Monday, December 10, 2018

SETSUKO ONO                                   
Solo Exhibition
Daiwa Foundation Japan House, London
16th February 2017 – 9th March 2017

Written by

                        A large mixed media scroll titled ‘Resistance to overwhelming force’ that portrays figures and forms in various states of defiance along with candid echoes of Picasso’s Guernica is spread out gravely across adjacent walls. A few metres across, a wooden sculpture titled ‘Victory’ rises up headless and unabashed from a plinth with its arched back capturing a moment ofecstatic release. This seamless meandering between contrasts and antonyms occurs organically in the works; both in the use of materials and the subject matter. The serious and the playful, the political and the personal, the deep and the lighthearted, the realistic and the abstract - all strike a languid equilibrium in the visual language, and that sets the pulse of Setsuko san’s very first exhibition in London.
This invisible undulating rhythm works as the undercurrent of the show. There is a delicious impression of movement that gives her concrete intentions a light,airy feel which is especially evident in her sculptures.
In her most well known sculptural works Dreams and Ocean’ (2012 and 2011; permanently installed in Shinagawa Tokyo and at the Hara Museum ARCin Shibukawa, Gunma Prefecture) which are viewed through virtual reality goggles at the show, one immediately encounters the merry spirit that bends and folds the steel into various circles and swirls from which smaller forms – human figures with outstretched limbs, deer, turtles, fishes, foxes, stars et al - emerge with a gentle finesse. They appear as if they are about to flout gravity and surge up higher into the air. In these works and in the other sculptures installed in the gallery like the ‘Harvest Moon’ (2015) which depicts multiple crescent moons twisting and turning amongst each other, the simplicity of thought and its subsequent transformation into form feels almost ordinary yet striking and personal. The work ‘Migrants’ (2016) which leans towards a political concern,lends a similar sensation; multiple human forms with their centres hollowed outportray a familiar kind of emptiness but are also burdened with a subtle sense of unease that is entirely the artist’s own emotive response.
              This effect becomes more pronounced in her paintings - highly political subject matters that are decidedly unpretentious and restrained in their voice. And it is indeed in these mixed media paintings that her artistic maturity is more tangible, for she achieves a blend of her acute political awareness and herpersonal responses to it, without either overshadowing the other. 
It is interesting to observe that for someone who claims ‘everything about my process happens in an unconscious manner, unfortunately’,there is a palpable, defined intention, as if her unconscious were in complete control of its being unconscious. Her swirls, curves, and sensitive outpourings embrace our vision and our minds. In her mixed media painting ‘Gates of War Gates of Peace’(2016), repetitive collage patterns of doors, hens and red robed figures walking away or towards the viewer in the lower half contrast the monotony of silhouetted figures in restless motion on the upper half. A child on the extreme left looks at us as if he has resigned himself to whatever life is bringing for him, whereas on the extreme right a child tries to escape from his fate, wide eyed, fearful. Here, in this two dimensional space as well, we encounter a loop – of arrivals and departures and everything in between. 
Her series ‘Monsters of our civilisation’, a collection of mixed media on canvas, raise her flustered pitch higher through the use of more abstract and darker shades. The figures here are vaguely comprehensible, yet more coherent in the terror and dismay that they illustrate for us. 
In the aforementioned ‘Resistance to Overwhelming Force’ which showcases her concerns regarding the present day Palestine, she openly references the alarmed horse and exaggerated, overlapping elements of Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ (a response to the Spanish Civil War); giving free reign to mirror those who haveinspired her while demonstrating that which has agitated her. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the seemingly disconnected pauses in John Cage’s musical pieces, an art that has had an influence on her, reverberate in her use ofthe recurring elements and in the gaps she inserts between these elements; though this also stems from an unconscious process and thus dons a subduedguise in her articulations.
The fact that she began exhibiting only after  her retirement has definitely veered in favour of her artistic progress. Without the strains of making art for exhibitions and sales, she has retained a calm and buoyant approach to her works. One can see she definitely has taken her art seriously but not herself (as an artist?); in turn sparing her art from becoming what most contemporary art today is deemed to be characteristic of - overstated, exaggerated vocabularies. Her resulting language is free of artsy jargon. Rather it is one of lucidity and a soft strength.
The ebb and flow of her art cradles you into a space of tranquility not devoid of worthy fodder for thought.

