Friday, May 28, 2010
LSD:Chintan Upadhyay on Page Three Culture and Chintu, the Nature God
Smart Alec Babies are the hall mark of Chintan Upadhyay’s creative style. When they reach the latest solo show, ‘Nature God’ at Sakshi Gallery, Taipei, these babies are called ‘Chintu’. Chintan Upadhyay does not say that they represent his surrogate self. Instead Chintan reiterates that he likes to be a ‘factory’ artist and wants to reinvent the ‘karkhana’ style through his contemporary mediations. In this candid interview with JohnyML, Chintan Upadhyay not only speaks about his latest works, but about his personal life, its trials and tribulations, page three culture and its consequences.
JohnyML: Chintan, recently you were in Mexico and how did you find the contemporary art scene there? Are they still interested in Mural art?
Chintan Upadhyay: My Mexican trip was really refreshing and fruitful. They are very proud of their mural tradition and culture, though the height of this tradition was seen during the modernist period. I came across a lot of artists, who have radically moved away from the modernist philosophies and are interested in conceptual art. They are going very strong in that. The Mexican contemporary art scene is quite different from ours. I met many artists, collectors and curators. Interestingly, after knowing my background and works, they have invited me to do a performance at an Art Biennale there, which is the oldest and exclusively devoted to performance art.
JML: How exactly do you describe the contemporary art in Mexico? Are they very much in tune with the contemporary and global (art) practices elsewhere?
CU: It is a very logically distributed and spread out art scene and they are in tune with the contemporary art happening elsewhere in the world. As you know, the geographical location of Mexico is closer to the USA and you can see strong affiliations and exchanges with the contemporary art of the United States. They have a strong conceptual art scene and have a very progressive collector base for such art too.
JML: Yes. During your stay, could you identify any artist, who you thought was almost like you, sharing your kind of ideas and artistic outlook?
CU: No…They are very interesting artists. But of course not the way I am interesting to you.
JML: What about the newspapers and journals? Do they give enough space to art reviews? Do they have a page three culture vis-a-vis art and artists?
CU: There are a lot of magazines and journals. And that predicates the presence of art critics and art writers. Unlike in our country, they have very strong and different opinion about the stuff they write on and are always tolerant enough to initiate a dialogue. They are open to critical opinion and not so judgmental.
I know, you are very curious about Page Three culture. That is everywhere and artists are shown as an integral part of this Page Three culture. They are portrayed as the emblems of glamour and achievement. I feel good to see that. The Page Threes there really love artists and they are equally passionate about art. Mexico is the land of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. They were not just famous for their works, they were the fashion icons of that time. So I could see the continuation of that tradition there. The art scene in Mexico is very sensuous, a lot of parties, affairs short and long, fashion, style statements, conversations and so on. It was there in during our Modernist period too. Now we miss such egalitarian Page Three culture, which was not called Page Three culture then.
JML: I understand from your talk that there is a continuity of Page Three tradition from the time of Kahlo to now. Could we say that the page threes and the parties and the affairs reflect the newly happened economic boom?
CU: If I initiate a dialogue on Page Three in India, based purely on my encounters and experience with it, I would say, Page Three concept is a very new one and it has been understood in a unilateral way by the people who make it and who consume it. Page Three in our times is not just about glamour or sex or power. It is all about the celebrities from all fields. And definitely the economic boom has played a big role in projecting the lives of celebrities. Media make it and supply it to people. They consume it voraciously and the process helps to invigorate the production of consumerist desire in a big way. Fortunately or unfortunately, Page Threes are seen as an outcome of party culture, which is absolutely unmindful of contemporary socio-political realities.
JML: As a person who is so much interested in the page three popular culture, how do you rate Page Three in India and Mexico?
