Sunday, November 20, 2016

V V Vinu's 'Noon Rest' and the Trap of Biennales

(V V Vinu's 'Noon Rest at Shanghai Biennale)

Biennales and art fairs are neutralizing agents of the acerbic and acidic cultural critique generated by the visual, audio and textual forms of art. Though most of the biennales and art fairs claim that they present the most innovative and critical works of art as a part of their biennial stock taking and provide some sort of aesthetical direction to the international art scene, apart from giving a few tips to the trendy international art collectors to hobnob with the celebrity artists, super powers of art galleries and dealers in the politically undisturbed cool climes of the state of the art pavilions in the most exquisite cities with some historical past and good cuisine culture, they fundamentally de-edge the critical nature of the works of art and domesticate them for their purpose. Let migration, disposession, mass exodus, autocracy, political oppression, poverty, religion, caste, genocide, rape, child abuse and anything be the point of departure for a work of art, the moment when it is brought into the biennale or art fair circuit, experience shows that it loses it edge, of course in the process making the artist a household name and the work of art a familiar aesthetical form at least within the closed communities.

(V V Vinu aka Vinu Vadakedath)

Vinu V.V, a Kerala based artist is now in news because his work, ‘Noon Rest’ (Uccha vishramam) is in the 11th Shanghai Biennale which opened on 16th November 2016. Ever since the opening of the Biennale, Vinu is a much talked about artist in the art circles. In fact this work was exhibited in a small gallery in Kochi and its fame was contained within Kochi though there had been newspaper articles and online discussion about the show; still the artist was not discussed the way he is discussed today. This shows two facts about our art scene; whatever be the strength of the artist and the works of art that he produces, the effect of it will be limited and contained until he is taken to a national or international platform. Period. It also tells us that in the international platform the work of art and the artist to certain extent transcend their initial position and become much milder than what they are originally meant to be. For instance, the title of the work, ‘Noon Rest’ could be dubbed bad English in its original position as the artist had translated the Malayalam title (Malayalam thinking) Uccha Vishramam into word by word translation as ‘Noon Rest’. While the word Siesta was available to him, it was Vinu’s original position to treat it as basic and rustic as possible which the cultural scene of Kerala that celebrates its own Biennale, thereby curtailing the possibilities of reaching out within the given cultural scene. However, when it goes into an international platform, the very title becomes exotic and too loaded to resist its charm. How does it happen?

(a painting by V V Vinu)

The artist, a fine arts graduate in sculpture from the RLV College of Fine Arts, Thrippoonithura, does not shy away from the fact that he belongs to a Dalit family and the inspirations for his works generally come from his own autobiographical contexts and backgrounds. Being a Dalit or belonging to a Dalithood is stronger than Dalit positioning and posturing because of the proximity of the Dalit to discrimination and deprivation of various kinds. Vinu, in a few artistic statements has reiterated that he is inspired by Ayyankali, an early 20th century Dalit activist, scholar and reformer and he details how he had exhorted the agricultural workers who belonged to the Dalit groups to come together to drop their farming tools as a protest against the social injustice of not allowing the Dalit students enter school premises. Dalit discourse however is not a monolith but unlike other subaltern discourses, there could be a monolithic core for all the Dalit experiences for the very idea of Dalit itself is about being discriminated, dispossessed and vandalized. Vinu’s work does not come from the Ayyankali episode directly but it refers to the ‘tools down’ strike in a different fashion.

(When V V Vinu was featured in a prominent Malayalam Magazine)

‘Noon Rest’ is a symbolic revisiting of a particular aspect of the labour/slavery suffered by the Dalits who belonged to the feudal lords or lived as farmers in the leased out lands. In both these cases the Dalits had only one possession in their hands; their labour power. Even their bodies were identified with this aspect of labour. Noon time is the only occasion when these Dalit workers rested their bodies for a few minutes after sticking their sickles on the nearest trees. The placing of those tools happened automatically or naturally that they did not attribute any particular value to that act of ‘resting’ their tool in that way. Interestingly, as an insider what Vinu sees here in that act is the displaced metaphor of rest not only of bodies but also of their social role as farmland slaves. I would further say that those were the only times when they separated labour from their bodies. That means a resting body is not a labouring body therefore free from its slavery even though temporarily. Those were the only moments when the Dalit farmers reclaimed their bodies as social subjects perhaps subconsciously. Hence, Vinu’s accentuation is on this social subjectivity of the farm slaves in a displaced metaphor of their resting tools.

