Amalgam of text and image
The question that haunts all of Baiju Parthan's work is one of how the self is to be located in such an epoch, when self and world have begun to shade into each other, across a spectrum of choices and situations. He memorialised this predicament in the title of his recent suite of paintings and translite works, `BLUR', exhibited this season in Mumbai and New Delhi, says RANJIT HOSKOTE.
"Biomorph", Translite, 2002.
THE fact that Baiju Parthan constructs his iconography from the pervasive flows of the global media has led some viewers to believe that he celebrates the boundary-collapse which defines contemporary experience: the collapse of the boundaries separating subjectivity from world, self from other, maker from user, and human from machine. Parthan does not celebrate this boundary-collapse, so much as he recognises it for the exponentially disruptive condition that it is. For he is both an annalist and an analyst of the anxieties of boundary-collapse, a cartographer of the mysterious routes that fork out with every step you take in its perplexing architecture. The question that haunts Parthan's work in all its forms - whether painting, digital installation, or hybrid intermedia installation - is the question of how the self is to be located in such an epoch, when self and world have begun to shade into each other, across a spectrum of choices and situations. Parthan memorialises this predicament in the title of his recent suite of paintings and translite works, "BLUR", exhibited this season at the Fine Art Company, Mumbai, and Gallery Espace, New Delhi.
In "BLUR", Parthan bears witness to the textures of our contemporary lifeworld, which is constructed as much from material elements as it is from mediatic structures, discursive formations and the free-floating, sometimes mutant cultural residues of defunct traditions, all fashioned into a play of alternative futurities. He embodies this hybridised environment by modulating, into ensembles, a variety of source images drawn from the stream of digital data on the Net, from music videos, and from TV grabs. He also selects, for his bricolage, newspaper and magazine photographs, satellite maps, advertising-billboard images and reproductions of canonical works from the history of art. This is why Parthan's works so often assume the form of the rebus, that riddling amalgam of text and image, title and art-work; to decode the rebus is to access the labyrinth of his work.
Discussing the nature of the signification that such a process generates, Parthan emphasises the potentially hypnotic nature of his source images. The artist glosses the hypnotic, in this context, as an effect resulting from the "stirring up of the subliminal", a definition that comes from Jim Morrison, legendary lead singer of The Doors. By quoting Morrison, Parthan closes a gestalt that holds several way-markers in his personal history, including the visionary Blake, the music of the hallucinogenic 1970s, and the flights of shamans and sorcerers memorialised in the writings of Carlos Castaneda. As he retrieves these hypnotic images from the ordinariness of media circulation and invests them with private significance as objects of aesthetic effort, Parthan dedicates himself to the task of releasing the subliminal meaning latent within them. To him, this surplus of subliminal meaning is the only source of redemption from the torpor of data surfeit in an information-saturated world.
The paintings brought together to form "BLUR" provide vivid evidence of the enigmatic, and even apocalyptic, resonances that images deliver, when they are brought unfixed from their original contexts and relayed into new circuits. Here, angels descend into a garden of paradise guarded by a soldier, a landscape perfect because genetically modified, and requiring protection against the natural; a man watches television at the heart of the Jantar Mantar, an intimate pause at the heart of the public edifice; the artist half-conceals his self-portrait behind an outsize fruit stamped with a barcode. The affirmation of wonder at technocratic miracles is woven with an ironic critique of consumerist society and its knowledge monopolists, who would even patent nature and subject the quest for the Divine to the laws of the market. The conventional binary of reality and magic collapses: the laws of Newtonian mechanics, the emancipatory rule-bending of sorcery, the patterns of myth, and the deceptive, mercurial realities of contemporary technology intersect here, to produce a world governed by paradox and instability.
`Engineered Fruit', acrylic on canvas, 2002.
Parthan's is a poetics of dream. As in a dream, we see here the generation of a connective logic among objects and images that are not otherwise linked. Here, the estranging inexplicability of the actual is most viscerally approached, not through any feeble attempt at representation, but through the bizarre allusiveness of the fictive. Which is why Parthan's is also a poetics of the cryptogram: it holds secret signals for us, directives pointing to virtual universes that begin at the threshold of the everyday reality we know, threads into hidden archives of continuity. This leads me to propose, as a trope to embody Parthan's project, the figure of (M)orpheus, the vital poet camouflaged in the costume of the god of dreams. That Morpheus is also the spirit guide of Neo, the hero of the cyberspace cult movie, "The Matrix", is an important subtext.
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Recasting the world through its elaborations, Parthan's mythic architecture propagates itself through an open-ended process of metaphorisation. His chosen vocabulary of images demonstrates the resilience and renewability of an art-making process predicated on flow, on play or lila, which is a major form of experience for the hybrid self that experiences, and is shaped by, the contemporary. Not only is this hybrid self descriptively intertextual, but it is also distinguished by the agency of its inter-narrativity: not only can it be regarded as the articulation of competing texts that define identity, but it also projects itself in the act of weaving among rival narratives of location and belonging.
Parthan's art begins with the realisation that we must develop new operational definitions of self in the epoch of genetic modification and virtual reality. Already, the replicative and mutative technologies of cloning and morphing have obliged us to review the complacent assumption of our unique ontological status as human subjects. It is not surprising, therefore, that Parthan's project should be composed around the insight that technology is a crucial medium for our relationship with our lifeworld, not an optional instrument.
As Self and Other become potentially interchangeable, the voluntary adoption of alterity becomes the most significant, and authoritative, act of autonomy possible to the human subject. You get away from the genetic and circumstantial identity that you began with, and shift to a willed and chosen position, an individual subjectivity. In such a world, the cyborg is the self extended by prosthesis and modification; but it is also, by that very token, the true and secret inner self. In such a world, too, the "true" self may never be precisely located, because it may not reside in a single body, but present itself as a sequence of energy distributions invested in various avatars: a self travelling by incarnation. Such a vision of transcendence through the technological remaking of the human subject lies close to Parthan's understanding of the future, although he does not minimise the potential for madness that it also holds.
As artist, shaman and technologist, Parthan attempts to trace a pattern through the vibrancy of this chaos. At the moment, it may seem to viewers of Indian art that his visions are confined to the laboratory inside his head; but we may be within this reality even before we realise it. Consequently, the key problem in Parthan's art is that of playing between the extremes of intelligibility and bafflement, in recording his encounter with a complexly stimulating environment, for an audience that is not fully prepared for the mission. To his credit, he manages this feat in a manner that is at once persuasive in formal achievement and disturbing in conceptual implication.
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