Notes :
 *Setsuko Ono in her artist talk at the daiwa foundation on 23rd February, 2018 

‘Harvest Moon’
Courtesy of the artist’s website

Friday, October 28, 2016

'The Last Supper' - Exhibition review

‘What is, it wouldn't be. And what it wouldn't be, it would.’ These words from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland weirdly strike you long after you have seen this exhibition.
Before, though, you are oblivious in your presumptions.
‘Christ!’ You murmur under your breath, partly because of the vapors of the humid day and partly because you subconsciously guess everything that you are about to encounter. NGMA Bangalore in collaboration with the Seagull Foundation for the Arts, Kolkata has the self-taught Indian artist Madhvi Parekh’s ‘The Last Supper’ on show, which is inspired mainly by Leonardo Da Vinci’s namesake and is a collection of Biblical tales rendered as reverse paintings on acrylic sheets. You nonchalantly recollect all the ‘last’ suppers you have seen, and apprehend exactly what you will witness as you step in to the gallery.
But just as unexpectedly as Alice falls down the rabbit hole, you plummet into an emotional wonderland. The assumptions quickly crumble.

The technical virtuosity and the purity of intentions associated with Renaissance art have been asserted and abandoned by various artists through the centuries, and the refreshing vitality of Parekh’s works lie in doing neither. Though there is a palpable sense of nostalgia around the gallery, her Christ and his followers are careful not to smother you with it, and you are left as an uninterrupted and surprised traveler in a dubiously familiar land.
What appears initially as a naive technique made rougher perhaps by the challenges of the medium used, gradually reveals itself to be the artist’s emotional unfamiliarity with Christianity and its narratives. The spontaneous wonder which she must have felt while staring at the walls of Santa Marie delle Grazie at Milan have refused to be distilled, and often overpowers the narratives itself. She fuels her longing for comprehension of this foreign iconography with a sincere observation and responsiveness which seamlessly translate into the works. She embraces the unknown, rather than see it as an obstacle to be solved and conquered.
The figures and forms emerge out of the frames as if they were slightly prematurely born, kicking their way out in earnest. Dots, swirls, and streams of color rush around, sometimes held back by the brush and thickened with paint but never with their spirited gait halted. Christ emerges in front of you as a terrain to be explored rather than as just a recognizable appearance. Angels are but almost unrecognizable blots of black with tiny wings drawn by a delighted kid who cannot suppress her awe. Historic relevance and references, religious significance, and mythological implications become inconsequential. Neither is there any hint at political or social symbolism. There are no pursuits of monumental ideals. There are no strained attempts at appropriations, and a complete refrain from contextualizing the subject-matter to her own Indian culture. All that you are entrusted with are original, keen portrayals of the joy of discovering something new.
The color sense is doubtlessly influenced by the subtle palette of European art. The panels and the flat perspectives remind you of Indian miniature painting. Or wait! Is it ancient Egyptian - inspired? Somewhere else is also an undeniable influence of Paul Klee’s stars, moon forms and animal faces, and you admire how these have been assimilated into a personal language.
 ‘The last supper’ stands in the last room as a perfect finale. This work carries an air of a quiet, disarming acceptance. The lines are still hers, unpretentious and independent, but the energy is mellow. The tranquil people sitting down for supper are released from her inquisitive hold. She seems to have painted them unhurriedly, calmly. Her search finished and her fervor pacified, she seems to be bidding goodbye to her fascinations.
You bid a cheery goodbye as you walk out of this endearing wonderland of culture and religion explored not with the aim of producing statements and commentaries, but to justify one’s own appetite.
The show does not ask too much effort from your intellect or your emotions (except perhaps a stubborn little sense of marvel), and yet it succeeds in expressing volumes with its guileless maturity. 

