Friday, 19 September 2008

Damien Hirst in India-of Cadavers, Gaffar Market, Butterflies and Gurgaon

Damien Hirst may not yet have set foot on Indian soil, but his presence is certainly being felt. When I caught a glimpse of the news that his work had sold for £ 10.35 million, breaking Picasso’s record, I did not blink, but later realized that this record breaking fact had caught everyone else’s attention. The very next day, sitting in a tiny cubicle, in a lawyer’s office, in the high court, I was asked: “who is this Damien Hirst guy?”, the lawyer said, hesitatingly pronouncing his name. I blinked then, many times, for the context and environment in which this question had been posed was odd to say the least.

Are artists and their work garnering attention for appreciation of the aesthetics they infuse our lives with? Is this even a consideration? When you see the kind of money people seem to spend buying works of art, it’s natural to question what motivates them to do so. However the manner in which art is being traded today, it may as well be a commodity on the stock exchange.

This past week has been a rather disturbing one. The bomb blasts across Delhi have been too close to home to be shrugged aside. Braving the necessary but disorganized security checks creating long, snaking queues of cars at Khan Market, not withstanding, what have each one of us done to awaken the conscience of change? Are we still shrugging it off, as how could ‘they’ do such a thing? Are we still denying our role in creating ‘them’? What has Damien Hirst’s work, shown recently at The Oberoi, in New Delhi, had to say to us, that he and his work is a subject of such interest?

Much of art that is being done today is not beautiful in the context of being pleasant to behold. It reflects the environment we live in. Art is as much about beauty as it is about truth and plays a pivotal role in re-defining both. A work of art that raises questions succeeds, for it makes you think about what the artist wants to say, but people are dismissing Hirst for passing off cadavers in the name of art. Conceptual art is easy to dismiss as it is easy to fake, but when you question Hirst, can you really dismiss him?

In viewing the small section of works shown in Delhi less than a month ago, aside from the rest we have read about and seen visuals of, it is not easy to dismiss him as either grotesque or fake. He uses such unusual means to get your attention. This is as much a sign of the times, as his creative genius. To re-create the idea of stained glass cathedral windows using butterfly wings with the precision and dexterity Hirst does, presents his conviction in his own point of view. Do we have what it takes to make the kind of stained glass windows created in Renaissance Europe without taking fragile lives? I think it’s a very powerful statement on how we perceive ourselves today – as fragile as butterflies, beautiful as they may be. Where then is the spiritual strength, we’re constantly talking about? Where’s man’s supremacy?

He also questions our notions of faith, if we let him, by penetrating the layers that reveal the anatomy of an angel. These works are beautiful for what they say, the truth they reveal, but what most of us learn about, are the prices collectors are willing to pay to own them. A recent column in a daily newspaper has questioned why anyone “would wish to display such a work at home or in a public space”, as a mystery. The piece under consideration is a rather grotesque box of maggots turning into flies to feed off a severed cow’s head. The mirror does not always reflect what we would like to see, just like the chink in our armour against terrorists, reveals how vulnerable we are, despite high security.

I cannot drive past an auto rickshaw today, without thinking about the picture of the mangled remains of the one that blew up in Gaffar market on Saturday. Bumbling along, gasping to keep pace with the Toyota and Mercedes, the auto-rickshaw in many ways represents the mayhem in our minds, filled with the chaos of aspiration and inequities. How do we even begin to address, what is a mammoth situation that we happily leave to the ‘authorities’? When do we begin to claim responsibility in creating the world we hate to live in? Art should help us introspect. Art is not about beautification. In today’s world it cannot be. Art should be society’s conscience, but sadly it is not.

We’ve built fantastic steel and glass offices in Gurgaon. The city boasts of a beautiful hotel, The Trident. It’s a veritable oasis just off NH8, but further down that road, past the many offices and factories that position Gurgaon as the millennium city, the road is nothing more than a deeply gouged gutter, filled with stones and has been so, untended for a whole year. For every such road you avoid taking, there are traffic snarls on the few remaining tractable ones. There is power back-up in the multi-storey buildings but everywhere else, there are long outages, not enough water to cook or bathe.

