Thursday, December 21, 2017

In Pursuit of Scars: Vicky Roy’s New Photography Series

(Vicky Roy)

We live in a world where a majority of us are ‘trigger-happy’; most of us are equipped with a shooting machine. The irony is that often we shoot at ourselves; we call it selfie. In that sense selfie is a sort of semi-suicide, a death that never takes life but make life eternal or we think so. There was a time when people thought of camera as vile equipment, a click of which would take a part of us away; again a speck of small death, a photograph. Yes, photographs anticipate death; it is a preamble to the text called ‘our death.’ And along with us, our backdrops, our front drops which are called nature too die a slow death in the act of taking photographs. All of us do not think of photograph is these terms. When we aim at us or the nature in front of us, we think we make it eternal but in fact continuous photographing process also connotes a series of deconstructing the death; a sort of self portrait by artists to capture the effect of the changing seasons and passing years in the person. This is what exactly the noted young photographer Vicky Roy does in his latest solo exhibition titled ‘The Scarred Land: New Mountain-scapes’ curated by Ram Rahman at the Vadehra Gallery, New Delhi.

(from This Scarred Land)

These photographs tell us the stories of the mountain-scapes in Himachal Pradesh. Understanding about a particular state in India also comes with a pictorial image or sense. When we talk about Kashmir we visualise it as the essence of Kashmir’s visual quality filtered into our cultural consciousness through various sources including calendar pictures, honey moon photographs and the films that were shot against the heavenly landscapes of Kashmir before terrorism hit the state and dissent became stony projectiles. When we talk about West Bengal, despite the over presence of Trinamool Congress, we imagine it as a place where the Howrah Bridge hangs dissolved in the mist of Hoogly River like many a bridges across Istanbul’s Bosphorus River. When we talk about Kerala unnecessarily we think about boat races and Kathakali masks and a lot of greenery. Similarly when we talk about Himachal Pradesh, the pictures of huge mountain scapes loom large over our consciousness. Many people remember the British colonial period, many other remember their annual vacations, devotees remember the shrines that the state houses and the readers remember the good old man, Ruskin Bond.

(from This Scarred Land)

Once you see the pictures taken by Vicky Roy and the predominant greys that cover the images like a layer of dust and their sadness your idea about Himachal Pradesh definitely would change. This is a scarred land, obviously the curator likes it to pun with the ‘sacredness’ comes as a package deal with the name of the state. Behind the folds of the hills and meadows, along the askew pathways that wind up hill, within the tiered lands where habitats have been sheltered as well as punished by nature, a new reality has been in the making for so many years. Earthmovers and biting machines work round the clock to dig up properties meant for multi-storied buildings, expensive and highly in demand. The irony is that each building that comes up bring a little of city along with it, slowly filling the erstwhile sylvan land and the land of solace and divinity with total urban profanity and changing the land into a memory which could lovingly turned into wall papers for these apartments. Though Vicky has not lived in this part of the world continuously like the Roerichs or the colonial photographer Thomas Bourne or the traditional painter Nainsukh and several other pahadi miniature artists who are denied their names despite of the hard work of historians like B.N.Goswamy, whenever he could visit the state, a trigger-happy artist,  clicked pictures of the spaces which he had seen in the previous visits but had changed the complexion through external aggression. 

(from This Scarred Land)

Human beings are a strange sort. They seek peace and silence, a bit spirituality supported by ample amount of wealth in the hills and they make cottages and settle there to lead a simple life. But the flow of the wealth is not always from up to down; rather it is from down to up. Wealth moves from the planes to the hills and sea shores and much deep into the forests. In those places they make Jacuzzi retreats and apartments for holidays. When you have all these, you need to develop infrastructure. With infrastructural development, you carry a city into the forest, pushing the forest further inside or to extreme peripheries. You fill these places with vehicles and diesel gas. Then you create malls, schools and high end hospitals. By doing this, you cut forests to make space for these and collapse the ecological balance. The last point of it is that you complain about the growing concrete and abstract populations in those sylvan areas. What Vicky documents is this irony. These pictures taken by him as tell tale evidences to this human avarice. In way, Vicky’s photographs in this solo exhibition are the registration of damage that the human beings have inflicted on the body of nature. And these are also the photographs of the silent cry of the earth. It is a real time movie documentation of the denuding and tonsuring of the earth’s head. That too is done with coarse blades, scarring the head with many cut marks.

(from This Scarred Land)

Vicky makes the portraits of a widow called earth. His works are not really eco-political alone. It is a stand in metaphor for the women all over the world; their productivity, their calmness, their sense of happiness and their right over their bodies are vandalized and they are forced into a sort of unwilling widowhood. Widowhood of the earth is not defined the death of her husband. On the contrary it is a collective death of righteousness and morality of the politicians and policy makers. Each frame in Vicky’s pictures raises this question: Who allows this vandalism? Hence this body work becomes a strong political critique raised at the face of the politicians and the land mafia. May be the curatorial intervention of creating two backdrops with the images of Roerich’s and Bourne’s works is just to limit this critique which is sharp enough to incise painful lines on our conscience and contain it within the artistic/visual discourse itself. But I believe that we need not restrict the works into that ‘terrible beauty is born’ format. The silent screams of the land would reverberate in our ears and moral agitation of the artist becomes palpable when we stand in front of these works. Vicky does not train his camera at the iron arms that dig the land nor is he focussing on the skeletal concrete structures that come up at every nook and corner of the mountain scapes of Himachal Pradesh.

(from This Scarred Land)

When there is an earthquake, a flood, a landslide or a manmade mishap we wail on the lives that lost. We often say that it was where this or that building stood. But we never say that it was where once a beautiful hillock or stood before the building came up there. Our visions are limited by the existence of concrete and city. Nobody asks what was there before the malls came, the roads came and the hospitals came. In planes we have only one answer to it; agricultural fields. We don’t ask what was there before a resort had come up. The answer is a forest. Where water tanks stand tall today once ran a stream with crystal clear water. In the hills the answer is always a piece of beautiful nature. Hence, the works of Vicky are forensic evidences of immeasurable loss caused human beings. They are visual FIRs that find no police station to file. Hence they come to a gallery wall. We cannot predict where these pictures would go. The historical irony could be that these works would travel in stranger than fictional routes and end up in the walls of palatial apartments that have just come up in the hills. Vicky Roy as an artist wouldn’t be able to stop that. But that is the beauty of art; it turns into silent but beautiful reminders of the human beings who ‘caused’ that art. Oblivion is strength and an art collection is a confession. 

Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Sculptor who Chiselled a Smile: Nagji Patel (1937-2017)

(Nagj Patel- the last picture from Bulgaria)

Nagji Patel is no more. Three days back, from Bulgaria, where he had been in a sculpture symposium, like the ones that he had been attending throughout his creative career, he had updated a facebook profile picture. I was worried when I saw it; something was not quite right about that picture. In the yellow light of a hotel room, Nagji Bhai was sitting, leaning against the bed head. He held his hands folded across his chest, a sense of resignation painted across his sagging cheek muscles, which always used to hold a smile in an upward curve. That warm smile was missing on his face in that picture. Nagji Bhai was not my friend as I stand separated almost four decades from him in age. However, in different occasions, I have had these wonderful moments of pleasant interactions with him. So the unsmiling face in the facebook profile picture sent out some ominous premonitions to me. I thought Nagji Bhai was not well.

