Published in the Sunday Guardian, July 2018

Artist Shreyas Karle was once asked how he defined art. "Art is common sense," he said. He described artists as the "gatekeepers of the visual world" who are prone to being felled by COCIS - Crisis of Creative Ideas and Subjects.

According to Karle, there are two ways for the gatekeepers to treat COCIS. They can either try to make their old ideas and subjects seem novel by repackaging them or they could "try to improvise the language of art". Like much of Karle's artistic work, his words are a curious combination of earnestness and mockery and while seeing his contribution to Cinema City, a sprawling exhibition that explores Mumbai's kinship with movies, I couldn't help remembering Karle's prescription for COCIS. After all, if there was ever an art form that thrives on repackaging old ideas, it's film. And then there's Karle, who has done his best to improvise the language of commercial cinema.

Comprising more than 30 objects, which include sculptures and drawings, Karle's Museum of Fetish Objects is a miniature exhibition within Cinema City. One of the first things you see as you approach Museum is a tiny brass sculpture. It looks like a set of buildings lined up. Read the wall text that accompanies the work, and you'll know that this is the "Multi-religion Protagonist Locket", which shows a temple, a mosque, a gurudwara and a church next to one another. Karle folds consumerism into popular cinema, highlighting how our films manufacture constructs for ideas like desire. The Hindi title of the series translates to "museum gift shop". Karle's point is that cinema sells us stereotypes and we buy into them.

Some of it items in Museum are delightfully silly, like the drawings of the factories producing B and C-grade cinema, whose shadows are in the shape of the relevant alphabet. Then there's the milk bottle, titled M.K. Milk, or maa ka doodh, which has a label that has a fuming Dharmendra printed on it. Above 18 under 18 is a set of movie-viewing glasses made of kulfi moulds. Children are to wear the ones that are more conical while those above 18 get the moulds whose ends are squarish. An accompanying diagram explains that the narrow-focus of the glasses for the under-18 glasses ensures a child sees only the nipples, as though they're the tops of baby bottles. Adults, on the other hand, are allowed to see the entire breast. It's ridiculous, and yet at the same time, Karle reminds us that so much of cinema (particularly the B- and C-grade variety) taps on ideas of voyeurism and wish fulfillment. There's also the hilarious Spot romance-stop romance. It's a large poster that shows a progression from tetrapods (where one spots romance, both in real-life Mumbai as well as in the movies) to a red triangle that signifies the stop sign.

For Museum, Karle said he saw himself as a shaman. His intention was to reveal how popular cinema is used to both create and control desire in the audience. It panders to and creates fantasies but also reiterates conservative conventions, like encouraging the viewer to objectify women and also tamp down one's own sexuality. Karle's use of everyday objects makes Museum all the more potent and entertaining. The tetrapods, for example, are a fixture on Mumbai's Marine Drive, a favorite with the city's romancing couples. Whereas to most of us they're just oddly shaped hunks of concrete acting as a bulwark, to Karle they are part of a cinematic language and speak of love, longing and suppression.

Cinema city, which is currently on display in Mumbai’s National Gallery of Modern Art, has been organized by Majlis, the Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute of Architecture and Ministry of Culture. The exhibition has works by famous Indian artists like Atul Dodiya and Pushpamala.N., but one of the most fun and inventive parts of the exhibition is Karle’s Museum of Fetish Objects. Its not the most eye catching set. In fact, there’s a drabness to it that befits the idea of a dusty, neglected museum. To appreciate Karle’s work, you need to come up close and read what he has written carefully and then look at what is on display. Do that and you’ll find yourself grinning while nodding in agreement with Karle’s critique of cinema.

Published in the Sunday Guardian, July 2018
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