Populism at the Gates

13 Aug

Andy Warhol famously said that ‘the best museum is a department store.’ And from the looks of it, museums are pursuing excellence rather perspicaciously.

Museums may stock art, but what they sell is cultural pretensions, cultured erudition, a dollop of snobbery — to be served with tart to lesser beings— and entire abstruse vocabularies to share what you never felt and understood but readily imbibed from the digitized voice of the audio guide with the opposite sex for sex, sometimes friends and coworkers for distinction.

And best of it is that you don’t even have to struggle – waste time with art no one gets to earn your rights, now that museums have woken up to the need of expanding their market, and as they accelerate their transformation into the vital cogs of higher end popular culture. So next time you go to a museum, you can rest your eyes on things you can understand, or think you can – well there is always the audio guide for reassurance, like photos, the great modern epigram of reality, and decorative glass sculptures, and art by celebrities like Frida Kahlo. If those things don’t interest you, you can always walk out with a museum tote bag, or come back during a weekend evening snacks and drinks sessions.

Museums are the epitome of the late capitalist bloomage because they sell nothing, except insignia of privilege, culture—the hard to measure. And now they are making their fairy dust available to more people than ever before. In a way it is a meager pleasure for culture is increasingly going out of business, as a marker of money and class. Money is the marker of money. It is surely there for the many from the middle, who having lost the moral edge in a culture which doesn’t value the narrowly defined moral rectitude, are now looking for new definitions to make respectability respectable.

While all of this is going on, there is something else that ails. The trouble is that there are real limits to selling culture. First, you have to teach the people how to appreciate this amazing thing. And to do that you must reduce the steps to appreciate the object into some comprehensible formula, but do it in a way that the product is always tinged with veneration. Well at the heart of it you want to teach people how to distinguish the ‘good’ from the ‘bad.’ But ‘good’ should be something irreproducible or something specific to a brand.


Kenneth Baker, art critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, evicerates the Chihuly exhibit at the DeYoung in rather spectacular fashion.

“Perhaps in today’s arts funding environment, every museum must work a potboiler or two into its exhibition calendar. But Chihuly has come to personify everything meretricious in contemporary art. The most exciting thing about his work: Its status as art stands in question.
Chihuly’s presentation at the de Young consists of ensembles of works in blown glass, so theatrically lighted that they make a visitor feel like a walk-on performer in some costly, unnamed spectacle. That spectacle is Chihuly’s career.

A fair-minded critic must ask why Chihuly’s work cannot be taken seriously as sculpture. Sculptors of acknowledged importance have at times made good use of glass: Robert Smithson (1938-1973), Christopher Wilmarth (1943-1987), Barry Le Va, Kiki Smith. But all of them shunned Chihuly’s forte: decoration.

The skeptical visitor to “Chihuly at the de Young,” starting in the second of its 11 rooms, gets the queasy sense that here the gift shop inevitably barnacled to such exhibitions has finally engulfed its host.

Educated viewers cannot look for long at Chihuly’s work without wishing there were something to think about. So they think about something else. The capacity to hold our attention, in the moment or in reflection later, is a mark of significant art in an era when mass media work hard to abbreviate attention spans so as to cut costs and decapitate questions.”

Interview: Saira Wasim

13 Aug

Saira Wasim is a US-based contemporary artist from Pakistan. Saira has carved a niche for herself with her innovative, meticulously crafted Persian miniatures, which she employs to make political and social commentary. Saira’s work has been widely feted. It has been exhibited at numerous prominent art institutions including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.


How was it growing up in Lahore? Did you ever visit the BRB canal?

While I was born in the city, my parents moved to the suburbs right after my birth. I grew up in Allama Iqbal town, which is a southwestern suburb of Lahore. After my birth, my father built a house in Allama Iqbal town; he always wanted to live away from the city life. Our house was one of the first in the town. My early memories of living in that new town include seeing fields all around our house. My parents still live in that house, though the town itself is much more crowded now. And yes, I have visited BRB Canal plenty of times. My father loved to take us there on picnics.

Is your family originally from Lahore? Or did they move there during partition?

My maternal grandparents were from Lahore while my paternal grandparents were from Pasrur, a small village near Sialkot near the Indian border. Many of my family members originally lived in Qadian, a small village in Gurdaspur in Indian Punjab as Ahmadis have long had very strong ties with Qadian.

Childhood and parents

We were raised in a protected environment. Our weekends were spent at my father’s village of Pasrur. Our father always wanted us to have first-hand knowledge of village life because he wanted us to experience how people live in extreme poverty. We were also taught swimming, horse riding, fishing, and how to climb on trees, among many other activities of village life.


My father is an engineer. In 1984, my father started a factory for manufacturing capital goods in Lahore. He ran a factory to manufacture control panels and switch gears. Power Electronics, my dad’s company, was the first Pakistani company that made switch gears. Before that, Pakistan had to import these products from Western countries at an enormous cost. It was, in fact, that realization that prompted him to start manufacturing capital goods.

My father disliked the idea of emigrating to other countries. He believed that we have to make things better in our own country. He thought things would get better after Zia’s regime and that our Caliph, Mirza Tahir Ahmad, would come back. He thought that Pakistan would be on the road of peace and prosperity soon after Zia left, but my father was mistaken in his optimism.

