Sudarshan Shetty’s current studio is located in the vast attic of an aging school on a street like any other in the older parts of central Mumbai. A large window looks out upon the railway tracks to the west and the sunsets beyond them. The city rises up higher behind the tenements bordering the tracks, becoming a constellation of lights as the dark covers up the grit to cool the city with beguiling promises. To the east, a narrow lane buzzes with the quiet urban industry of comings and goings.
The studio is both, warehouse and workshop. The space along the walls and the corners is mostly filled with a large number of large and small toy-like objects. A couple of boats, a ‘broken-down’ table, a wooden horse, were once (or will at some time in the future be) ‘works of art’- for the moment they are ‘ordinary’ things, like actors out of character. The relaxed clutter of strange but familiar constructions along the center of the space is usually revealed as ongoing work. Ruins, then, on the one hand, and models, prototypes, exploratory contraptions on the other, but neither distinguishable from the other with any sense of finality.
A rich and fruitful sense of ambiguity has been one of the cornerstones of Sudarshan’s work. The one move common across his oeuvre, is the unexpected juxtaposition of familiar and everyday objects, images and events, which pushes the space of encounter into a productive zone of tantalizing uncertainty, or more precisely, of multivalence. This move connects the pink horse of Paper Moon (his first critically acclaimed exhibition held in Mumbai in 1995) whose back is also a landscape harbouring a hut, to the tongue swinging out of the horn of a gramophone, presented in ‘Consanguinity’ his latest solo exhibition (New Delhi, December 2003). Even the elements that constitute his constructs show continuities. The world of everyday contraptions, objects (especially those from middle class showcases, or shop-front show windows) and bodies, continues to be reconfigured from moment to moment in his work. The terms of this reconfiguration emerge from a particular attitude towards the simultaneous triumph and futility of everyday imagination and desire. After Bhupen Khakhar, it is understandable if the ‘eternal joy’ of the bouquet of plastic roses is seen to be as nourishing of the imagination as its fakery may be enervating.
Sudarshan’s works are resonant objects. They simultaneously embody the dread muteness of objects as well as the quirky eloquence of beings. They are shadow beings, and often, deftly exaggerated concretizations of the faces in the cloud. Sometimes, as inanimate objects, toys even, their mechanical animation hugs the edge between willfulness and mimesis. But something about them-maybe their uncanny, but obviously engineered mimicry of significant gestures- hints at sleeping ghosts of volition within.
Despite the energy of their internal dissonance, Sudarshan’s objects move quietly over the intentional plane. Over the years, as the material anchors of the conceptual spaces they point towards, they have tended to speak less and less of the artisanal pleasure in their crafting, without any weakening of the urgency of their claim on our attention. The polychrome kite-paper surfaces of ‘Paper Moon’, and the ‘paintedness’ of fiberglass figures in ‘Home’, maintained a tension between physical surface on the one hand, and the literal and conceptual substantiveness of the object and its referents, on the other. They led us into an engagement with the allure of the surface while also inviting our critical attention to that involvement itself. Though partly about the immediate reality of our delights and fantasies, it is now clear that works like these also kept a distance. The ends have been closing in on us ever since, with Tiger Lily, for instance, illuminating the frail grandeur of the body as well as of the dreams that self-love and lament bring to bear upon it. With Consanguinity, Sudarshan appears to be scrutinising the body (and what it means to beings like us) more frontally than ever before, while simultaneously leveraging the suddenly heightened eloquence of proxies like trumpets and gramophones.
Of course, ‘presence’, of mind and body (and therefore also of ‘thing’), has long been both, object and instrument of inquiry in Sudarshan’s work. Sudarshan’s oeuvre wrests a rich and wide space from the crack between subject and object. It hints at the possibility that this separation may well be an intellectual construct, a deceit even. The disturbing ambiguity of the object’s apparent volition restages what every nostalgic, every fantasist of the clouds, every child and philosopher knows well enough before she is disabused of the notion by analytical training: that we verily live in the objects around us, and they in us. The tolling bell, does not toll for us- it is us, or at least, one of us. In one sense, Sudarshan’s works help us restage in our consciousness a timeless phenomenon: the metabolism of mind that constantly prompts each of us to process societies of living and inanimate beings into our own peculiar lifeworlds. Parallelly, Sudarshan often engineers a face-off between human viewer and machine, making us introspect about the nature of subjecthood, by staging an exchange of beingly force between the human viewer and the watched object. If the groaning leg of the table feels ‘pain’, (from For Here or To Go, 2001, Fukuoka) is my own knee merely a mechanical joint groaning at unexpected friction? This rich confusion points to the ambiguousness of boundaries between mimesis and independent will or volition.
