Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU

SIGNS : January 14, 2001

Collapsing borders

Nancy Adajania

The author is a documentary film-maker; she is currently Editor of The Art News Magazine of India.

Let me begin with a cautionary tale. I choose my example from cinema, which, like the visual arts, is subjected to the tantallising rebus of globalisation. The film in question is "Chunhyang," made by the Korean director Im Kwon-Taek, which was selected as a competition entry at this year's Cannes film festival. As film critic Lee Yong-Kwan points out (in Cinemaya No: 49, Autumn 2000), the film as released internationally at Cannes was a re-edited version of the original made for domestic screening. It must be noted that this practice of re-editing a film, leaving it context-specific for the local audience while universalising it to tailor-fit the international audience in a global context, is more often the rule rather than the exception as far as Asian cinema is concerned.

N.N. Rimzon: "Far Away from Hundred and Eight Feet". Site-specific work, 1995.

In "Chunhyang", a popular and traditional love story between the daughter of a former courtesan and the son of an aristocrat is given a different perspective by employing a post-modern-style musical narrative. The narrative is based on the traditional song and dance form from the Chosun dynasty period called Pansori. Since Korean films are often perceived by the festival audience as not being universal enough, three crucial Pansori scenes which represent Korean identity were cut out and replaced with scenes involving nudity and sex.

Detail from the above.

Ironically, despite its re-edit, the film was not received well by the festival audiences. As Lee Yong-Kwan observes, "the film is based on an ideology too Korean to show its universality; but at the same time, it contains a universal narrative structure too foreign to be called Korean."

This dilemma is analogous to that of the Indian artist, who is always caught in the trap of making works that are either too Indian or too foreign. How does s/he make artworks that are truly global, that confront the challenges of the global context and also simultaneously respond to her/his own specific local, ethnic, gender, class and caste identity? Here we shall examine how Indian artists have responded to the changing geographical, economic and cultural realities at both the national and the international level.

Baiju Parthan: "Brahma's Homepage". Virtual web-based installation, 1999.

Indian artists of the 1990s have introduced new material and media into their art practice, thereby altering both the prevailing viewership codes and the conventions of display. Their conceptual and neo-conceptual art-making practices may be seen as tactical approaches, adopted to combat the commodification of the art-object in the hallowed precincts of the art gallery. They employ the media of assemblage, installation, video art, site-specific art, interactive sculpture and computer graphics in their art.

These hybrid artistic innovations of the 1990s both reflect and question the pervasive changes that have transformed the Indian economy after the liberalisation initiated in 1991, with transnational corporations edging out local enterprise and catering to an increasingly consumerised, middle-class-oriented economy. Motive power for artistic reflection has also come from the polity, given the electoral victory of a coalition led by the right-wing parties for the first time in the history of democratic India. All these changes have radically altered the social and psychological temperament of civil society.

Let us return to the early 1990s to see how Indian artists have confronted and negotiated with the social construction of meaning in their work. This brief overview cannot possibly include all the artists now active in India, but it will dwell on artists who represent important trends in contemporary Indian art. It was senior artists like Vivan Sundaram and Nalini Malani who first broke out of the frame of the two-dimensional canvas and experimented with unconventional materials like glass, perspex, engine oil and polymer sheeting. They were also among the first to explore the potentialities of the electronic media.

M.S. Umesh: "Earthwork". Time-and-site specific artwork. Located at Kodiegehalli, near Bangalore, 1996.

A historically conscious artist, the noted painter and installator Vivan Sundaram has always addressed the questions of class and labour, environment and technology. For instance in Sundaram's 1994 sculpture installation, "House," we enter a room made of handmade paper; the spell of homely familiarity is suddenly broken by the video images of burning furniture gurgling in a cauldron. The images stand witness to forced migrations brought about by ethnic riots.

While Sundaram punctuates his epic voyages into history by ironically ripping open the sides of his boat sculptures, the sculptor N.N. Rimzon conceptually tears open the integrated surface of Indian civil society to reveal social inequalities. Extending the language of sculpture, Rimzon created a site-specific sculpture-installation, "Far Away from Hundred and Eight Feet" (1995). It was a line-up of pots with brooms in their mouths; traditionally, such pots and brooms were emblems of ritual uncleanliness and untouchability forced upon certain so-called lower castes by upper-caste Hindus in Kerala. This humiliation is counterpointed by the use of the sacred number 108, which is typically associated with the sequences of sacred names of Hindu deities. Here, two worlds held apart by convention are brought into friction, the inner world of the sacred and the outer world of socio-political injustice.

L.N. Tallur: "Millennium Logo". Sculpture-installation.

At this point we shall move from the urban context and explore the rural realities of India. Sculptor M. S. Umesh, who was born in a small village in Karnataka, made a site-specific work in 1996 in Kodiegehalli near Bangalore, which is informed by a pre-industrial romanticism. By digging five huge craters in the earth and installing sculpted eggs in some of them, Umesh excavates the subterranean layers of his rural childhood memories. Like his western counterparts who make earth art and then destroy it after documenting it through the media of photography and video, Umesh also retains documentation of his earth-work.