There is so much lacking in the infrastructure of cities that rise higher or spread horizontally, it’s terrifying to live in this chaos, but we do and the stress of it is gruelling. It is no longer good enough to comment via art or words. Each one of us has to become a kind of activist in our own environments, with courage to confront each other with the dysfunctional dimensions of being each presents. It is only this that will awaken the conscience of change. It is only when issues impinge on our daily lives and being that we question. Art is a mirror that no longer speaks to our souls. Sometimes, because it is not coming from the realm of soul and sometimes, ours is too steeped in materiality and needing tangible proof we dismiss the subtlety of our own perceptions.

Gopika Nath
19th September 2008

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Citing the City - Sudhir Patwardhan

As an artist Sudhir Patwardhan has made a significant contribution to the landscape of contemporary Indian Art. Working in a distinctly individual style, his paintings have focused in different ways, over the years, on the working classes. “For 30 years, it is the human figure as the vehicle and site of those relationships which has fascinated Patwardhan--especially the proletarian figure which is stationed at the receiving end of society's most exploitative impulses.”[1] His paintings have presented a series of portraits of the heroic tableaux of the common people of the city of Mumbai. ‘Citing the City’, a recent exhibition of his works by Sakshi Gallery, at Triveni Kala Sangam, New Delhi, brings this city into focus yet again. For many years, he has presented himself as a “spokesman for the oppressed”, but in this exhibition he seems to have distanced himself from the people, focusing on the chaos of the ever-developing urban landscape instead.
Mumbai is a city of contradictions. The visual aberration of slums against the backdrop of high rise buildings and luxurious living is accompanied by its sound and smells; of “the continuous din of traffic… the stench of bombil fish drying on stilts…the inescapable humid touch of many brown bodies in the street.”[2] As Suketu Mehta, author of ‘Maximum City’ tells us, the new inheritors of the city are “badly educated, unscrupulous, lacking a metropolitan sensibility – buffoons and small time thugs, often – but, above all, representative”[3]. His research reveals that murderers are successful in Bombay through engagement in local politics, “where burning the bread seller alive” got a thug [Sunil] appointed as special executive officer, “a person in whom public trust is reposed”[4].
It is a city where justice is not executable because perpetrators of crime are often the politicians and police who are virtually impossible to prosecute for various complex reasons. Five years after the riots, when the findings of the Srikrishna Report placed the blame “on Thackeray and on the city police”[5], the Sena government officially rejected the report as being biased. Its only remaining value was that “for many of the poorer victims, it is enough that the judge has listened to them, acknowledged that some wrong was done to them. That’s how little they expect of the justice system.”[6]
This city with all its inordinate inequities and frustrations is the one that Patwardhan is citing. The scale of his canvas is awesome and impressive. The skill with which he presents the complex panorama compels the eye to look. His attention to detail in recording the landscape, his selective juxtaposition of buildings, highlighting the chaos, is intriguing. Although the imagery is compelling, as you delve deeper, close enough to read between the lines and shades, you realize that the people, who were once at the forefront of his exploration and presentation, no longer seem to engage with the viewer, as they once did.
In ‘Death on the Street’(2007) a 38 x 46 inch canvas painted with acrylic, he presents an oft visited scene where a pedestrian has been mowed down by some automobile or other and the passersby are curious but do not help. Here, Patwardhan depicts a policeman looking the other way and someone unconvincingly hollers, pointing towards, a long gone from the scene, erring vehicle and driver, while a Sardar and others inexpressively look on. Jitish Kallat, in his catalogue commentary tells us that “deaths on the streets of Mumbai, or Thane, have the potential of being treated as commonplace simply because of the frequency of such occurrences” for “when so many people set out on the street the startling statistic of 30,000 accidents in a year in Mumbai city no longer seem exceptional”[7] His statement appears to condone the apathy, which is alarming. If the sensitive become insensitive, what hope does society have to redeem itself? This poses another question: if Art is about infusing life with a sense of aesthetics, do our cities have this? If not, and surely it is not, can artists distance themselves when and where this infusion is sorely needed?
The city is impossible. It’s become worse, but is it the city that creates the problems or us? Can any one of us afford to create this distance from what goes on, even in defeat? It is not just about Mumbai, it is the same story all over the country. Life in the city can be a veritable nightmare. But the sense of its trauma and frustrations is just not explored enough in these paintings to bring forth our indignation or any sense of self-disgust, condemning ourselves for having let it become so. We need to be faced brutally with what is, to bring about any measure of change. The point then seems to be: does the artist want it to change? If not, then the burning question is why not? How can it be acceptable? Perhaps it does not yet impinge enough to demand change?
