Artists: Notes on Art Making

To make a place your home, to settle down, to build a dwelling, to build a city, these are primary human needs. And, so is the need to move on, to find new pastures, to migrate. Migration is not always chosen. Many times it is forced. But either way, by choice or due to circumstances, it is an important force in history and evolution. Migration seems as basic a need as settling down is, not just for our species, but for many living things. This fact was brought home to me forcefully while listening to and reading the poet and nature writer Ruth Padel.

Jitish Kallat’s short curatorial note for the Kochi Biennale 2014 ‘Whorled Explorations’ evoked thoughts and images around the ideas of place and time. Thoughts of voyages and explorations, moving from one shore to another, and the curious idea that one’s settled place is itself in continuous motion, never occupying the same spot at two moments in time “.. planet Earth, our shared dwelling whirling through space at over a dizzying 100000 kilometers per hour..” as Kallat points out in his note . Settling down and moving away, being in one place and being in many, being at home and roaming the cosmos become strangely intertwined.

Loosely lacing together images and thoughts evoked by these ruminations, my work ‘Building a Home; Exploring the World’ has taken shape. Text quotations and image quotations abound in this triptych. At the head of the first panel, lines from Ruth Padels’ poem ‘Time to Fly’ list the many reasons for leaving home. We see an image of people escaping to the mountains, fleeing their destroyed desert village. There is an allusion to the original migration of our species from Africa, while something like a totem pole, borrowed from a painting by Jyothi Basu, marks a tribal place of belonging in the forest.

Breughel’s Tower of Babel looms large in the second panel, with Tatlin’s Tower behind it. These towers are images of man’s will to power and his mastery over Nature. They pose a challenge to God’s supremacy. The Lord’s response to this challenge, as noted in The Book of Genesis, is harsh, and tellingly, focused on man’s capacity for language - a capacity that enables us to connect to others, and to the world, in a distinctive way. Language creates a humanised world around us. We are ‘at home’ in language. A shared language is a shared home. The curse confounding language “that they may not understand one another’s speech” is believed to have lead to the separation and migration of peoples and to the creation of different languages. On the other hand, the observation “and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do”, is tangibly prophetic of the possibilities created by modern science and technology in our own era, and embodied, at the beginning of the era, in Tatlin's project for a tower. Moving on to a more light hearted vein, placing the two towers on the soil of Fort Kochi is a recognition that this Biennale is itself an admirable ‘Babelian’ endeavour, working for a harmonious coexistence of many Languages of Art, and seeking to bring all that is spread out in the world back home.

In the third panel, space walkers experience zero gravity, not unlike Gandharvas, as they float above an extraterrestrial settlement, borrowed again from a visionary work by Jyothi Basu. One of them releases the Voyager gold disc carrying sounds and images of life on Earth into deep space - a message from humankind. The text quotations in this panel hint at a conflict between an optimistic, positivist view of Man’s exploration of space expressed by Sagan and a more pessimistic, inward looking view expressed by Lem; belief in the universal Truth of scientific fact on one hand, and agony about self-knowledge on the other. A note of caution about what we may really know is sounded by Kuhn. The world out there is necessarily viewed from within a language, a sensibility, a home, and what that world is 'really like' is a question that will always remain open.

At the bottom of the third panel is an adapted image of M.C.Escher's endless stairs. Ascending or descending these steps, you always come back to where you started. The drawing confuses our perception of the third dimension. If perspective is a language founded on the grammar of three dimensional space construction in two dimensions, Escher's drawing is a grammatical joke that dramatically exposes the contingency of this linguistic connection to the world. How can something that appears so real be elusive? This contingency feels deep, as Wittgenstein says in a parallel context. It creates deep disquietudes as we try, and repeatedly fail, to penetrate the representation and grasp the world directly. The threshold between home and the world, language and the world, us and the world, is sensed, but as a mirage.

In a painting so overloaded with thoughts, my concern has been to structure the image in a way that it may hold, without too much spilling, all the associations invoked through quotation and reference. The attempt is to allow the viewer a back and forth movement between image and text that makes them both mutually enriching, neither exhausting the meanings of the other.

Notes

[1] The Mara Crossing by Ruth Padel. Poem: Time to Fly, pg 251. Publisher: Chatto & Windus, London, 2012.

[2] King James Bible online, Standard King James Version. Chapter 11.

[3]Solaris, by Stanislaw Lem, pg 72. Publisher: A Harvest Book, Harcourt INC, New York, 1987.

[4] Cosmos, by Karl Sagan, pg 325. Publisher: Abacus, Little Brown Book Company, Hachette, UK,1995. And in episode XII in the 13 part PBS series Cosmos, 1980.

[5] The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn, pg 173. Publisher: International Encyclopaedia of Unified Science, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1970.

[6] Philosophical Investigations, by Ludwig Wittgenstein. pg 47. Publisher: Basil Blackwell, 1968.
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