Feeling young man

Published : Aug 18, 2001 00:00 IST

A close look at the work of a young Indian artist.

THE young painter Jitish Kallat is already a star in the Indian artworld: though he has been out of school for only five years or so now, his work draws praise from seasoned critics and curators, and it is sought out by the buyers who really matter (the ones with the extra inch of pocket). One might, in a moment of weakness, think that success in the market and on the exhibition circuit has followed upon success with the critics: since Kallat did get a fair deal of press when he came on the scene. But that is to get things backwards, very like; even if, as one enthusiast has it, his paintings "propose an empathy, an unselving attention towards others and the situations they inhabit" - and as such are said to provide "a salutary antidote to the tragic and all-too-widely prevalent delusion that the only significant pain is one's own". (The company of this moralist must be very improving; and our painter is no doubt a better man for knowing him.)

Kallat showed his newest painting in Bangalore recently, and the pictures reproduced here are all samples of that. On the day before the exhibition opened, he had shown slides of his earlier work as well; and he had talked his audience through the pictures by tagging the odd detail with anecdote and reminiscence, making the viewer privy to things he or she would not ordinarily come to know - but which nonetheless had to be known, it seemed, if the work were to be properly understood. We will look at something tagged this way later, after we have tried to get at a particular painting; let me note now that this sort of thing - artists 'elucidating' their work by linking details there to the detail of their personal lives - that seems to have become an artworld ritual.

ALL sorts of conclusion could be drawn at this point - about artworks as commodities with a particular sort of exchange value nowadays, about the sort of consumer that beholders of art have become, and so on - but that may be safely left to the reader so minded. What one should ask after, though, is how this 'personalising' might affect artworks formally: that is to say, how it might affect the means by which works of art come to embody meaning. That is too difficult a question to address here, but perhaps what gets said will suggest an answer.

Take a look at Morning at the Break of Yawn. The picture is large; and the way in which the different kinds of motif are scaled by the painting draws the eye up towards it. This 'drawing up' has a formal effect: the heaviness of the red ground, and a certain hardness in how the joined bodies are lit, together make one attend to the pun in title in a particular way. Colour and lighting begin to work the obviousness of that pun, one could say: and this will, one expects, finally work that obviousness into whatever meaning the picture might come to embody.

That might seem rather sudden; but such are the hazards of writing about visual art, and I can only hope the reader will bear with me. Things have been put so to leave open the possibility that the painting does not, in fact, succeed in embodying meaning; and there is a real chance of that. But we shall have to look long and rather closely to decide; and it may be best to begin by noting how certain words will be used to point our looking. (Let me also apologise for having, in what follows, put perfectly ordinary words between quote-marks: talking to any purpose here seemed to require the manoeuvre.)

There was talk just now of the painting scaling different kinds of motif. A 'motif' is a mark or a shape, or an aggregate of such, which seems, within a picture, to form a discrete whole - a visual 'unit' or 'element' - but only among and taken together with other such units or elements. A nice example here are the white ovals with the yellow centres in the upper part of our painting: each of these is a motif, and the thickish lines that branch to link them make the whole ensemble - of ovals and branching links - another motif (or two, in this case, if we take the ovals to be linked in two groups).

A motif may be an image: the complex shape forming the image of the Siamese twins here is one visual element among others, odd as it is to say so. It would be more natural now to talk of an area of the canvas which, because it is marked off from the rest of the surface, and is itself marked in a certain way, becomes an image; and one could regard motifs, similarly, as areas of the canvas which come at the eye whole and function as they do independently of other such.

But doing so seems to mask something important. Notice that the hands of the twins and their joining bellies mark off an area of our picture that does come to the eye as a discrete whole; but this area does not seem a visual element on a par with the linked ovals - and the shape which forms the image of the twins, and the close drawing which traces a city map, seemingly, across their joined torsos - as we try to understand the work sensuously: as we try, that is, to get at embodied meaning. There may be some point to keeping a term like "motif" then, and to thinking of motifs as visual elements that are constituted as such together, not individually, within a picture: awkward as the word is, and however much using it this way may occlude the ways in which paintings actually organise visual attention.

Motifs may be images, as we saw, but need not: though an image is a motif when seen as a shape - or a mark, or a group of such - apart from any possible referent. This is not to say that motifs are prior to images in the order of seeing: one need not see shapes or marks as motifs before seeing them as images, and in fact a shape (or a mark or a group of such) may become a motif - may become one among a set of elements mutually constituted as such - only by virtue of being an image. (So, for instance, certain marks on the image of the joined bodies here count as motifs because they refer, within the image, to anatomical details.)

