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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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. 

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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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A Philosophy Called Vidhisha

As I vaguely remember it, like most of my conversations with her, it kind of happened after a college party at her house. She was slightly under the bliss and I was as sober as one can be. Of course, by choice. There’s always something very distinct about the conversations I have with her; whether contextualised or not. She’s not like any other talker. She’s different; she’s her.

Just like her genealogy, words coming out of Vidhisha’s mouth are anything but predictable. She still holds the award for the funniest conversation of 2017 and I don’t see anyone coming even an inch closer to that. However, that night, and maybe during that conversation, I quite unconsciously pierced through the obvious. I did not see or measure Vidhisha by the words she spoke or the moves she displayed. I looked through all of that and found myself staring straight into her super-consciousness. That night, I could see a remorse so unapologetically surfacing on her being that no gesture could disguise it as anything else. Through the eyes that were watering and the smile that was widening, I saw a Vidhisha that I’ve never seen before – a calming disposition.  

So what was it that made that face so unrecognisable and yet so relatable? Well, it was Jay Chou. This might seem like an abrupt disconnection of sorts but I find it imperative to mention that Vidhisha is a huge K-Pop buff, and if you ever get to know her, you’ll know she doesn’t just stop there. So, it was Jay Chou and his songs that set the tone for that conversation and everything that ran parallel to it; wait, maybe tangent.

With an almost empty pint of Budweiser in her hand, we went on to sit on what I suppose was some sort of a couch right under a string of small yellow lights. After a sip or two and her smile beginning to widen, she said – ‘You know what, I hate listening to Jay Chou, this K-Pop Singer.’ ‘Then why do you listen to him’ I asked what I thought could be the most logical follow up question. ‘Because I love his songs’, she replied. ‘Hold on a second. Didn’t you just say you hate him?’ ‘I didn’t say that. I said I hate listening to his songs’. I was so baffled by this glaring contradiction in her statements, and as sober as I was, I couldn’t help but let my shallowness take control of my tongue – ‘I think you’re tired and you need to take rest Vid.’ ‘Why would you say that’ she replied with that smile still gleaming on her face. ‘Wait, let me explain it to you’ – and that’s where I got to know what layers of complexities lie in that one statement that she made so unintentionally.

Whatever she said that night, didn’t register much with the rationalising process of my mind. However, it took me almost 12 months to understand not only that conversation but the context in which it was made. Finally, I got to get hold of an idea that is so close to Vidhisha that it just silently made its presence that night and I could not help but just restrict my reaction to mere admiration.

For past few weeks I’ve been digging a lot of ancient Japanese history; Heian period to be précised. While reading The Tale of the Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, I came across this heart warming philosophy of mono no aware. Having its roots in the Japanese Buddhist and Shinto tradition, mono no aware is one term that cannot be exactly translated into any other language. It’s more like an inexpressible emotion captured in the uttering of ensemble of words. After much deliberation, historians and linguists have loosely translated it as ‘realisation of pathos’. It is when one gets a realisation of the beauty associated with fleeting nature of life that the feeling of mono no aware surfaces. It peculiarly homes two contrasting ideas, beauty and loss, under a singular bracket of emotion. One must feel the loss when one sees something beautiful in order to experience mono no aware.  This pathos of beauty concept traces itself from the Buddhist idea of impermanence; the fleeting nature of life that Murasaki Shikibu so unapologetically described in her legendary piece of literature.

There’s one thread  that is missing from associating Vidhisha’s hatred for Jay Chou with the Japanese philosophy of mono no aware – and that is – the reason why? What can be the reason that Vidhisha hates the idea of Jay Chou in her life even while not hating him as an artist or a person? She answers to this dilemma by saying that she hates listening to him because every time she does, she loses something close in her life. No matter if it’s a boyfriend or her favourite dress, something gets ruined every time she listens to Jay Chou’s music. ‘Then why do you listen to him?’I asked, ‘Isn’t holding on to things you love more important than feeding on to your hobbies’? After hearing my questions, that smile starts to resurface on her face and without any contemplation she said – ‘But there’s nothing more beautiful than Jay Chou’s music; even if it’s worth a loss. For things that are bound to go will go, but the beauty that I discover in his music, will always remain forever. For that particular moment when I’m listening to his music, there’s nothing more beautiful that I can think of.’

