Art is today an experience that goes beyond painted canvases, sculpture and etchings; to include video, installation, ceramics and more. Artists are not confined to a single media. We see painters and potters working with steel and printmakers extending their repertoire to include fabric. In addition, intellectual boundaries that separated art from design are diminishing. However, this wide spectrum is also aiding confusion and frequently the question arises, is this art?
Since art mirrors life, it will reflect the confusion that is part and parcel of contemporary living, but is that good enough? Is a chaotic existence reason to produce confused art? The role of the artist has changed with each decade and we are continually re-defining its criteria. Art as the manifestation of a creative human response to the environment is predominantly emerging as a comment on society, rather than a preoccupation with the self. In fact, much art that I have seen seems to preclude the self in its commentary, implying a deficient honesty in researching ideas which are therefore presented with lack of clarity.
Baptist Coelho, recipient of the Art India, Promising artist of the year award 2009 presented some video works and installation at India Habitat Centre, where he reflected his position vis a vis the armed forces and within it the role of the soldier, which he mentioned in conversation, was to his mind “a really stupid thing.” His video entitled: ‘I was not born for the Three Point Contact’ focuses on the evolution of man from ape to Homo erectus. With each stage he wears an additional garment until he is clad for weathering snowy, mountainous terrain. This clothing is without markings that identify race or nationality. The man carries a pick-axe which Coelho informed is the most valuable tool for mountain climbers and soldiers patrolling the Siachen glacier.
He may be forgiven his naive comment about a soldier, being “a really stupid thing”; for battle as an essential element of life, from the personal level to that of nations is perhaps something we understand through the process of living, where the Bhagavad Gita has been accorded sanctity, precisely because it reflects the truth of confrontation as inevitable when power is abused. However, the video in question did not reveal anything more than a visual presentation of how man may have evolved. The layers could signify a veneer man hides behind; representing emotional protection adopted in the course of daily living, but the army reference was singularly absent.
Technology permits us present a point of view without the rigour of first having to master the craft of drawing and painting; tackling perspective and presentations of a verifiable, physical reality. With the digital camera and video, ‘reality’ can be recorded and presented with ease. However, what makes this ‘Art’ is how the artist locates himself, emotionally and intellectually, within the context; distilling personal angst to reflect an objective view, resonating with the truth of this predicament - universal to the human condition. If Coelho had focussed on finding himself in his idea, he may have found it more appropriate to appreciate the rigour, both physical and emotional that soldiers endure to protect our safety, allowing us the luxury of making art; rather than position it as irrelevant. The sentiment against warfare and the arduous situation of the soldier is well taken, but the video fails to evoke the idea as intended.
The gallery has seemingly transformed from a space of formal presentations to one of experimental ideas. Jindal Steel has been actively promoting the use of steel in art, inviting artists and designers to participate. In ‘Ashtanayika’, curated by Dr.Alka Pande we saw Manisha Bhattacharya and Trupti Patel meld steel with ceramics; Kanchan Chander re-create her trade-mark torsos in steel, and others attempt a dialogue with the medium. The delicacy of Manisha’s porcelain, steel-stemmed flowers was regrettably lost in a space that was too brightly lit to accommodate large-sized doors, books and lotus seats. Remen Chopra had been working with steel for about a year prior to this invitation and her deeper engagement and understanding of the medium is reflected in the resultant art-work, where she displayed sensitivity in handling the material that was largely absent elsewhere.
Pankaj and Nidhi
From painting canvases with delicate filigree work, Seema Kohli is open to exploring the cold hardness of steel, but neither the lavish-scaled book with water flowing through it, representing the Yajur Veda or the voluptuous contours of an ill-conceived lotus seat; bring out facets of a philosophy that has occupied Kohli for over a decade, nor render a fresh perspective on steel. While it is laudable that artists are willing to experiment and ‘The Stainless’ has become representative of such endeavour, experiments such as these, when presented as art, do not succeed.
Design and Art have long been separated by the notion that design is for the masses and art is unique and precious. Mekhala Bahl still holds this view, even though she works with textiles, which are integral to our daily living and its design vocabulary. Bahl is a sensitive artist who is however not making any overt social statements, she speaks of an inner state with clarity of its confusion and it is this honesty that endears. For her, working with textiles commenced as a convenience, allowing her to make large-scale prints and she tentatively explores its further potential in ‘The Geometry of Error’ [Gallery Espace]. Based in a studio atop a textile fabrication unit in Gurgaon, Mekhala is well placed to do this, but to understand the medium, I think it would be instructive to work with one’s own hands. This proximity with the medium, lends an intimacy which allows the fabric to reveals itself to you in ways that cannot be comprehended with the industrial distance of delegating in a factory environment. The work on paper is far more sensitive in its portrayal of her ideas than the mechanically quilted fabric.
