Allegories of the Present: Contemporary Art for the Indian Context

This article discusses the phenomenon of contemporary art which is a bearer of the present and lacks definition. It can only be understood obliquely through various forms, mediums and discourses, through which it is presented, mediated and evaluated—contemporary art is experienced, not defined. Therefore, the purpose of this article is threefold—first, to describe the phenomenon and forms in which contemporary art is embedded; second, to articulate what it means to be contemporary in India; and third, to discuss the works of Archana Hande and Suresh Kumar, two Indian artists who engage with the contemporary not as a mimesis of dominant forms of our time, but as artists who are on top of their circumstances.

 

Art has taken a contemporary turn. The contemporary, which signifies temporal existence, has become a conceptual and stylistic category to designate art as practised in the present, substituting the modern and the postmodern. As a concept, the contemporary lacks significance and as a style even less so, since there are so many varied art practices and combinations of mediums within the contemporary, it has become nearly impossible to delineate what contemporary art is. Consequently, anything, as long as it is done by any individual considered as an artist, or consecrated by an art institution, passes off as art. However, idiomatically contemporary art is still modern, but without the philosophical and historical particularity that informed the artists a hundred years back. 

The modern artists were the first to appropriate and assert one of the philosophical principles of modernity—autonomy of the self. The notion of autonomy is now extended to appropriation, that is, an artist can appropriate anything from anywhere and incorporate it into their work without cultural specificity, therefore, contemporary art, in general, looks similar and grapples with analogous ideas, whether it is created by artists in Shanghai, New York or Lima. Likewise, what is seen in Kochi is similar to what is shown in London.  Undoubtedly, contemporary art reflects the neo-liberal impulse to impart an identical experience across geographies and flatten all differences. It erases all material and conceptual markers of cultural specificity that are rooted in the environment and historical experiences of people in favour of sameness. Moreover, rapid production, circulation and consumption and the instantaneity of its access are eliminating the need for artists to experiment over an extended period of time and arrive at maturity of style or ideas, which accord a unique signature to them. Artists are becoming like designers, creating rapid prototypes and outsourcing production. 

Contemporary art, lacking in definition and claiming to be uniquely contemporary of its own time, needs to be viewed within the larger phenomenon of large-scale group exhibitions, commonly known as biennials—there are 278 in the world according to the Biennial Foundation. These exhibitions have emerged as the most important events through which contemporary art is presented, mediated and evaluated. They embody the spirit of industrialised culture and instrumentalise art for touristic promotion, city branding as well as an aspiration to belong to a cosmopolitan world, especially in poorer countries. With the dominance of biennials, curators, once hidden caretakers of art, have become heroic figures who subsume works of art to their will and overarching vision. It is the curator’s idea that confers meaning to art works selectively mobilised, displayed and located in relations to other works, which, otherwise, may be far removed from each other. Biennials turn curators into artists, exhibitions into works of art. In these exhibitions, the world appears to be more interconnected and globalised than it actually is. 

Biennials create spectacles that generate memorable experiences. The whole city becomes a stage for enactments and art spatially dispersed throughout the territory. Warehouses, abandoned buildings, commercial establishments, artists’ studios, ruins, peoples’ homes, theatres, galleries, public parks are all mobilised and aesthetised to create experience across different and differentiated spaces; life and art seamlessly become one. Exhibitions as events and art as experience cannot be historicised, they can only be documented. Even strong works of art are unable to stand on their strength alone. It is the documentation that gives them visibility and determines their success or failure in a highly competitive art world. “Bad documentation = bad art,” declares GYST-Ink.com, an advisory service for the artists. Given the importance of documentation for art practice, artists tend to theorise about their own work often positioning themselves within the prevalent art theoretical discourses.

Since the turn of the century, Indian society has been undergoing unprecedented changes, albeit at dissimilar rhythms, across all geographies, social groups and economic categories. Everything—spaces, places, sights, sounds, textures, tastes, bodies and movements—is being subjected to visible transformations. Not only the causes such as globalisation, liberalisation and migration—but the consequences are also of interest, manifested in the everyday, either as optimistic exuberance of possibilities or as anxieties of loss and uncertainty. The magnitude of this new phenomenon that encompasses all dimensions of life is yet to be measured. Perhaps it is unmeasurable, since we are in the midst of alterations; living and experiencing them day to day. How can one measure when there is no distance? The disciplinary tools of analysis devised to evaluate that which is fixed and in the past, may be inadequate to this task. Even those instruments of understanding the present—surveys and observations—may prove to be insufficient, since opinions are tentative and behaviours transient. And yet, with art serving as a privileged point of entry, we could venture, however provisionally, to describe, analyse, understand and possibly advance theoretical concepts about the contemporary in India, and in the process examine the work of contemporary artists.