That internal gaze of his; how could I erase from mind? That unsmiling face; how could I reconcile with that unsmiling face? I knew whenever I met him, sometimes as an art historian and sometimes as a friend of his son and artist, Chirag Patel, his approach towards me was that of love and I used to think that he was quite amused by my controversial comments on art and the artists in this country though I had never said anything hurting about him. Let me contrast two faces; the faces of Jeram Patel and Nagji Patel. I hardly know anything of the so called dynamics of the Baroda art scene, which is otherwise known as the Baroda art politics. I have never been a party to it and would never become one. However, thanks to some benevolent friends in Baroda, I had the chance of meeting both these artists and even I had done a twenty four minute long ‘documentary’ on Jeram Patel. He never smiled; neither to the camera nor to me despite the fact that I had been making several visits to his home and spending good number of hours talking about his life and works. Nagji Patel always smiled even when he was chiselling away wood pieces sitting at the courtyard of his studio somewhere near Kanoria Centre, Ahmedabad.

(a monumental sculpture by Nagji Patel)

I always thought both the men were hurt by something. Today, I understand that they were hurt by their art. Only those who love you deeply hurt you deeply. Look at the spouses; they are like disgruntled warriors perfecting their war machines just to hurt the other. Devoid of other means in the mundane lives, they find sharpened words and acidic deeds to hurt the spouses, thinking that the deeper hurts would etch the love deeply into the minds. The imprints taken later would be clear, the chisel mark clearer and the smell of colour still sharp. Nagji Patel was in love with his art. And this art, like many a spouses in the real life did not pay him back the way he expected. As Indian art scene couldn’t respect him beyond being a reckonable name, Nagji Bhai had to take off from Baroda at regular intervals to countries elsewhere with marble and granite blocks waiting for his chisel touch. Nagji Bhai’s sculptures might have earned him respect in this country but little money; and he had to sustain himself doing sculpture symposium throughout his life. Thinking of it, thankless we are as we fail always to celebrate a living artist and lament once he flips the curtain and vanishes as if in a magical act.

(the illustrious Banyan Tree sculpture by Nagji Patel)

The smile on his face was the smile that hoodwinked the hurts that he faced in his personal as well as artistic life. He loved stone so much because he could carve his pain making the right incision on them. And Nagji Bhai perfected the art of incision; the sharp cut that would bring the sculpture out of the cocoons of stones. I remember the days of lying down under the Banyan Tree, staring at the silver sky with my vacant eyes. Fatehganj was the one that you see today. Whenever I felt lonely, I went to this sculpture and sought shelter under the shade of it; surprisingly never thinking of its possible connection to enlightenment other than going by the out layer of meaning that Baroda had derived its name from Vad Vrukshas (Banyan Trees). This sculpture had defined Baroda in those days. The opening shot, a panoramic one with Kaki’s chai lari and cosmopolitan restaurant where the legends said biriyani was served.

(the dismantled Banyan Tree at Space Studio, pic by JohnyML)

In 2015 February, the controversial Vat Festival took place in Baroda. I had contributed one article about Jeram Patel in one of the books and I was living in Mumbai for a short while. I drove down to see the festival. From there I went to the Space Studio where Parag Sonarghare was preparing for his solo exhibition. At the far end of the ground, I saw the disassembled pieces of the legendary banyan tree by Nagji Patel. I felt sad. Upon enquiring about its dethronement from the centre of the city, I was told that the sculpture was a victim of the ‘development’ mantra that these days all the governments follow. They could uproot a culturally rooted Banyan Tree sculpture of a famed artist, dump it in a ground and dangle a promise saying that it could be reassembled/re-installed at some other city square, far away from its original place. Nagji Bhai did not make any public statement; even if he had I did not get to see it (mea culpa). Of late, there have been negotiations to carry it to another state in Indian South and house it with due respect. Nagji Bhai was about to feel good about it. But man proposes and time disposes.

(the hidden signature of Nagji Patel from under the Banyan Tree sculpture. Pic JohnyML)

Nagji Bhai, came to do a solo show in a private gallery in Delhi, almost a decade back. I met him there and found a couple of works installed just outside the gallery. I knew it was not a well thought out curatorial decision or a decision by the artist himself. It was done out of the TINA factor; there is no alternative. The works were huge and did not go into the gallery. I thought it was a complete lack of professional negotiations from the side of the gallery. The gallery should have thought about it before letting him send those works. What I heard later was a lot of complaints about the money the gallery had to spend on transporting those works. I met Nagji Bhai, talked to him; even in the height of that personal as well as artistic crisis, he was smiling, warming up to me, asking about my health and life in general, then explaining his works. In fact, when I look at his works and life, like many other artists of his generation, he too had very little to talk (about their works). It was a divine mission that had goaded them into work and words couldn’t have done justice to them. Now we live in a time where words envelope deeds and ‘hillify’ the moles. Nagji Bhai worked on the ideas that prevailed in the artistic Utopia, the forms that derived from an oriental sense of being one with nature and the monumental imaginations that worked on the essences of matter, space and place and imparted identity to the places where those works were placed.

(Nagji Bhai Patel in a work site)

Our art scene has tremendous amount of mandatory-ness and ad hoc-ism. I have a collection, I need this, that and Nagji Patel too. That’s the way we collect art. We do not have the habit to consistent collections as in the case of the pioneers of art collecting in our country. So, perhaps, every art collector in our country must be having a Nagji Bhai work in their collection often kept on a stone pedestal as a non-descript garden sculpture. Modernist and minimalist sculptures have suffered this fate in many of the Indian collections both in the public and private sector. Unable to decode the meaning of these minimal germinal and semi-erotic forms they remain as ‘piecemeal’ sculptures in the gardens or in the corners of large collection. Nagji Bhai was known for his monumental works. But his studio was not producing monumental stuff alone. I am sure someone would make a revisit to his works than just doing lip service to his memory, exactly the way I am doing now. Nagji Bhai wanted to promote artists of various kinds so he established a gallery called Nazar Art Gallery. He also was in the process of developing a large art studio and centre for art somewhere along the Baroda-Mumbai highway. Nagji Bhai was a good artist with a wonderful soul. He needs more space in the Indian art history.  

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

When Fear Makes You Laugh: About Two Shows in Mumbai

Recently I was in Mumbai. I could watch two interesting shows. One, an (art) history based show at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, curated by Naman Ahuja titled, India and the World - A History in Nine Stories, and the other one titled 'Sub-Plots Laughing in the Vernacular' at the NGMA (hosted by Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai) curated by Meena Vaari. I thought the show at the Museum was killed by the exhibition design.

The said show is a collaboration between India and Britain. We know India is currently going through a dark period in its history. Britain too has its bleak moments in these days. I don't know whether it reflects the prevailing socio-political and cultural climates of both the countries or it underlines the beauty of darkness, as the exhibition design has too much of darkness in it and it has literally screwed up the show which has a number of interesting artefacts right from 5000 BC to till date. Each work of art is lit but the gallery remains in pitch darkness. Some garish facades are made at the entry points of each section but of no use as they are shrouded in abysmal darkness.

Exhibition design is one of the core components of any curatorial intervention in which light plays an integral part. Blackness/Darkness in galleries seems to be a postmodern-contemporary critique of the modern white cube(ness) of international gallery-museum format. Countering white with black to position art made by white as well as black artists is an interesting transgression till it has now become a sort of norm even for the local shows. Blackness in itself is a beautiful thing and as it absorbs light automatically highlights the lit objects placed against it; it gives the required contrast. But 'required' is the catch word. How much blackness/darkness is needed to see a work of art?

