Hunger by Florence + The Machine is here and it’s such a visual rarity. Directed by AG Rojas, who seems to be the sole visual director for the new album High as Hope, has displayed an intelligent and intricate use of frames; a careful imagining of the space, objects and most importantly – art.
The restriction of the visuals within a square frame shows Rojas’s intentional reminder of how to acknowledge his effort. He has reflected narrative as a painting, words finding their meaning in the images, all reflected through a frame, or maybe, a canvas. A canvas where use of light, camera angle and elemental discontinuity makes every frame a work of art in itself. The recurrent use of long still shots, with the subject looking away from the viewer, is testament to the same.
It is not just the elements of direction that has caught my fancy; there’s much to be appreciated in the narrative as well. The most apparent theme would be the use of art as a metaphor to life. The statue shown in the early frames comes across as an allegorical representation of a human body in general, and that of Florence in particular – one may trace it from the hand gesture Florence makes in the first frame which is similar to that of the statue, and in many recurrent similarities in positioning in subsequent frames.
That said, we shall now look deeper into the statue and the reason behind using it as an allegory. Walter Benjamin in his essay Art in the Age of Mechanical Production has talked about as to how the meanings and values that are associated with an artwork changes with the change in the context in which it is placed. This perceptive change has much to do with how we engage with the artwork, our own understanding, rather than the inherent meaning or value of the same. The artwork is then merely an object of our understanding, our perceptions; our unilateral desires. For instance, the way we look at an object of every day use might change if we see that object being placed in an art museum, and then change again, if we later see it in the church. This coupled with the British concept of Seeing, which describes the ways through which aesthetics incorporates or subjects itself to the perceptive gaze, come across as a dominant theme in the narrative.
The statue, despite remaining the same, gets associated with various meanings with the change of the place and people handling it. For instance, for that disdained surgeon, dissecting the statue became a matter of ‘his’ satisfaction and claim rather than that of the statue itself. Also, we see the statue having certain voids which are mostly ignored except by one person who curiously wanted to go deeper in his understanding of an external figure. The moment he touched the voids, we see something unsettling Florence in the next frame – another sign establishing the allegory theory.
This is where I bring in the lyrics, or as Florence said it, the poetics. In a statement made to BBC she said: ‘
This song is about the ways we look for love in things that are perhaps not love, and how attempts to feel less alone can sometimes isolate us more”.
The constant positioning of ourselves, our bodies, to the fancies of others is what that resonates well with the statue allegory. The desire to be loved, the stretch of it to an extent that it becomes hunger, makes love a delusion. Despite being melancholic, she’s talking to herself as an other, and asking her to believe in her self and her beauty. For most importantly, sometimes it’s not about finding the answers, but about just knowing that thing; the thing that makes us feel the way we do.
Art relies much on representation, or maybe not. Aesthetics, as a discipline, has incessantly posed certain debates on the purpose and meaning of art. Such debates often place art as a matter of study within the meta-disciplines of philosophy, psychology and even science. While art for art’s sake is also a prevailing perception, what resonates as a ‘virtue’ among all is the inherent ‘authenticity’ of art. In this essay, I will talk about the understanding of ‘authentic’ in art (In aesthetics, one may also call it ‘authentic art’), the different perspectives on the same and how an artist achieves such authenticity.
Dardagny Morning by Jean Baptiste Camille Corot
In European aesthetics, it was the period of Renaissance that spearheaded the conscience of ‘real’ in art. What is famously termed as ‘humanism’, art began to look both inwards and outwards. The outward vision was oriented towards the life outside self, and the inward, was the recognition of the alike, the body, the human. This anthropocentric development was further given a spiritual direction by the Romantics. Suddenly, the concepts of ‘genius’, ‘sublime’ and ‘imagination’ rekindled the artists and the inward vision became much more individualistic. The art was no longer only the recognition of the ‘alike’ but it went on to celebrate artist’s own perception of life; sourced from deeper spiritual understanding of the ‘living’.
Starry Night by Van Gogh
As the individuation of art continued, it was during the 19th century that the concept of ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ in art became a matter of serious debate. In styles such as Impressionism, Modernism and Expressionism, artists were engaging with the outward subject matter but the representation of the same was not so clearly discernible as ‘real’. The shift in focus towards elements of art, namely light, colour and texture, the representation of the ‘real’ had to filter through the creative perception of the artist. In other words, the representation of the objectivity was refracted through the subjectivity of the artist.
