Published in Broken Branches, Bose Pacia Modern, 17 April - 31 May, 2003
How does one begin to articulate a political art when all around us the political takes on dimensions both monstrous and surreal? It was Andre Breton who claimed that the ultimate surrealistic act was to go out into the street with a gun and shoot at people indiscriminately but also that beauty should be convulsive or not at all. Now that beauty can only be convulsive and we are submerged in a quotidian thick of the violent and malevolently absurd, how does an artist posit the humanistic and the compassionate against such odds?
Atul Dodiya’s course from an art that was realistic and autobiographical to one which has become intrinsically political in its intentions can be read through his choices of both media and style. After completing his studies at Bombay’s J.J. School of Art in 1982, Dodiya developed a vocabulary of picture-making which was straight-forward, reductive and unabashedly realistic. The mundane spaces of a mostly suburban India were painted in a flat, matter-of-fact way, teetering on the edge of a bland Pop Art yet hinting at a metaphysical realm hovering just below slowly bleed into the real (think Magritte to Johns to Warhol) until one was subsumed within the other (as Robert Gober’s works have also articulated). Yet a period of study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1991-92 led Dodiya to discover a new genre of “realist” painting, one which was inherently contradictory in content and both quotational and polyvalent in its identity. The works of David Salle, Sigmar Polke and their stylistic mentor Francis Picabia must have seemed both shockingly normal and appropriately complex to a young man born and raised in India’s largest, seething urban petri dish. From then on, Dodiya too scavenged images from various sources to collide them together into painted collages which struck a chord with his fellow countrymen, accommodating a multiplicity of cultures, religions and races within single landmass. The accommodation of difference became a nationalist program with the advent of India’s independence in 1947 and has taken on an increased urgency in the past decade as the country’s economic and cultural spheres have been buffeted by the winds of globalization, privatization and a telecommunication revolution. This continued accommodation of diversity has also acquired the shading of a political stance as it has been attacked by a right-wing polity which hopes to homogenize Indian cultures into a sanitized, patently false “Hindu” paradigm which has little to do with the actual philosophies, practices and infinite sub-sects of that which has come to be known as “Hinduism.”
For this reason, the layering of a diverse array of imageries into a single painted canvas has come to serve Dodiya well in his quest to speak of the injustices happening within his own city and country, the violent confrontations occurring around the world, and the difficulties all artists encounter when attempting to address and issues. Dodiya has explored several different formal and compositional methods of addressing such issues. In one series of large-scale watercolors from the late 1990’s the artist has used the figure of Mahatama Gandhi as a conveniently slippery icon, inserting him into a number of incongruous situations. Here, Gandhi functions as a multiplicity of signs: of India and Indianness (by definition antipodal to “The West”); of non-violence and vegetarianism; of a rejection of Modernism as necessarily subservient to Capitalism and Consumerism; of the post-colonial within a world quickly becoming dominated by a single Empire; of the anxieties of Indian contemporary artist who wants to create an art that has relevancy both to his own local situation and an increasingly internationalized art world. Other works of Dodiya’s have employed the steel security shutters that are pulled down over shop fronts nightly as the supports for paintings. This architecture device becomes a sort of book jacket to introduce the narrative hiding behind its façade. Contradictions and surprise (as well as the half-opened or half-closed which can approximate half-truths and deceptions) can enable succinct statements (such as the giant, multi-colored figure of the benevolent goddess Mahalaxmi who is rolled up to reveal the horrendous, black-and-white image of three young women who have entered a suicide pact).
A similar confluence of opposites takes place in Dodiya’s recent series of works on the subject of Afghanistan. Here, emaciated, ghoulish and terrified figures are X-rayed to reveal insides of only parched white bones (shitting bricks) while crudely drawn airplanes also drop rectangles o them from the sky. Dodiya seems to ask if America’s “War on Terror” is not perhaps the final, sad and ironic victory of Western Modernism; if it is not somehow the final revenge of Malevich’s Black Square on those that have resisted it for so long?
Invited to participate in an exhibition entitled Home-Street-Shrine-Bazaar-Museum (curated by Gulammohammed Shiekh for the Manchester Art Gallery in the summer of 2002), Dodiya rose to the occasion with perhaps his most complex yet subtly layered work to date. Dodiya’s family traces their roots to the Western Indian state of Gujarat which was, in the spring 2002, the location for some of the most horrific and well-organized violence every perpetrated against the Muslim minority community in the sub-continent. In the area of Gujarat known as Saurashtra, from which Dodiya’s family comes, is the small town of Porbundar where Mohandas K. Gandhi was born and appropriately a museum to honor him has been created there. Dodiya copied the display cases found within this museum for the structure of his multipart work entitled Broken Branches, discovering within this far-flung locality a single device which could accommodate the multiple references inferred by home, street, shrine, bazaar and Museum.
