Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Art in the Times of Constipation

(Marlyn Monroe by Andy Warhol)

This is a small note on my life. Some of my friends at least must be curious about my absence from the blogosphere. Many might have even forgotten me. Nothing stands permanently. Physical presences vanish into thin air, memories turn their tone into darker and duller ones, pictures fade, digital images get buried as more and more images find their place over them. Like we live on the dead bodies of others with grinning skeleton below our feet and we are unaware and happy about it, life goes on. Hence, this note of mine is insignificant to the level of being drab. Yet, I understand somewhere, someone near a window, below the sky, shut out from the madness of life, under the table lamp, must be sitting and staring at the compass and map of a nowhere land where one has not gone and one does not know whether one would be ever able to go. For that one, the invisible reader, I submit this note. Read on kindly.

Life is beautiful. Photographs do not lie. That’s what we believe. But cynical ones amongst us have different opinion about it. They say life is beautiful and yet…They say in those photographs we look cheery and peppy but….True, there are no permanent states of satisfaction and happiness. I feel the opposite of happiness and satisfaction are not sorrow and dissatisfaction. I think, it is anxiety and restlessness. When we experience a moment of joy, we expect a moment of fall; a fall into the depths of despair. We do not expect joy but we expect something gloomy and brooding. But that is a state of mind. Some are gifted with this permanent elation and a common sense of denial. They live happily ever after. As a writer and political activist, my life is in a mess. But somehow, in that messiness there is an order; an order that helps me understand the secrets of life. That is fascinating and painful at the same time.

(Mao by Andy Warhol)

Some friends ask me whether I have permanently left art and criticism. I am indelibly touched by their compassion and concern. I tell them politely what I do is art and art criticism. It is just a zonal and perspective shift that has occurred in me. I have been actively looking at what artists have been doing all these years. My interest in the art of politics was born out of my interest in history, which surprisingly I never had in my college days. History, I used to think as something that burdens human mind and cognitive faculties. Dates and data used to fill me with disgust and horror. But the moment I left college, I realized that there was much in history that I did not understand while I was in there. The problem was not with history but with college and the person that I had been in college. Then came the politics of art. It was disheartening. Soon I realized that none in the art scene had feet of steel, bronze or gold. Everyone was having that of not even solid clay but mulch, the filthy mulch. Still I clung on to my hope of redeeming myself from within that crowd. It was fruitful an effort. Then I saw a lot of political art. In India, whatever comes in the name of political art is nothing but the art of adjustment. It is art of negotiation. It is art of power. I have never seen any murkier art than something called political art in India.

Disappointed I turned to history for my solace and it has been on for more than a decade. My personal library which is currently located in Delhi would tell you how eclectic I was in my effort to survive in the world of letters and criticism for there was no anchor other than the contemporary political history to pit against the contemporary art history. I was writing contemporary art history and I was sucking out of the contemporary political history for my energy. I realized sooner than later that I could not have gone on like that forever. Today, I see Indian art dying out, losing vigor and draining itself of its life sap. Recently I attended an art camp. I inaugurated that national camp. I started my speech saying that when someone invites you to inaugurate something or as a chief guest in the function, your days of rebellion are numbered. You dissent has been co-opted and you are a subsumed entity. While it remains the truth there is some fun in being a chief guest; at least during those moments you are considered indisputable and whatever you say listen worthy.

 (Work by Ron Mueck)

