Artists

... a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.

- Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Telling Lies

Willing Suspension, the title of Tushar Joag’s first solo exhibition, refers to the condition for aesthetic experience in poetic work as formulated by Coleridge nearly two centuries ago. In this essay, I want to examine the implications of Joag’s work as an artist and activist under the rubric of truth, lies, and faith. Coleridge was conscious of the status of art objects (poetry in his case), as “shadows of imagination”, or by legalistic definition, as lies. The experience of artistic truth was dependent on an exercise of poetic faith on part of the viewer, who would understand that the “semblance of truth” represented in these shadowy manifestations of imagination would signal the existence of other realities.

For the work of art to “work”, the audience must willingly suspend its disbelief in the fictitious nature of events, personae or emotions being represented. This voluntary renunciation of the faculty of reason, scepticism and realism, is a necessary attribute of the sympathetic viewer. Coleridge’s pronouncement that the task of the writer was to coax from the reader this momentary abdication of reason, was to become a motto for Romanticism, making poetic license the realm and privilege of the artist’s engagement with the other-worldly, the sublime, the grotesque and the bizarre. The artist’s ability, and indeed right, to concoct situations that exceed the reality-test of reason is what Joag seems to refer to in the title to his exhibition.

Of course, Joag is a creature of the present moment, and not one particularly given to other-worldliness. He does however demand of his viewer, a serious consideration of his productions as real-world solutions to urban problems in the Third World metropolis of Bombay/Mumbai. His Commuter Attachment System and choreographic patterns for riding Bombay’s hopelessly overcrowded suburban trains (locals as they are called) are presented as production prototypes that could presumably be mass manufactured to the benefit of the city’s several million daily commuters. At first glance, they are not other-worldly, sublime, grotesque or bizarre. Well, maybe they are a bit bizarre, but then, isn’t Peter Parker a freak? [1]

Addressing in mock-earnestness the problem of Bombay’s hopelessly overcrowded local (suburban) trains, Joag has devised a number of “attachments” to aid the limpet-like clinging that characterises the experience of rush-hour travel in the city. The promise of simplifying the daily challenge of catching the train made by these vacuum-operated hold-on devices is not so much that of comfort or safety, but of a more effective utilisation the footboards and outer walls of speeding trains to get to work on time. And just in case you are in doubt, the gallery display included a “working model” of the side of a second-class carriage on the Western Railway, complete with inset illustrations clarifying the workings of these arcane implements.

Having thus tackled the problem of holding fast on the exterior, Joag also offers useful advice for those who manage to get into the train. This comes in the form of the Locomotion Course drawing suite, specifying the choreography to be followed for an optimum entry and exit experience in conditions of extreme proximity with fellow travellers. These drawings are backed up by diagrams on the UNICELL website which answer the all-important question: which side will my station be on? Presumably these diagrams could be mass-produced as stickers to feature above the door in train carriages.

Joag’s solutions are manifestly over-the-top, mocking and ironic. As production prototypes, they are clever fakes: they may seem workable, but no commercial enterprise would seriously consider them viable. The solutions they represent are at best stopgap. Despite their cleverness, the devices presented in the form of the Commuter Attachment System, or the patterns of movement described as the Locomotion Course, are patently bogus and overblown solutions though they seemingly alleviate very real and familiar problems. In this, Joag mobilizes the highly charged literary strategies of atishayokti (hyperbole, exaggeration) and vidambana (criticism through mocking humour) that are part of the critical inheritance of literary theory in Sanskrit and related languages in several parts of India, including his native Maharashtra. Again, as in the case of poetic or theatrical work, Joag’s interventions are perhaps best understood as lies that the viewer is encouraged to consider truthful even if for a brief moment. The viewer’s recognition of the lie is at the same time, a reckoning with the truth of the problem the artist wants to highlight.

The artist as social engineer

The Willing Suspension exhibition came out of a larger project Joag is currently engaged with. In 2004, he invented UNICELL Public Works Cell, a fictitious, web-based corporate persona (). As its name indicates, UNICELL is a mono-cellular, “single desk”, mock-governmental entity based on the Public Works Department. UNICELL defines itself as “a single person organization (that enters into collaborations when necessary)” with the slightly dubious objective of inserting “aesthetics in social and political arena.” [2] With his varied positions in UNICELL’s organisational set up (CEO, Creative Divisional Manager, Production Cell Supervisor, and Installations In-charge) Joag presents himself in the several roles of the faceless bureaucrat or technocrat.

