Old Work, New Mix

Looking Glass
Group Exhibition
Religare Arts
D3 PB3 District Centre, Ground Floor, 110 017 Saket, New Delhi, India
October 1, 2010 – October 31, 2010

Stepping into the Religare Gallery one feels as if one has entered Alice’s Looking Glass Land–a world where time runs backwards and written words may be read only when held up to a mirror, an alternate world that inverts and distorts logic and sense, mocking meaning. In the exhibition, Looking Glass: The Existence of Difference, art critic and curator, Gayatri Sinha, collates the works of twenty contemporary Indian artists whose art traverses through the undulated surfaces of a post- colonial, post-modernist India to form the looking-glass that reflects intense, unsettling images of contemporary society. The pieces are spread over three locations – the Religare Gallery, American Center and British Council. The artists- Baiju Parthan, Jayashree Chakravarty, Surendran Nair, Pushpamala N., N.N. Rimzon, Anita Dube, Nataraj Sharma, Atul Dodiya, Sudarshan Shetty, Bose Krishnamachari, Anju Dodiya, Subodh Gupta, Shibu Natesan, TV Santhosh, NS Harsha, Bharti Kher, Jagannath Panda, Riyas Komu, Jitish Kallat, Shilpa Gupta unearth lost myths and situate them in a contemporary setting. They create simulacrums of popular visual images, glorify the banal, satirize the absurdity and violence inflicted by the State and a market-driven economy. The works at once resonate a collective identity of contemporary India as well as the ‘existence of difference’ in the styles, materials, methods, cultures of vision and visuality deployed by each of the works.

Subodh Gupta’s untitled work challenges traditional themes and materials typically deployed to create Art. His subject matter is shiny steel vessels that are found in middle class homes. His frame is filled with objects from the kitchen–pots and pans, cascading, several of them arranged together, enlarged. The artist seems to be staging a war between the old and the new mediums of art— oil paint that is randomly splattered on the canvas attempts to blot out the steel utensil print, a subject matter generally unfit to be considered Art.

Shilpa Gupta’s installation, placed in the middle of the Religare gallery, appeals to more than just the sense of sight. The artwork is comprised by a pile of neatly arranged soap bars with the word ‘threat’ engraved on each, and fills the gallery with its fragrance. The viewers are invited to take a bar home, thereby engaging touch as well as scent and sight. Gupta’s installation, ‘Threat’, is arranged like bricks found outside a construction site. With the word ‘threat’ engraved on each of the bars, the work mocks the fears of our anxiety-ridden society that sees any unidentified object as a potential explosive. The viewer is no longer one who merely stands back and runs a cool, detached gaze over the art-work. Rather, the piece of art becomes an object of everyday use in the viewer’s bathroom. It prompts us to think whether each piece still remains a work of art as one washes off daily dirt from one’s body using what is or was an object marked ‘threat’, exhibited in a gallery.
Pushpamala’s photo-performance, the ‘Motherland’ series, in gaudy golden frames references the history of photography and its practice. She carefully constructs a scenario that mimics the bazaar photo studios and herself poses as the iconic ‘bharat mata.’ The artist parodies the Hinduised national identity posited by the right wing parties that conflate the nation with a feminized, docile version of the Hindu goddess Kali/ Shakti. Pushpamala performs the ‘Motherland,’ bejeweled, in her blood red sari, wearing alta (a red pigment applied on the palms and feet of Hindu brides) with a slightly bored expression on her countenance, raising her right hand to bless the martyr and true son of the land, Bhagat Singh, the freedom fighter who kneels at her feet, decapitated, presenting to her his head in his hand, red paint dripping onto his clothes and the carpet below. The artist reduces the sacred to the profane, constantly pointing towards the constructedness of an identity and icon.

Bharti Kher’s ‘Or the great Indian Rope trick’ is no representation of a conjurer performing magic but a suicidal giraffe hanging himself with a rope from a ceiling fan. The art work is a dark but humorous take on India’s image in the Western world, which is still one of the land of snake charmers and sadhus. The absurdity of the animal committing suicide is comparable to India’s fraught economy that on the one hand is lauded for its miraculous rate of economic growth while also serving as the impetus for a remarkably high rate of farmer suicides. In Jagannath Panda’s ‘Love-Terrace III,’ private sexual fantasies are played out using Hindu myth and medieval Indian art styles, juxtaposed with representations of changing spaces and habitats. In Panda’s canvases the alienation produced through current lifestyles can only be overcome by fantasy and myth. Anju Dodiya’s ‘Moss’ poses pertinent questions about gaze–the colonial gaze, the male gaze and the gaze of the viewer of the artwork who may see the room around her reflected in a mirror that is itself included in the work. N.S. Harsha’s installation, ‘Second Orgasm’ articulates the violent conflict between the agricultural and corporate sector through a plough that bores a hole through a suitcase that lies open on the floor, spilling out rice. Atul Dodiya’s ‘Saraswati’ employs kitsch imagery and a metal shutter, the type used by tradesmen in their shops, that rolls up to display the religio-cultural duality of contemporary India.

“Through the Looking-glass” captures subsiding, colliding, trickling down, undulating surfaces, and unearths the lost bylanes of the vernacular, parodying the shared popular imagination of a nation, and documenting the chaos and bloody conflicts of India in the 21st century as well as the crudeness and cruelty that is internalized by everyday life. The art included in this exhibition shocks viewers out of security and, makes them ‘experience,’ as opposed to merely observe. The art puts them in discomfiting positions, implicates them, includes them in the ‘performance’ of the art. In the best of contemporary Indian art we witness a return to the eternal question “what is Art”?

The exhibition is on until the 31st of October and culminates with a seminar titled, ‘When the ties that bind unravel: Art Practices in the age of cultural relativism’ on the 28th and 29th of October at British Council (New Delhi), which discusses contemporary art in the global arena.

As Indian art increasingly gains visibility and accrues accolades in the international art scene, the deep introspection and fearless innovation of the aforementioned artists requires serious contemplation as opposed to a careless glance. Whether the works are a vehement rebellion or a sardonic sneer at a social practice, they seem to have one thing in common–a rejection of a contained, framed existence. The work is metacritical, holding up a looking-glass both to society, and to contemporary art/ viewing practices that are going through a period of tumultuous transformation.

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(Image courtesy of Religare art gallery and the artists.)

Note: This article was first published @Artslant.com

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