The principle of mimesis, has been a constant feature in Sudarshan’s work in other ways too. The consistent use of ‘replicas’ in his work, even where found objects themselves could have been used, is probably of some significance, in this context. Many of Sudarshan’s works, especially from Consanguinity, but also from Paper Moon onwards, deploy literal replicas of objects, bodies, body parts, and now in ‘Consanguinity’, fluids. A large number of his works, of course, employ significant distortions of scale which necessitate the use of replicas. There are also works like the pink horse from Paper Moon (1995), and Tiger Lily (1996), and ‘Home’ (1998) which turn upon animal and human figures, in which (apart from the practical complications involved) the use of ‘originals’ would hark at ends very different from those close to the artist.
Sudarshan takes significant risks by committing to mimesis, (rather than to only re- framing the found object to generate new associations), in proposing his protagonists. For instance there is the obvious risk of surreally transformed replicas lapsing into naïve drama or caricature. At the other extreme where literal representation may serve the cause of irony alone, there is the risk of a devaluation of the referent in the pursuit of an ironic stance. In fact, Sudarshan doesskateclose to either edge on different occasions. An example of the former occurs in Tiger Lily, in which the tilted mirror (upon which hovers a petite Narcissa) exaggerates perspectival foreshortening in its distorted shape. The caricature here is direct, and emphasizes the extra layer of distance that replicas introduce between the perceived sign and its referent. As elsewhere, the complementary whiff of an epic dimension introduced by another component, the mannequin (a literally false consciousness if there ever was one!), lonely, confused and ascendant at the same time, bequeaths a different weight to the otherwise ‘frivolous’ distortion of the mirror shape. On the other hand, in a work presented in Fukuoka, Japan in 2001, Sudarshan plays with the danger of ceding the ‘weight’ of the represented object to the heavy hand of ironic comment. A spread of black heart-shaped balloons covering a wall opposite an open rack containing the remains of the artist’s workday, pushes the envelope of obviousness in caricature- that of Valentine’s Day decorations in retail stores- but redeems a deeper vision with the inscription in their midst, which says- everything is going to be alright (2000, Seoul). The general gestural restraint of the work (except for the deceptively ‘simplistic’ irony of black hearts), as well as the clear critique of over-advertised distortions of reality, could easily have consigned the work to the banality of ‘social comment’ alone. It is only the real sense of monumentality that Sudarshan imbues the frivolous gaggle of ‘hearts’ with, that tightens the experiential tension by momentarily confusing our sense of whose side the artist is on.
This faith in the capacity of simulacra to be real, and the determination to construct a formidable space of signification with a society of stand-ins, is clearly linked to an implicit critique of established notions of imagination and creativity. This automatically involves an address to the idea of authenticity, a principle that governs the transition of products of the imagination into the ‘real’ world of the market. This understated theoretical dimension of his work, places Sudarshan squarely in an established tradition, that of the angular look at the status of the art (and also, therefore, the non-art) object. Within that tradition, Sudarshan’s special project, however, is to take the bauble, and pass it off convincingly in the implosive narrative of a work, as the gem it really is. The wit of the associations that make up this narrative, outrageous and apt at the same time, helps relieve the work of the tedious responsibility of succeeding completely at subterfuge. By honestly declaring their ‘reality’ as replicas, his works leads us to puzzle over our surrender to a space of allusion, we ourselves are revealed to have created out of the ‘realities’ they embody. By this time, we have woken up and smelt the bouquet of plastic roses.
‘Consanguinity’, simultaneously extends and contravenes some of these more established modes of formulation that hold together Sudarshan’s oeuvre. I personally believe that it is his most intense formulation yet, in a certain manner of speaking. It begins by interrogating the ‘distance’ his objects usually interpose between themselves and their referents through the ambiguousness of their reality. That distance, we realize, provides the backing up space necessary to be able to view the diverse associations the objects set off, from different angles. Consanguinity offers a new directness in representing components of works, while preserving a measured ambiguity at the level of the associations they set off. Sudarshan is used to speaking of the body through the object and machine, while simultaneously playing with the distance that such metaphorisation institutes. Here, he complicates his strategy of mimesis and indirect address, by introducing a new and self-contradictory directness. He comes close, but not quite, to erasing that critical distance between stand-in and the real thing. Here, ‘Blood’ is blood, water is water, and the trumpet is a trumpet (though it is also a species of ‘intestine’). By contrast, the cow and baby in ‘Home’, the mannequin in Tiger Lily, the pink horse, or even the caricatured cabinet from Paper Moon, secured their reflexivity by inflecting and re-staging real world objects. In comparison to Consanguinity then, quite unexpectedly, his earlier work appears much quieter, more oblique, almost ‘cool’.