With the development of science and technology, the world of aesthetics was presented with a peculiar version of the aforementioned debate – Photography. The medium of photography was peculiar because unlike impressionism, there was no indiscernible relationship between the subject matter and its representation. Rather, a photograph became the most realist and reliable representation of the ‘real’, the ‘outward’, the ‘life’. This gave rise to a new word in the debate on the authentic – the accurate. Unlike art, where authenticity, in different periods and styles, was determined by the different ways of expressing artists’s original creativity, photography left little for such ‘internal’ or ‘spiritual’ expression. The representation became so real that it was hard to call it authentic. This is precisely why photography had a hard time being recognised as a work of art; and the struggle continues.
Photographer: Guy Bourdin, Metropolitan Museum of Art
This is a right time to differentiate authentic and the accurate. Authentic, like in the case of impressionist art, is the representation of objectivity refracted through the subjectivity of the artist. On the other hand, Accurate is the representation of the objectivity with little or no refraction through the subjectivity of the photographer. This line of differentiation gave rise to two sets of parallel debates; first, whether photography only falls under the category of accurate, and second, which one between the two is ethically justifiable.
Miss Butterfly by Shadi Ghadirian
The first line of debate became apparent when the nature of photography saw a diversification. The rise of artistic photography dragged the medium away from its conventional understanding of a recording agent. The use of artistic expression through the medium of photography challenged the claim of it being an accurate representation of the real. The objectivity began to refract through the subjectivity of the artist, and the lines between accurate and authentic, blurred. However, not only the other forms of photography continued to flourish, the claim of artistic photography itself could not dismantle the distinction completely. The fact that the subject matter in artistic photography continued to be the most realist representation of the objectivity, the resultant accuracy continued. And so did, the debate.
Now, how do we move on to understand the ethical nature of art which is premised on this debate on Accurate and Authentic? The answer may lie on cognitive value of art. While Accurate gives us the most honest possible representation of the objective, it is the Authentic that makes us see beyond the representation. The cognitive value of Authentic digs deeper beneath the surface representation and bring out meanings that remain unseen in Accurate. The true meaning of original is what is true to an artist. If an artist considers a self-alienated and accurate representation of the objectivity as the only meaning of original, so be it; for there are also artists who believe that original cannot be produced without the refraction of objectivity through an authentic perception of self.
As Simone de Beauvoir puts it in he Ethics of Ambiguity, the true authentic self becomes meaningful only when its other-regarding. Authentic or Accurate; an original or true artistic expression requires an engagement with the outward. While, the terms of engagement might differ, the very fact that an artist consciously realises this engagement, makes her work not only meaningful but also transcendental.
When it comes to photography, especially today, what is it that we capture and, what, is it that we imagine. Once understood as a refracted reality, a photograph has been reduced to a word, a letter, just consumption.
In the age of Instagram and Snapchat where billions of pictures are shared every day, it has become difficult for photography, and more so for a photograph, to exist independent of a voyeur, to breathe its own little universe within that well constructed frame.
Partha Mansukhani’s untitled work displayed at Iridescence Exhibition at Symbiosis Law School unravels itself in no shyness. One may begin to understand the work from the life that moves within the frame, or more so, a movement of such life captured but alive. Theorists of Photography such as Cartier-Bresson have written extensively on how the process of photography captures the movement of reality in its own movement of split second. The idea of motion being captured in stillness might sound quite peculiar to some, but well, that’s what distinguishes photography from other forms of expression and honours it with the status of art.
In this work, we can see the capturing of dual movements which do not only co-exist but also overlap. One movement is of the reality we see within the frame, that is, the movement of the walking man, the flight of pigeons and the flowing surface of the sea. The other movement, something which on the surface can be termed as ‘beyond the frame’, but at a connotative understanding, exists very much within it; overlapping yet contextualizing the movement so seen; the movement of Bombay. It is this connotative understanding of the movement, as Barthes would have put it, fascinates my understanding of the photograph.
Partha comes from a family of mixed ethnicity; paternally Sindhi, maternally Tuluva, and spent all his life in Bombay. It was only in the past year that he began to make himself learn the history of the Sindhi community, their travels and travails, sourced from both academic literature and his grandma’s personal narrations. All this while, he found himself moving deeper into the cityscape of Bombay, a city which not only boasts of considerable Sindhi diaspora but also of its seamless assimilation.
The constant of Bombay is its spontaneity; the ever moving life drawn from the patterns of people who live it; every single day.
It is in this unconscious movement of madness, that there lies stillness which often goes unnoticed; the stillness of the space. The constructions may come and go but the space remains forever; maybe not enough sometimes. Just like the sea, the surface rises and lowers, but the sea, and its self, remains.
