Artists: Notes on Art Making

Published in Art Journal, Fall 1999, Vol. 58, No. 3, pp. 31-39

This is artistic rapture’s most difficult negotiation with the agora of interpretation, for in order to ensure the survival of art, its authenticity or autonomy has to be partially erased.

- Homi K. Bhabha

With recent groundswell of interest in contemporary Indian art in academia, museums, and galleries in the United States, one must ask, “What is contemporary” about it? I use a relationship drawn by Homi K Bhabha between the “aura of art” and the “agora of interpretation” to explore this frequently asked question and to address a problem of method involved in our asking it. In his essay “The work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, Walter Benjamin relates a work of arts singular appeal to the viewer, its aura, to a preindustrial history and laments its loss in the age of photography and reproduction. For Bhabha, who is also concerned with the loss of aura, the crisis relates to interpretation, not history. Bhabha attempts to restore what he calls a difficult boundary between the sensuous presence of a visual work and the literary relates a work of arts singular appeal to the viewer, its aura, to a preindustrial history and laments its loss in the age of photography and reproduction. For Bhabha, who is also concerned with the loss of aura, the crisis relates to interpretation, not history. Bhabha attempts to restore what he calls a difficult boundary between the sensuous presence of a visual work and the literary negotiations about it in interpretative narratives, characterizing the experience of the work’s silent presence at that boundary as artistic rapture.

The urge to validate Indian art of the late twentieth century places it at the boundary of interpretation with which Bhabha is concerned. I will map this boundary in the first part of the essay. Hoping to redefine it in the second. Among South Asianists in the U.S universities and museums who are increasingly pressed to consider this new and uncertain area of acquisition, the question of validating contemporary Indian art invites scepticism. In order to justify its Avant grade status, they search for its difference from progressive art movements in the West. Discouraged by its references to mainstream modernism, they inscribe it as derivative of that with which they are more familiar. Indian art criticism has offered two apologies to such a pervasive, Eurocentric view. One is made in terms of eclecticism, a pluralistic defence based on the principle of free borrowing and synthesis of various cultures, which in India includes Western art as well as India’s own traditions. The second, more recent one claims the authenticity of India’s contemporary art by discussing “alternative modernisms”, thereby attempting to restore in India some of modernism’s original edge as a heterogeneous counterculture within Europe’s bourgeois culture. In the age of postmodernism and multiculturalism, the search for India’s authenticity has expanded beyond the nationalistic positions of Indian art criticism. In the United States, the pluralistic argument provides a new framework for interest in contemporary Indian art by adapting it to the discourse of minority cultures, which has gained ground in the United States with migration, the success of feminism, and U.S liberal politics.

The ambitious travelling exhibition Contemporary art in Asia: Traditions/tensions, organised by the curator Apinan Poshyanada, which opened at the Asia Society Galleries, the Grey Art gallery and P.S Contemporary Art centre in New York in fall 1996, provides the best available frame in the United States in which to explore the authenticity and validity of contemporary Indian art. The exhibition earned global recognition for breaking through the norms for viewing and evaluating contemporary art from the Third World. Its tremendous value was to bring attention to recent urban art from India and other Asian countries, usually dismissed as an anomaly by critics searching for Asia’s authenticity in the history of its premodern art. The exhibition succeeded in pointing out the anomaly as a major oversight in our critical thinking. Its definition of what contemporary in Indian art therefore provides a good index for our question of interpretation.

Traditions/Tensions presented the art of five Asian nations as a product of the economic and political relations that link them to contemporary global culture. These nations are in the process of confronting an expanding geopolitical world defined by Western Multinational corporations. The exhibition suggested that imaginative forms offer possible resistance to the use of India as a labour market for the West and a consumer market for the West’s disposable goods. Their integrity is perceived in the way their visual language comments on the theme of subordination, conveying the irony of their negotiations between a recent world of economic exploitations and am earlier displacement if its age-old, preindustrial traditions under British Colonial rule.

The images and essays in the exhibitions catalogue describe the ironic context of the Third World. The frontispiece for the section on India illustrates the themes articulated by the works in the exhibition itself. Underneath the word India, printed in both English and Devnagari, is a collage of colour photographs. In the centre of the page is a naked Sadhu, a renouncer, shown so close up that all references to his environment are replaced by a medley of coloured scrap-fragments of his leopard skin, orange mat, and yellow wall-surrounding his dusty-gold body. Above him, a sullen woman sells coloured powder for Holy, the festival of colours, displayed in a temporary stall at a provincial market or village fair. Two images of Mumbai’s (Bombay’s) slums include a long shot of squatters against the city’s skyscrapers and a close up of a shack made from billboards that advertise Pepsi. Two more photographs show pedestrian walkways lined with posters from Mumbai’s popular film industry; one is a Hindi poster for the U.S Film True Lies, and the other is a poster for Bandit Queen, a controversial Hindi film whose slogan “REVENGE WAS HER REPLY” gives a passing woman a brisk sense of purpose. Finally, an office of the Mumbai-based, ultra-right wing political group, the Shiva Sena, is announced by its emblem, a roaring tiger, under which people from the neighbourhood lounge about casually.