So, there you go, the Vidhisha I so proudly claim to know for almost 3 years, is someone way more than the words that she usually finds herself being measured by. This Vidhisha is a philosophy. She is a depth of feelings that understands inherent truths of life more than anyone I have ever met in this college.

 

 

On What it Means to be a Human

I have not been much of a success on dating apps. Like unread books in my library, these set of ‘romantic constructions’ just glare at me from my mobile screen hoping to be touched and looked into. Despite such blatant apathy I’m unable to delete them. I often find myself split into a binary while addressing a momentary excitation to just pull them off the roots. Rather, I often end up using them while thinking of doing the contrary. Why?

If you’ve ever followed my writing, you would know the river that I am. While flowing through territories of life, I often have people embarking upon me. And I; I carry them to their intended shores. However, the approaching spring of this year has put me to think about the larger question of self. What and where am I in all this processes I flow through?

I often defend my falling to the fact that I’m a human. I reduce my identity to a digital shot of a frozen smile snatched away from the moment it belonged to because a ‘prospect lover’ on the other side of the screen wants to ‘know me more’. Why? Because I’m a human. I make mistakes. I need to make my knees weak so that I can be held in alien arms. To be loved and understood in language and gestures that is not mine but I somehow construct to help others in understanding myself. And an excuse for all this and many more being – I’m a human!

It pains me to think that how conveniently we have alienated the idea of being self contented and emotionally strong to a metaphysical state of being. I’m expected to reach a sense of spirituality to put my life in order; spirituality which itself has been taken away from my own soul. This “meta-humanizing” of something so essential to our existence is anything but celebratory. To me, it is a construction of a digital world that has done to the idea of being human a slippage of meaning.

I think we need to understand this association of alienating oneself from one’s own answers with humanness is very dehumanizing. It is this illusion of humanity through which we have to look for the real one. And look no far but within. It is not your falling that makes you human but your strength to survive it. To me, it is that flicker of light I see in a distance, the only light in girthed darkness, and I know it is my calling. That flicker of light is no one but myself; moving a little away from this to reach a somewhere there.

From ‘Looking-Into’ to ‘Living-Into’: Theorizing Existentialism in Cinema

In the early scenes of L’avenir (Things to Come) we see a French artist resting in peace at a place where he wanted to consume himself to the music of winds and sea till the eternity. Commenting on the same, Heinz tells Nathalie that music is not only felt, it is seen. As the movie progresses, we see Nathalie experiencing the same contradiction, a semiotic rather, in her own self. We see her exploring and experiencing the various interpretations of herself, a development of an empathy she creates with the space and circumstances. In a cinematic construction that enables it, we see Nathalie oscillating from a life which she ‘thinks’ of being hers and the life she somehow indulges herself into. It is the fascinating movement of her identity from the past to the present to the future and the constant divergence of it all that made me question the idea of linearity and unity of life and identity.

 

Extrapolating Nathalie and contextualising her to the actress who ‘played’ that character on screen – Isabelle Huppert, I see an extension of this idea. In her interview to Stephen Colbert, when she was asked with a cliché of what is acting, she quite resolutely replied that it is anything but ‘acting’. She said that it is the denial of oneself as one exists in order to be someone else. This is something way more than merely method acting. This is a more psychological and physiological process of ‘looking-into’ the object of consideration. As the German Romantic philosophers or English Aesthetic School might call it active empathy, I would partially agree to that construction, only to extend it to a more complex idea of ‘living-into’.

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I begin with the question of ‘self’. It’s an existential question that requires understanding of the two components or elements that are in a dialogical relationship in order to raise this doubt in the first place. Rachael Corbett raises this point while asking that if we work on an assumption that we consist of something self then what makes us think that the other is devoid of that self? In the present case the two components that I shall consider are – the actor and the character.