(Speaking Stones by N.N.Rimzon)

There could be a huge hiatus between the artistic intention and the readerly reception of a work of art when it is exhibited in a context which is far removed from the real context of its origin. One cannot insist that a work of art could be exhibited only in its contexts of origin or where the contexts of origin are understood in the right sense. If that is the case we cannot exhibit any work other than the studio of the artist. While that being the case, there is a danger of the work of art losing its intention/meaning and becoming something else in the readerly/viewerly efforts. When the Dalit discourse or experiences that had given birth to the work is taken away from it or misunderstood or understood academically within a sanitized zone, the work of art becomes a formal exercise which gives birth to an interesting form, especially a rural one, coming from India, from south India, from Kerala, from Kochi/Trivandrum, from a field, from a Dalit artist. By the time a work of art like ‘Noon Rest’ is understood in this fashion or as an exotic form, the rest of the discourse is nullified or become an academic context of the work of art which would give it some sort of history, which in turn would help the buyers, future collectors, auction houses or museums to place their provenance and description.

(Divine Death by Ratheesh T)

What I have said in those many words could be summarised into one word, which is ‘co-optation’. When the Dalit ideas are co-opted in the mainstream platforms they lose their resistive edge not because they do not have to become mainstream but because it is prematurely brought into the mainstream without a critical or cultural context to find allegiance with (other works of art). I do not intend to say that Vinu’s inclusion in the Shanghai Biennale is a wrong thing nor do I say that it would make Vinu dissociate from his Dalit ideas in future. But the danger that I perceive is a different sort. The mainstream world is always in the ‘look out’ for something ‘different’; what it wants is not a different ideology but a form, a hollow form where the mainstream could fill in its ideology including that of the market economy. As I mentioned before, Vinu’s Dalit idea infused in the work of art would become a supportive material for the transactions of it in the market rather than it becoming a point of departure for many Dalit related aesthetical discourses to start. Once Vinu is co-opted by the mainstream Biennale circuit more and more opportunities would come for him and this would make him dig into his Dalit past and present and find raw materials and narratives to create his works. In this process, he would slowly exclude the community and its ideological issues from which he works because the international art circuits are the places, as I have mentioned at the outset, where ideologies are neutralized for the purpose of the market.

(Sunilal with his paintings)

Vinu today is selected in the Shanghai Biennale for the ‘difference’ that his work has generated in its form. And the narrative structure that he has to support it is quite appealing among the international art communities because they all know the histories and narratives of different kinds of discrimination and deprivation. Hence, it is not difficult to treat the Dalit issue as expressed by/in Vinu’s work as an international one cutting across the borders. However, this early catch is going to be detrimental for Vinu develop as a worthy reckoning artist not only in India but also in the international art scene. The reason for this are two folded; first of all it is a one off work of Vinu (though he has other works) whose aesthetics is still in the formative stage. Secondly, had it been after a few years with a solid body of works that made Vinu an important artist in the Dalit visual discourse primarily in Kerala and then elsewhere, his inclusion in the Biennale would have created a much bigger impact. Now I would say what is going to happen; there is will be a scrambling for Vinu’s works from different quarters and if he does not have the will power to say No, he would be making work on order. Money is a huge temptation and most of our artists have succumbed to it and I do not think Vinu is an exception for he is human. Coming to the Indian galleries, they are all going to hunt for his works and there is not a single gallery in India which is not Brahminical and absorbing Vinu into their schemes would finish him as an artist.

(A drawing by Savi Savarkar)

Shanghai Biennale or not, Vinu as the first Kerala artist to participate in it or not, it is important see the fact that Vinu is not the first artist who has expressed Dalit issues with such aesthetical finesse from Kerala. Though, N N Rimzon has not openly made statements about his close allegiance to the Dalit ideologies or the Dalit discourses in the socio-political fronts, he has invariably made it clear that his works are about the Dalit discourses with a Dalit sensibility (I am not taking his personal belongingness to a Dalit community into consideration here) and many of his works including the ‘Dalit Gestures’ (Adiyalarude Samjakal), ‘Speaking Stones’, 'Far away from 108 feet' and the innumerable drawings that show a hamlet in castaway space which is liminal between the fields of production and the avenues of consumption. Only a proper retrospective of Rimzon could bring out this aspect of his works. Had he been included in the Shanghai Biennale for the ‘Dalit’ subject, then it would have been much more perceptive from the curators’ side. We also have Ratheesh T and Sunil Lal, who have been dealing with the Dalit subjects in more conventional painterly forms. Their Dalit-ness was not highlighted in India even by their galleries because the Brahminical structures prevail in our country. Only Savi Savrakar in Delhi has openly made his Dalit ideology not only in his personal statements but also in his works. For this reason Savarkar has been hugely discriminated and still he does not have any private gallery shows nor is included in major curatorial projects. When curators become middlemen of art trends, they too catch artists young because they could finish them off in one go. 

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