'Secret Life' is a body of paintings made between 1997 and 2001. It was conceived as groups of narrative sequences, involving temporal progression from one frame to another. The matrix within which individual frames were composed was based on the idea of a 'House' with its many rooms, its different kinds of spaces, metaphoric and functional. The script for the enactment of the narrative was based on life - aspects of it which are an unspoken taboo during the course of 'normal' social interaction - and therefore lived in private, subterranean realms. How does one edit life? What are the parameters of retention or erasure? Obsession, as an editing tool: the most stringent, the acknowledgment of which compels its cultivation and the inherent dangers therein; but when one works with something as large as life, there is no other choice. The origins of obsession are traced back to the self; without its inclinations and impulses there would be no concept and no form, no ideology or attitude; one does not adopt these things as intellectual choices, they have their origins in desire. And therefore I place myself at the heart of my narrative, and my story stems from desire.
The choice of visual language for the fleshing-out of this desire is perhaps a logical one, and it is at this juncture that the notion of structure becomes central: the limits of a single frame are insufficient to contain the complexities of what I wish to engage with. It is necessary to evolve a working process and a method of display elastic enough to accommodate the negotiations which are inevitable in a narrative which is continuously in the making.
I now use a similar textual structure, flowing towards affinities as places of clarity, choosing to trace continuities which underlie the seeming disruptions of logic. I include excerpts from my writings on my own work, which is an ongoing process, and therefore expressive of an immediacy which could be lost in a retrospective text. The one below pertains specifically to the title of this paper.
March 2001, Baroda
Late in 1994 I began working towards a structure which could accommodate changing patterns of living and working. It was a phase marked by frequent travel, which meant increased mobility offset by an unwillingness to give up the discipline of an everyday practice. It was difficult to work on the scale that I was used to, at least on a single surface. Further, change was an essential component, which needed to be physically incorporated into the work like grit in an oyster shell, visually and visibly transforming it without negating the logic of the processes at work. The idea of progression of any kind naturally brought in the question of time, again as something that needed to be made visible. Earlier paintings were large works expressive of movement within an overall stability, thereby representing an entirety. I now began working on segments/sections of larger schemes, as solutions to transitory working situations in studios in different countries, allowing them to 'find' each other in time to make a coherent whole.
What emerged was a visual vocabulary that straddled different kinds of languages, and a format capable of expressing interrupted, parallel and sometimes divergent streams of experience.
There were spaces in between for many things, for reminiscence and recall, for projections into relationships as yet unexplored, not merely in terms of ideas but as possibilities for the embodiment of these ideas. These groups and sequences contained passages which belonged to different points in time; the viewing moment was used as a focusing device rather than as something which dictated, spatially or in a temporal sense, the limits of what could be expressed.
Distances, absences and speed were things which had to be confronted at all times; it seemed to me that they need not always create more distances and more speed, but could be subverted towards closeness and greater intimacy. I made studies of the interiors that I lived and worked in, fitting them within the notion of a house, claiming them as personal territory.
The structure therefore is very much more than a formal device or solution. The events which animate it encompass the internal and extend beyond it into the realm of common concerns - the reclamation of identity in the personal and collective sense, the recognition of the vitality of the 'popular' as a bridge for communication at various levels, the conception of a new aesthetic which begins to deviate from previously accepted norms. Still, they remain components of a larger body whose essence cannot be summarized or fully comprehended. It is a continuing dialogue, with its attendant doubts, convictions and emphases that shift with the passage of time.
I see my presence in the painting not merely as a self-portrait, but in the light of one who introduces the piece and the actors, becomes an actor herself, distances herself when necessary, and detaches herself completely in the end; taking several forms and incarnations in successive roles and lifetimes, thereby creating illusions through the mixing of virtuality with reality - like the sutradhar in traditional theatre. The distinction between the real and the reflected begins to blur.
For a lecture at the Department of Art History at the Faculty of Fine Art in Baroda, I wrote down some thoughts on the physical aspects of structure.
February 2002, Baroda
I think of my scale as life-size, or as a space that one can comfortably enter; architecturally it has to do with the actual scale of a middle-class home in India. The height of the paintings is about 8-
9ft, dictated by the height of the ceiling, and the fact that I can reach the top of it standing on a chair. It is as much as I can handle, physically. While on display, the paintings are hung a few inches above the level of the floor. In spite of their size, they then become part of the wall; they are not intrusive and do not need a great distance to be viewed. The entire body of work can be hung close together and considered as one painting, one piece of narrative.
