Gopikrishna works out of Trivandrum. Some might find this reason enough to place the artist at that convenient address called magic realism, and leave it at that. For it is out of this rich location that very many contemporary Malyali artists operate. Be that as it may, Gopikrishna’s immediate preoccupation is with the always-on-simmer standoff between the individual and the civilisation. This anxiety in turn allows substantial measures of the symbolic and the surreal to creep into his work and usurp any and all hints of magic realism.
The preceding paragraph would have made it clear to the reader that that Carnival of Rising Emotions draws heavily on Freudian thought, with the psychoanalyst’s Civilization and Its Discontents, 1929 exercising a particular influence over Gopikrishna’s various pictorial narratives.
In his far-reaching Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud writes, “Life, as we find it, is too hard for us; it brings us too many pains, disappointments and impossible tasks. In order to bear it we cannot dispense with palliative measures. We cannot do without auxiliary constructions, as Theodor Fontane tells us. There are perhaps three such measures: powerful deflections, which cause us to make light of our misery; substitutive satisfactions, which diminish it; and intoxicating substances, which make us insensitive to it.” On cue and almost in response to this thought by Freud, in an email interaction the artist stated, “I find our present constricting and through my work I try to channel my anxieties about our repressive present and my yearnings for a more uninhibited life.
My mind is a war field where satvic, rajasic and tamasic forces are caught up in an unending war. Nobody wins; nobody quits. In my works, these opposing forces and their innumerable manifestations can be pointed out. The contemporary and the archaic are two such forces.”
This perspective is played out in each of the three suites - Great Teachings (watercolours and oil), Sankara Bhavanom (oils and drawings) and Carnival of Rising Emotions (oils) - that comprise the show. But it is best amplified by, Miracle of the Giving Water, 2009 (from Great Teachings).
Gopikrishna’s disenchantment with our parochial present goes back a long way. It has been his constant companion; they have spent yawns together. Consequently the paintings that emerged over the years have been dialogical. Although the artist has never overtly referred to Freud in the first, the second, or the third person, making a case for his allegiance to primary instincts, so variously and urgently discussed by the grand daddy of psychoanalysis, would hardly qualify as wild conjecture.
But if Freud turned to ancient mythology while he was formulating his theories, then as if in an attempt to distance himself from the psychoanalyst, Gopikrishna turned to mythopoeia. In doing so he appears to be suggesting the eroded and exhausted, even our mythologies have lost their traction.
In the artist’s case mythopoeia is always attached to a covert mythology; he put it out there succinctly when he titled a recent show Personal Mythology, 2009.He generates these myths to combat a growing disillusionment with the world. Needless to say Gopikrishna’s mythopoeia relies heavily on instinct.
According to the artist, “Our link with intuition has worn thin. My paintings are like the breeze; the viewer must try and enjoy them and avoid reading them literally.”
The fact that the artist does not crave to be immediately and forcefully, in either his thought or in his work, reminds one of Gorgio Agamben’s essay What Is The Contemporary? . In his essay Agamben writes, “Contemporariness inscribes itself in the present by marking it above all archaic. Only he who perceives the indices and signatures of the archaic in the most modern and recent can be contemporary. “Archaic” means close to the arkhe, that is to say, the origin. But the origin is not only situated in a chronological past: it is contemporary with historical beginning and does not cease to operate within it, just as the embryo continues to be active in the tissues of the mature organism, and the child in the psychic life of the adult.
Needless to say, there is something hushed, coded and alchemical in the paintings. Sankara Bhavanom could easily be the name of any number of houses in Kerala; but in the Sankara Bhavanom series, the seemingly everyday is a source of intrigue. In addition to being the title of the series, it becomes a recurring motif across the five paintings belonging to the suite. Like a chant it reappears on pennants, banners, eye patches and prison walls. Significantly, the drawings of these paintings have been backdated to the year 1943. It comes across as though the name Sankara Bhavanom had meant something in 1943, but in its travel across decades, just as it finally snuggled up to the oils of 2010 it decided on becoming inscrutable.
