Curated by Dr.Kavitha Balakrishnan

pREpellers connects an interesting array of artists who use political memories and experiences to stretchable extents. They deal with inner worlds of extremity; the problematic containment of self, body, land and memories that make artist’s worlds at the verge of being grotesque, I mean, a state of ‘becoming’ where assorted sacred techniques of artistic transcendence turn absolutely impossible at work. This is a suit of disparate artist-people who are sensitive to a post-idealist and post-global world wherein wonder-machineries of liberal consumerism, globalism, ‘shining nation’ and secular democracy

are suspended for introspective scrutiny; leave alone the wonders of artistic transcendence. This is apparently a grotesque situation for anyone who lives an artistic citizenry today trying to communicate with shapeless publics and contexts. Best art today is an ambiguous contain of extreme selves. It is aught at the verge of propelling and repelling, hence one can call them pREpellers.

A curated show, I believe, is a statement in collaboration on a particular space and time. ‘pREpellers’ is thereby an attempt to project the dialogue of selves that are both revealed and hidden, underpinning contemporary art’s variegated contexts. This being done in 2012, in Chennai, also count. Interestingly, there is no single way art could be understood today in terms of a country, culture, locality, style or theme. More interesting are the ways in which art can generate new modes of thinking and doing of artistic identities in a particular public. Inherent extremities of artists are then potential facilitators to connect with each other in a public domain. Artists carry their own differences, yet here is a chosen group of people sensitive to the traditions and histories of uncanny art practices, both accounted and unaccounted, in different registers.

Confessions of ‘the contemporary’ I do not look for the representational dilemmas of ‘grotesque’ as a theme. Brought together here is the lived experience of artistic identities in relation to ‘the canonical’ and ‘the uncanny’ in life and art. I am also interested in different ways in which artists quit /experiment / eroticize / mock their long standing representational burdens. Discourses of ethnic / gender identities are largely suspended for further

genuine reasons. Artists address their distressed selves from variously designed vantage points. For instance, Waswo.X.Waswo locates himself in the critique of orientalist stereotyping but twisting it so much that one is now capable of addressing one’s original problem of representation from the otherend :‘how his whiteness made him exotic and many people he dealt with could not see the individual inside the American skin; or how quickly he was accused of orientalising, neo-colonising, exoticising an Indian other, when the position he occupied was little different from that enjoyed by any comfortablyoff

Indian middle class person relating to the Indian poor or working class’[1]. This also comes in sharp critical dialogue with the photo-performances of Pushpamala (ref: ethnographic series called Native Women of South India: Manners & Customs) where an Indian woman artist was collaborating with

a British photographer and masquerading both in the white man’s and Indian man’s gazes that had constructed Indian femininity in its modernizing contexts. Now further playful twisting of visions from the perspective of Waswo’s ‘other history’ is now fetching it far into the garb of an outdated white skinned mock-orientalist. But picking up intimate Indian collaborators, this American also lives out a disquietingly pluralistic Indian life and livelihood, further positioning himself in critical relations with reworkable traditions. He also punches holes in post-colonial discourses in India where an ‘Indian self ’ had been re-looking at itself in the other’s eye. When ‘the other’ is also found in complex fluxes, as it is the case of Waswo, it pushes a familiar Indian critical discourse to introspection.

The turbulence of artistic extremity and the artist’s sensitiveness to the public responses towards one’s extreme propositions have now come out of the pressing shrouds of ‘intellectualism’. It has erupted into more complicated propositions in contemporary times. Floating as fragmented bodies in a flood of art world materials and participations, as mutually over-layering identities, ironically confessional ones, artists are coming into new dialogues and performances. Monali Meher living in both Amsterdam and India, sketches bodies in unfamiliar fluids. She follows and identifies the moments of saturation in any poetic grasp of life. She stages the absurd gestures in the most realistic settings possible. And there, Gopikrishna, living in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, wants to ‘touch the primeval soil where he believes his pride lies. There are dreams, stories and fears of so many human beings who remained ‘archaic’ in the fast-paced changes of 20th century modernization of Indian life. Assuming an archaic body, Gopikrishna performs the role of a loyal knight in a valorous game of representation of those bodies gone extinct for reasons out of their grasp or control. Gopi’s pictorial performance almost disowns the immediate history of modernization. It also runs the risk of being ‘outdated’. But we also know that Gopikrishna is one artist whom art world ‘discovered’ as if from a mythic past, in the beginning of the ‘contemporary wave’. Interestingly, the works of Gopikrishna shown here depict couple of his archaic protagonists as ‘nuisance figures’ or ‘violated figures’ while they are shown as coming in dialogue with the early phases of consumerist media expressions. There is another saga of long punished bodies, again presented in an extremely overwritten language by Zakkir Hussain, Kochi based artist. The burden of body is pressingly reflected in the anxiety of being identified for wrong reasons. A refusal to get identified, burns at the heart of anyone punished to political stereotyping. Images of Zakkir also consciously pollute the languages of the spectacular. This is a taciturn drama of somebody caught in the political periphery of a majoritarian nation only to express his inability to act in a given system.

