Friday, October 2, 2009

BMB’s err….Shaheen’s ‘Dark Science’

Call it a strange coincidence; Dan Brown’s ‘The Lost Symbol’ and Gallery BMB’s ‘Dark Science of Five Continents’ released/opened during the same month, with a few days between them. Before getting into the symbology of affinities (between them), as a curator-critic myself, I should be saying ‘Dark Science of Five Continents’ belongs to Shaheen Merali, the curator who has ‘re-invented’ the ‘artist-critic’ in this show. Quite a difficult proposition it is to call an artist a ‘critic’ (of anything) especially when it has been proved theoretically that ‘criticism’ and ‘critique’ have almost become impossibilities in our contemporary world. If I go by Dan Brown, no artist is an artist unless he forwards a critique in his work (No secret is a secret if it is not destined to be revealed). Reclaiming the ‘artist-critic’ from the landslide of hedge fund driven market is a major (curatorial) effort, though the curatorial claims have to be analyzed vis-à-vis the works of art.

Dragging Dan Brown into the context of ‘Dark Science of Five Continents’ is a deliberate act from my side as I find both ‘The Lost Symbol’ and ‘Dark Science’ more or less treat the same subject; the conjectural mysticism embedded in scientific rationalism, its aesthetic meanderings through secret ridden symbolism, its encrypted truths and the terrorizing ways through which the truth is protected and even extracted.

Shaheen Merali’s curatorial efforts during the new millennium have always addressed the potency of truth and terror and the agencies that embody this potency, especially after the Post 9/11 world scenario. Dark Sciences of Five Continents could be translated into Dark Science of All Continents or more cryptically into ‘Dark Sciences of Mankind’ for what we see in this show is a set of disjointed symbols that wait for the secret ‘keys’ (keywords, passwords or even in Shaheen’s own terms, the intervention of the ‘universal intellectual’ as against the Foucauldian ‘Specific intellectual’) to find their ‘lost’ counterparts so that a new meaning could be read out of them. Viewer with a ‘search’ mode on has to position himself as a universal intellectual in order to ‘read’ this show out and to reach that moment of apocalypse (NOT the day of death but the day of REVELATION) where he suddenly understands his share in the acts of truths and definitely in the acts of terror.

Chances are abundant to misread the works of the six artists namely Chapman Brothers (Jake and Dinos Chapman), Riyas Komu, Tunga, George Osodi, John Kessler and Wang Quingsong as the curatorial premise goads the viewer to look out for the artist-critic in each work. However, like the members of secret societies, these artists subvert the readerly position by providing potently distracting symbols and statements. This subversion eventually throws the viewer out of his assumed innocence/victim-hood and makes him to see how much he is a part of the acts of terror played out amongst the various ideological layers of a complicated society that camouflages the panopticon and pyramidic structures embedded in it with the quotidian philosophies.

The mutual subversion (in certain sense, a deliberate and playful distraction) causes nothing but the birth of a self-critique, which could explicate the role of ‘artist-critic’ or ‘reader/viewer-critic’ in the production-dissemination-consumption chain of aesthetical objects. I would like to quote Jake Chapman’s words: “One of the standard measurements of artistic legitimacy is the idea that an artist is almost the subject of a psychoanalytic examination. The audience, as analyst, tries to discriminate whether this person is canny, or whether their traumas are authentic. There is nothing worse than analyzing someone who is actually aware of the conditions of analysis, because it means their illness isn’t trustworthy.” THERE IS NOTHING WORSE THAN ANALYLSING SOMEONE WHO IS ACTUALLY AWARE OF THE CONDITIONS OF ANALYSIS- that explains the mutual subversion of artist and the viewer/reader.

Hence, there is a stalemate situation and in this interface of mutualities one finds the ‘code’ to unlock the dark sciences that the Chapman Brothers try to contain in their works. ‘Someone Offered Money to Do it’, ‘I Wanted to Hurt an Enemy II’, ‘I Wanted to Impress Friends’ (all painted bronze sculptures) and the etchings reveal a world of torture and terror and the human beings’ ultimate desire to be a part of it. These are machines in a sense, objectified to stillness, muted to frozen lamentations and above all codified to suppressed laughter. The spectacle of torture, its erotic thrills and the severe adrenaline pumping while witnessing torture (as an agent or as a victim) et al come to be revealed in these works. The ejaculative hammering on potential brains does not come from the ideological higher-ups, but they are nurtured and performed within the human beings themselves, the Chapmans seem to say. The spectacle of hanging, the desire for cannibalizing, the desire to defeat, succeed and flaunt- all coming from the snapshots of recent history take a sculptural form in ‘I Wanted to Impress Friends’. The criticism cannot be directed elsewhere other than to the self.

Dark Science cannot escape the alluring charm of Dada- its ability for improvisation using dismembering as a method. The auto-erotic incisions on the word and the world, and the indiscreet acoustics of masturbatory manipulations and its cruel capacity to push someone to awareness by unlatching the floodgates of memory, Dada-ism had achieved a status of a Dark God (Moloch/Malakh) in the pantheon of visual art movements. But Dada cannot happen without the affect. One has to pose a victim in order to dismember his own victor’s status. There is a bit of romanticism in it- living in an imaginary/imagined past, which gives the artist a special right for exercising his dark science of cannibalizing.

