'State of the Art /Art in the State'curated by Johny ML
Art in the State of Permanently Withheld Results and Lives
‘State of the Art/Art in the State’ is more or less a self-explanatory title for an exhibition, especially when the artists and viewers stand on a global platform marked by political unrest, unprecedented injustice towards man to man and a great leveler of the pandemic. Artists are the seismographers of a troubled terrain of existence. The ones who remain unaffected in those days of turbulence could be absolutely apathetic thereby losing the socio-cultural title of an artist. Hence, the responsibility is double-edged as far as an artist is concerned; pushing oneself constantly out of the zone of complacency and apathy and protecting the title that should be held very dear. While rest of the citizens in the country are drugged by news along the information highway and lay wasted, the artists sit up to portray the ‘art in the state’ through the ‘state of the art’ thinking, if not technology.
As the curator of the show I had asked the artists to come up with fresh works so that they could frame the hard times that all of us were/are forced to be in. Some obliged and some didn’t. After initial consternation I thought those who didn’t oblige to make new works however had not failed in their selections as the works that came from their studios (as images for the peculiar nature of our times and the resultant alternations in the display platforms that have become primarily digital and online though we need state of the art virtual display rooms, a fact that sadly reminds us of our condition as the citizens of a confused country that boasts of technological feats on the one side and on the other the poor distribution and access of the same due to the imbalanced economic management that keeps the cash rich museums and galleries stand a notch above the other collectives, cooperatives of artists and organizations that considerably suffer from the lack of funds therefore satisfy themselves with ordinary online displays) did express the spirit of the times. That means, our country, with or without the pandemic has been undergoing a sense of gloom and pain for over a decade.
Some artists in the show are deeply hurt by the state of affairs in the country as well as in the world. Some are affected emotionally though they transcend the hurt into a symbolic order. Some are philosophical as they stand to preach the world with a sense of urgency. Yet some others are blasphemous in their approach as they see only pestilence and death around. Some still try to be calm and collected by they just couldn’t hold the memories of torture and pain away from their expressions. Some go for stark narratives of the times with comic interludes for relief. Some others are as cold and ruthless in their aesthetics as the systems that have generated such social calamities. Together they give expression to the nature of our times and become representatives in a way of the millions who remain numb due to fear and information poisoning. Hidden in their minds too there are emotions and intellect, distorted irrevocably by the system against which the real artists constantly strive to stand up and fight until the justice is done; that makes art today an ongoing project than something finished, framed and displayed.
Ajitkumar G’s work, ‘Marooned’ looks like an unfinished project or a project in process. I would never say a project in ‘progress’ because the five women in their dark cloak of grief, huddled together and consoling each other in a boat represent the people who have been shut out of the world whose grief and plaints are no longer an issue for the government or the people in general. It is the state of affairs in our own country. Ajitkumar believes that unless and until such an issue is not addressed there is no point in talking about freedom. The direct reference to Kashmir could also seep into various areas of conflict in our country and also elsewhere where women are often subjected to militaristic atrocities. Mourning becomes a permanent state of life and their sorrows become as vast as the lake and as huge as the mountain and their lives a living monument, brittle and floating like the boat they are in. The ‘Untitled’ collage of Prasad Kumar KS literally displays the state of the art and art in the state as he presents a scene of devastation witnessed by the most beautiful painting/s in the world. Avarice, greed and cruelty shown by uncouth people results in the collapse of a system and that could be seen as ruins strewn around as if the real ‘art’ is the very decaying of the existence. The images culled from various information and picture streams become the syntax-complex in this work where art goes beyond art history and merges with the general history of war, pestilence and rightwing atrocities.
‘Extreme Craving’ is a painting by Anju Acharya and it should make everyone think about the cannibalistic instinct that one generates at the face of extreme lawlessness that we have been witnessing for quite some time in our country. For the artist, this image is ‘severely’ personal, as it seems to have originated from the post-partum blues. This is an extreme form of love on the one hand and on the other it is a perennial need to annihilate one in order to make the existence of the other smooth. It goes against the grain of human nature but the image suggests that one could decimate the existence of a state through the pretensions of love. Anupama Alias, in her ‘Island of Hope’ in fact shows the extremities of suffocation within a watery confinement. May be the work comes from the experiences of a deluge that the artist may have faced in the recent years but translating it into the symbolic system of images the submergence of the protagonist becomes a stand in for the rest of the people in the world whose hope lies in the whirlpool formed at the drain hole which would eventually leave room for normal existence. The suffocation is palpable when seen against the contemporary events in our country, be it the anti-CAA protests or the abrogation of article 370 in Kashmir.
