TAG | History of Art and Artists in Karnataka
Harsha’s painting titled “Come, Give Us a Speech” (2008) contain too many figures. But (and) because of the innumerable figures, the ‘memory’ of what is seen is erased immediately. A recollection of how they have been ‘seen’ is also forgotten, as if seeing and forgetfulness is knit in a marriage-of-difference. Six canvases are to be mentally knit together, with around two thousand painted figures within (one thousand nine hundred and ninety nine, to be precise), without any astrological belief in the numerological exactitude. A walk several times back and forth, closer and from distance, all in all, makes this–deliberate forgetfulness of what is seen–possible. Also the convention of a bourgeoisie, armchair viewership—that makes us remember works and exhibition in the first place–is contested, as a result. This politics-of-memory, as an integral part of artistic viewership is equated with the absence of specificity-of-memory in a typical contemporary Indian crowd-behavior. Norman Bryson and Mieke Bal’s semiotic notion of the absence of any ‘specificity’ within the ‘authorship’ and ‘con/text’ of an artwork is well articulated in the work*1*
All the figures and/or each one of them sit on similar chairs and they face the audience whose identity, in turn, they are ever unsure about. Even the chairs ‘face’ the ever active spectator. Note the previous sentence. The convention of an artistic activity within the pictorial space and the casual gaze exchange their roles! The audience constantly searches for a method to physically approach the work, while always are already doing that. The bodily movement is an integral part of probing a route for the very movement! The gestures of the painted figures, no matter what they are doing, first of all, mock the conventional attitude of the audience. In other words, all the figures are comfortably seated frontally, facing the audience which is always unstably searching for a map-like path-finder while looking at the very map. Painted figures, for a while, is turned into a map-of-themselves, by the sheer simplicity of the arrangements of figures: uniform, mutually unbothered, seeming to hail from various—not backgrounds—dimensions. The paradoxical exchange between what lies within the cultural space and the audience response is reversed once for all.*2*
Once the art’work’ is seen–if at all there is a singular way of seeing it–there is the question of why and how did we see what we saw.
The ‘act’ of making these images equates to exhaustiveness on the part of the artist. This work as a ‘verb’ or the physical participation of the artist for about six months is (placed) in the back of the viewer’s mind, constantly. Remembering the sheer physical artistic-labour splits the audience’s grasp of the work into two parts: (a) The audience, certainly, believes that she is re-creating that labour which might evoke a conventional empathy within her (b) she doesn’t realize that she is already, unwittingly, becoming an inevitable part of a democratic, individual, middle class mock-protest (march) against a set of aristocratic norm—the controlled behavior meant to meet the king. This is done by just moving sideways and back and forth. Is Harsha positioning a feminine intervention against aristocracy? The non-prescribed, unmarked mapped area meant for the audience to meander through is a width which is equal to the room that contains the work. The display room for this work, even in the future, in any un/known museum/gallery, would envelop this work instead of containing it! Also note the simulacra (in Jean Beaudrillardian sense) evoked between the painterly-work of the artist and walking-as-’work’ of the audience. The work doesn’t mean to instigate democracy against feudalism. But the attention and detailing provided to the words ‘doesn’t mean’ in the previous sentence is what is noteworthy in his work, as well. This is the first step to realize what the canvas has to convey: of the absence of anything ‘unintentional’ and ‘accidental’ in a crowd. A crowded-ness is an urban design. The loss of individuality is reserved to a private space!
The order of seeing the figures is problematised intentionally. And the figures themselves do not seem to expect a singular audience, as well. Thus method of watching an artwork is put into a constant jeopardy, as does happen with elements like gaze, sight, watching (in) a crowd and the surveillance attitude of the CCTV canvas.
The figures are too regular, next to each other, perhaps, in the very order in which they are depicted, say from left to right. In fact the way the figures are depicted is so transparent (even literally so), that the sight doesn’t need any sophisticated preparedness to watch them. In fact the gaze is taken by shock of the renewed unusualness of the crowd, while watching the canvas. This is what happens with imprisoned people who enter a normal crowd, after a prolonged indoor confinement. We just need an alertness to watch a crowd, which in turn responds to us by not being alert at all! That is the philosophy of and the definition of a crowd. The crowd is faceless, never becomes familiar, resists any personal involvement and is a compulsory part of the urban life. In the rural areas, township and villages, each one of a group that doesn’t form a crowd, knows the others by names*3* Harsha’s crowd, crowded figures and the uniform arrangement of figures form ‘the’ crowd, with a lot of similarities but much more dissimilarities with an urban, uniform and indifferent social crowd. An analogy between his figures and his crowd need not always mean to be an equation, as well.