In ‘The Clearing’ (2007, acrylic on canvas 54 x 72 inches) we see lots of shanties, cement houses and tall buildings which in part, have been painted evoking a Cezanne-like depiction. Elsewhere, Patwardhan presents with considered detail, almost every shadow and curve of the landscape. People are reduced to matchstick figures or virtually absent from this huge panoramic view of the city which veers on romanticizing rather than condemning the apparent chaos. The artist thus, disconcertingly evokes the ‘Stockholm syndrome’ effect, where it is assumed that the condition is now perceived as inescapable therefore conformed to.
All around us media cites the ‘Incredible India” growth story, its super power potential et al. The euphoria is unbelievable and nothing short of self-delusional. Patwardhan has been telling us how unbalanced and disorganized life in this country is, but the problem is that he no longer says it powerfully enough. What he says, we already know and do seemingly nothing about, for the situation has got worse, not better. Maybe somewhere, through this we should acknowledge that passive presentation or protest via art is just not good enough. Now, each one of us has to engage with the city and its problems, become ardent activists in our individual capacities, becoming involved with the moral dilemmas of our personal worlds, within the city, to even begin to heal the situation. Is this what the artist intends? Or is he telling us that this is the way it will now always be and therefore in his acceptance, romanticizing it?
In the drawings too, this thread prevails. Kallat informs of the challenge of painting/drawing on the street, where unlike studio models, the people being drawn do not oblige by “eyes fixed in one direction offering a blank stare without batting the eyelid”, reminding us that Patwardhan, “didn’t attend the conventional art class in an art institute.”[8] He seems to ask us to make allowances for the simplified figures Sudhir Patwardhan presents. Simple lines have their own way of conveying ideas as strongly as the intensely detailed observational life drawing of an art class, if not more so. Artists such as Cezanne and Van Gogh and many others have amply demonstrated this, paving the way for our appreciation of the emotional stance simplicity affords, which is often far more expressive than the stultified school of still-life studies they broke away from. This argument therefore is quite unnecessary. However, the drawings do lack punch. The figures appear more wooden than alive. The charcoal on paper drawing entitled ‘Threat’, does not threaten, nor does the ‘Slap’ intimidate, with only an occasional sense of emotion in ‘Punch’ (acrylic on paper, 2007- 30 x 22 inches). The drawings do not in themselves inform of what actually was observed, perhaps because of the fleeting nature of street life and this has not been augmented with the artists own emotional data bank to draw from similar experiences, imagined or real.
In an interview, given almost a decade ago, Patwardhan said the artist, “bears the responsibility of addressing the moral issues that confront every individual, and must dramatize that encounter in memorable, even perplexing images elaborating with the idea”[9] and further that: “We don't resolve these complex issues by addressing them,” but “Rather, we remind ourselves of how important it is to go on addressing them instead of pretending that they don’t exist.”[10] At some point he has also expressed that in presenting himself as the “spokesman for the oppressed”, he wondered whether he “did not somehow appropriate their voice, turn them into pretexts for the expression of my own anxieties and dilemmas.”[11]
Looking at the recent paintings and comparing this with the imagery cited in ‘Maximum City’, what struck me was the way in which Mehta began the dialogue, with his own personal experiences. Ironically, it is this “personal geography” that Patwardhan seems to aver from. In his concern to not impose upon the common man, his own “anxieties and dilemmas”, he becomes an observer; without an intellectual and/ or emotional view-point. Thus he does not allow himself to get involved with the situation beyond his role of commentator which now lacks the indignation, the frustration and anger, because in removing his own personal dialogue of his “anxieties and dilemmas”, the situations do not affect him as perhaps he once he allowed them to. Although he lends insight into the predicament that generated the emotional distance, one is left wondering what really changed and why. This question lingers persistently, invoking greater interest than the painted views.
Gopika Nath
13th March 2008
[1] Ranjit Hoskote, Times of India, 2 February 1999- ‘A doctor trains his X-ray vision on his art’
[2] Suketu Mehta, Maximum City- Bombay lost and found, Pg. 15
[3] Suketu Mehta, Maximum City – Bombay lost and found, Pg. 81
[4] Suketu Mehta, Maximum City – Bombay lost and found, Pg. 81
[5] Suketu Mehta, Maximum City – Bombay lost and found, Pg. 87
[6] Suketu Mehta, “ “ Pg. 88
[7] Citing the City, Sudhir Patwardhan, Sakshi Galery, catalogue essay,2008, Jitish Kallat, Pg, 7
[8] “ “ “ “ ,2008 Jitish Kallat, Pg. 5
[9] Ranjit Hoskote, Times of India, 2 February 1999- ‘A doctor trains his X-ray vision on his art’
[10] Ranjit Hoskote, Times of India, 2 February 1999- ‘A doctor trains his X-ray vision on his art’
[11] Ranjit Hoskote, Times of India, 2 February 1999- ‘A doctor trains his X-ray vision on his art’