Anyhow, while the 1980s were the worst in Pakistan’s history in terms of freedom of speech and religious freedom, the 1990s were the worst in terms of political chaos and corruption in the country. My father had to struggle hard and faced numerous obstacles due to the constant flip-flop between the democratically elected governments of Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto and because these governments brought a lot of corruption to the country. The common man in Pakistan had thought that democratic governments would bring peace and prosperity to the country, but things got much worse.


She is a very sensitive person.

My mother had a very tough childhood. My Nana Jaan died when she was two years old, and she had to live in extreme poverty.

Although my Nana Jaan, a close friend of Mirza Gulam Ahmad (founder of the Ahmadi sect), was a very rich businessman, with interests in Lahore and Bombay, before partition, and left huge property for his four kids and two widows, those four kids, and two widows didn’t get even a single penny from that property because my mother’s two Chachas (uncles) were very much against my naana jaan’s conversion to Ahmadiyya faith and his second marriage at the age of 60 to my nani jaan (a young Kashmiri Ahmadi school teacher from a very poor family). His first wife was a rich lady from a nawab family who lived most of her life with my nana jaan. She had converted to Ahmadiyya faith along with nana jaan but couldn’t have kids so she, along with second caliph Mirza Basir-ud-deen Mahmud and his wife, made my nana jaan do a second marriage with my nani jaan. The first wife died soon after my nana jaan death, and both chachas distributed the wealth among their children. My nani jaan, who got widowed at the age of 25 with four young kids, moved to Rabwa from Lahore where the second caliph was living, who supported nani just like his own daughter and grandkids and there she started teaching at a local school. My nani also died when my ami was 16 yrs old and my mamoo (ami’s elder brother) who was himself just 21 yrs old became the guardian of three younger siblings.

Growing up as an Ahmadi in Pakistan

Ahmadis have faced antagonism since the beginning. Ulemas of all the major seventy-two sects of Islam declared them Kafirs in 1891.

In 1974, Prime Minister Zulifqar Ali Bhutto declared Ahmadis non-Muslims. The constitution of Pakistan was amended to outlaw Ahmadis from calling themselves Muslims. Following the legislation, anti-Ahmadiyya riots broke out in the entire country. Thousands of Ahmadis died in the riots. Their properties were looted and their homes burnt.

My ami (mother) always tells us this story that in 1974 when she was pregnant (with me) and alone in the house with her three-year-old daughter (my elder sister), the mullahs led a call during the Friday sermon for every Ahmadi house to be burnt in order to secure Islam from Ahmadiyyat. A huge mob went on a rampage. As the word got around people, including our next-door neighbors left their houses to try to save themselves. When the mob, which included some of our own Sunni relatives, was marching toward our house, my abu (father) went to the police to ask for help. The police refused point blank saying that they could not go against the mullahs.

Just when the mob was about to reach our house, there was a sudden severe sandstorm. My ami always says that it was a miracle. (I don’t know about Indian Punjab, but in Pakistani Punjab, we have a lot of sandstorms, especially in early summer and they come so unexpectedly that one doesn’t get the opportunity to close the windows and doors of the house. The storms leave your house covered in dust, and the whole city turns into a desert; one can’t even see beyond a foot). The mob couldn’t do anything except break a few windows. My Ami tells us that after the storm there were only shoes and turbans found on the street.

So at a fairly early age, we came to know that we had a religious identity that was unacceptable to mainstream Muslims. We were nurtured in the basic teachings of the Ahmadi faith in the house and sent to the Convent of Jesus and Mary school because my father didn’t want us to face any discrimination because of our faith.

The discrimination against us has also been endorsed on our passports. If we call ourselves Ahmadis, we have to enroll as non-Muslim which deprives us of all our basic rights as Muslims. For example, Ahmadis cannot cast votes as Muslims and in order to vote, we have to enroll as non-Muslims.

During Zia-ul Huq’s oppressive regime, our Fourth Caliph (spiritual leader) Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad was compelled to migrate to England. Since then many Ahmadis in Pakistan have emigrated to European countries. Most of my relatives moved to USA and Canada.

Zia’s oppressive regime left a long-lasting legacy of turmoil in the country and religious extremism. There were many incidents of animosity that I witnessed, and now living in the US I realize how much we were denied our basic religious rights. Ahmadis were not allowed to practice their faith in public places or build their mosques. So my father volunteered our house for congregational prayers in Ramazan and other Ahmadi meetings. When Mullahs of the local mosque got this news, my father had to face huge threats and warnings that we were using our residential area for unIslamic activities. It is against the constitution of Pakistan to build an Ahmadiyya mosque or use a building as an Ahmadiyya mosque and activities. My father was sued by the local mullahs, but my father took the fine in his stride and paid the penalty.

I find it ironic that the only country where I am a non-Muslim is my own. In the past, I have never commented on these issues in my work. And although I was very willing to address such controversial issues, the general air of intolerance in my society always discouraged me from doing so.

When did you first realize that you were interested in art? Was it a Eureka moment for you or a slow, eventual realization? South Asian societies generally see art as a hobby. From art as a hobby to choosing it as a profession, this transition is especially difficult in Asian societies. Were your parents supportive of your decision? If you feel comfortable, please tell us a little more about your parent’s professions and their impact on you.

From the earliest that I can remember, I have always been very fond of drawing. Every wall, cupboard, and the door was covered with silly figurative drawings and portraits of family members, relatives, and whoever visited our house. I watched the visitors secretly and drew their appearance on the wall, and when they were gone I showed it to my parents and said, “Look, I made the picture of Baba Chokidari, motti Chachi, and Apa ji – don’t they look like this?”