I remember watching a video installation done by the British black artist Steve Mac Queen at the Barbican Centre, London. The video presented the descending into the innards of earth/mines. It was an excruciatingly painful but cathartic experience as the darkness within and without the video was liquid enough to make the viewer feel the intensity of the work. So was witnessing Cornelia Parker's Exploded Home at Tate Modern. But here in CSMVS museum darkness is created for the sake of it; perhaps the unsuspecting visitors from the rural areas of Maharashtra. Seriously speaking, as a curator-exhibition designer myself, I couldn't quite understand the logic behind the employment of blackness/darkness in the whole design.

There at the Sakshi show, all the participating artists are familiar. The title set me thinking about it. All the participants are National and international if not mentioned otherwise. You just need to google their name / biodata. The show's title makes them vernacular. Otherwise, their laughter remains national or international. So where exactly is the masquerading taking place, in turning the vernacular into national or national into vernacular? What is this vernacular constituted of? And what is this national constituted by? KGS had answered this question long back when he said the regional is the new international. But I find all the participants have been made into itinerant vernaculars exactly the way they have been made into nationals forcefully by others in other contexts. Participants in this show are my friends. Yet I couldn't help asking this question: what are they laughing at?
Atul Dodiya
Some of them are laughing at the people. Some at themselves. Some are laughing at their own surroundings. Some are definitely obscure. Times are so that I don't find any nudity and laughing at the power centres. Even Harsha's monkeys look very grim. CK Rajan's fan looks pathetically out of context (the dark cynical mad laughter of his works is conveniently sanitised into a flaccid grin here. I ran away from T&T's work. I am unintelligent, dumb and stupid in front of their works. I belong to the Jurassic era of art. Paritosh Sen and KGS are forced in too. Curators do a huge injustice to Amit Ambalal as if he were an artist who is incapable of doing serious art. Amit Ambalal, ready to laugh. Tunty Chauhan with her limited understanding of art history categorised Ambalal in this way. He is still suffering. How can gay theme be a thing to laugh at or a thing that laughs at us? Bhupen is another victim. Manjunath Kamath has been laughing the same boring laughter for the last fifteen years. Tomorrow I wouldn't be surprised if I see a show titled 'vernacular weeping' and wouldn't be shocked at all if I see the same artists in that show. In fact, I don't hold either artists or curator or even gallery responsible for this. It is all about time; we live in fearful times. When fear grips at the nerve centre of thinking we all would laugh from all possible ends.

(The curator could have looked at the works of Rajendra Kapse, Farhad Hussain, Raj More, Gopi Krishna, Ratheesh, Sunilal TR, Jyothibasu, Aji VN, G Raghu, Ranbir Kaleka and so on. But not possible because they all belong to other galleries not Sakshi)

(Images have been sourced from the Internet and Facebook)

Monday, November 27, 2017

Are the Art History Graduates and Post Graduates from the ‘Left Over’ Class?

(Linda Nochlin taking art history class. Source: net)

Recently while listening to an interview by poet Balachandran Chullikkadu, I got the answer that I have been searching for a long time. May be, I thought that I got the answer to that pressing question. Perhaps, when I talk about it, you could disagree with it completely and tell me where and how I have gone wrong. First, the question that has been in me for a long time: Where do the post graduates of Art History/Criticism/Curatorial Practice/Aesthetic studies go after once they leave the colleges? A supplementary question to this has been: Why, despite a good number of students coming out of these colleges, do they not show exceptional talent in their respective fields of art history/criticism/curatorial practice/aesthetics?

While talking about how most of the people think that writing poetry does not need any special talent or practice, Balachandran Chullikkadu explains that in our society a majority thinks that to study engineering and medicine (scientific subjects in general) one needs ‘intelligence’ and the humanities could be handled by anybody. He further observes in his matter of fact style that many stray into the field of language studies only because either they consider themselves as lacking in intelligence or by considering the languages as rather easy subjects to gain a degree. Apart from a small number of students these days who deliberately opt for language and literature studies, most of the students come to this field only because they are denied admission in other subjects. Language and literature studies have become the refuge of the left over students. These students are expected to take the language and literature forward, which according to him is next to impossible and even when it is possible it would not of the right kind.

(poet Balachandran Chullikkaadu)

This observation of Chullikkadu in fact set me into thinking further about the art history/criticism/curatorial/aesthetic studies in India. Except a few students who are really allured by the charm of the subject (if at all it has any charm), most of them take up art history related subjects for degree and post graduation studies only because they are denied admission in other departments. When I went to study art history in Baroda in early 1990s, I had set my goal and I did not go there for joining in any other subjects. But while talking to my fellow students (including the ones who had finished their four years degree course in art history) I found that most of them had come to join the painting, sculpture or print making departments. When they did not get admission in these departments and they wanted to be in the Baroda Fine Arts Faculty, and above all a starving Art History department was welcoming students to run its degree and post graduate courses, they joined Art History department, thinking that they would shift when they got admission in the desired subjects in the next year.

It is like marriage. You start loving your spouse slowly even if you are really not interested in him or her because there is no other way. Among such students some of them would really fall in love with the subject and become art historians, critics, curators and so on. It is not just the case of Baroda Faculty of Fine Arts. It is the case of most of the universities that run such courses including the illustrious JNU’s Art and Aesthetics Department. A majority of the students, during the beginning of this department, came from other disciplines as they did not get admission in other departments. Generally speaking, when it comes to other disciplines, a student has already got certain ideas about what he or she is going to study. Someone who has set his/her mind on economics or sociology or international studies pursue it with a certain amount of rigour. Imagine, the same aspirants straying into the field of art and aesthetics; instead of rigour, what engulfs them would be a certain kind of aesthetics. I have seen quite a number of such so called ‘art historians, critics and curators’ who in fact do not have any hold either on art or aesthetics. What they have in hand are the ropes that they have acquired from the department, certain jargon and certain ways of conducting themselves and so on. I am yet to see a genuine art historian or critic or curator or aesthetician from any of these colleges. What I see so far is trendy young ‘critics/curators’ and a huge amount of fatigue.

(an art history class- source:net)

Why does it happen? It happens because most of them are ‘left over’ students, who think that art history and aesthetics are the areas that one needs less intellectual capacity. You need a nose to stick up into the air and a lot of English and attitude. Many think that it would make them trendy art critics and curators. By this time, you might have noticed me avoiding the word art history. I do that because art history is a life-long affair but criticism and curatorial practice could be itinerant. So we have so many itinerant and ad hoc critics and curators. Those people who are really interested in art history become researchers or teachers. Out of those who become teachers, many are simply good for nothing else other than teaching; one of the safest bets an academic could ever have in life. I am not implicating any one here rather I am being hugely sympathetic to one and all in this field why because the art historians, critics and curators in India do not have too many avenues to exercise their rights or knowledge or expertise. When the situation is like that what you could depend on is salary and good luck to all those who get a salary from their art history education.

To approach the subject differently, I would probe into the fact why predominantly only the left over students come to art history? Mainstream students do not prefer to come to these streams of education mainly because it is not at all lucrative. If you have a normal degree or post graduation, you can write a public service commission examination and become a bank clerk or a bus conductor. I have never seen an art history graduate going for it exactly the way an MBBS graduate would not go for bank test even in the direst of situations. It happens because art history and related fields of knowledge are professional in nature and the irony is that a professional course that produces professionals with virtually no job opportunities. Hardly the art scene employs the art history graduates as executives. And even if they do, they grow into dry administrators or backroom executives, but never professionally efficient art historians and art critics. Left over students come here because the field itself is not lucrative. And the fresh post graduates scramble through the UGC examinations because that is the only avenue where they would earn a decent job by becoming an art history professor.