It is this complex relationship that Bombay shares with itself that we see being refracted in the picture. And what is being reflected is how Partha ‘chose’ to perceive Bombay. Upon the stillness that Bombay provides him, he constructed a movement that, to him, sums up this complexity. A still space maneuvering the movement to create an identity of itself; oh so Bombay, and oh so, Partha.
Coming back to the surface movement, the denotative meaning, we can see all that is, as it is. Amidst a man so unknowingly walking away from one end to reach somewhere unknown to the viewer; amidst the pigeons aimlessly flying and being perched, and through the entire length of city displayed on the far end, we see disorder and chaos wrapped so lovingly and unapologetically in nostalgia. In all of this, we see Bombay, Partha’s Bombay.
Nosing through my favourite daily, I came across, hidden right in the corner and described in not even 30 words, a ‘news’ on art. Famous and quite ‘unpopular’ (of course) Ukrainian artist Daria Marchenko, along with a fellow artist Daniel Green, has created a portrait of Donald Trump by using one cent and five cent pieces as primary materials. It is nearly eight foot by six foot in structure but goes on to scale much further heights in symbolic commentary.
Titled ‘Face of Money‘, this work which represents a political figure as the only subject of the artwork, succeeds similar work by the duo titled Face of War, a portrait of Vladimir Putin made up of bullets derived from Ukrainian soil.
Despite its apparent representational meaning, and something that has been musing artworks across genres and mediums, the politics is essential here. This is because it’s not just the politics of the subject matter that we are dealing with here; it’s also the politics that underline the use of the material, or should I say, the ‘play’ with it. The politics of the figure represented in the artwork is closely intertwined with the politics of the material used for the creation of the artwork. Is this Bolshevik Constructionsim? No.
The politics of the material is evident in the representational meaning that is ‘constructed’ through the artwork. I call it ‘constructed’ meaning because the intended understanding of the material is not just divorced from the existent meaning of the same, but there is imposition of a new meaning on the material, which sums up to further construct a meta-meaning. Marchenko and Green are not just making portraits of the most despised political leasers of today, they are making them with bullets and currency coins. And, in doing so, they become the author of a process which itself is immensely political in nature – construction of knowledge.
What is this ‘meta-meaning’? How does the artist becomes the author of a constructed meaning? Well, if ‘looked at’, both the portraits use the incongruous marriage of art and mundane objects in order to create a meaning which is above and significantly different from both the material used and the art practiced. In terms of the practiced art, the creation of the meta-meaning divorces the art from its representational, muted and aesthetic meaning, and uses it as a mere tool to signify the meta-meaning – a protest, a commentary, an engagement. However, in terms of the material, this process of alienation and subsequent imposition of meaning becomes much more apparent and fascinating.
In Face of War, we do not see a much ‘radical’ alienation of meaning when it comes to the material; even though it was quite radical in itself to ever imagine an object of destruction as a subject matter of an object of creation. However, in Face of Money, we see a much more rigorous re-imagination of material meaning, leading to a much furthered alienation and a much ‘constructed’ representation of the meta-meaning. The currency coins, material used in Face of Money, is a mode of exchange, prosperity to some, destitute to other. Even though much has been written about the role played by money in our lives, and the same has contributed to the ‘extended’ meaning of the same, it was quite novel of Marchenko and Green to understand currency (different from just ‘money’ because there is a deliberate use of US currency only) as a mode of political exchange. According to the daily wherein I came to know about this new work, this was conceived last summer when Mr. Putin ordered the US to reduce its diplomatic footprint in Russia by 755 employees and Trump thanked Mr Putin saying it would allow the US to ‘save a lot of money’. Hence, we can see how the artists have re-imagined the US currency and created a meta-meaning where the currency becomes a tool of political exchange of ‘convenience’, neglecting the social, emotional and economic repercussions of the same.
Material is not the only object re-imagined in this meta-meaning of Face of Money. One can also see this as a process of toying with Neoclassicism, wherein royals embraced the subject matter of the art for the same was ‘commissioned’ by them for their own grandiosity. Here, we can see Marchenko and Green ‘bringing back’ the style and altering the intended meaning in order to create a deeper and much more profound understanding of the artwork. We can see the same process being used by many contemporary artists across the mediums, for instance, Shadi Gahdirian, an Iranian art photographer who in her collection Qajar re-imagined the traditional Qajar style of Iranian photographer and used the same style to construct a novel meaning.
Just as the ‘commission’ of art gets democratic, decentralized, disobeyed, we see the protest surfacing. The Speech becomes satire; the Character, caricaturing; and the meaning of what is power and the powerful, well, looking down at the Powerful from eight feet high.
