Monday, September 17, 2018

Finding the Genuine and Imposter Artists in the Genre of Abstract Art

(Painting by Bose Krishnamachari)

No question is ever asked if there is no answer to it. So is true to say that each answer also carries a question in/with it. That means questions and answers are never two different entities but the extensions of the same in all the possible directions. In an inextricable relationship they are entwined forever, at times manifesting as questions and at other times coming forth as answers. Any question left unanswered would wander like ghosts making lives of the people around it difficult. Answers that go without questions too are like ghosts, but of a benign variety like a truism destined to remain in the text books without ever getting underlined or quoted. So it is always good to answer a question and question an answer. Proving my motto right, my student, aspiring critic and also a future art entrepreneur who would like to start an ‘intelligent gallery with definite commercial intent’, Oorja Garg has forwarded this question which came up in her mind after reading my article on abstract art as an answer to her question regarding the topic. I had concluded my previous essay with a statement that ‘along with several genuine abstract artists you will always have some imposters.’ Now Oorja would like to know how as young art critics (future art critics) they could distinguish a genuine abstract artist from an imposter.

(Painting by Prabhakar Kolte)

The question has an answer; perhaps several answers. However, I would like to stick to the genuine and imposter binary in order to arrive at some feasible answers. The first and foremost answer is that of the ‘disinterested’ analysis of a work of art by the art critic, taking its formalistic and thematic ingenuities and then moving from there to the contextual veracity of the same using the objective critical parameters set up by the critical and historical discourses pertaining to it. That means, a critic should be primarily a ‘disinterested’ personality. The term ‘disinterestedness’ in the critical parlance is a late 19th century British formulation by the literary critic Mathew Arnold, which had been taken further by the pioneering modernist, T.S.Eliot. Disinterestedness is a non-partisan attitude that highlights pure objectivity. When disinterestedness is the key to the analysis of a work of art, what a critic primarily does is looking for its ‘originality’, it’s sort of non-indebtedness to the immediate. Both Arnold and Eliot speak up for ‘Tradition’ and its role in framing the individual talents but their emphasis is on the transcendence of the past to the present and its ability to move towards future. This locates a work of art as the product of a historical process that the registration of the immediate contemporary events. Disinterestedness is possible when the critic approaches a work of art using historical parameters to which he/she does not have any partisan relationship. According to them pure objectivity is possible in discerning the genuine from the fake/imposters. Also the emphasis is on the application of objectivity, which does not have anything to do with artist’s personality or surroundings, therefore it could always move around formal values and experimentations. The early 20th century abstract art was all about these objective experimentations, which almost appeared as an aesthetical issue rather than any socio-political or personal-cultural issue.

(Painting by Velu Viswanthan)

Formalism has its own traps and it did/does appear throughout the 20th century and even now it happens in the making of the abstract art where the imposters could smuggle their wares in as genuine products. Formalism stresses on the surface values while balancing it with some internal meanings, which need not necessarily be the starting point for the onlooker or for the critic. That means, if an artist has come up with a new texture, a new treatment of the pictorial surface, a new impression, a new adoption, a new juxtaposition, a new visual value and so on in his pictorial plane we do not have any devices to discern whether it is genuine or posturing. While formalism and disinterested approach of the critique collapse the boundaries of sense and make the genuine appear as a posturing and the posturing as genuine. This is the reason why so many artists who have been either lacking in skill, craft and concept or clever enough to pass of all those lacks as ingenuity present their abstract works and gain a sort of market success and acceptance in the general art scene. As I had explained in my previous article on the theme of abstract art, the experimental aspect of art, especially that of the abstract art was taken as the prime quality of ‘modern art’. So anybody who would like to jump into the bandwagon of ‘modern art’ could come up with some color blotches and patches and say that they were modern abstract art works/artists. It is difficult to argue with such artists because they would hold onto the features of formalist modernism and say that they have all those in their works. Besides, the universal modernism functions properly when it does not fix its expression in geographically or culturally or linguistically defined forms or figures. Formal abstract experiments which could be easily abstract expressionism also overcome those abovementioned specific definitions. In this false universalism, the imposters thrived and they still do.

(Painting by P.Gopinath)

This brings us to a point where we are forced to rework on the objectivity of disinterested criticism. While keeping the historical experience of it and the employment of such parameters intact, we could also add the critic’s subjectivity in the whole discourse and discernment. Subjectivity taking an upper hand in the critical discourse may be fallacious because of the possibilities of personal preferences and bias. Therefore we need to redefine the nature subjectivity when it comes to art criticism or any kind of criticism; subjectivity has to have objective nature that means one shouldn’t be too biased to see the posturing. Secondly, subjectivity cannot be over emotional or sentimental; but it should be informed and has a deep sense of not only art history but also the social history within which art history as a genre is always operated. Also the subjectivity of the critic should be interdisciplinary in which he/she should be taking the socio-cultural, politico-anthropological, linguistic-economic factors of the artist and the art work (abstract or figurative) into consideration. This also leads to contextual criticism where the general norms of a society at a particular time in which such works of art are produced come to play a big role. That means, the critic’s subjectivity should be formed out of all these in order to gain sufficient objectivity in discerning the good-bad, genuine-fake identities of the (abstract) art.

(Painting by VS Gaitonde)

The mere posturing of the artists who say that they are at par with the masters of the international abstract art (they are international abstract art because they are discussed in the mainstream art discourse including the economic discourse) only because their formal values are not different the established ones. It is where the critic’s informed subjectivity should intervene. If it is all about formalism, then there could be a comparison between the formalism of the genuine one and a posturing. While the genuine ones give out a sense of harmony, rhythm, balance and all that settle the mind of the onlooker and send him or her to a kind of contemplation not necessarily about the work of art in question but about anything related to that, and bring in a sort of deep silence, then we can say that the formalism is successful. This argument could be contested by showing Marc Rothko on the one side and Jackson Pollock on the other. While Rothko’s paintings give this deep meditative feel, Pollock’s may send the viewer to some sort of chaotic dance. Here the critic could employ his/her interdisciplinary approach and understand why Pollock was doing like this and Rothko was doing like that. In short, what I say is that the critic should employ the subjective understanding to discern a fake from the genuine. Faking a contemplative depth is what most of the imposters do for creating their abstract art. They do not look for the intrinsic values that I have explained above but try for the production of a formal look. And their only escape route is that no abstract could be copied as it is because very subjective formalisms cannot be copied in its lawless randomness or carefully calculated texturing.

