Monday, June 6, 2011

How Alternative is Alternative Art Practice? About the TINA Factor of Art

(Helmsboro Country Unfolded by Hans Haacke, 1990)

How alternative is alternative art practice? One day someone asked me another question that ringed the same meaning. His question was is there something called alternative art practice? I said, “Yes, there is something called alternative art practice and alternative art practice is the childhood of the mainstream art practice.”

However offending it might sound to the ears of the hardcore alternative art practitioners, from the experience of the last fifteen years one could easily say things are so. You start with alternative forms and modes of art practice and eventually you end up in the mainstream gallery systems where extrinsic factors speak rather than the intrinsic ideology and aesthetics of the concerned practice.

Alternative practice in India started off in India almost twenty years after it got its Euro-American birth in 1960s. Art Povera, immaterial art, temporal forms of art installations all together contributed to the installation art practice in the west, which was more inclusive as it could cut across various disciplines of image and object making aiming culture as its final target. It was a critique and discourse on and of the existing cultural practices and one could say there was a strong ideological orientation against the hegemonic centers that endorsed certain kind of art practice.

In India, during the 1990s there was a strong urge for alternative art practices. Gallery based art was wrong, or it was considered so by the young blood that came out of the institutions after gathering considerable academic moss along their bodies and souls. Wiping them off was urgent and the scrub that they found was the alternative art practice. Not a single youngster, who practiced alternative art during mid-90s ever wanted to exhibit their works in a gallery. They just wanted to do it, in the colleges, in the public spaces, in their own communities and if at all they were given a chance, in the galleries.

But the latter was a rare case. That’s why famous artist A.Ramachandran famously said at that time as a critique of the system; ‘You can do any kind of installation, but the medium should be oil on canvas.’ None could have expressed the situation well than this art who in fact worked in oil on canvas and showed a lot of sympathy and appreciation towards alternative art practices.

(Reichstag by Christo)

Naomi Klein book ‘No Logo’ became a logo in itself. Che Guevara became a market icon. They became so because they were distinct and the capitalist market always wanted the distinct. When the conservative modes of a society are penetrated the distinct and the subaltern become mainstream and alluring. That’s what happened (happening) with any kind of revolution in the world. When subaltern culture become a thing of difference in the eyes of the mainstream produces of culture even expletives could become lyrics.

Hence, the alternative art practice in India could not have resisted this pressure, this sucking pressure from the mainstream market. Slowly, the alternative art practitioners found themselves in a different turf, which was considered to be better because it was distinct and because of this distinction they were provided with scholarships and financial assistance, if not from the home grown institutions but from the agencies of the foreign lands. They found name and fame there, they became names in the international art fraternity and that was the compulsion of the artists back home to become one of them and enjoy that fame and fortune in the name of alternative art practice.

This was the first step of covert co-optation of distinction by the mainstream ideology of capitalism, which has become an inevitable factor today. Even the biggest of the communist could not resist the market for his ideology. But the outcome was that new brahminical system was created out of the distinction that they carried along within their works and demeanor. The alternative artists became new Brahmins in the system only because they did distinct art thought it did not sell well in the beginning.

But the market found out ways to capitalize on the distinctive nature of art created by the alternative art practitioners. That was the reason why when the international market collapsed by the year 2009 and the art world got affected by the ensuing wrangling, to save the face and grace the museums and international funding agencies came forward to support funded art rather than art that raised funds. Immediately our artists and the galleries responded to the situation by propping up so many shows with installations and temporary art objects.

Anything that was done using traditional art materials (one should know that this tradition of oil on canvas is just one and half century old in India) was pushed to the arena of ‘traditional crafts’. This phenomenon was tremendous on the one hand and ridiculous on the other because the erstwhile alternative practices now became the mainstream and the erstwhile ones became traditional, subaltern and therefore retrogressive.

(Work by Anish Kapoor)

Young artists, who have come out of the institutions studying the traditional methods or art making, pepped up with information and knowledge of contemporary art making started sidestepping the urge to do paintings and sculptures and started going behind immaterial art just for the heck of it, without even thinking once about the funding possibilities to sustain such acts. It is quite ironic that many galleries that came up with cutting edge alternative art shows in the last two years now keep silence on whatever they have done in the name of alternative art practice.

May be this triumph and the consequential confusion and the illogical hopes maintained by the alternative art practitioners and their so called promoters could be the natural outcome of a historical dynamics, which is almost an inevitability in the case of any occurrence in history, as they say, what goes up has to come down one day. Hence, as in the political scenario in a global scale or in the regional levels, the erstwhile subaltern becoming the ruler (Mayawati to Obama), in art too the erstwhile subaltern art that had once doubled up as alternative art practice has come to take the place of the mainstream.

But the outcomes cannot be hoodwinked and wished aside. Today, we see artists running from pillar to post to get support to do their alternative art. The galleries are confused about the kind of support they are supposed to extend to the artists irrespective of their style, medium and philosophy. In this global scenario, people vacation in cooler zones of the world and come back with some inspiration and influence and impose it as the trendiest of art upon the unsuspecting and easily believing younger lot, without ever revealing the economic implications of such impositions.

(Binayk Sen performance by Inder Salim Tikku)

Hence, today we have a set of artists totally confused about the kind of art they do, they want to do and they wish to avoid doing. Recently, I met one young artist from Udaipur in conference in Delhi. He is academically trained (with a post graduation in painting from a reputed institution in Udaipur, Rajasthan). Hailing from a family of miniature painters, this artist has tremendous skill in doing miniature works with a contemporary bend to it. He showed me a couple of brochures of his previous exhibitions and I was shell shocked. The works were looking utterly mundane (in a modernist sense) and period. He was earnest in telling me that he liked to modern/contemporary works than the miniature ones. In fact he was good at the miniature style works. But he was feeling ashamed of saying that he did such works. He wanted to become the modern/contemporary ‘artist’.

