(Life and Death of Sreedharan Gopikrishna, a painting by Gopikrishna)
How far could art make meaning and move the viewers towards those meanings? Is it possible in our times where the popular symbolisms have lost their intrinsic symbolic values and stand for what they signify and nothing more than that? Saussure must be proved wrong by now. He said, sign no longer signifies the signified and the act of signification could be flexible and be liable to open interpretation. This deconstructive linguistic approach was a great liberator though the ‘maya’ of things has been emphasized by the Indian philosophers many centuries before Saussure. Though Saussure and those who followed the post structural school of linguistics had helped liberate us from not only the domination of the textual meanings and authorial intentions but also from the socio-cultural and political texts that were mowing down those who had been in the lower rungs of the hierarchy. But today, deconstruction seems to be a failed project for the sign stands for only the sign and if anybody sees anything beyond it he/she is accused of over reading, limiting all the possibilities of inter-textualities and sub-textualities. Hence, McDonald sign is just McDonald sign and it does not reveal the subtext of homogenisation of taste via culinary colonialism via economic globalization.
Take any sign and the monolithic signified implied by it, the possible sub texts are subtle and if at all there, they are used for defining social hierarchies than creating resistive fronts, with the signs and signifieds together creating a chain of relationships, which Guy Debord called as the society of spectacles. We are right in the middle of a spectacle. From birth to death, from marriage to film release, from elected presidents to demonetisation, everything is presented and understood as a spectacle so that even the most painful event in the world could be seen passively as a spectacle, like muted display of fireworks. The latest incident that one could be reminded of is the accidental shooting of a dancing girl on the stage by a drunken reveller in a marriage party. She is seen dancing on the stage and after a few minutes we see her crumbling down into a heap that sprouts red hot blood. A homicide made into a spectacle!
However, when it comes to art, suddenly people want to know more about the hidden meaning more out of habit than their real intention. Most of the spectators of art think that a work of art is a set of hidden meanings, as in the case of church art during the pre-Renaissance and Renaissance period both in the south and north Europe. In fact, the post Renaissance art history or rather the very discipline of art history was developed based on this esoteric aspect of the works of art, as something that hides a lot of meanings and secrets. With this habit and practice today anything that an artist presents has to have a hidden meaning, which in turn renders the work of art a symbol/sign destined to be decoded, first to understand the artistic intention and next the hidden meanings of it. Reading of hidden meanings also could be taken for the viewers’ intention to see what they want to see in it and it is absolutely a valid way of looking at it. After all, the meaning of a work of art lies with the meaning of looking. You see what you are looking for. When you fail to find it you move away from the work of art. While people take the symbolism of the world in general for the given and the associated values subconsciously, somehow, they actively demand other meanings from a work of art, and ironically, they all want the artists to tell them those meanings that they want to hear. From attributing social responsibility to political commitment, from aesthetical complexity to art historical erudition, from textual meanings to sub-textual interpretations, they want to hold the artist responsible. How is it possible?
I am not talking about those artists who work with a sense of meaning making, with social and political commitments and project based thinking etc. I am talking about those artists who make art because they cannot do anything else in the world. They are born to make art. Most of the time, I think that the real artists and really creative people are those beings who are born to this earth with a sort of curse and destiny. They are people with wings but without its physical manifestations on their shoulders. They are constantly high and in a flight. But the people who move around on the earth willingly submitting to the gravity of the earth do not understand the pleasure of such flights. So they want the artists to make them understand the pleasure of flight which is impossible. As the poet says, to experience that love, either the star should come down to the tip of this grass blade or the grass blade should grow to the galaxies so that it could touch the star. Both are impossible in the physical plane. Love could be mutually remunerated and reciprocated only when it is allowed to grow mystically. Then the star and grass blade could meet. When the viewers grow mystical qualities then only they could understand the qualities of a work of art, the meaning of it and the artist him/herself. Real artists or creative people are like Hijras or eunuchs. They are caught in a different body which is capable enough to dance but unable to interpret the meaning of that dance. They can only say that let us also live here on the earth.
(The Worm Inspector by Gopikrishna)
Gopikrishna is one such artist who tells the world please let me live (jeevikkaan vidu). An artist who silently walks on the earth without hurting anybody either by his life or by his work, however finds that people want meanings out of his works and they read what they want and that becomes point of attack for him. There are stark nude figures in Gopikrishna’s works; those are all his own nudes. The characters that appear in his works as if they were a personal mythology or legend or even a private folklore (which impossible apparently but is possible when that folklore is shared by the folks within his own mental realm) are involved in various activities as ‘seen’ by the artist and most of them are starkly naked. Gopikrishna remembers how he was questioned by several of his viewers and even some reputed curators in India asking him why there were so many male nudes. The artist told them at that time that why this question was never asked to those male artists who always paint female nudes? How is that the female nude is an acceptable norm of art and its accepted history, especially when it is painted by the male artists? Gopikrishna says that when a man paints his own nude or a woman paints her own nude then the society suddenly become morally rigid. According me it is the society’s (that means, the people’s) perennial fear to face themselves and see their own nudes out their own display.
Seeing a nude of a female done by a male artist is palatable for the male audience because her body has been objectified or reduced to a sexual object, which the patriarchal norms have accepted. Ironically, conditioned by these values, even women do not take much of an offence when they see female nudes in art. But a woman painting her own nude is always seen with suspicion. Either she is taken for being morally loose or a destroyer of the social norms; both should be kept away from the mainstream thinking. I am sure that is why many of the Indian woman artists still resist painting their own nudes or the nudes of the other women. However, when it comes to a male painting his own nude, suddenly, there is a total discomfiture among the viewers because they think that this male nudity should be transcended into symbolic appearances as in several phallic structures within the pictorial frame or even the male body itself should be seen as an active sexual body which does not need symbolic means to express. Hence, denuding the male body by a male artist could be seen as an act of not only self aggression but also an aggression towards the society which the polite societies would reject or would look at with some sort of disgust and disbelief, that’s what exactly happened with the works of Gopikrishna.
