Magic, in its perhaps most primordial sense, is the experience of existing in a world made up of multiple intelligences, the intuition that every form one perceives - from the swallow swooping overhead to the fly on a blade of grass and indeed, the blade of grass itself - is an experiencing form, an entity with its own predilections and sensations, albeit sensations that are very different from our own.
- David Abram, from The Ecology of Magic: A Personal Introduction to the Inquiry.
Jagannath Panda is as much a marker of an evolving urbanscape as he is a participant in it. The son of a temple priest in Orissa, Jagannath has since travelled globally, making Delhi his home for several years now. These journeys have served as the substrate for his work, the matter which nourishes him and upon which his work grows. His newest series, “The action of Nowhere”, builds on the idea he has been constantly exploring - the unfolding and spreading of new forms of urbanism. As always, he continues to remain a multi-sieved filter through which everyday life must pass before it finds a place in his narrative. These works bear the stamp of his relatively recent shift to the splashy, overbuilt, Gurgaon on the South of Delhi, from his previous East Delhi home.
The new Gurgaon bursts open most decisively in the theatrical trio of crashing cars: The Lost Site, Failure of the Faith and Fatal Sublime. Already perceived as the site of new money, struggling to cocoon itself with the essentials of an established city, the city was the flashy home to the earliest malls (then a popular domestic tourism spot) and tall, glass office building clusters, ubiquitously called parks. It continues to be a node for global capital flows and an intense building boom. Gurgaon showcases several new Indian aspirations. In these three works, Jagannath creates deadly car accidents on canvas, where the metal of the automobiles are crumpled like sheets of paper, irretrievably destroyed. The textile of the ripped seat cover pours out of the car in Fatal Sublime. It is riveting in its directness, bringing out our inner voyeur. In a matter of seconds, we are transformed into the very people we’ve scoffed at previously, those who stand on roads, gaping at accidents in fascinated horror. Self-comforting belligerence is only one aspect of Jagannath’s preoccupation. Look carefully at the car works, and there are trees and branches being smashed, their death forced upon them by an out-of-control automobile. There is a strong likeness to the demolition of informal, thatched shanty houses by fierce bulldozers, an everyday assault in the developing world. The works become a metaphor for these goings-on, the seamy underside of fashioning the brave new city.
It would be unwise to ignore the seeping in of new forms of popular culture into Jagannath’s work. In An Avatar, a lone hyena looks over a drab apartment complex, the only vegetation a shrub on a single balcony. A part of his coat has melted onto a ledge where he precipitously stands, decorating it eerily. The hyena’s forehead is prettily adorned with unapologetic bling, glittery beads and crystal jewels, as a local tailor will call them. It is as if the hyena were a creature from the popular, melodramatic television soaps, where every character seems outfitted in a jewelry store and whose loud audacious fashion occasionally slips off the screen into real wardrobes. In another work, In The Dark, a bat hangs upside down, its outstretched wings webbed with black velvety lace. Lace was once considered luxury. Now, it’s an upbeat trend you see in dozens of stores, as the fabric of hundreds of traditional salwar-kameez across Indian cities.
Jagannath does not leave it at that, he uproots even widely accepted pop-green ideas, discarding them with vehement panache, as in Home Grown III. A plastic pot births a large black succulent that morphs into a toxic scorpion. Its base is abloom with artificial flowers, of the kind lovingly preserved in living rooms across the country. This homage to nature carries no favour with Jagannath, whose scorpion embodies the toxic plastics of false vegetation and speaks of contaminating rather than greening. Such nods and frowns to popular culture are partly autobiographical. They calibrate Jagannath’s own dislocation and subsequent assimilation into this new world that oscillates between reality and make-believe effortlessly every day.
Jagannath simultaneously creates a parallel fantasy, one that he plays out with animals as protagonists. Many of his works feature an animal bearing witness, as it were, to these urban shifts and its own slow demise. There is a sense of tension between these binary opposites - the animal that requires and seeks territory and the absence of such territory, physically and metaphorically, in the new urbanity.