Art in Steel

Steel in the realm of art is as yet a rather under-explored medium. Apart from some well known buildings by architect Frank Gehry (Guggenheim Museum Bilbao/ Chrysler building) and few breathtaking pieces by sculptor Anish Kapoor, it is familiar more for usage in the home. In India especially, stainless steel is commonly used as cutlery, cooking utensils and watches. This image has undergone considerable transformation with two recent shows sponsored by ‘The Stainless’ in New Delhi, curated by Dr. Alka Pande who says that steel today is not just a metal, it is evolving into a global language of art.

In the ‘Saptarishi’ show at India Habitat Centre, seven contemporary Indian sculptors were invited to engage with steel; drawing from their diverse backgrounds and schools of thought, to ‘stretch’ the “language of both the medium and the spirit of creativity”. The extravagant ideas that emerged from NN Rimzon, Shiv Verma, Vivek Vilasini, Karl Antao, Valsan Kolleri and Sumedh Rajendran, awakened the art going public to the potential of steel, as never before.
The scale of most of the exhibits commanded your attention, but as most of the artists were working with steel for the first time, it will be a while before they can make it speak evocatively. Anish Kapoor’s pieces are sophisticated by comparison and work well because the medium is used to explore ideas that he has worked with for decades. His work is also site specific, having a designed public space and interactive dimension. Although many of the pieces in ‘Saptarishi’ were grand in scale, they lacked the conviction of ‘Sky Mirror’ [2006, New York City] and ‘Cloud Gate’ [2004, Chicago].
In direct contrast to Kapoor’s seamless, expansive pieces, Vilasini explores the ornate filigree of silver artefacts, using water-jet lasers to cut unrelenting metal into delicate streams of pattern; devising dream like forms in ‘Too many fables on the ground’ [15’x 15’x 4’] and ‘Theatre of intervals’ [19’7” x 14’8” x 3’]. He seems at ease with the ‘design’ dimension of working with steel, where the concept has to be planned in advance then executed independently by engineers at the Jindal factory; while NN Rimzon expresses awkwardness at this distance from his otherwise preferred, personal involvement with creating. For Vibhor Sogani the shift occurs in the reverse, from the discipline of design towards freedom of expression as art. This orientation is evident in the body of work which is more innovative than expressive. By comparison Sumedh Rajendran, in his inimical visual language rooted in the everyday living of common folk, retains the imagery, texture and tone of his dialect, using the slickness of steel to enhance its meticulous crafting and telling.

Stainless steel with its natural lustre is pleasing, but it can also be put through processes to add various textures such as explored by Sogani in his exhibition ‘God and I’, held at ‘The Stainless’, that one did not find in ‘Saptarishi’. Despite this depth of exploration with the medium, Vibhor was unable to represent the intimacy of a dialogue with ‘God’ with his free standing and wall mounted works of varied scale and texture. His most successful piece was ‘Stroll’ where the artist appears to walk tentatively on roughly hewn bands of steel, suggestive of the beginning of a visceral intimacy that evokes a dialogue with God. However, this honesty is not represented in the other works, where he does not reveal his vulnerability in the relationship cited, allowing the different dimensions of steel to have their say instead. He has explored the physicality of the material in greater depth than the ‘Saptarishis’ but they have left a greater impression, for the sheer scale in size of the works which makes them unforgettable. Steel has undoubtedly left a mark, its stain indelible.

