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REACHING OUT: April 08, 2001

Between static and ghost image: art as transmission

Nancy Adajania

The writer is an art critic and documentary film-maker based in Mumbai.

Since the electronic media have completely overwhelmed the public vision, it would be ironic, and not inappropriate, to use their technical jargon as an analogy to explain how Indian art is transmitted and received today, as we set off into the 21st century. As with the electronic media, the signals that the visual arts (both painterly and installationist) send out to the public are subject to various atmospheric conditions and degrees of clarity: they can manifest themselves as ghost images, as flickers, as dropouts, as scrambled channels, or as mere static.

(Both pictures) Nalini Malani/Fiona Hall From "23 Views of the Avon Lady in the Amazon".

The language of art does not permit a perfect transmission. Its vocabulary is multi-coded; while making a strong claim on the viewer's imagination, it communicates itself through varying degrees of camouflage and plainness. The complexity of contemporary art already creates the possibility of glitches in the process of communication between the artist and her/his viewers. The possibility is accentuated by the phenomenon of global consumerism, which makes its own highly organised, multi-million-dollar claim on the viewer's imagination, setting up easy-viewing habits that decline the invitations of art. The transmission of art is hampered further by the visual and auditory stimuli offered by the seductive sign-language of the global market: its image traffic of never-sleeping translite displays, its never-ending advertising breaks.

This image traffic of global consumerism is sometimes mistaken for a democratic give-and-take of goods and ideas, which transcends the boundaries of world communities. In fact, with its mantra of one world-one people, global consumerism wipes out the specific nature of locality and undermines national sovereignty. A double-edged weapon, it co-opts local elites into the global elite, while fragmenting and weakening the local subaltern classes everywhere. The only language of globalisation is the market; it neutralises or co-opts all other languages, including those of the visual and performance arts.

How does the visual artist then make a dent in such a landscape? To answer this question, we could study the situations in which art is produced and received, how artists share and transmit their worldviews despite the homogenising effect of globalisation.

Unlike the one-dimensional sales communiques of the market, the art languages of the present come into contact with various social and political structures of meaning, they are communicated through complex formal and ideological strategies. We shall look at the work of four artists, Nalini Malani and Fiona Hall, Baiju Parthan and Prema Murthy, and see how they have kept open the channels of communication with their viewers, opposing the superfluous generalities of global consumerism with the distinctiveness of their own desires, anxieties, social awareness, political choices and technological prowess.

I begin with an artwork that bursts the bubble of the beauty myth promoted by the global cosmetic industry. The painter and installationist Nalini Malani and her collaborator, the artist Fiona Hall, happened to read a newspaper report about how far the cosmetic industry can go in its sales promotion: saleswomen were sent to a former colonial outpost in the "Third World" to sell their products. In "23 Views of the Avon Lady in the Amazon", a recent collaborative work by Malani and Hall, we see a hilarious send-up of the beauty mania: one of the slave-boats carrying the saleswomen is overturned by a jewel-toothed crocodile. Ironically, the image of the blood dissolving in the waters is redder than any lipstick ever manufactured in a Third-World sweatshop. By implication, Malani/Hall comment on the current situation in India, where beauty queens wear their rigged crowns with much aplomb even as cosmetic goods infiltrate the imagination, and the bank accounts, of women across classes and regions, rich and poor, urban and rural. In a replay of the Venezuela syndrome, the increase in per capita consumption in India is matched by the accelerating sale of deo-sprays and skin creams among middle-class women.

The paintings are marked by the critical impress of newspaper caricature; art-historically speaking, they quietly subvert the Gauguinesque figure-in-an-exotic-landscape type of artistic representation. I mention Paul Gauguin because, in this artwork, Malani/Hall consciously play with the genre, common in 19th-century European and American painting, of the exotic Other. Of course, these artists belong to very different historical periods. Gauguin embodies the imperialist time-frame, during which painters romantically drifted to the South Seas in search of pristine landscapes, noble savages and available women. Contrasted yet related to Gauguin's art, Malani/ Hall's work turns the newspaper report about cosmetics saleswomen going into the deep jungles into an uproarious yet tragic adventure story with a twist. Malani/Hall critique the operations of globalisation, showing it up as a renewed imperialism, a colonialism by other means.

For instance, in the Malani/Hall pictorial narrative, we encounter the image of a poisonous blue-veined hand breeding all kinds of bottled cosmetics, entering insidiously into the rich green landscape. As trees are uprooted by appetite-ridden hands, a bird with resplendent plumage is shown falling from the pedestal of the sky. As the war between the natural local produce of the land and the redundant synthetic goods flares up, we understand the insidious credo of globalisation: that of creating needs where they don't exist and also multiplying needs through supersaver schemes. This situation reminds me of one of Gauguin's insightful paintings, "Ta Matete" (roughly translated as We Shall Not Go To Market Today), 1892. Although most of Gauguin's Tahiti paintings incarcerate his women subjects in a romanticised male gaze, untouched by the ecological and social degradation initiated by colonisers and missionaries, this particular painting records the contemporary Tahitian social reality.

Artefact, by Baiju Parthan

In "Ta Matete", the local women are dressed in Western clothes and trinkets, perhaps waiting for the customers who will bring them syphilis and early death. Gauguin tries to show how the European colonisers used the sexual freedom practised by the locals to their own advantage, by prostituting these women with trinket bribes. Formally, the local women are modelled on the sacred priestesses in an ancient Egyptian frieze. The irony turns the ceremonial pose into a fake posture: beleaguered by their social situation, the women in "Ta Matete" are not garbed in the innocence of the unspoiled savage, but imprisoned in tinsel glamour.