(Swamy Vaidyar Padam by Gopikrishna)
The male nudes in the works of Gopikrishna are not simply conjured up by the artist in order to shock the society. According to him, human beings are primordial creatures no different from any other beings on the earth. But human beings thanks to their wilful adoption of greed and avarice made clothes, grabbed power and subjugated many. While living in the midst of these systematic societies that accept grabbing, looting and disadvantaging all the other creatures including the nature, Gopikrishna sees the visions of the primordial beings who are interested in the lives of worms and small creatures. Here, the artist is not talking about dispossession and migration to cultures that are strange, instead he talking about a returning to the roots of our own causes; that lies in the primary beings of the earth including the worms. A sensitive human being could see what Gopikrishna is trying to speak to himself through a painting titled ‘the Worm Inspector’. Though the word inspector is something that makes a direct linkage to the society that we live in where everything is inspected closely by the authorities, what we see here in this painting is the curiosity of the people who look at the amazing world of the worms that we often forget to see or even avoid to look at.
Human beings are self centred. I am sure that a bit of selfishness is important for those people who still hold on to the self. Selfish people are tolerable people so long as they grab only what they want. The moment they gather more than they need they become human beings! This gathering is based on ego and also the ego is boosted by the gathering abilities. To increase the abilities to gather, one has to use either intellectual power or physical power. Once you exert physical or intellectual power you start to have a hierarchic society. Ego, the big word that remains invisible in every human being. It manifests in clothes, in hairstyles, in cars, houses, properties and so on. Here is a painting by Gopikrishna, interestingly titled ‘Swamy Vaidyar Padam’. It is an old village barbershop seen. There people like stags are waiting for to be groomed and pruned. The Vaidyar, the barber, is detached yet he has this bliss of rendering people free of their wools/hairs and egos. The people here are happy because they have come to shed it; it shows a willingness to enter into a space that would render you egoless. Vaidyar like god keeps doing his work. And look at the one who goes out with all his hairs shed. How happy he is! The egoless state of being. He has an umbrella in his hand and I am sure he is going to leave that too sooner than later.
(Madonna and Christ by Gopikrishna)
Christian themes come again and again to Gopikrishna may be because they are symbolically rich and he need not interpret it for all those who are familiar with the theological themes which is considered to be universal. However, I do not think that Gopikrishna paints Christian themes because he is hugely drawn towards its philosophy. But what apparently make him turn again and again to the Christian symbolism is the sufferings of Christ. Whether the sacrifice of Jesus Christ has helped in establishing a tolerant and loving society without ego and hierarchies is a disputable fact. But what I like about Gopikrishna’s adherence at times to the Christian themes is his liking for the human suffering for further sublimation. Here we have two works by Gopikrishna; one is titled ‘Madonna and Christ’ and the other one is ‘Planting Christ’. Nowhere in the world one could see the Christian themes painted with such freshness and empathy because Gopikrishna does not see himself different from the son of god who chose cross to throne. In Madonna and Child, Gopikrishna reverses the order of caring into the order of crucifying. One could interpret it in hundred different ways; but I would like to stick to this image and its clarity. Maximum I would say, before anybody could crucify Christ and it should be done by his mother, not once, everyday. Gopikrishna paints his autobiography perhaps, because the Christ is he himself. In ‘Planting Christ’, we do not see Jesus Christ being descended from the cross but we see a dispassionate primordial man (the surrogate of the artist) cutting Jesus into several pieces and planting him hoping that one day there would be many Christs in the world. The scene is gory and unpalatable; but truth is always unpalatable.
(Planting Christ/The Gardener by Gopikrishna)
Those people who take the world and its symbolism easily and ask the artists to explain what they have been doing is given the right kind of answer by Gopikrishna in his painting titled ‘Life and Death of Sreedharan Gopikrishna’. Is there any mission that an artist could take up in this life? Is there any social commitment for the artists above than others? Is there any special message an artist could convey to the world through his works? I do not think none of the above is possible because the human beings in the world are led by their own beliefs. They are not going to change their ways either by seeing a work of art or looking at the life of an artist. What they could maximum do is to look at the work of art and if they are receptive enough they could undergo a sea change. I see the chances of such changes rare and far in between. Hence, there is no question of asking the same to Gopikrishna and asking him to explain himself. He cannot be, like many other artists whom I know, anything than this. Eventually an artist like him is sitting on the hourglass as the times runs by. The kaal (time and death in Indian philosophy) is there in the form of a serpent, remind the physical death of the artist. But he need not panic. What is he? He is just a few colours and a brush, and like a Mughal Emperor, he could be seated at the top of the world, doing nothing but paint because he is just a few colours and a brush. If anybody in the world thinks that they are more than what they are, then all of them should look at this painting. Gopikrishna, like a hijra tells the world, I am like this and in my stark nudity, I am just a few colours and a brush. I do not have any other existence. Let me live the life that I want. The beauty of Gopikrishna’s paintings is this; they do not lead you to anywhere. It leads you to yourself. Art does not have too many inner meanings other than the pleasure of the artist who makes it and the pleasure of the one who sees it. Meaning lies in the beholder’s mind. When the mind is ready open the meanings the meanings come out. When the mind is shut the painting remains as it is. When the mind is done away with the painting too disappears; why painting alone, the painter, the world and the one who writes it too. Bliss.