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. 

Image result for Face of War - Marchenko and Green
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. 


What Is Age But Relative

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. 



Japanese Theater of Kabuki: Understanding the Existent Invisibles of Life

We often neglect the life led between the realisations of narrowly perceived moments. It’s like we hopscotch from one landmark to another without ever thinking about who draws the line between the two; and why? In this never ending movement of ‘becoming’ we often push much of our life to this interlude that interests no one. In other words, we construct our own invisibilities.

Not much, but some remarkable observations have been made about the existence of this invisibility. No matter how much ironic it may sound, but the phrasing of this phenomenon as existential invisibility rather than a non-existent entity is a deliberate choice. We may rightly force a non-existent thing into oblivion, but doing the same for an existent but unperceived entity calls for some serious consequences. Therefore there have been deliberate attempts to unmask the invisible and one such attempt was conducted by renowned economist Adam Smith in his theory of laissez-faire. However, the so called unmasking doesn’t involve some sort of creating a visible form of the invisibility. Rather, it endeavours to make the invisibility a part of constructive human conscious. As we can see in Smith’s idea of invisible hand, the invisibility is not given a perceivable form but is provided with a characteristic in order to recognise its existence and the effect of the same on our functioning.  

So why is it so significant to not only recognise but consciously understand this existent invisible entity? An answer to this question can be obtained by observing a practice in traditional Japanese theatre of Kabuki. Commencing during the Edo period, Kabuki is an erstwhile avant-garde theatre of Japan which is now seen as a form of classical theatre. Kabuki involves characters staging folktales and ancient Japanese classics while being dressed in elaborately designed kimonos and hair dresses. Since Kabuki is aimed to generate a cathartic feeling within the viewer, the operational activities which are not part of the main narrative are often cloaked in order to avoid distractions. One such operational activity is the job of a group of men called kurogo.

Kurogo are part of the theatrical construction but are not part of the narrative. Their task is to provide props to the actors so that they can perform their roles according to the narrative. So how are these existent invisibles incorporated? Well, kurogos are dressed in all black and their faces are covered with a black veil whenever they appear on the stage. Japanese theatrical convention considers black to be invisible, hence the dress. Kurogos, much like Smith’s invisible hand, provide the actor with all operational needs required to reach/achieve desired moments/goals. Whenever they appear on the stage, the viewer has to neglect their presence and consider them to be non-existent. They are instrumental in actor’s central decision making process. So much so, it would be hard to imagine the fluent movement of the actor’s story without the unrecognised interventions of the kurogos.  

The very practice of kurogos unsettles me to think about our own real lives. Both history and chemistry have proven the causal effect of moments in life. In this world of claiming opportunities, more like seizing them, there is a lot that happens that is often pushed aside as non-existent; as interlude. The movement from one landmark to another is physically impossible without crossing the territory that connects the two. This very territory, coupled with the mental instrumentality of self, constitutes the existent invisible of human beings. This is our kurogo.

Our kurogo doesn’t have a definite shape or form. It manifests itself both as animate and inanimate substances. Sometimes it can be your cab driver who takes you to work everyday without delay or the trees in your neighbourhood that make sure you get enough oxygen to survive another day. Just like Lego, we are scattered pieces of various shapes and sizes that are brought together to be made into a meaningful entity by these very kurogos. Our life, our journey, our becoming, all is incomplete and impossible without the effort of our existent invisibles; our kurogos.

So, now that we know that there exist some invisibles in our life that play an instrumental role, the next question is, how do we recognise them? How do we make sure that they stay forever? Honestly, the answers to these questions lie in forgetting. Yes, after consciously understanding the existence of certain invisibles, the next stage is to make your unconsciousness active. By this, I don’t mean to push humanity into neglect of its most faithful helpers. Rather, I want humanity to forget that it exists outside or independent of these very existent invisibles. I want humanity to stop perceiving its kurogos as invisible and start imbibing itself with them instead.

If you want to know how this can be done; how we can imbibe ourselves with the most selfless caretakers of universe, with our kurogos, kindly read my next post that gives an insight into achieving the same.