(art history class . Source Net)

In India’s modern history, there was only one period when students really went to colleges with an intention to study art history. That was between 2005-2011. Those were the years when the Indian art market was booming and apparently the art establishments wanted more and more art history graduates to assist them in making catalogues and putting up shows. The field looked so lucrative and fashionable that there was an onrush of students to become art history post graduates. But then everything died out. Today, I see many intelligent art history post graduates moving aimlessly in the art scene, becoming so ad hoc that they are ready to do anything. Some potential writers have become backroom executives in galleries. Some have got jobs in national and international art establishments. And all of them have become ‘workers’ for those establishments. A country’s art historical scene would become important only when art history post graduates and doctorates engage with the current scenario or the scenarios in which they have pitched their expertise. There is a huge lack of daring and demanding among the art history post graduates and doctorates. Why I am not saying they are art historians and academics because all the English literature post graduates are not poets or playwrights. Similarly all the art history post graduates are not art historians, though many of them claim to be one. When the real art history post graduates and doctorates do not claim their space in the scene/field, so many quakes and half baked ones will rule it. We can only stand and complain. So wake up and work. As Chullikkadu says, art history and related fields are not the places where you need only less IQ to survive.

(pictures for representational purpose only. All pictures sourced from the net) 

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

S Triple XXX Durga More Potent than the Censored Sxxx Durga

(pre-censored time poster of SXXX Durga)

Sexy Durga is now officially S Durga. The posters of this exceptionally free movie (as in poetry written in free verse, here a film without a script, as the film director Sanal Kumar Sasidharan says, he could make a movie ‘right here and now, and about you.’) now are designed like this ‘Sxxx Durga’, perhaps a more potent and direct comment on the decision of the Indian Film Certification Board (aka Censor Board). How do you read it now? S triple X Durga. All over the world triple X stand for either rum or pornography. Hence, if the Censor Board was planning to avoid the word ‘sexy’ from the film’s title to purify the word ‘Durga’ of all the bad connotations which could have otherwise been imposed on it by the word ‘sexy’, now this Durga stands like an open invitation to wine and fornicate. Censorship could be counterproductive linguistically if not always in the box office. Sanal Kumar Sasidharan says that whether it is S Durga or Y (why) Dugra, it is always Sexy Durga in the public imagination for it has been branded as that. Anyway, when I look at it, the S stands more for Sanal Kumar than Sexy; hence, here is a film, Sanal’s Durga, which is purely a director’s movie, exactly the way his two previous films were (Oralppokkam and Ozhivu Divasathe Kali).

This Durga film has been in the news for wrong reasons and the latest being its ouster from the International Film Festival of India (IFFK) 2017 from the Indian Panorama section, along with another movie titled ‘Nude’. It is an irony that as Indians we have embraced all what have been American and liberal, and still an anachronism, in the name of culture we are still holding on to some done to death notions; a divine name should not be used out of context at all (read mythological context). Coming to the secular sphere, our politics also have taken a downswing, showing now tolerance for humour as the state directly involves in the performances of the stand up comedians and cartoonists. It would be an understatement to say that when the Jokers start ruling the world, the superheroes of the world simply are forced to go back to the pages of comic books or accommodate themselves in the format of 3D movies, which oddly get promoted as the most hilarious of superhero movies. Times have changed, brother.

(director Sanal Kumar Sasidharan)

Sanal’s Durga (or Sxxx Durga) starts with an extensive documentation of a local Kerala festival where Garudan Thookkam is performed. In Garudan Thookkam, male devotees are sent into a devotional frenzy then their body muscles are pierced with iron clips, then they are hung from certain appendage, and are taken for the town circumambulation, from the premises of the temple. There is also a ritual of fire walk. Like in other movies of the direction, the opening shots do not really function as the establishment shots as in the mainstream film parlance. They drag on and on to the point some of the audience negotiate their time of quitting. The quotidian unravelling of events in the beginning (like an off day picnic on the banks of a village stream and general ramblings in his An Off Day’s Game- Ozhivu Divasathe Kali and here the temple ritual), later at some point we understand are for creating a social fabric of order and conformity that would function as the logic of comprehension for the events that follow the rituals. The opening statement from Ramayana, speaks of a wanton woman Soorpanakha, sister of mighty Ravana, whose disfiguring perhaps triggers the abduction of Sita. The preamble is clear enough, woman, divine or profane is treated as a pawn in the hands of man and she is denied of her agencies; Soorpanakha is punished for expressing her love for a couple of handsome guys in the forest and Sita was abducted as a retaliatory act.

In the temple Goddess Durga is worshipped and the male devotees are ready to sacrifice their comforts of all kinds and are ready to push themselves to the zone of self torturing. But just out there, the story is different. The temple ritual starts in the day time where everything has a semblance of normality. By the time it turns dark, everything both in the divine and the secular realms changes their shape and character. Kabeer and his north Indian girl friend, Durga are in a nocturnal situation and for them it is not an adventure at all. Like in any other movies, as the protagonists are found in a situation (beyond logic), here too Kabeer and Durga find themselves in a situation; they want to go to the nearest railway station but the time is so odd and the location where they are is so desolate that they need a sort of hitchhiking. Two guys in a Maruti Omni (later on we see it transforming into a hell raisers chariot with a sinister look and eerie ambience) offer them a lift and they get into the car. Then the chase starts. Chase is perhaps not the right word because nobody is chasing them and the ones who chase the couple are very much with them inside the car. In fact the chase is outside the car; the chasers are us, the viewers and our fear and our irresistible desire to do good and save the couple. So we are the pursuers, moving towards the edge of the seats, our do gooders’ sorry asses.

(a still from the movie SXXX Durga)

I am not going into the story in details. Three times they get out of the car or rather they are dropped willingly by the occupants of the car. And each time, along the desolated highway, they find moral police ready to question them. Initially it was the real police at a checking point letting them go as the police understand them sympathetically as ‘lovers’. In the second situation they are literally caught by two gents (in their conspicuous white dhoti and shirt, and two wheeler. In Kerala they are called Pakal Manyanmaar- Day time gentlemen). Kabeer and Kannan are saved once again by the hooligans who come by that way. With no other way to turn, the couple get into the car once again. The freewheeling chat inside the car is eerily jovial but lingering around at the vicinities of an impending threat or a rape attempt. On the way, two more guys get into the car. The nameless four (as their names are irrelevant because in any part of our country, we could see them speaking different language but behaving exactly the same in a given situation) harass the couple in such way that it is a verbal stripping and raping; not of the girl alone but of the boy as well. At some point, Durga wants to pee urgently, and the four guys keep talking about peeing. One could imagine the kind of claustrophobia and shame that a girl would feel in such a situation. Each time, the guys hurt them with jocular banter, they repeat that they were not hurting them at all. After the fourth attempt to get out of the car and walk, they never reach the railway station. To make matters worse, we see trains passing by, showing that there is redemption, freedom and safety in the vicinity but there is no way to reach there.

The film has been talked about as something that shows the hypocrisy of Malayali morality. Of course there are a couple of incidents in the movie where we see it as a geographically specific movie. The ideological apparatuses of the state, police and family, are from Kerala, Kerala police and a Kerala family respectively. The police overlooks a possible abduction, harassment and a rape case and let the culprits go and secondly, the family (the middle class family that lives in house with multiple security facilities like gate, grill and door), the middle aged husband and wife who come out hearing the commotion on the road stand, stare and go back, and never intervene. The two intercuts where we see the temple rituals again, do not necessarily have direct connections with the narrative; in fact the story could be happening in a night, in any part of any country in the world where such apathy rules. And also the ritual could be happening in any village temple in any of the Indian states. Hence, Sanal’s Durga is an Indian movie (we should stop calling Pan Indian movie, Bollywood, Regional movie etc. If there is a relevant movie from any part of Indian, it is an Indian movie. Lucky we have a word like Bollywood so that we could discern sensibility and sense from what we call Bollywood capers.

