Thursday, 22 January 2009

The Way We Are [VIART Exhibition essay]

“The real function of art is not to transmit feeling so that others may experience the same feeling. The real function of art is to express feeling and transmit understanding.”- Herbert Read

Art reflects social values and aesthetic sensibilities, indicating broader developments in society and in doing so, presents the way we are. Contemporary Indian art is primarily preoccupied with the moral dilemmas of the urban environment and an ethos which has unwittingly evolved to entangle the spirit of being in its multifarious directions or lack thereof. There appears to be no prescribed ethic for the urban metropolis denizen. It’s each to their own will; free for all. A consequence of liberated economic policies, capitalized upon by the rest of the world, we are presented with choices we never had. This is creating an environment of want that goes beyond necessity to manifest as greed, which complicates the mechanics of life and its value thus far imbibed.

These young contemporary artists are exploring, deconstructing and reconciling with the chaos of being. Shivani Aggarwal defines this via the metaphor of thread, Sonia Mehra Chawla evolves through a dialogue with her inner and outer-urban self, patterns that represent the coagulation of the heart of society; while Vibha Galhorta exhorts us to re-view the innocence of childhood versus its senseless abuse today, and Oli Ghosh reminds us not to forget so easily. In our past paced lives, we move on without a catharsis of emotion that permits us flow with purity into another circumstance. Often not emotionally present in tragedy, merely seeing this as an opportunity for selfish gain. The paradoxes of life are tough to reconcile and these artists inform and engage us with the dynamics of their personal visual conversations.

The perceived changing values conflict with an aesthetic deeply rooted in an ancient cultural sensibility, compelling the artist to question, present, resolve and/or compromise with the circumstance and experience. Surender K. Mishra was born in Madhuban, in a farming community where animals were integral to their livelihood and thus cared for; unlike today where cattle run amok, eating from garbage dumps, run down by cars and truckers alike. Mechanization of farming activities has highlighted the selfishness of the human temperament. He is further occupied with attempting to understand the ethos that walks past sleeping bodies, uncaring if they be in pain or discomfort, so caught up in our focus to get somewhere, we seem unaware of the intricacies of living around us; walking as if asleep. He thus questions the pace of contemporary living and its toll on human compassion, depriving us of the solace of its embrace. Presenting each image in multiples Surender compels us to look, reflect and re-align with our humanness, through these black and white photographs of a life within the ambit of our existence but not necessarily included in its purview of thought.

Life is cold and calculating and this disturbs. It is the way we are, but do we need to be so brutal and callous? Oli Ghosh’s involvement as a volunteer rescue worker in the 2001 Gujarat earthquake left indelible marks; not so much of the devastation but of human resilience, where within a matter of two years, she found that there was no physical evidence of the destruction. Everything had been re-built, life seemed back to normal, and this was despite the fact that all the aid did not reach the victims as corruption was rife. Her multi-media installation recalls images of the trauma experienced by some of the victims she encountered. Unable to accommodate the slickness of the physical re-construct with these harrowing visions recorded in her mind, she asks we identify with these memories, register the torment in them and her. She beseeches you not to treat it as a reference point for idle conversation while simultaneously recognizing the resilience of the human spirit akin to that of a rubber band; pulled in a million ways returning to its original form, until it snaps.

From being a mechanical engineer to product designer, design consultant and artist, Kumar Kanti Sen, has walked many paths in life, questioning the creation of the homo-sapiens. He says it is not the present urban chaos that distorts the human spirit, but coerces us to dwell upon the demon within, which he believes, regardless of circumstance, exists in the genetic design of the species. In coming to terms with our humanity or lack of it, Kumar Kanti examines through sexuality, various dimensions of being. He crafts a chair made in the image of a tongue, provoking with its surface of simulated hair, as opposed to skin, and legs moulded on the human toe. The digital photographs evoke a grotesqueness of being, where the eye of the beholder and what is seen is distorted by lack of ability to perceive the truth. His angst is deep and personal. Anger at man’s capacity for subterfuge, camouflaging the baser instincts and the general lack of compassion, are what drive him to question the veracity of human existence. Why do we exist? What do we contribute to life? If we chained the demon which he believes emerges through hedonistic pursuit, will we be worthy of creation?