Ideogram of King Narmer: Pondering Upon the Conflict of Art Predates Language

Related image
Palette of King Narmer (c. 3000 BCE)
This artwork is one of the earliest example of an ideogram; which refers to the representation of an idea through a symbol. The present context has created watertight demarcation between language and art. However, what such distinction fails to understand is the foundation of both of these modes of communication – the need of a living being to externalise an idea or thought by the phenomena of information.
In this clay tablet we see the King Narmer preparing to punish a deviant with a stone dagger. The relevance of this artwork in this context is not defined by the story it depicts but by the top-most panel which has a small inscription that tells us a lot about Egyptian language. The inscription is a pictorial/symbolic representation of a fish and a chisel. Fish translates as Nar and chisel translates as Mer in ancient Egyptian language, thus, giving us the name of this King Narmer. This practice blurs the distinction between art as representation and art as language. Even the artistic analysis of the tablet shows the King adorning symbols of both North and South Egypt showing a possible unification of the region. The fact that a single artwork can use representation as both art and language is extremely fascinating for those who like to question the structuralism and linearity of language and formalism of art.
However, the question that can be asked here is whether such hieroglyphic inscription is an example of something called ‘art’? There are responses in both favour and against of this hypothesis. Those in favour might argue that the entire inscription cannot be reduced to an example of language only for the symbols depicted in it do not merely work as language tools to make a certain word but also have meanings in themselves. For instance, the Scorpion Mace-head at the upper end of the tablet is not used as a phonetic alphabet to depict something else but is used as a symbol that represents Egyptian kings. On the other hand, those who argue against it bring up the very purpose or nature of an artwork that is to create some sense of emotional response to a piece which is not expected towards the normal activities of life. For instance, the depictions of fish and chisel are just the use of phonetics that make these depictions merely tools of a language and not representational art symbols in themselves.
Joaquin Torres Garcia in his ideogrammatic theory says that in ideograms, art becomes the metaphysics of the purity of classical symbols. It is metaphysical because it is made to testify the truth of timeless, unlocalisable and spaceless essence of universal pictorial depiction of humanity. He called this process Constructive Universalism for every depiction is an effort by a man to do abstraction of phenomena around him. Hence, he becomes an Abstract Man. To the contrary, J Marshall Unger in his Myth of Disembodied Meanings, where he responds to the Chinese pictogram language, he argues that no symbol or sign can express meaning independent of language because which cannot be communicated in a language is not a meaning – for it won’t create any communicative map between the sender and receiver of symbols.
Whatever side we take, it is impossible to deny the purpose that either language or art serve through this tablet – information communication. Every mental object or thought is broken down into conceptual chunks. These chunks are then externalised, that is put out in space beyond our own body, in forms of signals. These signals are in the forms of sounds, actions and sometimes even both. Therefore, both art and language become parts of this representational system of information. It is thus quite fascinating to see how a human urge to express itself is so profound that it not only breaks barriers of representational systems such as language but also keep on discovering new ones, such as art. This is precisely the reason why both language and art have witnessed this commonality that refers to their non-static and ever evolving nature.

Listen Up America

It’s when the wind drifts,
Pulls us from each other, from
All its might,
That we fight, it all;
Just a little more, we step
Just a little ahead;
The wind makes us swirl, turns all
The heads upside down, blows
Into rubble,
All that we gathered with toil, and
Cherished with warmth;
When it blows stronger than ever
For the worse not the better
You got to hold my hand,
Don’t let me slip away, don’t
Let me be alone,
I’m scared of where this wind takes me
Of what it makes of
My destiny, my history
Uprooted and thrown away from
My own land.
From our land;
If you ever let me stage the fear I
Wash my bones with,
I will cry my heart out on your shoulder
Because, this, is the time
This is the force,
Just hold me tight and keep
Me close,
I swear I’ll never forget


Existential Says

Let there be no world that says there’s no home for you

No language that has hailed misinterpretations

over what could have been a melody

No eye that holds a vision of a future,

over what could have been a day more of present

Let there be no love that feels ashamed to face itself

Let there be no love,

that fails to touch the life that wanted