Every year, over more than a decade, it was common to visit Ashim. And each such time we met I would be curious about his small wooden cupboard which was like a treasure trove for him, filled always with goods which people wouldn’t otherwise keep in their houses: wooden buttons, coasters, bound traditional account books, stamps, plastic butterflies, old photos… and all in multiples.
In other words it was a veritable museum, a museum of abandoned or pretty objects. This was a museum in a very primitive sense of the term: a Cabinet of Curiosities.
Living as he did in a locality which is marked by its betweenness, Kalkaji, then as now teems with shops and capital, it would show up all the contrasts and differences that Indian culture is known by.
Thus, this hinterland next to the good face of the city offers up a range of experience and objects in their raw materiality. It would then take a new age flaneur, may be a deglamorised meander in the age of globalization to take a deep look to retrieve signs that would reconfigure on a different narrative plane.
In a way navigating a city to retrieve the traces of one’s journey is an allegorical journey. The works thus turn out to be a journeyman’s diary. And as in a personal anecdote, objects inflect spaces as nodal points, as pointers do in a map. The maps then grow wings and grow temporal, find fissures, the fissures where time is out of joint and reside there.
An allegorist is also attracted to fragments. Thus before an allegorist’s eyes the world appear as ruins. To Ashim, a migrant in the city, Delhi doesn’t appear in its singular feature. Precisely because there is an aspect of survival that marks his existence, he then traces those features upon a material terrain. Hence his works always or almost always proffer and defer meanings, always very allegorical.
Materially the objects that you collect may have different status, but by their collocation and contiguity they may measure up to what is beyond the scope for those materials to convey alone. Thus there is a difference between how aesthetic objects would behave when they are meant to be allegorical and how they would when they are in the belligerent anti-aesthetic field. Ashim’s polemical attitude would rather settle for the second and more uneasy convergence of allegory and cipher.
An exilic state is a difficult field of consciousness. It is double-edged. At its extreme, an exilic is left with his or her memory alone. In a certain moderate sense of the term, any alienatory state could easily slip into exilic to which actual diaspora only adds another dimension.
Ashim, by no count would fulfil all these categories and is sensitive to the betweenness that his migrant settler status is marked by.
Thus, his configurations work through motifs, documents and objects, suggestive of times and spaces that are not always from the familiar lore. He sometimes carefully works out the quips, charades and traces via an extra element, an image, a motif, a map upon the objects which call into question their particularity as signs but reinstate them as objects.
Maps, mementos, motifs
Most hyper real anti-aesthetics premise themselves on the principle of difference. They resist the complete symbolic appropriation of the process. This category we saw on the rise from the first quarter of the last century in west, though in its new avatar, it reappears in India towards the beginning of the 90’s.
But one can clearly see the difference that there is between the instances of anti-aesthetics and the arguments about a lost location (read centre) of culture. Ashim’s is a defiant gesture, a gesture that questions the centre of meaning production time and again; earlier in the JNU campus experiment, via his transformative Gandhi stamps-Gandhi spectacles were the quasi de obdurate - he addressed the vexed question of vision of the Father of the Nation. And now that spatiality settles for an argument around the city of Delhi he has inhabited for over ten years.
Thus, he approaches the theme of the laconic city f Delhi in its mystic overture - ‘Dilli Dilwalon Ki’, which is also the running theme of this show.
But, you, as a viewer clearly do not expect somebody with peripheral logic to endorse a mythic construct in the centre. The motif of a plastic butterfly is a concrete witness to this. ‘Concrete witness’! Indeed ironical. He, who would question the construct behind this image from a quaint but responsible perspective, would certainly look at it from a single register of meaning.
Thus the butterflies appear to us in their ameliorations, via photos where they rest in the worthless surroundings of open cables - dangerously open, spell volumes on the maintenance on the part of the State. They would rest on the debris of civilization - if you like taking an inferential general route to arrive at the meaning. That assurance would slowly go with the recognition of the fact that these butterflies are not some of those frail creatures of nature, but are mass produced and dispensable, wayside objects of fantasy and desire.