Abul Hisham projects macabre everyday dramas of power and surveillance. These are again bodies unable to function, caught in rigid formats of decay. Pathology of mind and meanings are suggested while Dibin Thilakan notates it self-consciously in the evolving life of a lovelorn ‘Indian male’.

Strategies of Uday Shanbhag or Shajith RB would count for subtle dialogues with overpowering sublimities of nature while one has tools only of ‘culture’ available. But there are abstracted ways to reveal unattended violence of life. Nature turns a quick and regular setting for it. These artists take us into the direct experience of Indian interiors where our eyes otherwise would have habitually turned exotic and would have further refused to face the dreaded dismay. Of course Abir Karmakar has tested ways to peep literally into the pornographic interiors of culture. Avishek Sen also puns with the erotic being in relation to the dichotomy of nature and culture.

Corrupting and chocking the diaspora-body’s confused fictions, Chila Burman refuses to settle her identity politics, rather carries it away from apparent dead ends of gender arguments and implants it in an erotic medium: the bindi only to revamp arguments and perform integral elements relevant to her existence: Global Fiddle : Black Panther : In to the Vortex : Where did all the money go and so on and so forth.

All these artists consciously corrupt the ideal edifices of political imagination of identities, both conventional and critical, that prevailed throughout the 20th century artistic maneuvers. One can see a tongue in cheek culmination of it in Ved Gupta’s fiber figures. They are absurd mascots or buffoons caught at almost pornographic act in the drama of Indian democracy. Ved Gupta is fetching his artistic dignity far into the indignant pedestrian limits of political understanding. The annoyance of Ved Gupta paradoxically has the flip side of abandonment of self. Mansi Bhatt who had been engaged in the language of the ‘tongue-in-cheek’ for some time, now addresses this flip side in this show. Her documentation of Bulldozer Yathra held recently at Azad Maidan, Mumbai, evokes here that morbid act of burial of the self at the face of powerful leveling of all spaces available for urban living. ‘Common man’ is a fictional being for whom much ink and tongue of ideologies are wasted. Now it is time to grasp what exactly are it’s quotients.

Some artists are more interested in manipulating the glances towards erotic edges. One who does it literally is Gurusiddappa. The perennial ‘DOers’ and LOOKers click each other in his paintings. And there is another mascot figure, Nandi, the gatekeeper in this show installed by Koumudi Patil. One has to encounter him before entering into the awaited promises of transcendence like that in any familiar art gallery exhibition. But the Nandi turns into a crooked gatekeeper and gives you ‘the look’ back on to your own puzzled eyes. This genre, perhaps of twisted mascot figures as one can call it in relation to the viewer, is also contributed by Barbara Ash. The frilly doll of innocence is scaled up. Ash also evokes encrypted girls, the visceral presence of bodily elements that are not able to act in a system they find themselves in.