Like modernism and postmodernism previously, the idea of contemporary art too is deeply rooted in Western traditions and the artists’ responses to their milieu. Despite the discourse of globalisation, we tend to posit, consciously or unconsciously, Western art practices as originals and the rest as the derivative of these ideal models. As advocated in Polsani (2018), we need to breakout of this conceptual prison house to think about visual expressions, aesthetic judgments and art practices in the framework of cultural experiences of the Indian artist which includes colonialism, modernity, modernism, postcolonialism, globalisation, the contemporary as well as the varied cultural traditions and social practices. In doing so, we should posit the Indian artists, as artists who, exposed to Western art since the 19th century, utilise various visual forms, artistic languages and styles as formal elements of an artistic practice and create their works in this mixed idiom not as mimesis, but as presentations to be valued in their own terms. 

Nevertheless, talking about contemporary art in India is challenging, given that there are no common threads to follow and the notion of contemporary activates multiple views based on the region, class and culture. Also, the idea of  “contemporary” needs deconstruction in the South Asian context given the simultaneity of differentiated temporality on a single phenomena. Hence, one fruitful approach could be weaving the interconnected foreground and background together—analysing art in India today and employing artists and their work as a way of understanding the contemporary. For this dual endeavour, I view art as both, a surface practice and a meta discourse. As a practice of giving purposeful form to spaces and objects, we could analyse artists and their practice from the perspective of thematic and aesthetics of appropriation of all mediums, visual idioms to create works of art. Following art as a meta discourse, we should evaluate the relation between the surface and structure, contemporary circumstances, historical continuities/discontinuities, ideological exigencies and negotiations between modernities. 

In applying this framework, this article highlights briefly the work of two artists, Archana Hande and Suresh Kumar, whose practice matured in the midst of novel trends in the global contemporary art circuits on the one hand, and on the other discernible renovations in the Indian society. Exposed to global trends and experimenting with new mediums these artists engage with the present and the actuality, not as a documentary and mitosis of dominant forms of our times, but as artists who are on “top of their circumstances,” as Spanish poet Antonio Machado would say.1

Archana Hande’s Contemporary Narratives

Archana Hande’s deeply researched work goes contrary to the dominantly visible art of the biennials. While many contemporary artists endlessly stage their identities in images, installations and performances, Archana problematises the notion of identity and the necessity to display it, in three mixed media installation works, Whitewash, People of India (POI), People of India, Reloaded (2009-14). The questions of identity and belonging are recurring issues in Indian polity that are exploited by the political groups for electoral gains and often with an intention of rewriting history. Archana locates these contemporary narratives in the historical context of colonialism, that not only ascribed fixed identities to groups of different people but found the necessity to stage them repeatedly through images. The three works utilise statuettes of different craftsmen and tradesmen cast in the colonial times. In People of India (POI) (2014), the video images of the figurines of people from different regions of India in their sartorial splendour and clearly identifiable tools of the trade appear and disappear like phantoms on a phallic mosquito net, a British import and ubiquitous in India until recently. The spectral nature of the images interrogates the assumed fixity of identities. 

 


“People of India, Reloaded” by Archana Hande, 2014. Video Installation. Found clay models from personal collection, Animation projected on a mosquito net. At Dr Bhau Daji Lal Museum. Assistant Compositor: Abhijit Deshmukh

All Is Fair in Magic White (2009) is a story of three globalised Indian women, an enigma faced by a Dharavi leather trader and the obsession for development. The three wealthy women—Maya, Mary and Mumtaz—go to Dharavi with the intention of improving the residents’ lot. Ali, the leather trader, refuses their offer saying he is quite happy the way he is, but wants to know why his first daughter who was born when he was poor is dark and the second who was born after he became rich is fair. 