Let us go back now to the business of getting at what meaning Morning at the Break of Yawn might embody. Consider again the white ovals with the yellow centres: taken by themselves these motifs could be seen - since Siamese twins have to be surgically separated if they are to survive - as images of boiled eggs sliced lengthwise in half. (The detail is shown adjacent to the larger picture. It might be more apt to talk of the eggs as cooked rather than boiled; and we might suppose the work to refer, in formally apposite ways, to cooking and gestation.) But the branching links between 'curtail' the presence these motifs gain as images, one might say, and - though the linking does not erase that presence - the reference to cooking and slicing becomes oddly disturbing now: and is not merely brutal, and clumsily obvious, as it would have been had the halved eggs simply appeared, without the interlinking, above the still-joined bodies of the twins.

We talked earlier of colour and lighting 'working' the obviousness of the title's pun (into, possibly, whatever meaning the work might succeed in embodying): the disturbance caused by the slicing of the eggs both inflects, and is itself inflected by, how this obviousness is 'worked'. We had, remember, left the beholder 'drawn up' to the painting; and we should take account of one feature which will press upon the eye now, as he or she tries to grasp the work sensuously. That feature is the conspicuous graining or 'scoring' - with fine, packed lines - of the image of the twins; and since this graining is something seen in almost all the painting that was shown, one can be sure that it is meant to do a lot of formal work.

The catalogue describes this graining as "scan-lines... suggestive of television or computer monitors". That refers our image in a general way to the mass media: and perhaps we could now describe the joined bodies of our Siamese twins as presences screened in some peculiar way through this reference to the mass media. I am trying to trade on the word "screened" here. Images of the body in popular film and television appear on a screen of course; but they can do so in ways that make bodies themselves singular presences (in the fictive worlds these mass media build, so to say) and if one thinks of this making singularly present as a 'screening' - as an augmenting and eliding, at once - of the actual bodies being filmed or televised, perhaps my describing the joined bodies in our picture as 'screened' presences will not seem gratuitous.

At any rate, the formal effect of what has been termed screening is to distance the beholder's body from the somatic enormity, let us call it, that Siamese twins present. I have put it just so to bring in, as a formal factor, the bodily reaction most of us would have to seeing Siamese twins in the flesh. This reaction, which could be regarded as a 'natural' one, would be 'damped' in particular ways, one could say, by seeing their joined bodies on film or on television; and it is damped in yet another way in this work (by the 'scan-lines' that as it were re-route the image through the mass media).

But damping is not all that goes on. The damped bodily reaction is itself modulated - and newly 'amplified' even - by just how the halved eggs disturb, and by how the heavy red of the ground and the hard lighting 'work' the obviousness of the title's pun; and the eye will attend in a new way now to the glitter around the halved eggs, the hint of metal in the paint here further complicating how the slicing of the eggs disturbs. (The glitter does not come through in our reproductions; but it is an appreciable formal factor.) All this should begin to make beholders of the work aware of their own bodies in some unusual way: and they will now look, one may suppose, to have the work augment that awareness into some specifically somatic attitude - toward something or other. I seem to be hedging my bets here, and I shall say why in a moment; let me first try to give some sense and point to the adjective "somatic" above. We have affective and cognitive attitudes to things; some of these attitudes may have a specific bodily or somatic dimension - aversion, for instance, or sexual attraction - and an aversion or attraction felt, bodily, in such a way as to suspend emotion and thought could be called a specifically somatic attitude.

The somatic attitudes works of art induce in their beholders are apt to be nuanced ones, of course, and not easily named; they need not be the residue of affective or cognitive attitudes, and perhaps they are always nascently such. At any rate, beholders of Morning at the Break of Yawn will - at some stage, because of how it addresses them as bodies - expect the work to induce in them some special somatic attitude. But, and this is a delicate point, the beholder may not know the precise 'object' of an attitude - may not know just what he or she is being particularly directed to - before the attitude has been induced. Attitude and 'object' can constitute each other through works of art, and may do so in very surprising ways; that is one reason we value artworks - or used to, at least - and why it was tempting once to talk of the arts as, in Nelson Goodman's striking phrase, ways of worldmaking.

Now one could, I suppose, try to specify beforehand some 'object' for the somatic attitude one expects Morning at the Break of Yawn to induce. But my guess is that the work will not succeed in inducing a coherent attitude toward any interesting 'object' one might antecedently specify: this is why I was hedging above. Moreover, though the work addresses the body in definite ways, it does not organise our bodily response in a way that will allow any specific somatic attitude and corresponding 'object' to constitute themselves mutually through it: and this is why the work fails, finally, to embody meaning.

