Friday, 31 August 2012

Vivan Sundaram, Gakawaka: Making Strange [ Book Review]

Book Title:   Vivan Sundaram
                      Gagawaka: Making Strange
Published by:   Chemould Prescott Road
155 pages 
Full Colour
Size – 8 x 10.75 inches
ISBN 978-81-908879-4-6 
Price:                Rs. 2,750/- [includes DVD]

When I saw the Gagawaka presentation by artist Vivan Sundaram at Lalit Kala Academy, I was perplexed. It was neither a fashion show, nor was it evocative of art traditionally seen within a gallery space. There were dancers performing and walking alongside professional models and artists too were participants on the makeshift stage cum ramp. The garments, if indeed they could be classified as such, were bizarre to say the least, yet they were crafted with finesse and some of them were quite marvellous to see. I kept wondering how to contextualize this presentation. It was neither art nor fashion and neither was it breaking totally new ground for in the two decades that I have taught at NIFT, I have seen design students create equally, if not more creatively bizarre garments.

With the intention of finding some context to place this artistic offering within, I picked up the book ‘Gagawaka, Making Strange’, published by Chemould Prescott Road.  A slim volume, visually lush with numerous full-page colour photographs of each work, it also includes a DVD of the performance/fashion show and essays by Deepak Ananth, an art historian based in Paris, Shanay Javeri who is a PhD candidate at the Royal College of Art in London and Gitanjali Dang, an “independent curator-critic and shape-shifter” based in Mumbai.

Ananth takes us through a rich, art historical discourse beginning with a rag picker reference citing Baudelaire and later with references to the Futurists, the Dada movement, Oscar Wilde, Arte Povera, Duchamp, Andy Warhol and more. He claims that “from the ragpicker to gladrags, from the lower depths to the bourgeois salon – the contrast will appear flagrant or incongruous only to those unaware of their co-presence in the inaugural texts on modernity”. Though erudite and interesting his essay does not extrapolate this “co-presence” with clarity. He also quotes lavishly from Roland Barthes and brings in references to artists who have made some foray into the realm of fashion, but never quite manages to present the evolution of the ragpicker-fashion designer with any level of conviction. He cites the ragpicker icon in reference to Sundaram’s “delve into detritus” with an installation ‘The Great Indian Bazaar’ [1999], which is followed by ‘The Brief Ascension of Marian Hussain’ [2005] and other works that incorporate trash. Implicit in the use of ‘trash’ is the image of the rag picker, but in Gagawka, Sundaram does not use items only collated from garbage bins and kabadiwala’s. A lot of them did not seem used, but newly bought. In addition, a twist to this argument emerges when Ananth states that the initial point of Sundaram’s departure for creating this collection was the body; more pertinently, the body’s distress, which arose from the artist’s own experience of a body “punished by pain”. The argument centred on trash then becomes confusing.

During a period of convalescence Sundaram was inspired to use medical paraphernalia to create garments, transposing materials used for healing the body to create another kind of body. This was done, perhaps, to cloak the presently dysfunctional one as a way of exorcising the body’s infirmity, to present the antipode of sickness through the glamorous dimension of fashion. This disclosure lends far greater authenticity to the body of work than the historical antecedent of detritus or the on-going relay between art and fashion. However, for this most pertinent revelation Ananth does not cite historical precedence or context. Neither does he tell us about Sundaram’s experience through this venture, which we are told was both therapeutic and cathartic. He does not reveal how it benefitted the artist, which could perhaps be the most significant contribution of this venture.

Shanay Jhaveri does not delve into detritus or history but focuses upon his viewing in four episodes, of the work as a moving installation cum performance cum fashion show and also a static exhibition, beginning with his anticipation before the preview, where he was invited to engage with the artist about the work. He describes the performance evocatively, brings films into reference and also mentions fashion stalwarts such as Miyake, Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto and others who have used garments in an architectural and sculptural way, but neither of these two writers provide a considered fashion perspective. Jhaveri however, does not try and provide answers but raises oblique questions. In discussing one particular performance consisting of a single garment, where the performer had been internally ‘miked’ and every breath amplified and broadcast to the audience he says: “Did a force to know, and not forget, guide the performance? Did it precipitate a state of knowing?” After the four encounters he concludes that Gagawaka is an “expansive practice, a constellation, a set of platforms through which a series of questions are asked.”

 Dang’s essay is placed strategically between these two and is significant because she does not allude to the work but speaks tangentially of an improbable, bizarre situation, bringing an element of fiction into play. Her essay echoes the discomfort I felt in trying to contextualize the work within the parameters of art and fashion and made fascinating reading.

This volume does not provide a reassuring context to view the work within but raises issues. Is Vivan Sundaram charting new territory, where the cathartic and therapeutic qualities inherent in art-making are the key to understanding this work? Will the art of tomorrow emphasize what artists say, not so much about the world to the world, but what the process of art-making does to the maker, revealing him to himself? Ananth’s almost casual mention of Sundaram’s convalescence as impetus for Gagawaka, generates interest, more so than the historical precedence for this work, or lack of it.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

The Art of Listening [ Review - Amina Ahmed at Gallery Seven Art]

Ave Maria Gratia Plena
- detail
How well are you connected? No, not on facebook or twitter, but to your soul; do you hear the call? New York based artist, Amina Ahmed’s recent exhibition at Seven Art Limited, New Delhi, drew inspiration from the “pulse of life” permeating all forms. Her father taught her that rain, trees and even their roots had a sound. She gives this communion a visual language in ‘The Call or ‘Bism’.