The photographic pastiche evokes India as what Poshyananda has called more abstractly an “in-between” place. It is a site of global transactions, of conflicted histories, where religious fundamentalism becomes the best defence against advanced capitalism. To this site of dislocations, the ash-smeared renouncer at an unknown pilgrimage and the movie posters’ masquerade in city streets add a carnivalesque quality. The validity of contemporary Indian art issoughtin the semantic value it gives to the cacophony of hybrid sights and sounds that constitute the spectacle of contemporary India.

The exhibition demonstrated the range and diversity of art from Asia by focusing on works made in the previous five years in India, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, and South Korea. These works were mixed and arranged broadly by medium. In New York, large and small installations, sculptures, and paintings were presented in three different venues. In his catalogue essay, Thomas McEvilley rationalised the synchrony of the display by writing, “the common trait that links these five nations and gives cogency to their being represented together is their recent emergence into global importance through burgeoning capitalist economies. “ The countries thus interrelate as parts of a large archaeological site organised around a marketplace of capitalist signifiers.

Although it travelled to Seoul, Singapore, and Mumbai, the exhibition made clear that its viewership was primarily Western, specifically U.S. In her foreword to the catalogue, Vishakha Desai, the director of the Asia Society Galleries, cited the diversity and hybridity of the works to counterbalance and Orientalist image of a homogeneous, essentialized Asia. Poshyananda pondered the possible differences in the exhibitions reception in New York and in its Asian venues. McEvilley compared the exhibition to other surveys of non-Western art organised in the West-not to comparable projects such as the Third Havana Biennale (1989), the First Asia-Pacific Triennial (1993), the first Johannesburg Biennale (1995), and other large transcultural exhibitions recently organised by non- Western curators.

McEvilley had earlier provided a crucial voice in the debates around the Museum of Modern Art’s controversial 1984 exhibition “Primitivism” in Twentieth Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern; specifically, he had criticized the transparency between Western Avant-Garde art and non-Western cultures evident in the exhibition. Applying Karl Marx’s comment that “everything in history happens twice, first as tragedy and then again as farce,” he now historicizes the Third World by describing Third World art in terms of the struggles of Asia against Western domination, first noted as the “tragedy” of colonialism, then revisited in the post-colonial period through irony, parody and other farcical commentaries to subvert that history. The Marxian farce thus offers McEvilley an authentic principle for analysing recent art in the Third World.

The selection of works in Traditions/Tensions conveys the cultural dislocations and collisions in each of the five countries represented. At issue, however, is not the value of postmodernist commentary, such as irony and parody, which artists in India and other Asian countries have used to claim a national identity against Western hegemony, but rather McEvilley’s use of postmodernism to define contemporary art in the Third World. As its connecting tissue, McEvilley’s “farce” only allows contingent transactions, transforming local histories into items of economic exchange. As India becomes part of such an exchange in a carnival of identities called the Third World, what is missed most is a discourse on its history.

Only Geeta Kapur dissents from this depthless, economic sense of the contemporary in the catalogue. Against the carnivalesque spectacle of hybridity in the Third World, she argues for centring the artistic practice of India in a “dialectical synthesis” of internal contradictions within that country’s post- colonial history. In emphasising the diachronic structure of such contradictions, she offers a critique of globalised, transcultural notion of the Third World the exhibition creates.

Kapur warns against the cultural homogeneity postmodernism has created in the 1990’s. The warning rings true especially when addressed to North Americans, for who postmodernism contains a promise of neutral frontiers and boundaries at which the United States’ diverse migrant cultures could seek a New World Order. Kapur hones her arguments against the corporate export of U.S diasporic culture and the consequent assimilation of contemporary India into the eternal halfway houses in which most of us find ourselves in the United States. She is critical of the “conservatism and complacency” involved in such a conflation of nation and diaspora, where “every choice and combination is ratified by the participatory spirit of post colonialism/postmodernism.”