(Painting by Shilpa Nikam)

Most of the times, abstract artists are made famous not because their works have intrinsic qualities but they are clubbed into a sort of contemporary tradition. We have several masters who have done good abstract works. At the same time once their time is up we come to see his or her disciples coming up as the next generation abstract artists with some variations in existing formalism of the master and getting established by virtue of being the students of the departed master or just by mere association. There are abstract artists who rule the market only because certain school has produced them. The market and its players produce the value by creating narratives around them and their schools, and bring them to the auction market and fetch huge amounts of money. This in turn gives an impetus to many more so called ‘modern artists’ to come up with abstract art. Often the abstract art is projected in the market thanks to extrinsic reasons that do not have anything to do with aesthetics that these artists intend to produce. We cannot wish away this abstract lobby and also the coterie that supports it. Hence, the onus of identifying a genuine abstract work of art falls on to the shoulders of the critic him/herself with those subjective and objective tools that I have mentioned at the outset of this article.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Is Abstract Art on a Come Back Trail?

(Painting by Wassily Kandinsky)

Upon observing the stylistic features followed and practiced by many a student and young artist in the colleges and in the private studios in India, my student at the MSU, Baroda, Oorja Garg asks me why many are inclining towards an ‘abstract’ style these days. She wonders whether this is a global trend based on market success. As a part of the question she also clarifies that she does not have any problem with the ‘abstract style’ as such but somehow she fears that this trending could be a result of a lack of mastery over figurative painting. I think the question deserves a detailed answer, hence this blog.

Abstract Art, according to me is the art of the essential or rather the art of the essence. Abstraction has been understood all over the world in two specific ways; first of all, abstraction is a way of idealizing an artistic subject/object, eliminating/erasing the specific characteristics/particularities so that an ‘ideal’ art object/form is created which could be understood universally within the given context and frame of reference. Early Buddhist and Hindu sculptures that are generally hailed as Indian Sculptures belong to this genre of abstraction. Bringing out the essentials and idealizing them for the sake of universal relevance and prevalence anticipates, as already said, universal nature of the art object. This universalism overwrites the art object’s regional or local characteristics, at the same time leaving the entry points open so that the observer could make intellectual inroads in comprehending them fully.

(Painting by Paul Cezanne)

The second kind of abstraction is the one that we often connect with ‘modern art’. If traditional abstraction was the artists’ effort to idealize the subject/object, modern abstraction was a deliberate rejection of the figurative art that had just preceded it. Wassily Kandinsky, the Russian artist who could be called the father of Modern Abstract art chose to ‘deconstruct’ the figurative art that he, his contemporaries and his predecessors were practicing in the late 19th century and the early 20th century. The cataclysmic global occurrences that had resulted into the Russian Revolution and the First World War should be one of the reasons for the collapse of the integrated and unified image of the divine/human beings both in social and artistic spheres, which TS Eliot, the British Poet had qualified in his path breaking poem, ‘The Wasteland’ as ‘a heap of broken images’.

Breaking of up of images was already started since Impressionism. When Cezanne deliberated that he could conceive the objects into geometrical forms, he was in a way paving the way for further breakdown of figurative art. This collapse of the unified image of the triumphant human being (this being was ironically promoted heavily by the Russian authorities since the Revolution) had manifested in the Cubist experiments of Picasso and Braque. By the time we reach Duchamp, the collapse of the human image (therefore the collapse of all kinds of European aesthetical ideals prevalent since the Classical Greco-Roman period to the Neo-Classical period, finding its peak in the Renaissance period) take a different turn and he after his cubistic interventions replaces the possible human presence with industrially made and replicable objects. Kandinsky’s abstraction runs parallel to this though he stresses not on the collapse of the human image but art’s ability to move from the mundane and attain the abstraction of music.

(Sculpture by Henri Moore)

So, we see two different kinds of abstraction already established by the early 20th century. In the first one, once again for clarity, we see the essence of figuration manifesting as abstraction. Here we do not find any denial of figuration. In the second kind of abstraction, it comes as a rebellion against the dominant figurative art. Sooner than later, right from the Cubistic experience we come to know that abstraction is not just denial of figuration but a search for the possibility of making art through non-figurative modes, which interestingly could be looking for the essence or embedded qualities. Early 20th century sculptures by artists like Henry Moore, Constantine Brancusi, Barbara Hepworth, Alexander Calder, David Smith, Alberto Giocometti and many more present the possibility of a non-figurative art strictly still retaining the essence of the figurative art. While in painting, this search for essence could have been an avoidable feature because the two dimensional surface had given the artists more freedom than the sculptors who had to deal with volume and a seeming ‘figuration’ was essential to even emphasis the desired abstraction. But painters like Kasimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian could absolutely do away with the illusionary third dimension of the painting which the masters of the yester years had striven hard to achieve.

In this sense abstract art was a pivotal intellectual movement in the beginning of the 20th century, which necessitated different critical approaches in order to historicize their relevance. With no materialistic terms to qualify such an art (when one discards the materiality of the object forms and shapes naturally the language that critically explains such art forms too undergoes changes), it was important for the critics to talk more in esoteric and spiritual terms, which was an entirely novel parlance in the art historical discourses for over four hundred years. With no materiality, a mental existence had to be attributed to this newly established abstract or non-figurative art, which naturally led to the borrowing of terms and concepts of spiritual/yogic/meditative/Zen practices from the Oriental countries including India. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, with the ‘modern art’ discourse ruling art history, there have been efforts to ‘deconstruct’ human form in various ways and one could say that even Surrealism, apparently a strongly figurative art movement, made efforts to dissolve human figure and anything around it. Surrealism drew its sustenance from dream realities and the human sub-conscious realm which naturally would hold non-materialistic images or images altered by mental interventions.