In the beginning, my parents were amused by the drawings, my parents said, “look how creative and clever she is.” They laughed at those silly drawings on every wall of the house. And then they realized that every wall was covered with scribbling and drawings, and it gave them a very untidy appearance. So I was given a blackboard and white chalks to draw on and instructed to draw on the blackboard only. The blackboard had two sides, one for me and one for my elder sister. We were told to do anything on our given area of Blackboard. My sister’s side was always covered with homework, and my side was always covered by drawings. It is funny that now my sister is a Doctor (a general physician in Missouri), and I am still doing those silly drawings.

Let me share one another interesting story with you, my mother was also interested in art and always wanted to be a professional painter. Unfortunately, being a woman, she was not allowed by her family to paint or to pursue a professional career. When she was young, art was considered un-Islamic and a waste of time. She used to make miniature paintings on fabric, newspapers, and vases, from scratch and without any guidance or training. At that time, parents decided what careers the children would pursue and with whom they would marry. My widowed grandmother, who was a teacher and vice principal at a local school, decided that my mother should become a doctor. However, my grandmother died untimely, and the male guardians of my mother disallowed her from continuing her education. So, with her hidden passion for the arts and her mother’s unfulfilled dream for her to be a doctor, she was married away.

Since early childhood, my mother has been mentally and academically preparing my sister and me to eventually become doctors. My sister fulfilled my mother’s dream and became a doctor. But when it came to my turn to choose a career, I disappointed her. She always said: I didn’t get permission to be an artist from my mother, so how can I allow you?

At the time, my progress in school was getting very weak, and she had to face complaints from my school teachers that they had caught me drawing in class. So whenever my mother caught me drawing or painting, she would destroy whatever artwork I had created. The only safe time I had was in the middle of the night. I used to wake up in the middle of the night when everybody was asleep, switched on a torch, covered myself with a big blanket, and pursued my art underneath it. Now I feel funny sharing all this, but I was still caught and received a good beating from Ami. My mother had a special beating stick for me. If I ever said I wanted to be an artist my sister immediately fetched that stick and put it in front of Ami.

My mother was not an anti-art person, but she feared that her daughter wouldn’t have a respectable place in society and that pursuing art would kill my professional abilities. As you know in South Asian society artists are deemed to be mere craftsmen.

My secret decision to be an artist was totally opposite to what my mom had decided for me. What I was painting was an even graver threat to Ami and Abu because starting 8th grade, I started painting compositions on human suffering, persecution of minorities, and women’s issues.

Eventually, after years of persistence, my parents realized the intensity of my devotion to being an artist, and I was granted permission to go to an art school. My Abu was a very big support from the very beginning – he always supported me in whatever I did or chose except we were supposed to be good in our studies and elite in our fields. Like, Kasbeh Kamal khon khe Aziz-e-Jhan Shohri Iqbal

My Ami had her own very strong principles and beliefs. She always taught us it was a rigidly patriarchal society (secondly we were a religious minority) where there was much discrimination against women and minorities, and so women must pursue a career of utmost prestige and which would be considered safe and money-making too.

Another reason for these strong anti-art sentiments in the ’80s was Zia-ul-Haq’s dictatorship. Every sort of art except for calligraphy was condemned; figurative art was considered un-Islamic. In fact, engaging in any form of art was considered a great sin.

I was careful to never show my work to my family till it was exhibited or published because if they saw the content and imagery of my work, they would never allow me to continue making such paintings or display them. So, belonging to a family from a controversial religious minority and one that didn’t support the arts, I grew more politically conscious by the day.


Why did you choose miniature art? What specific affordances does miniature art provide for your overtly political work?

Even today, Pakistani audiences perceive miniature painting as decorative, a form of art that reflects and glorifies their rich traditional heritage. Miniatures, for me, however, have a more transcendental role; it is a vocabulary for the artist to engage in a sociopolitical dialog with viewers towards a more humane society.

Of late, the miniature has drawn the attention of foreign curators, museums, and art institutions. Yet, in Pakistan, my work was accepted by just one gallery — Rhotas2, the only serious gallery in Lahore; others were reluctant to display anything controversial.

Moving to Chicago in 2003, I gained the artistic and religious freedom that was somewhat precarious in my own homeland. I began responding to my new environment. The post-9/11 climate of fear, scrutiny, and surveillance of Muslims in the West shaped my current work. Global politics has become a consistent theme. Western societies in general — and the United States in particular — tend to be less aware of other societies in the world, particularly about Islam and Muslim culture. This is an era of cross-cultural misunderstandings and misperceptions created by the Western media that are mostly hostile to Muslim societies and Islam. Much of this misperception is attributable to the Western media, which often presents a distorted version of reality and only one side of the global debate. My new works unmask the injustices and hypocrisy of both the Eastern and the Western worlds.

My work has journeyed through several boundaries, from employing the centuries-old miniature format to a contemporary stage where a human drama unfolds every day to cross-cultural forays and political interventions. And the inspirational sources have been many — the courtly propaganda of the Mughals, the grandeur of baroque opera, the fun and enjoyment of circus performances, icons of pop culture, and the glamor of South-Asian cinema.

