Artists

Stitches are like lines that string together absence and presence. Now you see them and now you don’t. When they are above the surface, they fit the visibility register. Or when they slip away from our sight, they keep sustaining their existence from the underside. What is absent above is present below, almost like a mirror image, slightly displaced.

Rakhi explores the interface between drawing and stitching, between two dimensional silhouettes and three dimensional extensions, between the language of naming, and that of seeing. It is in the gaps and overlaps between our sensations of sight, touch, smell and taste that experience unfolds and language emerges. While experience occurs in continuum, language is necessarily governed by fragmentation and repetition - the sources of its order and condition.

A drawn line can mimic lines of thread that run through cloth. Even a pencil line can leave gaps in between or weave the corporeal through cross hatchings. The knitted lines between the eyebrows in Durer’s portrait of his mother find as easy a translation in running stitches as in drawn lines- both lie at the source of the catachresis in our parlance- “knitted eyebrows”! Or the way same network of lines appear in Grunewald’s drawings as well as his finished paintings- equal in aesthetic efficacy; lines in constant flux that continually exchange places between the figure and the ground and allow for the ‘bodies of beings’ to metamorphose into ‘bodies of becoming’.

Out of all the Euro-American art trends that have become familiar frames of reference for Indian modernists, conceptual art has made a late entry and has struck most shallow roots in a country like India that has by and large gravitated towards imagistic figuration. Minimalism, as for example, has had a short and chequered career in India, unlike its passionate reception in Japan. Rakhi Peswani belongs to this rare moment in the history of contemporary art that stages complex conversation between conceptual art, minimalism and figurative art. At the same time, she undoes academic hierarchies set up between art and craft, painting and stitching, sculpting and sewing by weaving stories, knitting forms and embroidering concepts.

Staging infinite variation of forms that continually unfold between the poles of order and chaos, between being and becoming, Rakhi signposts the two extremes in As You Sew and Seductive Myths of Lightness (Sightscapes of an Insomniac) II.

While the first shows an obsessive concern with classification, labelling and archiving to the extent that each singular set of objects placed within boxes embody citations of sensations abstracted from any context, the latter breaks out of any constraint of a grid into an eruption of all boundaries; it stages and telescopes an almost evolutionary metamorphosis on the body of a composite creature- partly animal, partly human and partly a tree. With the focus on the interstitial spaces between the zoomorphic, the human and the vegetative, the unruliness of becoming is made visible.

Stitches mimic language in their seriality, in their unfolding in time, but lines that move ahead can also fold back and move in another direction. There are no points of origin or termination. They can begin from anywhere. But they have a strange relationship with time; time is their inevitable condition of being and yet they can bring it to a halt. Stitches celebrate slowness, they can needle time to slow down as they wrestle their way through cloth. They call attention to their own processes of making in which the being and the becoming visibly coalesce. The painstaking process of stitching itself becomes a critique of temporality as it slows down time, calling into question myths of progress. Do craft lag behind art on the account of slowness? Resonating with Homi Bhabha’s indictment of today’s accelerated pace of life that leaves little room for critical thinking [1], Rakhi sees in the humble craft of embroidery the potential to de-territorialize the spaces of high art as she continually seeks to bring back the body, both of the material of the medium and the maker, as she exposes them alike in underlining the process of making art.

Artist’s Studio :

Accustomed to entering artists’ studios that greets one with acrid smell of turpentine, old plastic jars with used paint brushes dipped into them, piles of paint tubes lying in the corners with drawing and sketches pinned up on the walls, I was not prepared for the different sights and smells that filled my senses in Rakhi’s studio. In place of brushes, there lay scattered on the floor, scissors of varying dimensions, mounds of colorful bobbins in a corner, folds of cloth of diverse textures draped over a table, boxes full of hundreds of safety pins glinting away-millions of silver pins stuck into sponge balls, tousled hair wigs, amongst a host of ordinary objects that take on new being by being in an artist’s studio.

And in place of drawings and sketches on the wall, there were loops of colored threads, a braid, and shiny rubber bands, pinned up on the soft board. And in place of sketchbooks, there were scrapbooks that carried most fragile dried leaves, flattened flowers, dead insects, pieces of handmade paper, embroidered swatches. Equally striking was how the same pair of scissors that was a tool, once wrapped in velvet becomes an image: a strange conflation of object’s tool value and semiotic value. The same fate befalls a needle that loses its status as equipment once it too becomes a motif, as it halts midway through the cloth and enters the zone of representation. Surrounded by material that plays on your visual and tactile sensations, the alphabets of Rakhi’s language clutter up the studio space that has certain clarity in the artists’ mind. Filing these myriad surfaces and textures in her mind as if in a private archive, she knew exactly what and where to reach out for, at the behest of a sensation that urgently needed to be recast in material terms.

