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Chemould Prescott Road celebrates 50 years of art with third of five exhibitions curated by Geeta Kapur
Phantomata - Tushar Joag - Display view

MUMBAI.- There are phantoms in the gallery. These are persons, ghosts, machines. That is to say, there are performative photographs, slow-time videos, objects and apparatus that work or make you work to known and unknown ends.

Phantoms manoeuvre the uncanny, and artists are eager for such enchantment. Phantoms may be shape-shifting devils; they can be intimate, reclusive, diligent. They may be tormented by mythical decree; they also act out surveillance, trigger counterfeit wars.

Phantoms are of course our own compulsive projections and almost all cultures translate these into trickster ‘machines’ – automaton or automata – tuned to perform real and absurd tasks. There are civilizational legends and continued production of automata through the ages. In our time they appear as robots, cyborgs.

Phantom and Automata make up the eccentric fabrication: Phantomata.

A monumental photograph condenses Nikhil Chopra’s five-day ‘pilgrimage’ where the artist, dressed in a peasant smock, moves from his cloistered abode into the fields to paint the medieval Tuscan town of San Gimignano. Mimesis is at the heart of this performance: he gradually costumes himself in a manner resembling the figural imagery of Benozzo Gozzoli (from his fresco cycle, Life of Saint Augustine, located in San Gimignano and from his most acclaimed Procession of the Magi in nearby Florence). Indeed, he virtually ‘incarnates’ the great artist’s pensive self-portrait in red cap. The performance ends with Nikhil, wrapped in the large painted canvas, walking back into the town, whereupon the gods prompt a downpour. The painter’s robe is heavy with mud and he himself, weary and bedraggled. This confirms the allegory of Virtue that the performer quotes, but produces – as performance – splendid vanity. Nikhil turns mimesis ‘inside out’ to become a phantom of art history: nascent realism of the Renaissance (his pale face borrowed from fifteenth-century painting); performative narcissism of the Romantics (he is like Pierrot, Europe’s tragic clown); esoteric codes of Japanese theatre: the supernatural presence of the Noh actor, body torture in Butoh. In this photograph, Nikhil turns around, and his spiritual propulsion freezes into mannerist pose: he becomes a marionette fulfilling (the conceit) of my present thematic: phantomata.

There is a pair of works in the show that show the artist disembodied. The video works of Sonia Khurana and Kiran Subbaiah are, as if by a prior pact, the recto/ verso of a performative stance: one is about touch, the other about rebuff. Sonia caresses a black man’s Brancusian head with her own ‘child’ hand. Kiran is a malign comic who doubles himself so that his suicide counts for murder. Her teasing, dexterous fingers draw a calligraphy of desire; his anomie forces us to become an unwilling third antagonist in the game. They are phantom-like because both are in different ways dispossessed of their bodies – Sonia Khurana’s body is sensuously signalled but actually absent; Kiran Subbaiah’s is present but twinned in the way of a doppelganger and therefore dislocated. The sense that these fleshand-blood persons may be automata is enhanced by the suppression of speech. Mute players, she gives us the poetics and he the mechanics of the uncanny.

There is Ranbir Kaleka’s much remembered Man Threading a Needle – a ‘poor’ painting in that it is only a brushed-in base to receive the luminosity of the video projection in which the man, a neighbourhood carpenter working for Ranbir, tries to thread a needle. This good man is imbued with slow – slowed – time; diligent repetition makes his action sublime and indifferent. Is it the barely blinking eyes; is it the peacock’s cry outside the window that shudders through him and makes him lose the ‘eye’? We do not know if it is the painting or the video that makes the man spectral. The ‘truth of painting’ and the untruth of digital data: this adage serves here as a paradox of the nature of representation itself.

Raqs Media Collective (Jeebesh Bagchi, Shuddhabrata Sengupta, Monica Narula) present more purposefully diligent men at their desks in a silent, looped video projection that animates an archival photograph taken in 1911 by James Waterhouse, titled Examining Room of the Duffin Section of the Photographic Department of the Survey of India. Raqs, who implicate themselves in far-flung archives as voyeurs, actors, witnesses, embed in this ‘classic’ photograph, fleeting codes: a man in yellow helmet (labour/hazard fighter?) walks across the window; the skewed fan grinds time. On the lighting up of a starry triangle on a Survey document, they say: “What the gentlemen in the photograph are doing is probably refining the data produced by trigonometric surveys into maps and charts.” A found image has an ontology; recognizing this, Raqs put in balance institutional ‘apparatus’ and mediatic manoeuvres. Subliminal happenings induce a seismic metaphor: the work is titled An Afternoon Unregistered on the Richter Scale.