Mumbai based Archana Hande is also a print maker who has worked on Textiles [Nature Morte Annex – ‘All is fair in Magic White’]. Here she exhibits rebus like pictures made with the traditional method of block-printing on fabric. Hande attempts a satirical account of a dirty, over-populated Mumbai aspiring to become a global mega polis of the future, The works revolve around a story of three friends who initiate a ‘Clean Mumbai’ campaign, abandon it upon seeing a report on Dharavi to “help the government of India turn Mumbai into Shanghai one day” but end up launching a product which “makes the skin white.” Her commentary lacks authenticity, for Hande appears to disassociate herself from the women, when by virtue of her physical and cultural location; she is also part of the psyche that moulded them. In distancing rather than immersing herself in the complexity of the post-colonial predicament, she is unable to present an insightful view. The textile block prints are accompanied by a digital film. It is interesting to see this diversification in media but the Hande does not exhibit an affinity with textiles nor does the medium add a relevant dimension to her presentation.
In Vistaar II curated by Peter Nagy; Manisha Parekh, N. Pushpmala, Reena Kallat and others, create products where ‘art’ is invited to engage with ‘design’. Ideally design will emerge as an essence of the experience tabulated through art. Pushpmala however, does not allow scope for this but imprints/transfers a selection of photographs by printing them directly onto dinner plates, rather than extracting the essential aesthetic of her photographed experience and applying this as a design for fine dining. Reena Kallat’s table in two parts is arresting but her inability to exercise discretion with regard to the quantum and variety of its legs diminishes the calibre of the product designed. There are also too many lines etched upon the surface, detracting from its contour which is the most creative element.
Pankaj and Nidhi
To see a good marriage of art and design, one should look at the work of fashion designers show-cased at India fashion weeks. These designers are veterans of the commercial world that will not entertain such careless lapses. The artist in them is indulged, but the product is ruthlessly edited and the final result is a true engagement of art and design where the experience is examined with depth and its essence portrayed with finesse.
Gunjun Gupta’s concept of using the bicycle to create a chair is innovative. She began work on this with a design company in Amsterdam, where cycles are integral to contemporary urban life. Her design/product evolves from a very gawky, one-cycle-seat apparition to this rather sophisticated base, using multiple seats. She further incorporates the idea that cycles in parts of India are used to ferry masses of stuff, way beyond the norms of decency. She presents it too literally, making a statement that conforms to the present trend of incorporating concepts used in small town/rural India, which is getting a lot of attention abroad; but the disconnect between the aesthetics that govern the design of the base and that of the back-rest, make the chairs look visually awkward.
Manisha Parekh’s attempt at making bean bags was disappointing. The numerous bags with faux leather ribbons and other similar lines and fronds extending randomly from a basically traditional bean bag, seemed an irrelevant endeavour. Parekh is an artist who has so far not taken part in the theatrics that surround the art-making world. Her earlier work has evolved forms using jute wrappings that would have been well suited to making unusual bean bags, but she says her product-partner was unable to give the requisite production support. This highlights issues that are ignored when such exhibitions are planned where it seems to be more about innovation at a peripheral level, rather than a considered project where all facilities are well thought out and provided for. The bringing together of art and design is not a new idea. It is indeed relevant towards forging a new and authentic vocabulary of Indian design, and needs to be carefully considered.
Material abundance and our dependence upon ‘things’ has possibly created an environment where we have more relationships with the things around us than people and therefore the objectification presented in‘Re-claim/Re-cite/Re-cycle’, curated by Bhavna Kakar was pertinent. Prajjwal Choudhury generates interest with printed match boxes; simmering in a cauldron or passing inanely through a mechanical assembly line to represent the way we re-cycle icons and ideas. The irony and humour in Manujnath Kamath’s digital print of ‘Paneer Pizza’ was noted; but it was Chittrovanu Mazumdar’s ‘Ice-cream factory, Chill tubes and a Love Song’ that drew all ears. The idea of re-cycling refrigerator pipes to re-create them as a complex trumpet-like instrument was novel indeed, but the instrument was mute and sound played through massive speakers behind the ‘Chill tubes’, defeating the purpose of such an exercise. In this age of advanced technology it would require a simple engineering solution to get the re-constructed ‘Chill tubes’ to sing.Lacking that one extra degree of perspiration the potential for excellence remained at the level of mediocre.
This attitude sums up much of what is being shown as art, where it is inspired but lacks the commitment; where the distinction between art and design is not diminishing but the integrity of creative representation is being replaced by the novelty of innovative ideas. Is this then a re-definition of Art - the change we’re in the process of initiating?