One of UNICELL’s projects literally appropriated a modality of the PWD, serving several thousand “eviction notices”-to apartment dwellers and businesses starting in Goregaon (the densely populated north-western suburb where Joag lives) and moving southwards into the business districts and premium residential and shopping enclaves of South Bombay. The letters were sent out as part of a “Mumbai Makeover project costing Rs. 36,600 crore” which envisaged rebadging the city as the “Venice of the East”. [3] A network of canals would replace congested arterial roads, and add romance to the image of the city. The letters were sent to addresses where buildings would have to be demolished to make way for canals. Interestingly, this far-fetched scheme would add Bombay’s name to a long list of Asian cities which share the dubious distinction of having been called “Venice of the East” at some point in history. (A casual web-search will reveal that Alleppey, Bangkok, Basra, Lijiang, Udaipur and several other places have been called or have claimed, this appellation.) The reactions of the largely affluent section of thepopulation targeted for thisproject ranged from the bemused and concerned to the vitriolic, and make for interesting reading on the UNICELL website.

UNICELL presumably wanted this part of the population to either experience the fear and uncertainty that comes with an eviction notice, or to empathise with those many thousand faceless slum dwellers whose homes have been demolished in an attempt to create a smoother transport infrastructure, therefore boosting productivity and making for a more attractive investment climate. For Joag and several other colleagues of his generation who came to adulthood during the late 1980s and early 1990s, the experience of political engagement has been defined first by rampant forces of free market capitalism, and then by the fear and paranoia of sectarian violence within India and the “war on terror” internationally.

The goal of social transformation through infrastructural adjustment has been part of Indian state policy since Independence. Founded on faith in the ideal of progress, successive generations of political and administrative leaders have designed and implemented strategies for the greater common good, even though the human cost has at times been severe. [4] Varieties of social engineering with different degrees of compulsion have been the primary task of the nation state in the developing world. The long-cherished ideal of social engineering is based on faith in an essentially benevolent state apparatus that performs its actions not for the sake of power or to benefit those already privileged, but the betterment of all of its citizens. Specifically in terms of Third World politics, the nation-state undertakes these operations on behalf of the least empowered among the population as an antidote to social Darwinism.

With UNICELL Public Works Cell, Joag pretends to appropriate the functions of social engineering in the context of the post-globalisation metropolis of Bombay/Mumbai. Joag describes the works presented in the Willing Suspension exhibition as artistic renditions of prototypes from the UNICELL production line. This kind of manoeuvre of course involves a split persona, a double (and doubly sharp) awareness of belonging at once to the seemingly disparate worlds of art practice and social praxis. In all this, there is the perhaps vain and contrarian search for Utopia. Joag has written of this search:

UNICELL and Utopia

UNICELL is a project that seeks solutions and creates strategies to negotiate the arduous existence within a metropolis such as Bombay. The devices UNICELL proposes are in no way serious solutions to the urban situations. UNICELL is in fact quasi - utopian and carries within it a tautological reference to the problem rather than a solution to it. It is like telling a lie to cover up a lie. UNICELL is more about mitigation rather than the aggressive effort to bring about a change in the society- like the packing one puts under a table leg to stop it from rocking and spilling your coffee.

Though Utopia remains somewhere in the background of the whole endeavor it remains a malfunctioning effort. [5]

Joag is careful to point out that his intended audience consists of people like him in class terms: those with a certain education and access to the Internet; those who lead relatively comfortable lives, and stand most to benefit from the operations of free market capitalism. Blowing up the pervasive complacency of this class in the manner of an ideological saboteur, he hopes to “subtly aid a ferment that will help to blow the cork off the bottle.” [6]

Playing Games in a city on the move

Bombay/Mumbai is the city of commuters. Many lakhs of its inhabitants make the daily trek south to the central business district along what have remained essentially linear, north-south corridors of transit, despite occasional attempts by civic and planning authorities to create alternative centres of commerce. Recent policy statements have sought to remodel the city in keeping with the growing confidence and ambitions of the nation-state and its corporate citizens. There is talk of emulating the economic miracle of Shanghai, of urban metamorphosis that positions the city as a desirable investment destination and an inviting business environment. Transport infrastructure is naturally a priority with all of these plans, and not one limited to the city of Bombay. The Government of India has instituted an ambitious plan to link the nation’s four major metros with a multi-lane high-speed highway system. The “golden quadrilateral” is set to change geometries of life in large swathes of rural India, bringing it into ever-closer integration with the metropolises. New opportunities for business and speculative investment in real estate are springing up along the route. [7] Elsewhere in India, Delhi has its metro, the centrepiece of a makeover that will culminate in the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Flyovers are everywhere, roads leaping blithely over each other, and over dusty roads that still comprise the majority of the city’s transport infrastructure. The metro is said to be transforming the urban fabric and demographics of the new and the old cities of Delhi, and melding an accumulation of villages into an increasingly ambitious and confident metropolis. Tushar Joag is not only a resident of this urban landscape in transition, but a product of it. Over the last decade, his work has sought to occupy urban space in opportunistic manifestations, or else to distil that space into concoctions that may seem to answer reality-based expectations, only to deny them altogether and expose instead, an underlying substance in the manner of an excavator digging up old remains, a conjurer parting the curtain or indeed, an analyst making space for the subject to speak the forbidden and thereby exorcise it.