My heart is on Fire...
Imprinted on the gallery wall, a few words informed that while we live, there is a state of persistent longing. This angst, of separation from the divine, leads to bliss of oneness and separation again, in an eternal cycle. Through nuances of sound and shifting patterns of trees, water, roots and the logic of birds, the artist communicates with the divine. Seeing this connection in all things, Ahmed brought the language of birds, the subtlety of earth, and the rhythm of water, as drawings, installation and video, into the gallery space. The omission of any connection to other human beings was telling; speaking of the tendency to draw solace from aspects of nature that are unable to speak as we do, and thus contradict or question our assumptions about them.
 Most works were subtle and monochromatic, without overt messages or dramatic invocation of the divine. Haunting Sufi music that accompanied the two videos resounded in the entire space, adding to the serenity. As one walked through ‘Pukar’ with its numerous messages invoking the divine; over centuries and across cultures, imprinted under a beam and on the inside of its pillars, creating a sacred arch of sorts; you were compelled to ask: Am I in tune with nature? Have my senses been dulled by loudspeakers, hi-decibel newscasts and advertisements on television? 

 In “Water’ a diptych [20.75 x9.75 inches, 2011, monotype] miniscule squiggly lines, form a longer one in a continuum , until the end of the narrow paper width; then the next line close to this and the next and the next; like an endless invocation, manically drawn with meticulous detail. If there was any definitive form to begin with, it merged into this ebb and flow, forming a ‘jaal’ that seemingly meant nothing and yet spoke of marks that make up our lives as we flow through experiences: the intertwining of cause and effect that entraps most of us.

Fine, silvered pins and photographic paper formed the ‘Rhythm of Fiveness’, a site specific installation on the wall [2011, dimensions variable]. Beneath this, a geometric pattern was lightly drawn in pencil over which the paper curled and twisted, forming protrusions on the wall surface. 

Rhythm of Fiveness
Even though the ‘pattern’ seemed to emerge from a calculated mathematical formula, encrypted in the underlying geometrical configuration, the result was chaotic. This was augmented by shadows produced through an overhead light source. The origin of the form seemed inconsequential, for the artist’s process of exploration had reduced it to an orchestrated presentation of chaos emanating from order; evocative of living, especially when our connection with the divine is impaired.

Oh, Subtle Earth
As a whole, the exhibition was soulful and evocative of some deep listening, but the unevenness in Ahmed’s involvement with the different elements jarred. Her invocations through water and birds had far greater depth than the rest. ‘Oh, Subtle Earth [tree]’ [30x18 inches, 2011, mixed media on paper] carried a texture similar to what had earlier been presented as ‘Water’. Its roots extended down from a rectangular surface with intense but tiny marks, like the tassels of a prayer rug. This work was hauntingly exquisite and worked much better without the title. And ‘Listening [Roots]’ [Charcoal on paper, 63x42 in, 2011] with its massive, black, typhoon-like swirl, brought in a bolder dimension and one lost the subtle thread of intensity connecting works like ‘Tree’, ‘Water’ and ‘River’. Adding to the confusion was another awkwardly swirling large form, drawn with charcoal on paper - ‘Listening [roots, weeds and trees]’. The paradox of oneness and the wretched angst of separation or subliminal glimpses of transcendence were better nuanced in ‘Water’ with its manic, obsessive line work and simple but effective articulation.

Ave Maria Gratia Plena

Listening[Roots Weads &
In ‘Ave Maria Gratia Plena’ a site specific installation of variable dimensions [paper and pins, 2011] Inspired by a prayer to Mary, Blessed of all women, Ahmed created shapes, evocative of fallen feathers, from unusually textured paper. The pure whiteness of the paper against a white wall infused the installation with an aura, almost sacred. Was it a shrine to Birds? In the video ‘The Call with the help of Divine Nature’ birds are shown flying the sky. There is nothing subliminal about this flight; you can barely discern the form. The same movement is repeated in a somewhat deliberate, jerky motion. Birds shed their feathers. Birds fly. What is the logic of birds? Living in a multi-storey complex in Gurgaon, where pigeons abound, it’s impossible not to notice them. But the day after seeing Ahmed’s video; whenever I saw a flock mid-air, I stopped and wondered at the rationale of creatures that seem to do little else other than procreate at an astonishing pace and take to the skies.  The logic of birds seemed simple: be what you are, do what you are born to do. This is where Ahmed succeeds, guiding you to hear your own call.

The Call, Bism
When I saw the show, no literature accompanied the exhibition; the artworks also had no labels. It was an unusually calming experience: a silent communion, free of extraneous explanations. But later, reading the artists’ statement, I was disappointed. Her words obfuscated with formalized, intellectual ideas that detracted from the magical, personal connections made without them. If there is intention to lead the viewer, it would be useful to provide titles and literature at the onset. However, to connect with work executed with such heart and soul, a quiet mind, unhindered by jargon and politics would be more adept at listening.

To read a story inspired by this show read: