Return of the Surreal

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Return of the Surreal:
Works of Art during the Age of Entertainment Politics

By: JohnyML

Politics has always played a crucial role in the development of art. During the modern period art’s engagement with politics had become all the more pronounced. Artists translated the socio-political happenings in and through certain visual idioms that could function both as analytical tools and resistant methodologies. Detached from the quotidian struggles, these art forms could address and intervene (in) the ideological constructs of the society from an elevated platform of informed aesthetics and history. Politics then had been understood as a palpable reality, where distinct units of its formation could have been identified and critiqued. Socio-cultural metaphors brought forth by the artists could go directly into the minds of people as the real politics played a visible role in the lives of the people. Discernable ideologies and hegemonies that structured the society in a way imparted a sense of reality to the people.


The collapsing of reality (into the virtual and the hyper) demarcates the modern times from our contemporary times. Reality, in our times, is understood as a phenomenon that is mediated through and by multiple filters and parameters. Destabilization of the immediate and palpable results in the constant displacement of meaning, forcing the experiential into a chain of apprehensions. Pervasive technologies, while facilitating the man with a sense of abundant freedom, fasten him into the stables of insecurity and anxiety. Politics, hierarchies, hegemonies, ideologies that once played a direct role in the lives of people seem disintegrated in the locations of abundant freedom, while they tighten up the claws through various ways of cultural formations. Of late politics has been replaced by entertainment. Or in other words, politics has become a form of entertainment, like a combat is acted out in a real time video game player.


What would happen to artists when politics transforms itself into an omnipresent and pervasive form of entertainment? How do, then, artists engage themselves with the deeper issues of life? When politics deconstructs itself into an apparent anti-hegemonic and culturally democratic notion, how do the artists resist and critique its surreptitious manifestations of subjugation? What could be an apt language that could express the trepidations of the artists? It is said that when a society starts believing that it has solved its perennial problems, a kitschy and hyper-real art language can make its presence felt in a predominant way. Hyper-real art, which came to us in the guise of mediatic realism, is now seen and interpreted as something that misunderstood the surreptitious political maneuverings for a ‘problems over’ condition. Though generally this is the case, those hyper real artists who tried to infuse political critique in their works of art, did it with the verve of the surrealists.


Surrealism is an antidote to the venom of hyper realism. Though, art historically speaking, the death of Surrealism was announced in the year of 1941, with the advent of high modernism (or the advent of international abstractionism), this art lingua has always been one of the critical fronts that stood firmly against any kind of ideological hegemonies. Notwithstanding the fact that the Surrealists themselves had hierarchical problems during the first half of the last century, the surrealist language, with its emphasis on the subconscious feelings, could expose the ills of the society. The psycho-somatic meanderings of the artists became the overt metaphors of the social psychosis. In this sense surrealist language at once appears as an innocent and strategic visual language.


As far as the Indian contemporary art scene is concerned, the caravan of mediatic realism has now gone to the horizons. Through the curtain of dust we can see a few foot soldiers still trying to hold the fort of mediatic realism. They are not going to last for Surrealism has done everything for seizing the fort. When there are no direct enemies, or when the enemies appear before you as friends, the only way to cajole them is to resort to the tactics of surrealism because it is the utterance of the subconscious. Though it looks funny, eerie and hopeless, in the final count they bespeak of truth. The tortured and perturbed subconscious speaks only truth. Young artists, despite their assured future success, are perturbed souls. They want to speak out the truth. They do it through their strategic surrealist language.


This explains why most of the talented young artists in India resort to the surrealist language. They do not belong to the Automatists Group or the Veristic Group. They are surreal expressionists. The fourteen artists presented in this group show also present their conscience and tackle the ungraspable political problems through the surrealist language. They neither belong to the same locale nor do they come from the same academy. Despite their varied paths of training, eventually they have to come to a language, which is surrealist, but does not confirm with the academic notions of surrealism.


Most of the works done by Anil Kumar, address the issue of human progress in scientific and technological terms. A huge pipe line coming out of an industrial landscape suddenly transforms itself into a bugle. Meanwhile, in the foreground, one could see an excavation sight, where the various layers of earth stand in for an organic progression of life. The incongruous images find their own kind of harmony in a surrealistic atmosphere. Benitha Perciyal places her self portrait against picturesque backdrops. She presents the protagonist in unfinished forms, which demand fulfilling from the onlooker. Though not overtly political in her concerns, Benitha reclaims the space of the woman through her works.


