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

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