‘The Last Supper’
Artist – Madhvi Parekh
National Gallery of Modern Art, Bangalore
(Karnataka, India)
Presented by :
NGMA Bangalore 
(In association with) 
The Seagull Foundation for the Arts, Kolkata
26th May 2016 – 26th June 2016
Image credit -

Monday, August 15, 2016

Into the essence

Into The Essence 

What would it have been like if Virginia Woolf had been a dancer instead ?
What would her words and ideas have looked like as movements ?

I have long been possessed by these kind of thoughts, these sorts of unending contemplation. How does the 'idea' or the concept evolve and unfold in different art forms? Each Art form, with its technicalities and specific beauty, is (according to me) in the end a medium which communicates the idea, the emotion, or the concept. Whether the idea is a traditional/mythological/inherited one, or a (supposedly) original, it is still, to me as an artist, the essence of art.
A figure painted a bluish tint, standing with legs crossed with a flute in the hands, is undeniably Krishna. Any (Indian) dancer that imitates this body language/gesture, is undoubtedly showing Krishna.
Is not the dance an image here?
Or the image the dance?
With words, the particular combination of the seven letters 'Krishna' is, well, Krishna. One need not take the strain of explaining anything further; the word itself stirs the mind with the associated images and stories.
It was for this reason that I had believed for quite a while that 'literature', or 'words' were the most intrinsic, the most elemental form of expression.
Yet, the word 'Krishna' would make no sense to a person who is completely unaware of Indian mythological stories and has never seen a picture of Krishna. The word 'Krishna' would mean nothing, the person might not even be sure if it is a name or not.
Does that mean the 'Visual' is the most elemental form of human expression ? (I am deliberately leaving out the word 'art' expression here).
According to what we know of our History, the cave paintings are the earliest record of humans' expression of what they saw and felt. Visuals must have come first. And visuals must have preceded language - what humans 'saw' would have to be the trigger for human need to express and communicate it.
I am sure we would have definitely cried and laughed and screamed as responses to physical and emotional triggers, but those classify as 'sounds' rather than 'language', and I am going to stop digging further as I know there probably would be no end. (Sound might probably lead to music and I am not sure I can think or elaborate on that well).

In the end, one thing I was sure was that no art form can exist in isolation. What the contemporary art world is now hailing as 'interdisciplinary', the 'new' trend, is perhaps the oldest and the most primitive. It had been extremely intrinsic, and now it is being made obvious.
Indian art, especially, has been meandering through forms always - Sculptures are inspired by Literature and Mythology, Paintings have been based on Music and its nuances (Ragamala), Dance has poetry as one of its inseparable aspects.

So what would I, as an artist, be bringing to the table? Apart from the immense love for arts, the yearning to embrace each as intimately as possible, how would I know how much I have stretched myself and my limits?
The answer again, for me, was the idea. The concept. Technical proficiency and perfection is one thing, but it is the realms of the 'idea' that I found a definition for myself, an identity.
But then again, there is NO way of knowing your ingenuity within it as well. Mark Twain has said -

“There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”

This strangely comforts me as well as makes me cringe. It helps me in relieving the extremes of self analysis and self criticism I tend to heap on myself, and helps me to try and take Art a little less seriously. But somewhere along the process it also makes me question myself. This questioning will last a lifetime, and I figured I might as well continue creating art without waiting for a final answer, a final solution to all my doubts.
And so I am going ahead with 'AADYA'. The word literally means the essence, the origin. What better name to give to the event! And what better form to start with than dance, the form I have been with the longest. It is like this old, sometimes charming sometimes boring childhood friend that  I can't get rid of because the familiarity is lovable yet repulsive. Trying hard to get into its skin without forgetting my own was a beautiful process.
AADYA is nothing but the Bharathanatyam Margam, each piece presented in its raw essence, or rather what I thought was its raw essence. It is about peeping beyond the movements and the technical vocabulary and trying to reach for the blood of the concept and the characters behind each piece, right through the skin of music. It is a voyage into the soul of the metaphor that the art form is - the metaphor of imagery, the metaphor of ideas - constantly swinging between the human and the divine, taking the middle path of 'ART'.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

'SOUNDSCAPES' at the National Gallery

Paul Cezanne - Les Grande Baigneuse

One of the most essential and philosophical things that art does, however cautiously or however strongly, is an inquiry into the concepts of time and space as what it is and what else it could be. Different mediums of Art do this in different ways.
But what happens when two forms get together, not just for the sake of getting together, but as a response to each other and a form of communication with each other?
The results can be as perplexing and mysterious as it was at the 'Soundscapes' exhibition at the National Gallery.

