Tag Archives: Art feature

Printer’s proof

A public airing of a private collection of prints could spike interest in an underappreciated medium ♦


“Print Show” by Jagadeesh Tammineni

When people in the Indian art frat hear the details of collector Waswo X Waswo’s first encounter with printmaking, they sometimes “express a little shock.” The son of a grocer, American-born Waswo once had a job in an industrial press. “People hear the word ‘collector’ and assume that you were born to a wealthy family and never did manual work,” he observed. “I got my hands dirty with printing inks and solvents.

Waswo, who now lives in Udai­pur, went on to do other things, including becoming an artist himself and amassing a collection of Indian prints from as far back as 1916. A hefty selection of these forms Between the Lines: Identity, Place, and Power. Waswo and curator Lina Vincent Sunish organised the display at the Visual Arts Gallery according to the title’s three broad themes (simplistically: figures, landscapes, political engagement), rather than chronologically or by artist.

The thematic break-up – and the lack of emphasis on different printmaking techniques – makes sense given the wide scope of the collection, and allows for a relatively unfiltered viewing experience that lets the prints speak for themselves. And it’s certainly an enjoyable tour through the last century: there are sepia drypoint prints by Mukul Dey; Haren Das’s luminescent engravings, and Somnath Hore’s tortured ones; ribald etchings by Bhupen Khakhar; and contemporary artists as well, whose work belies a rich genre that is very much alive, kicking and open to experimentation. While most are not solely printmakers (a rare species in India), they’ve all spent significant time exploring the medium.

There are 79 artists in all, and given the centrality of shared workshops and apprenticeships to the printmaking world, the attentive viewer might draw some interesting connections between them. Bengal, particularly Shantiniketan, and Baroda are two of the hubs, but the work spirals out beyond these. “There are beautiful connections to be found,” Sunish agreed, “batches of students have become teachers themselves, their students have become teachers and so on… one can make a fine lineage, a family tree of printmaking crisscrossing the country.”

“The history of Indian print­making pretty much began in Bengal,” Waswo pointed out, and Sunish elaborated that the state’s association with printmaking could be traced back to the “set­t­ing up of formal studios in the 19th century for the production of ‘picturesque’ aquatints and engravings by British artists; to the development of illustrations for commercial book printing; following through to the locally made graphic ‘bat-tala’ prints of the bazaar, and finally the adap­tation of fine art printmaking in Kala Bhavan, Shantiniketan.” After Independence, Baroda’s importance grew. Waswo and Sunish pointed to other centres: government funded ones like the Lalit Kala Akademis across the country and New Delhi’s Garhi, as well as private initiatives like Kavita Shah and Vijay Bagodi’s “Chhaap” studio in Baroda. Waswo admitted that “one of the problems with the collection are some pretty huge gaps that need to be filled by artists from the Indian Printmakers Guild and Group 8.”

Competition for collecting these might heat up soon – both Waswo and Sunish believe that printmaking is poised to become a more commercially viable medium in India. Sunish pointed out that only “a handful” of galleries have actively supported print sales, but added that “the recent downturn of the art market possibly did a favour to printmaking. It allowed the time and space to explore art forms that normally don’t get discussed. Art Etc. recently devoted three whole issues to printmaking. To a certain ex­­t­ent people started looking at [prints] as a possible purchase, considering they are lower priced that their counterparts (of the same size) in painting. Currently we are at a significant bend in the growth of the medium.”

A show like this, which will travel to NGMA Bengaluru and hopefully beyond, certainly has the potential to hook other investors and collectors, especially as a better-informed market begins to understand the difference between digital prints and the labour-intensive process of fine art printmaking. The challenge will be to ensure that growing proceeds from sales don’t just benefit the gallery or the individual artist, but funnel back to the communities and studios that are crucial for the medium’s survival.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, August 2012.

Published: August 17, 2012

Yoko Ono

The avante-garde artist performs and exhibits in Delhi ♦

yoko ono

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This article is part of a cover story on performance art in India.