The faceless protagonists of Bhagat occupy the pictorial format completely. In this act of occupation, his body (as represented) becomes a medium and backdrop for other beings to assert their existence. The physiological and psychological extensions happening in Bhagat’s works defy reality and take the onlooker to an ethereal plane of thoughts. Lokesh Khodke represents simple and quotidian objects in his works. A table top comes to be seen as the surface of the earth itself. Patterned lines grow into a mesh that entraps the flowers fallen from the vase. The absence of human presence makes it rather eerie. Lochan Upadhyay’s dark doors open to completely lit rooms or exteriors that are blinded by light. The precarious feeling that one gets while looking at the predominant black suddenly gets erased by the seeping in of light. The sudden appearance of objects in the pictorial format catches the viewer unaware.


G.Mahesh portrays the lives of ordinary people in the street. But the view is always from an elevated position. However, this advantage view does not suggest high philosophical statements of the artist. He looks at life rather playfully, tinged with a sense of eroticism. He looks at the world as if through the eyes of a boy. Mahesh Baliga, on the contrary seems to be more philosophical in his renderings. Two people from nowhere suddenly start painting a fence in a green void. This conjuration of ghostly figures comes again and again in his works. A man looks at a tree from three different views and appears in acrobatic movements simultaneously. His is an inverted world, or an inverted world view.


The creative world of Piyali Ghosh is inhabited by mutant creatures. Human beings turn into beasts and they confront each other against the backdrop of a colorful deluge. Piyali moves away from the quotidian world and creates an imaginary world where the conjured up creatures could express her anxieties of existence. In the meanwhile, Reji Arakkal has a playful way of treating his pictorial surface. Finished to an utter perfection, Reji Arakkal’s characters look like ballooned beings about burst. They simultaneously sport the sturdiness of metallic figures and the softness of the cushioned up bodies. Though the images are culled up from the day to day life, through the artistic mediation they are transported to a hallucinatory world where the human avarice, rebellion and other feelings are accentuated with mockery and pun.


Shefalee Jain’s pictorial expressions herald freedom and bondage at the same time. In some of her works, objects are placed in mesh like encasements that exude a sense of claustrophobia. While in many other works, she creates a pastoral world limited by urban expansionism, where ferocious and docile animals play hide and seek. The suggestive appearances of animals in her works create a sinister world, which lies beyond the comprehension of the conscious mind. Simplicity that reminds the works of the Chinese and Japanese scroll painters resonates in the works of Siji. She translates the complexity of the urban existence into a pastoral language. A landscape without landmarks permeates the imagination of the artist.


Inversion and juxtaposition are two techniques that the Surrealists had abundantly used in the last century. Using these techniques, they facilitated the generation of unpremeditated meanings out of unmatched images or objects. Swapna Biswas too, in her works uses the strategies of inversion and juxtaposition in a personalized sense in order to establish her feminine existence in the current cultural discourse. She portrays herself along with the image of a tiger, which is seen inverted quite often. The tiger and the protagonist interchange their sensibilities and traits in an attempt to define the ‘other’. Her recourse to surrealism is aesthetically and philosophically informed.


Though they have similar names, the works of Sujith SN and Sujith KS differ considerably. Preoccupied with the definitive roles that the urban and rural architectures play in human lives, Sujith SN paints urban-scapes. Arranged in multiple perspectives, objects and architectural edifices create a dynamics of their own in these works. The throb of Eros is visible in Sujith SN’s works as they sometimes transform into abstract erotic organs. Meanwhile, Sujith KS has a different path to pursue. He creates a dreamland where the local flora and fauna disguise themselves as fairy tale creatures. These kitschy and surreal creatures are seen involved in act of eating, an alternative to copulation. The charged erotic feeling is further accentuated by the human figures, who are seen adoring (themselves and the phallic lethal weapons). The critique on politics is skillfully and playfully done in the works of Sujith KS. When politics becomes entertainment, it is quite natural too see entertainment turning in to politics. But in the contemporary works of art, as seen in this show, often it happens in a surreal plane and that is the only outlet for the time being our artists are left with to give vent to their socio-political thinking.
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