Joag’s first major installation-environment was realised in 1997 in collaboration with his long-time friend and colleague Kausik Mukhopadhyay. Collaborative Space presented a subterranean zone of fantasy, fetishism and denied promises in the basement parking lot of the Y. B. Chavan Pratishthan, an auditorium near the hub of the government of Maharashtra in South Bombay. Joag and Mukhopadhyay constructed an underground wonderland where the visitor was seemingly set free to explore chambers of secrets and corridors where the standards and morality of conservative middle-class society could be blocked out or set aside. Using theatrical devices such as screens, sets and dramatic lighting, the artists sought to create an inverted universe of subterfuge that critiqued the structure of desires and constructed needs that the market economy prospers on. Mukhopadhyay contributed shelves full of objects fashioned from urban detritus, primarily of a domestic nature. His fetishistic objects presented strange and sometimes lewd combinations of discarded kitchenappliances, utensils and electrical goods.Joag’s work took the form of a labyrinth at the back of Mukhopadhyay’s shop-frontage. Venturing into these dimly lit corridors, the visitor would find suits made of latex and other materials hanging from the ceiling, at once apparitional and cadaver-like. When worn, these would transform the wearer’s appearance into that of a hyperreal object of desire such as superhero, angel or supermodel. From this relatively early point in his artistic career, Joag has been playing with acts of veiling and exposure, of make believe and fetishistic transmogrification that often figure at the end of a search or task. In a psychoanalytical sense, these games of cloaking, disclosure and confession open up another rich vein for enquiry-the artist starts showing, revealing something to the viewer. This something is an uncertain object: even though its precise origins may be clear (the Superman comic or the ramp-walking fashion model). It is uncertain in its intentions, and its acceptance in public probity is occluded (Superman ducks out of view to reveal his body-hugging costume, we duck into the labyrinth to put the Superman costume on). Putting this garb on is tantamount to joining with the artist in a fantastic game of veiling and disclosure, and joining with all the others who have tried it on in a peculiarly intimate sharing.

In one sense, Collaborative Space presented a version of reality rendered in the intellectual space of the game of chance and skill. The dominant contemporary avatar of such games is the 3-D animation on a computer screen where the player assumes another identity within a fantasy realm and goes on to perform tasks and feats in pursuit of prizes (including extended lives). Another way to interpret the game of chance and skill in the contemporary context is to see it as analogous to the market economy in which the citizen routinely plays the roles of producer, employee, consumer, and so forth in pursuit of riches, happiness or just plain survival. Joag and Mukhopadhyay’s 1997 collaboration sought to subject visitors to seemingly mundane and everyday objects and images (at least to the extent that the mass media renders superheroes and angels into everyday sights). The subsequent work of both artists has insistently engaged with game spaces, role-playing and an ironic critique of consumer society.

Another work of Joag’s that elucidates this point was Big Apple Shooting Gallery (2003), where the format of the arcade/computer game was directly utilised. Visitors could sit inside a miniature aircraft and attempt to shoot down King Kong-like monsters invading the city. The imagery derived from Joag’s drawings where the city was both contemporary Bombay and post-9/11 New York. Again, the theme of the quest and of transformation into fetishised, superhuman, unnatural and freakish personae-Batman and King Kong in this case-was an underlying narrative. Significantly, Big Apple Shooting Gallery was the first one-off, “unique” gallery-based object that Joag produced after his traumatised decision to abandon art practice altogether.

With Looking for Flora executed in January 2005, Joag/UNICELL start their unstable relationship with the monuments and edifices that mark the city. Flora Fountain, a colonial landmark sculpted in imported Portland stone in 1864, was replicated in set builders’ materials (with the assistance of Ashrafilal Tanti and Baban Adagale). The figure of Flora at the top of the monument was absent in the replica, as though to suggest both a search for the goddess of flowers, and the impending replacement of this (and other) colonial monuments with those of Maharashtrian Hindu chauvinism. The replica of the base of Flora Fountain was made in pieces that could be easily knocked down and reassembled in true DIY fashion. With the aid of a hired truck, this chimeric replica made enigmatic appearances in several locations in the city for brief periods of time, establishing itself in public places through unofficial “negotiations” with police and other authorities. In the course of one night, this phantom was briefly glimpsed outside a shopping mall in Goregaon, opposite the equestrian statue of the seventeenth century Maratha warrior Shivaji at Shivaji Park in Dadar, on the seaface at Haji Ali, at the Chowpatty beach in Girgaum and finally ending up in the middle of the Kala Ghoda carpark in the city’s cultural precinct, as if to take the place of earlier statues-one of King Edward VII, and another of Shivaji himself-which have previously occupied this space. [8] Flora’s transit through the nightscape of Bombay presented something akin to an icon blinking in and out of existence on a game screen, or a phantasmic manifestation of the desire for place being enacted under the artificial sunlight of sodium vapour lamps.