Yoko Ono’s artistic journey has been a strange one. When she became a household name, her avant-garde art became just one more reason for the mainstream media to vilify her. But as Dilliwalas are finding out, all that was a very long time ago. Ono recently performed “To India With Love” and inaugurated a show, Our Beautiful Daughters, in Delhi – giving the capital a first-hand look at why she is, and always has been, much more than Mrs John Lennon.

What marks Ono’s first working visit to India is not her celebrity status, but the fact that the show (which runs parallel to a retrospective, The Seeds) is a notable addition to the artist’s body of work – the latest in a number of polished exhibitions that have, since her first major retrospective Yes Yoko Ono (New York, 2000), increasingly ensured her canonic position in contemporary art. Ono’s India outing encompasses participatory work, film, performance, activism, installation and sound. Despite its breadth and celebrity shine, this event is a particular success because it channels the raw, off-key edge that has fuelled Ono’s work since the 1950s.

324500_362154970477208_792094657_o“My intent has not changed,” Ono told Time Out over email, before arriving in Delhi. Then, as now, “I was working without the concern of the size of the audience of my work.” That intent – to change the way people think – infuses everything she does: from haiku-length “instructions” to the 30-foot column of light that shoots up from Iceland’s Imagine Peace Tower – the 2007 fulfillment of a dream born during her first meeting with Lennon.

Besides these physical pieces, Ono’s most iconic work is “Cut Piece”, first performed in 1964, in Japan. Ono sat on stage while audience members cut off pieces of her clothes to create an intense interaction charged with violence and intimacy. Ono performed the piece several times, including at Carnegie Recital Hall. Depending on the audience, the show could be tame and polite or a threatening free-for-all. Ono downplayed the work’s importance: “‘Cut Piece’ and other performance I have done around then may have motivated some people to be less afraid of expressing themselves,” she said. But the work is a milestone in performance art: a riveting minimalist piece, devoid of the blood and gore that so many avant-garde artists use to grab attention.

That quiet wit, often leavened with puckish humour, is a quality Ono shares with others of her time. Around 1961, artists like John Cage, La Monte Young and George Maciunas coalesced at her New York loft, and the colla­borative creative space was instrumental in kick-starting Fluxus.

Collaboration has continued to be an important aspect of Ono’s work. Her shows are created as much by attendees following instructions as by Ono herself. (See Ono’s instruction postcard included in Time Out subscriber copies) One floor of Our Beautiful Daughters is dedicated to interactive pieces: “Mend Piece”, which involves fixing broken ceramic bowls; “My Mommy Is Beautiful”, an art wall to celebrate motherhood; “India Smile”, a photo booth that adds participants to the global Smiling Face Film; and others. There’s also a wish tree (one of 20 around the city), one of Ono’s most popular projects, in which people write and tie their dreams on a tree. We asked her if she was familiar with the Indian practice of tying threads around trees. She replied with a little story: “A very clever Japanese warrior of long time ago was asked by the lord to report how many trees were in his land. The lord did not think the warrior can do that. But the warrior brought the number very quickly. The warrior tied every tree with a string, and later took the strings off and counted them. I see the uncanny resemblance of that and the Indian practice you speak of. Do Asians have similar DNA? :)”

That response is vintage Ono: slightly off-topic, a little deflecting, but still seeking to connect through humour. The emoticon is typical too: An avid Twitter user, Ono tweets 140-character koan-like instructions, and answers fan questions every Friday. Social media hasn’t changed art, Ono said, “It’s the other way around. We performers changed the understanding of the social media. That’s what artists do.” Ono said new technology has made it possible to fulfill old, “farfetched” dreams (like the Imagine Peace Tower), but the dreams themselves haven’t changed.

These dreams, for Ono, have centred on promoting non-violence and addressing feminist issues. For India, she created a large installation “Remember Us”, a comment on the rules that bind women. “I wanted to share the worth of women of India with both women and men,” she said. Fifteen silicone female bodies, ranging in age and size and cast from real people, lie in segmented black boxes filled with coal. Three bowls of ash on the far end of the room stir associations with sati, or, less dramatically, cooking fires. At night, the bodies, which are soft to the touch, are covered by textiles made by Rajasthani women.