ONE should try to give some reason for this failure; and we do not have to look too far for that. Nothing much has been said about what has been drawn over and across the joined bodies of the Siamese twins. The catalogue identifies this as "a section of an urban map"; and I had earlier described the drawing as seeming to trace out a city-map. There is good reason to be more circumspect now, though, and to begin by talking only of a drawn motif that refers itself to city-maps. In the reproduction here the drawing does not come out at the eye quite as much as it actually does, when we have been 'drawn up' to the picture; and the way it does come at the eye then - in the 'screened' presence of the twins, and the 'curtailed' presence of the sliced eggs - that makes this drawn motif both a map and a generic image of one.

One can safely say this is because maps form a very loose class. The rough diagram drawn to direct someone from one street to another is as much a map as the urban planner's most detailed bit of cartography. Now, that our motif is both a 'handmade' map, so to say, and a generic image of a 'readymade' map - whose precision does not at all depend on the kinds of control the drawing hand can achieve - that is ultimately a social fact, arising from how the technology of visual representation, as it develops through the last 500 years or so, has in fact penetrated daily life: the drawn motif is at once diagram and image because of how the means of representation have made us, collectively, the sorts of makers and users of visual representations that we daily are.

That it is an image as well, and in just this way, endows the map with its own kind of presence. But that presence does not sort well with the 'screened' presence of the Siamese twins: because that 'screening', though it depends on the complexity of the notion of an image, does not depend at all on the distinction between a diagram and an image. (The painter seems to have been aware of the problem: and tried to evade it by colouring in a certain way the water-body in the map, at lower left, and by aligning that with the torso of the twin to the left.) The formal difficulty created by these incongruous kinds of presence is compounded by the halved and linked eggs. There, as we saw, the presence the motifs had gained as images of sliced eggs was 'curtailed' by the interlinking; this 'curtailed' presence does not sort well, either, with the kind of presence the map has; and, moreover, the fact that the sliced and linked eggs make a motif that is neither a diagram nor an image threatens, now, to dissociate their 'curtailed' presence from the 'screened' presence of the twins. (For instance, the eye now balks - as it first did not - at the texture of the yolks where the sliced eggs lie over the hands.)

All told, the picture does not coordinate the various kinds of presence its motifs come to have: it does not properly 'stage' its presences, one might say, in the peculiar 'atmosphere' resulting from how colour and lighting 'work' the pun in its title. That is why the work fails to induce in us any somatic attitude - toward any suitable 'object' - and so fails, to say it again, to embody meaning. Not too long ago this failure to embody meaning might have been pronounced a deliberate frustrating of expectation (and taken for a guarantee that what we have before us is a work of art: because artworks were supposed to frustrate any and all expectations.) But embodying meaning - however loosely or tightly one construes the phrase - is a minimal condition of being a work of art: it is not merely one among the many conventions that govern expectation, and a work that fails to embody meaning fails, thereby, to be a work of art (whether or not it is taken for one.)

We have been considering Morning at the Break of Yawn all by itself, without looking at the painting that appeared alongside: perhaps the picture should be seen as one of a particular set of pictures - which together make up a work - and it may turn out then that what we took for flaws are actually virtues. (It might seem a problem now that the pictures are presented as individual works, and offered to prospective buyers as such: but perhaps the collectors of Kallat's painting form a joint-stock company.)

Nothing in the way the pictures were hung in the gallery suggested how Morning at the Break of Yawn was to be so supplemented: but maybe the writing in the catalogue will help show how. The essay there is titled Metaphors for the Metropolis, and it was written by the poet and critic Ranjit Hoskote. Kallat's painting takes the form "of an investigation into the psychological architecture of the individual in the metropolis", we are first told; and "since the west-coast urban sprawl of Bombay forms Kallat's habitat, it should come as no surprise", we discover, that

"he offers his viewers an intimate, first-hand survey of the tactics that the imagination adopts in order to survive metropolitan experience."

A precis of these tactics follows, and then we find the large claim that

"in Kallat's paintings the external reality of overcrowded local trains, bus queues, sagging power-lines and roads permanently under construction is held in check by an inner reality of sylvan ancestries and cybernetic futures that is signified through the DNA double-helix, the isometric projection of the ancestral home, the positioning of the self as a taut figure sculpted into a posture of readiness drawn from the martial-arts movie" (emphasis added).

Oddly enough, the catalogue does not reproduce any of the painting this passage alludes to (and our reproductions all come from the catalogue). Some of the devices there do draw attention: for instance, the hunched figure of the artist himself lifting an outsize stretch of de-oxy ribonucleic acid or DNA (seemingly) whose strands are as thick as ropes. This image takes up most of the picture it appears in, and so arrests the eye: but the formal gambit so made is only defeated by the small image of railroad tracks set by (above the figure's left shoulder. Observing that an untwisted stretch of DNA looks like railroad tracks might recommend a child to the drawing teacher: but it does no credit to a grown painter.)

