Pravin Kannanur's work, seemingly hilarious, asks a serious question — what is art?

‘Haram Me' by Pravin Kannanur might make you feel like you don't quite ‘get it'. An image of the three little pigs Photoshopped over a poster on how to cook pork? A recipe for Weiner schnitzel over an anatomised pig that looks as if it's been created on a Word document? A pig placed on text from Charles Lamb's ‘A Dissertation Upon Roast Pig' (Pravin's is the humorous inverse — quite literally a roast pig upon a dissertation)?

Is this art? But if you're asking that question, then well done, you do get it. If you're wondering whether these reproduced, unpretty images are art, then you also have to ask yourself, what is art — and this is what Pravin's work wants to make you think about. Fountain Pravin's paintings and readymades challenge a commodified art world, questioning the validity and relevance of the tacit evaluative parameters that are currently in place. In the nicely phrased words of Prakriti Foundation's Ranvi Shah: “it's calling the emperor's bluff about the whole art market”.

The exhibition is part of Art Chennai, but it is also in spite of it. It's simultaneously collaborative as well on the fringes — straddling two different worlds. Pravin doesn't use the materials you may consider synonymous with art. But it's certainly artistic. Its paradoxical association with and removal from the festival underscores its concept of moving beyond the immediacy of the gallery space to also operate by association and implication. It's daring to call the emperor out on his nudity.

And yet in doing so, it isn't mean, nor is it malicious. Pravin isn't in the least bit arrogant. In fact, he comes across as extremely down to earth, gentle and polite. Although his work is subversive and critical, it doesn't rise by putting other artists down. It's as self-critical as it is critical, and he adeptly strikes a note that manages to be cheekily subversive without being offensive or mean. This is probably because his work is also very funny. Actually, it's hilarious.

His conceptual installation does a lot of important things all at once, but in a constantly amusing way. There's a lot of playing on words. Haram means ban. So ban him. From the art world, from your conventional gallery, from your consciousness. The pig is also largely bred for consumption. This is art that reproduces mass consumed images.

Questioning rigidity

The titles of his works are very tongue-in-cheek: ‘Autoporktrait', The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Pig' (referencing Henry James; there are also the self-referential mirror images of himself painting pigs paintings pigs (phew!) in the form of paintings. Text and image are juxtaposed, and the rigidity of linguistic definitions are questioned. Behind the works, certain words are transposed upon the glass windows with the dictionary definitions of words such as ‘art' and ‘exhibition'. This text is partly obscured by the image — which seems a deliberate choice. ‘Haram Me' is a comment on the artist, the process of creating art, and the world in which both we and the artist live.

“Three or four years ago, I started thinking through my position as an artist,” says Pravin. “I did some research on the pig and cognition, and it turns out that pigs are actually very intelligent creatures. The pig, like the monkey, is actually very close to the human being. I'm sort of playing on this idea of proximity as well,” says Pravin before adding jokingly, “if the pig was rejected, in some cultures they said it was because it was so close to the human as to be seen as cannibalism if you ate it.”

You can't help but laugh as Pravin sticks his tongue out an art world that would perhaps do well from also having a giggle at itself once in a while. His work is clever, subversive, and acutely self-aware. And I have already mentioned how hilarious it is? It challenges the viewer in every sense — and it's sensitive to that very contemporary meta brand of humour that doesn't take anything, including itself, too seriously, operating largely on references, winks and nudges. There's a lot to navigate and be unpacked over here. Do go to see it, and go see it more than once. It's great.

(‘Haram Me' by Pravin Kannanur is on view at Alliance Francaise until March 23; Friday 23 March closed on Sundays)

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