It is striking here that the places people live in are like the presences of diverse absences
– Michel de Certeau
What is it to see the city stripped off its subjects; of its people and their perils. How would you ‘look’ at the space when all that is there to see is stillness. A still photograph imbued in a thread of many, unlike a movie, moving in time but not in motion.
As I board my cab for the airport at around 2 am, I become one of such subjects. I look at the city, like the still photographs, passing by but not moving; with every frame, image, capturing a still scene of what may be the city’s identity, or the part thereof. What is this ‘city’ anyway? How and why do I perceive this space to be a ‘city’; that too a city very orderly differentiated and demarcated from the other spaces (maybe, other cities). What is it that propels an understanding within to see this space as a limited and structured display of self which is given to be demarcated from the limited and structured ‘other’; that ‘other’ being either experienced or imagined. Maybe, in that ride to the airport, I take this limited and structured demarcation to be a ‘given’; much like a Gramscian development of an internalised and rationalised hegemonic belief. Or, is it the pure ‘uniqueness’ and the aesthetic of the same, reflected in the stillness of the city-scenes, that lifts my conscience from the profanity of material understanding of meaning to the spiritual escape into the metaphysical.
Either way, I continue to travel; being driven on the route predestined by an app that maps my movement, my journey from the start to the end, and introduces it to me in a faceless display with an alien voice. But, how much could the market and its technology assert control over my journey? What is this ‘journey’ anyway? Is it the mere physical movement within the material space, or does it carry possibility of constructing non-physical movement termed as ‘experience’? If the literature of the past and present (and hopefully future) is anything to go by, the journey is more conversational than didactic. It is the development of oneself through an array of meanings, both constructed and understood. Yes, there is materialism, though not always, involved in what we understand as a ‘journey’. But the meanings that we construct are not always constructed upon or within the space orchestrated by such materialism. And, even if we do, let’s say, my journey is foundational and is well within the voids structured by the materialism; there is no ‘given’ in terms of interpretations I gather off the well-defined material space. Neither, do I, bound myself to the singularity of meaning that the materialism of the space might expect off me. So, dear ‘mobile cab-booking app’, and the hideous display of inhumane manipulation of the space that you create by ‘mapping’ my movement, you can never control my ‘journey’. You might be able to control the fodder that feeds the construction of my meaning, my relationship with the space, but nothing of your volition will ever be able to decipher the understanding I rationalise through this self-driven ‘movement’ called ‘journey’.
‘Photograph… a record of a reality refracted through a sensibility’
– Victor Burgin (1986)
Shadi Ghadirian and her range of artistic photography vocalise two of her most personal identities: Iran and womanhood. However, as expressed in her collection Miss Butterfly (2011), and in various films that struggle to sieve through the web of state censor board, personal and public are not significantly distinguished and demarcated spaces for Iranian women. However, it is not the politics of her subject matter that is the only fodder for one’s fascination; if one may look closer, or deeper, it is her process that fancies.
In her frames, Shadi Ghadirian captures the duality of contemporary existence in Iran; imbued in life’s contradictions and an innate desire to be understood. This duality can be seen as a struggle, if not a conflict, between tradition and modernity in the prevailing sense of representation in Iran. To Shadi, this duality in representation is more apparent in the representation of women. In her collection, Qajar (1998), Shadi uses the style of traditional Qajar photography, famous in the 19th century Iran, and twitches the construction of meaning by invading the traditional space with an object that signifies modernity.
The duality represented in Qajar answers well to the understanding of a ‘photograph’ as provided by Roland Barthes. Instead of its artistic composition, Barthes was more focused on its construction of cultural myths on a mass scale. In Mythologies, Barthes asserts that a photograph is a coded, historically contingent, ideological speech which is amenable to scientific study and semiotic analysis. In Qajar, we can see Shadi substituting the surface understanding of the picture with a larger ideological and political meaning which is represented through well coded symbols that carry certain political meanings in themselves. Therefore, the use of a traditional style (Qajar) as a space where little objects of modernity are placed, alienates the meanings earlier associated with these two elements and conjoins them to construct a new political meaning. Interestingly, the women in these photographs maintain the facial features and aesthetic sense that was prevailing during the Qajar period. In such a frame, an object of modernity seems like an inevitable reality to which women in Iran might have dealt with in an operational sense but not in a cultural sense.
Apart from construction of duality in representation of Iranian women, we see another very fascinating feature in Shadi Ghadirian’s photographic process: The symbolisation of the subject matter.
Photography for Shadi is as symbolic as it is real. So much so, that when the urge to surface the reality, which has been brushed aside for so long, becomes irresistible, the symbols become the voice that speaks on behalf of reality so silenced. It is when the language of reality becomes too hard to gather, that the symbols become the mouthpiece of one’s truth.