(Painting by Jackson Pollock)

Seen against this backdrop, the first half of the 20th century witnessed an implosion of conflict of the abstract art with its own foundational philosophies. Abstract Art had to depend on the mental plane and the other non-materialistic arts like music still it needed a virtual linguistic structure which could be manifested only by concrete articulation and this conflict (conflict arose between the erasure of figures and the essential nature of verbal language with concrete images) took abstract art into different directions and one of the streams often found its escape route in definitely figurative art but through heavy distortions as in the case of Expressionism which brought back the artists like El Greco into discourse. Once again it took another World War, the Second in order to bring abstract art to the fore.

Post World War II America was once again facing a collapse in philosophy and economics. The collapse in faith caused by unprecedented wastage of human lives in the war/s made the artists to look Eastwards for solace and Zen practices, its meditation techniques, its universal philosophy of considering everything as the part of the whole, and the intuitive knowledge gave the artists a lot of hope and sustenance. The Eastern Zen philosophy does not differentiate between thoughts and deeds; it is one and the same. Deeds are the manifestations of thoughts. Jackson Pollock’s Action Painting has to be seen against this historical backdrop. Critics like Clement Greenberg and Harold Roschenberg were working overtime to attribute spiritual tendencies to this art. America was on its way to become an economic power despite its humungous economic failure post-War years. The US promoted World Trade Fairs to gain global economic supremacy and along with trade products, they promoted the Action Painting and other contemporary abstract art which came to be known by an umbrella terms International Abstract Expressionism.

(Painting by Biren De)

World speaks the master’s language. As an emerging Super Power, the US could influence the world not only with its industrial prowess but also with the soft power called culture and the package included the Abstract Expressionism movement. If you look at the former colonial countries which had been just trying to stand on their feet after the war and the independence resulted by it, this art language was the most trending kind and the ongoing national debate between indigenous modern and the global modernism, it was easy for the latter to win as the post-War scenario had opened up a new internationalism, and the artists as cultural van guards went all out for this new internationalism; and obviously abstract expressionism was the choice. As we know by our art historical experience, not many had fallen for Pollock though he was aesthetically and philosophically influential. He along with Yves Klein had even inspired the latter Performance artists! But the artists all over the world started looking for something that reflected the international abstraction which could make them at once national and international.

Paul Klee, the abstract and semi-figurative artist comes handy at this juncture. For many who were striving for a visual language which should have abstraction but less American, Klee became a savior. He could provide the regionalism and the abstraction at once; those were abstract works in the non-figurative sense and essentially provincial and subjective in content. Also came artists like Barnett Newman, William De Kooning and so on handy for the Indian artists. However, there was always this question of national/regional against the international. For the nationalists, going for the Hindu abstraction was much easier and jumping over the latter part of Buddhist and Hindu art, they went for the Vedic symbolism of yoga. Hence in North India we find artists like Biren De and G.R.Santosh deriving their visual language from Yogic and the later Tantric symbolism. I would however call these experiments bit crude and superficial, as the perfection of this visual language with more scientific and emotional spirit could be seen in the works of S.H.Raza. J.Swaminathan, moved towards a pop-kind of abstraction as he evolved through his early experiments with the indigenous tribal art of India.

(Painting by KCS Panicker)

The real international abstraction however was started in India by KCS Panicker, who headed the Madras College of Art after DP Roy Chowdhury’s tenure as the Principal of it. History says that KCS Panicker is influence by Paul Klee. There are evidences that Panicker during his traveling abroad had seen the works of the international abstract artists. This had triggered Panicker’s imagination and without depending completely on the early Hindu or Vedic symbolism to create abstract art, he created a semi-cryptogrammic and semi-figurative style which was meditative and at the same time action oriented. This was/is a perfect abstract language which in fact had created many fine abstract artists in India like Akkitham Narayanan, Paris Viswanathan, KV Haridasan, Reddappa Naidu, J.Sultan Ali and so on. There was a different modern international abstract art school developed in the west side of India which also came as a rebellion against the strongly academic figurative art of the JJ School. Prabhakar Kolte is one of the exponents of this abstract school. Also we saw fine abstract artists like V.S.Gaitonde, Prabhakar Barwe, Mehli Gobhai, Bose Krishnamachari and so on. By the time, the color field abstraction created by Mark Rothko had earned mythical and religious status. Also in due course of time the Western Art had gone through a sea change taking it to strong naturalism and realism once again.

(Painting by SH Raza)

The Indian artists mentioned in this article had their reasons to be abstract artists. However, by 1980s with the advent and flourish of the strongly figurative movement called Baroda Narrative movement, once again it became imperative for a non-figurative rebellion against it as the figurative movement had ‘man’ as the central figure of the events narrated visually. While the West-Indian abstraction was in its peak, there came the post-Swaminathan abstraction from Bhopal’s Bharat Bhavan and the artists related to this establishment. Their torch bearer SH Raza had already earned success locally and internationally with a sort of convincing abstraction which had all the indigenous, national and international elements. Many artists in Bhopal took the route of Raza in essence but they all had to create different kinds of abstract styles to keep themselves afloat in the art market. A series of experiments with surfaces, forms and textures followed almost establishing a false notion that non-figurative art is ‘the’ modern art and figurative art was simply the ‘revival’ of old schools and masters. This historical falsehood spread like a virus and many thought experimenting with texture and colors was all about abstract art therefore making of modern art.