Besides the installation, posters in the style of the Ono and Lennon’s famous “War is Over! (If you want it)” advertisement, are up around the city. (See facing page for an ad created for Time Out Delhi.) As a committed peace activist in the last couple of bloody decades, Ono remains optimistic about art’s potential to change the world. Speaking about last year’s revolutions and protests around the world, she said, “The protests are performance art, with the intent of changing the world for the better. Don’t criticise. Enjoy.” In characteristic instructive fashion, she added, “We are at the point of stepping into the new world. Let’s not be negative about the fantastic vision we have of it. It’s time for action!”

At 78, Ono herself is energetically active, producing dance floor hits and travelling the world. Despite those who might dismiss her, she is the consummate survivor. The WWII bombing of Tokyo, the male-dominated mid-century art scene, marriage to the world’s most famous rock musician, the kidnapping of her daughter, and the murder of her soulmate – she’s lived through a lot. Yet Yoko Ono’s artistic strength lies in the universal concerns that echo through her work, transcending these individual experiences of suffering.

Read more about performance art in India.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, January 2012.

Published: January 20, 2012

Flights of fantasy

An interview with Alia Syed ♦

1911Experimental filmmaker Alia Syed was born in Swansea, Wales, to Indian and Welsh parents. Over the last thirteen years, Syed’s films have discussed diaspora, subjectivity and narrative, creating mesmerizing visual experiences. From the 24th of December to the 31st of March, Delhi’s Talwar Gallery held Syed’s first solo show in India, Elision. Recently, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, screened Eating Grass (2003) – a film ‘inspired’ by Pakistani former president Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s 1974 promise to Pakistanis that they would have weapons of mass destruction to rival India’s, even if they had to eat grass to fund them. Syed weaves political and historical references into her work, but she also captures the process of filmmaking itself. Sonal Shah gets into a Q and A with the London-based Syed.

Sonal Shah: You are an artist and a filmmaker. Do you see ‘film as art’?

Alia Syed: Art is not medium-specific. I don’t classify ‘film as art’ any more than I do painting or sculpture. Film has been part of human consciousness since the late 19th century and it is part and parcel of Modernist thought, influencing the way we think of time, perception and notions of the real. Man Ray made his first film Le Retour à la Raison (Return to Reason) in 1923 and artists have been experimenting with notions of the moving image ever since.

S. S.: Have there been any specific influences on your work?

A. S.: I remember being very influenced by a film by the Taviani brothers, Kaos, which encompasses four separate tales of Sicilian life. It opens in the Sicilian hills with a group of shepherds who find a male crow on a nest full of eggs. At first, they want to kill him, but then one shepherd ties a bell around the bird’s neck and sets him free. Each folk story is linked by the image of this large black ungainly bird flying and the incessant sound of a bell. I also like Italo Calvino and Salman Rushdie.

S. S.: You’ve mentioned that you write stories and poems as well.

A. S.: I do not see this as a separate activity; it is very much part of my overall process.

S. S.: Broadly speaking, your films fall into two categories. Swan (1989) and Priya (2008) are abstract pieces that contain a fixed subject, repetition and a build-up towards a visual crescendo. Other works such as A Story Told (2006) and Eating Grass (2003) are more narrative. How do these different types of works relate to each other?

A. S.: We tend to think of narrative as linear, but how it affects our inner emotional landscapes does not always conform to a rational sequence. I am affected by the world in many different ways – sometimes all that is left is to stand still and observe. For me (the two modes of observation) are different aspects of how we exist in the world.

S. S.: Your films also incorporate the process of filmmaking – through the use of heightened colour effects or the inclusion of “rough cut” editing in the final works, for instance. In Priya, you treated the film like an object by burying it. Would you call this a stylistic approach?

A. S.: Style is not something that interests me. My interest lies in showing how our gaze is infinitely complex. I am concerned with notions of rupture: how to arrest the gaze, how to hold the gaze so that it becomes a meditation, a reflection. The original shot that lay before me was problematic; it was too easily consumed. I wanted to draw attention to the layers I felt lay within it. For a long time I didn’t really know how to deal with it. In between this, I made other work. I became interested in notions of the “trace” and decided to bury the film and deal with what was left.

