Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Manjunath Kamath’s Sub-conscious Drawings on Conscious Walls

(Manjunath Kamath at his studio in Hauz Khas Village, New Delhi)

Art events generate speculations, both laudatory and condescending. Never before had it happened like this when an artist declared a project of his heart’s choice, the very declaration/invitation itself generating so much of speculation, applauding of course yet marred by cynical undertones. I am talking about Manjunath Kamath’s project of spontaneous drawings titled ‘Conscious-Sub-Conscious’ at the walls of Gallery Espace, New Delhi, slated to be commencing tomorrow (19th August 2010).

The crux of Manjunath Kamath’s artistic intervention on the gallery walls is this: he would convert the gallery into his studio for a week. During this period he would draw on the walls of the gallery without any premeditation. He would be open to dialogues and debates, including severe interruptions by agitated purists. Manjunath could even leave the gallery walls empty for when one is at his studio, it is not necessary or compulsory that he works as if he were condemned to work for food. Hence, he leaves a thin line between the gallery as a white cube space and his deliberate intervention for converting it into an imagined studio space.

(Invitation card for the Conscious- Sub- Conscious Project)

Before we go into the theoretical meanderings that this project could bring forth, let me jot down how the cynical reception of this project’s declaration happened within a period of past twenty days. A noted art critic and art administrator asked what was new in this project as most of the artists do nothing but painting the walls (the pun was quite palpable in his comment). Somebody jokingly enquired whether the gallery authorities had created a false wall along the length and breadth of it so that the very impermanency that the artist intended could be circumscribed and the outcome of his act could be commoditized once it came to a formal end. Someone else said (as a representative of many) that it was an ‘over-hyped project’.

Though prodded deeply by some art critics and journalists for revealing the secret of his project, Manjunath has been keeping a dignified silence throughout these days. “I don’t know what I am going to do on the gallery walls,” says he. “I know that I will be in the gallery and the drawings would come out spontaneously. Perhaps, I would let myself to be a medium rather than a subject who has complete authority over his own self. If you ask me why I am doing it, I have only one answer for that: I have been doing spontaneous drawings throughout my career and I thoroughly enjoy doing it.”

(Manjunath Kamath)

Can it be as simplistic as Manjunath would like us to believe? Knowing him as an artist who has been using his acerbic witticism to produce socio-cultural critique through visual imageries, one has all the reasons to believe that Manjunath works towards establishing a critique on the very act of making art during the times of late/post capitalistic logic. He creates a scenario in which he could exercise his free will disputing the logic of white cube from within the same space. By investing all his energies in his intuitive abilities of/to spontaneity, he recalls the abilities of classical masters who had a thorough grip on theme and form. By emphasizing the aspect of automatism, he refers to Dadaism, a movement in which the intellectuals engaged themselves in writing automatic poetry, which verges into the realm of absurdity. By calling himself a ‘medium’ rather than a ‘subject’, Manjunath refers back to the romantic nature of art (which art cannot divest itself so long as it is created by a social individual), where the ‘moving hand writes and writes on’; or even the divine inspiration felt by romantic poets who thought they were just a medium of god.

For me, Manjunath’s ‘Conscious-Sub-Conscious’ is a reminder of the role of art itself; its function as a mode of self-expression and a tool of critique. This reminding/reminder is established through a performative act that does not demand costumes or lights. However, the performance is not prescribed by the notions of ‘performance art’. Besides, the impermanency that is intrinsic to the very act of drawing directly on the walls is not something that Manjunath focuses on. His intention is not to challenge the gallery from outside, but hint at the challenge that art can pose to the establishments from within. Then above all, it is a celebration, with no claims of distinction or unprecedented-ness. For the artist it is one of the acts in art history’s continuity; with and without the commodity angles. It is a way of telling the viewer that art is still pleasurable.

(A Painting by Manjunath Kamath)

However, as an art historian I cannot avoid finding linkages with Manjunath’s own practice of drawing or art making in general with the present project. Ever since his college days, he has been doing spontaneous drawings, at times to invigorate himself and times to entertain others. Noted film maker and artist, K.M.Madhusudhanan who used to be Manjunath’s colleague (as graphic artist ) at the Times of India daily during early 1990s recalls that Manjunath used to spend most of his time drawing on newsprint and attach graphic extensions to others’ drawings. “Not a single moment had I seen him sitting idle. He used to occupy any available surface with his drawings.”

Those who have visited Manjunath’s studio at Hauz Khas village know it for sure that the walls in his studio have decorative drawings that he does during his ‘inspired moments’. Those who have attended art camps with him must be familiar with his ‘spontaneous drawings’. Manjunath gives small drawings as gifts and ‘medicines’. He calls it ‘medicinal’ drawings and any artist, gallerist, art collector, critic, curator and so on can consume it as per his prescription to get out of their intensely personal worries including ‘jealousy’.