(Painting by J Swaminathan)

Today, if abstract art is on a coming back trail, then its reasons should be found in two different areas; first of all it could be a reaction against the mediatic realism art or photorealism art which had almost gobbled up rest of the artistic experiments from mid 1990s to around 2014. Mediatic Realism flourished in India as the most happening art and also it argued its own case that the artists who practiced mediatic realism would not let ‘painterly’ practices to die out. So it was not just an artistic style but a historical struggle against a new enemy in the forms of installation art, video art, conceptual art, performance art and ephemeral art. As the style was palatable to all with easily comprehensible images it could stay there for almost two decades. Today, mediatic realism is considered to be a done to death style. In this context, abstract art comes back as a painterly art because it is at once a rebellion and a TINA factor (there is no alternative). It is a TINA factor phenomenon because paintings can be, fundamentally speaking, either figurative or abstract. To create figuration and abstraction one could use any methods and materials. While figurative art needs craft and skill, absolute discipline and training besides constant practice, abstract art needs only cleverness and the ability to stick to experimenting with surface and texture, and once achieved a certain recognizable style the ability to stick to it. The fall out is that this has brought many false prophets into abstract art. Many self-schooled artists today paint abstract art because it is easy and it is modern as well as international! If more youngsters are practicing abstract art, seen against the historical backdrop, they must be fed up with the strict figuration that has been ruling the art scene. The market, which means the collectors’ consortiums, that decides the value of art must be now taking a fancy on the abstract art, therefore it must be trending the market. It is bound to happen and along with that many genuine abstract artists you will have countless imposters.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Crash: 9/11 and its Aftermath by Akshay Kumar Seebaluck in Khairagarh

(Akshay Kumar Seebaluck, Mauritius artist/MFA Painting student at Khairagarh)

Akshay Kumar Seebaluck, a final year MFA Painting student from Mauritius at the Indira Kala Sangeet Viswa Vidyalaya aka Khairagarh University uses his art to respond to the contemporary as well as historical events. In his studio at the Painting Department there is a painting in a corner, which he proudly shows to everyone saying that he has done that work keeping the deluge that had devastated Kerala in the month of August 2018. Unlike his other paintings, this one dedicated to Kerala is predominantly black interspersed with dark olive green with white strips of paint oozing down, indicating the cascading of water from the high dam shutters. He hardly uses black and dark green in his other paintings; Khairagarh being a place full of lush greenery, any artist should be carried away by the force of such emerald green. But Akshay mixes a lot of greys and whites to his green in order to tone it down to reflect a serene state of everything including the daily routine of the people in Khairagarh, their attitude towards education (which is seen in the number of schools here) and the calm flow of life in general. His human figures are not the rotund kind but the stick ones that get stuck in the viewers’ mind. There are a lot of verbal graffiti that in a closer reader reveal the queries that the artist himself carries around in his mind. He remains silent while his paintings speak for him through the visuals and the textual interpolations.

(Akshay's painting for Kerala)

The work dedicated to Kerala by Akshay is not shown to many. Nor does he intend to do so. Upon asking why he does so he says that he likes to respond rather than react but it is not necessary that his responses are dealt with immediate. He is not led by any collective guilt but he is always goaded by the ideal that an artist has a social responsibility and he is supposed to act upon it or deliver it in the most feasible and possible ways. Hence, Akshay, coming from Mauritius, a place far away from Kerala, feels the responsibility of being one with the people who have been suffering. He suffers silently along with them and his suffering is seen in the painting. Typical to his style, a closer look reveals that in this painting too he has employed verbal graffiti of which the one strikes at my mind is the question on the top right of the painting: Has the Dam waters caused the deluge? This has been a question raised by many an environmentalist in Kerala and they dubbed the flood as a man made one rather than a natural calamity. While debates are on and the artists in Kerala are still responding to the situation quite emotionally and often sentimentally, Akshay’s work stands out elsewhere, far away from the public glare and attention, in the corner of a sweltering studio but still evoking the questions being asked currently not only in Kerala but also anywhere in the world where dams have been posing critical danger to the hapless human masses.

(Beginning of the installation -performance, 'Crash'

‘Crash’ is one such response by Akshay, which is at once an installation and a performance combined together in order to commemorate and also to raise a few disturbing questions on the seventeenth anniversary day of the notorious 9/11 that had not only collapsed the iconic world trade center’s twin towers in New York but also conveniently created a global ‘other’ in the persona of a Muslim terrorist. With the incident which actually changed the course of history into pre-9/11 and post 9/11 has raised so many disturbing questions regarding the fight against terrorism by the United States of America. Akshay is not a direct victim of this event. In fact except for those people who got inadvertently entangled with the event and the US citizens in general the general population of the world was more or less unaffected by the incident. But it took for them to realize that a little bit of post 9/11 would come to their lives in terms of so many global sanctions and restrictions, price hikes, stringent economic orders, political dominations and the growth of right wing politics, disaster capitalism and the proliferation of the weapon industry through maintaining small scale wars all over the world; and also by setting up the democratic governments against its own people. In this sense, the 9/11 incident is in our lives even today.

(Crash by Akshay Kumar Seebaluck)

Perhaps, after the first Gulf war in 1990-91, the 9/11 was an accidentally televised global spectacle which came to have far reaching visual and psychological consequences among the world populations as they partook in the event as shell shocked spectators. It was one incident that consolidated the human psyche against a global other and the scale of the attack on the twin towers was so massive that saving the attacker even by playing the Devil’s Advocate could have been a self-alienating attempt. But over a period of time people start probing into the veracity of the claims of the successive US Governments, the posing of their military-industry installations and also the aftermath of the chain of events that had created an unprecedented narrative in the global scenario. Akshay perhaps stand at the other end of this spectrum as a young artist who relives the 9/11 event as a part of history as well as a memory and contemporary folklore. However, he, detached from the event and distanced by times asks certain uncomfortable questions through the whole performance cum installation that was held in the Darbar Hall of Khairagarh University on the 9th September 2018 to which I played a curatorial consultant’s role.

