Sunday, October 14, 2018

Chronicler of Stupid Common Men: The Art of Navanshu Kumar

(Navanshu Kumar, artist)

Navanshu Kumar, a young artist based in Khairagarh/Bhilai (incidentally he is also a final year MFA Painting student in the ISKVV, aka Khairagarh University) prefers to call a spade a spade. If anyone asks him why his canvases and installations do not have this ‘beauty’ component in him, he immediately chips in with an answer; according to him the idea of beauty has been debated at various levels and a contemporary painter perhaps does not live in that notion of beauty. In the ideal world that the artists of the yester years had been trying to realize beauty could have dwelled safely but today with a fast changing world in hand the very idea of ideal has been lost. Hence, it becomes imperative for any creative artist to look beyond the idea of beauty and perfection, and engage him/herself with the world, comprehend and express it as it suits to him. Seen against this backdrop, Navanshu’s paintings are ‘a-paintings’ or ‘anti-paintings’ carrying the historical dilemma of all the painters in the post-Duchampian art world where each one is destined to with an anti-painting or create an ‘a-painting’ using the age old language of painting itself!

(work by Navanshu)

In such negotiations, any artist including Navanshu makes a tight rope walking while creating a painting using a painterly language and remains constantly conscious of the fact of tumbling down into the realm of pure painting with all its idealism-baggage. It is exactly the way the radicals use the language of authority against the authority in order to topple it. When they assume power they could either re-articulate the language of power and authority or could extend the language of hegemony as an act of perpetuation. The danger of such perpetuation is this that it not only maintains the linguistic authority but also it facilitates a change in the approach of the user (here the radicals) and makes them as good or bad as the authorities in the previous regimes. Duchamp had saved himself from the tyranny of painting while resorting to the painterly language that was vogue in those days (cubist-expressionistic) before he completely shifted to the usage of readymade objects as works of art or as components of the works. The Abstract Expressionists of America had also tried to move away from painting but ironically became the new age purists thanks to the theoretical formulations of Clement Greenberg. Picasso was perhaps one artist who successfully juggled various creative languages and including that of painting but transcended all kinds of purism (even he did not allow his cubist experiments to be purist in nature).

(work by Navanshu)

Navanshu lives in a country where artists are pressed to do painting ‘also’ by the gallerists despite their success in other mediums and expressions. Artists making huge steel or bronze installations are expected to make small scale paintings to satisfy various market forces. I am not overlooking the fact that artists at time feel the compulsions from within to do various forms of art using various mediums. While accepting that I would also maintain that the paintings done by such artists would become dead weight in their later career provided the character of the art market changes for good. However, for the time being the tunnel is endless and no light is seen for even a shredded painting could be further auctioned only because it has been shredded live in a well-choreographed prank. Hence, a young artist who is hardly 23 years old would feel the pressure of the market sooner than later; chances are more that his anti-paintings would be re-dubbed as pure paintings and the style that he has developed so far would need its own sophistication. That is not a bad thing to do for the artist has to live in a society where the communication currency is nothing but money. Therefore Navanshu’s entry into the art market may not surprise anyone (even if it would be via residencies or biennales or primarily buy small time buyers and finally via galleries) and as an art critic my critical gaze is currently placed on him to see which direction he would take in a few years’ time.

(work by Navanshu)

One may by now be wondering why I call the paintings of Navanshu, anti-paintings. They are anti-paintings because they move drastically different in theme and style from the mainstream painterly practices of the day. There was a time (especially from 2000 to 2014) when every young artist in the country painted images that were mediatized in one or the other way. They all followed the so called contemporary synthetic style of photorealism that at once established the Renaissance Illusionism while extolling the possibilities of glossy two-dimensionality, almost denying the presence of any kind of depth of history. The Renaissance illusionism was used as a benchmark of the skill of the artist in question and the flatness was to be seen as his/her ability to articulate the contemporary discourse (which was absolutely shallow with artists with half-baked knowledge or google driven information posing themselves as the champions of the world issues which are immediately recognized thanks to their entry into multiple discourses via words, pictures and moving images). Navanshu breaks away from this shallowness and delves deep into a sort of expressionism that primarily captures people and places in the most unlikely fashion while problematizing his own relationship with art history at various levels.