Each of the painted figures shares a triple-identity while alternatively trying to be an image and an audience: They are there (a) to be, (b) to see and (c) to return the gaze, respectively. Yet a fourth personality of each figure is deliberately deleted. Or, such a possibility of absence is deliberately reminded. In other words, the figure is so simply (not ‘simplistically’) painted that the least attention goes on to the way each figure is painterly rendered. An analogy to this from the actual world is the loss of ethnic belongingness of individualization of a crowd and the ‘simulated’ uniform category into which we are all positioned with this painting. They are there, faceless and fragment of a crowd, ready to receive and perceive another crowd (audience) who are ready to consume them for aesthetic purpose, in turn. It is also always going to be that crowd, whose professionalism is baffled for a while. In other words, (a) the notion of pinterliness, (b0 the definition of what to expect within, (c) a canvas as a derived mode of ‘seeing’, all in all, are all refuted as if it is a new definition of painterliness. *4*
Individual figure away from a crowd becomes a ‘portrait’. The crowd defeats such individualness. Otherwise, there is another dual-identity to these figures. They shift from living in space and begin to live in time! The distance between two adjacent figures is not that of space. The amount of time we chose to look at the figures that we choose to see, depends upon the time-gap and our own will, necessary to shift the sight from one to other figure, no matter how far away each is from the other*5*. ‘Randomness’ and ‘unpredictability’ are the two orders we choose to look at them. We choose to read a lexicographic text instead of a book, in this canvas. Randomness is the order though there is nothing wrong in reading a dictionary/thesaurus from the beginning to end. But we just don’t do it! One needs a retired leisureliness to read a lexicon text like a fiction/non-fiction, within an urban lifestyle. But that puts us out of the routine, which is compulsory to be an urban crowd. We should be ill, be out of electric power, jobless or depressed, in order to be able to read a dictionary like a book.
While the figures replace space with time, the familiarity of the figures to the audience is a test for one’s epistemological capacity. The ‘context’ here is not a set one, but given to open-endedness. It means that, beginning from the artist Harsha himself, the figures here do not originate from the author’s-self (Barthes and Norman Bryson’s sense of authorship that is as ambiguous as the ‘con/text’ with a slash in between). Thus the one who identifies the most of them and their characters, tend to share the notion of authorship, which, incidentally inserts the notion of say, a snake-ladder game which is usually played near the ashwatha vriksha in the rural area—the potential space for a rural crowd which jeopardizes the ‘urban’ and ‘functional’ purpose of what a crowd is meant to be. Crowd, puzzle, game and the hyperreality of the factual—are unwittingly awaiting the onlooker, in the canvas, that too on a metaphoric chair. Those unknown people include the ones whom we don’t know, but this anonymity itself is split into various layers: Umesh Maddanahalli (artist of the first Indian ‘Earthwork’, but holding another of his work in this canvas represents/means a divide between what he is known for—the authorship—and what Harsha wants his friend to be identified as), theatre personality Prasanna (but seated next to Chief Minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi, that in reality would embarrass either or both of them, owing to their ideological differences) along with Frida Kalho’s specific self-portrait, Marcel Duchamp with his Urinal, and the like—could be read as an exhaustive texts, cross-connotations or as a mere album of personal/general acquaintance, based on the viewer’s willingness. But the potential of the overall work is surpassed, bifurcated, divided and ruptured by the sum total of the (a) identifiable figures v/s Mr.Anonymous (b) layers of mutual (un)familiarity of the represented figures, (c) the audience and (d) the ideological clash that the familiar authorship (ranging from archived personalities to what they stand for, ex. Modi to Frida, Magician, Duchamp). Altogether it is interesting to note that the work itself compels itself to be treated as a text-of-signs, which means a resistance to what we understand to be a painting in the age of new and unconventional media of expression. How can we experience what we see, while the set, accepted notion of perception is put into a constant jeopardy?
The figures are drawn and painted in a simplistic/casual manner which is, paradoxically, the result of a concrete, contemplated attempt. It is similar to our gesture in the public and amidst a crowd: casual but alert, conscious about one’s own physical safety, withdrawal of any personal expression and gestures and the like. However, the style is reminiscent of the Japanese classical “Tale of Genji” series of picture-making which has been projected as Oriental, exotic, a possible resistance to the Greenbergian notion/tradition of modernist painting *6*. The images have not settled upon the canvas as much as most of them have treated the canvas as a media, a means through which to pass through to a multidimensional set up of memories, evocations, indexes, semiotic-references and shared experience. The picture frame, the perceptive notion attested to the conventional-ness of canvas painting and hence the very canvas-space is rendered deliberately empty!
