Artists

One of the reigning obsessions of a great deal of art produced in the last two decades in developing nations (and in India specifically) has been with articulating the shifting contours and spaces of globalization, in order to come to terms with the rapid changes that the contemporary socio-political landscape is going through; curiously, what features as a staple thematic of third-world subjectivity hardly even registers as a significant field of enquiry in much of the art produced in the western industrialized nations. The contemporary Indian artist frequently finds himself/ herself in a double-bind;- being on the one hand the recipient of ever larger opportunities to exhibit his/her work in international contexts and becoming another valued commodity within the world-market of ideas (when previously this was not the case), yet finding himself in the increasingly uncomfortable position of having to constantly re-define and translate to an often uncomprehending audience cultural practices that had hitherto been relatively local in scope. A certain kind of ethnographic 'othering' is built into this very proposition, with the 'native' often having to re-produce himself for the (here) occidental gaze (which still seems to be the arbiter of art-world real-estate) and ending up internalizing and naturalizing this very type of “manufactured” difference, - a fact further exacerbated by the near lack, at the international level, of any long-term engagement with other cultures that have been until recently marginal presences on the world stage. This increasingly global, and over determined nature of cultural exchange which finds its material form in the endless cycle of art-fairs and auctions as well as in the sudden respectability of what is loosely termed “Asian Art”, reflects larger changes in the world economy itself, - in particular the rise of the two south-Asian superstars, China and India as key players in the unfolding drama of globalization in the last decade or more. The responses to this are primarily twofold; one is an implicit acceptance of the “fact” of global capital and its associated benefactions, - of the networked society and of jet-lagged lifestyles where the airport transit lounge becomes, in the imagination of writers like Pico Iyer, the global village in microcosm, - and the consequent re-invention of oneself for an international market with all the requisite trappings. A distorted kind of trans-cultural legibility seems to offer the ticket of admittance here; - otherness in a Universalist garb, with just the right degree of estrangement for it to be “different”, yet manageable. The other reaction to globalization takes the form of strident denunciations of its worrisome reach and scale, and the genuine if exaggerated anxiety that its relentless spread can steamroll minor/local spaces thereby flattening out cultural difference in favour of a uniform sameness, - with an often accompanying flight into the rhetoric of origins and what critics have described as “nativist celebrations of community”.

Globalization is understood to be a complex and multidimensional mixture of processes that involves a series of interlinked components that have to be seamlessly integrated, - for example, the patents regime, which is one of the pillars of this new world system can be seen to depend upon a combination of, among other things, juridical-legal, economic and bio-technological fields of knowledge. Social theorists have described globalization as capitalism in its “late?, expansionist mode, structurally analogous to imperialism in many of its features, but unique in the greater efficacy and centrality of its technological apparatuses that makes possible the lightning fast dissemination of not just cash flows and material resources, but as well ideological and cultural forms across the globe, and which as a necessary precondition does not recognize boundaries, whether of the nation state or of the more intimate sphere of everyday “lived experience?. Globalization can thus be seen to encompass both macroscopic and microscopic orders of being, entering the most intimate of social spheres through its communications networks and which, in its amorphousness, can no longer be said to depend upon hierarchic structures of dominance. In the economic domain it is also marked by, among other things, “outsourcing?, - the flight of capital in search of cheaper, trans-national labor markets.

While one can agree that globalization precipitates a kind of cultural homogeneity in its transmission of a standardized and insipid mass culture around the world, which through its media apparatuses enters even the most resistant corners of the world, it is also necessary to keep in mind that every local context appropriates and reworks these signifiers on its own terms; i.e. there is a culture-specificity to the ways in which hegemonic forms are consumed. Geeta Kapur, as always attentive to the historic and social determinants of contemporary art production, has often posited the “national? as a site of resistance to this juggernaut of late capitalism, which in her writings often comes across as a monolithic engine of empire-building. She locates a possibility of resisting the status quo in those works drawn from “the wide margins of the century” of Modernism, - i.e, in those works that have often been passed over in its sweeping teleologies, which, by drawing attention to a history of oppression and silence and in their often volatile emancipatory and revolutionary charge, posits a counter to the glib affirmations of the “end of history” that globalization is said to symbolize. For her, the unearthing and repositioning of these marginalized voices is primarily a political act, an intervention through which the assumptions undergirding the discursive universe of (Western) Modernism and/or the cultures of globalization, - i.e., their euro-centric and racist biases - are problematised.

