Monday, 20 December 2010

The Dark Side of Devotion - [Review -Mona Rai [Verk], Nature Morte

Emphatic tones of red, black, orange and metallic foil confronted you as you walked through Mona Rai’s exhibition Verk at Gallery Nature Morte, New Delhi, from the 30th of October to the 24th of November. The abstract canvases, despite their apparent vibrancy, were dark in mood and texture. Some of them were burned, slashed and roughly stitched up and/or painted over with patches of fabric and foil. Created with a degree of honesty and exuding a sense of candour, these canvases had an immediate appeal.
Painted in silver with a few black patches in between, the central panel of the triptych Kaal had holes burned into the canvas from which black strings dangled, forming a loose web of sorts. Circular mirrors, similar to those used in Kutchhi embroidery, stood out against the black panel on the left whereas the panel on the right comprised red, gold and silver textile. The lush materiality was seductive but seemed to go no further than merely referring to velvety darkness.

The black, silver and white tones of Chandra & Prabha predictably represented a moonlit sky. Small golden patches on uniformly cut black fabric emitted a warm glow akin to that of electric bulbs seen from tall buildings on a dark night. Bageecha evoked nothing more than an aerial view of a massive flower garden, despite being built up using many pieces of multi-coloured jacquard fabric, pigment dots of various hues, and gold and silver rectangles with mirrors. Malaysian temple-kitsch inspired the two-panelled Shraddha. In the panel on the right, Rai created a geometric mihrab-like space using protruding black screws against a vibrant gold fabric-patched background. The rectangular arch-form was echoed in the panel on the left. Thread and fabric strips in red and gold dangled from both areas like rolls of sacred Mauli thread. There was something decidedly macabre about this depiction – was this Rai’s way of referring to the darker side of devotion?

As an exhibition, Verk hoped to explore the textures of life. Inspite of the largeness of scale, an extravagant use of material that called for tactile improvisation and all the glitter in works like the five-panelled Niyati or the eight-panelled Swarna Prabha, the show fell short of providing telling insights into issues of faith or fate.

Abstract ideas cannot only be presented through the mix of colour and texture. Installation and performance art have investigated complex themes like trust, threat and memory within and without gallery spaces. Rai did manage to create a strong visual and textural quality through her use of unusual materials, but the works remained largely decorative and failed to explore profound ideas effectively.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Shilpa Gupta edited by Nancy Adajania [Book Review]

Book Title: Shilpa Gupta

Edited by: Nancy Adajania
Published by: Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi and
Prestel Verlag, Munich, Berlin, London and New York, 2009
248 pages
Full Colour
Size: 9 x 11.25 inches
ISBN 978-3-7913-5017-2
Price: Not Mentioned

Shilpa Gupta’s art is provocative and theatrical. Employing video, performance, hand-crafting, photography, installation and more, she raises bold questions and invites the viewer to participate in making, and interact with her exhibited art-works. Representing the artist as investigator, using the anthropologist’s tools of research, her art confronts conventional practices and social taboos. She addresses a gamut of issues from terror, menstruation, religious beliefs, and social and intellectual repression. She has exhibited widely and engaged with luminaries across the world including academicians and psychologists. In her mid thirties, she is young and her art practice which is barely a decade old has been documented in the recently launched publication ‘Shilpa Gupta.’

This is available as a paper back edition, in a well designed format with ample colour visuals. It also includes scribbles and jottings by the artist as well as some feedback-forms from viewers of select exhibitions. I was especially drawn to Gupta’s own writings “….Take gun/Press the trigger/Eat eat eat/ Pull pull pull…” [Hands in the Air, 2008-09] And more such intense, repetitive sentences that were transcripts of her installations. Since most of her work has been exhibited abroad, I have not interacted much with Shilpa Gupta’s art. What I have seen has been engaging but not always convincing.

The book includes essays by Quddus Mirza, an artist, teacher and critic from Lahore, Nancy Adajania, a cultural theorist and curator based in Mumbai and Shanay Jhaveri a young writer who is currently a research candidate at the Royal College of Art in London. In addition, there is an email interview of Shilpa Gupta by Peter Weibel, an Austrian artist, curator and theoretician. However, I was disappointed to find that all the writers were so pre-disposed towards Gupta’s practice that the relevance of this and whether it fulfils the criteria of the issues she raises and confronts were not adequately debated.