Here is a painting which is available for sight, but the order of the sight is disrupted. The image available to the sight is unaware of the cancellation of the very order of its seeing/perceiving process that the images itself has brought about. The seated figures are next to each other only in an imaginary space, that too only if you consider the picture-space itself to be real. They belong to different times, different hierarchies, orders, beliefs and faith. Name any belief system of epistemology, these figures pledge to differ belong to Foucault’s interdisciplinary category, instead*7*. Hence such deviant figures from different dimensions cannot be available to the same audience. More than that, they are also watching those who watch them, from different origins. What is unavailable for them is not the audience’s physical self as much as their ethnic, biological, genealogical contents within each one of us. The notion of the crowd is problematised, in a contemporary, multi-cultural, diasporic time-space-context wherein belongingness is that last thing one has up her sleeves: in both the urban and contemporary*8*.////
*1* (Read: their essay “Semiotics and Art History”, Ed: Donald Preziozi).
*2* Here I would like to recall the lower-upper-middle-class Mysoreans’ (George Orwell’s Phrase) response to the myths about the mass-behavior when the Mysore kings held the court. The only way a praje (civilian) could meet the king was (apart from some really genuine bargain of profit for the palace) by agreeing for a certain, well-prescribed bodily manners in front of the king. The half-myth about not showing one’s back to the king was one among them, no matter how old the civilian would be. Hence the unruly behavior of a crowd, elsewhere within Mysore, in a different context, could mean a metaphoric protest to the aristocratic norms that loomed large, before Democracy! The layout of figures in Harsha’s work deliberately equates the watchful eye’s ambiguity with that of a ‘way’ to watch it. Confusing of the sight seem to be the norm herein, as if to endorse Linda Nochlin’s notion that ‘subjecting a creative product to ‘mere gaze’ is a male construct. Harsha’s work pitches this possible subversive, feminist concern against the populist aristocratic subjection of a crowd behavior. You can meet the king only if you are well behaved. And the king is made to die by the compulsive unruliness brought to this very behavior, in (front of) the artist’s work.
*3* Hence the only crowd available to a rural township is only on special occasions like fares, village festivals (Ooru Habba), Jatras and the like, when ‘outsiders’, relatives and friends drop in only for the occasion. Undoubtedly Harsha’s nostalgic childhood at the then more aristocratic Mysore must have triggered the spacing of the figures, in a certain way. The painted images, though uniform in size, scale and positioning, are from various levels and layers of the artist’s memory, from deviant contexts and times—lived and felt. It is interesting to share some of those anecdotes with the artist: the hierarchy and discipline of aristocratic crowd is a matter of discussion (and news) in an actual rural crowd. The urban crowd is the rural crowd’s newsletter. If Mysore (or any) palace can be taken as a center-point and a circle be drawn, the urban is always at the peripheries. The concentration of figures in Harsha’s work is den se at certain points. Along with this, some identifiable figures within Harsha’s painting, every now and then (like Frida, Duchamp etc.,) and the anonymously scattered figures all around form an analogue to this circle.
*4* It is at this point that Harsha’s work becomes tangentially-autobiographic, as an ‘act’ not as a product. The crowd, the feudalism, the association and equation between the crowds, its behavior, his background as a Mysorean; all in all are suggest such a possibility.
*5* the humour in Harsha’s ‘work’ act as a teaser and is a serious business. The tradition of gallery/museum visits as a ritual (See: Carol Duncan’s “Civilizing Rituals”) becomes a litmus test, for the audience of this work. How crowded and conditioned have we become in the process of choosing exhibitions-to-visit and how do we edit what not to see, even before we would have seen them (‘that’s a mediocre show. Not worth it’)?! Also recall film reviews and ratings in the newspapers that determine the audience-response in certain specific, populist ways.
*6* Read: Clement Greenberg’s “Modern Painting” (1936).
*7* Foucault suggests that the true inter-disciplinarity means an interaction between a defined frame of epistemology and a subject which is yet to be defined as one.
*8* The protagonist old woman in Dr. Shivarama Karantha’s novel “Mookajjiya Kanasugalu” (the dreams of the dumb grandmother)–for which he received Jnanapeet Award (the highest accolade for literary excellence in India)–posses this capacity to see beyond the functional, existential definition of an object that she comes in contact with. ///