Undoing Drawing

I am not what I am; I am what I do with my hands.

Louise Bourgeois

Like all institutions, the art school in Baroda has had an ambivalent impact on Rakhi. While it has transmitted skills to her and allowed her to move across painting, sculpture and ceramics along new trajectories, certain hallowed conventions restrained her experimental fervor. The greatest among them was the compulsion of drawing as a necessary point of departure which lay at the root of the hierarchy that she found herself setting within her own major and minor practices. Her first experiment with textiles and other heterogeneous material started as a ‘hobby’ when she would insert little swatches of embroidered cloth into little antique glass bottles, bought from the Shukrawari Bazaar or the Friday Flea Market, a favoritehaunt for students in Baroda. These would make suitable presents for friends when one day, her art teacher questioned her on the way she compartmentalized her practice of art and craft. This was a mind opener and the resultant self questioning pointed out that the only way out of this academic mental set was to break out of the spell of drawing.

What if she lets the sensuous materiality of medium speak to her and not be dictated by a preconceived drawing? It opened up new dialogic space with the material where medium is not what an artist has to wrestle with to gain mastery over. Can one bond with the material and hold an intimate conversation with it in a non-phallic way? By breaking open the pristine wholeness of the object, perhaps. Take as for instance, the installation titled Being and Becoming that splits the blue globe studded with a maze of safety pins to reveal its brown underside.

The object is caught unawares by letting the glance supersede the gaze. In place of an all controlling gaze that orders chaos into ontological stable objects, there is a glance at work that captures processes, interstitial spaces between fixed identities. As the dangling blue sphere meets the hybrid tree that sprouts from a pillow, the roots of the tree converts into animal claws as the pink gauze winds itself around an aluminium armature and begins to resemble a fresh shoot of a leaf or a new skin. The pillow with a spinal cord resembles a human torso as it writhes in agony when the blade of scissors sinks into its ‘soft flesh’!

Brueghel retains a pride of place among her several mentors belonging to Northern Renaissance, ranging from Durer to Grunewald. It is not the perfect body celebrated by the Italian Renaissance masters that captures Rakhi’s attention but the vulnerable body, the visceral body that leads her to Breughel -in whose works she discovers that at the heart of the phenomenological body resides the literary body- one animating the other like the parables of human folly find embodiment in the carnivalesque allegories of Breughel. Fascinated by a detail in his Allegories that literally shows a single eye surmounted by a pair of scissors, it captures the resonance of her practice - that pure visuality is a myth and any such claim is at once undercut by the incision/intrusion of the verbal language- just as there is no innocent eye, there is no pure, verbal speech.

In Seductive Myths of Lightness I, deep midnight blue velvet evoked melancholia of childhood, of sleepless nights in the mosquito net that was forced upon her by her father. While mosquitoes were kept at bay but not the nocturnal demons who visited her, tormenting her mind -slithering lizards, three headed birds, fragmented human torsos that prepared her for an early reception of Francisco Goya’s paintings. As a form of exorcism, she encounters them upfront as she trapped them in appliquéd silhouettes surrounding fragmented human bodies along the walls of the mosquito net that cast the ever moving, psychedelic patterns along its surface.

Hanging in the middle is a hollow sphere that traps within its midst a floating human eye, held in place by a pair of inverted scissors. This emblem that Breughel had placed in a marginal space in his Allegories turns into a leitmotif for Rakhi in the way it embodies a powerful ‘visual’ critique of the Italian Renaissance aesthetics. In case of the latter, the invention of the artificial perspective brought within it the privileging of the visual over the tactile. This led to the gradual detaching of the eyes from the body and the formation of a new visual regime central to modern visuality. Rakhi reinstates the body by resurrecting the eye-scissors emblem in a three dimensional form. If Breughel could argue against the purity of the visual, demonstrating how images are undercut by the verbal via the eye-scissor symbol, Rakhi highlights the interpenetration of the visual and the tactile by moving between two dimensional surface and sculptural forms, and submitting to the logic of material.