Subtle animation, and we move back in time to the magic lantern. Susanta Mandal makes a rudimentary steel projector where you look at celluloid slides using candle-light – soft and slipping away from the optical centre of the lenses. You make delicate manoeuvres to adjust flame and image. Yet clarity is in itself inconsequential. If earlier uses of the magic lantern induced fearsome ghosts, Susanta’s imaged objects are redundant. In his second ‘invention’, referencing cinematography, the lenses move automatically to sharpen and blur the images that are but five modest portraits of working people who come and go in our lives. Susanta’s work is anachronistic. Moving through a modernist maze, he retools himself to ask philosophic questions; and by recalling a more direct continuum between perceptual inquiry, aesthetics and the machine, he seeks to regain the image seeker’s phenomenological positioning.

Indian art has two ‘masters’ of automata; both in their own way capture phantoms. Sudarshan Shetty makes objects that are fetishistic, reified and magically motored to perform both caressing and violent acts. His phantoms are equipped with limbs that keep alive memory in dedicated and macabre ways. He baits mortality; in that manoeuvre there is futility that is also a promise. A shelf with jars pouring over with ‘milk’ – pure plenitude! A feather brushing clean an empty vitrine performs fragility, therefore virtue. The Braille typewriter is a blind messiah’s toy programmed to type only LOVE. In a new set of photographs, Sudarshan stands at dawn in front of the Gateway of India (a monumental relic) and breaks a clay-pot over his shoulder. He releases the soul of a departed ancestor, but the pot reappears in a vitrine, its shards patched together to make another relic. There is an aesthetic of loss here; it puts in balance the artist’s many flamboyant gifts.

Tallur, of course, is a prolific ‘manufacturer’ of self-operating machines that grind the face of the goddess, produce barbed wire and nails. One of the works in this show is a slick coin-polishing machine that promotes faux virtues, perversely called Apocalypse. His new work for Phantomata is, in keeping with his ironies, an object that is solid, iconic and obtuse: a lingam-like sculpture that must be hand-cranked to test muscle and endurance in the manner of Hatha Yoga. Yet the sculpture is called Karma Yoga, and it allegedly promotes the will to act appropriately unto the law and without greed for personal gain. It may equally be a means to subject such manly ambition to a Sisyphean curse.

Curses often animate high performance. In her video Indrajaala/Seduction, Pushpamala draws from an anthropological substructure images that are epic, mythic and theatrical. The action is choreographed to resemble a life-size puppet performance: Lakshmana displays his martial prowess and cuts off the nose of the seductress Surpanakha, arrayed in her phantasmagoric hybridity, like demons the world over. Pushpamala then reveals herself to be Surpanakha, and in the narrative denouement, ethical command gives way to sensuous affect. Her face in close-up resembles Mexican Madonnas and Joan of Arc; her profusely bleeding nose is an epiphany. The looped video recalls the naïve bid for magic that inspired early cinema, then developed a genre of phantom fiction: remember Pushpamala’s suite of photographs in the mode of a doppelganger narrative – Phantom Lady.

Before we end with the more historically sombre motifs, I introduce two works that are the minutiae of this exhibition. Pratul Dash’s animation video miniaturizes a city landscape of mountainous garbage, smouldering land-fills, and offers a barely perceptible glimpses of human life – how it crawls and dies. This is a social critique, but more a scene of terminal disintegration seen under a microscope. As much as Pratul’s humans are diminutive, Mithu Sen’s dead bird is a manoeuvrable ‘giant’: the newborn’s wings rotate as ants carry the carcass with Lilliputian effort. Mithu, who chanced upon this abject acrobatics, gives the bird the dignity of myth: here is infant Icarus moving arduously on its prosthetic wings. It will not reach the sun.

Two artists in the exhibition announce menace. Tushar Joag’s The Enlightening Army of the Empire refers to assaults by the United States on Iraq purportedly in search of ‘weapons of mass destruction’. The US openly hoards and uses these weapons, and the enlightening army continues anon – to devastate Afghanistan, dispossess Palestine. Contemporary imperial powers use not armies but missiles, and Tushar’s manufacture of low-tech ‘robots’, a glowing troop of hell’s angels that light up into a marching spectacle, mocks precisely the gargantuan weaponry deployed against the world’s unprotected citizens.

Baiju Parthan’s stunningly constructed lenticular prints seem, at first, to be scenes from a 3-D science fiction film where secrets are incubated and planetary destinies plotted. The artist designate these on a more personal, persecutory register: if the current digital technology facilitating absolute surveillance comes of age, “it could generate a feedback loop that would erase and remodel us according to the diktats of profit-generating mega corporations”. In one of the images, Baiju constructs what he calls “a fractal eyeball or a compound eye with each shiny globe mapped with my portrait”. The image is dense; it mutates in response to the viewer’s volition but refuses to yield its controls. The two artists, Tushar Joag and Baiju Parthan, recognize the command: Search and Destroy. Here corporate and state surveillance lock together in a self-generating apparatus, and define the magnitude of our historical dystopia.

Geeta Kapur
29 November 2013
New Delhi

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