People tend to refer to them as diptychs or triptychs; the term seems to limit the connotations exclusively to the realm of the visual, and is somehow inappropriate in the context of my work.
Montage might be a better word; the links are conceptual and intellectual rather than visual.
Earlier groups were more loosely constructed; one could replace a segment with another. I also duplicate segments when I feel a certain image to be integral to another group, or when I want to refer to it as a quote or a memory. How is the temporal made visible? In the fact of composing a sequence, yes, you step from one space into another, one room of a house into another - and there is a lapse of time in this passage, things have changed in thenext frame: it is a different space animated by different events. Like a comic strip oracinematic narrative, with shifts in scale and perspective; a long shot juxtaposed with a close-up, a narrow frame with a large one. The fact that the frames are separated by a few inches enables them to retain their differences and not attempt to fuse, artificially.
There are also formal differences in the handling of the paint which render time visible, or a shift in the way the grey is constituted which makes a different kind of sound altogether. Panels executed a year or two apart, or more, contain such disparities. I re-introduce earlier paintings into current groups on the basis of their affinity of concept, but also in enjoyment of this dissonance. Looking back is as important as forward mobility or 'progress', recovery as much as discovery.
The unity we seek is a larger one and we have to go beyond appearances in order to find it. This structure makes possible inclusions and exclusions dependent on current pre-occupations; nothing is destroyed or effaced, one area merely illuminates another.
September 2000, Mysore
With a painting entitled 'Veda', the conceptual and formal elements that I have been talking about attain greater definition. It comprises of three panels. The first describes my studio at the Cite Des Arts in Paris, with my paintings on the wall; my overalls, which I think of as a second skin, are draped over the sofa. In the centre is my daughter, wearing my skin, a magical garment.
Around her, what looks to some like cabalistic symbols are in fact quotations of drawings which repeat themselves in her sketch book. The face is classicized and typified; the colours used are reminiscent of early film posters, indigo and white with a touch of rose. The last panel has a row of shelves from studies of the toilet in the pump house at Oserian in Kenya where I did a residency in 1998. On these shelves are Sacred Hearts extracted from popular religious posters of Christ and The Virgin. These melodramatic reproductions are especially significant for me in their recurring depiction of fire and blood, violence and pain eroticized to the pitch of fantasy, the aesthetics of pleasure privileged and retained beyond the persistence of suffering.
At the level of the sensual, I use these and similar elements as vehicles for colour, which came back into my life after a long grey spell.
At the level of symbolism they find spontaneous meaning within an internal context but are still recognized by most people and would hold the attention while less obvious areas revealed themselves in relationship.
At the level of play I think of all those things which fascinated me as a child, which I loved to paint but later came to believe were artistically embarrassing. Released from that prison of good taste, the universality imposed on us by the art school culture, they began to acquire the power of larger - than - life dreams.
A different aesthetic seems possible, neither revivalist nor post-modern, deriving its energy from the contradictions of a turbulent country; capable of expressing the complex and explosive realities of a specific geographical and cultural location here in India and of a life lived within that location.
These groups and sequences enable me to do several things at the same time: for one, to convey the experience of time as something pervasive and cyclic. Also to juxtapose disparate elements in a manner which does not demand a compromise or a dissolution of boundaries and differences - co-existence or indeed the inter-connectedness of polarities. My most recent painting is one of myself seated in my studio at the Cite Des Arts, with a tiger at my feet. The idea of a tiger in Paris is of course incongruous, and at a superficial level touches upon the notion of the 'exotic'; so too the jewels on the right.
It is also a story of loss and enrichment.
The title of an earlier body of work, 'The Secret Life of Objects', is significant in this context. It derives from a comment made by a friend when he saw my paintings for the first time in 1996.
When he saw them three years later his feelings were that what had seemed earlier like a display of sorts had now become more like an environment dictated by the objects in question, or a virtual space.
I had begun working with interiors by then, rooms which were large in scale, logical in disposition but still far from real. The experience of watching people enter my studio and become part of my painting was a strong one, so too the sight of my dog curled up at the foot of a painted bed. It was at this point in time that the human figure, which I had not seen in a long time, re-entered my work in 'Veda'.
February 2002, Baroda
'Secret Life' was shown in March 2001 in Delhi. The accompanying text in normal circumstances would have been in the form of a catalogue. Instead I made an audio CD of readings from my journals over four years, 1997-2001. They are reflections on work, life, anecdotes, bits of poetry, other excerpts from my own writings; meant to be heard through headphones, in the gallery, so as not to intrude into viewing space. Not quite secret but as something between two people, an oral catalogue. It enabled me to use voice in an area not usually associated with voice.