In Miss Butterfly, we see the frames depicting meanings that are drawn not from the referrant herself, but from the space in which the referrant is placed. In addition to this, the interplay or engagement created between the referrant and the object (in this case, the web) alienates both the referrant and the engaged object from their own meanings and reduces them to become mere symbols of a political message.
Miss Butterfly was inspired by renowned Iranian playwright Bijan Mofid’s piece about a butterfly’s ill-fated pursuit to encourage her fellow insects to escape captivity of a spider’s web and go see the sun again. In each of the images from the collection, women are shown weaving or unravelling webs attached to the frames of light (an exit). They seemed at turns overpowered by the narrow staircases and rooms or dwarfed by the stately homes in which they are placed (Nagree : 2006). More than anything, it is the overpowering darkness that reflects the most upon the reality of the lives of these women.
Shot in black and white, the women in these frames are symbols of multiplicity of layered meanings. One such layer is the public-private divide in the lives of Iranian women. The images show women wearing the headscarves even in the private space within a domestic setting. Some critics argued that the same was deliberately done by Shadi to comply with the guidelines of the state censor board. One might not see this distinction as relevant within the religious context but the same does come across as a constructed meaning from the direct reading of the photographs.
Unlike the meaning usually associated with photography theorists, the pictures in Miss Butterfly are much alienated from the actual reality of the referrant. Such alienation is much evident in the poetic construction of the frame where the object which symbolises captivity is enlarged from its usual/normal size. Moreover, the careful selection of space and source of light, also work towards alienating the referrant (women) from their actual historical context; hence reducing them to mere symbols of general understanding of oppression. One may say, Shadi Ghadirian in Miss Butterfly, becomes the author of the photograph; metamorphosing the reality into well construed ideology and representing the same through intelligently placed symbols.
We can see this well thought of placement of incongruous objects to create meaning in her other acclaimed works such as Like Everyday (2000) and Nil Nil (2008) as well. In all of these works, the ideological motive becomes a vantage point from which objects (including humans) are seen through preconceived meaning.
It is through her well choreographed process, that Shadi Ghadirian imbues movement in stillness. Since the subject matter of her photograph is not the historical fact or abstracted reality but a political meaning, the pictures escape the socio-temporal existence and remain relevant till the political objective is achieved. Therefore, the referentiality and indexicality of Shadi Ghadirian’s photography is not reflective of the world represented in the photograph but of the world ‘out-there’; that is, the world outside the photograph but yet so near.
This subject matter, however, runs contrary to the classical understanding of photography which considered a photograph to be stillness; so much so that some considered it to be a death. Christian Metz in his Photography and Fetish (1985) argues that photography operates as a figuration of death. Metz says ‘photography is an instantaneous abduction of the object out of the world into another world, into another kind of time… photography by virtue of its stillness ‘maintains the memory of dead as being dead.’ In common parlance, photography is compared with shooting; the camera becomes a gun.
Shadi Ghadirian, on the other hand, is bringing alive the voices of the dead and the denied. With every frame and image, she challenges the ‘still’ nature of her medium of expression by constructing meanings that remain relevant, existent and omnipresent. Shadi’s camera is not a gun; it is not a flag of peace either. More than anything, it is a mirror; reflecting what ever movement and the moved fails to see through his own naked eyes.
We ponder upon regrets, or more like let them linger because we see ourselves in this journey of becoming. Like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle, we see our present as a part of a larger destiny; an element in the life optimization process.
Transcience, as preached by Buddhist philosophy mojo, is the only reality of life. The only thing that never changes is the change itself. When life is lived in moments and every passing moment is marked by a sense of decay, every thought about the ‘decayed’ is just a hindrance to the process of becoming. When we regret, we force to recollect and relive the moments we will never capture again. Such is the weakness of regrets.
When Edith Piaf agreed to perform at her last concert after the death of her most beloved person, she chose to perform a song titled non je ne regrette rein – which translates as ‘I have no regrets left’. It’s fascinating to see a person who has met with such a profound incident of loss denying even an atom of regret in her system. Edith tells us that regret is not natural and is definitely not connected with our material reality; it’s never about what we have become. Regretting is a hedonistic activity of indulging oneself in the artificiality of the past. Such is the frivolity of regrets.
So as I was talking about life goals with my dear friend and a fellow law student, my only advice to his long drawn out plans was to move away from the linearity of these very plans. It doesn’t matter how you would feel about your career when you are 90 because the happening of that very event in future in nothing more than a contingency. If we will dwell in anything other than present, we will be taking away our energies from the phase that matters the most in the process of becoming. And that is – now!