The direct referentiality of dripping red liquid, long ‘tongues’ and pickled ‘eyeballs’ could have easily lapsed into sentimentality. And yet, in actual experience, the directness of reference only intensifies experience, by bringing every event closer to us, to our bodies; so close in fact that one is amazed that any distance for reflection remains at all. For such distance is still preserved, with the gift of sharp wit that is the hinge upon which the reflexivity of the works turns. Take for instance the array of scissors underwater in the bathtub. The sudden clatter of their coordinated snipping (at what?!) set off by a sensor which activates the mechanism as soon as anyone comes close, enacts a possibly fearsome alligator dance, made fascinating by the rhythmic beauty of its movement, and ‘safe’ by its literal subliminality. In the time we spend before the work, a variety of possibilities- the threat to vanished or expected bathers, the ever pervasive menace of inanimate machines, the line of ballet dancers- have passed behind our minds, while out there, we chuckle at how deep the stab of ‘mere’ fantasy sometimes pushes.
A similarly reflexive wit governs the simultaneous invocation of mortality and desire, in what I can only call the cello-boat. Here the fleshly pink depths of the boat and the aborted lyricism of the groaning violin-dance upon it, speak of sensuality and ungainliness as being twinned in sight and action, and hint at a necessary reconciliation between dreams of graceful hedonism and the reality of arthritis. It is, finally, the sense of dread that subtle intimations of the machine’s mortality evoke in Sudarshan’s work that provides the ballast to what could have been merely playful explorations into embodiments. That sense of dread evokes the feeling that all this matters.
It should be obvious by now that Sudarshan’s works set up a particular conceptual space that is organized around a circuit of deferrals and deflections of the probing and reflective gaze. They evoke images of great immediacy, but defer closure on what promise may be read into them. That deferral is complicated by the continuous deflections at the intentional plane. For instance, the indirect address to the body that the bleeding trumpet offers, is itself a second order deferral. The body is not the terminus of the route to significance here. It is revealed, instead, to have been a proxy for the phenomenon of ‘being’. Our empathy for the bleeding trumpet isfoundedupon twin footings- one, the visibly mechanical fluid circulation system within which the trumpet performs an impersonal ‘digestive’ function, and the objective distance this reading sets up between us and the object; and two, the direct sense of identification that the sight of ‘blood’ automatically sets up, which disturbs the objective distance. Given that the phenomena of distance and identification, are part of ‘beingly’ experience, the absorbing ambiguity of the trumpet-intestine is seen to resonate with a level of import beyond the fate of the body it appeared to refer to.
Sudarshan’s works are thus sometimes revealed as being Trojan horses, inveigling themselves quickly into our consciousness with their direct sensory appeal. They almost always offer images and experiences, that are genuinely arresting in themselves. And yet, the pleasure of our surrender to their charms (and horrors), is soon forced to turn upon itself. In a work like ‘Six Ways to Embalm Your Dead’ (1998), for instance, the blazing pinkness of the rexine shirts takes the breath away at first, and we never really outgrow the claim of that fluorescence. The precisely crafted visual shock is almost enough, till suddenly, the intensity of the aesthetic experience itself becomes the newer object of critical attention.
The deeper space of significance that Sudarshan’s work opens up, thus, is not the space of ready theoretical critiques. It is rather the force field of elusive irony, in which the very vividness of an experience raises a flag for the critical viewer. The giant black hearts provide a contradictory experience of delight in the perverse monumentality of the balloons, and dread at their demonstrable capacity to blitz the greyness of reality with their dramatic triviality. The ‘critique’, here, is not something that the experience ‘leads to’ and is thus difficult to retell through language without loss of defining nuance. It must be mined, and may well be delivered in a peculiar amalgam of comment and experience (each undercutting the other), which sustains a peculiar tension between word and image. That tension is a blessing. It is a sign that we still have modes (and the practitioners) of concretizing a significant response to life that the all powerful word has difficulty reframing, repackaging (and thereby reducing) to fit its own special banality.
Sudarshan’s works continue to be staged in that space of the imagination in which, the everyday world is both site and resource for the building of significance in our lives. He works with and thereby illuminates the potentially infinite inward resonances that we can access in real-world objects as well as in their imitations that line middle-class cabinets of stunted curiosities. In that it is a poetic quest. These objects- the mere scaffolding of our everyday routines - are revealed in his work to be the very structural frame upon which may be developed a life-nourishing practice of the imagination. It may be argued that such a practice is not the privilege of the artist alone. In the world outside the studio- on the street or in the kitchen- the company of tools and the society of objects is the nourishing matrix of everyday lives. This profound realization of the existential import of banality, and the very rich imaginative superstructures he is able to build upon it, give to Sudarshan’s work the resonance and endurance only possessed by the richest of fairy tales.
June 2, 2004