With Mughal allegorical symbolism, we miniaturists have created our own visual semiotics and metaphors. For example, the extremist mullahs who have hijacked Islam for their own political agendas and manipulate Muslim youth in the name of jihad are allegorized by Greek satyrs, Muslim leaders are depicted as string puppets in the hands of President Bush, Pakistani army generals wearing Hawaiian sandals indicate the irony that this nation is the world’s seventh nuclear state and is spending on a defense budget of over $3.5 billion a year in spite of a national debt of over $40 billion, and the Shia-Sunni clash in Iraq is a bull-fight, and the bogeyman media is a monkey with a camera.

Although they provide comic relief, they are critical of ignorance and prejudice, and the manipulation of governments and religious heads. The ironies and paradoxes of a post-9/11 world permeate my tragi-comic paintings. Mine is a plea for social justice.

Note: The interview was conducted in early 2007. The interview has been extensively edited for style and on occasion for content. Due care has been taken to keep the overall emphasis and context intact.

The Art and Artifice of Frida Kahlo

9 Jul

“Frida’s favorite subject was herself,” Meir Ronnen wrote in a review of Fridas Vater. Roughly one third (fifty-five) of Frida Kahlo’s paintings are self-portraits. The sheer number and preponderance of self-portraiture in her body of work is unmatched except perhaps by Munch, Rembrandt, and van Gogh. Comparing her output of self-portraits to other artists however does little to shed light on the particularities of her self-portraiture, which is celebrity like, romantic (if tragically), directly asking for viewer’s sympathy in ways that drain the viewer, and sprinkled with artifice (the conjoined brow, the carefully painted hair over the lip, the Tehuana dress).


Frida Kahlo was born to a wealthy German father and a Spanish-American mother in 1907. (It is apt that Salma Hayek, a rich dilettante of mixed ancestry with little trace of native blood—Hayek is the daughter of a rich Lebanese father and Spanish mother—played her in the popular movie biopic on Kahlo.) The point about non-native bourgeoisie ancestry is important because Kahlo so self-consciously and unceasingly peddled her non-existent native roots in her dress and her art.

For years rumors swirled, no doubt sustained by her, that her father was Jewish. Carl Wilhelm Kahlo, instead, was a born in 1871 in Pforzheim, Germany to Lutheran parents, whose Lutheran antecedents have been traced back to the 16th century by Gaby Franger and Rainer Huhle in their book, Fridas Vater: Der Fotograf Guillermo Kahlo.

Kahlo grew up in a gorgeous colonial house, one she returned to during the last years of her life, with access to all the contemporary amenities, the only dark stain being her contracting polio at the age of five. Polio, however, didn’t leave her handicapped, or her legs disfigured as it does in countless cases.

Coursing through her bourgeoisie life, at 15, Kahlo entered the premedical program at the National Preparatory School in Mexico City. At 18, she had a streetcar accident in which she suffered multiple fractures including damage to the spine, a damaged uterus, and a punctured pelvis. Kahlo never recovered from her injuries even after going through as many as 35 operations.

Three years after her accident, during which she had started to paint, she met Diego Riviera and soon after began a romance with the 42-year-old artist. A year later, the two were married. The major (and minor) events of the dramatic relationship between Kahlo and Riviera with its numerous infidelities, including Diego’s affair with Frida’s sister Christina, and Frida’s relationship with Trotsky, are well known. Riviera had a significant impact on her art and politics and politics in art. The crisp outlines of her figures are much in the style of Diego Rivera. Similarly, the way she colors some her paintings echoes the flat coloring in Rivera murals.

The other significant aspect of her life was the political environment that she grew up in. Kahlo grew up at a time when Mexico was in turmoil. Mexican Revolution had begun in 1910 and continued to fester far after 1920. Influenced partly by the politically charged communist learning environment and her association with Riviera, a painter of heroic murals with folk art echoes, her paintings incorporated techniques from native Mexican art, and used it to offer none particularly incisive political commentary.

Echoes of Kahlo
“Frida Kahlo has been the right artist at the right time,” said Gregorio Luke, director of the Museum of Latin American Art (MoLAA) in California in his 2002 interview with Stephanie Mencimer of the Washington Monthly.

For an era so dearly in search of unimpeachable arty exotic celebrity progressive symbols, Kahlo is indeed perfect. Her bisexuality makes her progressive,’ her clothes, jewelry and her looks make her lusciously exotic, her connections and flirtations with communism and communists make her yet more appealing, and her being an artist does nearly everything else.

Kahlo excels as the embodiment of symbolically political hippy chic enmeshed with the exotic romanticism of a Mediterranean country. The fact that her art is transparent is an additional perk. What is left for denouement and understanding, then, is the artist herself, and there the store is rich and endless. But that is saying things somewhat incorrectly- it isn’t due to the absence of complexity that people yearn for biography, people yearn for biography when faced with images of celebrity. Her recognizable self-portraits with the motifs of the conjoined brow, hair over the lip, the native dress, the hairstyle, and traditional jewelry, work well in an era of celebrity.

After disappearing from the mainstream art world, Kahlo was rediscovered by the feminists in the late 1970s. Soon after, Kahlo got a more popular audience through Hayden Herrera’s famous 1983 biography. Since then, an explosion of Kahlo-inspired films, plays, clothing, and jewelry have transformed the artist into a ‘veritable cult figure.’ (National Museum of Women in the Arts)

Exhibitions of her art, including one at SF MoMA, continue to propagate the part celebrity, part artist understanding of hers by blurring lines blurring lines between her personal life and her art. They do so by simultaneously exhibiting family photos, and details of her life. This all means that Kahlo today is more of a (pop) cultural statement than an artistic one.