My speech was not written; it was extempore though I have been preparing this speech in my mind for the last two years; exactly speaking ever since Mr.Narendra Modi came to power in the centre. I spoke of the days of implied political emergency in the country. My trigger was just Mr.L.K.Advani. In a way I was exonerating myself from the possible attacks from the right wing forces.  Advani had a different reason to talk about the incipient political emergency. I had a different one. I spoke of the yielding nature of the artists. When they are asked to sit, they are ready to bend their knees in supplication before power. When they are asked to shut up, they would even stitch their lips together. I asked them to beware of such a scenario where artists would be rendered absolutely voiceless. I asked them to speak up because it was the right time to speak up. If you do not speak up now, perhaps you would never be able to. I showed them how artists in this country are divested of their right to speak when the country faces natural calamities. When terrorists attack the country, when natural calamities affect the nation, all the representatives except the artists are asked for views and opinion. None asks for artists’ opinion. Dancers are asked, musicians are asked, writers are asked, actors are asked, but no artists. Why? One has to think. Nobody asks anything to the artists because artists have ceased to be the conscience keepers of the society. They have become co-conspirators in the acts of crime and corruption. They say, they make art and they do not know anything else. I tell them to speak up; not about their art but about their political views, their difference with the governments.

 Unfortunately they become fund raisers. When there is a war, these artists do shows to raise funds for jawans. When there is a calamity they raise funds. What a ridiculous situation they have brought themselves into. One has to think about it. I asked the artists to speak up. But they misunderstood and as expected they started saying that they were not vocal the way I wanted them to be. But is there any person in this world who is not vocal when one’s freedom and dignity are at stake? When one does not have power they at least howl and thrash their legs and hands. Here, our artists remain utterly silent. In their air conditioned and dustless studios they are creating art for humanity. If anyone tells me that great artists in the history have not spoken against power, then I would like to remind them that they all have spoken. They have been even executed for speaking the truth. Artists have done great sacrifices including risking their lives to remain free and say their political views. But in India, the irony is that the artists run with the prey and hunt with the hunter.

 (Art of Excess - work by Subodh Gupta)

My speech was not well received by the artists. They said they were not cut to make political speeches. Their job is to do art. I did not go to argue with them. Someone told me that one of the artists said that my opinion was quite detrimental to the art scene and he was seriously disappointed. Why one should be disappointed at all? When the fundamental rights of an individual are vandalized how can artists sleep sound? How can they create beauty when ugliness is the parameter to judge their beauty? How can they think about human redemption when they know that they are still in shackles? There is a political revolution happening in our country. It has different phases and faces. One could not subscribe to all or none. One has to subscribe to one at least. One need not wear it on his or her sleeve. But there should be some kind of protest happening somewhere so that the social thinkers and political strategists would heed to the human voices of aesthetics and the demand for sublime life. Why are the artists not doing it? I am not saying that none is doing it. Many are and I respect them. There are young artists in Delhi who are vocal against the fundamentalist moves of the central government. But there is a majority that keeps quiet. I say, we cannot create beauty in this time. We need a different artistic articulation. At present none, almost none seems to be able to do it. I know artists who have even switched medium as they find the present one so oppressive but impotent in expressing what they really want to say about the incipient emergency in our country. Some artists have started writing. Some have started doing silent campaigns. I am worried about the majority that has shifted to making godly icons as a covert strategy to survive bad times.

You may wonder how, in these days of no-art criticism, which has been feeding me for decades, I survive financially. To tell you the truth, I started teaching in a parallel tutorial college where I take English poetry and drama classes for degree students. The management pays me Rs.150/- hour. I work for five hours on alternate days. I survive on a meager income. But I am happy to be so. My reading and writing has not been affected by any of these. I do my political work and I do contribute my time and resources to the party. I do not go to teach everyday because I know if I do, the attraction to make money would finally help me to set up my own college because there is a lot of money in education sector. I resist all temptations because I need my time and my freedom. Refusing the big money from art scene is my political stance and earning to fulfill my minimum necessities is again my political positioning. I use a cycle to move around. I am not a fundamentalist of austerity. When time comes I would switch to luxury, which is good for keeping the skin smooth and mind dull. At times I crave for a dull mind. But the time is not ripe yet.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Pirates of the Queer-ebean : About the Myena and Vibhu Faceoff.