(work by Navanshu)

Navanshu’s expressionism may look familiar in the initial look but one could see the deliberate imbalances that he has created through the application of colors and the distortion of the images. While some of them look absolutely stock images culled from a book of caricatures, a second look would reveal that they are not stock characters at all and this aspect is underlined by the strangeness that the artist attributes to each of them through their almost blind (or all seeing?) disproportionate eyeballs and the general aloofness of posture. They look like the remnants of a war, a devastation, perhaps they look like people from a different existential plane whose denial has become the logic of our sane existence on the face of the earth. Navanshu has painted the portrait of around nine aliens; the title is deliberately misleading for the onlooker could immediately launch him/herself into the search for the aliens that he/she is familiar with. But for me, they are people around us whose alien face that we refuse or fail to see. Francis Newton Souza had done it when he painted six gentlemen from our times. They were not caricatures or representative figures; but they were more than real and affirmative. Navanshu’s aliens stand at par with those gentlemen of Souza.

(work by Navanshu)

A young artist from any part of the world at the beginning of his career would definitely think (or his thought may traverse) about the aspect of madness; not only of his own madness but also of that manifested in others. Art history lauds those artists who had gone mad but had done good paintings; it also praises those artists who had chosen low life as well as the lower middle class life. Navanshu seems to agree with all these dictums of art history but he keeps himself off so far from depicting female or male nudity which I believe is a conscious stance against the cannons of art history (while I see many of his contemporaries conjure up various emblematic representations for/of nude females, especially in a time when nudes are not so really entertained on canvases and papers). I am not particularly excited by this aspect seen in Navanshu but I see that restrain as another possibility of taking his art to a dispassionate dimension where he could deal with the political realities of today in a more existential and experiential manner as he has already repudiate the ideal ‘beauty’ concept which often comes hand in hand with the nude paintings or female body in general.

(Stupid common man/every morning by Navanshu)

What Navanshu takes interest in is the field of madness. According to my reading, Navanshu sees madness as another language (I do not know whether he is clearly a Freudian or Lacanian in this sense) which could offer us a different reality, which could be more real that the apparent reality itself. He captures this language of madness through his emblematic presentation of figures and characters that include his much debated painting, ‘Stupid Common Man’; a Kafkaesque maze that he invites us into and leave us there to negotiate the space for ourselves. This could be one reason why Navanshu’s mad people look just as normal as we are with only different reflecting in the bulbous shiny eyes that we see externalized in these images while we keep them safe within us. Madness is a different order which is against the mainstream norms therefore the mad people were send across sees to the alien shores where they were expected to die a dismal death. The idea of Ship of Fools, explained by Foucault in his ‘Madness and Civilization’ shows us how people are transported to a different reality for harboring a different reality in themselves. The restoration of socio-political and moral order in a society by sending the vagrants and the mad to alien shores and islands is what we see today in a different way in the case of the migrants all over the world. They are being constantly sent to different places; some are even forced to live in vessels moored in strange seas for long; they are called the boat people. What Foucault had said comes back to us in a different way, an open political decision and discourse. Navanshu gets these people not as boat people but as people with no lands. There are efforts to politicize Navanshu’s works as he opens it up in one of the conversations.

(work by Navanshu)

One of the recent installations done by Navanshu shows a series of curved roof tiles locally made and baked being painted into masks and were displayed in a series on the wall of a village house. According to Navanshu, these tiles are human faces (besides they are called ‘masks’) that cover themselves to hide the reality that they carry with them. The villages are changing fast; the people are changing; there are mass migrations to the cities from these areas; the ones who have made some wealth in the cities are making concrete houses back home, changing the character and complexion of the villages. But they all put a brave face before these changes. The villages around Navanshu are in their transitory state; they may fade in the coming years. The masks therefore become the masks of a Grecian tragedy relating the chronicles of massive crisis. This in variable dimensions could merge with any village in the northern part of India and tell the stories of the people there without playing the representational game. The changes in such sylvan villages are not externally imposed; each one wants to take part in the idea of development and they fail to notice what they are losing fast. The common man as usual remains stupid, comprehending it as a high amount of intelligence and reveling in it. Navanshu, as an artist is currently with them to chronicle those tales of tragi-comedies. But I am sure Navanshu has to move to a different world to shape his art further up. He could be looked at by the curators and galleries in India and elsewhere for he could not only make his anti-paintings but could articulate them verbally too.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Attack on Marina Abromovic and Mahatma Gandhi

