The Politics of Material in Art

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. 

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Marchenko & Green : Face of War

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. 

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Semiosis of the Cityscape: Part I

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’.  

To be continued…

The Construction of Meaning in Photography

‘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.

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Shadi Ghadirian : Qajar

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. 

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Shadi Ghadirian : Qajar

 

 

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Shadi Ghadirian : Qajar

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. 

Image result for shadi ghadirian miss butterfly

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. 

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Shadi Ghadirian : Miss Butterfly 

 

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. 

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Shadi Ghadirian : Like Everyday 

 

 

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Shadi Ghadirian : Nil Nil 

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. 

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On Regrets in The Process of Becoming

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! 

 

Picture: Regrets by Jasper Johns

Middle Name

One day, or

Most of the days, I’ll 

Walk out of that door without saying 

A word

Not to you; not to myself, I’ll

Take my old leather satchel and that pair of blue denim

On me, And 

Maybe, 

I’ll leave the door half open, or 

Half closed. 

Those will be the days when you won’t

See a much of me or what

You think was made 

Of me, you

Will not wake up to what you had of me for

So many years, or months

You might hear a little humming for a while, but

Maybe that neither. 

One day, or

Those ‘most’ of the days,

When you see me leave, or just realise it,

Please remember that I 

didn’t leave from what I thought I didn’t want, but

For what I don’t have, or I

have but I don’t know

I’ll be gone,

I hope not for long

Not for the end or the start

But for the middle,

Of self 

 

The Monologue

Don’t let me look away from

The gaze I 

Phase out to, you know

If I do, I would know

I would know why the stars fall into

The shapes they do when

we stare up at the sky; together, I would 

Know, you know, that when my

Eyes widen and that smile starts to 

Creep onto my sideway 

Looking face, you know

I know 

You fucked up, but in a funny way

If I could, you know that 

I would,

Look back at least once when I’m walking away from you, you

Know that all I’ll see with my

Longing eyes is your back, moving away

From me.

If I’m moving in a certain direction and I’m

Faceless against the wind, you know

I wouldn’t want to be understood or 

Put under the quilts of someone’s

Love forsaken warmth, but

You know, 

Or at least you did

That if I ever look sideways in a sudden jerk

Of my face with my eyes widened and

That smile creeping onto my

Funnily paused face, that

I know the truth

It came to me as a sudden realisation and what pain it is

That you won’t know, ever

To not to see the same

In your eyes. 

 

Oasis

I measure freedom with the

Stretch of my

Hands, my palms facing the  

Sky, fingers  

Stretched.  

I dance today in my stillness, I fly

With the winds unseen, I give up on the

Retreating rays of sun, in the sky, 

All I see, 

Is Blue.  

I whirl my storms in an utmost peace, the

Silence sings my fortunes

I flow through

My trajectories in every sip of 

My tea

Take me nowhere, but here

Take me somewhere, but there

I dawn my light in 

This evening,

See love,

In nothing

And everything

From Have-Nots to Havelock: Understanding the Alternative ‘Now’ of Life

Between ‘one pint down’ and ‘thinking about another’, a conversation happened. Like most of my social outings, I didn’t exactly plan to meet the other party to that conversation, but I guess it happened for good; or, it could not have happened any other way.

Sitting on a jute mat at a quiet Naga café, the guy across the table carried a life story that was very fascinating. In a capsule, he got drunk one night, booked a ticket to Andaman Islands with his friends and then never came back home. As much horrific it sounds at this juncture, the follow-up is just so dreamlike. He fell in love with the scenic nature of the Islands and decided to settle down there. To his good fortunes, he immediately got a job at a tourism agency with a humble pay for which he bade goodbye to his job in the States. Five years fast forward, he’s now a diving coach at Havelock Island (Andaman), has a girlfriend and is still dwelling in a small studio apartment where he comes back to sleep after his enchanting tryst with nature.

Now, with this sort of a lifestyle set as a premise, there wasn’t much left for me to boast about my life – a law student surviving on optimism and slugging through competition. However, I did feel a little hit in my wits (maybe because of that second pint that I finally decided to take) that made me think the other way; to see through the romantic construction of his life. It may have been anything else, but as of now, I think it was that one thing that he said during that conversation that caused the hit – how it feels like to live in the ‘now’.

A remote island 1220 km away from south-east Indian coast, Havelock Island is a much neglected, strategically significant and naturally gifted Indian territory in the Andaman Sea. This faraway land is much closer to nature’s bounty; devoid of accessible mobile or internet connections. It is in this environment that this friend of mine found a home like nowhere. He said that it is like living in the ‘now’; detached from the strings of past and future. The only access to the news about the ‘parallel universe’ comes from a newspaper brought to him once a month by foreigners working in his organisations who get a permit for only 30 days and need to return to their respective countries once in every month. So, it is the music of the winds and the vistas of the stretched out sea that entraps his conscience for the longest duration of time – a form of liberation, as he puts it.

Does that mean that the life I lead or is led by some of the people that I know is not lived in this idea of ‘now’? And, is it even worth harping about? Well, to each its own, can be a possible answer. However, to me, it looks more like an excuse than an explanation. So I thought more closely about it and did come across with certain explanations.

There are two ways one might feel like living a life of this diving coach from Havelock. First, it is a natural calling motivated by one’s deepest understanding of self or coming to know of the same. Second, the romantic construction of such a life in one’s head, more like a reference group, without understanding the correlation of the same with one’s understanding of self. I think for my friend, it was the first case that motivated his decision; even though I don’t know much about him. However, to a lot of people, it may be a motivation falling under the second category.

The information we receive about these referential lifestyles is mostly asymmetrical. We often tend to focus on the broader bright side of such stories to feed the voids existing in the understanding of our own life. This is how we create some sort of a mental equilibrium (or at least try to do so) by feeding hope and aspirations to an apathetic conscience. ‘Grass is always greener on the other side’ is a phrase generating from the similar mental construction. There are many philosophers and movies that have vividly romanticised this idea of ultimate liberation – a detachment from all possible human connections that take us away from nature. But is it the only form of liberation available or is it just a form of resignation disguised as one? I would say, it’s neither.

Nature itself asks to move away from structural and linear interpretations of life. The constant movement and mutations of smallest of cells is a reflection of the degree of diversity we are capable of. So, in this particular understanding of nature, the liberation and the lifestyle as fashioned by my diver friend becomes ‘one’ of the many choices available. Something which is neither smaller nor larger than the life we naturally desire to live and not romanticises about. It requires a much deeper and honest understanding of self to differentiate between the one wanted and the one fancied. So, the diving coach doesn’t live in the ‘only now’; rather, he lives in the ‘alternative now’ and so do we.

If I’m a person who seeks to outgrow his space and predictabilities associated with his identity, I’m a person of movement and not resignation. For me, liberation lies not in finding solace in a static life closer to nature but optimising my potential and energies in understanding the diversity this nature offers. This doesn’t put the orientation opposite to mine in a less important pedestal. It just gives me space and authority to respect and love the alternatives that I wish to choose for myself. There’s no pitting one ‘now’ against the other. It is about recognising self and nurturing it within the various alternatives of ‘now’.

So, as we bade goodbye to each other and I headed for an eagerly awaited family function, I settled my bill and scribbled a little note for my diver friend that read –

“I would love to walk your land, or the only land you know. I would love to wrap my head around the liberation that you understand. But I will soon grow different and might want to sail away. For the island that brought me liberation once, might also bring rising waves within that hit the rocks hard and then retreat back to the sea, defeated.’