While discussing Sankara Bhavanom Gopikrishna commented, “In the five oils belonging to the series, I unleashed my mind, allowed it to follow its own ‘heat’.” It is a peculiar thing to have said. In that the sexual connotations of the noun heat are palpable. Although we observed pockets of sexual energy in Gopikrishna’s earlier narratives what with men frolicking and cavorting, in this show perhaps only Hungry Soldiers, 2010 (from Carnival of Rising Emotions) has an overtly sexual subtext.
In response to a question about the predominance of the male figure, with virtually no representation of the feminine, the artist said, “I was brought up in the male world of my father and brother. Maleness is only thing I know; it is closest to my heart. Since my understanding of it is better than the female psyche, it makes sense to work with something I understand.”
But in lieu of the erotic we have violence, sensual violence to be more precise. Over the centuries, in vocabularies proposed by artists, musicians, theorists, etc. the erotic and the violent have long since been understood analogous. The aggression, much like the sex before it is symbolic of a life of uninhibited and unmediated joy and pain. In paintings such as Man Reading a Horoscope, 2008 the ruptured fruit-egg is not symbolic of either one or the other, but of both.
Living in the capital of Kerala with his wife and children, Gopikrishna is aware that his yearning for complete sovereignty will always remain unrealised; his choices have already been made for him. Through this new exhibition the artist charts a vicarious pattern. So it is not without irony that he emails his intentions vis-à-vis the show, “I allowed myself to be totally free and Carnival of Rising Emotions is the result of that travel through freedom.” As such total freedom is a total paradox, because the illusion of this said freedom would also have to be negotiated through certain compulsions.
The histories of art are teeming with artists exploring the unconscious, which has been dumbed down in perpetuity by the persuasive currents of civilisation. Goya, the symbolists, the surrealists and even the Chapman Brothers owe plenty to Freud. Although Freud continues to be a majesterial presence in humanities he seems to have fallen off of his pedestal among the hardboiled science heads who appear to find greater solace in cognitive neuroscience and such.
In Gopikrishna’s highly anthropomorphic paintings where tails are being chased relentlessly or even being pulled into a needle’s eye, it is difficult for us to miss the point the painter is driving at. But the questions that beg asking still remain, and nag. Is there a way out? Is a more strategic abandonment still possible? Is a relay of syntheses still conceivable? Some might say that the answer lies in the tangled virtual labyrinths of gaming. Although gaming may seem like a departure from what has been previously discussed, this writer proposes it for that very same reason.
Gaming and its corollaries such as role-playing have come under a lot of flak from highflying cultural theorists and psychoanalysts who have probably never so much touched a gaming console. But without going into a pro-gaming overdrive, it needs to be said that there are things to be observed and gained from gaming.
In gaming lingo there be a something or someone called the procedural author. Such an author writes only the skeleton narrative/rules of an immersive game and allows the programming and the gamer to figure the rest out and make good on the fly.
**An aside, this encounter with gaming is not entirely tangential to the context of the artist and the exhibition at hand. Indulge me as I propose Gopikrishna as a kind of procedural author, who provides us with the symbolic nut bowls and allows us to carry things further via our imaginations.**
Of course, there are some who forget they are acting in a virtual realm and get psychotically and crippling engaged with games. But for most parts, hopefully, gamers enjoy the immersive virtuality knowing that they are dealing with fiction. But from these games we comprehend yet again that freedom from strictures is only possible by way of symbolic gestures, such as those found in gaming and in Carnival of Rising Emotions. Because truth be told, thus far there has been no entirely feasible way out of some of our most deep-seated conditioning.
But it isn’t all bleak. If you run your bare knuckles over a stuccoed wall, you will graze them for sure. But, you won’t graze your knuckles if you run them over one of Gopikrishna’s paintings. In conclusion, it must be acknowledged that the artist is darkly humorous, Sunday Killer, 2009 (from Carnival of Rising Emotions) pithily portrays the same. Both the protagonist of Sunday Killer and Gopikrishna are aware that the road ahead is potholed with impasses.
Delhi, August 2010
Notes1. Sigmund Freud, ‘Civilisation and its Discontents’, translated and edited by James Strachey (W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 1962)
2. Giorgio Agamben, ‘What Is The Contemporary’ in What is Apparatus? and Other Essays, translated by David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella(Stanford University Press, 2009)
Catalogue published by Art Musings for the exhibition of Carnival of Rising Emotions at Art Musings, 8 September- 23 October 2010.