Saturday, 28 May 2011

WhatAsana Was It All About? [Jenny Bhatt review, Gallery Seven Art]

‘MokshaShots’ by Jenny Bhatt at Gallery Seven Art, New Delhi, 10th March to 3rd April 2011, was a colourful presentation bordering on the psychedelic. The idea that spiritual liberation may take many life-times, but you could get a taste of the sublime through Bhatt’s tongue-in-cheek exploration had the promise of a fun-filled experience. However, the interplay between liberation through consumerism and the spiritual aspects of moksha was confused. Bhatt’s attempt to paint a satirical view of urban Indian consumer culture, focusing on how art, spirituality, media and emotion have been packaged as commodities was also not really witty nor was her critique objective. The concept itself lacked clarity and depth of exploration.

 Bhatt employed an inventive visual vocabulary, creating deities called ‘MokshaPets’ such as ‘MokshaBuy’ ‘Mokshasura,’ ‘MokshaBum’ ‘Kundalini’, ‘Reverence’ and ‘Irreverence’, Third eye, Eye Ball and ThoughtPill. They clearly inhabited a world of their own and the viewing experience would have been more inclusive had the gallery space been used to present dimensions of this unique, not-seen-before world. The spartan presentation of a few painted canvassed on white walls with vinyl stickers sprinkled across the floor and ceiling did not quite evoke the necessary atmosphere to enable  viewers to participate in and engage more actively with characters that most people in Delhi encountered for the first time.
 The artist’s involvement with her unique characters was visible. Her sense of humour too was evident through titles devised for the different postures in which each character was depicted. ‘Gulpasana’ was a portrait of ‘MokshaBuy’, gulping it all down. There was ‘Oopsasana’, ‘Champagnepopasana’, ‘Thoughtpillasana’ and other such works that allowed the viewer a glimpse of Bhatt’s enjoyment in the process of creating them. You wanted to share in the laughter but were never quite sure whether you should, for it often seemed that Bhatt was laughing at you and the stories about the icons seemed more alive in her own mind than on the canvasses hung on the gallery walls.

In the ‘MokshaBuy Mandla’ painted with acrylic on canvas [191.92x191.92cms], a many-armed creature modelled perhaps on goddess Durga of the Hindu pantheon was seen with shopping bags, credit cards, currency notes, an extraordinarily long shopping-list, ice-cream, a blood-stained sickle and more. This creature with eight arms stood atop the philosopher ‘MokshaBum’, surrounded by other characters invented by Bhatt. She conjured up imagery depicting the life of this goddess of retail therapy who had drawn blood too. Cloud and fire forms found in traditional Tibetan Thangka paintings were also incorporated in the picture. The ugly, purple deity with three eyes, evil red lips and a tongue that extended below her feet, also held a ‘jap mala’. On the one hand the artist purports to critique consumerism and its excesses, yet she calls it ‘MokshaShots’ or “taste of the sublime”. At the same time she also uses items such as the ‘mala’ associated with spiritual seekers which have ascetic connotations, confusing the issue. If consumerism is her path, of what significance is the ‘jap mala’? Is it about the insincerity of the seeker? Is it about the general confusion around the idea of moksha? Or is it about experiencing the sublime through consumerism?

In the ‘MokshaBum’ Mandala [2009, 121.92x121.92 cms] a cute, all blue creature with arms folded in a lazy, thinking posture, with a pink halo which could have been the cushion he was seated on, looked starry-eyed into space. His eyes didn’t confront you; he was clearly in his own world. Through this, the artist intended to exemplify the thinker and armchair philosopher, who never got up and moved, achieved little but expounded a lot; but the visual did not convey this. Bhatt used the concept of over-indulgence to denote fulfilment where ‘MokshaBuy’ supposedly attained moksha through excessive buying. She then presented ‘MokshaBum’ as the philosopher and an escapist, doing nothing but thinking, turning the idea of indulgences around, to represent now, the futility of a single dimensional approach, thus contradicting herself. 

Bhatt had imagined an elaborate life for these characters. The artist statement suggested that ‘MokshaBum’ may even have a girlfriend, lending credence to the idea that the visual alone was inadequate to present the fullest extent of her ideas and philosophy. Much greater intellectual investment and involvement as well as creative thinking was needed to bring alive this world successfully. An animation film or video could have been a possibility. In fact her digital interactive video created a much more authentic world, where you could participate. As an application on social networking sites such as Facebook, it may succeed in providing the kind of experience Bhatt possibly envisaged. Her concept is individualistic and the characters quite original but they lacked depth of exploration and thus appeared too cartoon-like and superficial. In addition, Bhatt appears to take the spiritual idea of moksha or liberation on the one hand quite literally and then interprets it via consumerism using a rather ‘liberal’ interpretation, complicating the issue.  She is therefore unable to able to exemplify her point of view. 