While her efforts to recover a repressed and marginalized history of sub continental art and her insistence on the unique historical circumstances through which other narratives of Modernity take shape are laudable, the most significant critique of her often overarching theoretical categories (for eg National/Modern) comes from the Subaltern Studies-inflected analysis of the discourse of Nationalism itself, - within which Geeta Kapur’s intellectual trajectory, with certain qualifying conditions, can be seen to position itself. Although she does not invoke it specifically in her writings, it appears that Geeta Kapur works within a more or less Habermasian notion of community and the public sphere, whose framing rubrics are those of the values of “secular modernity”, - participatory democracy and rational debate conducted in a spirit of reciprocal give-and-take, or what he designates as “communicative rationality?. Her coupling of the National/Modern can be seen to be analogous to the Habermasian modelof the bourgeois public sphere, which defines itself as an ostensibly autonomous arena of critical reasoning that is a constitutive embodiment of the democratic spirit, a space of universal accessibility and intelligibility that all strata of society can lay claim to, as opposed to the invariably exclusionary interests of power found in the apparatuses of the state and private enterprise. However, such assertions of a benign sovereignty gloss over questions of access and the visibility (or invisibility) of representations and discourses within a particular social conjuncture. Instead of conceiving the public sphere as one location and/or formation as suggested in Habermas' description, perhaps it would be more productive to think of it as a platform for different and oppositionary subjectivities and politics, acknowledging it as a site of discursive contestation. Our own time has witnessed the almost conclusive rupturing of the singular, organic notion of community through the growing assertion of identitarian subjectivities and formations as well as in the sectarian strife that has marked political discourse and public life in the last few decades.

As part of the reaction against both globalization and what is being seen among social theorists as the increasing obsolescence of the nation-state within the body politic, one can see a marked shift of emphasis away from these totalizing systems towards an engagement with more local practices that focus on the micro politics of everyday experience and foreground cultural difference, otherness and marginality. The revolution in communications technology has also made possible the formation of trans-cultural, international communities, linking together a plethora of grassroots activism, - which include, for instance, the labor, feminist, ecological and peace movements - that are based more on political solidarities and affiliations than on ethnic/national identities and that have their roots in a shared experience of oppression. The distinction that is being drawn here is well summed up in Edouard Glissant’s differentiation of Globalization from Globality; - if the former is the province of a number of oligarchies whose overriding interest in other nations and cultures is the promise of ever larger playing fields, the latter takes the form of an intercultural dialogue that uses available technologies in order to open up avenues for communication between different societies. The Indian art world has, in the last two decades witnessed the rise of a number of interdisciplinary practices that foreground the „political? as a fundamental concern, with a wide range of issues coming under critical scrutiny, ranging from the discontent with Nationalism (as in the work of, for instance, Atul Dodiya and Shilpa Gupta) to activist interventions and collaborative projects among minorities such as the work done among/with the tribals of Bastar by Navjot Altaf; - which stands in stark contrast to the earlier generation of “Moderns” whose primary aesthetic object was to evoke the zeitgeist of a newly formed nation.

In a manner of speaking, this extended preamble traces the trajectory of Gigi Scaria’s art (and many of his generation) in the last ten years, starting from a rather rigid and uninflected critique of globalization and American imperialism (in works like ”State/Statue of Liberty”) to a more humorous take on its ubiquity from which, it appears, no one is immune, - for example, in a work like “Stampa”. Made during a residency in Italy, the short video envisions a Kafkaesque scenario in which a man is abducted from his bed by two strangers, dragged through various streets and corridors and finally has the world map stamped on his head. This somewhat circumscribed understanding of globalization gradually gives way in his more recent work to a broader engagement with the rapidly changing contours of the contemporary urban experience, using his adopted city of Delhi as a model and taking off from a set of paintings that he had made during his post-graduation which used the form and metaphor of the map to engage with questions of territoriality and access, - concerns that eventually emerge in their mature form as the interdependent motifs of the metropolis, the figure of the migrant, and the spectacle of capital that coalesced into a compelling oeuvre in his 2007 show titled “Absence of an Architect”. The following section of this essay deals largely with these works that crystallized around then and continued from there.

