The following essay is based on the exhibition ‘Displacement’ by Abir Karmakar, held

at Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke subsequent to the 3rd Kochi-Muziris Biennale

2016. On display are large-scale interior paintings, executed in oil-on-canvas, from

the series ‘Home’ (2016), first showcased at the Kashi Art Gallery, a traditional house in

the South Indian style, and one of the prominent venues of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale.

Complementing five of the Biennale paintings with three recent interiors (2017) for

the gallery show, Karmakar revisits and further interrogates the core subject matters

of ‘Home’, such as site-specificity, identity, memory, and belonging. In addition, the

exhibition at Mirchandani + Steinruecke provides him with an accurate frame to

reconfigure the role of contemporary painting by relating it to the spatial contingencies

and economic imperatives of the gallery context.

The Door

Showcasing Karmakar’s virtuoso skill at creating convincing visual illusions on a flat

surface, these untitled paintings of domestic interiors are rooted in the Dutch genre of

the 17th century. Known for ranking his artistic practice within the lineage of Western

art history, Karmakar draws on this early modern period, where the value of a work of

art depended as much on its content as on the quality of its execution. However, in his

quest of rethinking the visual formula for the depiction of realistic space, Karmakar did

not immediately embark on the rendition of large-scale interiors. The cornerstone for

the latter was laid in 2013 with a painting of a single, life-sized door. This early painting

was based on the conceptualization of the door as an autonomous entity, extracted

from the wider narrative and compositional syntax of the interior.

Aligning the shape of the door with the shape of the canvas, Karmakar saw the

opportunity to engage in the exploration of the function of ‘meta-pictorial’ devices. In

early realistic paintings, doors, windows, curtains, and mirrors were employed as

deceptive elements, visual ‘artifices’ that conjured the illusion of infinite space. One is

reminded of Velázquez’ painting Las Meninas, whose vanishing point is the doorway,

where a person rendered in silhouette appears to hold open a curtain on a short flight of

stairs. In addition, the doorway offers extra light to the rear of the painting, alluding to

an undefined space behind.

Karmakar covers the surface of the door with meticulously painted stains, scratches,

and traces of dirt, numerous marks that not only speak of the door’s function, but also

the cultural, social, and class origin of its user. The realistic rendition of the door lures

the beholder into surrendering to the visual illusion of an infinite space behind.

However, Karmakar’s intent is not to renounce two-dimensionality by creating a wall

object, as such ‘give up working on a single plane in favor of three dimensions’.[1] Rather

does the shape of the door serve as the painting’s frame and is thus an integral part

of it. It is, precisely, remaining within the confines of the flat surface that allows him

to stage the painting’s fictiveness and provoke the beholder’s awareness of self deception.

The Absent Figure

The creation of large-scale interiors offers Karmakar further opportunities to

interrogate the epistemological implications of pictorial illusion. Unlike the classic

Dutch genre, which depicts the figure in relation to the space, Karmakar’s interiors are

entirely devoid of human presence. In muted colours, he celebrates the palpable

tension between the glaring absence of the figure and its presence made visible

through the objects of everyday life. Suitcases, kitchen utensils, clothes, trinkets, and

furniture imprint the empty space with their marks. Like the door, they are not

inanimate objects, but encode a layered past, memories, and a belonging that go

beyond their utilitarian function. Manifesting an expressive subjectivity, these objects

draw a psychological portrait of the absent figure in relation to the space, similar to

Candida Höfer’s large-scale photographs of empty interiors. ‘I realized that what

people do in those places - and what the spaces do to them - is more obvious when

nobody is present, just as an absent guest can be often the topic of a conversation’.[2]

The delicacy of Karmakar’s brushstroke, his technical proficiency with pigments and

the subtle and precise effects of light lend these objects almost anthropomorphic

qualities, such as the ability to withdraw from the external world by dreaming. ‘The

furniture takes on elongated shapes, prostrate and languorous. Each piece seems to

be dreaming, as if living in a state of trance, like vegetables and mineral things. The

draperies speak an unvoiced language, like flowers and skies and setting suns. […]