Kapur searches for a model for national art, warning that “a continued insistence on eclecticism and its conversion to various ideologies of hybridity within the postmodern can serve to elide the diachronic edge of cultural phenomena and this ease the tensions of historical choice”. Instead, she proposes “a real battle ground for cultural difference” in which India’s various historical fragments - the supressed voices of women, marginalised forest tribes, and popular urban street culture-open up the paradigm of nation to cultures, Kapur’s heterogeneous model for national art is far removed from the “Fancy-dress of multiculturalism” into which a postmodernist celebration of hybridity quickly degenerates.

I agree with Kapur’s search for the subjectivity of India’s historical fragments beyond McEvilley’s Third World farce. Her arguments for a phenomenological poetics of space for India’s subjects must be placed against the transitory, eroticized halfway houses of postmodernism, which the Asia Society’s exhibition otherwise consistently thematized. My problem is with her search for a national idiom to shape this poetics, and with her choice of the medium of installation as such an idiom.

Installation emphasizes multiple, discrete signs, whose meaning depends on their interaction in the viewer’s mind. Existing in the viewer’s space as a heterogeneous cluster of sculptural, pictorial, and sound elements, am installation’s crossfire of signs could draw the viewer vicariously into an area of true historical conflicts, giving the diverse, partially erased fragments of India’s historical experience a contemporary semantic value. Kapur’s choice of installation as a national idiom derives from the iconoclasm of her earliest Marxist position, as well as her assimilation of the work of recent Indian school historians, particularly the subalternists, who attempt to rewrite a Gramscian history of India by inserting into the Hegemonic discourse of colonialist and nationalist histories the critical voices of various supressed groups. In Installation, Kapur envisions a Subalternists mode of signifying a diverse and dialectical nation based on interplay of its countercultures.

While theoretically this proposition is sound and desirable, installation must be located within the artistic practice of India and related to the lineage of specific concerns within which some artists have used it. Thisis theproblem of the historian. Kapur provides a general theory and a prescription; she does not describe and asses India’s art. There are no installation artists in India, as there are in the West. Installations’ anti-aesthetic side has partly attracted artists, who use it to polemicize the sensuousness of the counterculture they wish to restore. Furthermore, artists also seek to represent countercultures within the sensuous modes of painting or sculpture, without ever attempting an installation.

While Kapur seeks in installation a representation of true national culture, its legacy in twentieth-century art has been to expose the ideology of representation itself. Installation’s subversive thrust guides the Asia Society’s display. Not only do large installations dominate the exhibition, but the general selections of works also suggest a deconstructivist mode I associate with this medium. Interrelated clusters of sculptures displayed in the main galleries, for instance occupied the viewer’s space and invited him or her to participate in their masquerades.

The exhibition fully rendered the slash in the title, Traditions/Tensions, or what McEvilley called farce, by displacing nationhood, mixing and rearranging countries, and embodying in its own extensive and dramatic spectacle the cacophony of Asia’s heterogeneous cultures.

Using Bhabha’s distinction, the use of the anti-aesthetic semantics of installation as a consistent sign for the Third World’s contemporaneity demonstrates a complete absorption of the aura of art into the agora of interpretation.

Kapur’s theory of the dialectical synthesis of history is a useful one to pursue against the notion of the Third World as a carnivalesque spectacle of contradictions. But in order to do so, one needs to go beyond her search for a representation of national culture and turn to a specific lineage and biography of countercultures.

One of the most glaring exceptions in the Asia Society’s main galleries were three figurative sculptures in polyester resin fibreglass by Indian sculptor Ravinder Reddy. These sculptures did not seem to participate in the transactions assumed by the mode of installation pervading the exhibition. Their three-dimensional presence grabbed the viewer’s attention by locking his or her gaze with the enigmatic stare of their wide-open eyes, shaped like white glass or enamel inlays. The life-size nude Woman’95 (1995), with stunningly golden skin and a seemingly middle-aged model with folds of flesh, seemed to walk into, yet remained distinct from the viewers’ space. Two sculptures were places on pedestals. Head IV (1995), a large female head with a radiant, full face and hair elaborately decorated with colourful flowers, suggested from its low pedestal the ripeness of a summer fruit, as if embodying an erotic metaphor from Sanskrit poetry. The blue Sitting Woman (1995) faced the viewer like the icon of a goddess in a shrine. By asserting their autonomy from the viewer, Reddy’s sculptures differed from the participatory installations of the surrounding works.

