Artists

From the exhibition catalogue published by Galerie Daniel Templon (2010).

I made white gestures among solitudes

- Guillaume Apollinaire

This new series of large works on paper by Anju Dodiya is entitled Face-off (after Kuniyoshi), and refers to the prints with images of samurais that Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) made around the late 1840s. Kuniyoshi - like Hiroshige - is one of the main artists of the Ukiyo-e School in the late Edo period (1602-1868), and he is precisely noted for his samurai prints. Ukiyo-e (meaning Pictures of the Floating World) was a school of popular art which depicted, in paintings, woodblock prints and books, life in urban Japan from the 17th to the 19th Century, at a time when it was completely isolated. Through the images of Ukiyo-e, we visualize the world of the tea-houses in the entertainment quarters - referred to as the floating world, where one would find geishas and the actors of the Kabuki theatre having fun. By the beginning of the 1840s, however, the Japanese authorities took measures to attack licentious behaviour and the frivolous works of art and literature that accompanied them, believing that by doing so they would improve the morale of the population and their military spirit. It was a time of growing concern about the power and greed of several Western nations. These new conservative policies worked as encouragement to produce images of heroic subjects, and the Kuniyoshi prints of samurais were made in this context, as well as others in which, for a change but also for a short period, women were made into models of virtue rather than the focus of desire.

Ukiyo-e prints have been frequently acknowledged as one source of imagery for Anju Dodiya, who also finds inspiration in a rather wide range of things, including cinema, popular culture (from comics to advertising), Persian and Indian miniatures, European tapestries from the Middle Ages, Renaissance Art, Classical Chinese and Japanese Painting, and different modern and contemporary artists - from Antonin Artaud to Robert Rauschenberg and Francesco Clemente. Rather than creating pastiches with images and ideas from all these sources, Anju Dodiya uses them, as well as stories from different literary and mythological narratives, and, of course, her own fantasies, to explore issues of identity and self-examination. Many of her works, indeed, take the form of the self-portrait although in many different guises. Nancy Adajania, the critic who has written more acutely and extensively about the work of the artist, said that Dodiya “has always made and re-made the self in the floating presence of performance” [1]. Clearly, Dodiya is not using absorbed information to develop a style in formal terms, which she also does to a certain extent, but because this information serves her, whenever she wants to use it, to convey this exploration of the self to which she is committed in the group of works we are presenting now, the image of the artist working in the studio as a samurai- we see her painting, sometime split in two characters, while adopting dynamic martial arts postures. This is a good metaphor to convey the life of the artist as someone dedicated to sacrifice, discipline, pain , tradition or service, like that of the Japanese warriors, the samurai; who ultimately, one could say, glorified love and death. One thinks, in this context, of the writings of Yukio Mishima who wrote, before committing suicide by hara-kiri, and essay entitled Spiritual Lessons for Young Samurais. Mishima, whose work explores tormented and masochistic eroticism, had previously said he wanted his life to be like a poem. Dodiya, whose body often appears also tormented in her work, had already represented herself as a samurai in Holding the Mountain, a work from 1996.

Moving away from the disturbing atmosphere of Mishima’s writing and Anju Dodiya’s own previous work, her new images have something humorous or cartoonish - and indeed this may refer again to Kuniyoshi, who is also famous for his bizarre and comic subjects. Here we see the artist fighting with a canvas, ostensibly to make it work. A painted portrait in Paper Storm has a plug in her mouth as if it could not speak or communicate - an image which is taken from an untitled photograph by Maurizio Cattelan from 2000. In Face-off, continuing her own drawings of the series Walled City (2008) - the image in the painted canvas within the painting, has something like shackles or a noose around her neck as if captive to its possible failure as art. In Quarrel Duet we see an image, hidden or tormented by a red mask while fighting back from the canvas, with some kind of cloth in each of her hands. This particular figure is based on one of the famous grotesque dancing demons attributed to the Turkish 15th century artist Siyah Qalam, from the albums kept in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. In Eclipse, the painted is energetically fighting to erase the blackness covering most of the painting she is working on. In Entangled, several cords emanate from the head of the samurai/artist as is she is about to be strangled and consequently defeated by her own actions or decisions. In Steps, we see a samurai/artist working while she has abandoned all possibility of comfort: a pile of pillows over an arm chair. Painting is certainly something of a ritual - and Gerhard Richter, who collected his writings under the title the Daily Practice of Painting, has said that he paints with “the hope that I can after all effect something through painting” [2], which implies somehow that the ritualized repetition of gestures is close to a magical or shamanic act. Painting, ultimately, is also the result of the confrontation between intention and rapture. Dodiya, in any case, is not alone in these reflections. The painter Sean Scully, who has, by the way, a black belt in Karate, has often said that painting is related to boxing. Another, Miquel Barceló, has seen himself as a bullfighter (and also a gorilla in captivity). Finally, Willelm de Kooning, in his famous 24 Drawings with Eyes Closed (1966) depicted some figures lifting weights - referring, most probably, to the daily efforts of his me´tier, and crucifixions, which may suggest, again with Mishima, some relation between love and death, and also a way of seeing art practice as something to do with martyrdom and total abandon. Dodiya has made at least one work dedicated to Joan of Arc, a character also loved by Mishima, and which works as an homage to the great filmmaker Carl Dreyer.

