Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Meaning of Art: Does Authorial Intention Hold Water?



(This is Not a Pipe by Rene Magritte)

What’s the true nature of an art work? Is it what the artist anoints it to be or what the critic perceives it to be? Could an art work exist with multiple meanings and interpretations and still be taken seriously?


It is one of the fundamental questions asked by many artists and the question stems from the fear that his/her work of art could always be misinterpreted by critics and viewers alike. This authorial anxiety is legitimate as much as the interpretational freedom that the critics and viewers exercise. There could be a possibility of a work of art being over-read or under-read. When meanings are attributed to a work of art through multi-layered interpretative acts, the work is reduced to a mere trope that has nothing to do with the authorial intentions. So is the case when a work is under-read through negative deductions, stripping the work off of its strength to generate multiple meanings.

A work of art does not stand as a monolith. ‘This is not a Pipe,’ wrote Rene Magritte on his painting that depicted a smoking pipe. He was suggesting that a pipe is not a pipe where the word pipe does not stand in for the pipe in the picture. In structuralism, it is said that a sign need not necessarily be the signified. Through the act of signification the quality and intentional meaning of a sign could change. So the authorial intention may not be taken in the same seriousness and verve in a location/context where the work of art as a sign or a text does not signify the same. This heralds the death of the author, metaphorically at least and new ‘authors’ come to be through the creation of multiple texts/signs out of the given according to the renewed contexts.

(How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare by Joseph Beuys)

Joseph Beuys, the German conceptual artist lamented, how he could explain pictures to a dead hare. On the one level he was talking about the impossibility of interpretation in the case of a work of art for the listener could be ‘dead’ to its meaning. On the other hand Beuys’ act also could emphasis the fact the dead animal’s symbolic meaning was also dead to the stories or interpretations that he was making about the imagined work in his possession. We could deduce that here two narrative texts are brought into an impossible and improbable confrontation where both are dead to each other rendering the act of signification or reading null and void. In Beuys’ shamanic acts he freezes the meaning to its act alone and also connects back to the symbolic meanings developed around an object or act through the various layers of historic time.

We could pit Joseph Beuys against the Rene Magritte as they stick to two different methods of reading and understanding a work of art. Beuys makes his performances unique and no other meaning could be attributed than the autobiographical references and shamanic mysteries. In the case of Magritte each work of art in fact challenges the acts of making a singular meaning and opens up a possibility for reading and understanding it in varied ways. True that the autobiographical references play a major role in any artists’ works but as the works become texts and start their independent journeys through various cultural contexts similar and dissimilar to the original one it changes its complexion and could mean something entirely different, which however does not overthrow the authorial intentions altogether. They stand as one of the meanings, but not necessarily as the primary one.

(Painting by Rene Magritte)

For example take the seminal work of art created by Damien Hirst, something unprecedented in the history of modern art. Perhaps, Da Vinci had attempted at dissecting various animals including the human beings; his approach was purely scientific and no religious, ethical or symbolic meaning was attributed to it. The chances of symbolic attributions are considerably reduced when something done in a context even if it is artistically inclined but denied the chance of it being a work of art. In Da Vinci’s drawings of dissection do not enter into the symbolic realm. Hence, one could say that those drawings carry only authorial intentions, blocking almost all the chances of it becoming a text liable to be opened for the generation of multiple sub-texts.

Damien Hirst’s work is titled ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’. A tiger shark was fished from the seas and was split into two to have it in the vitrines filled with formaldehyde for preservation. Other than the explanatory title no clue was given to raise it to the symbolic realm. One could contemplate deeply on life and death alike in the presence of this work of art. Too many readings came but none went far away from what I have just said because the authorial intention was such that it did not mean anything than a dissected shark in formaldehyde solution. The authorial intention perhaps was to shock the viewer and give a chance to think about life and death. There were many discourses regarding this work but all were extraneous to the fundamental meaning of the work of art.

