9 Rooms: Philip Rawson and the exhibiting of tantra (HT23)

Location: OCHS Library
Speaker: Professor Chris Dorsett
Date: February 16, 2023
Time: 2.00pm – 3.00pm

Both my lectures are about a leading British authority on Indian art, Philip Rawson (1924-1995). The title of my first lecture refers to the nine enclosed spaces in which the celebrated Tantra exhibition he curated in 1971 was laid out at London’s Hayward Gallery. The arrangement confounded an important modernist conviction that any exhibit worth seeing required a clinically minimal mode of display. The Hayward was a minimal ‘white cube’ but, paradoxically, Rawson gathered hundreds of historical Indian items within confined coloured rooms, and heightened the viewer’s sensory engagement with ambient sound and slide projections. The results were widely held to have had greater contemporary resonance than the concurrent exhibition of new Californian art on the Hayward’s upper floor.

The contradiction was not lost on me. As a postgraduate student at the Royal College of Art I had gone to see what artists on the west coast of America were doing, but discovered instead, much closer to home, experimental forms of art practice being spectacularly put to work in the service of cultural material usually found in museums. Frustratingly, the Arts Council of Great Britain archive, which holds documents on the commissioning and popular reception of this exhibition, contains no installation photographs; so there is no record of what Tantra actually looked like. As a result, I will set out how the research I am undertaking at the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies re-engages with the sensorily-charged enclosures that Rawson derived from the nine emotional states (rasas) described by the tantric sage Abhinavagupta. The impact of Rawson’s tantrism on the London art scene of the early 1970s will be re-appraised, but my real goal is the creation of new practice-based contexts for researching his pioneering exhibition-making. Just over 50 years after Tantra closed I would like to see the show’s curator receive more attention.

Professor Chris Dorsett is an artist and academic whose career has been built on curatorial partnerships with collection-holding institutions. In the UK he is best known for his pioneering exhibitions at the Pitt Rivers Museum where, having stepped back from his art school commitments in 2018, he is now an Associate Researcher. Dorsett’s many overseas projects include museum ‘interventions’ across the Nordic region and fieldwork residencies in the Amazon and at the walled village of Kat Hing Wai in the New Territories of Hong Kong. These projects were developed during university appointments at the Ruskin School of Art, Oxford; Central St. Martin’s School of Art, London; Royal University Institute of Fine Art, Stockholm; Northumbria University, Newcastle Upon Tyne; and Edinburgh School of Art. He is on the editorial board of Museum Worlds and has written extensively on the interface between experimental art practices and the museum/heritage sector for publishers such as Routledge and Intellect Books. Most recently, in conjunction with the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, he has been researching the museological legacy of the historian of Indian Art, Philip Rawson.