Kahlo’s Art

Kahlo is a reasonably good painter. That is if you accept that her paintings will always carry marks of self-absorption, melodrama, and celebrity. In fact, her paintings are seen best with those afflictions. She is best when she captures the pathos and melodrama as she does in ‘The suicide of Dorothy Hale.’ The painting, drawn on commission from the dead girl’s dad, shows the girl falling from the building but always looking at the viewer, accusing. It is only occasionally that Kahlo is capable of moving beyond that limited oeuvre as she does with ‘Portrait of Dona Rosita Morillo’ where she presents an old matriarch with solemn respectability though with a strangely distracted expression.

A Novel Medium

4 Jul

The late capitalist novel or the latte novel

Post-nineties, a new novel has come into vogue, as is evident from the homage it regularly receives from reviewers at NY Times and other prominent publications, a novel full of superfluous pseudo-intelligent text. It is the novel by the smart aleck. A novel that is full of ‘accomplished’ froth which bubbles over the latte lifestyles and spills over in shape of words on Apple Macintosh screens in urban cafés. It is a novel that achieves nothing except provide passing entertainment to readers who are sure to chuckle at each of its clichéd witticisms and identify with each of its ‘cultural’ references.

It is a novel created by a novelist gamboling in the lush verdant fields of ‘self-absorption’ (Chaste’s partner) while pecking on the honeyed pleasures of his own intelligence, sophisticated ‘unconscious’ salesmanship, and the ‘insights’ that come from two-penny thinking. This novel, my dear sirs, and madams is an ode to you – you as in those who choose to read it. The novel will coddle you with its accessible pseudo-intelligent dialog, bring a smile via its accessible witticisms, allow you to share a wink through bankrupts ‘cultural’ references, and it will leave you flush with giddy thoughts. Isn’t pseudo-sophisticated witticism the epitome of culture? And aren’t you one of the chosen cultural savants, having been nursed at the breast of it.

Novel and the novelist

Every medium imposes its own limitations, strengths, and temptations, on those who choose to use it. The novel, due to its endless mutability, its loosely defined borders, its complete dependency on the novelist, provides enormous temptations to the novelists to indulge in self-absorption, unbridled subjectivism, and poorly thought out analysis. A novel is an intimate medium, and a fair number of authors use it to exorcise their own psychological traumas by imbuing one or more characters with their own psychological scars and exacting vengeance on their perceived perpetrators. A novel then becomes an exercise in validating oneself, reveling in the position of the ‘wronged’ character, and showing the depravity of the straw man ‘other’. Sometimes assigning blame for psychological trauma turns into a faux-sociological study leading to even more indefensible perversions. Chaste provides a wonderful example of the same in Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham- Philip Carey’s character is largely autobiographical with his club foot a substitute for Maugham’s stutter and closet homosexual status. Then there is Mildred, a common shop girl, who declines in status every time we meet her anew – from a struggling shop girl to a prostitute with syphilis. Chaste argues that Maugham uses Mildred’s debasement as a way to come to terms with the trauma that he had to suffer from at the hands of his peers. He transfers all of that angst onto a working-class girl than the middle-class women, at whose hands he most probably suffered. Hence while a novel is a mistake in the hands of a buffoon, it is more so in the hands of an unscrupulous but skilled novelist.

To produce a good novel, a writer not only needs to forgo the temptations, he needs to dig deeper into self with unblinking honesty and careful introspection. It demands a deeper understanding of self and the society to deliver that understanding through a novel. A good novelist is at once a good psychologist, sociologist, and anthropologist or at least one of them. The strength of the novel is in its ability to deliver a version of reality that simultaneously increases our understanding of the world around us, and makes us empathetic to the numerous psychological pitfalls that hem the human condition.


People often write because they can and not because they have something valuable to say. The increased ease of getting published, the fascination with seeing one’s name in print, all goad mediocre writers to publish and inflict their mediocrity on us. Of course, mediocrity, if it has certain attributes, is infinitely marketable to the undiscerning hordes. More disconcertingly however and as I mention above even the elite crack brigade of novels, as ordained by the reigning cognoscenti, is increasingly a thinly varnished version of the piddling.

Perhaps more than the end of the novel, the sensibility and the ethic which defined a great novel is coming to an end. And that is indeed sad.

Bijli, Sadak, Makaan: Art at the Crossroads of Infrastructure and Culture

25 Jun

The questions that Ashok Sukumaran asks of us are to the say the least, unusual. The way he asks them is more unusual still. Yet these are questions are uniquely applicable to India – especially an India that is in throes of globalization, and a technological revolution. Mr. Sukumaran through his art asks us to question the meaning of public and public space, the adequacy of current communication media, the meaning of being digital, and the role of art and the artist in helping pose and answer these questions.
Mr. Sukumaran is foremost an astute and nimble observer. He is also a precocious talent and an incisive questioner. He doesn’t practice art that is produced and hung in galleries and for the intellectual consumption of the cultural elites, who consume art for the singular purpose of negotiating their social and cultural status.

Mr. Sukumaran practices media art. In other words, he doesn’t limit himself to a medium; he uses whatever is necessary to convey a point or understand an idea. And often this means going outside museum or gallery spaces and on to the city street to answer (or pose) questions that can only be understood in the public realm.