(Marina Abromovic)

On 23rd September 2018 in Florence, Italy at the Palazzo Strozzi, during a book releasing ceremony on the occasion of the world renowned performance artist, Marina Abromovic’s major retrospective exhibition, another young performance artist from the Czech Republic attacked Abromovic with a portrait of her allegedly painted by the assailant himself. The man was immediately overpowered (as the video grabs of the incident show) and the lady escaped unhurt. In the post-truth world even the sincerest of protests could be seen as a publicity stunt but when it comes to Abromovic anyone in his/her right sense would not believe that she needs any kind of publicity stunt that involves a physical attack on the artist herself. Abromovic, who is known as the ‘grandmother of performance’ art (the term ‘matriarch’ may be reeking with the smell of a binary that even her direst of critics wouldn’t like to attribute to her. Grandmother, the affectionate term not only qualifies her authority in the field but also positions her as the pioneer in/of it) has done enough acts that extended, tested and problematized the enduring capacities of human body and mind. She does not need an external attack on her body in order to grab eyeballs from the art scene in Italy, especially a place where she had performed her six hours long performance piece titled ‘Rhythm 0’ in which she had let her body to be vandalized by the audience.

(after the attack on Abromovic)

I do not know too many details about the man who had attacked Marina Abromovic. However, I would like to see his act as a referential act devoid of any kind of reverence to the artist. The reference should be to the performance titled ‘Rhythm 0’ done in 1974 in a studio gallery in Naples. Forty one years have been passed since then and the impact of that piece in the minds of the people/artists all over the world refuses to fade. This performance piece of hers, devoid of sentimentalism of any kind stays in the annals of art history as a pivotal work of art just like Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ (1917). Any conceptual artist today cannot overlook Duchamp for his cleverest of acts of bringing a readymade into the gallery context. Today, anybody who goes for an object based conceptual art has to pay tribute to the temple of Duchamp for one cannot have an object which is not a ‘readymade’ in one or the other sense. A act of performance art anywhere in the world auto-creates resonances with the performances of Abromovic for her sheer diversity of acts using her body as the lone tool. Hence, I would say any artist who uses his/her body owes a bit to the body of Abromovic, obviously the story-telling and ever benevolent grandmother.

(Rhythm 0, Abromovic's performance in 1974)

The man, the assailant, while attacking Abromovic was in a way paying tribute to the master performance artist, the genius of body based art and obviously was making a reference to one of her earlier works. The attack in itself could be seen as a ‘performance’ which was not meant to hurt the artist. Had the supporting wood hit her head it would have caused grievous head injury to the lady is another matter, which had complicated the matter, in a way transporting it from the aesthetical realm to the realm of criminal acts. While once again testing the enduring capacity of the human body and mind, as claimed by Abromovic herself almost forty one years back, the assailant was making a point that a performance, however ephemeral and anti-establishmentarian it remained in a given context, in a different time and space the possibilities of it being read differently were more. The six hours long violence in an absolutely uncontrolled (self-restraint of the audience was the only surety that Abromovic had when she placed seventy two items of assault including feathers, needles, razor blades, knifes and even a loaded gun) might not have caused serious injuries to the artist as she stood there abnegating her selfhood and subjectivity, rendering herself into an object to be acted upon. But a portrait of the artist done by the assailant, which became a weapon of assault could be read as ‘this’ artist’s effort to reclaim her subjectivity, the very subjectivity which he tested against her real personal subjectivity in the act of assault.

(the beginning of Rhythm 0 1974)

By thrashing the portrait on her head, the assailant partly annihilated the ‘created’ subjectivity of Abromovic (in this case, the canvas portrait of Abromovic done by the assailant, and in the case of 1974 act of Abromovic, the ‘object-hood’ that she temporarily created as her ‘subjectivity’ in the gallery premises) as she had wished in her original performance by causing not so insignificant hurt on her body. The assailant has emulated the same semi-serious hurting act in his attack; the only difference that we could cite for changing an aesthetic act into an act of criminality is that he had not given any intimation to the artist that he was going to do something of that sort. While Abromovic’s original piece was done in a controlled atmosphere where artist’s willingness was all the more important that had driven the whole performance for six years, here the atmosphere was different controlled and was not expecting any attack on the artist. I am sure, given all these the performance artist in question can be given a let go only by Abromovic herself provided she sees the man’s assault as a genuine piece of response to her oeuvre and a originated out of a negative reverence.