As soon as you enter the exhibition arena, you are shown an introductory film in which the commissioned musicians talk about how they were inspired by the particular pieces they have chosen (It might have been better if the film was shown after the audience went through the soundproofed labyrinth and taken in the works without a prelude into the ideas of what/why they were what they were). After this you are led into the black area, dimly lit, with dark passages leading into separate soundproofed rooms in which the paintings are placed and the music fills your ears.
There are five of them in total, and each creates a different atmosphere and evokes a different feeling.

The first thing that I as a viewer was confronted with was a very challenging decision - How long is too long or too less to have a wholesome experience with each piece?
Because with musical pieces, the beginning and end is given to us. It is pre-decided, and you wait till the last strain is heard and you know it is over. However, with paintings or visual art forms, time is held in a different way. We decide when we 'start' seeing it, and when we 'stop' seeing. The audience decides and marks the beginning and the end. And when you put both the visual and the aural together, not as disjointed or merely decorative elements but as cohesive pieces that are supposed to have a conversation going on, and when the music is on loop, the sense of 'time' gets really warped and beautifully confusing as there eventually builds a subtle cohesion between them. You do not know how long to stay and you do not know every word of the conversation they are having, and after a while it does not matter. You want to linger, listen a bit, see a bit, and wander off into another room for a bit, and then come back for a little more.

When it is a single instrument/strain, the illusion of an endless continuity is stronger, as it was in Susan Phillips response to the painting 'The Ambassadors' by Hans Holbein the Younger. Taking the visual clues of the broken string of the lute and the discord between the State and the Religious authorities from the painting, the sound installation produced using a violin with a broken string had a very genuine appeal and a weird energy of discomfort around it. It seemed to me as one of the most honest responses created and expressed.

The second thing that strikes you as you wander around the show is the choice of natural, the artificial ( by that I mean those created by instruments), and the artificial-ised natural sounds used. How exactly has the musician chosen it ? You wonder. Is it largely about the medium the musician works in, or about how far he/she has stretched it to make room for their responses?
 In the room with wildlife sound recording artist Chris Watson's response to the painting of Lake Keitele by Akseli Gallen-Kallela, you hear the recorded the sounds of birds, of water and distant ambiguous noises recorded from a similar natural landscape. When you look at and immerse yourself in the painting which does not have a foreground, it feels like you are situated not on the banks of the lake but on a boat somewhere in the middle, the sounds begin to feel a bit too nearby, causing a slight panic to your already twisted whereabouts.
In the last room, which is also a painting of a lake (A pointillist work titled 'Coastal Scene' by Theo Van Rysselberghe), the reactions it has sparked in the musician Jamie xx's work is completely different. He being a DJ, has responded in his medium. A very catchy yet delicate tune with soft beats greets you, and 'he has created an environment in which directional speakers encourage you to listen and look room different vantage points. When you stand furthest away from the painting, you will hear the music as its intended to sound, just as the painting's brushwork appears to give it a unified form.As you move closer, the music diffuses and breaks up in the same way that Van Rysselberghe's dots dissipate and dissolve.'

As you enter the room in which Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller have responded to the painting 'Saint Jerome in his Study' by Antonello da Messina, you not only have an aural treat but also a visual treat - a 3-d model created by the musicians to bring to light even the tiniest of details in the painting. The musicians have responded not just musically but also visually, adding another layer to the experience. The music, which depicts the environment of the painting, has the sound of rain, of doors/windows opening/creaking, and footsteps walking across, after which the lights come on and you witness the whole scene like an immersive theater. Because the scale of the architectural model is maintained as small rather than an over ambitious life size model, the 'Conversations with Antonello', as they have called the work, remain and cozy and consistent and are restrained from being too loud and out of reach.

