At a time when the mass produced ornament, masquerading as an interventionist social project has developed into a set formula in contemporary art practice, it is rare to see a body of work that engages with the political, through the sensorial experience of the hand drawn image. In an art world where artists are increasingly becoming profoundly alienated from the process of art making, Subba Ghosh’s recent body of work, titled State of Mind has been produced painstakingly over a period of several years suggesting by default that such a deliberate slowing down of an artistic process is a way of disagreeing with an art world that demands the relentless production of “art”.
In the eleven year gap between this solo exposition and his last show in 1998 though, Subba has widened his practice to investigate mediums such as video, animation and photography, combining their visual language with older forms such as sculpture and painting; with each medium being used for its semiotic potential. Yet in his use of new techniques of representation, he applies the same level of intensity and engagement that he uses for drawing or painting, simultaneously reveling in the fresh possibilities that these mediums offer. What remains a major preoccupation however is the representation of the human body as a site of personal memories and as a means of figuring the political through the embodied subject.
Investing heavily in personal labour as a way of dealing with the materiality of the human body, this recent work examines the increasing elision of the working-class from the domain of representation in an age where human encounters are increasingly being mediated through the disembodied presence of the virtual. In a world sealed from dirt and pungent smells, socially distanced on account of class attitudes, the marginalized are pushed even further into the distance. Harnessing diverse means, Subba tries to refocus on their hopes and desires as well as the threats they face in their search for a better life. This is not to suggest that Subba does not recognize the liberatory potential of the multiple or the dispersed and dynamic domain of the World Wide Web. He is in fact preoccupied with exploring the phenomenological encounter between the real and the virtual; whether it is in the form of snatches of songs heard over the air waves or images flashed over the television screens and the way this impinges upon the way we respond to the physical world within which we exist. The technosubject resulting from this overlap has a different perception of the world compared to an earlier subject position that was shaped by the immediate and the everyday corporeal world. The cut out, the edited image, the solitary figure then becomes a way of staging an encounter with the disembodied presence of the distant but tele-present world, brought into the physical space through means of sound and the flickering image of the screen.
Trained in the former Soviet Union at the Surikov Institute of Fine Art, Moscow after an initial grounding at the College of Art in New Delhi, Subba’s mastery of the visual codes of Soviet socialist realism were channelized into a more political, questioning attitude after a stint at the Slade School of Art in London in the 1990’s. With a long standing tradition of socialist sympathies, the intellectual atmosphere at the Slade encouraged him to push beyond the surface, in order to explore the complexities of social relations that were emerging on account of new developments in technology. The Installation form with its potential to create an immersive environment then became a significant way of registering his broader interests. Bringing together diverse elements such as the documentary fragment, the utopian imaginary, and the here and the now through the setting up of interactive encounters, Subba was able to create a polymorphous language that helped him to add complex layers of meaning to his work.
It might come as a surprise to many though that most of his work begins with the basic process of drawing. Sketchbooks in which he ideates form the spinal cord and the skeletal framework of his work, upon which he fleshes out the body of his concerns. Like verbal notes that serve as aide-memoires or prompts for future reference, the drawn from memory core image often germinates later and is expanded through the posed body , amplified further through optical accessories of camera lenses and projection devices. This multipart process of realizing the final image has a lot to do with the range of contexts within which images exist. A memory image, recalled from the recesses of the mind, and then scoured on to paper with a pencil for solitary contemplation is very different from the amplified image that is put out in to the public domain of the shared space. The large scale cut out portraits of the working class, or the larger than life, sculptural figurations that monumentalize the life of the ordinary citizen, more often than not, begin as a sketch from life. Unlike the obtrusive photographic lens, the sketch which requires a temporal engagement, results in a dialogic image whereby the act of representation becomes a shared visualization. Almost like a back and forth conversation through which the aware subject dictates in part, the outcome of the final image.