S. S.: You’ve mentioned elsewhere that Priya is a bit like a diary…

A. S.: All the vegetable matter left over from cooking went into the compost bin, so all our household waste has left marks on the surface of the film. I was very aware of seasonal changes. I planted a walnut tree in my garden and, in the late autumn, walnut juice (which behaves like a black dye) was the main component of the bin.

S. S.: Your work has been screened in both 16mm and digital formats. How much hinges on the way a gallery screens your films?

A. S.: When you show a film in a gallery, the work extends beyond the actual film. The space of projection impinges on the work. This is also true of the cinema space – there are no two cinemas with exactly the same sonic conditions. There are even more variables within the gallery. This interests me: how the work takes on other meanings; how the space enforces external geographical edits. Modern technology does offer more ways of intervention. However, the filmic image is formed very differently to the digital image and I think it has its own specificity. Whenever possible, I do prefer to show my work as 16mm projections.

S. S.: Your solo Elision was titled after a term used in film editing. Why?

A. S.: The Latin root of the word is “elidere” which means “to crush out” – this is quite literally what was done to the image in Priya. The emulsion has been crushed in the ground, forced to decay. I like the term; obviously, it describes many of the processes inherent in filmmaking and also the processes that are integral to creative thought. We begin with a certain notion, certain aspects of which are then discarded. Sentences, phrases and notes are juxtaposed to create meanings and tensions. But the contemporary world seems to hinge on elisions or omissions that maintain particular fictions. These fictions are political: they are very much about increasing control whilst creating the illusion of increased freedom.

S. S.: As a ‘diaspora artist’ your work is often seen to refer to cultural synchrony, identity and belonging. To what extent do you agree with this classification?

A. S.: I think the notion of synchrony is interesting in musical terms. It means that one has to be in time, in sync. Cultural synchrony becomes a very controlling notion – the idea of keeping in step. Time is something that is very intrinsic to filmmaking: how to pace things, when to come back, when all of the layers and associations have been exhausted.

The reality of the post-industrial era is that diaspora is made up of successive waves of migration. Narrative needs to be rethought along these new realities. It is very comforting to be able to see your own personal narrative extend before you both in terms of lineage and personal progression. We are brought up to believe that this is good, but in fact this is rarely the case. To be still is also to hold power. Ironically, it is also easier to exert control and meaning onto something that is still.

S. S.: Your third film, Swan, and your latest one, Priya, share formal similarities in their capturing of a relatively fixed subject in motion. Yet the raw, black-and-white simplicity of Swan is a sharp contrast to the riot of colours and textures in Priya. How has your work changed over time?

A. S.: When I made Swan I also made a film called Unfolding (1987), which is set in a public launderette. It is a document not only of the women who used the launderette but also of my feelings about making the film, as an outsider from a very different background. What happens throughout the piece is an analysis of language, storytelling and the politics of representation. I don’t think my concerns have changed that much. I am interested in how we represent the world through film.

S. S.: Are you working on a new project?

A. S.: I am working on a number of things – all of which have to do with notions of performance, endurance and the roles we play within the family unit.

S. S.: Speaking of family, aspects of your South Asian background are obvious in your work. Does your Welsh heritage also figure?

A. S.: I do not think you can delineate the two so sharply, as families create their own micro-culture. Oral history played an important part in my family life. Storytelling is very much part of my practice and I have inherited this concern from both my parents. My current project deals with four generations of women in my family: me, my daughter, my mother and grandmother. I use two central metaphors to investigate memory and tradition. One is the wallpaper my grandmother made and the other is the bike ride my great-grandmother used to take – travelling from a small Welsh mining village every weekend to her place of work in Neath. The journey as the crow flies is 24 miles. I intend to reenact this ride with my mother and daughter.

Originally published in Art India, 2009.

Published: June 7, 2009

Thukral & Tagra

Admen, artists, ambassadors ♦

bosedkIn the ongoing search to furnish India’s contemporary art scene with international emissaries, it is appropriate that two most prolific ambassadors have a background emblematic of the country’s most shining industry: advertising and design. Anything but appropriate, however, is the impish name of the fake brand that artist/designer duo Sumir Tagra and Jiten Thukral have invented – Bosedk Designs.