Reddy’s sculptures fit neither Kapur’s argument for a postcolonial, national idiom nor the Asia Society’s postmodern take on contemporary Third World art. Instead, he has retained the sensuousness of sculptural form in a postmodern era, while routing around the modernist autonomy of sculpture. A counterexample to Reddy is Anish Kapoor, who has extended Indian references into the era of postmodernism by exploring the signifying power of materials and shapes evolved in mainstream modernism, especially minimalism. With Reddy, however, we see neither the semiotic play of minimalism nor the transreferential focus on dispersed histories, as in postmodernism, both of which developed as positions to resist and review the closed, aestheticized framework of modernism.

The resistance of Reddy’s sculpture to modernism and postmodernism can only be explained by tracing the evolution of his work. In the past twenty years, he has explored the three-dimensional visual presence of sculpture, synthesising his training in modernist sculpture in the fine arts college in Baroda with numerous indigenous traditions, including ancient Indian monumental sculpture and local folk and popular image-making. In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, when Reddy was emerging to prominence, he and a few other sculptors began to explore the use of polyester resin fibreglass. Manipulating such an unconventional material related these young sculptors to the mainstream of modernist sculpture in India; modernist sculpture presumes a transformation of dead material into living three-dimensional forms in which the maker finds a reflection of its own self-image. For Reddy, the medium of fibreglass allowed a release form, and resistance to, such mediations on the sculptures material.

Reddy’s experiments began when he covered fibreglass with thick paint, suggesting the first break he was to make with the modernist discourse of sculpture’s materials in India. His choice of fibreglass first rested on its being a neutral medium of industrial manufacture, unlike the glow of marble, the tantalizing patina of bronze, or the moonlit lustre of polished aluminium. He further subordinated the texture of clay that fibreglass reproduced in the cast by covering it with opaque car paint and more recently gold foil. The impenetrable surface of sculpture thus set the stage for the form to express itself in sheer mass and gravity.

In 1979-80, Reddy began to use forms from the natural world, then large reliefs of female figures, and finally by the end of that decade, female heads. Making a close study of insects, snails, plants, and seeds in his earliest series, he emphasized their live rhythms and organic mass. He enlarged shapes and textures, elaborating on the logic of growing by also combining and mutating forms so that anthropomorphic plants, zoomorphic busts, and burgeoning leaves followed the rhythm of an evolutionary continuum. Giving these forms a sexual charge and a transformative capacity became a mode of engaging with the perceptible world around him, which he was soon to apply to the social reality of urban India.

In the 1980’s, Reddy made large female figures in round as well as relief sculpture. Still using fibreglass and industrial resin to make the sculptures’ hard shells, he coated them with opaque greasy paint designed to conceal their surface textures. The figures walk straight out of their urban settings and reference the formal qualities of ancient Yakshis (female natural spirits) from Mathura and Bharhut. Like Bharhut, these figures are picked out in bold, rhythmic silhouette, especially broadened at the hips and breast. Like the Mathura, they are modelled to a degree of fullness, expressing frank sexuality not only in flesh but also in ornament. However, instead of the large beaded necklaces grazing the breasts of theMathuraYakshis, or the sashes of light fabric and metal girdles lacing exposed pudenda, Reddy’s figures wear contemporary urban dress. The sense of relaxation and abandonment in a Mathura yakshi’s pose is given new inflections: the narrowed eyes and pinched smile are more naughty than self-absorbed, making these urban Yashkis entirely self-conscious of a (male) viewer at a bus stop or in a crowded shopping plaza. Ever so slightly oversized, they allow an immediate indulgent contact of their bodies. The thick coat of brightly coloured paint seals the under skin like cheap cosmetics, pasty and sticky with sweat, suggesting a foul sexual stimulant created from the mixed body odours that fill India’s movie theatres.

In the context of Baroda in the 1970’s and 1980’s, when Reddy began the series, the life-size figures grappled with the representation of postcolonial urban culture, for which Baroda artists quickly became well-known. But Reddy must be distinguished from Baroda’s figurative movement, which claimed subjectivity of minority cultures (Kapur’s “countercultures”) through a narrative synthesis of desire and history especially in painting. Reddy’s car paint recalls a connection to pop, as well as to the folk and popular culture of India, as does Bhupen Khakhar’s work. But Khakhar suffuses urban India with parody and sharpens the irony of misplaced subjects in it. Reddy derives from this phase in Baroda a decorative vocabulary imbued with urban wit and earthy village metaphors, which he used for his bold, sexualized figure types, drawing at once on the monumental tradition of many ancient cultures.