(still from the film)

Sanal’s Durga is an Indian movie where mythologies of religion have become inextricably a part of the political process. In turn this blurring of boundaries has started becoming visible in the social life also. Social ethics seem to have given way to religious dictums and the politics swayed by such religious scriptures. However, when it comes to the social evils, no scripture seems to be withholding its bad elements within the legal systems. There is a free for all condition when the law is not looking. In the movie, the night is symbolic as evil could take place anywhere if the day’s light could be blinded and the pace of harassment could be accelerated and the victims could be captivated. The comparative fabric of ritualistic performativity becomes important in this context, the social evil could be sanctioned if it has ritualistic/religious consent and authorisation. In the temple ritual we see Durga is worshipped and the males are ready to supplicate before her. But out there in the road, a woman is not safe even when she is with her companion or spouse. There have been incidents such as these but the victims were saved only because they were not inside a pacing vehicle. But look at the reports from elsewhere in which we get to read about girls and women getting raped or harassed in the moving vehicles. In fact, as the director at one point says, the title of the movie could be anything but Durga becomes appropriate when she has the ritualistic sanction of being the annihilator of the evil. But she is absolutely helpless when she is on the road.

(produced Shajee Mathew of the Niv Art Movies receiving award from the CM of Kerala)

When Sanal’s Durga was presented in many film festivals abroad, it had been hailed as a thriller road movie. In many road movies we have seen the hero and the hero taking charge of themselves; it is their journey of initiation; it is also a coming of age type of narrative. They encounter rouges along the way but they save their skin at the nick of the time. They also meet benevolent guys living in cabins. Finally there is a sense of romance budding somewhere in the heat and dust of the roads. But Sanal’s Durga is absolutely different in all these counts. There is only fear and speed; only speed and fear in this movie. As one of the audience said after watching the movie that she thought the girl would be raped at some point, the narrative of the movie also helps surface the latent evil even in the secular viewer; the girl’s future (the couple’s future) is abstract; would they get raped as we leave the movie after eighty five minutes which is the duration of the movie. So we want a conclusion, and it is the eventual rape of the girl. Now in Sanal’s Durga, we are left without that conclusion; like a thorn that has left under the sole, pricking but not able to locate, the future of Durga haunts us. This film should have been a proud presentation of the New India but unfortunately we are living the same old feudal India where Durga is worshipped in the temple and pushed into bottomless pits of harassments on the road, which perhaps winds through our bedrooms and drawing rooms too. Niv Art Movies, a joint venture of Aruna and Mathew of Delhi has been investing in good experimental movies and it seems to be a rare collaboration between the producers and the director as ‘Durga’ is their third collaboration. I wish Sanal all the success in future too. 

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Bride or Bride’s Dress? Does Spectacular Display Make Ordinary Works Great?

(work by Ron Mueck)

Does a work of art need a particular ambience to be understood or enjoyed? As a curator, this has always been a pressing question whenever I get a body of works in hand. I believe a work of art when it is displayed on a wall or a floor, in a space or in any other interface of interactivity and projection, it should be treated like a bride and bridegroom on their wedding day. A work of art gains a special status, however mundane it looks, on the day of its display for the public to enjoy and the connoisseurs to assess its worth. Unlike the human beings, works of art get ‘married’ many times (some human beings too) as they are displayed in different locations and in different contexts. However, could a work of art always be seen in that festive mood? Is there a spot light always on it? Are there frames and defining contexts to bring it into focus? Are there discursive preambles so that it could be ‘read and understood’ in certain ways? What about those people who are absolutely new to those works of art which have a huge baggage of history and discourse on their shoulders? What happens to a work of art when it is extracted out of its exhibition context or display location and all discursive specificities? How does the mode of reception and appreciation change when it is seen printed on the page of a book or a newspaper, or in today’s context, when it is seen in the computer or smart phone screen as a self illuminated image?

(work by Ai Weiwei)

When it comes to the display of works of art, curators are seen in two different categories; one, the ones who insist that a work of art should be displayed as it is, and maximum one could allow is a spot light in order to highlight the tonal qualities of it. Two, the ones who insist that there should be a special zone created exclusively for that particular work of art so that it could be seen in isolation. In both the cases, there is a small shift or a minute aberration from the fundamental position of a gallery space, which has been evolved as a white cube space that underlines its provision of spatial neutrality. A white cube space does not give anything other than a white wall, a bare floor and a few lights for highlight. The evolution of a white cube is revolutionary and its gradually transformation as a special space is somehow ironic. Let’s see the evolution of it from the saloons and royal ball rooms where the works of art where crammed all over and each work was highlighted with gilded frames. Catching the attention of a viewer was really a challenge for a work of art, therefore for the creator of the work. The evolution of this space was basically a sort of decongestion to begin with, which in turn was imparting dignity not only to the work of art but also to the creator of it (artist). Slowly, this space became an exclusive space with ‘no value’ of its own. That means, a work of art which has been given exclusivity in this space could be viewed and assessed for its intrinsic values as it is not guided by anything extrinsic including any change in the wall colour. As time went on, the white cube space too became a conventional space liable to be questioned by the curators and artists as well. The idea of white cube was collapsed and the very spaces and structures started creating extrinsic values as we see in many galleries today by applying different colours on the walls, creating dark rooms, special light effects and even auditory and olfactory enhancement.

(work by Anish Kapoor)

It is hard to question the curatorial decisions to highlight a work of art. Of late artists have been dictating the terms of the ways in which their works are exhibited. There are some artists who make their display a bit complicated (though could be cracked by the curators) so that they could travel along with the works wherever they are exhibited. That means the curatorial task at times become a shared task, which could either start as a discussion in the artist’s studio before the curatorial venture starts or during the time of display itself. Slowly and steadily, the simple white cube display has become a drab and a bore. As curators, and during the good old market boom days, the imported exhibition designers as well, enhance the look of the work through additional appendage and structures, lighting and colour changes and so on, the exhibition viewers also have started looking for something spectacular inside the galleries. By this time, extravagant display has become a norm though most of the people really do not talk about the works of art as they are completely enamoured by the way the works are displayed. Going back to the marriage analogy, I would say, people see the fabric that the bride and groom wear on their nuptial day but never their qualities. Perhaps, people leave all those things to the bride and groom and to their fate. In the case of the art, people just do not worry about what happens to the art and the artist. This they leave to the fate of the artists and the buyers if there are any.

(work by Cornelia Parker)

I wouldn’t unilaterally question the curators and artists who have transgressed the norms of the white cube gallery and the ideology that drives the space. Nor do I completely embrace the spectacles that some artists and curators create only because they look different from a white cube space and for the time being conventions are broken and a revolutionary mode is brought in its place. But it is a great illusion exactly the same as the illusion that they create in their display modes. Years back, a young revolutionary curator displayed some works on the ceiling of a gallery. Today, except for the fact that we remember that a few works were displayed on the ceiling nobody remembers the works and their qualities. Whenever a spectacle is created in and around a gallery or a space where works of art are displayed, people take in the spectacle and leave the art behind. Who is responsible for this, artists or curators? In India no decision is taken alone by a curator; there is always an artistic interference or the gallery interference. I deliberately used the word interference than the word intervention. It is natural that the artists want their works to be displayed in a particular way to get the desired effect. And the curators also feel that their shows should be noticed for the novelty of display. But neither the artists nor the curators ask what happens once the show is done and the works are stripped off of their temporary glory and taken back to the studios or store rooms? Or in that case even to the drawing rooms of the art collectors.

