T.V. Santhosh’s canvases work by taking control of misrepresented truth so that the viewer is forced to bring his/her interpretations while engaging with the images. A conversation with the artist whose exhibition is currently on at the Avanthy Contemporary gallery, Zurich.
The act of seeing, one that we take for granted everyday, has various definitions according to the dictionary, a few of which struck me as I sat down to write about an artist whose works question and challenge this simple human function — T.V. Santhosh. To see is “to perceive (things) mentally; discern; understand” or “to construct a mental image of; visualise”. However, the most compelling definition of the act of seeing in relation to the artist and the works I am about to discuss is this — “to accept or imagine as acceptable truth.”
When we see and perceive the various nuances of action and inaction around us, whether it takes place in our backyard or our street corner or a country miles away, it becomes a reality that is simultaneously individual as well as collective. Such precincts of reality exist in T.V. Santhosh’s world as well. The only difference being, he chooses to face them, confront them, deal with them and in the process creates hybrids of his reality. One that is then thrown back into the deep abyss of contemporary society whose hunger for more and more information is seldom satiated.
It can be safely said that most of us, both within and outside of the art industry, are familiar with the success that Santhosh has had over the past couple of years. However, it was seeing the works and conversing with the artist that really made a difference in how I perceived his success. What Santhosh’s canvas does is take control over misrepresented truth, making it inevitable for the viewer to perceive the canvases as what they “imagine or suppose as acceptable” on an individual basis. His works incorporate what seem like generic images in a manner by which the viewer is compelled to bring his own interpretations and conclusions upon engaging with the works. There in lies the success of his ideology, one that navigates around the idea of “seeing”.
The first few works I had seen of the artist were his deeply saturated oil canvases in their strikingly contrasted neon greens, warm reds and oranges. There were images that immediately conjured up in my mind — ones that my pre-conditioned mind associated with those projected day in and day out, randomly (or is it programmed?) through various mass media — men in arms, nurses, guns, test tubes and from his recent canvases, faintly distinct khaki clad policemen and young boys who seem to be paying rapt attention to some kind of lesson. The deliberateness of each stroke strikes you when you observe the canvas closely. Distinct areas of flat colour meander through the strict black lines that border certain sections of the canvas. At a very physical level of experience, the canvases make you move to and fro, closer and then a little farther away, each time reworking what the eye sees and consequently what the brain constructs. Santhosh explains, “I never superimpose to make it (paintings) a collage. I don’t cut and paste images to form fragments of my reality. Images come from different sources but look like a single moment. The borderline between fact and fiction, myth and reality are blurred.” The images might seem like they have no particular meaning that needs to be derived. Yet such a reaction is a natural consequence amongst a society that is being constantly bombarded with information and imagery through various mass media, telling us to believe what we “see” as being the reality of the world we live in. Realising this aspect of our “constructed” realities, thereby discovering our own distinctive individual perceptions, is what, these canvases bring up. In our conversation the artist talked about the manipulation of reality, especially within media such as the daily news for instance where two different networks present their own idea of a situation. And it becomes especially debatable when the situations being presented involve issues that impact contemporary societies, especially the politics of war, terror and violence. Manipulating malevolent acts within humanity influences and moulds what we “see” and perceive as the “reality” we live in. Yet, how many of us care to challenge that? How many of us hold on to the comforts of a misplaced sense of security accepting all that is told to us only because that’s an easier path to tread? And how many of us have plenty of words to go around but little or no guts to put any of it into action because we prefer being politically correct? Indirectly or directly, questions like these are what Santhosh’s canvases lead you to think about.
The artist tackles issues of social policy and global politics that are systems of modern society, set up to protect mankind. Yet their efforts only give us a false sense of safety. His recent installations, of which one of the most compelling, Counting Down, marks a stage in Santhosh’s career where his explorations take on metaphoric proclamations of current realities. The gleaming metallic surface of robotic dogs reflects the words of a Hiroshima bombing survivor that flash across a screen in front of the regimented assembly. The dogs are symbolic here of the loyalty and discipline they typically exude if trained, albeit for destructive purposes — much like the vast armies that nations have sent into countries in the name of creating peace.
The idea of repeating an element, be it the dog, or bones (as depicted in another piece titled Thus, he disclosed the secret of destiny II), reflects the skeletal structure of modern society — mass production. It can be mass production of goods, services, ideas and even armies — all aspects we live vicariously in the hope that it provides security. Yet, therein lie many contradictions. For instance, the domestic “man’s best friend” can be trained to become a deadly force just as mankind itself can produce those who seek the illusion of purifying civilisation, either through Gandhian philosophy or Nazi propaganda. Such metaphors find its beginnings in Santhosh’s watercolours — works with which the idea of narration and the projection of multiple meanings started to take shape.
Emotion is an intrinsic aspect that defines Santhosh’s artistic practice. The glinting metallic surface and the stark whites of the installations shouldn’t be mistaken for an expression that is devoid of sentiment. Unlike the ideology that served the Minimalists, Santhosh’s negations serve to blur our sensory instinct, which typically recognises elements, from certain colours to distinct provocative images, as being an expression of different degrees of emotion. Doing so forces the viewer to shift from passive spectatorship to actual engagement — from the physical aspect of seeing, to an intellectual dialog that can separate itself from collective standard thought processes. To be able to do so by employing distinct processes and icons is thought provoking.
For his current exhibition, A Room to Pray, at Avanthy Contemporary, Zurich in collaboration with The Guild, Mumbai, Santhosh wrote a few poetic words that quite fittingly describe what the artist seeks to achieve through the sanctity of his art. To me the words that struck a chord — “A vision wretched enough; To enter deep into your mundane existence; Sending a chilling shiver through the nerves; A revelation of a war torn past; And terror infested present collide…. Look into your target who cries for your mercy; It is just the same at both sides of the barbed wires; When will you stop, Before the God himself intervenes? I have made a room for you to pray.”
T. V Santhosh was born in Kerala, India and currently resides in Mumbai. He completed his B.F.A. (Painting) from Santiniketan and his M.F.A. from MS University, Baroda in 1997. The artist is represented by The Guild Art Gallery, Mumbai.