It is true that some artists have been able to move out of the metropolitan gallery circuit and make impermanent art in a public context. But, after a short carnival, they return to the same galleries they abandoned. In India, such video documentation would scarcely be accessible to art viewers or students; in any case, no system exists by which viewers could be acquainted with the changing norms and frameworks of contemporary art.

We then return to the significant question: how do we relate art to its specific contexts of production and reception histories? Who, really, are the audiences for the new styles of sculpture, which are at the edge between the gallery and the open public sphere? Are they the urban elite or the urban proletariat, the rural rich or the large pan-Indian middle class? When we speak about site-specific art, do artists take into account the different communities who live in the areas they work in, confront the local demography and topography? Or does the artist just impose a personal fantasy on an area chosen on the basis of convenience rather than deliberation?

An artist who has responded to some of these questions in his practice is Soman, one of whose recent projects developed around the sculptural interpretation of the poems of the famous Malayalam poet, Kadamanitta Ramakrishnan. Supported by a Vikram Sarabhai Fellowship and the panchayat of the poet's hometown, Kadamanitta, the sculptor turned this into a participatory rather than an individual project. The villagers happily donated part of the village commons for the site-specific project and the panchayat sponsored the materials. Rather than forcing his outsider's view on the local residents, Soman invested in their knowledge and familiarity with the subject. A genuinely democratic discourse was thus initiated.

Anju Dodiya: "Rebus of the Eraser". Watercolour, 2000.

Painters have also begun to push their practice to the edge in a technological context where cybernetics threatens to dissolve the borders of national sovereignty. Baiju Parthan collapses the border between painting and cyber-image production by covering his canvas with several layers of semiotic play. A techno-shaman, as he chooses to call himself, Parthan configures his canvas in the form of a computer screen. Except that, here, it is the viewer's eyes which activate the nuances of this painted screen-page. The viewer's eyes click on the iconic signs that Parthan has gathered from the Net. While much of his work is an overlap between the painted image and the Internet, he has also entered the world of CD-ROMs, where he continues his artistic practice of juxtaposing autobiography with macro-level socio-economic themes. By this dual production of paintings and CD-ROMs, Parthan asserts his creative autonomy as a post-colonial subject, countering the hegemonic forces of globalisation by downloading and appropriating sources of inspiration at will.

Parthan's work proves that Indian artists do not need to tailor-fit their form and content to create neo-Oriental tableaux to appease either local or international audiences, their artistic and technological choices reflect the concerns of their specific social and cultural contexts. Speaking about the collapse of geographical and art-historical borders, the artist Anju Dodiya in her recent cycle of paintings, especially "Rebus of the Eraser", appropriates medieval sources to renew her artistic vocabulary, her self-dramatisation. She appropriates a highly decorated page from a mediaeval French Book of Psalms, painting herself in place of the figure of King David. Dodiya mimics the Biblical hero's contrite gesture of pointing to his sinning mouth for her own very different purposes to declare that the world is her data bank of images, that its cartographic boundaries are porous.

It would be fitting to end with the work of another politically conscious artist, the young sculptor-installator Tallur L. N. His interactive sculpture-installation, "Millennium Logo", comprises a ready-made robot, an electronic sound machine which accompanies ritual worship in many Indian temples. The machine is Tallur's comment on the transformation of religion into a hi-tech line of ideological products. In an ironic product catalogue that accompanies the robot, Tallur says that it is the favourite of all cultural managers, a neat comment on the Indian situation, where religion has not just been stage-managed by social opportunists, but has increasingly become state-managed since a right-wing government came to power in 1998.

It is to be hoped that this electronic temple machine, which was recently on display at the international art exhibition, "Art in the World 2000", held in Paris, is not seen merely as a symbol of an exotic India. When we put our fingers on the switch, we are ringing an emergency bell that wards off religious fascism: a bell that should have been rung before the 1992 religious riots following the demolition of the Babri Masjid, which left hundreds of people dead and displaced many thousands more. Tallur's electronic work not only helps collapse the borders drawn between class and caste issues, urban and rural milieux, sculptural and installatory practices, but also carries within itself the seed of resistance against the forces of globalisation. Collapse the borders, but retain their markings, it seems to say.

Installation? circa 2000, Artist unknown (Photograph of woman in stone quarry,
by K. Ramesh Babu.)


Wise man, who first said hell was hot-
He must have come from this dry forsaken country,
This landscape of black stone
And sharp volcanic rubble,

This place of the dead.
Here the air is only rarely touched with life.
When it stirs, we shiver.
Cold sweat collects in a sticky pool at the base of the spine

Like some clammy hand, lewdly caressing
Those intimate inner planes of skin
Where back meets buttock,
The cold touch of an old ghost scared by the heat of the afternoon.

And everywhere, ash and stone and dead wood and bone.

Above, a kite-hawk circles,
Vulgar life blessed by what strange wind
On this still afternoon,
The devil alone knows,

But he will not tell, we have not been long enough in hell

Gavin Barrett

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