(the Interactive part of 'Crash')

The project ‘Crash’ is developed out of two surrogate towers, symbolizing the twin towers that had come under the attack, made of canvas stretched over rectangular cuboids. The canvases are etched with the press cuttings culled carefully from the reporting of the event all over the world and Akshay cleverly and artistically create a submerged narrative of questions regarding the 9/11. The reports thus transferred on the canvases start as mere reportage and slowly they take the form of raising questions, probing into the details, victims’ narratives, experts’ observations, global economic and cultural fall out etc. The ‘twin towers’ are then interpolated by the stick figures as well as the textual graffiti created by Akshay himself, which are lit from inside so that in the darkness of the hall they appear like two large pieces of embers that refuse to die out. According to Akshay, this emblematic representation of the event is way of raising the question that never say die once again; has the War against Terror achieved anything? Where are we in terms of terror? Even if the artist does not ask the following questions directly, as witnesses we could ask ourselves; what happened to the relatives of the human beings who got involved accidently in the incident? Who are responsible for the wastage of a large number of human lives? What has the US Government achieved after creating the global other? Has the growth of the right wing all over the world ever since in any sense helped the positive human evolution. Questions are many and answer could be always in the negative or in a sort of vagueness.

(a view of 'Crash')

‘Crash’ started off as a performance where before a waiting audience comprising mainly of the students and faculty members two student collaborators enacted an orgy of/with flowers which slowly turned into a violent act of mutual annihilation. This act was followed by a group of actors masquerading as terrorists, with their faces covered and hands wielding fake Kalashnikovs took hostage of some students and proceeded into the Darbar Hall where the main installation, the twin towers were waiting. In total darkness the installation looked like a pair of burning eyes while the actors moved around with lit candles in one hand and flowers in the other. Six blank canvases were kept on either side of the towers which was supposed to be acted upon by the audience. In the orgy of responses it took no time to fill the canvases with the visual and textual graffiti which surprisingly corresponded with the surface of the towers created by Akshay himself. The performance and temporal installation was concluded as a group of students and faculty members moved towards the front gate of the University with candles and left them there along with flowers.

(the Culmination of 'Crash')

As some onlookers did not know what exactly was going on, one of them exclaimed, ‘has Diwali, the festival of lights, come so early this year?’ It could be jest partially and serious too. But the 9/11 was a spectacle that has meant to go wrong; but still it was a spectacle, a lesson for the Ravanas of the world, calling some Ravanas and some assuming the role of Rama. The performance was persuasive and the installation in the darkness was quite poignant enough to evoke the terror of the crash and also capable enough to evoke piety towards humanity in the minds of the onlookers.  

Saturday, September 8, 2018

When I Write My 1000th Blog Entry

Two days back I wrote my 1000th blog entry. It was ‘Meaning Meets an Unfamiliar Word’; an article about TK Harindran’s film, ‘Bay Image Now’. Thousand blogs in ten years! I have never thought of achieving a target; while writing a blog entry I never think about any kind of numbers. I write because I like writing. I write because I have got something to say. I write because I got something to communicate. I write because I like addressing unknown readers. There could be a number of reasons for writing a blog entry. More importantly, I never call my blog entries, blog entries. I call them articles. My blog is a collection of articles. I write articles and do not take much pain to send it to any publisher. I, perhaps like the immediacy of communication. Seen from a different perspective there are not many magazines that accommodate my articles.

I write mostly on art and culture that include film and literature. We do not have too many magazines that would spare more than four pages to an article pertaining to art or culture. If at all they publish a very long article, it should be by some internationally acclaimed authors like Arundhati Roy. Magazines would even spare a whole issue for such writers. I do not belong to that league of writers. There are magazines that publish lengthy articles; they are hugely academic in nature and are their periodicity is either quarterly or biannual. With my level of patience I cannot wait for such long durations to see an article published. Nor do I have such patience to satisfy the editorial needs of those kinds of journals. Considering all these factors, there is no wonder that I found blogging my favorite medium of publishing. They say, blogs are not taken seriously. My blog entries have proved them wrong.

Long back I had written about the reason why I started a blog and I do not want to repeat the story at length here. However, for a new reader out there I could recap it in a succinct fashion. I was editing a very successful online journal. Being a person with Compulsive Writing Disorder, I needed another platform to write all what I wanted to write. Besides, an American friend sort of challenged me about writing regularly, which he was doing regularly in his blog. Next day I registered my blog and for the name of it I didn’t think twice: By All Means Necessary, a famous statement by the charismatic Malcolm X. By all means necessary I have been militantly righteous in my blog writing. My Compulsive Writing Disorder became an order in itself and despite the snide remarks on my writing style from a few quarters I kept the momentum on and when I complete ten years in blogging in October this year I will have at least 1020 articles in it.

Wherever I go, whether it is an academic institution or wherever intellectually inclined people are found, I come across people who follow my blogs; some regularly and some religiously. There are people who send me messages, anxiously enquiring the reasons for my abstinence from blog writing in case I am not able to add a new article for some time due to personal reasons. But remember, I have never been mechanical in my writing that means I have never written a blog entry for the sake of increasing its number or readership. In all these years  many well-wishers of mine have come forward to tell me that I should be reducing the length of my writing for these days people do not read end to end. They need two minutes or three minutes read. Some points out that today people are more comfortable with reading in their smartphones therefore I should be maintaining a length of the articles that could be seen and read in one scroll. With all respect to those friends I have always rejected such proposals and guidance. I have never cut my articles into size only to fit them into the new templates of reading or to cater to the changed and changing reading habits of the people.

In this case I am a very patient man. When I post an article in the blog, I tell myself that there may be five hundred readers for this or may be fifteen thousand. It could go down to fifty too (I can have my data always checked in the google analytics and I do keep a watch on it). But I am very patient with my readers. In fact I am waiting for the future readers to find me out from the endless entries in the blogosphere from all over the world. I know that there are topics that I deal with which are topical and current so I get more readers; there are articles that gain many readers if there are references of sex and nudity. Period. There are readers who wait for something very pithy. There are articles that have validity all the time. Such articles will find readers from all over the world. Trust me I have more readers from the US and Europeans countries than from India. I have been quoted from my blogs several times in the foreign newspapers. Indian journalists who cover art and culture have openly accepted that they follow my blog quite regularly. I am patient. My readers are here and they are still to come in future.

Whenever young art writers complaint that they do not have enough avenues to publish their writing I smile at them. I tell them if they are ready to listen, see if you have something to say and you dare to say that the way you feel it, then write it in a blog or in a note, there will be serious readers for you. But most of the young writers do not believe in themselves. They think that only when their works are appreciated by the established editors and given a space in the established magazines, then only they become writers. I do not think such writers are serious about their writing practice. They are writing for mainstream appreciation. They do not feel excited to write regularly. They want to see their works published in the magazines, even if it is once in a year. Youngsters complain about the absence of monetary gains in the field of writing. If you do not write, from where do you get your money? Then they would say, in blog there is no money. I say, there is no money in blog but there are moneyed people out there who would want your writing. Can you believe that I had been invited to Mumbai by an entrepreneur after reading my blogs? He wanted to send me to London for a few months to interview his mentor and come out with a book. It happened in 2009. The book was supposed to be about a polo player who had been in bed for long after a fall. I politely rejected the proposal only because the subject was not of my kind or taste. I was treated royally in Mumbai by that young entrepreneur for two days. He told me as he saw me off that I could ring him up anytime I need help in bringing out a book. Dear young writers, your reader is not the one who you think your reader is.

In the blog spot too there is a provision to monetize your writing. After much prodding by one of my friends and an expert in photography and computers, Feroze Babu, I tried to add this monetizing feature in my blog. Soon I found that advertisements appearing below the blog entry, picking random words as key words and popping up atrocious pictures and advertisements. It put me off and I found out the ways to get rid of the monetizing option and I did chuck it eventually. I have to add that I have not earned a single rupee from this monetizing option. Today blog writing is not one of the options of my writing practice, it is my writing. Today, if you calculate roughly, my blog has around twenty five lakh words in it. That means it could easily make 25 books. And I have many more years ahead to write. If not today, tomorrow, these writings are going to be in the book form because somewhere the reader of my blog is yet to be born. Who knows he wouldn’t be my publisher? I am not so adamant that I should be living to see that day. But I know that day is very much there.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Chameli Ramachandran’s Home and Beyond

(Chameli Ramachandran)

‘Home and Beyond’ is the latest solo exhibition of Chameli Ramachandran at Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi. Chameli has always been a mono-chromatic artist who loves to work with Chinese ink and to add a little turbulence to it a dash of watercolor. Turbulence cannot be and shouldn’t be a word to qualify any aspect of the artist for her presence itself is a defined absence; so subtle is the presence of this artist that it could create the turbulence that the petals of a flower could create on its own. So, the turbulence that I am talking about is one that has been created by the flower petals, the pigeons’ wings, winds that passing through the lean trees and the snow flakes. Chameli is a worshipper of natural elements, a pagan with a lot of refinement with an Oriental serenity pervading all aspects of her life. In this show, she has done ninety works on paper and it is a tour de force. Considering Chameli’s age and physical frailty due to it, it is a rare achievement.

(work by Chameli Ramachandran)

When I see the works for the first time (though I have been following her works for the last two and half decades each time I see a new body of works it gives me the feeling of seeing them for the first time) what I think is nothing but the expression ‘what an indomitable spirit’! Despite age, Chameli has done something that only a very healthy mind could do. The mind that is the channelizing force behind her works, exactly the way nature goads her to let it flow through her with all its subtleties, is alert and receptive which always say that whatever she sees could be turned into an isolated piece of visual. The excising process involved in looking and seeing by this artist is very important because even if she has been living in the city of Delhi for quite some time (and in Kerala and North America during the winters), what she sees are the trees, the birds, the clouds, the sky, the flowers and the winds. This is a selective viewing, which is made possible by age and wisdom; perhaps she has been gifted with this ever since she was born.

Born to a Chinese scholarly couple who came to Viswabharati University to teach, Chameli was named so by none other than Rabindranath Tagore. In one of the utterances by the artist herself, currently available in the public domain, she says that the name ‘Chameli’ was given by Tagore himself as it was vogue in those days that the parents took their infants to Tagore so that he could give them the right name. Chameli was given that name because Tagore said that the Chinese names had three syllables, so was the name Cha-Me-Li. Chameli grew up to love Tagore’s poems and philosophy perhaps never wearing it in her sleeves like many others do. After a short break due to familial responsibilities Chameli took up painting again only to do several solo exhibitions and group participations. ‘Home and Beyond’ has the works done in the present year.

The works present could be categorized into four sections; flowers, leaves, trees and landscapes. As I have mentioned before, Chameli deliberately excises the scenes that are not palatable to her. One perhaps wouldn’t come across an architectural form or even a human form in the works of Chameli. I do not know whether her sketchbooks contain such figures and forms. But in the public expositions of her works, she chooses to present only the works created out of the ‘natural’ images. Is it because that the artist wants to avoid the other scenes and figures from her works? Or is it because the artist prefers to live in a romantic world where she always finds in the company of flowers and trees? What could be the driving philosophy behind it? According to me, when Chameli paints/draws these images from the nature, she does not avoid any instead in these trees, flowers and landscapes she find the whole that includes all other animate and inanimate beings and objects.

This is a kind of nature worship that does not have a prayer book or a holy text, nor is it constituted by a cult or a group of worshippers doing the same and moving towards the same goal. In this highly personalized genre of art, Chameli even hides the scientific precision so that a botanist also could be thrown off balance. She does not leave any surety about anything. She presents a slice of nature the way she perceives it and takes all the pleasure in doing so because she finds the whole in it. Each painting done in a somber mood embodies a world and the specificities of locations are also erased from them. In her earlier paintings the pigeons could be from anywhere in the world; in the present body of works, the trees, flowers, leaves and landscapes could be from anywhere. The landscapes, however are seen a bit exotic as such landscapes cannot be visualized by one and all unless and until he/she privileged to see such landscapes.