(work by Subodh Gupta)

Does a work of art demand conditions of display? It is a very important question. I understand that there are artists who create works of art specifically for a location and the parameters of the display would change with the change in the location. A work of art created in a studio or a factor or a lab is not the same when it is brought in for the public display. But what happens to a work of art when it is not in the public display? Do the same conditions apply when it is displayed in the private collection of an art collector? Or when a work of art is taken from one place and exhibited in another space, even if it is a space neutral work, creation of a new ambience would change the reception of it? What happens to a work of art despite the change in location, when shown in the same ambience? Is there any particular law or dynamics that determine the ways of display? In my views, a work of art has an intrinsic logic and that is of its own visual quality or visuality. Whether it is exhibited in a white cube or in an enhanced space, what makes it stand out is its intrinsic visual quality. It is same for a painting, sculpture, installation, video, performance and so on. I am sure about the interactive works based on software as I have not dealt with as a curator so far (perhaps I am not interested). The intrinsic visuality of a work of art generates a dynamics that goads the curator to deal with it in a different way or a very normal way. Most of the works of art in fact do not demand more than a light and a place to sit. If given these basics, they would do wonders. That is why the great works of art, seen in the books or in digital interfaces still excite us as aesthetic objects. There are some works of art that demand a different approach; for example the blasted home by Cornelia Parker. It could exist only in that way. Duchamp’s Fountain on the other hand does not need any particular ambience; whichever way it is exhibited it remains the same.

(works by Rothko)

With the enhancement of price and at time with the inevitable invaluableness of a work of art, it gathers additional frames, bullet proof cases, security guards, surveillance camera and so on. That is the only way to tell the world that it is an invaluable work of art. The same could be shown on the bare walls of a white cube space with a normal spot light. Still it would command the same respect because it has been notified as invaluable. The same work could be printed on cheap paper, still it would be accepted as a great work of art. Consider, a work of art exhibited in a specially created space with lot of celebrity paraphernalia to go with it and by the time the exhibition is over people remember only who attended the do and how the ambience of the exhibition was. What happens to those works of art? These days, many curators and artists spend a lot of money to create unnecessary sets to exhibit their ordinary works. Eventually the works are forgotten, so are the artists. The power of a work of art remains in its visual quality and its moving power. Gandhiji did not dress up like Winston Churchill but the aesthetics of poverty that he created was so strong that the country moved as one whole mass as happened never before. Works of art exhibited in spectacular ways fall into the drain of oblivion and disappear. Take the grand works of Anish Kapoor, Subodh Gupta, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Ron Mueck, Christian Boltansky and Ai Weiwei or any other great names in the art scene. In my view, it is not the enhanced ambience that make their works great but the ambience of the works itself. Mueck’s sculptures are exhibited in bare galleries. Hirst’ works are in normal mundane spaces. Anish Kapoor’s works are at your face. Ai Weiwei denudes the space to place his works. But somehow some Indian artists and curators have absolutely gone wrong on this. They have misunderstood the power of aesthetics as the grandness of set designing or display design. For art, art is the only answer. No display could alleviate an ordinary work of art from the depths of ordinariness. That’s what happened recently to a few art shows in Mumbai. 

Monday, November 6, 2017

The Spectres of the Earth: Sudhir Patwardhan’s New Works

(Wounding and Tending by Sudhir Patwardhan)

As mutual haters we act
In a drama which has no audience
We play a game of freshly cooked words
With which we check how much
We could hurt each other
With pointed gazes we wound one another
In between, as if to hurt, he touches me
I forget all my promises
He becomes a wall, and myself a flower.
 (I, You, You, Me...Again, Chithira Kusuman)

On the second floor of Vadehra Art Gallery in New Delhi - a floor that often people miss without realising the abrupt ending of a visual narrative or the frayed edges of some experimental contemporary works - under the foggy white light two drawings titled ‘Couple Resting’ and ‘Wounding and Tending’ rest silently on the far end of the facing wall. These two works done in 2016 by Sudhir Patwardhan are a part of his solo show titled ‘Spectres’ currently on in the gallery. When I look at the works from a distance, I wonder whether the explicit nudity of the protagonists in those works could be the reason of them being tucked away in a sort of attic space of the gallery. Had it been me in charge of the exhibition, wouldn’t I have exhibited them right at the beginning? For me at least these two works hold the crux of what Patwardhan wants to say through the eighty odd works done during the last three years, now put together in the exhibition. But each curator has different views about a given set of works, hence I should say, the present display is one of the ways of seeing Patwardhan’s works. However, when I stand in stark silence, absolutely mesmerized by the truth of this particular work, ‘Wouding and Tending’ I remember the lines from a poem written by a young Malayali poet, Chithira Kusuman, which I have quoted above as a preamble to this reading of Patwardhan’s works. In the game that we call married life, there is a tremendous amount of wounding and tending; perhaps, finding the best tools of torture are invented in the establishment called marriage; underground porn is just a crass actualisation. What Patwardhan does in this drawing is subtle philosophising of this game called marriage; like an existentialist poem sung on a dark night only lit up by a single forty watt bulb.

(Sudhir Patwardhan -pic courtesy Indian Express)

The word spectre is inextricably connected with the history of Marxism therefore it has become a part of the cultural consciousness of the working class as well as the thinking middle class though both the parties have forgotten the use of the word and its context. They do not remember it deliberately because the spectres of pestilence, death, illness, poverty, lack of philosophy, lack of ideological anchor and the over abundance of blind faith are omnipresent. What is apparent is always treated lightly. So are the haunting spectres. Patwardhan, however is aware of the Marxian use of the word spectre (though he explains in one of his interviews-Indian Express- the word as a suggestion by the catalogue writer, but at the same time elaborates in his interview with a fellow artist included in the catalogue, he says how he was deeply influenced by Marxian as well as existential thoughts when he was a medical student in Pune); what had been haunting Europe by the end of the 19th century was the spectre of communism and the capitalist forces were really afraid of it and were doing all what they could do to exorcise it. However, apart from that connotation of Marxism, in the present show the spectre remains as the spectre of personal experiences, relationships and introspection. Even if the artist wants to put his own past to rest, it keeps coming back. As an artist, he does not have much to forget though he is in a constant process of remembering. A minor work (Demise, but major for me), once again displayed on the second floor is a part of the artist’s remembering of the past. Patwardhan acknowledges the fact that when he was a practicing doctor (a radiologist) he never used to see people as people but as bodies with illness or with possibilities of being healthy. Years later, today, they come back, the people who were thronging in various places, in hospital rooms, corridors, operation theatres, anatomy classes, railway stations, parks, market places, streets and so on and haunt the artist as spectres. They are about to do away with the existing structures of his ‘ego’ and rule over him and flood him with memories. And there is only one way to exorcise them; to paint them. Hence, we have Patwardhan presenting a series of portraits of unknown people. Perhaps only Mumbai based artists work a lot with people as their dominant imageries; from Jitish Kallat’s early works to Bose Krishnamachari’s Ghost Trans-memoir to Shilpa Gupta’s multimedia works Valay Shinde’s dotted works to what not. And in all these Patwardhan remains the pioneer with his early depiction of people from all the walks of life.