(An exhibition in progress at Engendered, New Delhi)

“When the market won’t express something, pirates will. Pirates acting in the own self interest and in the interest of their communities are today some of the most ruthless innovators on the planet.”
                                                 -The Pirate’s Dilemma by Matt Mason (Free Press, New York 2008)

If Walter Benjamin was curious about the originality of a work of art during the days of mechanical reproduction as was possible in 1940s, Matt Mason, in the new millennium speaks of the copy right violator’s dilemma. With the excessive availability of ideas and forms in the form of software and products, creative thinkers/artists do not know where to copy from or how to alter it. Brilliant and clever amongst them would work on the same towards their own self interest and come out with the most stunning ideas and products. Copying/plagiarism and innovating/altering beyond belief are two different things today. When it is not altered beyond recognition, there are all the possibilities of people crying foul as aloud as possible. But the creative pirates do not stop there. Responding to the innovative faculties of the creative pirates, many corporate houses have created open sources (software) and some creative artists have brought out copy left theory. Nina Paley, the animator and film maker is a champion for copy left (free copy right movement) movement. In our daily lives too so many file sharing and downloading software methods force the original producers to release their products online before they actually hit the material market. It is a changing world.

Myena Mukherjee, the director of a Delhi based queer gender organisation (an organisation that stands strong for different sexual orientations) seems to have turned a sudden traditionalist when it came to a show that she had curated in 2013 and its matured versions in the following years in three different cities in India, namely Delhi, Chennai and Mumbai. The show that was titled ‘Wall of Solidarity’, in which the artists contributed one foot by one foot works showing solidarity with gender parity demands of the organisation. To cut the story short, now the curator has gone to court against Vibhuraj Kapoor, the director of a Mumbai based gallery, Gallery Beyond ( incidentally which was the venue of the exhibition’s Mumbai leg) for violating copy right of her show. The show is currently being held in Mumbai (or just finished, I am not sure) as a collateral to the queer gender film festival (KMQIFF) is/was at the Gallery Beyond and according to Myena Mukherjee, it is a ‘commercial’ venture and her idea has been cannibalized by Mr.Kapoor without her permission. The Kapoor hosted show is curiously titled ‘3771919 Wall’. I do not know what it means (It must mean something or nothing). A hurt curator goes on to say that Mr.Kapoor has not only lifted her idea but also her display strategies. 

(Book cover of Matt Mason's book)

I do not know Vibhuraj Kapoor too closely. I have visited his gallery a couple of times. I do not know Myena Mukherjee at all though I have been following her mails and posts in social networks. Hence, my interest in the case is only that of a curious onlooker who has been working as an art critic and curator for almost two and half decades. According to me, this was an avoidable controversy. On the human level, Vibhuraj Kapoor was her collaborator for the same concept in 2014. Hence, she should have avoided a public confrontation and an eventual litigation. Okay, nowadays who cares much for human sentiments? Let’s take it a bit intellectually and in a matter of fact manner. How could the ‘Wall’ concept be Myena Mukherjee’s own concept? There have been hundred and one wall art projects before and after the Nirbhaya issue. So by calling her project ‘Wall of Solidarity’, going by her own argument, she herself was infringing upon someone else’s right to have a copy right. Two, the format of one foot by one foot is a universal thing; was she violating another copy right? While arguing her case, she says that Mr.Kapoor misled a few artists and coaxed them to participate in the show and to make matters worse, he even threatened them using bad language.

Myena has a supporter in Georgina Maddox, a former journalist turned art writer and curator. She, in all right earnest, brings a few people as witnesses and quotes them in her article published in www.mattersofart.net.  One of the artists in his facebook page even thanked the writer for brining the issue in public as he was ‘forced to be a part of the show’. I remember the story of two servants when I was living a rich man’s house for a couple of months. One night, on hearing a commotion in the kitchen at midnight, I went there to check and found those two boys grabbing each other’s balls and necks. They released each other and one of them told me very politely. “Sir, aap jaanta hai mein kitna accha banda hun. Yeh ladka, dekho mere ko bhi pila ke rakha hai.” (Sir, you know well how well mannered I am. But, look at him, he made me drink alcohol). I could not suppress my laughter. How could one make another drink forcefully, especially both of them are servants in the same house and both of them are grown up enough to understand what drinking means? This artist sounds exactly like that servant. “If you have not published this article, this bad man Kapoor would have exhibited my works. You saved me.” He did not say this but this is what I heard when I read his status update in facebook with a link to the DNA article.

