She presented me with a choice, a banking lecture or a ride to the post office. Even if I would have thought of contemplating a bit, there she said, ‘we will have such a good time together’; So, not much of a choice left, you see.
We barged out of the college gate, withdrew some cash from the ATM, and chose to walk to the post office, which quite incidentally, was located within the airport premises. During that walk, we witnessed both the cherry blossom trees and a pile of garbage at the corner of the pavement, but, we chose to talk about the philosophy of mono no aware, a 5 minute journey packed with a lifelong belief in the pathos of beautiful things. Maybe, that explains the cherry blossom trees too.
At the airport, we were received by a post office which had no human within it. We thought ‘they’ must have gone for lunch, so we decided to hang around, take a time, here and there, see it all tick by. ‘I always find airports fascinating‘, I told her, ‘would love to stop someone from going away someday‘, ‘that’s so cheaky’, she said, ‘even if it is, it feels good‘, I replied, ‘but it’s so unfair for a person who has spent so much time in packing and preparing food for the journey‘, she shot back, ‘well, we can unpack in my house while having food in the car en route‘, I concluded.
It is here, during this time, post this conversation and at this place, that she introduced me to her postcards. The picturesque collection of photographs ornamented with messages so personal, and oh so warming. From the ones depicting prancing tigers to the ones having wine savouring old ladies on them, every piece felt so different and so uniquely special. It is not the picture itself that differentiated one from the other; most of the uniqueness came from the handwriting of the person, the address noted, and most importantly, the feeling expressed.
Sitting their on the side bench and going through this stack of her postcards surfaced a smile that was hidden for a long time; one reflecting not only the sense of understanding, but also the sheer joy of being a participator in someone else’s. All these years, how silently you have moved, within and beyond. How much you have come to learn and unlearn. And in all of this, I finally see you. I see you risen, awaken and most importantly, loved. It was maybe during your suffering that I felt so connected to you, but it was this, this unexplained happiness of sharing, that I felt peaceful; it was here, amidst all the strangers coming and going, that I felt the silence of contentment, and MAN I’m so glad, I felt it with you.
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.
‘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.
Human cells live, but not forever. The blood, and what makes it red, dies, exists, and then comes back to life. There’s a life within a life; a cycle of constant birth and death of the same thing, but in a regenerated form.
Greta Gerwig’s coming of age directorial debut ‘Lady Bird’ is a celebration of the ordinary. Out of many themes, captured and then put in frames of a solipsistic photo album, there’s one that stands out; and oh so bravely and unapologetically. And that is, we change.
What we understand of ‘self’ and every extension of the same is a construction; purely hedonistic. We often face flak for not staying ‘true’ to ‘who we are’, and quite interestingly, it always comes from the outside. It’s like all the voids we try to fill in, eventually we tend to outgrow, but somehow still make ourselves ‘fit’ into the same spaces. It is not natural, no, it can’t be. When the elements that constitute your body and make it ‘live’ each day do not remain constant, how can the idea of it remain constant? There is a movement in the understanding of life and the life itself. It may be retrospective, but it’s always moving forward. There is no linear movement, if that may appear from the word forward, rather, it’s the complete opposite of it.
Saoirse Ronan, in one of the interviews she gave to a talk-show host in LA, mentioned her take on the relatability of Christine’s (Ladybird’s) character in the film. She said it is not the specificity of Christine’s life but the very abstracted idea of it that makes the movie and the character so relatable; even in a very gender-less way. It’s like having to look at oneself through various costumes until finding one that fits perfectly; and then, maybe, changing even that one, again.
From love, music, theatre to Sacramento, we finally see Christine moving forward in the movement of life but finding truths about herself that lie not ahead but in the past. Or maybe, they always existed but never realised. Even though she chooses to be who she never thought she would be, the reason why she still prevails is the fact that she exercised a choice. There’s no defined qualitative and ‘identifying’ element in the movement of life. The forward movement in life may not always be marked with a forward movement in one’s understanding of self. And more so than ever, it is the shooting off from one’s own position, that makes a ‘decision’ what it actually is.
So, the lesson I learn, or should I say, what I see being a reiteration of something I already knew, in Ladybird, is the idea of being non-linear in the movement of life; and in the understanding of the same. We are always a ‘work in progress’ and never in any moment could we be reduced to an identifiable description of self. And let’s just say, it would be a heinous crime to self, by self, if the self is being seen and understood from the mind of the other.