Everything here has its appropriate measure of light and delicious dark, of harmony


The Poetics of Home

Karmakar’s interiors evoke home as an inward-looking world of quiet stillness. Painted

with compositional clarity, these repositories of private experience have less to do with

functionality than with the way in which they convey a certain Stimmung, the tentative

mood of its absent inhabitants. These interiors represent a space of refuge in an often

diffuse, semi-tenebrous light, where time seems to be suspended. Simultaneously,

they manifest the inexorable march of time, as the external world constantly threatens

to invade this encapsulated realm of privacy. Apart from being a dreamy refuge of

secluded privacy, Karmakar evokes home as a social and cultural space, mirroring the

mores and habits of a Gujarati urban middle-class family of the 21st century.

The series ‘Displacement’ is based on photographs Karmakar took of the domestic

environment of a befriended family he visited in Kutch. Throwing light on the profound

transformation Indian society has been undergoing due to migration, he concurrently

retraces the story of several generations of his own family, which migrated from

Chittagong (now in Bangladesh). This personal story reflects the collective destiny of

migrants at large, whose existential dilemma lies in displacement and rootlessness.

Exploring the notions of home and belonging, place and identity formation, Karmakar’s

interiors, the arrangements of sofas and curtains, mirrors and framed photographs

with garlands, TV sets, and staircases that spiral to nowhere, speak of the irrevocable

loss and longing for an origin, of a certain nostalgia that is inexorably tied to the

possibility of return as the ‘culminating point’ of migration. Home is considered as a

space between a domestic reality, ordinary and mundane in its very nature, and the

evanescent,palimpsest-likememoryofsomethinglostthat lingers on in fantasies and

symbolic imaginings.

Karmakar’s quest of ‘What is home?’, a metaphysical quest in its very nature,

invariably leads him to deconstruct the topos ‘home’. Rather than being rooted in a

clearly identifiable and permanent place, the idea of the original home seems to stem

from the process of migration itself. It can only be looked at from the vantage point

of dislocation as the modus vivendi of migrants. Their acculturation and integration

cannot obscure the fact that identity is constructed and transformed through the

dynamics of dislocation, with the shifting of home being embedded in the temporality

of human existence. Even ‘non-migrants’ find it hard to unambiguously define ‘home’,

as one can have several homes that only partially match with a physical place. The

various implications of home as a geographical, political, social, and emotional space

lay bare its historical conditions and the impermanence of its nature.

Painting Revisited

Karmakar’s skillful play with illusionism and its capability of ‘deceiving the viewer’s

eye’ is linked to the reformulation of the role of contemporary painting. In the 1970s,

painting ‘seen as an art on the verge of exhaustion, one in which the range of

acceptable solutions to a basic problem - how to organize the surface of the picture,’ [4]

suffered a serious crisis. This crisis resulted in an abstract vocabulary devoid of any

illusionism and, in its most radical form, in the negation of the medium itself. In contrast, Karmakar further develops his realistic vocabulary, firmly rooted in the

classical canon of art history. Interrogating the conventions of his vocabulary and its

suggestive potential of deception, he exceeds the limits of visual illusionism in terms

of space, linking the medium to the contingencies of the site-specific context.

Integral to the production of the paintings for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale was the

incorporation of the physical conditions of the Kashi Art Gallery, such as size, scale,

topographical features, lighting, and sequence of rooms. In an attempt to align the

dimensions of his interiors with the exact dimensions of wall, ceiling, and floor of the

Kashi Art Gallery, Karmakar saw himself forced to render some of the painted objects,

such as a TV set and cupboards, with slight distortion to fit the spatial requirements. He

then cut a door-shaped opening into the canvas of one of the paintings that were

displayed at the entrance hall. This cut-out corresponded to the exact location and size

of the entrance hall door of the Kashi Art Gallery. Instead of deceiving the viewer’s eye

with a painted door resembling a real one, Karmakar forced the viewer to literally walk

through the painting to access the rooms behind. Bringing Lucio Fontana’s radical

gesture to mind, that consisted in overcoming the flat limitations of picture making by

slicing the canvas, Karmakar boldly ‘assaulted’ the canvas in an attempt to expand

the medium into the physical space.