(Dissection experiments by Da Vinci)

There are works that allow interpretations and there are works that block interpretations, that means there could be works as open texts and closed texts. Open texts have the tendency to move beyond the familiar cultural locations and assume new meanings whereas closed texts remain in one place with one meaning therefore gaining some kind of universal currency without interpretative symbolism. Beuys underlined the idea of textual collisions that dispel each other and in Hirst we see a one-sided bombardment of visual effect that could generate not meanings but extraneous dialogues.

(the Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living by Damien Hirst)

Authorial intentions cannot travel as fast the images especially in the contemporary times when transference of data and images is unimaginably fast. Images become open texts, almost ‘culture-less’ or devoid of a particular culture therefore liable to be interpreted according to the given contexts. Till the modern times, religion was the grammar that held the visual creations within the universal interpretative field. Modern times shook off the shackles of religion and the grammar was fragmented. Globalization and the proliferation of a homogenous market have become a new religion providing a universal grammar to the urban visual art creations so that interpreting the works has more or less become closer to the authorial intentions. It is always good to have authorial intention in the background so that the critic wouldn’t stray too far to make the work look entirely different from something imagined by the artist. At the same time it is not necessary that the authorial intention should rule the reading of a work of art, preventing it from being effective in multiple contexts in varied ways.




Monday, January 18, 2021

Problematizing Kitchen in Painting: Sriya K.R’s Work


(Untitled painting by Sriya KR)

Among the hundred odd works displayed at the Durbar Hall, Kochi as a part of the 49th Kerala State Exhibition 2019-20 one work caught my attention. A moderately sized painting and a bit clumsily done this work of art suddenly rushed long title of an article that had raised a pivotal question regarding the place of the women artists in art history’s hall of fame. Linda Nochlin, in her seminal essay, ‘Why Have There been No Great Women Artists’ written in 1971, had delineated the reasons how institutional obstacles prevent women from becoming great artists. It is not just because of the historiography is majorly patriarchal but often women are forced to confine within the family, playing out multiple roles as home maker, care giver and so on, eschewing their right and ambition to become individuals with creative agencies.


The painting that I have seen in the exhibition does not go with a title. It has one of the most convenient titles; Untitled. When an artist finds it too difficult to name a work of art or even he/she himself does not know what has been the outcome of the creative efforts, or rather when the ideas are too many and a singular title couldn’t do any justice to the work, they prefer to go by the Untitled; some artists even think that Untitled is a title in itself. In Malayalam there are couple of words; sambhavam (event) and sadhanam (a thing). These words could be used for explaining the inexplicable. If someone says that a work of art is a ‘sambhavam’, then it could contain the arguments from Plato to Derrida, from Kant to Agamben, Mathew Collings to Jonathan Jones. Untitled has become something like a ‘sambhavam.’


Sriya K.R, a Thrissur based young artist is the ‘author’ of the work. The work somehow encompasses all what has been said by Linda Nochlin. In his articulations about the ideological state apparatuses, Louise Althusser talks about family as one such institution that controls the growth and outlook of a human being. A home is not a home and a family is not a meeting point of parents and children. It is a microcosm of an ideologically manipulated nation state. Family becomes one of the institutions that brings order to a chaotic human society. Kitchen, when it comes to the life of a female individual, especially in the patriarchal societies like India, turns out to be a shackle and a punitive dungeon where a woman is confined. She is straight-jacketed using idealistic and ideologically endearing terms like mother, caregiver and the ultimate embodiment of human virtues and so on.


In Sriya’s work one could see a surrogate presence of the artist herself (I assume for the sake of the deliberations) looking up to the sky which is surrealistically visible through the ceiling of the kitchen, which has all the qualities of a pit with its curvaceous walls. To suggest the familial duties of a woman, there is something being cooked in a pot on the stove. The modern modular kitchen seems to give all comforts to the woman but instead of a ladle she has a paint brush in her right hand. Her aspiration to move out of the dungeon of familial responsibilities attributed to her is visible in the ladder that is made available to her. She could climb up and escape to the vast sky and space, and make a room for herself out there even if it costs a lot on her behalf. But a closer look reveals that the wall that grows up is made up of granite blocks suggesting the strength of the invincible walls that engulf her. So is the ladder as its steps are replaced by sharp edged knives. She could climb up to escape only by putting her life under risk.


