Artist Vivek Vilasini expresses the contemporary in a vernacular language, a style that has brought him bouquets and brickbats.

In Vivek Vilasini’s hands, Kathakali artistes slip from the revered into the everyday. They line up for grub in ‘The Last Supper’, stretch across skies in ‘The Creation of Adam’, fall over themselves at Times Square, and bare ripped abs in body-building poses. While these pop-art pastiches of classic paintings were instantly blamed for blasphemy, they were also praised for speaking contemporary art in a vernacular language. Western art is all very well, but “what is the art of the guy who eats puttu and kadala for breakfast?,” enquires Vivek. The answer has been the subject of his exploration in seven solo shows that assimilate from the world, yet remain rooted in the local-‘Between one shore and several others’.

Vivek’s foray into staged and photoshopped photography began with capturing the literal. One of his earliest works is a series of mug shots of Malayali children named after Lenin, Stalin, Marx, Gramsci, and other such Left revolutionaries. “There were eight ‘Gramsci’s in the village I visited. World-over the tide of communism had receded, yet here in Kerala, like fish stranded on the beach, were these children. Their naming must have been quite an innocent act but it revealed a method of identity construction.” This process of negotiating our many influences and creating a unified self has informed all of Vivek’s work. The ordinary world around him has brimmed with meaning waiting to be framed into perspective. “Art can be a philosophical exercise. It is thinking through pointing out,” he says. In the initial days, as a young migrant to Dubai, Vivek photographed what symbolised opposing ideologies. His ‘Duet’ featured a cross appended by a knife; and ‘Dreamings in Arabia’ showed migrant labourers donning Sheik robes. “Meaning is created from juxtapositions. We associate so much with things. Place two objects together, and their relationship connotes something. Add a third, and the meaning changes. This process of meaning-making can be so heady...” he says. His excitement knew no bounds at a reclamation yard in London, where he photographed his ‘Night Sea Voyage’ series. In one picture, freedom seems to fight with war, and frugality with excess, as the Statue of Liberty rises behind a cannon, and a sculpture of Buddha sits opposite a fat pig and a stallion. “When I first saw this place, I shot pictures through the gate, almost in a frenzy. I went back later, calmer and more composed.”

The dumpyard to him represented French anthropologist Marc Auge’s “non-place” – a space not defined by its geographical location, but by its use as a transit point. Remnants of humanity and its beliefs seemed to gather beside each other, unconnected on the surface but still reflective of society. To recognise this depth of insight from the prosaic, Vivek says he’s had an “insatiable curiosity in everything. I’m eternally fascinated by life itself”. From the broad collections in his father’s library, to poets Alfred Tennyson and William Wordsworth and varied science magazines in school, onward to his time as as a radio officer at the All India Marine College, and later as a political science student at Kerala University, Vivek nurtured a voracious appetite for books.

He encountered ‘art as activism’ in college, and began working as a sculptor holding exhibitions in Durbar Hall Ground. “Being Malayali meant we grew up politically conscious but with an ability to laugh at ourselves. I wanted my work to be socially responsible.” In the 2001 though, when the Kerala Lalita Kala Akademi selected 140 local artistes for a collective commemoration, but excluded Vivek, he left Kerala, discouraged that his work went unacknowledged by his peers. He moved to Bangalore, and later Delhi where he trained under traditional craftsmen, and even exhibited his ‘Golden Pond’ sculpture made from newspaper and clay at a show curated by M.F. Hussain. His bread and butter those days was designing and creating signage for corporates. An employer gave him his first camera for a work assignment - a 4.1 megapixel point-and-shoot with which he ventured into photography.

Delhi’s vast libraries also fed the fire of his reading habit, and Vivek began to see the world almost as a cultural anthropologist. His series of postcard photographs, ‘Housing Dreams’, on Kerala’s brief trend in boldly painted, shocking pink and fluorescent green homes, spanned the length of the State in typical documentary fashion. “At first I played aesthetic police at the wild colour choices, and then I realised that people were expressing themselves in ways even classically trained artists wouldn’t dare to do.” This knowledge of diverse world art histories and contemporary practices would buoy many of Vivek’s works. At a time when text was beginning to be used as art the world-over, Vivek did a piece made up of words suffixed by ‘city’, such as toxicity and eccentricity, to depict Mumbai, the ‘Maximum City’. “I’m a failed poet. I stopped writing after I read Neruda. But I always knew the power of words. So when text was being sanctioned as art globally, I walked through that door gladly.”

Unlike photographer Henri Cartier Bresson’s belief in ‘capturing the right moment’, Vivek believes creating that right moment can be art too. His Kathakali series began as a study of this idea. As did his iconic ‘Ways of Seeing’ series that projected faces of the world’s great thinkers onto Vivek’s face, such that the resultant photograph overlapped one of his eyes with theirs. “It was like I was seeing through their eyes, and in a sense, they through mine.” Currently, an exhibition of his titled ‘…and for those who do not sing their national anthem in their mother tongue’, is on in Mumbai. It too sings in tune with Vivek’s theme of exploring identity that has united all the series under ‘Between one shore and several others’. “That’s what art is, isn’t it? About sharing your ‘now’, shaking the status quo and stretching your boundaries of experience. That’s what makes it contemporary.”