(Couple Resting by Patwardhan)

In Spectres we have a series of self portraits, very consciously done by the artist. But these self portraits (apparently he has connected them with the way in which Rembrandt had done his self portraits) can be seen only against the series of portraits that he has done of the unknown people. The portraits of people are not hagiographic celebrations; nor does the artist want to particularise their features so that they could be identified at some point. They are like drifting apparitions caught in the dream catcher’s net. Do the portraits of the artist, seen both as deliberate efforts on self portraiture and as part of the large scale paintings that narrate the drama of the private domain where the artist and his wife live, exactly represent the ‘portrait’ of the artist himself? If someone is looking for the very similitude of the artist, he/she is going to be disappointed. What we see here in the self portraits of the artist is a crumbling self of the artist. This is not the Sudhir Patwardhan who we know as ‘the’ Sudhir Patwardhan. It is someone else, who looks like the artist only because it is titled as self portrait. Here we need not think that the artist is incapable of ‘representing’ his physical appearance as it is; on the contrary, we need to understand how much self is there in a self portrait. The introspective aspect that I have mentioned earlier comes to play an important role in these self portraits. Though the catalogue writer and the artist himself speak of the ‘impossibility’ of self representation, I would like to see it as the actual possibility of self representation because self representation is not always about portraying the shell but the Self. And the shape of the self is not always known to the people who see but is perceivable only to the one who makes that seeing possible.

(Self portrait with Mirror by Patwardhan)

Here Patwardhan is the one who makes the seeing possible and he wants the people to see him the way he has represented himself. The more one looks at the self portraits of the artist the more one comes to know that the representation has something similar but many things unfamiliar. This familiarising the unfamiliar in the artist’s self is what a real self portrait does. Patwardhan is ruthlessly clinical here. He shortens his body, almost giving it a hunch and the face is distorted or swollen with some amount of cluelessness. The eyes in these portraits reflect the moment and their lack of knowledge about the future. His self portraits are the ghosts of the present times; they linger on and do not show the possibility of a tomorrow. The artist is destined to live with his own ghost in his homely interiors which doubles itself as his studio. In the catalogue I come across a mention about how the artist has become anchorless when he lost his personal space (as he shifted from a personal studio to a residence which is spacious enough to accommodate his studio needs). What has he lost his personal space to? He has lost it to the ever presence of his spouse. Or is it advisable to make such a drastic comment? But I believe that there are several authorised clues in the catalogue to make this view legitimate. The presence of the spouse if intrinsically represented in the suite of the five paintings that delineate the interiors of his home-studio. The presence is spectre like and it is never exorcised. The home, in Patwardhan’s view becomes a self revealing interface liable to open itself like an accordion or an origami structure and reveal everything including the bathroom, bedroom, drawing room and studio. There is something uncanny about seeing the Patwardhan couple in disparate positions (one clear and upfront and the other distant and ghostly) especially when we know that in real life they remain inseparable. While that inseparability is a physical proximity, the mental spaces have created their own islands and in those islands they remain solitary, looking for a ship to appear at the horizon.

(Another Day in the Old City by Patwardhan)

This existential mooring is palpable in two works namely ‘The Empty Book Shelf’ and ‘Scatter’. In the former work we see a lonely and silent man sitting in front of an empty book shelf. It is not only a shelf but also a self; it is an empty self. There is nothing more to read and understand. Or rather, whatever has been read and understood so far is gone forever. What remains is the sheer emptiness. The other work shows us a man falling before/from a book shelf scattering the books and toys all over. Even knowledge fails to hold (as centre fails to hold) and the outcome is a downfall and falling into a sort of infancy (in Shakespearean terms, sans tooth, sans eyes, sans taste and sans everything). Even the most mundane of the acts become Sisyphus like; like pouring milk or climbing into a high bed. Here the spectres become playful.

(Empty Book Shelf by Patwardhan)

There is something very pertinent about Patwardhan’s self portraits which I should have spoken of earlier. As one of the titles show, it is a sort of erasing of the presences and making everything into spirit like. What does he erase? Often this word is taken for self annihilation; but here Patwardhan does not make any erasure of himself though he re-invents himself as a much older person with no sense of competition and almost a willingness to accept defeat. He in fact erases the spectators. His brush is always placed on the skin that separates the painted image and the viewing space. Patwardhan gives a glassy feel about that surface; it is a transparent skin where the viewers have pressed their selves against. Patwardhan over paints them and erases the viewers’ presence. Come what may and whatever may be the critical views, the artist wants to portray what he wants. This is a counter expressionistic ploy; in Krichner we see the artist standing with brush as if the stiffness of the brush was his phallic strength. In those terms, Patwardhan’s brush is flaccid though it is pressed against the glassy surface. May be in a Freudian sense it is a tactic to eke out eros from the viewers themselves; a Yayati act, as elaborately put by A.Ramachandran and symbolically by Bhupen Khakkar. The expressionistic feel once again comes when we look at the interiors (which is almost cut open and displayed on a dissection table); it looks like the set of the Cabinet of Caligiri toned down for the present times though the scenes are not as murkier as in Caligiri.

(Scatter by Patwardhan)

Once a narrative painter, always a narrative painter? Could be. In the case of Patwardhan, his love for narrative painting comes to the forefront when he paints ‘Another Day in the Old City’. In this large painting, the city of Pune where the artist had spent his younger days is caught in its old glory. Perhaps, this is an artistic vision of the city, as in the case of a poet transforming a mundane place into a magical realist place. The city of Pune as it was known to him no longer remains the same; things have changed and have changed forever. Patwardhan does a portrait of the city as if he were trying to make a legible portrait of an old man posthumously from a dim photograph mostly vandalized by time and climate. While the spectre of the city gives him the right armatures to build upon, his love and memories for/of the city proves the attempt to be a successful one. And what we see in this painting is Patwardhan transforming into a narrative painter, who brings simultaneous actions at different locations on to the same pictorial plane as if the terraces, lattices, windows and balconies where separate frames of a narrative. Like in the Mughal miniatures, the actions are in vertical dynamics and are supposed to end in the horizon line which is either fading in to a jumble of buildings or into a river, though in fact the painting is done in horizontal format. The spectres of this show are going to haunt the viewer for a long time provided they see it repeatedly, the way they read a poem. 

Sunday, November 5, 2017

What’s Sophisticated International Art for Indian Artists? Conflict of Methods and Materials

Several young artist friends ask me one interesting question. They come in different articulations but all of them express the same thing: Why Indian artists are not able to create finest of installations and extremely innovative works of art using unconventional works exactly the way the European and American artists do? There is always a second part to this question even if they don’t ask it, hence let me articulate it on behalf of them: Like them we too live in a globalized world, but we still lag a lot behind in the finesse of aesthetics, why is it so? One of the artists mentioned that perhaps India is still a ‘developing’ country hence we may need to wait till India turns fully ‘developed’. Here is a third question then: Consider India sooner than later becomes a developed country exactly and externally the way the European and American states look. Would we be able to make the kind of art that they are doing today? These questions are to be answered for dispelling the pall of inferiority complex that shadows the abilities of the Indian artists.