These wall-mounted vitrines reminded Dodiya of the glass-fronted display cases he saw in every home of his childhood. Typically, this display cases contained a wide variety of bibelots ranging from the sacred to the secular, the indigenous to the imported, the commonplace and the commemorative. Yet, even within their neo-Bourgeouis and increasingly vulgar avatars in drawing rooms throughout India, these display cases still hold true to their origins as that invention of the 16th century Europe (and a product very much of the Ages of Exploration and Enlightenment) the Wunderkammer (or the Cabinet of Curiosities). For there is always an act of enshrinement that accompanies the placing of objects behind any glass front, a separation from the everyday that connotes rarity, authenticity, value and often awe. The Wunderkammer, by definition, collapsed distinctions between the natural and man-made, between the sacred and theprofane,intooneover-arching construction of privileged selection. Dodiya was well aware of the uses the Wunderkammer has been put to by 20th Century artists in both Europe and the Americas (from Joseph Cornell, Daniel Spoerri and Edward Keinholz to, more recently, Jeff Koons, Haim Steinbach, and Matthew Barney, among many others). Most notably it seems Dodiya was influenced by the work of Joseph Beuys and how, in his case, the device of the vitrine facilitated the creation of myth, aura and even idolatry. But in India, the structure of the Wunderkammer also takes on notions of colonial subjugation, the nature of all museological and anthropological collections to be imperialistic, and the thin line which separated appreciating the other and capturing the Exotic.
These display cases from Porbundar could then be an appropriate starting point to talk about the recent tragedies of Gujarat, for Dodiya to address the political from a personal perspective. Their tops had been designed in a sharp slant so as to keep pigeons from resting (ad shitting) on them. The artist could approach this as a metaphor for the conscious engineering of control, an intellectual conceit to deny freedom of movement. An image of a bird would be placed mischiefly on top of each cabinet, occupying a place of privilege usually reserved for the pictures of departed ancestors throughout Asia. The bird then becomes a leitmotif running through Broken Branches, a symbol of a freedom that can be either wild or domesticated.
Yet the real subject of Broken Branches is violence and its aftermath, of a certain fascination with pain, disfigurement and suffering. Dodiya eschews almost all color from his tablueaux, designing an ensemble in sepias and browns which seems more of the past than the present, certainly not of the Technicolor, flamboyant Bollywood or picturesque Rajasthan the world craves from India. There may be cunning subversion to cloak the recent in the garb of the distant so as to render it seemingly benign but also palatable, to slip a message under the door when it was not opened at first knock. Sepia is the colour in which we know about Gandhi and India’s struggle for freedom but also the horrific effects of Nazism and the atomic bomb. To render the contemporary in these terms is to make connections which may otherwise seem forced, certainly those responsible for recent atrocities do not want to see such bridges built.
Among the assortment of photographs, etching, watercolors, paintings and found objects arranged in the display cases of Broken Branches, each case (save for the small one honoring the craftsmen who helped produce the work) contains at least one, if not more, human bone and one prosthetic limb. This recurring motif of human remains and their substitutes (leg braces, artificial feet and hands, crutches) speaks of a strange displacement of the natural and the living with the synthetic and the man-made. Dodiya attempts to give visual form to a social violence that amputates one community from another, contradicts historical fact with contemporary myth, and negates the individual with the collective. A poignancy is brought to the lasting, disfiguring and paralyzing effects of violence contrasted as they are with the symbols of flight and unbounded freedom. Nestled throughout the display cases are also the tools of the carpenter, capable both of creation and destruction, benevolence and violence, possible extensions, as are the prosthetics, of both man’s good and evil. It is as if Dodiya posits these seemingly neutral symbols as the possibilities inherent within humankind to create either heaven or hell with the very same means, to imply a gargantuan responsibility which is nascent in the most humble beginnings.
In summation, Atul Dodiya’s Broken Branches may be an appropriate political art faced with the absurdity of contemporary political developments (both within India and internationally). Alongside the often gruesome and ghastly objects and images Dodiya displays in his cases are a number of devices for measuring and weighing, charts with which to ascertain the progression of events or the consolidation of their effects. Dodiya asks the viewer to use the human body as the ultimate scale, to measure all developments by their effects on individuals, by the yardsticks of pain and suffering. We must take into account the effects of politically motivated violence on physical bodies and personal lives, irrespective of the communities in which these individuals reside, irrespective of the ideologies that foster such violence. Joseph Beuys’ concept of “social sculpture” sought to create a political art by taking advantage of socially and politically responsible form of art practice by employing the devices of collage, assemblage and juxtaposition to speak to the immediate, the personal and the heart-felt.
Published in Broken Branches, Bose Pacia Modern, 17 April - 31 May, 2003