Chila Burman, Winter Commission @ Tate Britain

Emoji summary: 🤩 🍦 🥇​

To write this, I have to go back to December. In the quiet and solitude of last year, it was nice to feel aimless and untethered for a month. I read novels on the sofa, made kombucha, long walks in the park, coffee from a van, wrote bad fiction, mulled wine, facetime, frosted ground, dogs wiggling across the green, bike rides, Cypriot bakery, full English breakfast, boots in mud, custard & pudding.

Before London went into Tier 4: Lockdown Returns, I met a friend at the Tate Modern. We went into the Waitrose down by Blackfriars & bought 2 bottles of fancy Prosecco, and a pack of those stupid lil Deliciously Ella salted caramel cups. We got on the boat that you can tap your oyster card on; sat at the back and watched the Thames foam and roar through its motor. The city passed us by: blackfriars, waterloo, southbank, london eye & Shrek’s Adventure World, westminster, lambeth, millbank. The buildings were small, they could fit into my hand. We flew through it in rewind from the folding lap of the river; and maybe it was the wind or the love I felt for it all, but little tears clung to my eyelashes, coating them against the spray. The clouds blushed and burst, evening was grey and lilac. From the dock, we crossed at the lights, towards the Tate Britain and Chila Burman’s Winter Commission, beaming neon.

On the steps, just a bit taller than me, is a flat neon drawing of an ice cream van. Multicoloured and graffitied across it, in neon too; ‘do you like ice cream?’, ‘we are here coz you were there’. One of the windows of the truck reads; ‘BURMANS’; this van is a throwback to Chila’s Dad’s ice cream van, a local icon back in the day, on the beach in Formby. It made me laugh; after a year of toppling statues of dead white war criminals, Chila lit up the river with a neon rainbow monument to immigrant businesses, to bootstraps & boys done good. It was a tender laugh, happy for the friction between icon and form. Flanking the steps are tigers in sunset-colours. Behind them the facade of Tate Britain is smothered: the goddess Lakshmi on her lotus flower, ‘Joy’ scrawled in cursive, peacocks, snowflakes, an evil eye (for nazaar, ofc), ‘without us there is no britain’, Ohm, ‘Aim, Dream, Truth', Ganpati baba. The columns have been pasted over with paintings of gods and florals, the alcoves have been collaged with Nargis and Madhubala. In pink neon bubble writing, at the top, sandwiched between columns and portico: ‘remembering a brave new world’.

My friend and I; we sat in the snug of an alcove, splayed out across the width of it, legs wide and stretching. Popped our bottles and took swigs, fizzing acid, tipsy. The visitors took their photos around us; we smoked skinny vogues and gossiped.

As Public Art goes, Chila highkey smashed it. These lights went up on 14th November 2020; Diwali. Since then, I’ve grown familiar with this work & these lights through instagram saturation; girls standing in front of Chila’s ice cream van in their bestu varus best, lehenga choli and kurta, jhumka and payals. When we visited, families were arriving in black cabs, teenagers were lined along the stairs. This commission was a destination; but more than that, it was an aesthetic punch. Chila took the kitsch sensibility that seems so specific to immigrant (here, more specifically Indian & Hindu) cultural production, and literal contemporary art’s predilection for Big Instagrammable Public Spectacle; ripped the fabric between them and collapsed them into each other. The aesthetic vocabulary of WhatsApp greeting cards, mandirs, fabric print, sacred Hindu paintings, old skl bollywood posters (from when they used to be hand painted, and that was a literal thriving art form), the tshotshkes that populate our living rooms; all marginalised art forms, marginalised aesthetics. They function as subaltern, they are oppressed along with the bodies that produce them - because culture is an extension of the living breathing bodies from which it emerges - and Chila Burman gathered these things in her arms, and she threw them up on the front of a building that ~is what it is~.

Chila’s aesthetic flex toes a thin whisker of a line. On one side, reconditioning marginalised aesthetics into a boiled out husk, so they are no longer recognisable to themselves, but now acceptable to a milky white cultural centre-ground. On the other, a hyper-exotification of the marginalised aesthetics, making them concentrated, so the white cultural centre can bask in the gleam of their rarified novelty, for a short time. Both are identical gaping chasms, yawning open the depths of themselves; belief in the hegemony of identity politics, cultural capital, institution and the transformational magic of representation. Somehow, Chila managed to navigate across without tipping in; I can’t pick apart the constituent parts that made it, but I know it happened. Something about middle distance, sincerity, ownership and authenticity; a rigorous theoretical and conceptual understanding of the weight of these marginalised aesthetics, and how they can be deployed, while remaining in tact. It makes me think: Diaspora Art is a functional category, and it exists as a hollow imitation of the real deal, because Chila Burman willed the possibility for her work & its own imitation into existence with the raw force of her aesthetic flex and turn.

Maybe representation is a game? If it is a game, it can be played, and if it can be played, it can be won. I think most of the time, the dice is weighted and it feels like they’ve rigged the table. I am writing this review, not just because I loved it, but because Chila won. Chila won the representation game against a stacked deck, house always wins (except this time). Winning the game is a slim probability; because I think there’s a tendency to treat this spectacle as a chance to yell ‘FUCK YOU!’ and dash, not realising that that exact refusal and rebellion has a real currency for the institution itself. Playing host to a Fuck You has never been so on trend; but Chila didn’t say Fuck You. Chila said something subtler, smarter. Chila said I Belong Here, I Deserve This Space, It Is Mine, Not Yours, Not Really, And This Is What It Is Worth To Me. She needs her flowers in her lifetime. Public spectacle, destination and frontispiece; I want a retrospective for her, now.

We should’ve poured out a drink for Chila; I think she’d love that we got smashed on fancy Waitrose Prosecco in the middle of her artwork, I think it was a fitting tribute, an ideal way to experience it. With our faces flushed, bellies fizzing and full of 2 bottles, we googled ‘NEAREST PUBLIC TOILET’, but they were all closed. Dipping into another alcove round the side, away from the main road and the river, and underneath the eye of a security camera, my friend stood guard in front of me, shielding me from view, while I dropped my jeans and did a fizzing, steaming, acid piss* on the side of the Tate Britain. The sharp breeze on my bum cheeks, the distant sound of traffic, and the sound of us laughing, conspiratorially, as I pissed* on the side of this building, that ~is what it is~, to assert dominance. We swapped places, and I stood, bladder empty, looking out at Chelsea college of art, and the blinking street lights. It was December and I had no reason to be here, beyond that I wanted to be. An empty month, Baby Krishna, ambient sound of a roaring boat engine, a stream of piss hitting the wall, God’s Own Junkyard; Chila Burman won the fucking game.

Tate Britain is currently closed, but the winter commission is still visible on the outside front of the building until 31st January.

[* for legal reasons, I am entirely joking about pissing on the Tate Britain. It’s entirely fiction, I would never piss on a gallery]