A post script Artistic expressions of extremities are not new. Deep rooted in art histories of the world, its languages are culturally identified, dislocated and recaptured freshly at each context and hence politically produced. A sustained dialogue between ‘art’ and ‘anti-art’ had characterized 20th century western art. That was ardent response to development politics of capitalism and destructive catapults of world-wars. In India the canons of modern art had propositions to generate expressions of rebellious imaginations of ‘progressives’, first ever radical breech from conventional public domains. The call for a modern ‘avant-garde’ was also a call for extreme responses as exemplified by the works of say, F.N.Souza or early M.F.Hussain. Something prior to this was perhaps subtly reflected in Rabindranath Tagore’s latelife paintings that heard the call of a personal inner sensorium minus the burden of representation. One should also see that it was small circuit of people, many of them belonging to dislocated minority communities who actually shared and supported modern art world establishments here, like an Emmanuel Schlesinger or the Alkazis and so on. But rebellions of the modernists hardly could directly connect with the post independent Indian life. Its uncanny margins, the regions and the idiosyncratic ‘commoner’s realities remained untapped. Modern Indian art was also a regularized ‘balancing act’

of alienated individuals on the idealistic foundations of a post-independent nation-state. So the later modernist communities rather tried to generate many synthetic forms of ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ as a perennial continuum. This synthetic mode by and large happened to characterize India’s artistic modernity in regions and institutional strongholds (like Shanthiniketan or Madras School) and in variously erudite endeavors of artist-individuals like J.Swaminathan, K.C.S Panikkar and K.G.Subrahmaniam.

On the surface of great Indian public domain all this while, there had been ideal pictures, political arcades and machineries of secular living and democratic hopes. But the volcanic presence of dislocated identities, religious minorities, suffocated sexualities, critical citizenships and the very exodus of cultures

within a plural state kept one in prolonged dialogue with the art of survival and subterfuge. Until recently, the public domain debates initiated by affluent and strategic Indians ignored this peripheral but large community of artists in India. Nevertheless, a pervasive ‘culture / tradition-kitsch’ was entertained as it contributed to religious and political fundamentalisms of sorts.

But it is important now to locate when and where an eventual sedimentation of ‘nether-worldly-ness’ of creative individuals started surfacing as ‘art’ canon itself. Certain dialogue between ‘the canonical’ and ‘the uncanny’ more clearly emerged in 1990s as artists like Vivan Sundaram, Bhupen Khakker, Nalini Malani, Pushpamala, N.N.Rimzon, Rumana Hussain and others started variously articulating the collapse of art-language-canons in their conceptual and installation projects. The plenitude of unconventional materials that they all used, virtually created the first jolt to the shapeless canons of modern art then in Indian galleries. This generation had posed challenges to the way galleries could anymore function here. ‘Uncanny’ in India at the fag end of 1990s emerged as expressions of political otherness of quite a few significant artists, of their political support groups and rarely of some galleries participated in this; nailing their walls, housing ‘unmarketable’ materials, to make their difference. But artists functioning as ‘intellectual others’ in a supposedly ‘naïve public domain’ had not devised direct means any more to address shreds and patches of troubled identities caught in the flux of sweeping changes in economy. The ‘radical’ artist group in late 1980s had tried to give a brief attempt to take art directly to a select local Indian (malayali – fishermen) public, seemingly an uncanny task at that time, away from the supposedly safe enclaves of galleries. Needless to say, the group was doomed to immediate fragmentation as the time was then not ripe to address the deep rooted extremity of living in India as an artist, variously in cities, regions and locales, caught in critical relation to immediate society.

Useful and clearer shifts, at once terrible and promising, happen in the contemporary phase. Art’s profusion has well started propelling long-suspended desires for artistic-careers while repelling some of its own undesirable or rather disputable outcomes. Spot lights and white cubes of the artistic enclaves, the longstanding ‘transcendental’ museum props, are today caught in incessant mutations. They are props designed to engage conditionally and temporarily in a domain in a public, if not necessarily in any coherent ‘public domain’.

Art today does not simply revolve in critical relations around canons. In each new contemporary context, art has pREpelling intentions to generate new art-publics. Art as a language informed by history, is a useful tool then and there to make sense of the political citizenry of artists.

-Kavitha Balakrishnan


Event “pREpellers”, Group Exhibition

Curated by Dr. Kavitha Balakrishnan
Artists Abir Karmakar, Abul Hisham, Avishek Sen, Barbara Ash,
Chila Burman, Dibin Thilakan, Gopikrishna, Gurusiddappa G. E., Koumudi Patil, Mansi Bhatt, Monali Meher, Shajith R.B, Uday Shanbhag, Ved Gupta, Waswo X. Waswo, Zakkir Husain
Time 5:30 PM
Venue Gallery Art & Soul
Show Closes March 27


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