Site-Specificity Again

Offering an experiential and spatial understanding of the historical Biennale site,

Karmakar decided to reformulate the term ‘site-specificity’ in relation to the white cube

of the gallery, often called a ‘blank slate’. In a critical approach to throw light on the

adoption and assimilation of this term into the dominant culture, he links it to the

dynamics of displacement. He ‘dislocates’ five paintings from the Biennale and has

them ‘migrate’ from the institutional context to the commercial space of the Galerie

Mirchandani + Steinruecke, assigning these paintings a new ‘home’.

The displacement of the paintings asks for an additional site-specific gesture that

consists in placing them on the gallery floor. Similar to the radical modernist practice

of freeing the sculpture from the pedestal, Karmakar frees the paintings from the wall.

He places four interiors from the Biennale as autonomous, free-standing elements in

Room 1 of the gallery, rendering their make-shift supportive structures visible. But

whereas the modernist sculpture severed its relation to the actual site by renouncing

the pedestal, thus achieving the status of a placeless, nomadic object, Karmakar’s

gesture of renouncing the wall is what relates the interior paintings to the actual


In Room 2, he displays a space-dividing structure on which two interiors, specifically

created for the show, and spanning the width of the room, are stretched on the back and front of the makeshift support. As at the Kashi Art Gallery, Karmarkar repeats the

bold gesture of slicing the canvas to cut out a door shape, forcing the viewer once

more to walk through the painting to get access to the rooms behind. He challenges the

idea of what constitutes ‘painting’ by exploring the expansive terrain between painting

and site-specificity. Offering a comment on the constitutional elements of, and the

numerous possibilities within, painting itself, the medium is used to ‘interrogate rather

than accommodate the given architecture, disrupting the spatial conditions of the art

work’s site.’ [5]

The Protagonist

Establishing an inextricable relationship between the work of art and its site, Karmakar

demands the physical presence of the viewer as an indispensable component for the

work’s completion. Questioning the limitations of the medium of painting as a self sufficient

aesthetic category, he turns the viewer from voyeur into protagonist.

Designating the beholder a position within the painting by absorbing him or her into the

depicted scene, Karmakar offers an imaginary entry, which, for a single arrested

moment, makes painting and beholder fuse together. At the same time, the elision of

the gap between subject and object is revealed as pure self-deception, the veritable

‘culminating point of the involvement process’. Hiding and revealing the false premises

of illusionism, Karmakar creates the actual experience of walking on a stage. This

experience is enhanced by the visibility of the supportive structures, with the freestanding

interiors assuming an almost theatrical quality, making the beholder aware

that the reception of the paintings does not only include the spatial environment in

which they are located, but also his or her active involvement.

Emphasizing the presence of the beholder, Karmakar articulates the pictorial space in

its expansiveness, transcending its function as a self-contained whole. He subjects the

painterly practice to the process of self-renewal, rejecting the clear, epistemological

differentiation between pictorial and physical space in modernist paintings, proposed

by leading art theorists such as Rosalind Krauss. In discussing the ideological purismof

modernistpaintings,Krausssuggeststhat the‘[p]ictorial space is that which cannot be

entered or circulated through; it is irremediably space viewed from a distance, and is

therefore eternally resigned to frontality.’ [6]]

In Room 3 of the gallery, Karmakar stretched one painting dislocated from the Biennale

on a makeshift wall, replacing the gallery wall. This large convex-shaped structure

allows him to adjust the size of the painting, reflecting the slightly bigger dimensions of

the wall of the Biennale site, to the gallery room. One is reminded of Karmakar’s earlier

series ‘Views’ and ‘Angles’ (2014), consisting of empty and hermetically sealed off

interiors with no signs of a living being. Through a keyhole vision, he enables the viewer

to see the objects from different angles at one glance. Unlike these earlier series, where the beholder is kept outside the interiors, the free-standing structure in Room 3 asks for

the physical involvement of the beholder. The sheer size of the structure does not allow

him to contemplate the painting in its frontality. Rather is he forced to walk along the

length of the curved shape, bulging into the space, exposing himself to destabilizing

perspectives in order to experience the painting in its totality.