Of course, this does not mean a simple inversion of hierarchy where she would let the material dictate poetics to her. Complicating the dualism of subject and object, form and matter, the language of words intervenes introducing yet another dynamics- that of the rebus- where the visual and the verbal transgress into each other’s territories in a mutual destabilization. In Misnomers, she interweaves a collage of sensuous materials with woven text and disrupts the commonplace assumption that verbs trigger in our minds- while the stuffed bra “heaves” , the labyrinthine lungs conjured out of cloth “hope” and “breathe” !

Her retake on western renaissance precisely is driven by her concerns with the body- the trajectory along which this epochal movement in the west unfolded was premised on the gradual undermining of the body that led to the regime of visuality. Hence her focus on the body- not the organic body celebrated by the Italian Renaissance for its perfection- but body as fragments, body as a thinking and feeling body that proclaims its vulnerability through poetic transformation of the material and -finally body as part of discourse or when the language intervenes and textualises the body.

As the word “Reflection” (refer to pg )is reflected by the round mirrors sewn on cloth brings to the fore a new visuality, it literally ‘reflects’ upon its own process of making. It is both a critical comment on the ‘mirror metaphor’ that was central to the Renaissance episteme and notions of mimesis and also a different take on conceptual art that freely intersperses the figuratively ‘drawn/embroidered hands’ with the conceptual text-‘Reflection’ in Anatomical Construction of Ideas. Striking a blow to the myth of art production that claims to spring straight from the mind untouched by the body, the images of multiple hands ‘touching’ the mirror bring back the body-its sense of touch, tactility and corporeality.

Unlike the mental imagery of a painterly work, which is essentially about forming meanings through mere images, I am trying to incorporate the orientation of the body and its possible imaginary along with the visual imagination of a work... thus one work (Anatomical Construction of Ideas) is nothing but a rhetoric of how an imaginary idea is constructed through a play of visuals and hands… [2]

Gender as a strand

Gender invariably enters into discussion of works by woman artists whose turn to stitching and embroidery may be seen as a feminine choice! From Louise Bourgeois, Eva Hesse, to Sheila Gowda and Anita Dube closer home, women artists have had to resist the gender stereotyping of their medium in different ways and each has cast a spell on Rakhi variously. Like Bourgeois, Rakhi is drawn to transgressing the academic definition of sculpture. It is Bourgeois’ material practice that excites Rakhi’simagination and not so much her foregrounding of autobiography, articulated in strongly gendered terms. While Hesse and Gowda loom large as antecedents in their handling of unconventional textures and material, Dube’s evocative use of velvet had so inspired Rakhi that she had, at one point, dedicated a piece in velvet to Dube- in an act that paid homage and at the same time questioned the latter’s claim of regarding velvet as her signature material! Gender difference enters Rakhi’s oeuvre in a peripheral way, always refracted by the materiality of her medium and the minimalist narrative informing her work.

Rakhi still regards her accidental discovery of Louise Bourgeois’ exhibition catalogue at a friend’s place in Baroda as a momentous event. Riveted to Bourgeois’ costume series, Rakhi found resonance in every aesthetic decision made by the French artist- her choice of material, her extraordinary use of ordinary objects and her bold iconoclasm of traditional sculpture. Like Bourgeois, Rakhi aspires to break out of the tunnel vision of visuality that had satisfied the Greenbergian definition of modern painting. She learns from Bourgeois how to beat the modernists at their own formalist game and how to use the methodology of Cubism… to destroy its potency, to enact another kind of destruction of the father- in the form of patriarchal modernism [3].

Combining her critique of an orthodox modernism with phenomenology of seeing, the visual, the tactile and the verbal mutually inflect Rakhi’s understanding of sculpture. Recasting vision in material terms, the artist looks upon the eye as not only embodied but a part of a moving and feeling body. Body gains centrality as a metaphor and a literal presence. On most of the walls of her working space are pasted cuttings of perfect bodies- the bodies of Olympic acrobats, of ballerinas arching their bodies in impossible postures, which have sculpted their bodies to perfection through performance - bodies that are energetic and muscular? While these cuttings from newspapers, magazines and popular calendars (there is one of Yogic postures) sport bodies as a whole, they only enter her oeuvre as de-fetishized fragments, as carriers of a particular sensation, a structure of feeling. The erotic of the body enters her work more through the play with material and less with gendered difference. The latter holds an oblique concern for Rakhi and this is where her affinity with Bourgeois ends.

Are we to put limit between the body and the world, since the world is flesh?