Willing Suspension

This essay has been written in response to Tushar Joag’s career as an artist and activist. It has sought to situate his uneasy engagements with these two roles alongside recent transformations in India’s economic and political environment. Over a decade-long career that has frequently seen changes in his personal position, Joag has held a sometimes-uneasy dialogue between the position of artist and that of activist. As he says in his statement reproduced in this catalogue, he underwent a dramatic loss of faith in the activity of making art in 1999-2000, subsequently destroying all of his extant work. For five years, Joag worked in a collaborative mode with other artists and activists through the forum of Open Circle, an artist-led initiative he helped found in 1998. His work as part of Open Circle has led to contact with a network of international artists and activists working on the fringes of mainstream politics. UNICELL seems to have made possible for Joag a merger between his own artistic leanings and the demands of activist and political practice. This is at best an uneasy union, for the demands of poetic license do not easily match those of political veracity. A willing suspension is again necessary, this time on part of Joag: the artist must willingly suspend his disbelief in the often reductive and blunt nature of political pronouncements in order to essay the role of the activist. The activist must similarly suspend disbelief in the insufficiency of art in order to engage with the aesthetic dimensions materials, techniques, imagery and the pleasure of making. This discomfort has resulted in Joag coming to admit the limits of art practice, while holding on to the critical and interrogative potential that it proffers:

… art cannot on it's own bring about societal changes-not without a political revolution-but an atmosphere conducive to such a political revolution can only be created by the questions that are raised in the ideological /cultural sphere. Art is responsible for maintaining culturalcontinuity as well as providing ruptures that bring afresh outlook through its questioning of the present. [9]

This is the position that Joag leaves us in. Creating ruptures on the skin of glib policy pronouncements through overblown and exaggerated devices, making temporary interventions in the public environment, maintaining a rapport with larger ideological and political struggles such as the Narmada Bachao Andolan: these seem to remain (the only) viable options. The Willing Suspension exhibition as well as other UNICELL projects are not only deeply flawed, they upfront their flaws and insufficiencies. In the process, they implicate a sense of hopelessness, apathy and frustration that comes with extreme atomisation in the face of overweening power. Perhaps also, it is this frustration that provides a platform for empathy between the artist and his several publics.

Notes

[1] For those who came in late: see http://www.marveldirectory.com/individuals/s/spiderman.htm

[2] http://www.unicellpwc.org/draft-p-unicell.htm

[3] http://www.unicellpwc.org/venice.htm

[4] Readers will be familiar with Arundhati Roy’s much-cited essay of this title. It is significant that one of the major contemporary issues that Joag has addressed through Open Circle as well as UNICELL is that of the Narmada dam project and the mass submergence and dislocation among Adivasi and rural communities that has resulted from it.

[5] UNICELL website:

[6] Tushar Joag, email communication with the author, 12 April 2006.

[7] International Herald Tribune, 4 December 2005.

[8] Equestrian statues of great men, warriors and kings have played a role in urban histories since the first such statue of Emperor Marcus Aurelius was erected in Rome during the second century CE. Like all didactic public sculpture, these statues are designed to represent valour and the virtues of benevolent power, and function as machines that help ensure public obedience and cohesion. In this sense, they are the predecessors of the Orwellian Big Brother figure watching over the citizen from on high. A number of Indian cities saw the erection of such bronze behemoths during colonial times, with Indian princes eagerly appropriating this imported technology of propaganda. After Independence, the state of Maharashtra has seen the manufacture of superhuman greatness in the figure of Shivaji Bhonsale (1630-1680). His guerrilla-style resistance against the Mughal empire has made him an apt candidate for apotheosis on part of the militant Hindu Right, especially the Shiv Sena party. The replacement of Edward VII’s statue with that of Shivaji is part of a larger programme of renaming monuments (including the fabulous neo-Gothic Victoria Terminus, and Bombay’s Sahar airport) in his name.

[9] UNICELL website, op. cit.
From the exhibition catalogue published by Gallery Chemould (2006).
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