The uniqueness of cinematic empathy is that the object and subject are both representational of an interconnected signified. For instance, what it means to be a human is not only reflected in the artist but is also extended to the character. So, it would be a woman playing a role of a woman, or a man, so on and so forth. This nature of duality separates it from the Man and Nature duality of Johann Gottfried Herder. Unlike Herder’s association of ‘human elements’ such as consciousness to non-human elements such as nature; the characters possess humanness in themselves and the same is not artificially extended. This shall also be distinguished from David Hume’s concept of sympathy because there is no recognition of the ‘beauty’ of the character in either relative or absolute terms. Rather the nature of the character is not adjudged by the actor from any representational signifier. There can be slight similarities of this idea with the anthropomorphosis effect as elaborated in Friedrich Theodor Vischer’s operational symbolism, although the presence of magical-symbolism thinking in his theory is the one that frictions the synonymous relationship between the two.

Moving away from Vicher, there isn’t a consciousness of ‘self’ completely present during a cinematic process of acting. As Isabelle Huppert herself confessed in her interview to The Hollywood Reporter, ‘the moment and space of acting is not completely conscious or unconscious in the actor’s head. It is characterised by the state of mind where one is halfway lost of oneself and halfway in gain of someone else.” So Ms Huppert believes that an actor, during the process of acting, occupies a space (both physically and psychologically) that is separate from the socio-temporal space of the actor’s existence.

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Desiree Navab (2004)

The idea that an actor can escape the ‘existence’ that is often synonymous to having a body and be someone else, it itches me to question this very synonymy. Occupation of a space would require some magnitude of mass in the thing that is occupying it. Therefore, it would be safe to say that the fact that a thing occupies a space, that it possesses mass, it henceforth exists. Since, an actor escapes to possess a space which is separate from the space occupied by her when she is not enacting a scene, it could be a plausible extension to say that she goes on to occupy a space that her body (body that she carries when she’s not enacting) does not occupy. So, the process of acting associates some sense of mass in the non-material existence of the idea of the character. It is this mass which is transferred to the actor when she escapes from the mass of the original body. The presence of mass in the non-material idea of the character would now lead us to believe that such an idea exists. Thus, the character itself exists. It may be non-material (devoid of body) but it exists. So much so, that it would safe to say that the character’s existence is independent, and perhaps, predates the existence of the actor.

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Annegret Saldau (1976)

So, why did I recognise the existence of a non-material idea that possesses mass? Well, let’s talk about Descartes here. In his Meditation II, the French philosopher says that the reason that I doubt is because that I think. Therefore, there should be a thinking thing that exists. Since, I think, I am a thinking thing. Therefore, since I think, I exist. When it came to the question of body, he said that the only reason that I know the existence of body is due to perceptible sensations, which can possibly be the deception of the demon. But the fact that he thinks that whether his body exists or not shows that thinking thing (mind) exists. Thus, it is possible for him to exist even when he does not have a body because he has the thinking thing (mind). This duality between mind and body get further detailing in Meditations V and VI where he states that he knows that clear and distinct ideas are true. Therefore, every idea that he can conceive clearly and distinctively shall be true. Since he perceives mind and body to possess clear and distinct ideas, that is ‘thinking thing’ and ‘extension’ respectively, mind and body are two distinct things. Since, these are two different things; the existence of one does not depend on the existence of another.

I’m not saying that this theory completely follows the duality principle of Descartes, because saying so would mean that Leibniz’s Law of Indiscernible Identities would be a perfect criticism to it. On the contrary, The Leibniz Law is a plausible ally of this. The idea that two things that are completely distinct cannot resemble each other satisfies me to create a distinction between the character and the actor. Since there exist distinctions in the characteristics or properties of these two objects, we cannot say that the actor resembles herself or continues to carry the identity of herself while providing material existence (physicality) to the character. Although, the fact that the humanness of both the entities is not affected at all, or sometimes the language, voice or inhibitions continue to persist in the transformation, we cannot fixate the aforementioned Law of Indiscernible Identities here without certain meticulous reservations.