Adajania is very eloquent and has followed Gupta’s practice from her college days at JJ School of Art in Mumbai. She tells us that Gupta’s “real medium” is “audience perception”, and that her work functions “more as props for her disclosures.” More often that not, I would be seduced by what Adajania wrote, then feel let down because the work discussed did not convey the depth of commitment and profundity that the writing implied. It is challenging to write about art that employs sound, movement and people participation as important dimensions of its expression so I wondered why the very technology that Gupta employs was not used to give us a better sense of the way her art works. A DVD or VCD documenting the ‘transient’ and interactive nature of her art could have been a valuable resource for the reader

Gupta combines a unique element of the theatrical with the empathetic in presenting her ideas but their relevance and efficacy in being more than mere commentary comes into question. The issues are pertinent and pressing for the most part, but is art equipped to handle them? And if not, then the very procedure is disturbing for it engages with people across various strata of society, often disturbing their way of life in an attempt to uplift. Is this merely an exercise for artistic expression? By exposing people to new ideas are they then left to return to their obviously inadequate devices/practices which she sought to change/question in the first place? A host of such questions arise which have not been addressed in the book. For instance, she casts her own breast in cement, [Khoj Modinagar, 1999] placing it with its “inconveniently sprouting hair” on the wall of a disused toilet, which the artist had re-constructed for local women grass cutters, risking the wrath of the estate managers. What happened thereafter? Has it changed their perception of hygiene and do they use the toilet or prefer the open fields? How was the ‘breast-cast’ viewed or relevant to the problem of either hygiene or dignity to defecate? Or later, in the work ‘Untitled’, [2001] where Gupta uses cloth stained with menstrual blood, inviting women to participate with an instruction manual of how to send her the stained fabric. What was the profile of the women who participated, and what exactly, is the taboo? None of this is mentioned.

In 2002 for an exhibition of contemporary South Asian Art in Manchester, Gupta commissioned a group of women to make 1,500 crochet boxes that were then blessed and used as part of an installation that questioned the notions dividing art and craft as also religious beliefs and their new-age consumerist manifestations. All of these are not just innovative ideas, they touch upon pertinent issues. I want to know what happens to the people she has engaged with and the impact on their lives thereafter but I am not informed. We have a couple of sentences to say that few women looked at menstruation afresh and some boys ran out of the gallery in disgust, but what happened to the crochet makers? Her art is not confined to the gallery and even when it is, it challenges the norm by provoking the audience to think or to turn away in disgust [Altered Altar, 1998 and Untitled 2001]. When Adajania says that Gupta “financially empowered this group of women” by paying for their crotched effort, I am curious about the extent of this ‘empowerment’? Can these issues remain just at the level of discussion confined to an art gallery or within the context of an art historical discourse? Surely the whole point of Shilpa Gupta’s art practice is to take it beyond?

She has challenged the premise that art has functioned within and upon. She has introduced innovative ideas and speaks a language that is upfront, candid and demands your attention. This practice, to my mind, brings into play much larger questions than the social taboos she confronts, for it redefines the jurisdiction of art, but none of the writers really tackle this. It is simplistic to say that by paying for their labour Gupta empowers the women financially. If it were that simple to bring about financial emancipation to the crafts sector then weavers would not be committing suicide nor government agencies subsidizing a languishing tradition that does not enjoy the same value, voice or dignity that fine art practitioners like Shilpa Gupta do. These issues need to be addressed with greater responsibility. While the artist’s practice goes beyond the confines of the traditional gallery, if the discussions around it remain within the same discursive space, they belie the relevance of what she endeavours to say and do.

The essays however are informative and almost all of her work is discussed by Adjania in “Darkness Is What Light Will Never Be: Shilpa Gupta’s Experiments with Truth. She brings in elaborate references drawing on the works of various scholars and artists from Wittgenstein to Joseph Kosuth, Jung and the Yogacharya school of Buddhist thought. While all of this is useful, none of the writers tells us anything about the artist. What is her specific background which lends impetus to this kind of thought and work? She appears to be a singularly independent thinker within the context of her peers and also artists before her, so I would have liked information about the person and experiences that have defined her thinking and therefore choice of issues and material.

The interview format though well suited to draw forth informal, personal revelations did not attempt this. Pieter Weibel didn’t appear familiar with Shilpa Gupta, either on the personal level nor in an in-depth manner with the gamut of her art explorations, to be able to provide such insights. This email interview at the very beginning of the book, specifically addressed questions that arose more out of Weibel’s preoccupations rather than Gupta’s own, taking the dialogue onto an altogether different level of engagement regarding the Synaesthetic experience. The idea was introduced as possibly belonging to Gupta’s practice, also mentioned later by Adajania, but neither were able to explain how this rare perceptual capacity, which cannot be cultivated, except perhaps by extensive meditation, was relevant to or prevalent in Gupta’s experiments.

The most comprehensible essay was ‘To See Again and Again’, by Jhaveri. He makes her art and its ideas infinitely accessible, allowing an easy grasp of what are otherwise rather abstract ideas, presented obliquely through material objects. But he makes sense of them in a logical way. He looks at the work for what it says, objectively, without imposing ideas he wanted to explore. Quddus Mirza speaks candidly about how violence has become something to relieve the tedium of everyday living. He is insightful in his observations. He says that the artist per se is not relevant in the mind of the ordinary citizen where television news takes precedence and that Gupta seeks to address this by making her work interactive. He writes of his personal experience with ‘Aar Par’ [facilitated by Gupta in 2002] and how Gupta’s father had to deal with the Mumbai police because of an artwork sent from Pakistan, showing two guns and roses which made the artist’s [Mirza’s] intent suspect. When he speaks of terror and violence and what it has done to the human psyche he is very passionate and un-put-down-able, but when he puts Gupta on a pedestal for not succumbing to the requirement of foreign curators, as other artist’s allegedly do, he is not convincing.