Aswathy Byju, in her work titled ‘Mnemonics’ sears herself down initially and then dissects her own existence in an embodied manner in order to reveal her inner ‘state’. Following her hallmark style she turns her own image into a monumental figure like an unfinished tower from where the syllables of a coherent language, which is the unified life experience are separated and left to be examined by the onlookers. The veins that run from her give shelter to the birds that represent a different sphere of fauna that keeps illogical violence out of its affairs. This broken body is nothing but a redefined ‘Mother India’ in art history. The work titled ‘Profile’ by Anto George resonates with the same sentiments as an ordinary human being raised to the level of an iconic ‘Mother India’. In the eyes of the artist she gets the dignity and status but in the general state of affairs in the country today, she is nothing but a captive destined to remain within the confines of her own grief. The prostrating or relaxing position of a male figure, removed further from the central figure deconstructs the mythological relationship between the male and female principles. However, the hope is retained in the flora that frames the picture.
‘The Restless Woman’ by Jyothiraj Mayampilly, again brings forth the ‘woman’ in the central position as in the case of most of the artists discussed so far. Somehow, the artist understands it is the woman who bears the brunt of all the socio-cultural and political oppressions. As a result of it she is subjected to loneliness. The recent political uprisings in the country show the arrival of the ‘political’ woman in the forefront of protests but not politicized in the conventional way yet. Her restlessness is the expression of the inner turmoil that she feels upon watching and experiencing the events around. Between a curious and animated cat and a silent and meaningful drain, the woman sits alone, conveying the restless of the country itself. Kuldeep Karegaonkar, in his ‘Her Songs of Life’ brings the life of Indian woman inadvertently through her very absence. In the Indian villages, women perform most of the agricultural duties and often are accompanied by the songs that they sing in praise of nature and life even at face with the most adverse conditions. Here, her songs are audible between the white and dark rain clouds, between the ideal home and the tool of harvesting, a sickle. Her anchor is the traditional grinder at which she finds herself during the domestic chores. She sings the songs of life and hope from there. Will those desires expressed through the songs bear fruits in the given socio-economic and political condition of our country? We will have to wait and see.
‘River Bank’ is a work by Hochimin PH. An acclaimed sculptor with granite as his favorite medium, when Hochimin forays into painting, he brings in the solidity of the granite and grounds the central image. An enormously muscled bull charging towards an unknown destination has a sword like extension for its head and around its belly an array of skeletal bones are fastened tight constitutes the central imagery of the painting. In the foreground one could see formations of vacant buildings. Perhaps, the artist doesn’t mean anything pertaining to the recent events but it does inform us about the bullish run of the right wing forces along a sacred riverbank in order to build temples and erase other seats of worshipping. O.C.Martin does not say that his work titled ‘My Space is Burning’ is about the recent events either. But he knows for sure that wherever he goes he ends up seeing the places burning after a loot and blaze. It has finally reached his home and its surroundings. We live in a burning country though we don’t see it apparently. But as an artist Martin perceives how the calamities are approaching and they do not leave the peaceful abodes and protected selves. A vast building that reminds one of a school and its courtyard, a seat of education and peaceful coexistence where artist believes himself to be in, seems to be at the brink of an imminent torching. Who is responsible for this?
May be the responsible ones are the jesters who move around in absolute mirth and joy, performing jugglery to entertain people. But people are not entertained at all, on the contrary they are deeply mourning about the misfortunes that have befallen on them quite unexpectedly. Mathai KT’s work titled ‘Untitled’ has it all and more. A painting in his hallmark style has clear demarcations of grounds where events take place. The infamous reverse migration caused by the insensitive declaration of a lockdown by the ruler of this country and its pangs are re-presented by the artist in this painting. What makes the familiar mediatized images and its artistic interpretations more poignant and striking is their contrasting with the jesters’ presence. One doesn’t need to think much to know who reincarnates as a jester in this work. Contrasted to this work is a painting by Smitha GS, titled ‘Untitled’. If we have seen the most painful events in Mathai’s work, in Smitha GS’s work we see the opposite world where human beings have been erased completely. She fills the scenario, which is divided into two tiers with ethereal creatures from a surreal imagination. What happens to a world when human beings have completely decimated the other human beings? Maybe, the fauna in painting will survive and populate the world with a new life and narrative. In the direst of situations, an artist could imagine a world where everything will be all right as a part of ultimate hope and survival though in that world human beings perhaps would metamorphose into insignificant creatures with surreal wings.
