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.  

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