This cheeky attitude hides a pair of highly imaginative minds and two pairs of capable hands. Working in a variety of media – graphics, videos, music, interiors, products, paintings, sculpture and installation – Thukral and Tagra showcase design as high art. Yet Bard College curator-in-residence Trevor Smith writes aptly in a recent T&T catalogue that their engagement with design is “not one of distanced reflection or appropriation as is typical of visual artists, nor is it an academic critique of design.”

The artist/designer duo have had several major gallery shows, but also work in graphic and product design, including commissioned work – such as a 1”x1”x1” book titled David and Goliath – for companies such as Condé Nast, United Colors of Benetton and Ogilvy & Mather. Working collaboratively, T&T defy definition; are they artists or designers? Indians or global citizens? Dead serious or completely deadpan?.

What remains consistent is T&T’s almost branded style, straddled insouciantly between art and design. Their paintings – executed with the polish of digital prints – are stylized arrangements of stencil-like cut-outs, precise lettering and ornate embellishment. The question of whether these are backdrops for installation work, studies for projects or product overviews remains one for the critics. In Thukral and Tagra’s major shows, paintings rub shoulders easily with installation, seamlessly connected through content while varying in form.

T&T’s 2007 Everyday Bosedk exhibition at Nature Morte perfectly illustrated this easy coexistence. An exhibition that specifically built up the all-encompassing Bosedk brand and, in doing so, called into question the commercialisation of art and a commodification of style, Everyday Bosedk incorporated wall-size paintings, sculptures and a central installation. Upon entering, each viewer received a pin – a miniature version of an installation of chocolate sauce bottles (with questionably chocolatey boys on them) – forcing the spectator into interaction. Paintings like “It rains everyday” provided ample window-shopping with cookie-cutter figures engaged in various mundane and bizarre activities. But the centrepiece installation, “Keep out of the reach of children” encapsulated the uncomfortably satirical point of the exhibition. The gallery’s basement was transformed into a mini-supermarket – the whole venue branded to dizzying totality with neatly packaged, mysteriously multi-purposed Bosedk products. From bottles reminiscent of cleaning fluid to alcoholic beverages, the installation raised several important questions. Is this packaged seamlessness the real art-mart of India’s elated (perhaps inflated) art scene? Does the work’s title imply a condemnation of homogenization – a note of caution about the effect of dangerously attractive consumer culture on young children? By creating the illusion of mass-produced, monopolizing corporate unoroginality within an installation that was – given its galleried context – highly original, Thukral and Tagra have the last (albeit ambivalent) laugh.

The duo continue their political engagement in new projects, despite a certain self-directed irony. Peter Nagy writes in their catalogue that “Blinders are helpful when jumping into any fray… Most necessary [for artistic creation] may be an inert stupidity (in no short supply) against which to measure one’s own actions and intelligence…” The knowledge that world-saving may be arrogantly idealistic but better than doing nothing  at all underlay the pair’s recent “Put it on” exhibition at Bose Pacia, New York. The show handled spreading awareness of HIV/AIDS and condom use with witty delivery and a strong conviction in content. Whatever else they make think of themselves, Thukral and Tagra take their job as communicators seriously – coming up with underwear that promotes condoms, slippers with correct steps for condom usage printed on them, and a diagram, appropriated directly from market-strategy, of the moments during foreplay at which condom-awareness intervention through media is necessary. Extolls Nagy in the catalogue, “The Revolution will not only be televised but also commodified. The call to arms is to Personalize, Strategize, Sensitize, and Diversify.”

T&T’s latest show at Art Statements during Art Basel 38 – Adolescere – Domus – included works that spoke of more personalised touch, less evident in other, artistically aloof, pieces. In these and older paintings from 2004, the pair show up occasionally – not just as their cartoon avatars – but painted realistically if incompletely – a shoulder here, a pair of legs there. References to Delhi Public School, rotory phones and old-fashioned televisions curl up against iPods, bikinis and  self-portrait cartoons. These passing, pastiched icons are as close to self-explanatory as anything T&T have done. We’re in the thick of it, “deformed olive lover” and “skinny-kinky mind”[1] seem to be saying. We don’t care what you call us. We’re just having a damn good time. And then an echo of (canned?) laughter.