Let us look at how Hoskote fits Morning at the Break of Yawn into the 'programme' he has found in the show as a whole. "The metropolis is evoked", he says, "in the section of an urban map laid over the Siamese twins"; and then we are told that "the many-branched neural tree that covers another area of this painting suggests a conflict between the formal certitudes of the urban plan and the random unpredictabilities of human activity". Hoskote sees a 'neural tree' in our motif of interlinked white ovals with yellow centres, and his description simply ignores how these ovals look; but let that stand. (Talking of 'neural trees' just might get us over the formal problem of the motif seeming to be neither an image nor a diagram.) Let us grant, even, that the 'neural tree' and 'the section of an urban map' together suggest the conflict Hoskote points to: rather than recall to mind merely - if they do even that - something we are already aware of.

The difficulty now is a logical one. If 'neural tree' and 'urban map' actively suggest the conflict between 'the formal certitudes of the urban plan and the random unpredictabilities of human activity - if these motifs do make us newly aware of that conflict - how, then, does 'inner reality' here hold in check the 'external reality' Hoskote has described ? It seems proper to ask, since the urban problems Hoskote lists do seem examples of how 'the unpredictabilities of human activity' in a city might defeat the urban planners 'formal certitudes': but nothing we see in the painting will help answer the question.

One cannot, actually, see how Morning at the Break of Yawn offers any 'intimate, first-hand survey' of whatever tactics 'the imagination adopts in order to survive metropolitan experience': and if that can be said of any other work, what Hoskote has to say will not make the claim good. Consider, for instance, what he sees in Departure (Status-boarding): Hoskote has the figure "crouching on his haunches in a pool formed by his own shadow, covering his bowed head with his hands as though to ward off a whip or the sun". A picture that made warding off the sun seem anything like warding off a whip might be worth looking at: but Hoskote's "or" refers the figure's posture to actions which the painting itself does not in any way bring together (and merely referring the posture to different orders of action cannot be a tactic that helps the imagination survive experience.)

One could go on pointing at how the writing in the catalogue fails to get at how meaning might be embodied (when the pictures succeed in doing so); but the condition of writing about visual art now is generally such that these sorts of interpretive failure do not surprise. All sorts of reasons could be adduced for this state of affairs; let me point out one concomitant confusion.

Visual artists may themselves 'survive metropolitan experience' in singular ways now - perhaps cities today subject artistic imagination to peculiar sorts of stress - and their work may enact, or manifest, or record in some oblique way, how they have done so: but the fact of surviving will not, by itself, ensure that the work will enact or manifest or record that survival. So, it may be that Kallat survives his experience of Mumbai because 'external reality' is held in check by 'inner reality' in his head; but just that will not enable one sort of 'reality' to hold in check another sort in his painting.

What masks the confusion here - of ascribing something to an artwork merely because that thing can be ascribed to its maker - may be the ritual of 'personalising' that was mentioned earlier. This habit may only obscure how the embodiment of meaning is constrained by social facts: and the way Morning at the Break of Yawn was looked at above should have suggested, at least, how and why that happens. We had begun by asking how the 'personalising' of artworks - the business of linking details in the work to the detail of personal lives - might affect the embodiment of meaning; let us now look at one such detail in Morning at the Break of Yawn.

Expending so many words on a flawed work - on a painting that fails, apparently, to be a work of art - might seem perverse. But the exercise has some point because Kallat is so successful, and is made so much of by those who matter in the Indian artworld. (The bit of text quoted at the very beginning was Hoskote's praise; it comes from the catalogue. One finds listed there the 30 or so shows Kallat has had in the last five years, both in India and abroad; and that list does not include his showing at the recent Century City at the Tate Modern in London, in the section titled Bombay/Mumbai, which was curated by Geeta Kapur and Ashish Rajadhyaksha.)

Why artworlds have come to be the way they now are is an intriguing question. The philosopher Arthur Danto, in the course of giving an ameliorating answer, suggests that artworlds have achieved a state of perfect aesthetic entropy - though "achieved" may not be quite the right word - where works of art can be anything that artists and patrons want them to be (provided they embody meaning: this is the condition Danto insists on, actually, and he doesn't think that something is a work of art merely because it is taken for one). On Danto's telling this entropic state is the natural outcome of the actual development of the visual arts, and it makes for a perfect and 'post-historical' freedom. That might seem a good thing altogether: until one asks just what artists and patrons may be capable, now, of actually wanting.

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