(Mahatma Gandhi)

This is where I remember Nathuram Godse and Mahatma Gandhi. On 30th January 1948, Gandhiji was on the way to his evening prayers at the Birla House in New Delhi when Godse pulled the trigger at him. Godse, it is reported that had reverence for the Mahatma but he did not like the way he tried to interpret Hinduism. He suspected that by helping the Muslim community in India and the newly formed Pakistan Gandhiji was eroding the cause of the Hindus, who Godse thought would meet with its demise if Gandhiji was allowed to speak for the Hindus. Gandhiji’s life was an ensemble of performance pieces, carefully designed and performed by the Mahatma himself. Godse was the also a performance artist in that case who was taking the Mahatma’s own reference to bump him out. A chill went through my spine as I read the post attack statement delivered by Abromovic in the media. It read: “The man came up to me looking into my eyes and I smiled at him thinking that he was giving me a gift… In a split of second I saw his facial expression change and he became violent, coming towards me very quickly with force.” Doesn’t it sound eerily familiar in the context of Gandhiji’s assassination?

Friday, October 12, 2018

When Nikhil Tiwari and Friends Hold Hands with Marina Abromovic in Khairagarh

(Nikhil Tiwari and team performing Even Odd One)

‘Even Odd One’, conceptualized and performed by Nikhil Tiwari, a first year MFA Painting student at the ISKVV, Khairagarh was meant to be a part of Inktober Khairagarh Festival 2018, undertaken by a Mauritian student artist-curator, Akshay Seebaluck whose collaborative ink art project would be on display on 15th October 2018 at an alternative exhibition venue at the basketball court in the campus. ‘Even Odd One’ started off as a complementary project however soon gained its own identity bringing out the desired participatory dynamics from among the student community by the artist-curator, Nikhil Tiwari. The project held at the ‘street’, the main road that runs through the small university campus had the resonances of the ‘notorious’ performance art piece titled ‘Rhythm 0’ by the grandmother of performance art, Marina Abromovic. More about it later.

Indira Sangeet Kala Viswa Vidyalaya aka ISKVV aka Khairagarh University is one of the exclusive universities in India that offers graduate and post graduate courses in only in ‘fine arts’ disciplines that include painting, sculpture, graphic arts, dance, music, instrumental music, theatre, folk art performances. Tucked inside a small town surrounded by expanses of rice fields and orchards, this university is at once well-known and ill-known. Seen as a small town university, it has not gained the so called ‘intellectual institute’ status amongst the mainstream academies in the country. However, the contributions of this university are no longer overlooked even by the Kochi Muziris Biennale organization. While Khairagarh is known for its graphics art department headed by Prof.V.Nagdas, the repute of the same faculty is known in a global scenario as the Graphics Art Department conducts annual international printmaking symposiums which are attended regularly by famous printmakers from at least ten different countries.

Students still bend down to touch the feet of the teachers; the Vice Chancellor is fondly called Didi (elder sister) by the students. A sense of tradition envelops the university whose main building is a small of palace of the erstwhile kings. The traditional appearance could be a bit deceptive for the university has all the facilities including 24x7 free wifi connectivity, gym, hostels within the campus, canteen, basketball and volleyball court, garden, two auditoriums and much more. A state of the art gallery is soon to be completed to house a permanent collection of contemporary art and a regular gallery. But when it comes to radical performance art, may be the tradition poses some hurdles for the students. The clever ones overcome the hurdles with their neatly planned projects and ‘Even Odd One’ is one such program nicely packaged to get the accolades even from the teaching community and the village folks who use the campus road as a thoroughfare.