[1] Descriptions of Sumir and Jiten from their website www.bosedkdesigns.com

Originally published in Art India, 2007.

Published: October 7, 2007

Upside Down

Georg Baselitz: Printed Works 1965-1992 ♦

baselitzProbably one of the most important artists living today, Georg Baselitz still evokes some criticism among his contemporaries. He is best-known for his inverted subjects: figures, animals, landscapes turned upside down. While this may seem a simple contrivance, a retrospective exhibition of Baselitz’s printed works – Georg Baselitz: Printed Works 1965–1992 – at the Lalit Kala Akademi provides the opportunity to delve into the artist’s complex oeuvre. With inverted nudes as well as more recent works, which impose artificial grids and arbitrary blocks of colour across the surface, the exhibition – organised by the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen e.V. – is a comprehensive experience of Baselitz’s corpus, as well as a challenge for the viewer.

Born Hans-Georg Kern in the town of Deutschbaselitz (from which he derives his pseudonym), just before World War II, Baselitz’s early years promised a rebellious career. He even got himself expelled from art school for “socio-political immaturity”. But even from his earlier engravings, it is clear that Baselitz is adept at his craft, though perhaps lacking a trained virtuosity. In these expressionist drawings – “Rebel”, “Blocked Man” – he tends towards the grotesque, not with the intention to shock, but rather because he seems to have no patience for studied harmony at the expense of stemming the raw power of paint.

Baselitz once wrote in a catalogue, “Things always do go back to…the harmonious and the disharmonious. And there is the condition between the two where they meet. Here things mesh and are balanced, which, with my paintings and drawing, I don’t like, probably because I can never achieve it. And so I tend to take disharmony as my principle: it gives me better results.”

The biggest step Baselitz took towards freeing his subjects from the confines of conventional aesthetics – towards bringing the painting itself to life – was to paint things upside down. This has the effect of drawing attention to the form of reality, and of freeing subjects from their forms.

Baselitz’s paintings are unsettling, even repellent. The catalogue for the exhibition begins with a quote by Bonnard: “It is not about painting life, but about making painting come alive.” Baselitz responds to this with, “Reality IS the picture, it is definitely not IN the picture.” Some of his most successful works combine large etchings, woodcut prints and finger-painting to create bold brushstrokes that suggest wings and feathers.

Baselitz’s series of birds, in fact, particularly demonstrates the strength of his upside-down technique. “Untitled, 1974” (exhibit 14) looks at first glance like an abstract mountain or just a composition of negative and positive space. As the brain tries to make sense of the image, it starts to look like a bird falling out of the sky, suggesting agony, confusion and death. Imagine the painting upside down, and it gives the startling impression of an eagle soaring through a blue sky.

Another painting (“Untitled, 1974”; exhibit 16) suggests danger with its heavy black brushstrokes crisscrossing the blue background in a skull-like form. Yet, there is an attractive internal organisation in the painting that compels you to look again. The image of a bird in a nest, which stereotypically suggests security and comfort, appears inverted – provoking contradictory emotions.

The works can make you realise the controlling nature of the brain; when one has seen the motif in a painting – the conventionally “right” way to see it – the eyes obstinately refuse to let go of that image. The conditioned mind clings tenaciously to the bird and has difficulty going back to the more innocent experience of the form of the painting. Baselitz claims that his use of motifs is unimportant and his later works obscure any recognisable subject even further, focusing on the painterly aspects of each piece. There is harmony here – but it is a harmony that is less concerned with aesthetic balance within a frame and more with a balance of emotions and ethics.

Baselitz has written, “When I start my paintings I begin by forming things as though I were the first to do this, the only one, as though there weren’t all these predecessors – although I know that there are thousands of examples to speak against me. You always have to do something that is valid and final.”

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, 2007.

Published: January 18, 2007