Absence is a thing, all of its own. It is not the negation of presence, however understood. But if absence has being, what are its forms? A feeling of 'being elsewhere,' Shetty says, gives shape to absence. Mesmerizing movement, as a suit dips in and out of a tank, its owner is away, perhaps no more of this world. In the stark lights of an empty gallery, a movement that attempts to calibrate absence with mechanical precision disrupts the gallery's morgue-like atmosphere. The sound, at first unobtrusive, becomes deafening as people gather to watch in silence. Alternating between visibility and opacity, the suit's movement opens a terrain for the senses to experience absence. Is absence that alternation between visibility and opacity? That point at which the tyranny of the visible becomes intolerable to the other senses? Or is it the recollection of loss, the object's emptiness and hollowness that gives absence a formal being? The object is a prosthesis - a thing that dissolves the boundaries between world, representation and author. Absence acquires a being in that dissolution. The being of absence is a being elsewhere. The subject is always elsewhere.
Shetty is best known for his enigmatic sculptural installations and multi-media works. Switching from painting to installation early on in his career, he was among the first in his generation of Indian artists to pursue an innovative path, making hybrid devices that demand interaction. Working with the mechanical animation of objects and the philosophical implications of the quest for mechanical life, Shetty keeps drawing on a terrain that centres on the social life of things and their capacities to offer new kinds of subjective experience.
Shetty's objects develop around a rigorous grammar of materials, mechanical exposure and juxtaposition, producing a distinct object language. These artistic interventions consistently play with scale, multiplicity and mechanization. The work engages what the artist refers to as a 'memory at large', playing on the spectator's encounters with the everyday world of street and home as his installations often incorporate everyday objects, machine parts and ready-mades, placing them in tableaux that highlight unlikely juxtapositions. His focus on movement specifically is a good example of his fundamental interest in the processes of transformation rather than in the finished work of art.
But the object language thus developed through practice eschews simple and straightforward devices of narrative and explicit symbolism. While inviting the viewer into an uncanny universe, this language also puzzles the viewer by embedding contradiction in the forms themselves. The moving object enchants, it appears magical and yet is deliberately confrontational because its low-tech, DIY (do it yourself) mechanics are fully exposed to the viewer. Repetitive motions hypnotize but equally lead to exhaustion. This playful and exhausting parody of a natural order of things and humans through the manipulation of scale, multiplicity and repetition is the key to the artist's language and practice. Through enchantment, wonder and even revulsion and exhaustion, Shetty's work draws the viewer towards a charged emotional experience.
The focus on this kind of mechanical and materialist experimentation raises the larger metaphysical question of whether or not the specificity of human presence and gesture can be represented through the world of objects. Humans are only intermittently present, moving in and out of a space of interaction, simultaneously occupying the roles of viewers, spectators, subjects and agents. In the fundamentally theatrical space of the artist's oeuvre, the spectator works hard to address the impulses buried within the objects. For the works are themselves deliberately opaque and obscure about what they wish to convey or illustrate.
The body is an empty vessel, filled by the soul. When the soul leaves the body, it is empty once again. But the vessel itself does not remain. It is destroyed, discarded to begin anew. Emptying out before destruction, water flowing out of the pot. A pot tips itself over, repeatedly. But the vessel is already empty. A futile gesture, a prosthetic surrogate for the final act performed ritually by the son as he circles the father's funeral pyre. Acts and objects, standing in for each other - the body fragmented into gestures and textures proliferates through the object, an actant in its own right. The being of emptiness is the futile being of an absent body, a body discarded and destroyed.
Given his preoccupation with formal choices and objects as language, it is difficult to place Shetty's work within a critical frame based on complicity between artist and viewer over modes of framing, viewing and political positioning. Shetty's objects offer no familiar narratives or easy angles of entry. His strategies are deliberately confrontational and question rather than (re)produce a known location from which they arise. The dissolution of the boundary between the world, its representation and the author of those representations ensures the production of strong, metonymic connections between the objects and their significations. Meaning is not metaphoric, it is existential. Drawing on a world of shared meaning, the object/assemblage materially incorporates and disperses those meanings into the realm of the viewer's experience. This concern with what Jacques Ranciere calls 'the terrain of the sensible' as a surface upon which unpredictable affect is produced also renounces the authority of the imposed message, the target audience, and the univocal mode of explicating the world...' (Ranciere). An unpredictable, affective, viewing experience displaces the fundamental and desired predictability of cultural meaning. If the ethnographic account aims to persuade the viewer of the self-evidence of location, Shetty's understanding of location is tied to a residual, corporeal zone of memory and the kind of interaction that his objects demand from the spectator ensures that location is anything but self-evident. But in order to enter into this residual physical zone of memory, one must contend with the absence of narrative itself, with the silence of memory rather than counting on its illustrative abundance or its powers of fabrication.