Nikhil Tiwari conceptualized the whole performance as a social experiment project in which he wanted to show the ‘soft’ and ‘tough’ side of feminine nature and at the same time he wanted to tell the people that the ‘male world was not that bad’. Discussions on feminist and the feminine aspect of women in the contemporary societies held in various occasions in my classes had led him to come up with such a project. The project demanded a collective participation of the female students who at some point developed ideological differences with the conceptualizer and in a way he was abandon the project. Clever as he is always, Nikhil Tiwari could tweak the whole project into an ink hurling project where he managed to get two fellow female students and another willing male artist from his own class. They were dressed up in white and black attire and black and white colors were ready for the audience to throw at the performers. Nikhil’s idea was to highlight the human qualities; the nature of nature is contrast- white could carry black and black could carry white. In the process of carrying the other in oneself, one’s own identity merges with the other thereby nullifying all kinds of discriminations. But at the same time, the natural outcome of the project was the possible orgy of violence when the performers make themselves available objects to be smeared upon by ink. The splash of black and white started off in a slower pace only to gain momentum by the seventh minute or so and everyone was attacking the performers with black and white ink till their identities were merged into an abstraction. The white backdrop against which the whole performance took place remained the only ‘archive’ of such interaction/violent interaction/playful interaction which would be carrying the story of the enacted violence for the posterity. This backdrop carrying the stains of ink would be on display at the Inktober venue on 15th October 2018.

About her six hour long performance titled ‘Rhythm 0’ in Italy in 1974, Marina Abromovic said, “This work reveals something about humanity. It shows how fast a person can hurt you under favorable circumstances. It shows how easy it is to dehumanize a person who does not fight, who does not defend himself. It shows that if he provides the stage, the majority of the ‘normal’ people, apparently can become truly violent.’ This forty four year old statement rings true even today. When Nikhil’s performance started the students were hesitant to attack him and his friends with ink. So the volunteers wearing Inktober uniform came to fore and started doing the needful only to give a cue to the onlookers who soon became willing participants in the attack and the volunteers had to stop the attackers on the midway to protect the eyes of the performers from the constant ink attack. Abromovic was not speaking about India’s mob lynching today. But Nikhil’s project could push it towards the mob lynching tendencies that contemporary India has been showing in the recent times. A person with a clear identity could turn into the arms of a faceless mob provided he/she is given the ‘right occasion’.  Both Abromovic and Yves Klein have been the source of inspiration for the Inktober artists in Khairagarh so far and on 15th more surprises are waiting in wings for you; perhaps some of them would be the first of its kind in the history of Khairagarh.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Banksy, the Most Willing Player in an Infantile Game, ‘Going Going Gone’

(Banksy's work getting auto-shredded at the Sothbey's)

A stunt is a stunt is a stunt. Banksy’s ‘Going Going Gone’, the shredding stunt at the Sothbey’s last weekend auction should be taken as a stunt well planned, well executed and well discussed. A stunt gains its due mileage when its impact reaches the maximum number of people and Banksy, as usual should be cheering with the masters of the auction universe for the expected results. A print of the famous ‘balloon flying girl’, a piece of thought provoking graffiti work had gone for an estimated price of $1.36 million before it got shredded into pieces by a shredding appendage hidden inside a ‘clumsy’ frame. I am not here playing a myth-buster for the myth around the ‘Going Going Gone’ work (an instagram notification by Banksy himself) has already been busted by many. But the question I want to raise here is simple: Is there any myth at all behind this stunt that shredded a ‘print’ of a work of art whose original was originally made to defy and lampoon the art market?

Banksy’s transformation from an invisible/incognito graffiti artist, a sort of space snatcher or space occupier to the darling of the auction market has been gradual though unsurprising; it is bound to happen to any products including the cultural ones as they are destined to be dragged into the existing value system which as of today is determined by monetary value therefore are liable to be a part of the market system whether the producer of such products wants it to be so or not. Banksy’s anonymity becomes questionable mainly because of this market intervention; it is disputable whether market made an intervention into his life and art or it was Banksy who pulled the strings in such a way that the market wouldn’t have stood and stared. Banksy today is an industry (the products of which could claim a higher price for their scandalous value as the whole affair is based on scandalizing the social norms, which at the height of capitalism becomes the real norms that goad the affluent and callous indulge in such lascivious sports like pillow fighting a la Fellini’s La Dolce Vita) and industry has to have myths to prolong its own life and that of its products.