It would not be an exaggeration to call Gigi Scaria an “archaeologist? of urban spaces, more particularly in his case that of the city of Delhi, where he has been living now for the better part of a decade. “Archaeology” here refers to the range of methods and techniques deployed by the artist in order to bring to light what has lain hidden; it implies excavation and depth, attentiveness to the sedimented layers and accretions of historical time, and approaches the city as a palimpsest of traces. One can also divine a vision of the artist’s vocation underwriting the method; it has a critical dimension that sees his work as a dissection, as an analysis of social structures that makes visible the conditions that necessitate them and that it hides. The archaeological metaphor that organizes and runs through his recent work is a logical extension of concerns that belong to its prehistory, which saw the artist involved in a cartography of social structurations (what he calls “social mapping”); - the newer work draws upon and retains in a transformed manner elements of his earlier engagements. The cartographic and the archaeological form the two axes of his current body of work, articulating the conceptual grid across which is distributed a series of relationships, - surface and depth, the new and the old, the spatial and the temporal, the historical and the political, and so on, - that are played off against each other in order to draw out a complex set of correspondences that delineate the histories of the present and its often fraught relationship with Modernity.

The immediate impetus for these works is his adopted city of Delhi, but looked at askance with the eyes of a settler or the squatter, - a subject-position often adopted or identified with in his works; it is a hard-earned familiarity that is rooted in a very provisional sense of entitlement. The experience of migration and cultural difference that his work is often prompted by provides him with the framework within which he elaborates his narratives of contemporary urban experience. The journey to the city is a recurring trope within the many narratives of Modernity, and has been characterized by writers such as Ashis Nandy as a mythic voyage to the boundaries of the self, in which, if it has to survive at all, the self has to be reconfigured anew in line with an entirely different set of parameters and demands. The city becomes a locus ofdisplacement, and the journey a flight from the often rigid hierarchical (in terms of class, caste, familial affiliations) social structure of the village or the hinterland to a place where identities are more fluid, - an event that has been seen to be central to the forms and formation of Modernity. The impetus to migrate is of course in itself prompted by a lack, - by, among other things, the concentration of capital in the metropolis and by its burgeoning labour market, and the journey becomes, correspondingly, a vaunted passage into the great experiment of Modernity and its institutions of citizenship. More often than not, as the literature of displacement informs us, it was a promise that was not made good.

The video titled “A Day with Sohail and Maryan” (2004) is perhaps one of the more ambitious explorations of the subject of migrant labour within his corpus; it describes a day in the life of two waste-pickers, and is filmed in a quasi-documentary mode, with the two protagonists re-enacting parts of their everyday life for the viewer. The work is consequently an “intervention” as well, having been made with the full knowledge and participation of those whom it portrays and on whose behalf it is ostensibly speaking. There is an added poignancy as well as significance in the fact that Sohail and Maryan are collectors of garbage, which represents, in a sense the “outside” of modern civic life. Through the glimpse that it provides us into the workings of an underground economy whose goods are the detritus of our everyday lives, the video urges us to reflect upon the relationship between consumption and waste, as well as its bearing upon a social order that defines itself in terms of its proximity to one and its distance from the other. These considerations are framed within the larger question of citizenship by the analogy that it draws between their labor and their status as migrants; in a sense, the two protagonists are themselves a kind of “refuse”, positioned as they are along the margins of the nation-state. The video work called “Site Under Construction” also amplifies an underlying theme in many of these works, - the proprietary attitude of the bourgeoisie to the institutions of civic life, and “encroachment” as the only method for the migrant to reclaim a space for himself as well as to assert his presence within the body politic. The video stages a guessing game played by two upper-middle class neighbors over an interloper’s mysterious activities, which seems to be constructing something out of bits of debris. The denouement, in which the protagonist violently demolishes the remains of his labor, is in a way predictable, but also appears inevitable in terms of the narrative drive of the work itself: its thematic integrity does not admit of any other resolution.

Both colonialist, and for quite different reasons, nationalist civic initiatives revolved around the regulation of public spaces, - the bazaar, the fairground and so on, - underlying which was the tacit assumption that these were zones of filth and disease carrying with it the attendant dangers of miscegenation, and whose disorderly flows it was deemed necessary to bring under control for the proper workings of the state. Innumerable studies have demonstrated the equivalences between the spatial organization of the city and the regulatory mechanisms put in place by the state in order to contain the alleged potential of public spaces to collapse social distinctions, and by extension, the social structures upon which its existence is predicated, - which were often rationalized in terms of the larger public interests of sanitation and health, and which a technocracy of engineers and architects were entrusted with translating into its concrete body. A city like Delhi was further seen to incarnate the spirit of the nation-state in its architecture, structure and organization; its staggered layout, - of administrative center, commercial and residential enclaves, and suburbs - created in essence a series of clear-cut demarcations between the center and periphery, (and also as a byproduct the division between the old and new cities), and along with it a deeply entrenched system of class divisions and power hierarchies.