'What landscape can we describe as the meeting place between artistic and political practice? ...[A]n artistic intervention can be political by modifying the visible, the ways of perceiving it and expressing it, of experiencing it as tolerable or intolerable... We must examine the very terrain of the sensible on which artistic gestures shake up our modes of perception and on which political gestures redefine ourcapacitiesfor action...' - Jacques Ranciere
A hollow body within a hollow box invites the question: what is encased? The seeing dogs are objects of our gaze, and we of theirs. Furthermore, our images, recorded by their sweeping gaze, are projected and thus turned away from their sources. In this literal sense we are perverted - turned away from ourselves as sources of our own identity. A double gaze invites a battle with the self as an object of surveillance, caricature and projection. As Ranciere puts it, the artistic intervention shakes up our modes of perception but specifically on the terrain of the sensible and defines our capacities for action.
Memory at large
In attempting to situate Shetty's work within the broader framework of contemporary art practice, I suggest that the aspects that are most salient in his work are precisely those that are most elusive. His practice eschews illustration and it refuses interpretation in favour of experience. It is, in other words, a deeply phenomenological practice. Yet the imaginative aspect of phenomenological hermeneutics remains powerfully anchored in the residual physical traces of everyday life. These very physical traces, whether in the form of ordinary domestic items or commodities that one can purchase in the street markets of Mumbai, or images that are readily available in popular media, form the substance of what Shetty calls 'memory at large.'
In his works, circulations without bodies and transformations from the natural to the artificial invoke and activate a spectatorial imaginary, one that is always present but only at the edges of consciousness. But this activation is always closely connected to the artistic interest in affect. Mimicking the circulation of things in the world, aesthetic appropriation -as gigantic or miniature objects, as souvenir like multiple editions, seeks constantly to transcend and to annihilate the boundary between inside and outside, to substitute icon and thing for organic connection and to put it in the place of inner experience, affect, sentiment and feeling. Within Shetty's visual aesthetic system, these images, icons and things function as hinges between the natural and the non-natural, the animate and the differently animate, and the cultural and the commercial. These dualities are themselves artefacts of the continuous articulation of the body, technology and subjectivity in the encounter between subjects and objects in the world at large. But does this articulation of body, technology and subjectivity ultimately rest within a space of absence that the viewing subject seeks to fill from the edges of consciousness, an archive filled with images and encounters? In the artist's understanding, this archive or 'memory at large' is neither a substantive entity that exists a priori, waiting to be accessed, nor does it exist outside social experience itself.
Archive - The history of loss
The date corresponds to the point at which that particular dynamism found its purest incarnation in matter, the point at which it was freest from interference from other modes and rose to its highest degree of intensity.' - Brian Massumi
If memory is 'loomed for us by forgetting' as Walter Benjamin says, then what is the work of the archive? If memory is not ephemeral or invisible but is 'virtual coexistence', as Gilles Deleuze puts it, then how does it exist? How is existence connected to loss? As exterior to a hollow interior, distinct and separated entities? Or as corpse to cold flesh, inextricably bound together? An experiment in reversibility may suggest a way. A collection of automobile models, lovingly destroyed, invokes a sequence through a string of dates. A collection of 'dynamisms' finding 'purest incarnation in matter.' In the catastrophic accident, destruction is progressive through time. The accident - its being in flesh - moves through time in a linear fashion, its effects irreversible. Yet the archive, the collection of evidence with its specific dates, tells a different story. Each case in the sequence tells a story not quite connected to the next in the sequence. Apparently reversible, the accident's effects are nevertheless given flesh by a date. The battered body becomes co-existent, in our space and of our time. But the body's reversibility confuses that system of dated, linear time. The artifice of representation steers you away from the reality of the accident. But what remains is the existence, the being of loss.
From the exhibition catalogue published by Gem Museum for Contemporary Art (2009).