(Artist Sriya K.R)

This possibility of an escape and the circumstances that make it impossible capture the woman in the limbo of existence. She has only one way to survive; that is putting down the brush and taking up the ladle to stir the soup of her life and drown into the eternal disappointment and domestic discontent. We are confronting this work in a time when people are dealing with the ideology of kitchens in books (Kitchens in Malayalam Films by A.Chandrashekhar) and in movies (the Great Indian Kitchen). It is pertinent to see that an intelligent section of the society is thinking in terms of problematizing the kitchen in the cultural discourse. Sriya does the same thing in her work. But the kitchen is a conundrum from which her flight seems to be impossible unless she takes a bold step of climbing out staking her life itself.


The frozen look of the protagonist in the painting consists of the aborted histories that helped women to come out of the kitchen and take up positions in the public and professional lives. Kerala’s history of renaissance that brought many a woman out of the kitchens still has not borne fruits especially in the case of the women artists in Kerala (an in India too), a majority of them are sucked into the familial engine and spitted out as abandoned beings in search of expression and agency only to be discarded or abused at the hands of the powerful male folks. The proliferation of two wheelers among women and also the coming up of nearly 75000 small scale eateries all over Kerala has not only increased women’s mobility in the society therefore their enhanced visibility but also has freed quite a lot of them from the tedium of the kitchens. Sriya’s work is a subconscious response to the women’s (artists’) aspiration to move out of the kitchen, scaling the formidable walls and life threatening ladders. Could the ladder be the male patronage itself? We are not sure but this simple but thought provoking work (I would emphasize that it could have been painted better) is capable of bringing forth a strong discourse on women and kitchen in the contemporary social scenario.




Sunday, January 17, 2021

Eclectic and Impatient: Shyam Aramban’s Art



(Artist Shyam Aramban)

He is eclectic, so is his art. He could play string instruments and if need be tap a bit on the metal plates to bring out rhythm and music. He could also draw and paint, and when he doesn’t do either he is a trigger happy photographer. Wanderlust has struck him badly and he seems to have trusted his feet than his bottom. And he does use it and its result is evident in his solo exhibition at the Lalitha Kala Academy Gallery, Kalady. I have forgotten to mention his name; here is he is, Shyam Aramban, a BFA in Painting from the Kalady University and MFA from the illustrious Banaras Hindu University.


(Works by Shyam Aramban)

Shyam Aramban’s eclecticism shows in most of his paintings for he flitters between styles and formats as if he is natural in this kind of oscillation. But the strain that he tries to bring in through the lines and brush strokes more or less remains the same as his forte lies in depicting in everyday life activities of human beings, at times in a stylized realistic fashion and at other times in absolutely symbolic manner. Exaggeration of human figures and the stylistic variants that he chooses to delve in show the journeys that he has taken. Even if it is not said in his biodata, a sharp eye could discern, from the themes and styles, the lands that he has passed through and passed by, inspired and influenced at each juncture of confrontation.


(Works by Shyam Aramban)

Surprise is the element that he maintains in his artistic demeanour; he could be excited by the moments that he feels and witnesses. When he is in Varanasi he breaths in all what is in offering in terms of visuals. Kashi is the popular name that Varanasi or Banaras has among the pilgrims. And Shyam underlines his approach to the place as a pilgrim, someone who seeks deliverance but doesn’t think that he would live there for long though contrary to the belief may happen, and soaks the scenes and reproduces them in multiple tiers on the single pictorial surface using stylized lines. Of late his works have taken more linear fashion like a graphic illustrator and through these lines his captures the life and times of the places that he visits. Varanasi and Shantiniketan, two places that he is enamoured by find expression in that fashion in his works. One could discern the places through the dominant presence of iconic images; like Santal Family sculpture or Rabindranath Tagore, or Shiv ling and ghats.