Gigi invokes an imaginary cartography of the metropolis across different media in order to elucidate the relationship between the city and its metaphorical outside / outsider, by drawing attention to the discrepancies that exist between an order imposed from above and the anarchic tumult of everyday life, - depicted here as contending forces that lay claim to the city in a persistent but asymmetrical struggle. Primarily inspired by the numerous projects for the restructuring of Delhi, which, in the interests of reclaiming the city for its citizens shunt out of sight those that it cannot or will not accommodate into its self-representations, these works constitute an anatomy of a willed amnesia. The ordering of urban spaces is played off against the chaotic eruption of the city as a recurring motif in many of these works; in “Panic City”, a video animation, buildings do a lunatic dance, lurching upward and subsiding in parodic mockery of a soundtrack culled out of fragments from the Western musical canon. The impact of this work relies to a great extent on the cultural associations of the music (which comes to us as a part of the colonial legacy), as well as the tongue-in-cheek juxtaposition of its measured progressions with the spectacle of an apparently tone-deaf city. It also succeeds in engineering a switch from the conductor (of the invisible orchestra) to the administrator, whose shoes it puts us in, and from whose vantage point we see the scene unfolding before us. By inserting the viewer into a position loaded with investments of power, the work serves to remind us of own unexamined complicities in the exercise of citizenship, and of the privileges we take for granted.

The allusions within these works to the Modernist trope of the city as behemoth, - of the metropolis figured as living organism, as a site of potential chaos, and possessed of powers that elude control, - locate Gigi within a strongly dystopian lineage (that counts among its exemplars Chaplin and Fritz Lang) often configured as an internal critique of Modernity’s own totalizing ambitions and which draws its repertoire of images from the anxiety that runs like an under-current through it. If the foregrounding of these anxieties situates him within a specific historical trajectory, it is coupled with, as a critical and semantic device which brings it back to its local context, a semiotic of the architectural façade/exterior that performs two interrelated functions within his oeuvre. The facade is a signifier of time, of a historical moment that becomes a loaded metaphor for the aspirations - political, social and cultural, - of a particular epoch (as one can see from works such as Delhi Now and Then).But it is also a mask or a screen, - both an augury and a container of hidden passions that simmer beneath its surfaces, as a work like “Somebody Left a Horse on the Shore” exemplifies in its invocation of the myth of the Trojan horse [1]. There is also the suggestion that it cannot adequately represent the multitudes (of worlds) that it contains; in the fictitious metropolis that Gigi evokes, it houses cities within cities, invisible cities, nested within each other in a vertigo of regress.

The façade thereby symbolizes, in microcosm, the body of the city itself, and in its allegorical dismantling one finds an echo of the archaeological method, - which sees the work of truth as being that of an uncovering, a scraping away of the accumulation of convention and habit that essentially blind us in order to retrieve what has become invisible. A disproportionately large number of these works - for instance, City Excavated, City Underneath, City Within, Hidden Waters, - deal with metaphors of invisibility, elaborated here both in its social and historic dimensions. The descent into history that is evoked by excavation (a recurring conceptual and visual device) becomes here an almost Borgesian quest for an absent origin, which discovers, along the way, a richly encrusted subterranean memory of the city. In a parallel move, the various contextualization of the façade make up, among other things, a series of representations of the social face of invisibility; - it speaks of the countless lives that live behind and in its shadow, buried within the impersonal economy of the concrete jungle. At one level, these are cogent metaphors for the atomization and the reification of lives and social relationships that has become synonymous with the modern urban experience, but it could be extended, following the example of works like “Mall Alone” (a pun on “I’m all alone”) to that of a whole invisible class who have not been accounted for within its dynamic.

The mall, in whose immaculate exteriors the nation seems to have found an image of its new aspirations, exists in counterpoint to the figure of the migrant worker (as well as to the “historical” city), and symbolizes one of the most ubiquitous aspects of contemporary urbanity, - the spectacle of consumption. “Dilli Mall”, the painting, is a jumble of motifs chosen from the various monuments in the city, piled one upon the other and held together in a strange and uneasy balance, - an ironic inversion of the archaeological mode in order to create an architectural monstrosity. There is something of the air of a curio shop or the museum about these silent structures; they are a repository of relics, an assortment of representations stuck together in a timeless stasis unmoored from their social contexts and functions. The mall also signifies the relentless logic of capital that devours without niceties of distinction everything in its way, - a point made with remarkable economy in the photographic work, “City Uprise”. The work is not a photomontage, but is made to look like one through the inspired trick of revealing, progressively, from the various levels on a step-well the “rise” of a modern construction behind it. It is a snapshot of history’s pitiless and unstoppable momentum, showing us a picture of one world emerging on the back of another making its exit from the scene, slowly vanishing into the ground to form yet another layer of the city’s archaeological strata.