The Mural

Karmakar’s reflections on site-specificity not only address ideas of display and

perception, but extend them into the mode of dissemination as an imperative of the

commercial space. Unlike the institutional frame of the Biennale, the gallery brings to

mind the cycles of the capitalist market economy, which circulates art works as

exchangeable commodities. Exploring the genesis of painting, from mural to easel

painting, Karmakar traces the medium’s history from being organically connected to

architecture to its execution on a portable support. In Room 4, the last one in the

sequence of gallery rooms, he ironically plays with this genesis. He paints one detail

of the medium-sized interior, which he created specifically for Room 4 - a skirting made

of geometrically patterned floor tiles typical of Indian middle class homes - on the

bottom of the column facing the painting, which is part of the architectural structure of

the room. Likewise, he paints the surface of the gallery door adjacent to the painting in

one of the interior’s dominant colours to generate a coherent spatial environment that

integrates the main architectural elements of the room.

The gesture of painting the bottom of the column reminds of early murals at a time

when painting hadn’t gained mobility and autonomy from architecture. Reassessing

the relationship between painting and architecture, Karmakar demonstrates that siterelated

works of art are not just exchangeable commodity goods that fall victim to the

‘tyranny’ of capitalist market forces. As the series ‘Displacement’ manifests, the in situ

displayed interiors are not mere self-sufficient, trans-historical entities with universal

meaning. Rather are they experienced in the hic et nunc of an ‘unrepeatable and

fleeting situation’, emphasizing the spatial particularity and temporality of the location

as well as the ephemeral presence of the beholder. Karmakar ingeniously resists the

homogenization of space and the commodification of painting as placeless and

exchangeable. The exhibition is testimony to the celebration of the open-endedness

and continually expanding, self-interrogating and evolving nature of the medium. He

forces the beholder to critically rethink the prevailing cultural and economic value

system which circulates painting, throwing light on the conditions of its production,

perception, display, and dissemination.


1. Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood”, in: Art and Objecthood. Essays and Reviews,

Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998, pp. 148. The author describes the use of

shaped instead of rectangular surfaces by Stella, Noland, and Olitski to be experienced

as part of the painting and not as object.

2. Candida Höfer, in: ‘Candida Höfer en México’, Galería OMR, México: Turner, 2016,

p. 104.

3. Charles Baudelaire, ‘The Twofold Room’, in: Francis Scarfe (Ed.), The Poems in Prose,

with La Fanfarlo, London: Anvil Press, 1989, p. 37.

4. Michael Fried, ibid.

5. Miwon Kwon, ‘One Place after Another. Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity’,

Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002, p. 5.

6. Rosalind Krauss, ‘Léger, Le Corbusier, and Purism’, in: Artforum, vol. 10, no. 8, p. 52.

Birgid Uccia studied Philosophy and History of Art at the University of Zurich. She has years of

in-depth experience in the international art world as the co-owner of a gallery and project space

in Zurich, author of catalogue essays and reviews and curator of “Art Clips”, a video art project

commissioned by National Swiss Television. She is the founder of ACFA Asian Contemporary Fine Arts, providing curatorial and independent art advisory services in the field of contemporary art from India and the Subcontinent. Drawing parallels between Western and Eastern art practices, her curatorial and academic expertise provides a considered framework to promote contemporary art from the region. She was nominated senior curator of St. Moritz Art Masters 2014, focus India, and guest lecturer on Indian Modern and Contemporary Art and Art Market at the University of Zurich, Art Market Studies Executive Master Program. She has recently curated the group exhibition ‘Waste Land’ in collaboration with the Consulate General of Switzerland in Mumbai and TARQ Gallery.

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