Gopika Nath
28th March 2008

Wondrous Woods - Manisha Parekh, Bodhi Art

In the preview of her recent works [opening in New York in February], we see Manisha Parekh using an austere colour palette of maroon, black, beiges and browns. She plays with diverse media, ranging from light-hearted drawings with Chinese ink, water-colour and gouache on paper; carefully worked layers of overlapping paper-cut patterns; to intense wrappings of jute. Her preoccupation with seeds, eggs, fecundity; of form arising from within form; multiplying forms, pattern within pattern, is engaging in its obsessive-ness. The visual language is minimal, largely abstract and not easy to define. It has however, evolved through years of exploration, developing a certain conviction which compels one to look.

My earlier viewing of Manisha’s work has been fragmented, occasional works here and there and its intensely self-absorbed, abstracted pre-occupation did not hold much appeal. However, quiet solemnity envelopes as you enter the realm of ‘Wondrous Woods’ at Bodhi Art, Gurgaon. Emanating from calm of deep contemplation, her expression is understated and reassuring in an environment, where everything is designed to grab your attention with bright neon lights and larger than life signage.

The composite body of work makes a statement that no single work can express. In a sense, a quibble I do have is that each work does not quite stand up on its own, but there is cohesiveness to the whole show, each piece complementing the other, together expressing her endless meandering. Lost in the woods of ‘creativity’, Manisha experiments with one seed of thought and then another, letting little ideas build-up. They germinate together, where the identity of one seems unimaginable without a reflection of the other. Like mother and child; or akin to words in a sentence, taking them apart and then expecting the same profundity to emerge as expressed in the statement together made. The context of each piece, like a word, is the basis of the conversation they have with each other. In carefully following this thread of thought, we find access to an intimate dialogue the artist conducts with herself. Working in a series Manisha does not define but lets ideas grow, each thought adding its own point of view, allowing the viewer to draw their own conclusions – if any.

Her world seems insular, speaking of a very personal space, precluding the larger, cognitive physical environment we exist in. She appears unconcerned with issues of communal violence, terrorism, or haphazard development of our nation and other such issues of Indian identity in art etc., yet the conviction with which she speaks, in its quiet assertion makes one almost envious of her disciplined self-absorbedness. Her attitude of self-containment renders superfluous, many of these issues, in its more expansive dimension of being. We see not the absence of our chaotic world, but sense the presence of another realm, which acts like a balm for the cacophonic frenzy of everyday living. In expressing a gradual evolution of thought, resolving ideas, as opposed to regurgitating the whole, she tackles issues, without bringing their trauma into being. Delving into experiences, painstakingly sifting through the emotion, Manisha inspires contemplation. This, in essence, says more about issues she does not touch upon, for is there need to reflect what is, when reflecting upon; she shows us a way to transcend?

Working with Chinese ink and watercolour on paper, in ‘Beads of Silk’, she is tentative, even playful, with multiple postcards recording each uncertain step in the woods. In ‘Beans’, one is disappointed, for the pattern is deliberate but gauche and un-innovative in a world where design has taken huge strides. However, she takes a quantum leap in ‘The Secret Within’, using tactile and ‘raw’ jute threads. Textiles with their everyday familiarity present a powerful metaphor for expression, evolution and change. Wrapping thread upon thread closely, tightly embracing each turn, pulling and binding, a series of sculptural-like forms emerge, that speak of a yearning for the possibilities of plurality in thought and being, without needing or severing the umbilical cord. Manisha expresses a certain solace in the process of making, material and form, conveying a wringing angst that couldn’t be expressed another way.

In ‘Uncertain Eggs’, She is perhaps the most candid and definitive in expression and this triptych is the also the most resolved piece of work - complete in itself. But, it is in the palimpsest-like multi-layered paper-cut series of twenty pieces ‘The Sound Lingers’, that I found so much of what Manisha had been saying earlier, find adequate voice. The material, the shapes, colour, use of space and the placement of twenty, in three rows, ending unevenly, gripped my interest, for I saw an envious maturity in resolution. Through her myriad explorations of layering and cutting, she had found conviction without an intimidating intensity, but through a considered evolution of thought.

Gopika Nath
25th January 2008