“All is Fair in Magic White,” by Archana Hande,  2009. Mixed media on cotton cloth;
2ftX3ft. Photograph: Prakash Rao

 

This simple story encompasses the contradictions of Indian society after the liberalisation period. They are framed in the context of globalisation, wealth, aspirations, class and skin colour. Globalisation, on a personal level, is mass individualism and identity cast repeatedly as self-improvement, including the skin colour. On the ground, it signifies replacing vernacular forms of slow urbanism with rapidly constructed high-rises and on a social level, the financial ability to be anywhere and everywhere in the world. The artist subtly integrates the images and sounds to present compellingly the larger issues—when the three women are introduced, one hears the subdued sound of cutlery touching the porcelain plates while the images of Dharavi and Ali are set to the sound of local trains and Hindi film songs. The three women flying in the sky to the sounds of an airplane and flight attendant’s announcement are seen through a skylight in a Mumbai slum, a small window and a hole in a wall. What is salient about Archana Hande’s approach is absence of realism and romanticism. Although the three wealthy socialites and Ali Bhai and his friends are shown on the opposite end of the social spectrum, when Ali is introduced, the caption says he has 40 labourers working in his leather factory, that includes children.


“All is Fair in Magic White,” by Archana Hande, 2009. Mixed media on cotton cloth;
2ft X 3ft. Photograph: Prakash Rao

 

The Feral Trail and the Trade Map (2013-15) are an outcome of the artist’s six-month residency in Leverton, a town on the edge of the Western desert of Australia surrounded by abandoned mining settlements. In this work, Archana follows the trail of camels and the cameleers imported from India, during the Australian gold rush in the 19th century, since the Middle Eastern camels could not survive the salty desert. The story of these forgotten animals, individuals and their descendants is the subject of these intensely researched and visually complex works. It casts globalisation in a truly global scale from Middle-East to Australia and back, while raising the issues of migration, racism and the idea of a “global village.” The Indian cameleers from Kutch and Baluchistan do not even exist in the memory of their descendants, except that they came from Calcutta, which is the port where they boarded the ships with their camels to travel to Australia. 


“The Golden Feral Trail” by Archana Hande, 2013-15. Digital print on archival paper; 5ft X 3.3. Photograph artist.

The first of the two works, the Feral Trail is more journalistic in the sense that it is a compelling visual record of the artist’s explorations and archival investigations. The second, the Trade Map tells the story of migration and transformation. The artist visually indicates the cameleers’ presence and their erasure from the Australian desert with rapidly appearing and disappearing photographs, interestingly on a speedometer, instead of the customary clock. The speed at which images transition becomes an indication of passage of time, of migration, traversing space and radical transformations in the lifeworld of people and animals. Although the cameleers are forgotten, the camels survive in the Australian desert as feral and are slaughtered for meat exported to the middle-east thus completing the entire cycle. Archana’s work is complex, intensely researched in archives, executed in different media and the same work is shown in many different ways over an extended period of time.


“The Golden Feral Trail” by Archana Hande, 2015. Display image from the show – “I Am A Landscape Painter solo show 2016.”  Chemould Prescott Road, Bombay. Photograph Anil Rane.

Suresh Kumar’s Contemporary Art

After finishing his studies in Delhi in 2000, Suresh Kumar who grew up in and around Bengaluru returned to his village. The land where ragi and mulberry grew until recently, was covered with glass and cement towers, or plotted for future gated communities. Rapid transformations, both in the physical and cultural landscape of Bengaluru’s outlying areas, and the stories that villagers told him, who were living witnesses to these changes, became the source for Suresh’s work (Polsani 2017). Materially too, art objects and large installations were created from what was available in the surroundings. The three significant installations he created of this time—Wade (2005), Harvest for Better Monsoon (2003) and Lifeline (2002-03)—fused the villager’s current conditions, unfulfilled promises of development, and materials as witness. 

Wade (2005), consists of two locally used grain storage container (wade) shapes fashioned from steel rebars. One of the silos’ exterior is covered with ragi-filled bricks stitched from Flex and printed with images of new apartments. The second wade shape lay open; ragi in the bottom with toys of construction vehicles, placed on the grain. The second installation Harvest for Better Monsoon is a woven silk sari encrusted with dead ragi sprouts. In the floor underneath the hanging sari, terracotta tiles are arranged like withered fields. Encouraged by the government and with promises of jobs and larger income, the villagers had adopted sericulture and invested heavily in the 1990s. By the turn of the century, the government had moved on to new things. IT was the new promise of the globalised future. Power looms in the village went silent. Harvest for Better Monsoon like his first installation Wade folds together diverse temporalities, spatial transformations and the materials rooted in particular time and space. 