Female heads of terracotta and polyester resin fibreglass dominate Reddy’s most recent work. The heads evolve from the aggressive urban figures of the 1980’s, but also differ significantly from them. Supported on upright, cylindrical necks, they command the dignity of bronze heads from the Yoruba people of West Africa. Larger than life and having chisel sharp features, wide open eyes, and smooth skin, they also recall grand images from many cultures: Egyptian figurines, Elephenta’s Mahesamurti, and spectacular images painted for festival processions in many parts on India. The gold foil applied over a layer of red paint, hinted in the creases, recreates the texture and brilliance of lacquer figurines in Nepalese, Thai, or Japanese Buddhist temples.

Reddy moulds these heads into familiar urban types, drawing their red, lipstick smeared lips and hair secured by plastic bands and ribbons directly from the life-size figures of the 1980’s. The elaborate hairstyles, featuring accordion coils, voluminous buns, and labyrinthine eddies, also reflect in these urban deities the landscape of humps, dips, and orifices from his earliest bimorphs, now accented by wild orange and gold flowers. The golden skin of these figures coveys the sensuous lustre of an Indian bride seen at her wedding after her turmeric bath.

The heads provide Reddy with a frame and syntax to create metamorphic personalities, for which he used a prolix array of details often drawn from the figurative speech of Andhra, the region where Reddy works. Krishnaveni (1996-97) embodies the self-assurance and exuberance of a village apsara. A luxurious, flower-laced braid reaches beyond her radiant face as if it were drooping, vine-covered branch of a Jungle Tree. The Woman from Kapulapadu (1996-97) gleams forth from a voluminous, cornucopia-like bun, recalling ancient Indian paintings and sculptures.

In spite of maximum alertness in their expression, the heads are dispassionate and impersonal, as if they embodied some mysterious, mythical life or else were vessels made for religious rituals. Their gaze is intensified by large bulging lotus eyes resembling the painted ones in wooden temple sculptures in South India or the ones sold in Nathadwara as “sight-and-life-giving” attachments for brass images of child Krishna. Their vessel-like quality is made more apparent in perhaps one of the most playful of these, terracotta Akshatyoni-IV, where Reddy rests the voluminous head broadly on its cheeks instead of a long neck. The burnished, pot-like clay from recalls Purnaghata, a vase brimming with foliage, used commonly as an image of fertility and abundance in ancient temple art as well as folk ceremonies.

While recalling his sexualised urban types, these exuberant heads and life-size figures convey a ritual aura. The Sitting Woman displayed in the New York exhibition, for example, combines the posture of a woman in her bath with the formal pose she might assume at a ceremonial lustration. Her frankly naked, deep blue body conveys in its sensuousness the awe of Kali or the boon-giving Lajja Gauri, the folk goddess whose exposed pendulum is smeared with fluids by worshippers desiring a child. These images do not invite viewers for intimacy, but measure their distance from the mythical world to which they seem to belong.

I return to the tension between the aura of art and the agora of interpretation discussed by Bhabha, with which I began, in order to capture why Reddy’s sculpture puzzled me at Asia Society. It stood apart from all the postmodern tropes displayed in the exhibition-the ventriloquy of conflicting narratives; the aggressive deconstruction of modernist paradigms; the anti-aesthetic recovery of fragmented, partially erased subjectiveness; the cross-cultural transactions and misunderstood translations; the touting of hybridity in the Third World. Mediating its interpretive picture, Reddy’s work stands apart from the ironic space in which the exhibition sought to validate the Third World.

Against the “happy anarchy” pervading in the exhibition. Reddy explores a complex visual sensibility through the sensuous object of his sculpture, using India’s heterogeneous aesthetic traditions as well as adorning fibreglass with contemporary erotic metaphors derived from its urban and rural street culture. In expressing this sensibility through the visual gravity and iconic presence of his sculpture, he resists the anti-aesthetic discourse of national art with terms such as monumentality, grace, exuberance, and perhaps even beauty, reintroducing aesthetic concerns against the current political discourse of art criticism.

Kapur’s emphasis on the semantic rationale of installation seems reactionary; It does not allow the sensuous realm of the visual arts to reach into the history in the way Reddy’s work suggests. She assimilates the aura of art too easily with modernism’s particular closure on sensuousness. It is true that aura in a capitalist society can lead to art’s commodification as rarefied, modernist aestheticism, in spite of Benjamin, one certainly needs to be wary of this trajectory by which art disassociates itself from social and cultural experience. But an inquiry into the sensuous object of art might also expand the field ofhistoricalenquiry Kapur argues for, as my example of Reddy might indicate.

Using Reddy, I argue not for the elimination of history through aesthetic means, but for an approach toward a fine-grained, heterogeneous history embedded in the elusive “aura” of Contemporary Indian art.

Published in Art Journal, Fall 1999, Vol. 58, No. 3, pp. 31-39
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