The absence of a homeland, an essential ecology for many of these creatures, is replayed continuously in Jagannath’s work. Perhaps that is influenced by his own growing years in Orissa, where not only was urbanisation less destructive but also his own life was much more closely interlinked with the everyday environment. Birds and animals from his previous works (gray and black crows, tiny sparrows and deer) testify to his own closeness to urban wildlife. In The Being II Jagannath creates a life size rhino, something that he began working on after a trip to Kaziranga National Park in Eastern India, home to the last few endangered Asian Rhinos. The rhino has placed his foot on a fragile suitcase, its content spilling out like innards. The beast is cloaked in subtle brocade, an element Jagannath has used dextrously in several previous works, its head tilted in gentle confusion. Placed in a gallery, it initially gives the impression of having invaded a private space, like a cumbersome, unpleasant intruder forcing himself into a manicured home. Within seconds, this thought is struck down by another familiar one - the loss of habitat for the creature, its own home a public, common space open to development. This violation of the inviolate home, public or private, settles into the mind as fuzzy discomfort, somethings Jagannath leaves the viewer to deal with in several works. Several people, Jagannath wryly notes, have frequently mistaken the rhino for a hippo. This inaccurate reference, he says, disturbs him enough to constantly invent the energy to correct people himself.
In the tragic The Migrant (Anywhere, Anytime), a muscular deer stares out at the viewer, a sunny yellow car whizzing by behind it. The car is reduced to a mere flash but the deer meets our gaze. It is almost a moment of truth, the deer has survived becoming road kill but this only a temporary victory. He is standing on unbuilt ground but it is already asphalted. In his horns rests a falcon with its nest, seeking refuge in the closest approximation toatree it can find. Like an unbalanced equation, as one world begins its expansion another is on the verge of collapse. The absence of these co-inhabitants has never been noticed except, ironically, when Jagannath records their poignant existence.
Marking their presence in a ghostly kind of way is precisely what Jagannath hopes to accomplish with such dramatic animal portraits. His favourite act, that of decorating animals with skin tight brocade and ornamentation, mimics an ancient ritual of dressing up the dead, before their burial to celebrate their lives and optimize their chances of a smooth afterlife. The ancient Egyptians decorated their Pharaohs in their best finery before placing them inside the pyramids. In parts of India there is a tradition of anointing the dead ritually as well. By painstakingly decorating these absent creatures, shielding them with a brocade skin over their own, Jagannath is re-enacting a powerful situalistic farewell on his own terms, shearing it of a religious casing and pushing viewers to scavenge and retrieve the idea from their own context. The act of repeatedly using fabriics in his work becomes a performance, something Jagannath undertakes with gravity and specificity every time. It is then not unlike the ritualistic tasks of his own personal history.
Perhaps by intuition, Jagannath has stumbled into the heated global discourse of invisible citizens, now vapidly discussed in more and more cities of the world. This is the tragedy of expanding cities, cannibalizing citizens who cannot ensure their own inclusion and presence. But he is no activist and his oeuvre, through its adhesion of splendour, defies being saddled with a single narrative. Instead, Jagannath tells it as he experiences and imagines it, leaving his works open-ended. This is not to mark him out as apolitical, if anything he is sharply conscious of the reading into his works. His action is quite simply to create art works. Their display and circulation interrogates the normalcy of several urban phenomena, from dislocation and displacement to annihilation. The climate of uncertainty in his work allows him to be the endless conjurer, as indeed he is when he uses unlikely materials to wittily flesh out the experience of a recent migrant to a city. His totemic sculptures serve this purpose well, an assemblage of items, predicted to be incompatible yet holding up collectively. They are at once familiar and confusing. Challenging audiences to mentally assemble disparate materials and objects is vital to such work, because without such visual obstacles they may be unable to see with new eyes. These rigorous mental processes arm Jagannath with the tools he requires to resuscitate the little traditions from the dominating presence of the great traditions.
Published by Alexia Goethe Gallery, October 2009