Thursday, 9 September 2010

Weighing The Scale - Size Matters, Gallery Latitude 28, Review

The exhibition was presented in two parts and we saw a diversity in visual expression with each artist presenting their concept of size. This was not necessarily done by tackling the basic premise of the size of their ‘canvas’ and how the content or intent differed, was inhibited or expanded upon, by virtue of size. However, it was interesting to see that for those who worked within the format they usually do, size was secondary to what they had to say.

Mithu Sen brought size into play with reference to sexual intercourse, where she ‘inflated’ the size of the photographed penis of a Classical European sculpture and played with its form. While appreciating Sen’s unreserved approach in tackling size matters, the debate was a non-starter for her visual presentation did not titillate nor repulse, nor make any statement on sexual satisfaction or lack of it, based of size.

 Art today is valued according to square foot area; akin to how property is sold, but large works are also difficult to sell for lack of space to hang them in, especially in private homes. Should either be a criterion for the artist to create, is a question that emerges from between the lines of Bhavana Kakar’s concept note. G.R Iranna addresses this by painting a large and a miniscule canvas, bringing out nuances of size. In the larger canvas [‘Qawaali’, 52 x 198 inches] the imagery is roughly sketched while in the ‘paduka’ [6 x 6 inches] he focuses on a small part of the front of the slipper with greater attention to detail in the painting of its form, which along with the perspective of the ‘paduka’, made it all the more interesting. Both canvasses were treated as objects/pictures of an era gone by and it is the small one that commanded attention, while the ‘Qawaali’ scene was bland by comparison. God, it has been said lies in the details and here one was inclined to agree.
 Manisha Parekh explored facets of a singular idea through myriad presentations. The humbler size is her forte which she chooses not to deviate from. Her use of watercolour and spontaneity of thought are handled adeptly in this scale and by contrast to Iranna’s ‘detailing’ that convinces, Parekh engages through multiple projections, expanding on the brief, by suggesting that scale could also be determined by the intensity of thought. Pooja Broota Iranna used the micro-sized staple-pin to build with, drawing on the urban-scape for inspiration. Her steely structures are ambitious for the material she erects them with, but they do not tower and intimidate as do the glass and steel constructions sprouting all over the country. She allows us to view the precision of the building process and hers is all the more attractive for the meditative qualities this embodies while real life sky-scrapers create chaos and cacophony adding to the stress of already frenetic lives. She thus makes a point in favour of a scale that is in harmony with the nature of one’s being.

This is portrayed perhaps the most convincingly in the sparing, delicate works by Niyati Chadha. White layered on white, with some minimal marks in pencil.  The play of light creates a subtle magic of shadows through overlapping layers of paper, depending on the angle of overlap and where the light source is. Could this kind of subtlety work successfully on a scale five or even ten times larger? The beauty and irony are that like Manesha and Pooja, Niyati does not even attempt it. However, if these artists had taken on a deviant scale, we may have had a better sense of the manner in which the content changes and how, if at all. 
Drawing from the story of Alice in Wonderland, where size becomes problematic when Alice shrinks too small to reach the key or grows too large to get her head through the door, the gallery concept note suggests that purpose determines size. N Pushpmala who uses photography, had technology at her disposal to enrich the debate by shrinking and enlarging the same image[s] but she presented two different works instead. While the smaller work engages the eye because the artist-protagonist looks straight at you, I am left wondering if this could have drawn the viewer equally, on a larger scale. Would I have been intimidated, or would the moment have been lost? This comparison/debate is however lost, for the larger work differs in content and unlike G.R. Iranna, does not shed any light on the debate of size.

Does size matter? It depends on what the artist is trying to convey is the inference drawn.  Jayshree Chakravorty supposedly looks at the earth as insects prowling beneath our feet might do. In the smaller works she merely examines insects in a semi-biological way, highlighting their jewel-like colours and curiously presenting them as integral to the paper they’ve been painted on but  the larger work with its squiggles and scratches makes no sense. If she had contrived for insects to crawl on the paper, their real-time marks may have revealed more than her own banal approximation. The larger work is double-sided and must have posed a technical challenge, but here size is not relevant; the artist’s engagement with the idea appears to be a hindrance to its evolution and disappoints on either scale.

Art these days is often portrayed through some kind of theme, which is interesting but does it serve art’s purpose? Differing from design essentially because there is no brief/theme, artists explore ideas close to their being, to reveal perspectives others may not see. The matter of size has not been debated conclusively and while this did not hinder appreciation of some of the work, the exhibition could have benefited by tighter editing. Simrin Mehra Aggarwal presents an obscurely painted connection between an object and its representation in her ‘small’ drawing of ‘large’ machine parts and T.V Santosh, who usually does large scale work presented only smaller ones.  It would have been interesting to see the change in content and texture if both scales had been side by side. Drawing inference from the works themselves is possible only where artists like Iranna have sincerely explored the concept or like Damani, Chadha and Parekh, who have worked within parameters of their own preferred scale.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

nilima Sheikh and Shilpa gupta

Yesterday, I went to see Nilima Sheikh’s exhibition at LKA ‘Each Night Put Kashmir in Your Dreams’. Regrettably it wasn’t the ideal viewing experience as there were lots of people fussing around, taking photographs, so the lights were switched on and off and tables and ladders brought in and out of the space where the nine scrolls hung. However, I did not leave because having glimpsed the imagery and read some of the words, I had to linger, look and ponder. The colours were jewel-like, the imagery almost romantic even as the words reminded me they came from a deep sense of pain.