Chameli has used a lot of sepia tone in her earlier works. But in the present body of works, she uses predominantly the black ink wash that makes the bodies of the works so transparent exactly the way old age makes one body transparent and luminous, showing the veins running like tired rivers beneath the undulating landscape of skin. The flowers are agile and fresh and they show the vigor and happiness of being alive. However, the leaves are tired and wilting. There is a silent storm passing through the trees and they are ready to bend. One may be surprised to see that there is not a single tree in Chameli’s present body of works that stands straight. Every tree is caught by strong winds and is ready to bend. Chameli’s body feels the pressure of time and she transports them to her images. The invisible wind therefore becomes symbolic and the bending woods and branches become quite emblematic of human condition.

The landscapes are snow clad and there is no green to be seen. It is quite Chekhovian. One could see invisible pathways lined by turbulent trees. One could also see dormant grass and tolerant shrubs standing subdued under the pressure of the snow. Interestingly, Chameli does not give any clue of snow and its softy barrenness. But the silence that is pervading her whitish landscapes with dark patches for grass, the undulating expanse and the glass like sky give us the feeling of stillness; a stillness that one feels when one accidently steps into a precarious scenario. There is no danger apparent but there is no security either. And the only way to overcome that feeling is to absorb and make the scene a part of your own existence. That’s what exactly Chameli does in her new body of works.

If I write any word like ‘meditative’ it will suddenly fall into the rut of religious spiritualism. In Chameli the spiritual feeling that one gets is not of a religious kind; it is of a focus and depth. If you are excited for anything, witnessing Chameli’s works would put you into a sense of tranquility. The stillness is infectious. It is said that Chinese painters painted landscapes for meditative purposes. They were like spiritual martial artists perfecting the strokes with ink and brush on paper. Chameli has that ‘sanskar’ in her; the element of focus and depth towards perfection. That’s also one reason why she sticks to the Chinese ink and brush. During the last half a century or so, she could have used any other medium or material to diversify her creativity. She stuck to one and became very proficient in that. Only when you are in love with what you do, you could continue it for long even when it is not liquidating itself for riches. Only when you see the whole world reflected in a drop of dew you could conserve it for you feel that you live in that dew. There is a good thing about living inside the dew; you become as small as that, as precious, as tender, as subtle, constantly reflecting the universe in you. Chameli is that dew drop; very precious in Indian art.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Questions of Originality and DJ-ying Art: In the Context of Confluence III by Roy Thomas

(Artist Roy Thomas with Confluence III at Harvest 2018)

Piracy was the first response of the creative hackers (creators are hackers and hackers are definitely creative) to the idea of copyright protectionism. They took the post-modern articulation of Walter Benjamin from his modern times that any work of art was liable to be reproduced in the age of mechanical reproduction, and took it to a different dimension by turning the very act of reproduction into piracy; copying without license. Benjamin had anticipated the collapse of the original therefore the death of the author which would be articulated later by both Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault in almost same contexts, however he had never thought the reproduction would give birth to a different industry altogether. In the post-digital world of the new millennium there have been demands from various quarters to free copyright altogether and make piracy in a way authorized by the industry as well as the system. To thwart the stringent copyright laws there were movements that heralded the idea of copyleft; it was at once an antonym to copyright and also a left liberal position that gives both the creator and the hacker complete freedom to use images, texts, music, footages, software and so on without fearing punitive actions.

(work by Richard Hamilton)

Copyleft movement has in a way legitimized hacking though such legitimacy has not yet been honored by a society runs on/by profited orient capitalism and its various laws. The term copyleft did not last though the ideas that put forward in the beginning of the new millennium gave a new status to the hacker as a creator and this new found creator could get market legitimacy easily provided he uses not just one source but many and mixes them up to create something absolutely new. In the music industry DJ-ying has been almost a norm since the hip-hop years of 1990s, which grew side by side with the graffiti art and protest art that both vandalized and appropriated existing spaces and images. But that was considered to be at the best another possibility of creativity and at the worst the cases of vandalism. But official copyright free projects, programs, publications and software radicalized the way of creating works of art of various genres. Be it music, cinema, video or visual art, the artist has been given a sort of ‘right’ over the existing sources which he/she could appropriate or manipulate in order to create a new meaning or a new sense of authorship, which constantly denies itself and yet affirms the possibility of it becoming a ‘new’ original.

(Fountain by Duchamp)

This ‘new’ original is an illusionary proposition though inevitable; one cannot overlook their emergence and success in the creative field. This could be called a sort of art DJ-ying which in essence does not reproduce a work of art exactly the way a reproduction machine would do with a text or image. What happens in the Benjaminian mechanical reproduction is the reproduction of something that multiplies the object/event/text/music or whatever thereby denying existence to the original. Mechanical precision, especially made possible by the digital reproduction all the more makes Benjamin an undeniable truth about reproducibility but in the DJ-ying acts what one sees is not the Benjaminian reproduction but a sort of creative vandalism, absolute irreverence to the maker of the original. It is not the denial of the original but cannibalizing of the one. In Benjamin we could see the stopping of the history of an image as its history too gets reproduced with each reproduction, but in the case of DJ-ying acts of creativity it is a simultaneous extension of the history and the production of a new one. The source image or source software has its own history and use and the DJ-ying of it creates a new history of the thus created image and also carries forward the history of the source image.