“Harvest for Better Monsoon,” Suresh Kumar, 2003. Specially woven silk cloth, dried ragi sprouts and terracotta tiles;  8ft X 4ft Photograph Artist.

Lifeline, the third installation in this series, consists of railway tracks in wood laid on a ramp. The sleepers are filled with the empty plastic cups discarded onto the tracks. The exterior of the ramp is covered with sculptural reliefs of workers laying the railway tracks. Lifeline is another invocation of failed promises of jobs and prosperity that villagers had experienced. In the 1960s, his father and the other villagers had worked on building the line, which was to bring jobs and livelihood to the villagers. This lasted only for the duration the railway line was constructed, after which the villagers settled back to tilling the dry land. 


“Lifeline,” Suresh Kumar, 2002–03. Wood, terracotta tiles and plastic cups; 13ft X 6ft. Photograph Artist.

After this initial phase, Suresh started enacting performances. Like his earlier work, the performances are deeply embedded in the biographical or historical experiences with material props that have complex meanings inaccessible without the contextual explanations. I Am All Feather and Need a Breeze to Make Myself Feel So (2011), Tinted Glasses and Muted Streets (2012), Cobbler, Cobbler Mend My Feet (2012), Outsider’s Barefoot Walk (2013) and SAIL (2015) reflect this complex structure wherein each prop is an element of past or present reality reconfigured in the event. 

For example, I Am All Feather needs to be read/viewed/understood on three interconnected levels. First, on the level of the medium it employs—live video projection with performance. Second, on the objectal level the props employed in the event are taken from reality with deep significance. For example, the silkworms and the silk yarn wrapped around the artist’s waist connect them back to experiences of sericulture. The dried coconut branch on which the silkworms make a cocoon is taken from the last coconut tree that survived and eventually died when farmland was converted into J C Road in Bengaluru. The key(s) are the objects around which memories of childhood are woven and at the same time they connect past and the present conditions of existence, both physical and mental. Suresh recalls his grandfather and father having just one key, whereas nowadays people have keys for everything: house, rooms, closets, cabinets, cars, offices and many more. Key is a ubiquitous metaphor for access, opening, a stepping stone and yet it is a metonymic fragment that is inalienably conjoined to lock and its associated significations. In the performance, the artist obsessively and incessantly ties keys around his waist as the loin-clothed key maker fashions them on a pedal powered lathe. I Am All Feather is an allegory of new urbanism in India; the cocooning of the social into secured and privatised spaces with 24-hour security, optical surveillance and biometric access controls. And yet, the habitants put everything under lock and key; their outward joy of living in a paradise, undercut by constant threat of loss and the fear of the other.


“I am all Feather and Need a Breeze to Make Myself Feel so,” by Suresh Kumar, 2011. Performance, Venkatappa Art Gallery, Bangalore,. Photograph: Artist

Conclusions

In the modernist phase of India—for 30 years after independence—state-controlled large-scale industrial projects; irrigation dams and institutions were projected as the nationalist symbols of self-reliance and modernisation. The neo-liberalism that subsumes or obliterates the national in favour of the global does not offer any such symbolic or monumental constructs, instead it proliferates signs that produce reality effects. A critique in this order, as is the case with postmodernism, often is a matter of producing, with ironic distancing, further signs through recombinatory operations. The ineffectiveness of these manoeuvres is there everywhere to see, because the symbolic order is adept at assimilating and transforming all things into signs, even other signs. Archana and Suresh’s work reveals another possibility of critique: allegory and through allegory the effective possibility of deconstructing the symbolic order or even resisting it.

Allegory, as Benjamin wrote, is not a “playful illustrative technique, but a form of expression, just as speech is expression, and, indeed, just as writing is” (Benjamin 1985: 161).  As an expression, it is neither a symbol nor a representation; instead it is assembled through object fragments wrested from reality. These remnants are examples and instances of reality from where they have been gathered. All the elements used by the artists—weathered glass, mosquito net, ragi, flexi, block print, pinhole camera, silk—in the creation of their works preserve their bare materiality, stripped of any hidden ideas or references, as raw memory. This absolute transparency and the unequivocal relation between the particular and the general, is what accords these works their allegorical character. There are no symbols to be decoded, there are no hidden meanings to be deciphered and above all there is no irony, instead Archana and Suresh’s installations and performances are assemblages of fragments to be read and understood by any discerning viewer. The remnants gathered together in these works of art reveal the ruinous nature of reality and the irresistible decay of the present.

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