Mumbai-based Baiju Parthan’s Dislocation: Milljunction Part 2 was mounted at Aicon Gallery, London, from the 15th of July to the 20th of August. In the last decade, Parthan has had six solo show - three in Mumbai (Fine Art Company. The Guild Art Gallery and Art Musings), two in Delhi (Vadehra Art Gallery and Gallery Espace) and one at Aicon Gallery, New York.

Located near Regent Street, close to other galleries showcasing South Asian and diasporic art. Aicon Gallery, London, has two floors that allow the curator Niru Ratnam a chance to experiment with the presentation of artworks. As Ratnam explained, one of the key themes in Parthan’s Dislocation was “disintegration - of traditional India, of course, but also of reality through the rise of virtual reality. We wanted the show to conceptually get more disintegrated as you went from the ground floor to the basement.” The purported effect was to evoke a kind of everyday doom - Parthan asserts that this is central to his apocalyptic vision of urban life.

Does new media art demand a new perception, even a new theory of art? For some time now, Parthan’s work has wagered just that. Through interventions in post-humanist assemblages of technology, sensation and representation. Parthan has attempted to explore a phenomenology of how “perceptual paradigms can be intentionally tinkered/ violated/ modified to enlarge the experience of the world.” In much of the work on display at the show, you could mark how experiments in symbiotic art practices affected perception. Be has Parthan succeeded in pushing the boundaries of perception and new media art?

Originally from Kerala, Parthan went on to study in Goa and Mumbai. Interested in the influence of technology on religious beliefs, the implication of genetic engineering and the development of symbiotic relations between humans and machines. Parthan’s work has been experimental, media savvy virtual yet rooted, and certainly quite timely. But what is it that keeps Parthan’s work from breaking new ground? Although moving, the work is overly conceptual to the point where an idealist theory of new media (‘Virtuality leeches Reality’) dominates the experiments in perception. Memory weighs down his canvases as lament bleeds into nostalgia. In works such as Milljunction 1-3, old Fiat taxis, cycles, huge buildings and displaced labourers are covered over by digital graffiti, showing “the familiar being erased to make way for the new”. Overwhelmed by a concept - laden approach, his painterly experiments seem to be taken over by familiar post-colonial ideas.

Parthan says, “While virtual reality developers try to replicate and emulate reality in virtual space, virtuality itself has been undermining the solidity of our reality.” In what sense - after the multiple bombings in Mumbai, the pogrom in Gujarat, the spectacle of Mumbai’s Mills becoming Malls, or the ‘virtual’ but very real assassination of Osama Bin Laden - can we legitimately say that the digital virtual is undermining the solidity of reality? This would assume that the virtual and the real are somehow ontologically split rather than continuous but affectively different registers of the same reality. Do perceptual crises share the same ontological scale as acts of extreme violence? Does human violence the world over express the same ontological breakdown, or is what the political scientist Achille Mbembe calls “necropolitics” (genocidal states of exception mushrooming everywhere) an attempt to overcode and master the multiplicity of a new globalizing ontology of machinic itself (both Western counter-terrorism and the Arab Spring are involved in the capacities of the mobile phone, for instance)? The answers to these questions were posed and foreclosed in Parthan’s otherwise experimental works. Consider, for example, his experiment with duration in works like Untitled 1 and 2. The seemingly symmetrical photorealist paintings give the illusion of being part of a continuous short; at a second glance, they strike the eye as the same image, and then, on a third take, it becomes clear that it’s the same image but at different moments in time (recalling Homi Bhabha’s notion of “the time-lag”). Consider his experiments with llenticular imagery (Chorus and Monument, for instance), which strike this viewer as riffs on vintage Westerns popular culture (in the USA of the 1970s and the 1980s, you could get small square-sized lenticulars of The Green Lantern or the Grand Canyon as prizes inside sugary cereal boxes). In these prints, Parthan presents his familiar time lags, but through a play on Hollywood’s current 3-D craze. Parthan explores the photographic modelling virtual objects and entities “by faces.”

These lenticulars repeat the perceptual layering in the image through movement and perspective and return us to the parasitism of the virtual. Both the images (Chorus and Monument) are dominated by the figure of the swarm - the planes in one, the sharks in the other. These over-determined metaphors give to the images a certain sensory motor evasion as if the perceptual stammer wrought by Parthan’s play with duration or with 3-D needed the signifying coddle of a geopolitical cliché, e.g. the terrorist as shark, the airliner as re-modernizer. The non-signifying passage or transition from one affective state to another is brought to stasis, consciousness and brooding anxiety by an angry hand about to throw a rock or a meteor threatening to devastate a city in a series like Lunch Break. Are these formal and material dice-throws instances of new perceptual experiments in new media art? There seems to be no thumping affirmation.

This was first published in Art India, Sept 2011, Volume XVI, Issue II.

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