Face-Off is also the title of an interesting American action film made in 1997 by John Woo, a director from HongKong, who has specialized in films with beautifully choreographed martial arts scenes. The film stars John Travolta and Nicholas Cage, one playing a terrorist and the other a FBI agent,who change appearances, adopting each other’s face through a surgicaloperation.Inherstatementaccompanyingthis show, Dodiya has written that artists disappear once their work of art is finished, and that the work remains solely as an anonymous, creative expression. It is not casual then that several of the figures in these new works by Anju Dodiya are hidden underneath geometrical reddish masks, implying that one of the painted images is getting out of the canvas - becoming real, taking the form of a bizarre spotted octopus, with tentacles resembling claws or thorns, and two large and comical eyes. This monster may defeat the artist who is only fighting with a brush. Sometimes we see two figures at work - or at war! They do stand for the inner demons of the artist battling it out to overcome one another. When asked about these double presences, Dodiya confirmed that they refer to duplications of the self and quoted Paul Valéry, “One must go into himself armed to the teeth”. Nancy Adajania, again, has said that Dodiya feels a clear “Fascination for extreme situations” [3], and explained how she can adopt different roles while portraying herself, like a magician, a seductress or a clown, besides a samurai. The new images seem also to explode, flashing from blackness, being partially surrounded by black areas on the edges-“charcoal clouds”, in Dodiya’s works, suggesting that the act of creation is one extreme situation, comparable to lightning during storms. The black surroundings also help to provide a certain dream-like quality to the whole thing. Certainly, there is not much indication of settling, besides allegorical representations of the work in the studio, these images have to be seen as mental projections of the act of painting.

While painting or drawing herself, Anju Dodiya portrays issues like vulnerability, eroticism, violence, self-exploration, dreams and extreme situations in general. These new works are not really a radical departure from previous works, beside the irony and humour already highlighted. They suggest something which goes beyond the personal. The fact that the artist may be defeated refers ironically to the fact that today, and for quite a while now, many other artists are using conceptual and technological means, influenced by years of dominance of art criticism and theory which insists that the painting is no longer relevant. The work of Anju Dodiya is rooted in Oriental traditions which used images (in the visual arts as also in the theatre, dance, and oral literary traditions) as a vehicle of storytelling. The action taking place in art coming from these traditions is more important than the precise depiction of specific setting, so figures tend to appear in isolation or besides a few props. Ground is only indicated by the weight implied in the exaggerated folds of the voluminous garments worn by the characters, and also by possible distortions of perspective. Only in Eclipse in which the artist is erasing the blackness of her painting, we see some lines depicting walls and ground, but it is probably more to emphasize that the artist is cornered in her creative battle than the result of mimesis and observation. Figures are depicted in exaggerated movements and their balance is unstable, being always in motion. They are also very expressive, suggesting a diverse range of feelings, like astonishment, fear, concentration or aggression. When they wear masks, her characters underline ideas of role playing, narrative and intention beyond aesthetic accomplishment. The world of imagination or idea is clearly more important than that of verisimilitude and observation.

Anju Dodiya’s work, in spite of using traditional media and her vast knowledge of the artistic past of several cultures is not nostalgic. She lives in a world that has read the works of writers like Jorge Luis Borges or Fernando Pessoa, portraying the labyrinths of the mind and imagination. The maze is significantly one of her favourite motifs. She is also contemporary of filmmakers like Apichatpong Weerasathakul, Christopher Nolan and Wong Kar-Wai, whose narratives involve ghosts, dreams and memory distorted by emotions. Obviously all of us live now in a world of digital and virtual realties, overdosed with images and information. Still the work of artists remains relevant, and the means they use is absolutely their business, even if this does not suit theoretical dogma. Dodiya’s images articulate by now a vast narrative of inner desires and haunting visions (she has painted some works on mattresses, suggesting directly the world of dreams), in a voyage of self-discovery. Art practice, however, has for her something of an unavoidable curse. Indeed, and quoting Adajania again, Dodiya “reflects on two basic and opposite conditions in all her painting: selfhood wounded and selfhood armoured against hurt” [4]. Fortunately she is clearly winning this battle, being able, in this process, to make aesthetic objects out of her circumstances.

Notes

[1] Nancy Adajania, Tasting the Acid Kiss, in Anju Dodiya, The Cloud Hunt, New Delhi. Vadehra Art Gallery, 2005. P.4

[2] Gerhard Richter, Interview with Benjamin H.D.Buchloh (1986), collected in The Daily Practice of Painting, London. Thames and Hudson and Anthony d’offay, 1995,p.157.

[3] Nancy Adajania, Tasting the Acid Kiss, in Anju Dodiya, The Cloud Hunt, New Delhi. Vadehra Art Gallery, 2005. P.4

[4] Nancy Adajania, Burning closer to the Light of Crisis, in Anju Dodiya, Necklace of Echoes, New Delhi. Vadera Art Gallery, 2010

From the exhibition catalogue published by Galerie Daniel Templon (2010).

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