Floating in the greyness of ambiguity, clarifying to create order; not unlike Sen, Shivani Aggarwal is also seeking a means to define herself. Sometimes as thread, sometimes a mechanically produced reel of yarn, or a blank space and even as a shadow of it all is the tangible evidence of her intangible mind. She engages with each thread of thought, unravelling, entangling, presenting the mind as a knot of threads, whose shadow defines a body, attempting to fly, weighted by its mass of unresolved ideas. Shivani observes herself, commenting upon her performance in life, not that of others. She reveals a compassionate stance that creates a greater mess in attempting to repair relationships and contentious situations where she lacks a self-observed quality of detachment. Her quest thus takes her beyond the mundane activities of living and engaging with urban turmoil. Working with acrylic on canvas, as opposed to using the needle and thread which she meticulously paints, Shivani sublimates the tedium of thought clarifying itself, whose intensity is absorbed in the observation and presentation of each minute detail of her photo-realistic images.

A pre-occupation with devising patterns is how Sonia Mehra Chawla’s generates a sense of harmony amidst the pulls of a life driven by myriad desires. Her canvas is an intricate maze of sensual imagery that draws the gaze into its labyrinth of thought. Human faces metamorphose into tentacles which represent the hardening arteries of society, which the artist delineates is being caused by the great urban development, growing higher into the lunarian sphere. The body becomes her map for recording this human experience, alienated from the nature of being, not in form but in un-knowing. The frenzy of the environment is inescapable impinging in ways incomprehensible to the conscious mind, waking and sleeping. She extends her own personal encounters to present the implications of mechanization in our lives, eliminating the charmed distinction between inner and outer worlds. The artist questions an urban phenomenon that thoughtlessly uproots trees to grow cemented walls; where the once revered cow scourges for food, becoming a double headed menace in a world of mortar and steel. Through organic forms, she explores the possibilities of fecundity and fertility with its consequences in such a world. Her paintings attempt reconciliation with the dynamics of this ‘urban-biomorphic’ nature of life.

The metropolis is also Vibha Galhotra’s site of exploration. In the present installation she extends a childhood caprice by creating a larger than life-sized kaleidoscope. The structure is covered with newsprint stories of child abuse, with particular reference to the horrendous Nithari killings, a blot on the nation’s attitude towards the children of its future. Vibha thus re-creates the inner world of imagination without denying the tyranny of the outer. The implications are tremendous. It speaks to us on dual levels. The first comments on the polarities of the internal and external constructs of mind and the other presents a strategy for a child-like approach to life. Making, more than representing is important for Vibha who relishes the engagement with an idea and the dynamics of its fabrication. When she paints as opposed to sculpting, she reveals that the idea is not as empowered for she has discovered, as did the artisans of ancient India that in the plasticity of hand lays the plasticity of thought. Its pliancy arising from the humility of knowing for the process curtails imagination with physical constraints of doing.

Immersed in the mechanics of contemporary living, this collective endeavour is not merely a presentation of their existence, but equally an exploration of it. The quest of each is a comprehension of experience, its inner and outer dimensions, represented as sexuality and the city, creativity and compassion; with evident tensions between logic and faith, denoted by the cow which symbolizes many things in the Indian culture from deity to mother; the womb and fruit as symbols of growth; toys and their simple pleasures as a means to re-define recreation, and the delightful notion of thread as a metaphor for the complexity of mind. Carnal instincts, industrialization and the urban-rural divide are merely the means for the larger existential quest. These ideas manifest the materiality of survival. Some are reconciling, some are vehement in their condemnation of the demons within us and some are quietly synchronizing with a system beyond this chaos, finding grace in imagination. This in essence is the way we are.

Gopika Nath
11th October 2008

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