‘Ballad of the Distracted Vs Cult of the Dead and Memory Loss’ by Riyas Komu comes from this imagined affect. He dismembers his migratory status, which is no longer applicable in empirical terms, and finds an objective counter part in a cannibalized Fiat Taxi engine, which is placed on a demonic platform encoded with the identifiable symbols from his previous oeuvre. A touch here would produce a mourning sound- Dada. The eroticism of putrefaction, hoisted on the altar of aesthetic veneration helps both the artist-critic and viewer-critic to move away from the given and turn it into a self-critique. The uncanny resemblance between the Chapmans’ works and that of Riyas has something to do with their similar approach to contemporary political history- not as a point of departure for critical harangue but as field of contradictions, which only a secret affinity for spectacular rotting can provide.

American artist John Kessler also takes the Dada route, which he acknowledges considerably in his dialogue, when he presents his ‘Swan’ series. For him Post 9/11 world is a world where everyone has this creepy feeling of being watched even if they are not in to the ken of surveillance cameras. One lives with a collective guilt of surviving. Under the glamorous facades, the human beings hide a dungeon where all the vitriolic acts are cooked up, performed and enjoyed. Technology is not the medium of torture but a medium that could proliferate the ideas of torture, the images of it and the beauty of it. Ephemeral, airy, brittle, so kinetic- one could say many qualifying words for Kessler’s works. But they open a door with a flight of stairs leading down to the dungeon, which is called the human mind.

Goerge Osodi, perhaps sticks out mainly because he does not approach a particular subject with an intention to dismember and splurge on the cannibalistic pleasures. However, the Nigerian artist’s works go perfectly with the curatorial theme, ‘Dark Science’. With a photojournalist’s verve and objectivity Osodi bares the innards of his own country, which is literally cannibalized by the imperial and domestic oil tycoons. Osodi’s pictures have an uncanny parallel between Goya’s famous painting, ‘Saturn Devouring his Own Children’. Interestingly, in the catalogue, we see a picture of the curator, Shaheen Merali standing against an out of focus backdrop of an artist/curator’s studio with book of Francisco Goya’s works titled ‘The Disasters of War’. Dark Science is not just a normative cause and effect structure but a cautiously created chain of events with demonic results. Artist-critic, Viewer-critic, Curator-critic devouring their own issues! Ironic it is but alas it is an inescapable reality especially when we see Osodi’s works in conjunction with a statement made by Dinos Chapman: “But to imagine that art’s got any other relationship than hand-in-glove with capitalism is stupid. It’s the cherry on the cake of capitalism. It’s pure excess value.” Osodi’s works become unintentional cannibalizing of his own ‘issues’ as the critique against capitalism turns a ‘cherry on the cake of capitalism.’ (Very old, fatigued but still charming argument, isn’t it?)

Capitalism and its spectacular ways of turning people into cannibals using the distorted versions of alchemy come to play a major role in the making of the Chinese artist, Wang Quingsong. The artist counters the spectacle of ideological and organized torture (torture of the body as well as that of mind using two different methods; of aggression and of persuasion) using the same imageries of self-torture (self critique). In his video titled ‘Iron Man’ he enacts a willing victim by receiving fist blows from invisible persons till he bleeds like hell. At the breaking point (a moment before the human abilities of endurance break down eventually), the blows end and his face blooms into a weird smile. Dark science of aggression countered with the Dark science of self torturing- read it consuming, receiving and desiring. Why I cannot forget the videos of Marina Abromovic/Ulay and Paul Macarthy when I see the videos of Wang Quingsong? Or why I cannot shed the images of Ravi Aggarwal and Rameshwar Broota when I see the works of Osodi? Is it simply an art historical problem or the awareness that despite the geographical disjointedness, contemporary artists share some sort of spiritual communion while witnessing the rituals of dark sciences across the world?

PS: I am not able to write about Tunga’s works. Perhaps, I am dumb. When I was reading through the interviews and CV section, I found Riyas Komu’s section quite interesting. His interview with Ullekh NP is interesting because it moves around his work Mr.Panopticon, which he did for the ‘Expressions at Tihar’ (2009). In his CV, he has written that he participated in ‘Tihar Show Delhi, 2009’. I became curious. He has mentioned the curators’ names in all the other shows. But not in this one. Then he makes a statement: “…the state policy to kill can stretch from execution, also by a firing squad, or to life imprisonment or even to exterminate brilliant minds..But it is not always possible in full measure. The ‘Prison Notebooks’ that were smuggled out of Gramsci’s cell prove that it is still possible in a large scale and can be catastrophic. And it continues to happen.’

And it continues to happen in Riyas’ CV too.

I am sure the Robert Langdons of art history, even after hundred years would come and decipher this encrypted code.

‘You can run but you can’t hide’- Down Presser Man- Peter Tosh.

‘You can fool some people sometime, but you can’t fool all the people all the time’- Get Up Stand Up- Bob Marley.

(Pics. Order of appearance- Shaheen Merali, works by Tunga, Chapman Brothers, Riyas Komu, Chapman Brothers. Bad picture quality regretted)

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