In the recent weeks I have been studying the art of Shilpa Gupta, through the book published by Vadehra, which seems completely at odds with these exquisite scrolls painted by Nilima Sheikh [and her team of assistants] and so a comparison was inevitable.

I like Shilpa Gupta’s in your face commentary, which brings forth a new media and new imagery that is intellectually exciting even though I am not exactly comforted by it. On the other hand here were Nilima Sheikh’s beautiful, painstakingly executed images and colours so soothing to the eye and heart. The pain was ever so subtly etched in colour and form with words of historians and poets printed at the back, telling you about the brutality behind it. The contrasting imagery of two artists simultaneously addressing similar issues, compelled me question Sheikh’s stance.

There is a very subtle depiction of pain. The words made it an experience I could feel but while the visual didn't contradict this, it also didn't represent the angst of a mother who said “My son never asked me, Ammaji, can I go to Pakistan and become a militant? He simply left. I wept.” What I saw was a deeply romanticized view of pain and destruction of a paradise that resides in memory. In a bid to preserve what little is left of the beauty there once was, Sheikh delicately presented this as fractured and disintegrating through the precise but scattered placement of fragile stencil prints of varying patterns and divides the panels vertically or otherwise. The grieving figures did not howl but gently wept even as they clung to trees in distress or clasped knuckles in prayer to a God whose existence it is imperative they believe in. Her grieving was not a public lament but a personal one that encompasses the collective.

Shilpa Gupta’s military camouflage, life-like and life-sized figures, performances, videos and bottles of blame do not allow for any romanticization. She is an artist of today, of the generation that has the guts to say it like it is. We have had plenty of skirting of issues and hiding behind the garb of spirituality, not coming out in the open with our views, but festering within, creating more harm than good. Sheikh however isn’t ignoring the issue nor is she engaging with it as all there is to see or say. Her Kashmir is filled with the beauty of carved lattices that sometimes depict the sky, sometimes the earth, the prayer rug and sometimes the space in between them. She reminds us of the tall shady Chinar trees, the jewel colours of lotus pinks, lake aquamarines and innumerable shades of green; of nature blooming in her resplendent glory, unhindered by human greed.

She made me long for the Kashmir I visited during summer holidays as a child. In 2003and later in 2004 I was invited by the Government to conduct workshops for crafts persons in Sringar and I remember being appalled and very disturbed by the armed military personnel that surrounded the Dal Lake or the road to Gulmarg. The shikara ride was just not the same, nor the walk around the Lake, nothing was. Her memories take me back to a time of happiness; they are what we can lean upon, to prevent further damage to this paradise on earth. Her Kashmir celebrates its splendour so that we may not forget. Even as she mourns the ravages; with splatters of red, vaguely resembling blood-stained foot-prints or inserting emotionally charged reds and purples in a soft pastel field; she does not focus so much on the destruction but gives us hope. Each scroll quietly asks you why should we only remember the pain and if we forget the beauty then what will sustain our endeavour to recoup.

If the scrolls had not been hung vertically but placed on the floor, they could have been prayer rugs, each a heartfelt wish of one who still believes. She wove a subtle thread of pain and memory or beauty, or anger, lament and hope. She spoke the language not of the fragile youth that have not seen better, who clamour for change without knowing what is to be changed or how; wrestling with the present without the capacity to envision a future. She spoke the language of humanity in all its humility, of one that has seen beauty, experienced it and also pain. So while pained by the present predicament, she cannot and does not give up hope.

In allowing us to revel in the beauty, she permits us take ownership. We may turn away from terror and blame, because we feel inadequate to address this extreme situation or take responsibility for, but when there’s beauty behind it, we are more willing. Sheikh knows that Kashmir, like everything else in life is not something that exists in isolation and that by omission or commission each one of us is responsible for the way things are today. Every single moment we experience today is a consequence of what we ignored yesterday, or took for granted. And when you assume ownership, then there is no question of pointing fingers, By re-creating the paradise we have nearly destroyed and are steadfastly ravaging to nothingness, she didn't just tells us what was wrong but showed us what we can re-claim.

This is the inherent difference that I saw between the youthfulness of Shilpa Gupta’s art and the wisdom of Nilima Sheikh as she urges us ‘Each night put Kashmir in your dreams.’ However, sometimes I did think that given the kind of communication over-load that we do deal with today, Sheikh’s message is a little too subtle, and that while Shilpa Gupta and her contemporaries could learn a great deal from the deeply finessed art of Nilima Sheikh, we do need some straight talking too.