While pondering upon Leibniz, I went further ahead to the concept of ‘bringing about materialism or physicality to the idea of the character’. When the actor escapes the materiality of her original being, she goes on to provide the character her material existence. Well, how does this happen? I believe that the actor’s original body is a mere carrier of the identity that the actor represents. The idea of representation that works here is similar to the one present in the linguistic theory of Ferdinand de Saussure. He says that language is a system of signs where each sign is a combination of a form (signifier) and a particular meaning (signified). Moreover, the relationship that occurs between the signifier and the signified, that goes on to produce a linguistic sign, is created by a convention (usage). Let’s see this in the context of what we use to define ourselves? Or how we define ourselves? We don’t say that I am a particular person because I have a pair of legs and limbs. Perhaps, we don’t say that so as to reemphasise our understanding of identity which is something more than the animalistic existence and distinctive from others in some way.

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Ferdinand de Saussure

The aforementioned argument proves that we have a perceived understanding of ourselves, of who we are, of our existence, which is based on the way we represent ourselves through language. So for instance, if I begin to think about my friend or a colleague in their absence, I would use representational signs of a language to make sense of their existence. ‘He’s very funny’, ‘she’s quite witty’, all of these sentences reduces our existence to a representational system based on language that focuses more on how we ‘come across’ than what we ‘consist of’. This further enables me to think that if it is our representation that defines our existence, then such existence can be understood beyond the presence of the body itself. Therefore, it can be concluded that the body is a mere carrier of an actor’s identity and when she enters the process of ‘becoming’ a character, the same body becomes a material representation of the identity of the character.

Since, I have established the duality of identity and body and the transformation of material representation from the actor to the character, there is not much left for me to deliberate upon but to reckon.  So this is what I think it is – when an actor chooses to take up a certain character, she enters a process of becoming where she moves away (hence denies) from the existence (if existence depends on recognition of itself) of her original identity in order to give existence to the identity of the character. The spacio-temporal existence and reality of the transformed actor (character) is separate from that of the original actor (we can probably say that it replaces the space occupied by the actor for that moment of enactment). The now existent mind of the character gets its body with the material transfer of mass from the actor to the character (since body is nothing but a carrier of identity). Therefore, during the process of a scene, it is the character that exists and not the actor. The reality is associated with the cinematic construction and not the contrary.

Since everything has been said quite contently, I cannot help but raise few questions by keeping this theory as a premise. One of the most prominent of them being that if it is the character that exists during the shooting of a scene, and not the actor then who should get the remuneration that flows from the aesthetic appreciation of that art? Is it justified to create a personality cult around the original figure of the actor when it is the figure of the character that created that psyche among the masses? This, and a lot more triggers my mind for further deliberations and inquiry.

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Isabelle

I haven’t lost myself in a life

Called work, not chained

To impersonal commitments, I

Have just shed a skin

Of life, out of many

That I’ve been wearing for so long

I thought I lived once,

A life, a person, an

Inescapable unity,

All this, until

I saw myself no more

And found everything of me

In else

What Words

When words start to crumble, 

When the languages begin

To dissipate through

The sieve of unanswered prayers, 

Of many unfulfilled desires,

We can still see each other

Not through meanings but

Recognition

When everything would fail to make sense,

I would not be afraid, for I

Sense your presence somewhere near,

Outside but within,

Unheard, unseen, unspoken

But just felt

For we exist

Words of Viola Davis: Crossing the ‘Fences’ of the Great Man Tradition

“…The fact that we breathe, live a life and are God to our children means that we have a story and it deserves to be told…”

There cannot be a contention to a thought that Viola Davis offered a memorable performance in the cinematic adaptation of August Wilson’s iconic play Fences. Even though her performance underlines her underappreciated presence in Hollywood, the subject matter of her character in the movie is a more fascinating discourse to delve into. Starting from the very decision of adapting a play into a movie to the definitive selection of screenplay and uncoloured construction of dialogues, the presence of this movie and especially of Viola Davis’s interpretation of the idea that it represents comes across as a major challenge to the established traditions of storytelling in American cinema.