Ranjeet Singh is a chronicler of humble lives of workers, destitute and the wretched. In this work titled ‘Satya ka Prayog’ (Experiments of Truth) he creates a frozen narrative with one of the most essential but humble medium; a piece of bread which is called ‘roti’ in Hindi. Countless people live in absolute penury in this country. The insensitive lockdown sent them back to their villages. On the way, they were depending on these rotis. They worked for this roti, walked back for this roti. And they were scattered along with flesh and blood as a train ran over the migrant workers who rested on the rail tracks. Hence, the work resembles the railway map of India made of a roti while the read threads show not only the routes but also the blood spilled by the humble workers who were forced on to the streets by the rightwing forces. The merchant of death travels by air and he has been away from the country for a long time as he was globetrotting and making history for himself while making the lives of people a history. He singlehandedly brought the country to abject poverty, lawlessness and destitution. Soumen Bhowmick catches it all in his work titled ‘By Air’. Death has come by air, it says but in fact someone who travels always by air and has turned himself into a specter of threat and coercion brings it. He has his satellite flyers that sow the seeds of discord and pain in this country. And the implications and suggestions are clear and sharp enough to go straight into the heart and minds of the people.
Mountains are created when geographical plateaus collide with each other or when volcanic eruptions take place. But amassing lies and false information in the society could also create mountains. A right wing government could survive and survive through misinformation that grows to the level of a mountain obscuring the vision of truth that lies beyond it. Shaji Appukkuttan in his work titled ‘History of a Mountain’ makes an exquisite mountain out of lines, which is a stand in for the falsehood of a post-truth society. The only solace is the small tree growing by the side of it indicating the possibility of truth and nature growing back and rendering the mountain into obscurity. Truth could be an island slowly sinking into the depths of a cruel sea. Holding truth up is as strenuous a task as reclaiming an island from sinking. P.V.Nandan in his work titled ‘Reclamation of an Island’, using his stylistic hallmark, the strong muscled bison, literally embraces a beautiful island and prevents it from submerging. It is an artistic intervention in the process of history to reclaim truth and reality against the spreading of false information and submergence of reality.
Neeraj Singh Khandka has been actively working throughout the pandemic days and seriously documenting his own life artistically without making it aesthetically mundane. The masked human beings have been coming off and on in his works even before the pandemic but that was a commentary on the growing air pollution. But the masked figure, a surrogate self of the artist seated in the throne here in this work titled ‘How You Take the Rain’ negotiates a taunting task. It is not just about taking the rain, which could disappear through the drain or get collected in a bucket. Here the rain is the tide of events and how one takes it is the real question for the pouring rain could turn the water into flowing blood. The artist has seen it happening and his work is emblematic to this. ‘101 Speeches for Indian (You Can’t Afford to Miss it) Series 6’ is a work by PS Jalaja. As an artist who has been dealing with the issue of migration and Dalit activism in India, in this work the artist has taken up one of the pivotal speeches by the maker of our constitution, Dr.B.R.Ambedkar. The artist gives additional twists to the painting by making the central figure, the iconic Ambedkar figure, wear the PPT kit to correspond with the pandemic situation. But the pandemic is not the pandemic as we think. It is the pandemic of caste discrimination and atrocities against the Dalit and downtrodden. One needs a PPT kit against those viruses than the real virus that could go with a vaccine. The unmistakable blue suit takes us back to Ambedkar and the wheel suggests his belief in the concept of Dhamma by Lord Buddha. It could also suggest the wheel of technology and the wheel of Ayyankali’s cart. The monkey, a main character in the Buddhist tales must be a representative of Buddha himself.
‘Kya BanayaKahanBanaya’ is the title of Megha Joshi work. But it is a question raised by all the people who think for the country. The question is asked to the rightwing rulers and their followers in this country. What have you constructed and where have you constructed is the question but it goes beyond all the claims made by the ruling front. But it is not just about the immediate politics alone. The artist brings in the history of various pandemics through a series of evocative images such as the plague carrier rats and their counterpart in the present time, the information carriers; computer mouse. The surrogate self of the artist stands naked between two worlds; of data stream and the world in the recent history and asks what is her position in the current state of affairs. Suvanwita Saha titles her works, ‘Will there be Singing in this Dark Time?/Yes there will be Singing about this Dark Time’. She brings the memories of the Brechtian hope in her graphics oriented work where the suggestions and notations are given and at the same time their possibility of getting shot down is implied. We are going through a time in which the authorities say ‘cut your nose’ instead of helping the citizens with their noses. The authorities ask them to wait here until called but the call never comes. There is death and threat lurking around and the citizens are destined to live in this dark time. Will they be able to sing and the artist hopes that yes there will be one day when this dark time is sung about. The art and poetry will change, and it will be not about us but about the ones, who caused the pestilence, pain and death, says the artist in her work.
I thank Kerala Lalithakala Academy for inviting me to curate the first contemporary art online exhibition for them. SushmaSabnis almost played an assistant curator’s role in the project by keeping the progress of the exhibition in focus and also lining up the materials for the final online display before transferring them to the Academy. I thank her from my heart. I thank all the participating artists and also the Academy staff who produced the exhibition online within the technical givens. Last but not the least, Ajitkumar G designed the publicity materials for the ‘State of the Art/Art in the State’ show and gave a wonderful ‘look’ to it. I thank him for his friendly gesture.