CU: (Laughs) Who said I am interested in Page Three culture? In fact, it is they who put me in their pages. If I was interested to appear in Page Three every day, I would have been moving from one party to the other. I never do that. Whenever I appear in Page Three I am in an art opening or an art related event. If art openings have become page three events, what can I do to prevent or promote it? And how do you I rate this phenomenon in India or Mexico or anywhere else? There are artists who love to party whether it is an art related party or not. They just don’t care whether there are page three shutter bugs and journos.
JML: I want to disagree with you at this point. Almost five years back, in a conversation between us you had said that you used Page three as an ideological vehicle, perhaps the way Andy Warhol used the page three/glamorous spaces in public for extending his philosophy..
CU: I remember what I had said at that point of time. It was like this: I don’t refuse Page Three. In fact I see a lot of dumb faces amongst these page three pictures. And I would like to see the faces of creative and intelligent people too. Page Three is the best place to be seen. May be a lot many people don’t give any damn to it and they have very strong opinion about that. When the Page Three people came to me, I mean when I became a celebrity, I did not say no to them nor did I hide my face from the shutterbugs. You know, I love camera lens being trained at me.
Secondly, I have been talking about a changing India with its changing cultural spaces. Economic boom has played a huge role in it. During the years of boom, art changed, artists changed, viewers changed, critics changed and the whole look of the art scene changed. It was a sort of revolution not seen in terms of ideologies. We were breaking free from all those conventional ideas about art and artists. Page Three was one of the sites where we could show our rebellion. Most of the artists accepted this space and a few rejected it. But I am conscious about one thing: page three is not about art. It is about the artist and how they live their celebrity status.
JML: But whether you like it or not page three representations make you a public entity and your life becomes something to be scrutinized by people. Gossip and scandals also find place in it as consequences. In short, your celebrity status comes along with a price tag. Were you aware of these consequences when you were taking the page three status as a part of your life?
CU: I think, the moment you are different from the so called ‘mass’ or people you have a different position in the society. This position would help you to challenge the conservative cultural ideas and this aspect is often not seen or taken nicely by the people. This results into scandals and gossips. Page Three status transcends itself from being just about individual and personal life to a sort of public responsibility when you show your works in public. You become more than a private person. If anything happens in a public person’s life, it will have news value. People would like to know about it. Your opinion and observations interest people and they want to know more about you. People read biographies because of that.
JML: I can agree with you on reading biographies. But don’t you think that the artists are not like film stars or well known authors. Film stars have an international mass appeal and their constituency is so large. Meanwhile the contemporary artists' constituency is very small. Not too many people know about them. So don't you think that it is just a part of the economic boom and the page three appearances of the artists have only a limited constituency and life? For example, even before the boom there were film magazines but not many devoted art magazines. Now look at the print run of the film magazines and art magazines. Seen against this reality, in what way are these artists 'different', even if they are different, don’t you think that they are different for a very few people?
CU: I will not agree on this point. Everybody knows Raja Ravi Varma and M.F.Husain. Art has always been pushed into a corner and shown as something created for a limited constituency. By doing this our communication mediums force the people to believe that art is made for the elite. Even the public art debates end up with a selected group. When the public money is misused in the name of art, nobody from the public comes up to question it.
In India, we have public institutions like Bharat Bhavan (Bhopal), National Gallery of Modern Art (New Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore), Jawahar Kala Kendra (Jaipur) and so on, which are mismanaged absolutely. But we have never heard a public outcry on this. Only artists raise their voices against these institutions. What do we do when the public itself is not interested in ‘public affairs’?
When economic boom came, everyone wanted to have a share of it. Now many institutions want to showcase Indian contemporary art. It has become a brand and I am sure this brand is created by none other than the Indian contemporary artists. I take a lot of pride in calling myself an Indian contemporary artist. Now people have slowly come to see the difference. You talked about the movies. But experimental movies have no takers here. The popular film stars come closer to the lives of people because they entertain people, never challenge them. Contemporary artists challenge the people.