In this recent recurrencies project, Mr. Sukumaran explores, via reconfigurations of urban electricity, “new and old ideas of equitability, exchange, pleasure, negotiation, and sociability.” In the installation, 14th-road: where we live, “a remote switch hangs from a tree across the road from [the artist’s] apartment, connected to the lights in [their] balcony”. Mr. Sukumaran uses this setup to see how public infers what this is, what is allowed and what isn’t. People who flick the switch, as the notes alongside reveal, are wary of the claims that artists make about ‘redistributing connections’; they ask questions about how the apparatus works, how much it costs, call to see if there is a “secret meaning” etc.

It is interesting to see how the social structures and expectations become exposed as the days progress. We get to see certain ‘street level epistemologies’ of meaning, authority, social relationships, and technology. When I asked Mr. Sukumaran whether he was concerned about the fact that some of his pieces had become public spectacles, he said no. In fact, he said, spectacle – mingled with the anxieties, expectations of authority, etc. that it invokes – is sometimes the perfect mechanism to explore the relationship between society and authority.

“Infrastructure is culture,” says Ashok Sukumaran while explaining how access to infrastructure comes to define what is possible within a society. There are two particular facets to how we can understand the impact of infrastructure – firstly society rations access to infrastructure in a way that is largely commensurate with its existing hierarchies and priorities, and secondly and more importantly infrastructure– be it electricity or telephone or the Internet – tampers with the existing social hierarchies, and creates its own. Infrastructure comes with its own command economies – be it the petty government Babu or the humble Chowkidar – society installs gatekeepers or gatekeepers emerge as society lays down mechanisms for distributing infrastructure. Infrastructure also signals what is permitted and what isn’t. It thus sets up norms of behavior and social conduct. There are a host of questions that Mr. Sukumaran brings to the table around this issues – how do we react when the norms are broken? Who creates these norms? How are these norms institutionalized and then propagated and socialized? What are the power structures that underpin these norms? How is infrastructure and access to it understood on the street – by the doodhwalla and the fruit juice operator and the Mumbai housewife? These are only a small set of questions that Mr. Sukumaran has been trying to answer. He has many more.

Ashok Sukumaran was born to a Japanese mother and an Indian father in 1974. Mr. Sukumaran spent his childhood in Shimla, the summer capital of the Raj which still hosts a somewhat eclectic, variegated set of people, according to Mr. Sukumaran. He describes his childhood as fairly normal, middle-class and “very dal-roti” except for some exposure to Japanese toys and electronics that his relatives sent from Japan. Mr. Sukumaran traces some of his fascination with technology to the access he had to these “smuggled” goods.

After finishing school, Sukumaran went on to study architecture at the prestigious School of Planning and Architecture in Delhi. A certain amount of architectural training is distinctly visible in his work. A fascination with form, color, and space are very much on display, but in a mode that is quite different from traditional design. After finishing up with SPA, Mr. Sukumaran worked for some time as an architect. He says that during this time he got to work closely with local mistris and artisans and found the experience unique and deeply satisfying. Mr. Sukumaran often collaborates with local electricians and decorators and finds it an integral part of producing his art.

In 2001, just before the 9/11 attacks, Mr. Sukumaran landed in the Los Angeles to study at the Department of Design|Media Arts at University of California, Los Angeles. Being in this politically charged and emotional moment was edifying in some ways, according to Mr. Sukumaran. After graduating from UCLA, Mr. Sukumaran worked at a variety of places including as the project director for NANO, “an exhibition that blended multiple scientific disciplines to explore the intersection of digital art and nanoscale science at LACMALab, Los Angeles.” He has also harvested a slew of prestigious residencies and awards including winning the first prize in the Universal Warning Sign Design Competition for his breathtakingly creative ‘Blue Yucca Ridge’ at Yucca Mountain, the first Sun Microsystems ‘ZeroOne’ residency, and the UNESCO Digital Arts Award for 2005 for his “poetic yet pragmatic” project SWITCH, a subset of the recurrencies.net project described above.

It is a testament to his ability that Mr. Sukumaran has managed to create an impressive body of work in the short span of about four years. Both the variety of questions he has dealt with and the techniques he has used to explore them are striking.

Mr. Sukumaran’s quest for answers to complex questions around society and technology has often extended into the digital realm. Mr. Sukumaran has tried to explore what it means to be digital. In particular, he questions the seemingly infinitely tensile, manipulability of the digital by exposing both the “hard chemical” and “soft social” processes that underpin the digital.

Mr. Sukumaran, to his credit, in spite of the success and accolades that he has received, continues to struggle with the role of art in society. He stridently believes in the importance of art and argues that art is one of the only places left where one can ask meta cross-disciplinary questions. Yet, he seems deeply perturbed by the commercial expropriation of art, and the Kuspitian notion that Contemporary art is merely busy with making clever commentary. To that end, Mr. Sukumaran has striven to distance himself from the commercial aspects of art and dispense with the elitist pretensions of art by deliberately choosing to raise his questions outside traditional venues, and forms.

Final Words

Contemporary Art would still live, defying Donald Kuspit, on the strength of artists like Mr. Sukumaran who produce art with self-conscious rigor and perceptive incisiveness. The hope is that such threads can make the much-abused Contemporary in art intellectually invigorating, fertile, and genuinely provocative.