(Piero Manzoni)

I started thinking of these issues when I was asked by a friend in Delhi after seeing a work of art titled ‘Confluence III’ by artist and my friend, Roy Thomas, exhibited in the ongoing annual exhibition titled ‘Harvest-2018’ about the ‘originality’ of the painting. The artist makes use of three images in this work; one the Les Demoiselles de Avignon, The Damsels of Avignon by Pablo Picasso, Vasanthasena by Raja Ravi Varma and the images of two sharks perhaps by the artist himself. Now the question raised by the young friend is this: If an artist is ‘using’ the images painted by other artists, as the dominant image in his painting, how could it be called an original work of art? Why shouldn’t it be called a clever copy of other established paintings? These questions need a bit elaborate answers. In the following paragraphs I would explain how works like this one by Roy Thomas stands evidence to the contemporary DJ-ying in art. At the outset itself, I want to say that here I am not going to make any value judgment about any works instead I would bring forth some examples from art history and say how DJ-ying is a new form of art and also an inevitability. Do not ask me how long such works of art are going to be in the race and successful in the market. They are questions whose answers should be sought elsewhere.

(Ravi Varma and Atul Dodiya)

When we stand in front of a work of art like ‘Confluence III’, certain words pertaining to creativity come to our minds: originality, plagiarism, paraphrasing, reference, quotation and imitation. Each word has a particular meaning and a contextual meaning. Here in the context of art, originality means nothing but a unique piece of art which has been the result of the mental and physical labor of the artist who is divinely inspired. This is a very disputable argument but for the time being we have to take it as it is. Plagiarism is something when some artist steals an image from another artist or an existing repertoire of images and never mentions the source or author while it is a known fact to other people. Paraphrasing is an act that you create an image that has the same meaning as some established image or object and the moment your image is forwarded the other meaning of the established image comes to the mind of the people. Reference is a sort of acknowledging the visual source while using it fully or partially in the work of art. Quotation is an act of quoting an image from an established work of art or object or event within your own work of art in order to enhance the relevance of your work. Imitation is held as one of the fundamentals of art but in today’s time imitation is considered to be mere charlatanism. One may suddenly think of mediatic realism or photo realism which has all what I have mentioned before. But mediatic realism is not DJ-ying art, but it is an art form that uses an established realist image as proliferated by media in order to create a private mythology or meaning that is relevant to the cultural society or society in general.

(Vasantasena by Ravi Varma)

DJ-ying act in visual art however is not any of the above but still has certain characteristics of the said parameters. It questions originality by bringing in established images or objects. Interestingly there is nothing new in questioning the originality in art or by art. A new art form has emerged by questioning the conceptual or formal authenticity of an existing work of art or a tradition of art making. It is therefore an extension and denial. Marcel Duchamp brought in the industrially made urinal in the gallery and called it ‘Fountain’ with a signature ‘RMutt 1917’ and questioned the very idea of making art. He believed that art was not about originality and originality is a claim and it could be claimed by adding a signature to the ready-made object. Later in 1961, Piero Manzoni signed living human beings and turned them to works of art. It was a critique of the originality or authority of the signature in the post Benjaminian world. There are many plagiarist artists in the world and let us not talk about them. We see a lot of references, quoting and paraphrasing in the contemporary works of art. Reference could be a famous gesture or a silhouette of an image. And quotation may come through the actual reproduction of a work of art partially or fully but not in the original dimensions but still comprising only a minor part of the work at present. DJ-ying Art has all of it and it has been predominantly a new millennium art practice.

(Damsels of Avignon by Picasso)

While Indian modernists like MF Husain paraphrased works of art like Guernica and so many other photo realists artists literally copied the established images, the actual DJ-ying in art was started more or less by Atul Dodiya in the new millennium. Though he has been showing the tendencies of visually quoting other artists and referring to photographs like other mediatic realists, in the body of works that he exhibited in a solo exhibition titled ‘Experiment with Truth’ Dodiya goes full on in DJ-ying art. He paints the works of other artists like Raja Ravi Varma, Marchel Duchamp, Gerard Richter, Pablo Picasso and so on and at times without adding any other element to generate a new meaning. At other times, he adds a silhouette or a shadow just to give a hint that it is not simply a copy of the existing work but a work that could carry forward the elements of the existing work fully or partially. When it comes to his work Gangavataran, Dodiya directly mixes up two artists namely Raja Ravi Varma (an oleograph of the same theme) and Marcel Duchamp’s ‘the Nude Descending the Staircase’. Descending of Ganga is replaced by the descending nude making two cultures meet, two styles mingle, two attitudes co-habit in the same ‘production’ and yet create a meaning/harmony (in traditional terms). Salman Rushdie in his latest novel, ‘The Golden House’ too lavishly uses such a technique where he uses the classical film sequences instead of narrating the story that we have been following since the beginning. He even uses a Duchampian title, ‘The Bride Stripped off by Her Bachelors’.

(Confluence III by Roy Thomas)

Roy Thomas, his work Confluence III too does a similar act. He quotes Damsels of Avignon fully but with the sides reversed. And almost hiding the two central figures in Picasso’s work, Roy Thomas places the Vasanthasena of Raja Ravi Varma. Here is a mutual referencing; Picasso uses sex workers for his Damsels and here in Ravi Varma, Vasantasena too is a courtesan in the Sanskrit play Mruchakhatika by Bhasa. So the artist in a way does not cancel out any women from the ‘original’ painting. Without obliterating he simply hides one with the other; let me say one style with another, one time with another, one frame of reference with another. And we also have to understand that the Damsels works is simply an evocation but never the Damsels painting by Picasso. Hence it is a sort of paraphrasing but keeping close to the heels of the referent. It is never the original. So is the case with Vasantasena of Ravi Varma by Roy Thomas. She is just an evocation of the original and the evocation also could be the evocation of many Vasantasenas by many other calendar artists in the market. Seen in this context, Roy Thomas’ work is neither an imitation of Picasso nor that of a Ravi Varma. It is an original! That is the possibility of DJ-ying Art. One could take two elements and force them into a new context and create a new meaning. The presence of the sharks gives us a feeling that these referent images are inside an aquarium. What does that non-existent aquarium mean? It means nothing but an exaggeration of the back ground; that’s what happens in an aquarium. What if Roy Thomas was not really focusing on the images from Picasso or from Ravi Varma, and his focus was simply on the sharks? That’s how DJ-ying works. They may not be giving much attention to the instrumentals but to the scratching sound created in the console. All the thrill lies in there.