My concerns do not align with how biology understands my age. Maybe we just somehow decide to develop into what biology expects us to be; like a good ole Indian parent. What fascinates me rather is how I’ve been thinking of my age lately.
When I sit across a bunch of humans from South Delhi in their twenty something, I sense abstraction; not of myself but of others. I understand them to trenches but I don’t wish to. It’s not the understanding of age as a number that propels my understanding. It is the feeling that erupts when a fish meant for deep waters is brought to the surface and is asked to breathe. If age is a hedonistic expression of lightness that makes you feel that you belong to someplace higher than this, that would be me.
Then there are metro rides where all the fascinating instances are staged. When you’re thrown into the transporting vehicle by a dictatorial regime called Rajiv Chowk, you survive. You stretch, extend and reach out to hold onto even a slightest piece of something stationary to keep yourself steady. This is where and when you are put into the strangest of situation where you are so close to a person who appears to be nothing but a body to you; also breathing (oh how unfortunate). And then transporting vehicle halts, in hope of taking more unwilling souls in; so the bodies collide, heavy gasping happens, and sometimes, smiles surface. Everything then is not your head versus my head, your bag versus mine. It is a sense of togetherness emanating from mutual understanding of travails and triumphs of a metro ride that knows no age.
From being older, to feeling no age at all, there are times I feel much younger than the lot. A popular bar in Aurobindo Market, people walking in, walking out, or, just spread out. There are clothed in the high street; glasses and hairstyles so niche yet so similar. As the lights were dim, I saw the slightest of expressions getting lost in the rising cigarette smoke, of theirs, the frail sounds of platonic conversations dissipating in the winter chill. Where am I in all of this? Where, or what, are my expressions; how does the noise of my triviality sound like? Maybe, a little louder than silence and a lot lesser than meaning. So, there I stand, somewhere in the corner, staring into the voids that do not even exist; only if the faces so unfamiliar could be called one. I feel displaced, distracted and oh so young.
On 25th March 2016, around 24 hours before my 21st birthday, I made a very important decision for myself – a decision about clothes. It was not about what I’m going to wear the following day or the days after that but about what I will not wear now onwards; that was a new piece of cloth.
As I was grappling with recurrent feelings of self-doubt and uncertainty about the future, I thought of diving deeper into what I thought constitutes me, rather than drifting away from it. There was a need to associate myself with my belongings; no matter how much they’ve been neglected since then. In a constant rush of ‘becoming,’ I had diluted the significance of what unifies me with my innermost wanting and never asks anything in return. What is it that embraces me the way I am and never looks down upon me for what I choose to be? This pure and natural bond of being an association I could only find in a lifestyle that moves away from modern consumerism; a freedom that could only be found in living in the shadows of what shines.
17 months later, now that I think about it, my little pledge to myself, that I so proudly fulfilled, was something more than a decision I took to reorient myself towards what mattered. What may have been a sudden ripple of my subconscious brain now seems to me an escape through which I saved myself, or more like got myself protected. I think I saved myself from the Diderot Effect.
Diderot, a French philosopher, wrote an essay titled Regrets for My Old Dressing Gown, in which, while lamenting, he explains how the glitter of new things makes us look at the things we already have with disgust. The ‘new’ may symbolise the chronic consumerism of the day, the ‘old’, our neglected possessions, and the process of lamentation may well as be the pain of breaking away from the unity and bond we had imbued with the possession that evolved with us through the thick and thin. Such was the artificiality of the superfluous joy of hoarding new possessions, that Diderot said the following for his new scarlet gown: “I was the absolute master of my old robe. I have become the slave of the new one.”
The state of mind I found myself in 17 months ago, such a decision may have been nothing short of a survival instinct. When everything around me fashioned its wickedness and boasted of its self-constructed significance at the same time, going back to my humble haves and letting go of my have-nots came across as a blessing in disguise. As Diderot said it, poverty has its freedoms; opulence has its obstacles.
A lot has happened in the past year, things that were good and things that weren’t. However, this little promise that I made to myself, and being able to fulfil it, gave me a bag full of positives to rest my future foundations on. What may come across as a minor lifestyle amend, had a much larger effect on how I see my mental phases nowadays. I still have phases of self-doubt and self-loathing lurking inside my head but now every time such thoughts manifest themselves, I’m able to understand that it is just a phase which deserves a brief and limited period of grief. The grief may be temporary but the sense of control of taking decisions about your own life is permanent.
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!