Sun Microsystem’s page on the artist.

Interpretive Approaches in Art History

4 May

If social sciences have been sprinting breathlessly towards positivism, art history has been running, equally fast, away from it. Art history’s subjectivist turn can be traced back to postmodernism, and particularly hermeneutics and phenomenology, which pretty much gave immunity to virtually all kinds of interpretations–as long as they were not blatantly wrong in hard facts or flimsy with inconsistency and incoherence.

Art history concerns itself not only with intentions of art-making, but also acceptance and reception of artworks — audience’s reaction and understanding of artworks, which can veer far away from original intentions (if any) of the artist. When audience’s interpretations are sanctioned as legitimate, art historians argue what they feel might as well be what others perceive from the artworks they’re looking at, relaying the legitimacy to at times highly personal feelings.

Ruing the loss of the historical perspective in Art History

Richard Meyer is an engaging and impassioned speaker. While presenting, he regularly stops to regale the audience with one of his many endlessly entertaining stories based on astute observation. Meyer has been recently touring the lecture circuit giving his well-rehearsed lecture on “What was Contemporary Art?” His lecture is about many things — it is about the history of Contemporary Art, a lament against increasing ahistoricism in Art History, and how ahistoricism helps commercial expropriation of Contemporary Art by the culture industry.

Meyer’s historical argument, which is just based on three ‘events’: Alfred Barr’s art course in Wellesley College in the early 20th century, a Harvard dissertation by Roselyn Krause on David Smith in 1969, and the 2001 (pre 9/11) advertisement campaign for Museum of Contemporary Art in LA led by Chiat Dey – also ironically provides an unwitting expose’ of the rich but particularistic accounts that pass off as history in Art History. Meyer, arguing for historicism in art history, is quite oblivious to ethical norms for practicing history. Art historians look at history as a way they look at art – they look at it to interpret and find hidden tapestries. By doing this, they can always convey a point – though never a historically accurate one.

Perspectives from the End

Contemporary art is obsessed with making ‘clever clever’ comments, says Donald Kuspit in The End of Art. He argues that it is the loss of aesthetics, and Contemporary Art’s singular obsession with sham intellectualism, that is behind the decay. Art, according to Kuspit, should be like a religion. It should brook no dissent. It shouldn’t be a cultural tome over which the philistine poseurs negotiate their cultural identity and status.

Art’s Hubris and Art’s End

Only ethical practices can escape being subsumed from the oncoming onslaught of commercialism. Art History and criticism, which pride themselves in providing subjectivist approaches open to all distortions and all arguments, are fighting a losing battle. Artists have tried to fight by burrowing themselves in the anti-commercial ethic, but they have found repeatedly to their chagrin that commercialism and culture industries have made them cultural items. It is a losing battle because artists rely on the same cultural industries that they fight against. It doesn’t mean that ‘good’ art has nothing to say – it just means it will never have an impact beyond dinner table conversations.

Solutions Solutions
There are two ways to fight it — make Art a religion by bringing back focus on non-negotiable aesthetics (Kuspit), or spend time creating a normative framework for art, art history, and criticism.

Secret Loss in ‘Peach Blossom Land’

28 Mar

Secret Love In Peach Blossom Land is one of those plays that use comedy to comment on the tragic. Influential Taiwan based playwright Stan Lai (Lai Shengchuan), feted as “Asia’s Top Theater Director” (Asiaweek), masterfully amalgamates two plays with parallel storylines to create a multilayered, rich, and thought-provoking play about loss.

The play uses an inventive stratagem of two theatre groups mistakenly booking the same theater for rehearsal to mix two plays, ‘Secret Love’, a serious modern love story dealing with young lovers separated when the Communists take over China in 1949, and ‘Peach Blossom Land’, a fifth-century fable by the Chinese poet Tap Yuanming about a Utopia where all history is forgotten.

“The play begins with “Secret Love” as two young lovers, Jiang Binliu and Yun Zhifan bid each other a temporary farewell in a misty moonlit park in 1948 Shanghai. Images of war still torment Jiang — his homeland in northeast China has been devastated by the Japanese invasion — but Yun tries to persuade him to forget the past, brightly telling him, “A new China is on the way!” Fast-forward four decades and Jiang Binliu is an old man lying terminally ill in a Taipei hospital room as his devoted, but unloved, Taiwanese wife looks on. He is still brooding over the past, desperate to see Yun Zhifan, from whom he was separated after fleeing the Communist takeover of China in 1949, before he dies.

The second play, “Peach Blossom Land,” is a farcical interpretation of a well-known fifth-century story about a lost fisherman who stumbles into a utopian land filled with blossoming peach trees where all people live in harmony because they have no historical memory. In this version, however, the fisherman (played by Yu Entai) is a hapless, cuckolded husband, and the first people he meets in the mythical Peach Blossom Land look exactly like his wife (played by Xie Na) and her lover (performed by He Ling and Tian Yu on alternating nights). He gradually succumbs to their absurd utopian lifestyle — dressing in white, catching injured butterflies “to return to their mothers” and taking care to step lightly so as not to hurt the grass — but eventually leaves in the hope of persuading his estranged wife to return with him.