Ashim’s butterflies, the image or quasi image with which the construct ‘Dilli Dilwalon Ki’ rests, can be divided into thematic zones which he problematizes via the forms he gives them.
Butterflies: agencies of Death
(agencies of infinite deferral)
This suites’ undifferentiated nomenclature is somewhat deceptive, for if death appears before us in visitation image there is a closure, while when you have a chance to work upon it, to sublimate, there are choices. On a second remove, if there is a presence that can be articulated as a presence of the State, which is overarching in the form of miniscule stamps which again is a field to work upon - then the closure is opened already. All these subcategories involved in the morphing of an imaginary city are then part of the same space - the lived reality-moments (of crisis and jubilation). Ashim takes all of them together and leaves none.
The butterflies, at least in their winged aspects, are the central motif in this show. They take on a skull shape many times, many a time they are literally death apparent. Poised on their wings, thus, the two skeletons are somewhat acting as guardian and to an extent reduplicating an emergent metaphor of visitation, in reverse. Then they come to face each other in a perennial quip but the abyss in the mid zone announces / pronounces death more by conspicuous absence.
Eros Vs Death: a modernist contrast revisited
Where does the State visualize itself so very distinctly - if at all? It does so, according to me, in the myriad manifestations which are rendered almost amorphous by our daily encounters - by stamps, by seals put on our passports, by so many other acts of endorsing.
Ashim takes on those as a modernist would to get onto the ally of power. But, as we said - bythe initial positional difference he would then work upon these (stamps, for instance) to check out the reversals of meanings. Thus, the stamps with butterflies would be cut open to show the chinks in the armour, so that we are not poised against them uncritically, so that the subject also functions as critical agent, with power to alter. This is the crux of the quip - the unknown terrain of meaning and absence.
In a series of stamps, he draws the same skeletons in the joining parts - in between the wings of the butterflies. He then transfers the energy and then there is a surprise - he turns the dots on the wings into skulls - the governing thematic, now in reverse: death apparent.
Butterflies, generally speaking, signify love; his attempts are at a subversion of them via his own articulation of selfhood, which he does by finding variation to the hinging form.
If visuality is a central problem to contradicting the local to the world, then too there is a hinging point in the articulation. The apparent visual asymmetry of the wings on display, as in the canvases, can be translated into metaphors for constellations - as contrasted against street lights.
These variants are then routed through his concerns over the identities of the unknown others, the imagined terrorists who take on the central position, replacing the skulls as central motifs in another series of works where wings are built with nails, he builds them up painstakingly, with an expected cognitive extrapolation, where these portraits, imagined by the real witnesses would contradict the people found out to be involved. He thus addresses the fallacy involved in imagining the Other.
We come back thus to the opening theme of migrancy and metaphor.
The trousers on display on big canvases may confuse us primarily, for they are newly emergent shopping mall displays writ large within the metaphysics of repetition.
How do they translate into the main theme of an author - a migrant settler trying to derive his energy from the city he has settled in and trying to question it to wrest back his identity?
As we said before, these works do not settle for a singularity. They vex the question of singularity with contrary pulls, and the trousers, which are likely derivatives of the billboards, may only fit within this series if accepted on similar terms and their limits.
Thus, the displays seem alluring (one may as well remember the association of black and white with photography of the past and documentaries in general). There is a fallacy in transaction; meaning is offered on a surface of a canvas (cloth) of a pair of jeans trousers turned inside out - cloth upon cloth. They are a simulacra of presences. They are to vanish like an inside-out object vanishes. This ephemera is dedicated to the city - the offer of meanings and presences and the deferrals, that the criticality of an author / artist engages in and questions.
Thus a migrant privileging himself over the meaning (and hermeneutics) can now stave off a concrete inference. For, identity is a question which we can offer for scrutiny in a globalizing world, but rarely stand by completely. This is, according to me, a site for contestation over selfhood today.
From the exhibition catalogue published by Anant Art Gallery (2006).