(Myena Mukherjee, director of Engendered)

The director of Engendered argues that in the first edition of her show (RESIST), many of the major artists have participated. Good. It is almost like a Dalit activist saying, “You see, my protest was appreciated by the Brahmin priest in the temple.” Myena runs a queer gender platform. But the mainstream artists are not so queer to accept the queerness of the queer (I know most of them personally). They have agreed to exhibit on this platform because they thought they were supporting a cause and also such causes are fashionable enough to bring a lot of press attention. None makes exhibitions on child labour, acid attack survivors (some photographers do). If at all such exhibitions are conducted, they are done by industrialists' wives who will auction the works for charity and occupy more page three space than the spaces in the minds of their beneficiaries. Okay, even if these artists strongly believe in queer sexuality, when they give a work for the cause, those are accepted as works of art which have commercial viability. But then, why and how, Gallery Beyond becomes a pariah (from the brahminical exclusivity of the Engendered, I cannot help saying it) and so hateful as far as Myena and artists are concerned? Does the issue change when the platform changes? Does the gravity of queerness change when a heterosexual gallerist does the show? If we go by the argument, how can heterosexual and the artists who enjoy social success and mainstream adulation contribute to this and Myena could accept? If she could, why couldn’t Kapoor? Why it is not commercial when it is with Myena and commercial with Vibhu Kapoor? I do not understand? If Krishna Chandan exhibits Raqs Media collective, will they lose their intellectual sheen? Or if they refuse to exhibit and accept an invitation from Peter Nagy, what exactly helps them make that choice?

I have not seen both the shows. But I find the whole issue very childish. Maddox has quoted Ina Puri in her article. I do not understand what is Ina Puri’s credibility as an art critic? Ms.Puri talks about fakes in art scene. Can we collate the issue of faking with the issue of copy right or copy left? Coming to the issue of faking, can someone really stand up and say the number of Husains and Souzas sold every other season at the well established auction houses are fakes? Why the critics are not explicit on the ghosts of Husains and Souzas and Bawas churning out paintings even after their demises and them getting authenticated? It is easy to shoot a Vibhuraj Kapoor. Sometimes the bullets can be quite suicidal also. Balbir Krishan and Satadru Sovan criticise Kapoor. But their words should be taken as the signs of friendship and allegiance.

 (Vibhu Kapoor, Director of Gallery Beyond Mumbai)

This issue is very simple. Myena should have let the show happen without any fuss. She should have smiled and let it go. Also she should tell herself three times a day that she is not a great curator or something only because she runs a queer platform called Engendered. I do not have any problem with Myena because I do not know the person or I do not have any reason to have a grudge against her. But this issue sounds too childish and I thought of giving a friendly advice. It will backfire in the court because other than the context and complexion, the shows are fundamentally different and it could be proved. I remember me doing two interesting projects in 2008-09 and in 2012. The first one was called ‘Video Wednesdays @ Gallery Espace’. One of the most discussed projects in Indian contemporary art scene, this year long show gave some dignity to the video artists in India. However, when the second edition happened, I was not even consulted once. I decided to let it go. In 2012, I did the first edition of the United Art Fair. A phenomenal fair, but it went into drains by the second edition and the reasons are well known to all. I kept quiet there too. Gender issues are much graver than a show at Gallery Beyond or at Engendered. They need different kinds of addressing.

I will conclude this article with a quote from the Pirate's Dilemma by Matt Mason: “Acting like a pirate- taking value from the market, or creating new spaces outside of the market and giving it back to the community, whether it is with free open software source or selling cheap Starbury sneakers- is a great way to serve public interests and a great way to make an authentic connection to a new audience.”

Both Myena Mukherjee and Vibhuraj Kapoor are pirates. Or I want to believe so.