Forced to share the same stage, the directors and casts of “Secret Love” and “Peach Blossom Land” argue over who needs the rehearsal space more, critique each other’s performances, remove each other’s props, and ultimately divide the stage in half and perform at the same time. Through these shared scenes — the two plays slowly, almost magically, merge as their performers complete each other’s lines and common themes emerge. But, by play’s end when Jiang Binliu finally finds Yun Zhifan, who has been living in Taipei all along, the laughter gives way to sobs and the audience is left to contemplate the burdens of memory, history, longing and love — and the power of theater itself.” ()

The work showcases a keen understanding of both the history and the nature of the medium. Equally impressive is Lai’s ability to lay bare the medium in a manner that is vastly appealing and accessible. Aside from the wonderfully deft usage of comedy to highlight the serious and the political, the expert denouement of the craft of theater within a play is extremely powerful.

The division of the stage between the two stories is sort of a directorial coup that provides such a rich ground for analysis. The plays differ in the way they are handled – one with the high emotional tenor of a soap opera, and another a farcical lampoon. It parodies both the modern preoccupation with self and the brusqueness with which they discard history and its cliched folk tales. The parallel narration also allows one to see how old folklore lives side by side with contemporary stories, negotiating and creating an understanding of identity, longing, and loss.

The play can be seen as both a comment on Taiwan and its relationship with China and the post-communist Chinese and their relationship to their own history – both have become strangers to their own history though for different reasons. Taiwan, ever more pressured by US to make impossible purchases of weapons it will perhaps never use, has perhaps an American media dominated culture that turns away from its long history. And as the Chinese post-Cultural Revolution have been increasingly shepherded into the history-less present. It is in the Peach Blossom Land – happy but longing for history.

It doesn’t come as a surprise to me that the play was written by someone who had been in the US for some time. For being outside one’s own country allows one to look not only more objectively at his or her native country but also makes one more acutely aware of the cultural loss.

The usage of old folklore in theater reminds me of similar practice in contemporary artworks by people like Saira Wasim. But then again old stories have always found their way into contemporary reality as we still remain essentially the same psychological human beings.

In all it is a fascinating play that fully deserves the success it has seen. We hope Lai continues to –in Lai’s words- “provoke and delight” – for many more years!

Movie Review: Independent Intervention

21 Nov

General Tommy Franks described the media as the “fourth front” in his (Iraq) war plan, according to Danny Schechter, an award-winning journalist and documentary filmmaker.
What he meant by that was that winning the “media war” is an important part of winning the war in Iraq. Three years down the line with the US stuck in an ever-worsening situation, we all know what happens when governments win the media war and succumb to their hubris.

Independent Intervention, a documentary by Norwegian filmmaker Tonje Hessen Schei, is superficially an exploration of how the Iraq war was fought on the “fourth front” in US media. On a deeper level, it is a well crafted expose’ of the effects of media conglomeration on the style, topicality, and quality of news.

Schei begins her documentary with a series of heartrending images from Iraq, images that were never shown on mainstream American media. This initial sequence provides the preface to her documentary- the Iraq war shown on the television screens of Americans was a very different from the one being fought in Iraq. Schei, stuck by the jingoistic, bleached (of the horrors of war), video game like coverage of Iraq war in US mainstream media, explores the reasons behind how and why mainstream American media became a willing partner in government’s propaganda machine helping it wage the war for the hearts and minds of American public. Using footage from the war and interviews with people luminaries like Dr. Noam Chomsky, Amy Goodman, and others, Schei persuasively argues that a majority of what went wrong during media’s coverage of Iraq war can be traced to corporate media ownership.

The documentary does a stupendous job in tracing media’s coverage of Iraq war starting with the pre-war buildup by effectively using some well known statistics, for example about how during the two week period around which Colin Powell gave his speech at UN and during a time when more than half of the people opposed war, and– out of the 393 people who were interviewed on the four major nightly network newscasts – NBC, ABC, CBS and PBS only a meager 3% held antiwar views while a stunning 71% were pro war.

Independent Intervention is simply scintillating when it weaves snippets from local morning news shows to convey a point. It is jarring to see archival news footage of anti-war protests highlighting mundane inconveniences caused by protestors – “simply creating chaos during rush hour” or “protestors shut down the financial district in San Francisco” and sneeringly ignore to give time to explaining why protestors were against the war.

Independent Intervention explores how the merger of showbiz and “news biz” has had a damning impact on the way news is covered. In their effort to attract consumers, news shows have ramped up their production values to match those in entertainment. The ever-shrinking sound bite has limited what can be conveyed intelligibly to the audience and hence all that is complicated is left at the curb. So while reporting on the Iraq war, the ethnic complexities are left out.

Schei though is never is able to purposefully include some information in the documentary. For example, we are informed that five corporations – Vivendi, Disney, Time Warner, News Corp, Viacom -own eighty percent of media but yet are left in the dark about how and why it affects media coverage in the way it does. Perhaps the critique is implicit but it is limited to corporate control (economics fudging the news) and not to effects of agglomeration.

Media is an important institution for democracy – a tool through which we understand the world and the world understands us (Goodman). We need to keep the media free and independent for we need good unbiased and uncensored information for a functioning democracy. And lastly and perhaps most importantly, media should never be confused as a tool of war.

Overall, Independent Intervention can be seen as part of the genre of documentaries inspired by Michael Moore – a genre of unabashedly political documentaries with an agenda, but its wider message – that of the need for independent media – would be of interest to both liberals and conservatives.

The DVD of the film is available at http://www.independentintervention.com