Poised for Change.......? [Subodh Gupta review, Nature Morte]

The curious amorphous form printed on the card for Subodh Gupta’s 4th solo show ‘Oil on canvas’ at Gallery Nature Morte, New Delhi from 9th December 2010 to 23rd January 2011, was intriguing. The exhibition presented a wide-range of ideas all executed in 2010, from fibre glass serpents, marble edifices of the ubiquitous tiffin-carrier; cast bronze canvasses, steel eggs and more, but no paintings. The obvious implication that art making is no longer about oil on canvas was non-revelatory.  We readily see around us a gamut of media which includes video, performance, installation, photography and more, all of which have also been part of Subodh Gupta’s art practice. So what was the artist trying to say?  

Two tiffin-carriers [47.5" high x 16" in diameter] carved in white marble stood tall on a cement pedestal. Titled ‘Twins’, these simple, white sculptures soulfully captured insignificant details of the humble, boxed utensil; main-stay of middle class India even today. We had to circumambulate this [65" high x 59.5" wide x 25” deep] artefact in order to view it, which heightened the reverential quality accorded by the larger than life scale and purity of white marble.  It felt as though one was walking around the sarcophagi of entombed tiffin boxes. ‘Twins’ was the most powerful work on view. Did this allude to an end of the ‘bartan bhandar’ that has become a distinctive part of Gupta’s creative expression? 

Out of Nothing

The possibility of this was contradicted by “Out of Nothing” – a  70" high x 144" wide x 240" deep installation that comprised a 21 headed serpent, cast in black fibre glass lording over a mound of shiny steel utensils which simultaneously entrapped a part of its body beneath its gleaming mass. Black contrasted against silvery steel was visually powerful. The serpent heads looked at us, above the mound of kitchen clutter, not threateningly, but a trifle strained.  This contemporary version of the ancient, serpent-like chthonic water beast that possessed multiple heads, who for each head that was cut off, it grew two more, seemed to say, by virtue of it's mythical implications, that these cooking utensils were now an indispensable aspect of Gupta's art.

Right: Sunset. Centre: Atta.  against the wall centre to right: Oil
on Canvas
The commentary became even more confused with the variations of cast bronze slabs titled ‘Oil on Canvas’. Slabs of cast bronze [25.5" high x 25.5" wide x 1"], painted to look like blank canvasses were hung on the walls or placed randomly on the floor, leaning against the walls, their back to the viewer. In the centre of the room containing these ‘canvasses’ was ‘ Atta’ the amorphous form on the card - cast  bronze placed on a wooden table, sprinkled with wheat powder, measuring 39" high x 47" wide x 25.5" deep. On one side stood ‘Sunset’ an elaborately carved white marble almirah, with a video projection on the back wall. The delicately carved lattice reminded one of Mughal aesthetics and craftsmanship and was singularly different from the other works on display. Some other exhibits included “Inside”, a white marble thali, and sixteen found and used shoes placed on the thali, mounted on a white marble pedestal and “Three Rounds” made up of three brass urns. 

In another room a Subodh Gupta signature stainless steel sculpture, 63" high x 81" wide x 119" deep, resembled a larger than life egg-tray with 3 equally large eggs positioned within it. At first it was difficult to determine what this was. Parts of the tray were big enough to be the replica of a Jacuzzi tub, but as you went farther away, the form became apparent. It was curiously named ‘Bird’ leading one to consider what kind of bird would hatch from eggs made up of steel tumblers, boxes, milk containers and other such utensils. The protruding eggs were skillfully crafted. Their smooth egg-shape was especially commendable. This had been achieved despite the ridges between the odd shaped and sized objects welded together. 

Gupta’s art over the years has transformed objects of everyday Indian life into artworks of global recognition. They became part of a commentary that voiced concerns of a country whose rapid economic growth fuelled an equally advancing materialistic mindset, impacting our visual and social culture. The contemporary climatic, social and moral turmoil, unraveled daily through news reports, are an indication that values espoused today need to veer away from materiality and scale as being the indicators of success. Having indulged both materiality and scale, along with his stature as one of India’s most celebrated artists, Subodh Gupta is well placed to introduce an altered ideal. The question is whether he can. The presented exhibition seemed indicative of some kind of transition but one that lacked direction. Its commentary, if any was confused at best.