Thursday, June 9, 2011
54th Venice Biennale: Gigi Scaria’s Elevator from the Sub-continent
Gigi Scaria knew it well before. Not that he would participate in the Venice Biennale but that he would do a work that would somehow reflect the workings of an elevator; an elevator has been a constituent of the metaphors that Gigi has been collecting all these years not only for making art but also for making his imaginations rich and beautiful. All the imaginations cannot be translated into a reality. Perhaps, that is possible for the contemporary artists; they could imagine anything and fabricate anything. Gigi Scaria did fabricate an elevator for the Venice Biennale, 2011, in which he participated as one of the five participants. But he leaves a lot for the imaginations too as he believes that if some fabricates everything one has in his mind, the life loses its own charm. It is like as poet Satchidanandan translates a Welsh poem that says, a translation is like a kiss through a hand kerchief.
Gigi believes in kisses through hand kerchiefs when he is not kissing life directly on its lips. Known for his takes on growing urbanism and the concerned knowledge field of urbanology through various mediums such as painting, sculpture, digital art and video, Gigi this time, for the Venice Biennale, has worked on a sculptural installation that includes sculpture, video and the physical and the mental participation of the viewers. His work is titled ‘Elevator from the Sub-continent’.
Before we go into the details of this works, let us see Gigi’s life in a gist so far. Born in Kottayam District, Kerala, Gigi Scaria did his bachelors in painting from Trivandrum Fine Arts College and later on migrated to Delhi to do his masters in the same discipline at the Jamia Millia Islamia. Life was not a cake walk for Gigi then (in mid 1990s). He worked as an illustrator, enjoying an occasional cycle rickshaw ride and a plateful of gulab jamun whenever he got paid from the place where he worked as an illustrator. Then he worked as an art teacher in an experimental school in Delhi. During the early years of the new millennium, Gigi got a scholarship in Australia and a spent a year there in a residency. That was just a beginning and later on he worked for a year in Italy, though at that time he did not know that he would come back to the same city as a representative of a great country called India, one day.
Delhi had taught Gigi a lot during the formative years. Urban imageries and the growing urban architecture, human displacement thanks to unmindful urban planning everything had affected him as a migrant in a huge city like Delhi (I always wonder what would have happened to Gigi had he got an admission in the Fine Arts Faculty, M.S.University, Baroda as he had gone there to try his luck at the painting department. What would have he done after passing out? Had he decided to settle there in Baroda, became a school teacher or lecturer? Had he migrated to Mumbai as his immediate predecessors had done? Or had he come to Delhi and had become the same Gigi whom we know today as one of the most proficient contemporary artists. It would be interesting to see Gigi standing in his stylish clothes and carefully groomed moustache and posing with a contingent of artists along the marine drive, who later on came to be hailed as the Bombay Boys: they are middle aged men now, though. But then I think wherever he had gone Gigi would have shaped himself to be a refined personality, sensitive human being and a great artist. I am sure on this because once Jiddu Krishnamurty was asked by a foreign correspondent or was that Mary Lutyens herself who is his official biographer, had it not been Leadbeater and Annie Beasant who found him from a non-descript Andhra Pradesh sea shore, what would have been the fate of Krishnamurty as a person. He is reported to have answered: I would have been doing the same in a small way in a small village somewhere near the same sea shore.)
Gigi spent his initial years in Laxmi Nagar and later on moved to places that even today would not invite too much of popular attention. These were the places that the young artists (migrant) preferred to live when they came to Delhi for the first time. These were the places where the people who literally strove for building the urban spaces in Delhi lived. They struggled with hostile climates and indifferent land lords. And amongst them were people like Gigi who could see the urban landscape changing before their eyes, initially in the form of flyovers and then in the form of various kind of planning and displacement. Gigi has been obsessed with the changing complexion of the cities ever since. That’s why when he went to Korea for a prolonged residency, the outcome was all about the urban population using mobile phones in various locations of the city of Seoul, in an effort to assert their identity and citizen ship. Through a series of photographs, Gigi created the complexion of the city and the various ideologies working within the fabric of it using mobile phone users as a metaphor. This project was exhibited both in Korea and Delhi.