(source: Vanity Fair)

Myth making a part of any industry (any film star shedding a few kilos for a role is one such myth though a part of it could have an iota of truth in it). A myth becomes a believable myth only when it has some bit of truth to spice it up. That microcosmic truth in a macrocosmic lie/myth helps it to perpetuate itself in rational and believable terms as a myth is always seen in a predetermined perspective; rather the truth is that the myth has often only one perspective to retain its awe. The moment it is interpreted and critiqued from a different perspective, it not only bursts the myth in question (demystifies it) but also nullifies all the claims built around it. A nullified myth is as valueless as a tattered gunny bag that is still a bag but fails to hold anything substantial in it. Therefore, any myth in any industry conveniently discourages demystification efforts by critics by almost annihilating their status and career (remember what happened to Khalid Mohammed, the film critic and writer). The only unfortunate thing that happened with Banksy, the anonymous artist is this that he became a part of the game that keeps the already busted myth on.

The Banksy myth is an economic necessity for the art/auction world and it is at the same time a cultural necessity for the might land of Britain. Banksy being a British artist (that itself is an anachronism as an incognito artist need not necessarily be a ‘British’ artist by origin; he could be an accidental Brit operating from the United Kingdom), it is the responsibility of the state of Britain to take care of the myth. Though Banksy had started off as a nuisance/a threat to the public morality who vandalized the sanitized public spaces, after few years, with the growing respect that he has been gaining from different parts of the world (from New York to the War destroyed Gaza strip), it became the responsibility of the state to keep the mystery shrouding the Banksy legend intact. If the British Police say that it is clueless about Banksy, despite its claims to have arrested Banksy in various occasions, then we should doubt the mystery solving abilities of such an efficient policing system, which is supposedly one of the best in the world.

(Myths Unlimited)

The economic world/the corporate world and the political world are playing hands in glove in protecting the Banksy identity thereby perpetuating the myth. I do not know whether the United Kingdom gives its citizens a sort of constitutional right that allows one continue the life of anonymity. Many of the musicians have stage names and also a sort of fantasy life style but still they are real people who hold a passport and go through all the immigration procedures in the foreign lands with their real names and real personalities. How can we think that Banksy remains incognito and lives among the people without ever raising suspicion even of a security guard? (Someone at the Sotheby’s auction venue was gushing that Banksy should have been around while his painting was getting shredded. Someone could even say that the trigger was even pulled by him. The most imaginative ones could say that the Banksy himself must have been bidding for his works.)

As an art critic and historian, I do believe in the works of Banksy; but I keep asking this question, had it not been the mystery around his personality, would his works have raised the curiosity quotient among the art loving people all over the world? Banksy has been instrumental in making graffiti art fashionable and I always see his parallel in the rapper Eminem who adopted rapping and made it big more than Tupac, Biggie, Ice Cube or 50 Cent could do. As Eminem gave rapping both critical edge and social acceptance, Banksy took graffiti art by force from the Black radicals and aesthetically polished it and added the much wanted mysterious quotient with an incognito signature. While the graffiti vandalism of the Black and the Punk invited punitive actions, the graffiti of Banksy raised curiosity for its sophisticated aesthetics that played up visual pun and black humor. While Banksy kept the steam of socio-political critique on in his graffiti, he took off the violent edge of the vandalizing types of graffiti. Basquiat had transported graffiti to canvases and Banksy took the route of public walls to reach the conventional canvases.

The gasping in the auction house upon seeing the shredding of the canvas by Banksy was choreographed and controlled. It was a controlled implosion as we had seen in the collapse of the twin towers, minus its calamities. Yes, as disaster capitalism always does, the collapse of twin towers resulted into the destruction of the countries elsewhere which paved the way for the realtors to spread their foot prints all over those countries, the shredding of a work of willingly by the author himself in fact has increased its price by several folds. If it had been taken for One Million Pounds, Banksy later claimed five millions for the shredded work. The whole affair is a classic example of poetry as willing suspension of disbelief. All the players willingly suspend their disbelief and pretend that it was a ‘prank’ played by Banksy himself. But they do not accept the fact that it was a prank well-choreographed and played by all the parties involved. May be that is what we do today, like children playing the game of invisibility. Some children decide to make one of them invisible and pretend that he is not seen at all even when an unsuspecting child says that he could see one; or otherwise, they pretend they someone when there is none. This game in the auction house takes the art players into a state of infancy where they are willing to make someone visible or invisible. The game is all fun so long it yields millions of dollars. And Banksy is the most willing player of all in this game.