Over conversations, I said it; I wondered and spoke out. More like spoke out as much as I could and not as much as I wanted. Little fears cloud around and carry heavy rains; peculiar rains; no water, just destruction.
I asked, what would I choose – opportunity cost or self-loathing? One that visits sometimes dressed like a memory or the one that seeps through every vein of lived out life? What is to never choose and live and live but never choose.
What if I say I heard him talking as if he knows everything; words, his words, pulling their own meaning down. How much of meaning my words have given to him. Words, my words, making up for everything left unsaid.
There are rains, heavy rains, somewhere above the skies of Delhi, waiting to unleash. There are things in between, though; things that make the rains and us seem invisible to each other. So, I say much too much of dried up lives; their hearts, heavier than heat and lighter than moisture.
My niece, a six year old, used to sow stones in hope of them breaking out; through
The ground, breathe,
I’m writing this under the influence of sickness and the thoughts it dumps on me. This is somewhat like Kahlo’s ‘What The Water Gave Me’; much stripped down though. There are texts I’ve been replying to, calls that I’ve been answering; and making myself, sometimes. More than ever, and anything, I’ve been staring at my phone.
Down two days of nothing, there are days to come. Days, I have nothing to know of. And somewhere between these days, there is anticipation lost in ambiguities. Like the refracted light of setting sun, there’s illumination, scattered, red, in my head.
I was here a month ago, I’m still here, at least that; what he thinks. Should I call him ‘it’ if he’s nothing more than a thought? A desire unfulfilled, revisiting my bed like a nightmare I’ve been dreading of. Something sinks, puts a hook somewhere within, and then leaves like a soul. Where do we keep our medicines anyway?
So, this makes me, and I make this a show. A weekend still awaiting its demise like a plagued outcaste. As I am sick, and you know, I shall be forgiven if I puke my words out; they are, after all, a collective of self-destructive invisibles.
Indeed, no cruel man is so cruel as he whom he has misused believes; the idea of pain is not the same thing as the suffering of it.
In The Nile Hilton Incident, I see characters exist outside the debate on moral settlement. What I also see, is space, I see Cairo, in both its making and unmaking; in its residue and revival.
A police officer (Faris) who discovers a murder of a pop singer in Cairo’s Nile Hilton Hotel soon finds himself in a position where he has been asked, and later threatened, to not to pursue the same by the social and political elites of the land. In between this equation lies a helpless Sudanese maid (Malik), a daily wage worker at the Hotel who is also the only witness to the incident. The plot is set in the Cairo of 2011, just days before the breaking out of the Arab Spring.
The characters are unapologetically non-dichotomous, so much so, that they are very much living. The very fact that they have survived in such a milieu, and continues to do so, is because of the certain flaws that they both internalise and resist. Noredin (Fariz) is committed to bring down the man who is backed by a system which has corruption and nepotism seeping through its every possible branch. However, at the same time, he demands bribe from the local sellers, and pockets confiscated money. Salwa (Malik) is aware, to some extent, of the gravity of what she has witnessed, but still proposes to enter into a financial compromise to stay quite; perhaps forced by her unprivileged socio-economic status. Even in the most insignificant of characters, we see the same characterization being reflected.
The plot seems to be resting on an unsettled bedrock; of many upheavals happened, and waiting to happen. There also exist turning points; moments that changed the pattern of how characters went on to exist and function. ‘Dignity cannot be bought, son’, as said Noredin’s father while aimlessly glaring at the television screen.
The political revolution of Cairo runs parallel to that of Noredin’s; having a synonymous evolution. What started as a mere sub-narrative, the revolution grows into a climax and finally ends with the only thing left standing. The two narratives, of the revolution and of Noredin, are unaware of each other until they both find each other engulfed in the agony directed against a common enemy. The development of this relation is slow yet apparent and cathartic.
And amidst all this, there is Salwa. Just like the plight of Sudanese refugees in Egypt, she lives in silence and denial until she decides to remain silent no more. She is made aware of both the triviality of her life and the significance of her death. She continues to live under the bridge, both literally and figuratively, until she decides to finally surface and speak up. After an illegal arrest, attempted deportation and an attempted murder, all directed against her, we see her running hysterically in an open field. Noredin asks her to go away and set herself free, but just like the plight of her community and her gender, we see an inconclusive end to her story; or maybe, just the continuation of how it ever was.
The Nile Hilton Incident is a story of both the people and the land; told in isolation but very much shared and lived together. The multi-layering of these elements sets up chaos and uncertainty that gives meaning to life that existed during the Arab Spring; both of the land and the people. As the main character fails and collapses, there is victory of some virtue within; a virtue that also marked and led the revolution to finally bring down the system in the days to come.
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.
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.
In power there lies denial. The distractions aplenty that prevail over the mind in power and of what becomes of it. Of these distractions, many have been discussed, felt and written about. However, there is one that is only felt and never pondered upon; one that inevitably manifests but never looked into. And that is the distraction off the body. Of all the conscious denials that a powerful being accords himself to, this particular denial is the most precarious for it marks the beginning of an Ultimate Denial; a probable demise.
Power is what that reflects in the eyes and resonates in the hearts of the subjects. The strength of a sovereign is always valued on the scale of his command and reverence. The reverence so commanded is a corollary to an idea or a form that the sovereign represents. If only a sovereign could have been reduced to be seen as a mortal, what inspiration the subjects could have looked for that is not seen in their own faces.
This is what engenders the Ultimate Denial; the denial of decadence. Like the robe of honour that a sovereign adorns upon coronation, the body of the aforesaid grows to be nothing more than that robe; to be worn and worn out. Gravity finds the sovereign in the same brevity as the divinity does. Although, the celebration and pomp that marks the rise stand proportional to the oblivion that marks the Icarian fall.
The sovereign thus cries. In solitude is where his heart actually beats. The counting of laurels run parallel to the counting of days; marking of legacy with marking of the will of succession. The beating of retreat, the practice of the march past, stomps like the sound of the church gong. These are the days where the air coincides with the vacuum, the audience with voids and the life with death.
But there lies duty in denial. A sovereign errand that must be run before the mighty gets engraved in stone. And that is the rearing of the next immortal, the next robe that shall occupy the form that represents an idea; the one who continues to exude inspiration. A sovereign that begins to look too far wishes to look no more. So the duty is served within closed doors, dressed in the superficial pretence of what it shall look like, and knowledge that both the parties to the pact conveniently ignores.
This may be the denial that over time, becomes a truth. Like orders, ranks and manners, this denial runs like a custom to a sovereign. And when the time arrives, the time where the sovereign is disabused of his denial, the great act of departure begins. Followed by endless eulogies and accounts that remember the departed, nothing of the ultimate denial is ever fancied. No words that give meaning to the life preparing to bid adieu, no song or sonnet celebrating the ending truths dealt with, of the duties so mournfully served. Maybe that is what we shall call the Sovereign’s Ultimate Denial.