When Viola Davis began to deliver her winning speech at Screen Actors Guild Awards (2017), she quite distinctively mentioned the word ‘history’. While expressing what this recognition means to her and to the idea that this film stands for, she said that it is not often that a movie is made to display the story of an average man who happened to be a man of colour. The speech delivered by Viola Davis is a direct attack to the concept of theorizing prevalent practice in both literary and historical studies known as the Great Man Tradition.

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Credits: Huffington Post

Coined by the 19th century historian and commentator Thomas Carlyle, the Great Man Tradition in historical studies is a concept that chooses to understand history from the existence of the ‘great men’ who had occupied decisive and substantially prominent or heroic positions in the society. Such was the conviction of Carlyle that in his book titled On Heroes, Hero-Worship and Heroics of History, he goes on to comment that the ‘history of the world is nothing but the biography of great men’. This idea resonates in Machiavellianism as well which stands of inculcating duplicity and cunningness in general conduct or statecraft. The idea of looking at history from the lens of who is termed as a ‘hero’ focuses on making a retrospective study an instrument for guiding the socio-cultural development of future actions and psyche. The understanding of the nature of history itself has been shortened at one hand by focusing the subject matter on certain prominent figures and on the other hand it has been displayed to be widened by associating it with the understanding of present dogmatic trends and the construction of some kind of future course of action.

There have been many criticisms to this tradition mainly coming from the realms of feminism and Marxist studies. However one that mounted the most was the one given by scientist and sociologist Herbert Spencer who refuted to see these ‘heroes’ in an isolated form. To Spencer, these cult personalities do not occupy these positions on their own or do not exist outside the social relations of their society. It is the social factors prevailing at that time that create a favourable or enabling environment for certain figures to occupy influential positions. So, when Hollywood period dramas celebrate Jackie Kennedy or Lincoln, they get quite deferential by not focusing much on the role played by sociological forces in the construction of personality cult around these figures. However, the practice of building a climax and anti-climax in the narrative of the art has somehow pushed the movies slightly away from the great man practice, but only procedurally and not substantially.

It is in this backdrop that Viola Davis, in front of the entire fraternity, proclaims that the stories of an average man or woman deserve to be in the canon of any narrative that has been built out there. She is reiterating the process of alleviating the common person to the books of history or probably the democratization of the discourse on history itself. The character that she plays is a prejudiced class within a class that has been systematically prejudiced. The slow or ‘real’ movement of her body and corresponding emotions in the space of performance represents the plight of dialectic of sex that has haunted the fight for gender equality since generations. She is painstakingly ‘natural’ and she wants us to know that how unfair this ‘naturalization’ is. This plight and the outburst that followed is a political statement in itself. Through Rose, Viola Davis brings drama at the doorsteps of a minority household; a set of cinematic expressions to the unexpressed desires of a coloured woman.

Image result for Viola Davis in fences

Credits: Vanity Fair

As Viola Davis went on to thank her husband and her daughter, and as crowd was left with no choice but to applaud, I could not help myself but think what we have done to deserve an actor like her. Even before Fences, her Oscar nominated performances in The Doubt and The Help reflect her sheer commitment to break away from the great man tradition of storytelling. And as the recognition comes ridiculously late, I hope the very coming of it will also bring the change in the way cinema chooses to represent itself in the cultural industry.

Going Beyond the Forms


It’s seldom that humans become metaphors of their own language. It’s not quite often that we see things being defined in the person itself. However, when it happens, when we do witness a thing being definitive in itself, we see the thing itself and not its representation. We don’t have to concern ourselves with imitations anymore for we, upon such witnessing, reconstruct the constant. We realign the history, mend our explanations, and create this new allegory of essence upon which essence in others thereupon be searched for. And, when we’re done with that momentary reconstruction of truth, the only constant, all that is left is the representation that engenders faith in generations to come.