Artists

Hesitant Attempt presented a picture in precariousness. It depicted Icarus, the figure from Greek mythology, who famously disregarded the advice of his father and flew too close to the sun with wings made of feathers and wax. Unlike the mythical figure, who plunged to his death when his wings melted, Gigi Scaria’s bronze Icarus was still poised on the brink. But imminent collapse appeared to be written into the script as he stood atop a teetering pillar of houses and logs of wood, an arm outstretched to reach a goal that seemed just beyond his reach. The work could be read as a metaphor of humankind’s utter disregard for the price to be paid in its relentless pursuit of “progress.” In this tale of human hubris, the rampant exploitation of natural resources and the displacement of natural jungles by urban ones-as represented by Scaria’s trademark buildings-could only lead to unstable times. The portents are already there, with the swirling winds of climate change bringing in their wake drought, floods, landslides and devastating fires the world over. This bronze sculpture also recalled an earlier photographic work by the artist titled Look up, Look down, which highlighted the degradation of natural resources and interrogated our notions of progress. His photograph depicted an installation, in which a house was perched at one end of a wooden log, while a mountain occupied the other end. Maintaining a delicate equilibrium was tricky as the work had so eloquently pointed out.

An Icarus-like figure, albeit with only one wing strapped to his arm, also staged an appearance in Human Pull. Here he stood firmly on the shoulders of one of the young men who made up a human pyramid. Though appearing more stable than Hesitant Attempt, there was an element of fragility that underpinned the structure with its dramatis personae still to get into their final positions. While the sculpture recalled sports persons gearing up for a display of acrobatic prowess, the work was also evocative of pyramidal structures of power in organisations or the show of strength by shakhas, with their figures in khaki shorts. The work also threw the frailties of the human body into sharp relief-one false step could bring the entire structure tumbling down-while underlining the adage that pride often comes before a fall.

Hesitant Attempt and Human Pull were part of Gigi Scaria’s show mounted at Delhi’s Vadehra Art Gallery from the 1st till the 24th of November. Titled ECCE HOMO Behold the man or how one become what one is, the exhibition drew from philosopher Nietzsche’s seminal text Ecce Homo: How to Become What One Is. The last book written by the German philosopher before his descent into insanity, it has chapters ironically titled “Why I Am So Wise” and “Why I Am So Clever.” The last chapter of this provocative autobiography bears the title “Why I Am a Destiny” and interrogates Christianity and its decadence. The show was also evocative of historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari’s words in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, “How do you cause people to believe in an imagined order such as Christianity, democracy or capitalism? First, you never admit that the order is imagined.” [1]

An exercise in futility and failure was on display in the video installation Climb. It consisted of five photographic frames hung on the wall and placed on a table. It depicted a man trying to shin up a rope and was reminiscent of men clambering up coconut trees in South India. Only here the protagonist attempted to escape from his surroundings, some of which recalled the confines of a jail with its high wall and barbed wire. In the endless video loops the figure climbed up the rope only to fall to the ground, before attempting the Sisyphean task again.

The most hard-hitting work in the show was undoubtedly the 9 minute single channel video work, Disclaimer. It depicted a set of hands, its owner positioned firmly outside the frame. It soon became evident that this unseen protagonist was a magician performing a trick one has seen countless times done by street-side madaris or conjurors. It involved placing cups or bowls on objects and making them apparently disappear. Set to a lively score, the engaging video depicted the magician’s sleight of hand in offering a magical reality. Here poor dwellings are transformed into palatial mansions and dried trees into lush vegetation. This was the stuff of dreams peddled by capitalism and bought by the masses pursuing their consumerist goals. However, Scaria offered a twist. As the video played on it turned more sinister, with consumer goods making way for victims of encounter killings. As the bowls were upturned, one could see the easily recognizable bodies in the infamous Ishrat Jahan encounter case. The narrative turned murkier as more bodies were revealed - victims of killings and genocide. Disclaimer was a powerful commentary on how in the name of progress, human beings become expendable, sacrificed at the altar of greed and notions of the greater “collective good.” The Great Conjuror offered visions of development, all the while fanning the fires of right-wing populism, resulting in a polarised and fragmented society and even genocide.

In Conviction, a series of three acrylic on canvas paintings, a man was depicted tearing open his shirt to reveal his chest. An allusion to the tale of the monkey God Hanuman in the epic Ramayana, who in an act of devotion tore open his heart to reveal a picture of Rama and Sita, the paintings served to emphasise how ideologies are inscribed in human bodies. While they might not manifest themselves outwardly, they lie embedded deep within us. It only takes someone to question our loyalties to show the stuff we are really made of.

If Conviction depicted the male body as a site of ideology and power then Scaria’s bronze relief Ringa Ringa Roses was a manifestation of female solidarity. Named after the popular playground singing game Ring a Ring o’ Roses, it depicted women from different nationalities holding hands in a circle. In the wake of the #MeToo allegations that have rocked the Indian art world in the past month, the work took on completely different connotations. Here was a possible attempt to stand firm against patriarchy and potentially avoid the pitfalls of “all fall down” as written in the last verse of the rhyme. But here again the risk of a collective collapse lurked in the background.

Gigi Scaria’s show Ecce Homo was a cautionary tale of how our pursuit of progress is built on shaky ground. Blinded by the vision of a prosperous future, we scarcely realize that we might actually be poised on the brink of ruination.

Notes:

[1] Noah Yuval Harari, Sapiens : A Brief History of Humankind,PenguinRandomHouse, 2015, p. 100

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