Coming to one of my personal favorites. Responding to Paul Cezanne's 'Les Grande Baigneuses', Gabriel Yared, an Oscar winning film composer, has created a mellifluous and slightly eerie sounding track with different instruments and a soprano voice which seems as if it is floating out of the painting and its twilight atmosphere. Though the narrative quality is obvious because of the unhindered flow of the music as well as the graceful arrangement of elements in the painting, the words of its possible conversations are open to a million interpretations. Just as almost all the females have their eyes away from the audience in the visual, the music lingers and slightly touches on the door to interpretations and stories, like fingers skimming along the edge of water.

Perhaps the one that fit in so well that perfection became too adamant was Nico Muhly's 'Long Phrases for the Wilton Diptych' for the painting 'The Wilton Diptych'.
Personally for me, the music gelled with the visual way too easily and simplistically (which is not always a bad thing though) that I had nothing left to maneuver around or try and decipher.

Overall, the exhibition leaves you wanting for more, not more of what is not there and what could have been added along, but more of what already is there. You find yourself wandering in and out of the different rooms many times, trying to get as much as you can of what the artist could have felt and what you start feeling as well within a couple of minutes.

As I left into a rainy evening with a very filled up soul, I couldn't help wondering and thinking about our own Ragamala paintings - miniature paintings all inspired by Indian Classical music and which were personifications of the different Ragas and Raginis.
Indian art has been splendidly inter-disciplinary since ages ago, and if there were more serious artists and more serious funds and audience devoted specifically for the arts, India can create wonders in the present based on its strong past.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

'Elite Intervals' - Pauses and ponderings

What do you do when the last line has been drawn and the final brush stroke has dusted the pastel powder in its final place?
Sigh! What an amazing space it is; a calm satisfaction, a bubbling joy and a sense of being in the blank. (Until you start to analyze your work critically few hours later and bury your head in white sheets again!).

Of late I have been thinking about these spaces - these 'pauses' that occur between each work, these halts which are more or less resting places for the mind. Painting affords me that space more; unlike dance, where I need to be in class or on stage irrespective of my 'mood' or my 'inspiration', the solitary nature of painting affords me the luxury of a little laziness and prolonged pondering during the process.

In fact the new series 'Elite Intervals' is about these pauses - something that is not over yet but has halted, looking left and right to seek out newer inspirations to whet its hunger. The series visually explores the pauses in a poem, the silence between words, the unwritten letters in a moment of spasm in an unexpressed emotion.
It is unwittingly, also slightly touching on the 'queer' experience; whether it is visually apparent or not (which I would not want it to be in fear of it becoming poster-like activism), and also touching on the politics of freedom,expression, and love, and the politics of all these 3 put together that give rise to strange realities and experiences of life.

Time seems to go much slower, even in the 'real' life - much more poised, much more unhurried and unsullied. Is it because of the shift from the energetic performance space to the more isolated, almost island-like painting space? Or because I have retained more of the English sophistication and reserve than I had realized?

Whatever the case, time is an illusion and I am keeping it that way, strapped into my pockets while I ride my horses to the river of visual plethora. Space keeps me entertained quite well; and I hope that once the series is completed, my viewers will be able to travel to that space, to those pauses and halts and hold everything still for a while, and wonder what 'on the go' means and what pauses mean and redefine everything for themselves.
For now, I bask in the strengthening of my assertiveness of what I want my 'artist' self to be dressed up as.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Along The Process...

What is worse, to have a language but nothing to say, or to have a great many things to share but no vocabulary to communicate?

There seems to be a constant struggle between form and content, but what about the form of the content and the content of the form?

Does every idea need justification in the form of a realized work? What if artists just stood on rooftops and screamed their ideas out instead of mellowing them down with materials and physical tangibility?

Sometimes it is better to have no choice at all. The more options you have, the more is the danger of choosing the one that is the most convenient.

