Friday, 27 August 2010

An Ambitious Quest - Seema Kohli, video film Review

Dabbling in philosophy does not lead to Self Realization; here honesty is the best policy. Seema Kohli is primarily a painter who works on canvas, creating a filigree of forms mythical and imagined. Her decade-old preoccupation with Hindu philosophy is currently explored via film where she attempts “painting intangible aspects of time, energy and creation” through a video installation in two parts, projected simultaneously on adjacent walls. The film ‘Swayam Siddha - The Self Realized’ has been shown in Delhi, Spain, New Jersey and Singapore and received among others, the Gold award at the Florence Biennale, 2009.

At best, Self Realization is an ambitious quest for accomplished yogis and to portray this via video-art is a challenge. The subject is rooted in the physical dimension of living not divorced from it, but Seema has chosen a quasi-abstract route which makes the films virtually incomprehensible. Sanskrti shlokas are chanted soulfully by Vidya Rao and the young dancer Himani Khurana, in a contemporary black dress is graceful as she presents movement of time and energy. Attired in black trousers and T shirt, Seema too participates in the performance. Words are transposed onto crowded visuals of performers walking and dancing through fabric lengths with canvasses placed against walls and on the floor. Images from Kohli’s paintings are projected over their bodies and juxtaposed on the entire clip, creating a visual overload. Watching 6-7 minutes of two such videos simultaneously is tedious and the sub-text appears more like jargon than insights.

Seema uses symbols from traditional sources, where an earthen pot symbolizes the golden womb or ‘Hiranyagarbha’ and red foot-prints on the floor are reminiscent of the first steps a Hindu bride takes into her matrimonial home. Corrugated paper and bubble wrap are some contemporary elements she infuses into this film, but the concepts are clich├ęd. Time or ‘Kaal’ is presented literally through the colour black; or wrapping the body in corrugated paper symbolizes birth, then unravelling and re-wrapping in bubble-wrap it becomes re-birth. Some visual effects are quite dramatic and Seema’s serene countenance is sincere but for most frames she is covered with or dripping water or red and yellow paint, spilling onto the floor, evocative of blood and excreta. Unlike yogic lore, this isn’t an inspiring journey and as art, leaves wide open the question of art and what we present under its guise.

Art can raise questions and also our awareness of issues - political, religious, profane and spiritual. It can express the artist’s point of view, and angst within specified contexts. It can be an aspiration, provoke and also heal. It does all or any of this through a cultivated, individual vocabulary, but a pre-requisite is that the message be understood. The spiritual experience is essentially intangible and Seema’s task is challenging but having said that, if I am watching a work of art that is intended to present ‘The Self Realized’ then I am not interested in being entertained by a beautiful dancer or sonorous chants. The dance and music have to convey some insight and /or experience of some dimension that is referred to as ‘The Self Realized’.

A complex subject of much interest globally at this point in time, where material obsession and a sense of lack, as opposed to abundance has created violence and terror of great proportions, disrupting daily life, taking us deeper into ourselves; one anticipates some measure of insight that can shed light on the ancient wisdom of the Vedas to inspire hope towards peace and harmony in frenetic contemporary living. What comes across here is that Seema is caught up in the written word without reflecting upon her own experience of living enough, to present a clear perspective of her peculiar journey/experience or aspiration in this context.

The Self Realized is he or she who has achieved liberation. They are not bound by or within the drama of the world but fully conscious of mind, body and spirit and their connection to the super-conscious. They live in the bliss of awareness that the world is nothing but an illusion created through their own imagined mind. They have complete mastery over thought, for they have mastered fear. Masters have control because they have clarity of thought, because they have clarity of feeling and therefore of intent. This is Self Realization, a knowing that most of us are seeking.

Those who have evolved enough to understand the meaning of Self Realization, recognise the merit of deep reflection and internal reference of each and every experience and thought or feeling therein, towards mastering their minds. You do not have to retire to the Himalayas, but you do have to retreat within yourself more and more till such time as desires diminish and with it the pangs of the world and its illusionary drama. Self realization may well be an ‘aspiration’ for the artist, but for the master it is but a ‘process’, evolving through living, something you will acquire if you live with utmost honesty to yourself. Neither this, nor quietude or clarity, all of which are a pre-requisite of the self-realized, is even glimpsed in this film. What we see instead is a confused, meandering mind, not a master of it.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Staple Fare - Pooja Iranna [review]

In an exhibition, titled, Of Human Endeavor: The Super Exposed City and the New Possibilities of Space, held at The Guild, Mumbai, from the 6th to the 22nd of August, 2009, Pooja Iranna presented drawings, digital photographs and sculptures that dealt with the theme of construction in the city. Over the past two decades, her work has evolved from fussy cardboard folds with thread to the meticulously ordered sculptures presented here, such as the series Converging/Segregating and Confluence, made with staple pins of the kind used in office stationery.

Iranna says that the haphazard construction projects around the city echo her “inner chaos”. However, this was not reflected in the show – what one saw here was a representation of symmetry and order. Digital photographs of scaffoldings and buildings under construction such as Untitled – II and III (2009) were virtually devoid of human beings. Despite the fact that such sites are invariably messy and disordered, Iranna’s carefully configured, clean, near-perfect photos ignored the chaotic nature of the urbanscape. Other photographs, like Reflective Energies – II (2008), showed glass and steel edifices elegantly converging in the sky. There was no acknowledgment of the debris and poverty-ridden streets that would have been below them. The acrylic-wax-pastel drawings Apex/Base I and II (2008) seemed to depict extreme close-ups of giant towers; the tiny bits of russet and deep grey in their crevices could have been rust. These black, white and grey works suggested the presence of corruption, but the point was too subtle to make an impact.

In her exploration of the city’s development, Iranna only focussed on externals. The fact that her ‘staple structures’ were devoid of people made them look particularly unreal. Gluing together stacks of staples – they fit together compactly to form rectangular pipes with which she created miniature steel edifices. Converging/Segregating – I (2008) was a 25 inches tall pyramid that would have been too perfect without the controlled striations and gentle unevenness of its surfaces. In Converging/Segregating – IV (2009), staple pins were organized to form box-like cells, evocative of both large multi-storey complexes and beehives.
Iranna’s choice of material for her sculptures was interesting because it suggested fragility, a quality we don’t associate with the building of gigantic edifices. The staple-works appeared delicate; adding to the appeal of what might otherwise have been representations of ghostly, abandoned structures. What was so unusual was that Iranna’s sculptures were made without altering her medium of choice – the staple pins looked like staple pins, yet they also looked like buildings.

For Iranna, using stacks of staples as building blocks was a meditative experience. Although she found their steely presence soothing, to viewers they appeared excessively sanitized. While her sculptures allude subtly to chaos – for instance, in the uneven surfaces of Converging/Segregating I and IV and the odd angles used to depict building blocks in Converging/Segregating – V – they did not capture the murderous world we live in. If art is meant to represent life, then Iranna’s show neither held up a mirror to it, nor offered a solution to its problems – it was too far removed from the realities of urban existence. Her artworks made for attractive conversation pieces but did not make a convincing artistic statement.