In keeping with the overall thematic and conceptual thrust of his newer work, an unusually large number of them also abound in territorial metaphors, the most frequently deployed one being the image of the wall which appears with ominous regularity across his oeuvre whenever the point needs to be particularly emphasized. Apart from the more evident sense of the motif as a marker of possession and control and as an object regulating access and containment, it is also a device that implies a schism, - a dismemberment of a whole and of the subsequent coming into being of incommensurate fragments that moreover do not add up to the original totality. This metaphor of a divide or a split is one that runs through his oeuvre, differing contextually, and pointing to various social and political divisions that have still not been adequately come to terms with, - they evoke, for instance, the psychic geography of the Hindu/Muslim relationship that is often mapped onto the body of the nation marked indelibly by its tragic birth, or in another register, the separation between the old and the new cities of Delhi that resonate with the tensions between a past configured as memory and a present working to erase the traces of its history. These concerns become clearer in a recent video made in Korea dealing with its partition titled “All About the Other Side”, in which the wall is not just an imagined divide, but exists as a material, concrete embodiment of an ideological and psychic split. While the format of the split-screen interview has become one of the most overused filmic conventions among documentary - art filmmakers, Gigi manages to coax out of it insights that unsettle our expectations, in which the responses of the more affluent citizens of Seoul overwhelmingly run contrary to any sentimental ideas regarding unification, hinging rather on an anxiety regarding the other side’s purported authoritarianism, poverty and “backwardness”.

One can identify, underlying the various conceptual and stylistic shifts in his work and tying them together into a coherent oeuvre, a Gandhian critique of Modernity in operation here, - of its profligate ways and its obsession with wealth and material well being, regardless of its cost in human suffering. Gandhi is himself the subject of a recent video, a series of interviews with those who knew him intimately, intercut in order to form a multilayered narrative of his life; what emerges is a warmly affectionate portrait of the man behind the image, drawing out his sagacity and generosity as well as his occasional lapses. Gandhi has a further significance here with regard to his understanding of the role of the village in the national dynamic. The village, which the Nationalist imagination consecrated as the site of its fondest aspirations and where it discovered its “authentic” self, is in these works an implied presence; it constitutes not just the “outside” of the city, but exists within it as well, transformed into the slum or the shanty town always on the verge of erasure. The painting titled „Settlement? is a crystallization of these considerations into a single image; in the aesthetic sleight of hand that turns the bulldozer (the omnipresent deity of eviction and resettlement programs) into a habitation, we see an acerbic comment on the situation of the outsider / migrant and of his necessarily transient status as a citizen.

The “Gandhian turn” in contemporary art is worth analyzing in greater detail, since it seems tohave found a resonance among a wide spectrum of artists in the last few years. It could be seen as inaugurating a shift towards an “ethical turn” in the arts, aided, it must be added, in no small measure by Gandhi’s own shrewd understanding of the charismatic power of images and his production of himself as a compelling icon for the masses, making him one of the most instantly recognizable figures in recent history. Furthermore, Gandhi signifies a uniquely homegrown radical politics that has the ability to be easily (and has been) and often unproblematically recuperated into the secularist theology, in light of the fact of his rejection of both leftist radicalism and the right-wing call to more atavistic impulses. The turn to Gandhi could also imply, within the discursive terrain of contemporary art a genuine anxiety about the shortcomings of the nation, - a situation that he had presciently foreseen before independence. In sum, “Gandhi” today functions as a polysemic signifier of discontent, heralding a move away from the center towards the periphery in the service of an engagement not just with the exploitation involved in globalization, but also with that of the violence of the state towards those that exist along its margins. Gigi’s work can be seen in the context, within contemporary art, of a growing engagement with the forms and experiences of marginality, - social, political and cultural- and the difficult task of articulating a counter-modernity that it necessitates, which contests the destruction of minor cultures and local knowledge and tries to retrieve a diverse body of narratives that have often been buried underfoot in the long march towards progress.

Notes

[1] One of his newer ventures into sculpture, the work was assembled in the studio and taken to various sites (where they were photographed) in a symbolic, mock re-enactment of the original myth.
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