Current-day art practices evolve in conjunction with text as critique, interpretation or as a complementary trajectory. Ways of weaving text into the fabric of the visual narrative are several, and below is a response to a letter from a student whose dissertation required the information.
From a letter: The use of text in my painting
In the early nineties, I began to set aside in my paintings a vertical strip which I treated differently - I used symbols and hieroglyphs in a more literal manner than I did the painted image. Some of them were recognizably from a collective rather than an individual vocabulary; the reference to early manuscripts and miniatures with their narrative inscriptions was an intended one. A significant change occurred with the birth of my children and with the experience of watching them learn how to write, my daughter in particular. She learnt three languages in school and in the process evolved her own sets of symbols which crossed the boundaries between these languages. It was no language; it was an attempt at formulating a language. I found what I had been looking for. I used these symbols, tracing them from her notebooks and drawing books. They were repeated and taken a little further with each painting, the very repetition imbuing them with a contextual meaning within the body of my own work. I print them in vermilion, the language of shop signs or political slogans in India. When the paint drips, it is also blood. The scriptis unreadable in the same sense that we experience the forty-odd languages in our country as we travel. It is a sub-text to the creative/working processes which are places of origin rather than known sites. Like my painting and my life-incomplete, the meaning half-visible, being created with every step. The use of script also accommodates, within painting, my involvement with poetry and written text. I continue to find ways of doing this.
Future Narratives: from a letter to a friend, February 2002
My next body of work will be entitled 'Untouchable'. The idea was spontaneous, but in India the term carries a heavy semantic load, focusing for the main part on caste taboos. I implicate these but widen the context to include other forms of marginalization/exclusion/subordination. My main focus is on the idea of the 'untouchable' as someone falling outside the hierarchy/convenience/status of classification but useful as an intermediary who provides access to the darker, mysterious forces of life (in actual social practice). I have just completed the first painting in this series - framed within the familiar (in India) act of self-immolation.
The broadest and original context remains the self - a personal history which is partially narrated in symbols within the painting, possibly the most inscrutable area. The original impulse is not an intellectual one but one of those things which occurs in a flash, a visual flash in the context of painting, a vision to use a more dramatic word? The analysis comes later, but I notice that if the matrix/structure is strong, there is a convergence of all perspectives, and I see this unfold through my practice. A collective reading is also possible through the use of images which in India would be identified across all economic and social hierarchies. Symbols of sati and other rituals of purification, rites of passage into states of deprivation, renunciation - the entry points are therefore multiple - social, personal, topical, fantastic and historical. The next painting - the self-image framed within the context of widowhood/sacrifice/loss of sexuality through the shaving off of one's hair - part of a group of three, with a peacock as a central motif. The peacock as a national/notional bird is an intended cliché; I noticed later the fact of his being male.
The third group will be built around the coloured fountains of the Krishnaraja Sagar Dam (a tourist spot) in Mysore, where I was born. And so on. The cliches are as much ideas as repositories of brilliant colour.
The 'catalogue' for this body of work will be a book/books of poems in braille, also with the same title, dating from 1979. Braille is written by puncturing the paper to produce an embossed script, but has to be read with the fingers, which brings with it the possibility of healing. I do not seek to set a precedent, merely to materialize something which seems intrinsically connected with the concepts that I work with. I would through the course of my life make things which could possibly initiate a quest, as extensions of a larger, deliberate event such as a show. For me it would entail a quest for a different kind of a conceptual space than the one created by my mainstream practice, painting, which is an assertive act - I exhibit my work and in a way demand its viewing, demand a critique. The objects/books/CDs which I will make will be limited in number and free from compulsion or self-consciousness of any kind. They would exist as an authentic, subliminal record of the processes of my art-making but would in fact be difficult to access; those wishing to access it would be put to trouble and the sacrifice of their time. The impulse which could prompt their discovery would be curiosity and the conviction that it would be worth one's while to attempt to break the code - an open question to which I have no answer.
Of course it becomes possible to present these due to a pre-existent relationship with a viewership. The objects are however autonomous and from the moment of their completion increasingly independent of my authorship or desires - I set them free to go where they will, to remain undiscovered or be found. Their potential discovery would in every case involve communication, not through confrontation but through compassion and understanding - and journeys into unfamiliar spaces. Like a treasure hunt. The personal property of whomsoever it may concern. It is an invitation to anyone who wishes to do so, to write their own story.
From a paper written for a symposium (2002).