Merleau Ponty [4]

Archiving the Body

Quite different from the rest is As You Sew in boxes that functions taxonomically and demonstrates the source of many of her imageries. Much like Rodin’s Gates of Hell that was both his dumping ground and vibrant source of inspiration, the boxes classify objects that are counterparts of the sensation they arouse. Serving as random quotations that captured her interest at various points in time, the collected objects dismantle the narrative into an archive of sensations.

One of the walls is lined up with books that range from technical topics about art making to that of high philosophy, interspersed with books on Indian modernism. Gilles Deleuze has a wide following among this generation of young artists as a champion of non-dualistic thinking. Francis Bacon seen through Deleuze fills Rakhi with shudder of admiration - how Deleuze reads Francis Bacon’s paintings in performative terms; the most evocative description of the process of painting, of the bodies shading into flesh, where the jagged edges of brush strokes cut open the body in simultaneous acts of savagery and tenderness; the insides and the outside of the body switch places, putting into question any stable equation between the figure and the ground.

Just as in Rakhi’s works, the needle works as much as an instrument of violence and pain, as a means to conjure up an exquisite appearance of beauty. In the first case, the needle pokes into the middle of a stuffed eye in an upfront attack, while in a sharp contrast in another context, several needles slip into the cloth to evoke the most aesthetic effect of silvery texture.

A constant slippage between using her hand as a tool that holds the needle, into turning that same hand into an image that is poised to hold a ‘real’ needle is more than a visual pun. Quite in line with M C Escher’s visual puzzles, the performative hand doubles up as a representation as it is traced through the running stitches and captured as a contour. Quite like Merleau Ponty’s famous example of the left hand touching the right hand and reversing the movement to confound the subject and the object divide. Recent revival of interest in the philosophy of Merleau Ponty in art criticism and the popularity of Deleuzean philosophy amongst the younger artists in India has to be seen in the light of “global networking and the collapse of the conventional identity politics as these were articulated in the 1960s, 1970s and beyond.” [5]

Her retake of skills from those involved in drawing and sketching to that of sewing and stitching has opened her eyes to a wide arena of skills that one encounters in day to day life. Watching the cobbler in the University campus in rapt attention- the manner in which he handled leather and chose his colors, compelled her to realize how such a skill is often undervalued as manual labor. Sometimes the basis for social hierarchy of class and caste rests upon the wilful undervaluing of skills and the imposition of functionality over aesthetics. [6]

Isolated she may be in her studio toiling away as a lone presence, but it is her material that not only cuts her isolation as she articulates her ‘self ’ through embodied sensations but also connects her to the world out there, the world of commerce, of hard ware shops, wholesale markets- a world where the reality strikes back and poses her questions about her own practice. Just as her own practice elides any neat division or hierarchy among the acts of stitching, weaving, sewing, sticking, hammering and welding, it nevertheless reinscribes these skills within the realm of art and what transpires as installations, transmogrify into sculpture in an expanded sense.

Yet, the dynamics of public sphere engage her as a corollary of her practice. Her new interlocutors become a part of her expanded constituency of the public, beyond that of the art public. In a sense, her craft based art practice makes possible for her to register, attend and reflect upon this other public on the fringes of the art world and to expand the practice of art to “think the unthinkable”. [7]

Notes

[1] Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (New York: Routledge,1994).

[2] In conversation with the artist.

[3] Robert Storr, Paulo Herkenhoff, Allan Schwartzman Eds, Louise Bourgeois (London, NewYork: Phaidon, 2003), p. 100.

[4] Merleau Ponty, “The Intertwining-The Chiasm,” in Visible and Invisible (1964), trans Alphonso Lingis, ed. Claude Lefort (Evanston: North western University press, 1968), pp. 130-155.

[5] Amelia Jones, “Meaning, Identity, Embodiment,” Art and Thought ed. Dana Arnold and Margaret Iverson (Blackwell Publishing :Oxford) 2003, p. 78.

[6] From the cobbler to the supplier of her materials at the local hardware shop, Rakhi has also aroused interest amongst the non-art public, sometimes great bewilderment when she would place order for thousands of safety pins, reels of thread or reams of gauze and wire. Quick to make the most of the curiosity that she has aroused among those who supply her material, Rakhi includes them in her list of invitees to her Preview. For easy comprehensibility, the verbal plaques that accompany her installations are bilingual.

[7] Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet, Dialogues II (New York: Columbia University. Press, 2002).

From the exhibition catalogue published by Vadehra Art Gallery (2009).

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