When Gigi shifted to Rohini, a sprawling suburb, which became an integral part of the urban growth over the past decade thanks to the metro rail connectivity and innumerable flyovers, he noticed one thing while traveling between his home and work place, that the city was literally taking shape under his nose. He recounts how he used to keep his ennui and sleepiness out of his system while riding a motorbike by looking at these growing concrete structures taking various monstrous forms; all of which later became integral metaphors in Gigi’s oeuvre.
Economic growth in India brought high rising buildings a part of the urban landscapes. Elevators became a part of the urban human dwellers as they had to negotiate these heights everyday by traveling in these lifts. There are different kinds of lifts; the ancient ones with manually operated grilles, the silent and mirror-less ones that impose claustrophobia, the ones that gives you multiple reflections of your self through mutually reflecting mirrors on all the three sides, the ones that are royal with teak wood paneling, the ones with tobacco stains, the ones with figure enhancing mirrors, the ones with music and light, the ones with transparent walls so that one could see what’s happening around while one goes up or down.
In the popular imagination, even today lifts are the places where sinful thoughts come up. Inside a life one could fantasize about a beautiful fellow traveler. One could even have virtual sex within the span of a few seconds inside a life. Lift is an enclosed space of human desires where people stand politely away from each other while their fantasies run wild like untamed animals. You could smell the body fragrance/odor of people. And in the Bollywood, lifts are the places where the man meets woman and woos her with a song and in the meanwhile the lifts remain blocked and chocked on its way thanks to a technical fault.
Gigi subverts all these. He creates a lift as a social metaphor. It is almost like a time machine; you could travel in it and experience your social position, you could enjoy your status and the ten minutes glory. You could leave the place whenever you feel like. At the same time, you could see how a society is divided into different layers; and Gigi creates these layers by creating an elevator that would take you to different levels in a virtual building and tell you what exactly happening in these layers.
The Elevator from the Sub-continent is fabricated by real elevator making company in Delhi. Customized as per the demands of the artist, this elevator could accommodate seven people at a time. One could call the lift by pressing the button. The door opens and you enter. Once you are in what you see on the three sides (generally you see mirrors or panels inside a lift) the virtual simulation of a parking lot, which means you have just parked your car and walked up to the lift and got inside. The door closes behind you and you press the buttons and the lift starts taking you up first. In fact the three sides are created by video projection from the backside. And as you go up (or as you get a feeling of going up) you get to see different kinds of interiors of urban homes where different realities are played out (you may remember Gigi’s video titled ‘Political Realism’ in which you see the greatest political events of the world being acted out inside two urban houses in Delhi, interestingly suggested by a moving metro on an elevator corridor). Finally you reach the top and you get a full view (bird’s eye view) of the city. You feel good.
Now you come down and you see different realities (and if you want in between you could go out by pressing the door open! And the place/floor of your choice will be determined by the momentary impulses in you about your conditioning!). Once again you reach the parking lot. You think that the joy ride is over by now. It is just half way. Now the lift takes you to the floor below the real ground, the suppressed corners, the liminal spaces of the city and you come to see the unarticulated and unvoiced areas in a city where people live a different life (I am just reminded of a the famous movie Demolition Man with Sylvester Stallon and Wesley Snipes in the lead roles where all the rebelling people are pushed under the ground where they lead a parallel life within an anarchic republic) of suffering. And finally you pass through the floors that dark and devoid of space. Then you come back in a fast pace back to the floor where your car is parked. And you come out.. phew.. That’s the feeling you get because you have seen the truth of life.
Gigi articulates his concerns over the social divides and the sense of achievement and the general sense of satisfaction through the layering and heirarchizing of the society. It is a political and economic divide and most of us choose to escape from the floors that are unpalatable. Through this virtual travel in the sub-continent elevator, Gigi speaks of the life and times of the people outside the discourse (as well as within the discourse) of the rest of the world. This is a new imposition, he feels and he identifies the every changing and expanding imposition of hierarchies clearly articulated in the urban spaces. Elevator becomes a strong metaphor to express it.
Gigi is not yet forty years old. Perhaps, he is the only artist who has got real international acclaim through the sheer force of the work and the idea behind it. And there are many more years for Gigi to come up with more moving works, more persuasive works and more humane ones.