To return to the present, in "23 Views of the Avon Lady . . . ", Malani/ Hall similarly reveal how an entire civilisation can be held to ransom by body-beautiful promotional armies, causing a permanent prostitution of the senses and the spirit. The truth is that, when we look past the beauty queens, we continue to be faced with a present that is simultaneously neo-feudal and neo-colonial.

The painter Baiju Parthan, who also makes web-based works, articulates the same crippling historical simultaneity in "Artefact" (Mixed Media, 2000). The picture frame is divided into two vertical halves: to the right, we see the Wodeyar Prince of Mysore presiding over a ceremony replete with pomp, splendour and the royal parasol; while to the left, we see faint images of a bag and stick belonging to a victim of the 1999 Orissa super-cyclone. The relationship between these contrasting images, accessed by Parthan from the 1999 year-end Special Issue of Outlook magazine, is self-explanatory.

The more conundrumatic details in the painting are four word-seals, marked BUILDS, JOINS, FIXES, SEALS, pasted on the painting. These seals are slogans associated with a particular brand of industrial product, the M-SEAL epoxy putty employed to fix breakages and leaks. Parthan reveals the quintessential Third World predicament by employing product promo-slogans that seem to echo the unfulfilled Nehruvian idyll of a strong nation-state created through colossal projects, big dams and homegrown large-scale industries.

Fifty years down the line, the big dams have become ecological disasters and the homegrown large-scale industries are being swept aside by transnational corporations. As the cyclone victims become ciphers in the picture frame, we see above the two contrasts, what I may call an India Gate of contrasting realities: a kirti-mukha. Parthan has chosen the kirti-mukha as a mascot of hope, for it embodies the primordial myth of the constant self-renewal of the universe, which sustains itself by devouring itself. This image points to the possibilities of change and replenishment that can stem the growing inequalities in a nation state. By weaving different strands, that of the classical (the kirti-mukha), the industrial (the M-Seal), the mock-regal (the Wodeyar ruler) and the subaltern (the super-cyclone victim), Parthan renders the ancient myth a contemporary index, and reveals the contemporary situation as a perennial predicament.

Like Parthan, who communicates with the viewer through signs that bear a double import, the American digital-media artist Prema Murthy employs the most popular and user-friendly communication systems, the TV and the Internet to create complex, layered and interactive video-installations and online performances.

"Flicker" by Prema Murthy

Murthy is the daughter of an Indian father and a Filipino mother: both sides of her ancestry seem to connect her to societies currently riding the crest of the computer software revolution, with Indians respected as the finest programmers and Filipinos feared as the most brilliant hackers. Murthy subverts the vocabulary of electronic and cybernetic communication, by using fragmented images, flickers and pixels to make what I would describe as abstract video-poems. These video-poems critique the processes of globalisation from the perspectives of gender, class and technology.

For instance, in "Flicker", an interactive video-installation, 1999, Murthy uses low-resolution images shot off a TV monitor, draining them of colour, making them look like meditative notations. But this hallucinatory experience is ruptured by a scientific interlude. The film begins with a grey fire of dots and grains, just a build-up of static. Then we are treated to slivers of text telling us about the effects of television on the human mind and body: the rate at which the lines of resolution move across the screen cause the brain to emit alpha waves. Alpha ranges from 7-12 hertz and is prominent during day-dreaming and deep self-introspection.

This text is followed by a series of images that Murthy has shot from various TV channels and then scrambled at the editing table. What begins as bars and grey dots is transformed into geometrical squares of tonal variations, which then dissolve into ghost images. We see the faint spine of a woman, spindle-shaped bombs, and finally, just a pair of long, distorted legs slithering through a grey desert landscape. These ominous ghost images are stirrings from a disturbed subconscious.

I would interpret Murthy's film as an attempt to connect two different realities: the nightmares of marginal people trying to survive in a global economy on the one hand, and on the other, the visions of a shaman, the archetypal geometric images that come up from the deep unconscious during certain altered states of consciousness.

"Floating" by Prema Murthy

Murthy has been able to cut innovatively through the televisual medium's dogma of realistic portrayal or simple transcription of retinal reality, and so to develop an abstract video art that returns the viewer to a more intimate archetypal reality. Murthy reprocesses and repossesses time, salvaging our existence from the super-refined realities constructed by the media apparatus of global capital.

Intriguingly, another of Murthy's video films, "Mythic Hybrid" although representational in nature, is also endowed with a hallucinatory quality. This film is shot in an Asian electronics factory, and reflects the plight of women who work long hours under extremely harsh conditions. During her research, Murthy discovered that many of these women suffered from hysteria and convulsions because they led dual lives, as domestic workers during the day and industrial workers at night, performing alienated labour in claustrophobic spaces. Murthy articulates this Third-World sweatshop politics by quoting Donna Harraway's radical A Cyborg Manifesto, which criticises the way in which such women are used as cheap labour by the global capitalists.

Murthy, like Malani/Hall and Parthan, has reached out to viewers by reclaiming the real needs of human beings, especially the dispossessed and the marginal. These artists can be seen as cultural activists who maintain criticality of insight and the empathy necessary to create works that can speak of human predicaments without succumbing to the tyranny of neon signs and soft-target executioners.

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