Consider for example the two hyper-real, cut out images of security guards Stop for Cheeking and The Best Signal. Both seem to be the very opposite of the body type that such a profession might require. Often recruited by agencies that profit from fear psychosis prevalent in urban environments, migrant workers are dressed up in “uniforms” in order to erase their individuality, thereby producing a prototype of “masculinity”. In Subba’s images though, the rhetorical brutality of the homogenizing dress is overturned and humanized by the slack bodies and outwardly visible expressions of boredom. Miss-spelt signboards and distracting sounds of music relayed over the air waves add a touch of the burlesque, disrupting the tyrannical protocols of surveillance mechanisms.
A hyper- real approach is used once again in two sculptural works that are aligned in a way that they appear to relate to each other. Citizen and Monument to Mother, one appearing as a sunken figure and the other as a pedestalized, elevated image, are premised on non-heroic body types. Emaciated skeletal frames that remain heroic on account of their ability to survive the ravages of a tough everyday existence, invert the allegorical renderings of heroic male figures that dot every public space, imitating the codes of monumental colonial period sculpture. The male figure here appears vulnerable as it appears to slowly sink into the ground, while the torso of an aging, armless woman is elevated upon a pedestal comprising of a heap of lifeless bodies. Here, Subba presents a representationalantinomy.Forwhatis elevated for public viewing is the failed enterprise of a state that invests too much in public symbols rather than transforming ground realities.
Manipulation of fear by state agencies has preoccupied Subba for quite some time and several other works in the exhibition touch upon repressive behaviour that is unleashed upon individuals by fascist forces. Within this context, the camera as many critics have pointed out has played a rather suspect role. Subba, aware of the violence of the history of photography and attentive to the “codes of transmission” that yield specific interpretations, uses the medium in a self-reflexive manner. Often scripting narratives to film using actors and friends, he at times also slips into the documentary mode as in the five-monitor video projection, Vox Populi where the protagonists narrate personal stories that intermingle with each other leaving no room for a linear and singular narrative.
On the other hand No Evil a black and white video is an enactment of violence using family members as actors/protagonists. The video stages a brutal encounter between two people, as if to suggest that the maxim of See no Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak no Evil is illogical and incomplete for it does not admonish against doing evil. This incomplete maxim, often held up as a bedrock of Gandhian thought is called into question as a way of suggesting that brutality exists in Gandhi’s land precisely because we have closed our senses to escalating instances of state sponsored authoritarianism.
It is difficult to pin down Subba’s work to any specific visual register for his paintings are informed by cinematic language and his experimental films and video works are informed by the language of painting. This process is made even more complex in his animation, Within Darkness, where the lexis of reception is a combination of the moving image on a flat screen and immobile monumental drawings. Enveloped from all side, the viewer is immersed in an environment of large scale, still figure drawings. On an iridescent screen inside, unfolds a hand drawn animation of a man tearing his chest apart to reveal his heart leading to his subsequent devastation. The face though is familiar for it is a self portrait of the artist himself. The screen is thus turned into a mirror; this mimicking of a reflective device effectively entangles representation with reflection, making room for an intriguing process of reception through recognition. Unlike a looped non-narrative video work which can be entered at any point in time, the fixed duration of a Nat King Cole song brackets and determines the temporality of the work , yet the drawings outside that are stylistically visually connected to the screened animation, work as independent monuments. Inviting a lingering look, the length of visual engagement is thus established by the viewer’s agency and not a predetermined length as in a film.
Subba’s work is located within a re- emerging critical context that turns its back on mere formalism and forces back into view the socio-political actions that shape our everyday relations. Posing uncomfortable questions about the public silence that envelops any discussion about class prejudices, the economic fallout of casualization of labour and the art world neglect of working-class narratives, he intersperses the documentary with personal reflections and private memories, underlining his own personal connection to this artistic project.
From the exhibition catalogue published by Anant Art Gallery (2009).