JML: You have digressed a bit from the core of my question. However, I would say there is an audience for experimental movies, that's why we have a lot of young film makers these days. In your answer you demand the expansion of the constituency of art and artists. And you accuse people of being callous and apathetic, that too despite the efforts of page three. You say, artists challenge people's taste that's why artists don’t get approval of the society. I find these arguments a bit old. Could you please suggest solutions for expanding the audience community thereby the artists' and arts' constituency?
CU: I think, you are missing the point. You have told me about the mass and film stars. Now you are talking about the special niches made by viewers for the experimental films. I don’t disagree with these points. But I told you clearly that page threes are not about art. And the expansion of artists’ constituency cannot be facilitated by a single individual. It should be done collectively.
JML: I am not talking about Page three as medium to communicate art...but I was mentioning it as a vehicle for artists' presence in public life. Anyway, I want to take the question in a new direction. On the next day you left for Mexico, an Indian daily published a news item on your family problems. How do you react to this situation?
CU: The issue is whether people want to know about my life or not. If they want, what can I do? I was shocked when people called to inform me about that particular news.
JML: Several people thought, considering your romance with page three, that this news item was given to the paper by yourself.
CU: I have been accused of being party with the reporter of that particular news. To be frank, if I was behind it, I would have done it artistically. It would have been my performance in public space. I would have brought the whole issue with a sense of taste. The report that came around the familial problems was in bad taste; absolutely tasteless and disgusting. I would never wash dirty linen in public. In fact, no one would prefer to do that. But now everything is in public.
JML: One of the senior artists', in her blog observed that it was an outcome of the boom time life and careerism that both you and Hema pursued. Do you agree?
CU: Rubbish. It is shortsighted, old fashioned and judgmental.
JML: It could be one way of reading from her side. But may I ask you, what exactly went wrong between you people?
CU: That is extremely personal. I don’t want to talk about it. But you may ask the artist who wrote the blog and the reporter who wrote it in the tabloid about this. They are interested in writing about my personal life and giving an opinion without knowing anything.
JML: Okay...let us divert the issue. What is your next show?
CU: I have just finished the works for my next show, ‘Nature God’ at Sakshi Art Gallery, Taipei.
JML: What is this ‘Nature God’ all about?
CU: Nature is the supreme power and beyond any manipulations by the human beings. However, we are witnessing a kind of self destructive attitude by the human beings and they want to play the role of God by interfering with nature in every aspect. They vandalize nature in an unprecedented way. I have been involved in environmental art through the activities of the art initiative, Sandarbh and similar projects. The first designer baby painting that I did long years ago was called ‘Nature God’. And now I have decided to take the ideas around it further with the ‘new’ babies.
JML: Why babies again?
CU: ‘Baby’ has become a canvas for me now. I can communicate my ideas through them. They have a controlled look on their faces. But each time they look different in their size, postures and the paintings over their skin. Those who have been following these baby works could make out how they have evolved all these years.
The babies are not just about sculptures or paintings with a hall mark style of mine. Through them I want to forward the ideas of miniature Karkhana (factories), where a master’s style becomes important rather than the artisans who realize it. Each time, as the artisans change, minute differences come to the style also. So does change the subject matter.
In the current suite of paintings and sculptures, I explore the possibilities of Shekhavati painting and the post company school images that the painters have used in Skekhavati school. It is perhaps for the first time in our times an artist takes a re-look at the Shekhavati school of painting and re-employs its aesthetics for debating contemporary issues.
I have been experimenting with a hybrid language, using traditional and contemporary art languages, where I am able to break continuous narratives. Through this fragmentation, the viewer is able to weave in his/her own narratives. I want to impart different experiences to the viewer using the same baby figure. They have been there in my repertoire for a long time. They used to be called Smart Alec babies and now they are called Chintu. I will not be tired of making them so long as they are capable enough to reflect the confused contemporary human beings within the gamut of globalization.