Cartooning is one forte that Manjunath excels at. This ability has made him the master of claymation videos as well as animated drawing videos. His cartoons, apparently absurd in nature, would reveal deeper meanings as one spends a little time with his works. This master of absurdity could spend hours in playing chess with no chess board and invent new absurd games with plastic knives and forks (Manjunath and myself have spent almost four hours playing imaginary chess in complete concentration during hour flight to Singapore in 2008).

(these cartoons by Manjunath Kamath appeared in while I was editing it)

Though cynics say that painters paint on walls, walls have always inspired Manjunath. Take ‘Eye’ installation at Soulflower Gallery, Bangkok for instance.

(Eye Installation on wall by Manjunath Kamath at Gallery Soulflower, Bangkok)

(Eye Detail)

Or the ‘Vomiting Philosopher’ at Palette Art Gallery, New Delhi (now with Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai) 

(vomiting philosopher)

Or look at ‘Secondhand Car goes to Heaven’ at Espace Gallery, New Delhi (shown at Marvelous Reality show curated by Sunil Mehra at LKA for Espace)

(Second Hand Car Goes to Heaven)

Or look at the spontaneity that Manjunath shows while making his digital prints like ‘How Come He is Here!’.

(How come he is here- Digital print)

Painting directly on walls is not a new thing in Indian contemporary art scene. And Manjunath does not want to claim that he is the one who started it. There has been incidents that perhaps would run parallel to ‘Conscious-Sub-Conscious’ project. I insist on ‘parallel’ because each of the projects that I am going to cite below is done on different locations with different intentions and different theoretical premises.
Nikhil Chopra’s ‘Memory Drawing’ at Chatterjee and Lal, Mumbai is one of the closest examples that comes to mind, where the artist spent twenty four hours in the gallery making drawings on the wall, sleeping and doing the daily chores there itself.

(Memory Drawing by Nikhil Chopra)

Mumbai Wall Project is a public project that happened without gallery spaces in order to collapse the public-private distinctions in art making and disseminating and even consuming.

(Mumbai Wall project)

Khoj International Artists Workshop, New Delhi had brought the neighborhood into its activities by doing certain wall paintings in Kirkee Village, South Delhi.

(Khoj Mural)

Noted artist and scholar, K.G.Subramanyan in January 2010 filled the outer walls of a building in Kalabhavan, Santiniketan with his hall mark narratives.

(KGS Mural at Kalabhavana)

‘Vibrant Gujarat’ one of the biggest mural projects in India, curated by me and executed by artist Somu Desai, in Baroda is a similar example where walls are directly used as a surface.

(Vibrant Gujarat, curated by JohnyML and executed by artist Somu Desai and his team)

So was another curatorial project by me, ‘Still in Baroda, Thrill in Baroda- The Sticker project’ where an apartment was converted in to a ‘canvas’ for all the artists residing in Baroda to work on.

(Still in Baroda, Thrill in Baroda curated by JohnyML)

Galleries have also let the artists to convert their spaces into studio spaces during the summer months and many artists have directly worked on the walls. Guild Gallery, Mumbai has been doing it since 2008.

(Shreyas Karle's wall work at the Guild Gallery, Mumbai)

Religare Arts-i, New Delhi went into action in 2009 by initiating a project called ‘Connaught Place Why not Place’, where artists were invited to convert the gallery into a studio.

(Connaught Place Why Not Place at Religare Arts i, New Delhi)

In Kochi, Dilip Narayanan of Gallery OED had converted a part of his gallery for artists to do direct drawing projects on walls. So far Bhrigu Sharma, Mahesh Baliga and Drupati Ghosh have done this project. In 2008, when Chitan Updhyaya curated ‘Keep Drawing’

(Bhrigu Sharma's Wall drawing at Gallery OED, Kochi)

(Mahesh Baliga's Wall drawing at Gallery OED, Kochi)

(If you are familiar with similar projects, please send me the pictures and details at


amrita said...

interesting post!:)

Fingertree said...

Most educative, thanks.
Curious as to what motivated you to do the Vibrant Gujarat mural.

LotusEater said...

Hi J

This time i am surprised by your restraint. All this talk of painting on Gallery walls and no lineage/linkage/mention of Richard Wright. :-)


JohnyML said...

Thanks Amrita....

Finger Tree (Ms.Poonam), Vibrant Gujarat is a long story..I will tell you later...

Lotus Eater...Aaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh....I liked it...thanks....:-)


sujit said...

i always find full of knowledge.


meyerprints said...

layered said...

It is truly good to see an artist's journey and the past connections with his present project. A window to his conscious / unconscious thoughts. Enjoyed the pun of the fabulous graphic work. Thanks Johny.

somudesai said...

this what art historian, writer and a critic rolls mean to an artist work. congratulations Johny & Manju

Incredible Sculptures said...

Mr. Neeraj Gupta is well known sculpture Artist in Delhi India. His expertise includes marble sculptures and while painted wood sculptures. There is a great demand of sculptures carved by him in India and abroad for beautifying hotels, schools colleges, showrooms etc.