicated to contemporary art in the country unlike Shanghai and Beijing which have about ten each, says Gupta – it is private initiatives that have fostered its growth. In 2008, Anupam and Lekha Poddar opened up their personal collection of contemporary art to the public.

Called the Devi Art Foundation, this is the closest the country has got to a contemporary art museum. The red-devi artbrick building situated in the premises of a corporate office – its neighbouring buildings mostly godowns and offices – is the first physical space designed to foster conversations and ideas about contemporary art. “Our hope as a non-profit art space is to allow for ideas and works to grow, unbounded by commercial limitations; an art institution that encourages new ideas and works to be realized and shown, outside the scope of what the market dictates. Every vibrant art culture needs institutions and spaces that nurture this freedom,” says Anupam Poddar. Every year, Devi hosts two exhibitions, alongside a host of talks and lectures, engaging artists, curators, critics, and connoisseurs. In 2010, Kiran Nadar, another private collector, opened the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, with one branch in a south Delhi mall, and another in Noida, east of Delhi.

Simultaneously, a host of commercial galleries showcasing edgy, contemporary art have begun to open up in Lado Sarai, an urban village on the southern edge of Delhi. Lado Sarai- a narrow dusty lane dotted with art galleries– is Delhi’s up-and-coming arts district. After liberalization, the one economic episode that has affected the art world – for the better – is the economic downturn,” says Bhavna Kakar, Founder-Director of Latitude 28, one of the first galleries in Lado Sarai. “Once the economic crisis hit the West, the international art market started looking East, because this was one of the few places people had the money,” says Kakar, who is also Editor-in-Chief of TAKE on Art magazine. To cash in on the interest in India, Kakar, along with other gallerists in the district organize an annual event called the “Lado Sarai Art Night” in which galleries open shows in one evening, with collectors, tourists, artists and art lovers turning the tiny lane a frenzy of activity. This year, Latitude 28 celebrated Art Night with a show on Pakistani contemporary art, at a time when political tensions were rife between India and Pakistan.



Avinash Kumar, “Boys at Food”

The margin is an interesting metaphor to use in context of contemporary artists as margins are what they seem to be constantly playing with. Avinash Kumar, a designer and visual artist says that instead of canvas or colour, his medium is a night-club or discotheque. Combining food and fashion, music and technology Kumar stared the visual art collective called BLOT (Basic Love of Things), and started producing art works as a background to electronic music. Kumar also started the Unbox Festival in Delhi, a festival premised on the idea of creative explosion and collaboration in contemporary art and design. “The idea of Unbox is to meet other people who feel the same way about the nature of art. Art is no longer one-dimensional, it is multi-disciplinary,” he says.

Raqs Media Collective’s curatorial venture in September 2012 was also on similar lines. The nine-month long Sarai Reader 09 – an intriguing concept in which the process of an exhibition coming into being is itself the exhibition – had mathematicians, writers, musicians and theatre persons, doubling up as contemporary artists.  Divided into four three-month long chapters – each chapter being a point of departure for a newer set of artistic interventions – the exhibition saw participation by artists living in London, Mexico city and Delhi, says Poddar.

The themes covered include migration, urban life, digitization, and of course, Gurgaon. One of the pieces called Cybermohalla Hub (CMH) is a building prototype covering 3×6 m area is structured entirely by rectangular frames and made in collaboration with Frankfurt-based artists Nikolaus Hirsch and Michel Muller. The CMH is a reference to resettlement neighborhoods in the city like Gheora in north-west Delhi and the size of government plots offered (3×6 m): resettlement neighborhoods becoming a presence in a city that is increasingly pushing out its working class population to the margins. Further interventions have all added to the structure: its contents and its exterior. “The idea was primarily to encourage creation and critical thinking about contemporary art. Typically most shows are centred on a theme – this was contemporary art for the sake of contemporary art,” says Sengupta, Raqs.  This was also a way of getting ordinary people drawn into the contemporary art dialogue.

In contrast to Raqs approach to creating an environment conducive for dialogue on contemporary art, is that of Thukral and Tagra. “The common man in India doesn’t really care about art or galleries, they just want to go into a mall, and they want to shop,” says Tagra. Which is why, Thukral & Tagra’s intervention on the subject has been rather simple: take art to the mall. Although a vast chunk of their work plays with brands and commercial images, in 2012, they made a dinosaur made of commodities for a collector in the southern city of Chennai, displayed at Phoenix Market City mall. “The dinosaur stands for many things at once – in 20 years, these commodities will be extinct as newer things will keep coming, therefore today’s mall is almost tomorrow’s museum. Then, the museum itself is a dying institution. The lines between mall and museum are blurred, as are art and commodity,” says Tagra. When the work had been installed, the typical Indian-mall scenario played out there: hundreds of people gawking at the structure, incredulous and yet posing with their cell-phone cameras.

Commodity-hungry consumers had no choice but to devour art because there was no escape. When the periphery becomes powerful enough, the centre gets drawn to it, so much so, that you won’t be able to tell the two apart.

(First published in Norwegian for Aftenposten K, June 2013).


About the author:

Shreya Ray is a New Delhi-based writer.  She has spent most of the past five years writing about art and culture. In April 2013, she quit her job with Mint, and is fully engaged freelancing.  Her website is:; you can reach her at

January 1, 2014   Comments Off on On Location/India’s Art Boom