First of all we have to accept the fact that those people who suffer from this kind of self doubt and a sense of inferiority or wonder do so mainly because they consider the global/globalized experience as the ultimate equalling measurement and the kind of art that they practice is the ultimate form of sophisticated art. The primary need is the removal of this ceiling and this benchmark. Indian artists should re-think their approach towards the global art as if they were approaching a sort of aesthetical benchmark. Art of a country need not necessarily be standing in comparison with the art of any other country for the simple reason that the art, culture, language, food, social attitude, politics and so on are fundamentally different in each country despite the fact that they all are connected to the world economy in many ways similar. Even if the pattern of cultural consumption has become apparently similar (but not the same), the cultural production is not mutual reflective. The very global/globalized experience itself could differ drastically depending on the intellectual, physical, spiritual and materialistic conditions prevailing in one place. Now, finally, consider, any country becomes ‘developed’ according the Euro-American standards, still it wouldn’t be able to produce a so called global art except emulating the existing mainstream cultural or aesthetical trends.

Globalization or globalized experience of anything is a primarily a market ploy; a political-industrial-commercial nexus that works towards amassing profit by slightly enhancing the spending power of the people all over the world while making sure that this enhanced spending power mainly flows towards one direction, from individual pockets to the profiteers’ coffers. Globalization divides the society into three watertight compartments as it used to be in the feudal times; the upper class, the middle class and the lower class. The hierarchical relationship between these three classes is defined only by the market forces. While the global forces try to create a unified sensibility of the culture of consumption, most of the people in the world believe that they are invited to take part in the benefits of the global capitalism. Without realizing that the global capitalism’s main effort is to prepare the upper class to set the mood, the middle class to consume this mood and dispossess the lower class. The illusion created by the global capitalism always shows a refracting and distorting prism/mirror at the lower class making them believe that it is possible them to transcend the class and enter into the middle class by putting in a lot of human energy and labour in order to uphold the structures of globalization. This downward inculcation of aspiration is illusionary because the globalizing forces only care for the skilled middle class whose labour could be sucked up against a salary and the same salary could be re-directed to support the global capital and profit making. As the lower class is lower class by virtue of their lack of skill, all the unskilled and socially useless people, means people who do unproductive labour would be pushed further down almost into the vicinities of being ‘outclasses’ (another word for being absolutely dispossessed).

 The global cultural diversity is an antithesis to global capitalist uniformity. A unified global economic engine would never like to have culturally diversified societies. It would always like to have the kind of aesthetic desired by the artists from all over the world. Today, we see the Euro-American aesthetical establishments compete with each other to produce the ‘best’ possible global art and establish it as ‘the’ global art through various global art fairs, biennales and blockbuster shows. All these platforms are funded by the global capital leaders (in India you could see Skoda, Absolut, BMW and many such global brands investing in or promoting art and the kind of art comes to these platforms is always the art with a ‘global’ tag). It is logical and commonsensical to ask whether all the works of art produced by the artists from all over the world would get the same patronage from the global capital leaders or corporate establishments. Never, is the answer. These companies and patrons produce a global feel good factor about the art that are universally addressed and in turn address the universally identified issues and subjects. Whether it is Syrian Refugee Crisis, the debate over global terrorism, environmental issues and so on, all the globally discussed issues are addressed in the global art. This is an interesting change in the present time; even artists from the South East Asian regions who are not directly affected by any of these issues, share these ‘global’ issues in their works. That is not a wrong thing to happen. Here, in this process artists get universalised in their approach and addressing, but it kills the provincial and regional nature of art, almost erasing the provincial and regional issues unworthy of being addressed by (global) art.

The irony is that any kind of crisis addressed by the so called ‘global’ artists gets reduced into a sort of abstraction in discourse, which takes the aesthetical object not as an end of the artistic effort but as a reason to deal with another set of issues including global capital, global cultural and museum discourse, all meant to enhance the global economic moves. An artist who works from Kochi and addressing the Syrian Refugee crisis is soon sucked into this discourse and is slowly forced to do what is global in art but never what is art in the artist. Many a artist is forced to make a self positioning as a global artist while their efforts themselves ease them out of the provincial/regional responsibilities as artists who could also have addressed the very local issues. In this situation, two kinds of artists come into the aesthetical discourse of any country; artists who do art and artists who do global art. And we do not need heightened imagination to understand that prominence and recognition would always go to the artists who do the global art. These artists immediately find patronage within and without the country, sharing the same parlance, interest and targets. Today’s gallery circuits shamelessly accept these global networking efforts. The rest of the artists do not find immediate patronage mainly because their art are regional and the issues that they deal with are concrete and needs footnotes to understand. That means, the contemporary art that does not address the global issues remain regional contemporary art not the global contemporary art. To make matters worse, the regional contemporary artists are often seen as artists ridden still by existential angst. A global artist celebrates his existence without any prick of conscience (though his or her art is all about guilt and prick of conscience on behalf of the human race!) while the regional contemporary artist is in his/her perennial existential angst and is in the pursuit of finding individual solutions to the problems without the help of global economics.

The idea of sophistication of materials comes out at this juncture. Most of the global contemporary artists use very sophisticated materials including computer technology; many of the materials are even unheard of in the regions, even if they are heard of they are phenomenally expensive and no regional contemporary artists could afford to make work in art. Anybody who uses sophisticated materials could create very sophisticated looking art. Anybody uses conventional materials could create art look like absolutely old! That is the irony that rules the art world today. But I have another point to make here. Any artist who chooses his/her material with a reason; this reason could be lack of availability of financial means to get another medium. Or even if there is no lack or dearth of means, the choice is deliberate and therefore political. To put it in other words, choice of a medium underlines the stance of the artist. An artist chooses the medium with a particular purpose. When the creation of a work of art is no longer an innocent act to flaunt the individual creative dexterity of a person with an artistic bend of mind, the very making of art is the declaration of a particular stance on art, life and society, including politics. When an artist decides to make a work of art with clay or a piece of gold, he/she makes a stance on a series of socio-cultural and political values. This choice is decided by the circuit in which he is a part besides him being a part of the middle or upper class.

To sum up the arguments in this essay, I would say that an artist who for the sake of producing sophisticated art, pursuing sophisticated materials which are used liberally by the so called ‘global artists’ need not necessarily be making a global art because it all depends on what kind of an issue that is being addressed in the art. While at times the mode of art making would set up hither to unheard of fashions, one cannot pursue newer modes more than a body of works for the fear of being repetitive or the mode itself becoming stale by over use (examples are many before us). At times, the subject itself could elevate the artist and the newness of execution to the global scenario even if the materials used are crude and unsophisticated. Most of the artists become global by making extremely bold stance (like Ai Weiwei or Anish Kapoor) on issues. Some artists become global only because they are addressing global issues from the regions and they are sucked in by the global economic circuits maintained by the galleries. The desperate ones go after unconventional materials to create art; but sooner than later, in art the unconventional materials are going to become conventional. Global art is a capitalist ploy and it cannot stand without the support of the global capital. Even if the art produced within this stream are politically powerful, eventually by co-optation they are going to lose their cutting edge in the long run. Doing art with local materials can become a powerful tool to create global art because the regions are what holding the global discourse possible. African artists produce powerful contemporary works using locally available materials, addressing local issues and forms, but they become global artists. Global art, as we understand today is the fashion trends created in Paris and other parts of the world. They are just seasonal and become obsolete in three hundred and sixty five days; among them the lucky ones would make a re-appearance at regular intervals with minor changes here and there. But art is not supposed to be like that. Art has to hold up the eco-human values; art’s global nature should be measured by the amount of humanity and nature gone into its philosophy. While I stand for innovative and sophisticated art from the regions, I do not discount the fact that the conventional art is capable of creating a more powerful aesthetic discourse in the global platforms primarily addressing the regional and provincial issues. Perhaps, only such art would stand the test of the time as the rest would change according to seasons and the introduction of new materials and technology.   

(All images from net and sourced after Venice Biennale. For representational purpose only)