(Works by Shyam Aramban)

When in Rome behave like a Roman is the motto that Shyam follows, it seems. He paints what he sees when he is in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh. With its die hard classical etiquette and Nawabi culture, Lucknow stands tall despite the political perversity rules the state. Shyam does not think much about the political matters but making the landscape replete with Muslim culture and architecture, he seems to say something allegorically; faith in humanity and cohabiting with different religious faiths. He revels in his graphic verve and it is starkly different from the early works where Shyam seems to be strongly influenced initially by the works of Tyeb Mehta and a little by Manjit Bawa. At some point Shyam is greatly moved by the lines of Jogen Chowdhury. But these influences do not stop him from being fast and furious in making his art with some kind of freshness. As I mentioned before, his eclecticism is in bathing in different streams at once unapologetically.


(Works by Shyam Aramban)

However, a crucial question remains; how long an artist could flitter between different styles? Even if the wandering is for finding a path before undertaking a long journey, or it is a reveling in an unchartered landscape, for an artist settling in some path or style is important despite the variations in mediums and themes. One could sing the same raga in many voices and also sing many ragas in one voice. Identity is connected to the latter; finding one’s voice is important for a singer; finding one’s own stylistic approach to the creation of visuals is important for the artist. That is the virtual footprint of an artist; it is a genetic continuity that remains invisible but palpable from one work to another. Shyam Aramban may be thinking about it sooner than later.


(Works by Shyam Aramban)

One good thing about Shyam Aramban’s art is that he is not burdened by the typical imageries usually seen dominating the young Malayali artists. Also he is free from the photorealistic bragging of painterly skills. Not that Shyam has skills but he uses it for a different purpose. Spontaneity and impatience are something that rule Shyam’s works for the time being. The anxieties of his age, his sexual fantasies and contemplations peep out even if he does not want to make them so obvious, in some of his works. The latest works are iconic forms generated from his life in Banaras. But he has cleverly turned them into icons of a lost faith in which the natural elements were worshipped in anthropomorphic forms. It is immaterial whether he settles down in his life or not but it is imperative for an artist to settle in his expressions; even Basquiat, despite his absolutely anarchic life, had a visual language of his own, or least that could tell the world that it was Basquiat’s.



Saturday, January 16, 2021

Beautification and Mural making are two different Things’: Trespassers and their Public Art


(Artist Vishnupriyan spearheading the Trespassers Project)

They are ten and call themselves ‘Trespassers’. The logo is impressive; a black cat carrying a while space between its body and a flourishing tail. They remind one of the famous graffiti artists in the US, ‘Space-catcher’. Space-catcher’ grabs space; it could be an inconspicuous space under a bridge or a ledge. It could be a wall or a building fa├žade; or even a moving bus. This incognito artist, like Banksy does only one thing; he grabs space and people’s eyeballs. He does not do much other than sticking a logo, a small android image. But he seems to say, look I am here, I am an artist and I make art, and in spaces unimaginable my works will confront you at the most unexpected moments. ‘Trespassers’ differs fundamentally from the Space-catcher, but they evoke something similar.


(Trespassers mural projects)

It all started in 2018. Vishnupriyan, an artist who is currently pursuing a PhD from the Kalamandalam deemed university in a north Kerala performance art form, after finishing his post graduate course in painting from the Kaladi Sri Sankaracharya University, decided to launch a graffiti program with the help of his friends namely Arjun Gopi, Ambadi Kannan, Bashar, Jinil Manikandan, Amith, Sreeeag, Pranav Prabhakaran, Vishnukumar and Sijoy Poulose, all graduates or post graduates from the same university. They had a manifesto; they wanted to take art to the people as they realized a majority of them do not go to the art galleries and have a lot of skepticism towards art. These artists also thought that they could eke out a living from doing public art. Sooner than later they found out that graffiti art does not pay, but their passion for the public art was so much that they embarked on a difficult journey by making visuals in the public spaces.