Shilpa Gupta has been prolific and many of her ideas have been discussed in the book. Though her art has evolved from immature investigations to more finessed presentations, her work is neither pleasing nor reassuring. It disturbs. And the book creates its own sense of discomfort. The very nature of Gupta’s practice and immediacy of this publication to her art-making necessitate various in-depth references and discussions including the Indian art historical context, or why this was not deemed relevant. Contrarian views as well as those of the anthropologist were also missing. They assume relevance in order to contextualize and debate an artist’s work that uses methodology which extends the discourse of art making, and a practice that has not yet been tested by time. Their omission left the context incomplete and unconvincing. Consequently the writing ‘looking’ at her art appeared not to be investigative enough or entirely objective.

Exploring The Potential of Stillness [Review] Threshold Gallery

In this age of the internet, we have a group of artists presented as Neti-netizens. Curated by Girish Shahane at Gallery Threshold, these ‘Vanguards’ bring forth a legacy that produces meditative imagery which differs refreshingly from the populist present-day avant-garde expression.

Prajakta Potnis, 2010 [41.5x30 in] 
 acrylic & dry pastel on paper
They are not contemplating the divine in an abstract sort of way nor are they seeking to define the pulsating energy atoms behind all creation, instead they meditate upon seemingly mundane objects of everyday living. Thus rooted, Prajakta Potnis uses careful brushwork; painting with the kind of attention to detail, Rembrandt gave to ruff collars in his 17th century self portraits, creating light and luminous canvasses. Yashwant Deshmukh takes simple objects breaking them down to bold geometric forms, while Madhav Imartey‘s fascination with a typewriter or cement mixer gives us renditions of the object’s form and its reality beyond this and Parag Tandel explores the line as representation and evolution of thought. In leaving his hand free to discover what it will, he brings forth a network of dense lines that are dark and foreboding. Thus in their individualistic ways, they arrive at individual interpretations of reality.

Parag Tandel [37.2x27 cm]
gel pen, ink and charcoal
The idea of such consideration being given to facets of being that are not glamorous or overtly celebrated, but intimate and personal is indeed charming. Potnis draws a single rail with a carelessly hung, bunched-up towel with residual body hair, using acrylic and dry pastel on paper. The handling of the object is detailed to the point of realistically painting each hair caught on the pile of the fabric and everything else that may have been in the space around this, is erased. Her focus is only on the towel where one assumes the rail is nailed onto a wall, but it could well be floating in space. She does the same with the sofa-bed, where you can see every stitch, pinch and tear of the mattress, but it has a certain lightness of being, where defying gravity it appears to levitate.
Using acrylic and charcoal on paper Deshmukh takes a bottle or cone, simplifying the form to the extent of distorting perspective by creating a flat surface out of 3-d articles, belying the physical reality of these objects, as we have seen and felt and known them to be. In doing so, he appears child-like and one could dismiss the work as rough and un-finessed, but in this age of technology this na├»ve representation is curious and therefore questioned. Unlike Potnis, this austere interpretation does not please in a sensual way. Its extreme simplicity is evocative of peeling the peripheral layers of intellectualization to get to the kernel of the object’s existence, but removed in texture, form and colour from the lushness of the contemporary material world, its appeal is not spontaneous but intellected which defies its own objective.

Yashwant Deshmukh - 4 drawings 2010 [20 x 30in each]
acrylic and charcoal/graphite on paper

Parag Tandel, 2008[37.5x27.5cm]
Gel pen, ink & charcoal
In de-selecting details and perspective or elements that constitute the larger environment, most art works in this exhibition seem to eliminate [or exaggerate] sensory vibrations of the physical world from which they draw upon for their reference and inspiration. This creates scope for misinterpretation of the context of their existence and yet there is a certain uncanny, unquantifiable resonance with the world we inhabit.  It is this almost paradoxical nature that engages; where I am intrigued but not comforted by these explorations of the possibility of achieving inner stillness amidst internet connectivity and urban street sounds.  Prajakta Potnis succeeds the most, for her simple and straightforward canvasses have a visual pleasantness evocative of the sensual world and she also achieves the objective of meditation where in her single-minded focus the articles under consideration levitate, but I am tempted to question this effortless achievement in a world weighted with desire and the frenzy to achieve.

Prajakta Potnis, 2010 [41.5x30 in]
acrylic and dry pastel on paper
All the works together, present various dimensions of a spiritual quest, but in isolation none has seemingly explored it with authenticity. I want to feel that resonance of the universality of truth, but the works though evocative are not entirely convincing.