This incident could exemplify the situation in a big way. The traditional art practitioners are becoming contemporaries by deliberately changing their language, the way the tribal people are forcefully converted into another religion and their tongues are interpolated with another language, which in fact does not make any sense either to them or others. On the other hand we have the contemporary artists sidestepping their academic and traditional skills and wanting to become something else; people who does impermanent art and site specific installations.

Impermanent art and site specific installations are good so long as they are meant for interacting with the local communities and involving them into the general production of the work, which would eventually benefit them materialistically and culturally. But the problem begins when an artist academically educated and invested with urban thinking adopt a poorer section of the society to build up on one’s own bio-data. The artist starts his or her work as a missionary and then goes on to build up a good documentation and then that particular documentation is used as proof to find patrons either in the funding agencies or in the galleries. This is one of the biggest crimes that the educated to do the non-educated, the initiated could do to the uninitiated.

(Performance by Shantanu Lodh)

I do not say that those artists who try to do alternative works in alternative spaces should live in such places permanently and should not aspire for career progress. If I say something to that effect, I would not be different from any cultural fundamentalists. Instead of becoming one, what I suggest is that these artists who opt to do such things should have a political ideology, if not political ideology, at least a political will to negotiate with the governing conditions of the place where they do their alternative practices and derive support to make it a sustainable practice so that even after the artist leaves that place of action, the place continues to thrive on the ideas thrown up by the artists and the improvisations later on done on them by the habitants there.

It needs a strong will. You need to negotiate with the politicians, you need to negotiate with the funding agencies, local patrons, galleries, law and order faculties, educational systems and so on. You need to carve a Medha Patkar or a Mahasweta Devi out of you in order to become a sustainable alternative art practitioner. It is easy to go to a village and paint a mural on a wall with the help of the local kids and impart a sense of wonder to the illiterate poor amongst the village, come back and post a few photographs in the facebook and bask under sun of glory and philanthropy. It is a very easy act and one could easily convert that to fuel one’s career engine.

Alternative art practices should be sought from the artists like Christo and Haans Haacke. Both of them fought and dared systems to do their works of art. Today Anish Kapoor does not find any challenge from any agencies as all are willing to make his dreams a reality. The struggle that Anish Kapoor ever has is with his own work (perhaps, a decade back he was finding it difficult to put his ‘real’ stuff in real places. Today it is different). When alternative becomes the mainstream, it becomes another convention and today we see most of the young artists do conventional alternative art works. They allure the viewer for a moment but then the attraction subsides as the time and distance increase.

(Performance by Al Saidi Hassan)

What we need to do today is the vital question. Are we going to avoid the traditional art practices and embrace the erstwhile art practice only because it is trendy? Any thing trendy and distinct at one point of time would naturally become a conventional with the passage of time.

Hence what we need today is sustainable practices, which would keep the dignity of the artist and the aesthetics of the art object high and respectable irrespective of time, location and gender. Art becomes contemporary with its ability to renew itself with any given context.

It is high time that we break the barriers between the traditional and the alternative/cutting edge aesthetics. Let us not behave like philanthropists and missionaries. Let us make our art inclusive and multidisciplinary. Let us shed all the scales of scorn that we have grown over the years with the interaction with the trendiest of people. Trendy people don’t endure, but sustainable things will be always trendy. Jeans is the best example. From collieries it has moved to haute couture.

Art is that. There is no alternative today. These are the TINA days in Art.


rahul bhattacharya said...

really good write johny..
booking it for the next issue

waswo x. waswo said...

You've said exactly what needs so much to be said. So many younger artists have shown me their "contemporary"/"alternative" work (which often leaves me mentally yawning), and only afterwards do they show me their earlier "traditional" works...which are sometimes real eye-openers. I've asked the question, "Why did you stop doing this?" and just as you report, they reply that they want to be a "contemporary artist". But is that their real desire? Or is there just a perception (and pressure) that the contemporary is a doorway to success, and the "alternative" the key to being taken seriously in the curating circles? One of the ironies of life of course is that yesterday's revolutionaries are today's establishment.

JohnyML said...

Dear Waswo,

by raising those questions you have exactly answered them too...I am happy that there are so many thinking people like you in this art scene who ultimately strive to make sense to the young artists....thanks...jml

murali cheeroth said...

demand a genuine vacuum cleaner...thanks JML


even after knowing so much about this art practice many galleries wont encourage they wait and watch who will pick this artist first then they fallow just like all sheep stand still in rain and wait for any one to start move first to fallow...

Unknown said...

you have raised so many valid questions and I like the way you tried to find some answers... these questions were bubbling inside me though I remain not so a close observer like you.
I believe we always had 'alternatives' as long as we started to create, mould, chisel, weave... and recreate, remould, rechisel, reweave. but the question is how these 'alternatives' will be tenebale in a given societal order, will they perish, stagnate, and get slowly saffocated by their own bewilderness?
How they will sustain? or if they want to breakthrough in the mainstream, will their paths will get dashed in different cul-de sacs of society?
For me, 'alternatives' will always be there starting right from Lascaux caves. And the narration still goes on. Somehow it goes on and on and on like the Duracell battery. And I totally love this phenomen.

Artville said...

I used to wonder some times. Then I explained me "its all in the game".