(Trespassers mural projects)

Trespassing is all about encroaching a place or space without permission often inviting persecution. These artists trespass with permission and the visual they create in the walls and building facades and any available spaces literally trespass into the mindscape and visualscape of the people around. Their initial work was in their alma mater itself. They painted huge murals in the campus and they were offered Rs.100 per square feet. They could make some money and they decided to keep aside ten per cent of the amount for furthering the activities of the group and divided rest equally between them. Most of them are doing their higher studies while engaging with the Trespassers activities. So far they have created around thirty murals in the villages and towns; a couple of them were funded by the local bodies and all the other works were self-funded, deriving artistic satisfaction from the works and the public response they get.

(Trespassers mural projects)


No funds but how do they manage? Vishnupriyan has the answer. “We choose spaces for doing murals near friends’ homes. That makes the food and accommodation free. We go to the local hardware shops that sell plastic emulsion and enamel paints and explain our case. They give us paints and a lot of encouragement.” Armed with supplies they go around the village and collect stories from the elders and local enthusiasts. “We ask them what kind of images they would like to see in a public mural. Lot of them tells us about the images they want to see again and again. So we have an archive of local lore, human stories and their visual imaginations. Then we start working on the mural.” Interestingly, while working some people give them company and even give creative inputs making the mural a real public art project.

(Trespassers mural projects)

If there is a will there is a way; this ongoing mural project of the Trespassers proves the adage again. As ten people collaborate in a single visual project there could be differences of opinion emerging at any moment. “We do not have any issues in developing the project visually. We work in tandem and each ensemble of image gives rise to another set of images and as all the artists are aware of the local stories they go by them and keep the color strains more or less the same.” However, only when they work on very large scale projects, they visit the site in advance, see the possibilities and make an initial sketch before starting the actual work,” says Vishnupriyan and adds that, “It is all about incorporating a window, a flight of steps or an air-conditioner duct or something.”


(Trespassers mural projects)

Vishnupriyan also has done a huge mural project in his own village, Pang. One of the images is of an old woman with no upper garment. She is seen sitting in the middle of some men and playing cards. “People immediately notice a half-naked woman amidst men playing cards. She is also playing cards and smoking beedis.” This image comes from a woman in real life in Pang village. She used to roam around without a blouse and did all what men did, including playing cards and smoking beedis. Vishnupriyan is because people are growing fond of the work as days pass by. Nobody has made any objection to the works of the Trespassers. But there are incidents when certain images in their murals have offended the public sentiments.


(Trespassers mural projects)

“We did a mural in a market. The central image was a pig. The Muslim shop owner thought that the presence of a swine in our mural was deliberate and he said that it hurt his sentiments. Finally we had to do some adjustments,” says Vishnupriyan. These artists are still struggling to make money and they are sure that by doing murals alone they cannot survive. But they do have hope as they believe in the power of art in creating a visual sensibility. “What we lack is the training of the public eye. We intend to create one,” “Vishnupriyan beams with confidence when he says this. What about the idea of beautifying the public places through art, I ask. Vishnupriyan says that while that is possible this thought has never crossed his mind. “Beautification is not the idea behind our projects. None of us has thought about making ‘beautiful’ paintings on the public walls. We create paintings resonating with the surroundings and we hope people would see their own local histories in it and feel proud of it,” he says.


(Trespassers mural projects)

Government of Kerala has decided to spend lakhs of rupees for beautifying cities including Trivandrum city. It is urgent that the government and the Minister of Tourism see these young artists’ efforts in creating visual sensibility among the public, without seeking any financial aid from the government. Out of the thirty murals that they have done so far only two of them have got financial aid; one from Kalady University and the other from the Koilandi Municipal Corporation. These artists work as daily wage earners. It is a shame that our authorities make these educated artists toil like migrant laborers. It is high time that they are honored and funded for doing more works all over Kerala. I may even say that the third phase of the Trivandrum beautification project these artists should be invited as special guests and funded them adequately to make wonderful murals that ‘beautifying’ the city with some pre-selected artists.