Letting go of an idea is not the same as 'choosing' one idea over the other.If there was only one idea ever, an artist would would probably stand, for his whole life perhaps, in summer and rain, waiting for the perfect medium that could do justice to his thought. 

If an artist can have more than one language to communicate, how does he choose which one is heard better? Or is it all about which one he can say better?

And what is more essential, to say or to be heard? 

Words, or tangible materials? Aren't words materials as well, or are they very strong allusions?

Explain an idea, or protect an idea?

Is it the work that is in - progress, or is it the artist who is still the work in - progress?

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Drawn into Daumier's World

                                                                  Rue Transnoniuan, 1834
                               One of his few realistic works, showing the massacre by the French Government
                                                             (Source - The British Museum)

Every once in a rare while we come across an artist who just draws us in, very inexplicably yet in a very natural manner.
As I stood staring for hours at Daumier's works at the Royal Academy some months ago, I knew I was in that rare sphere of time; of having discovered something so very precious and brilliant, something which would help me tackle some of my persistent questions and yet something so simple and lucid that it wouldn't be a hard brick on the head.

At first you are just swept off your feet; you just stare at the genius in front of you. You can never have enough of his drawings (and there are over 1000's of which only few were on display at the show) and you keep sourcing them and looking at them not just to get artistic inspiration but also for some artistic relaxation; and as you train your eyes to gradually look through this master's draftsmanship, the things that make him 'Daumier' reveal themselves to you.

Daumier's most loved works are his caricatures of the different sections of society, particularly of the ruling class and their repercussions on the 'lower' stratas of society. Of course, at the time that he produced them it had caused embarrassments and offenses, and as you look at them now, you realise nothing seems to have changed much in their ingrained characteristics, irrespective of the time period and the culture (except the outward appearances and affectations). But our job here is not a historical study of him, his works and their significance, but rather an artistic inquiry into why they are so strong.

'Ecce Homo' , 1848-52

'Les honneurs du Panthéon' , 1834
(source -

Gargantua, 1832
(Source - Wikiart)

Beauty and grotesqueness seem to share the same footing in his works. In spite of taking direct reference from life and people and turning them into caricatures, he seems to be able to strike a perfect balance between one extreme and the other - he neither holds reality too strongly so as to shove it down people's throats, and nor is he too eager to veil it with too much of symbolism and 'just for fun' tones to achieve a 'safe' zone.
An an artist he would have had his vexations and his personal perceptions of the things/people he drew, but he is clever enough to camouflage that disgust, and at the same time honest enough to portray the situation in all of its completeness.

This same quality is in his lines too. Every line of the artist carries the artist with it - if he draws it in frustration, the line is frustrated; if he draws it in joy, the line is joyful. There are no two ways about it. And here again Daumier seems to strike a perfect balance, a perfect dividing line between Daumier the artist and Daumier the person.
The energy of neither lets the eloquence of the other suffer.

                                          'The unfortunate state of the pancake merchants' , 1850
The text at the bottom says ' The unfortunate state of the pancake merchants along the boulevard in the days when dirt/mud dint allow parisians to walk past without the aid of stilts'
                                                          (Source - WTF

Take the third class carriage (but of course! which other work so exemplifies him).
It is not a finished work; and yet as you look at the lines and the forms and the mellow expressions, you see a completeness of intention, a finished thought that knew itself well enough to be allowed to be expressed to everyone else.
He did not need to add tears, or resounding, indignant slogans to show the day-to-day sufferings of the lower class. Simply called 'The Third Class Carriage', the crowded space and the tired expressions of its passengers says it all.
Not one of them is engaged in conversation, not one of them is seemingly interested in their co passengers.
All of them are in their own thoughts, in their own silent reveries.
And it is not a luxurious or a meditative reverie as well, as is made clear by their static stares, submissive gestures, the dull tones and the jagged lines used.
The woman in the front, feeding her child and seemingly the only one with a smile on her face, seems to be thinking 'Well, life goes on...'

                                                      'Third Class carriage' , Oils, 1864