Big Bong Theory: Abir Karmakar and Hemali Bhuta

Quite frankly, I haven’t felt so uninspired to write in ages. But a columnist has to do what a columnist has to do. So here’s the rambly version of the Big Bong Theory column that was published in today’s DNA. To see images from Hemali Bhuta’s show, see Project 88.

Reality Bites Into Contemporary Art

Artists, it is believed, have their heads in clouds. Steeped in a personal universe of influences and ideas, the artist’s world draws from our reality sometimes, but as far as popular belief goes, artists live on their own planet. And if contemporary art is any indication, what comes from that planet is weird and rarely related to what we recognise as reality. Sometimes they’re fanciful and even when they relate to everyday events or objects, it’s usually believed art transforms them and so creates a distance between the source material and the creative work. I’m not so sure about this. Of course there are artists whose work acts like a retreat from reality, and they’re often a sight for sore eyes. But more often than not, I find art (and contemporary art, in particular) isn’t divorced from the world in which it is shown. It just falls upon the viewer to weave the spiderweb that connects what’s in the gallery to what’s going in and around us.

Take Hemali Bhuta’s Point-Shift and Quoted Objects, for instance. If you thought the title was strange, imagine walking into the art gallery Project 88 in Mumbai and seeing what looks like a massive slab of concrete (titled “Folded Line”). The exhibition has made the gallery look vaguely like an incomplete construction site. But everything is an illusion in Bhuta’s new show. “Folded Line” isn’t a sculpture made of concrete. It’s made of alum, the humble water purifier of many a household.

The strange, minimalist works in Bhuta’s new show have their beginnings in a simple feeling: homesickness. Bhuta has spent much of the past three years travelling and, as the note accompanying her show informs us, during this time, she yearned “for the simplicities of domestic life in India”. This was her inspiration – memories of home, the space created and nurtured by women.

Femininity is a volatile idea in India right now. So many of us are outraged and disgusted by the crimes inflicted upon women. Attacks like the one that has left a Delhi medical student in ICU make us as a country feel weak, fragile and helpless. These horrible incidents taunt us and raise the question of what it means to be a woman in India today. Are we vulnerable, as the cases of rape and sexual harassment suggest? Or are we resilient, as the age-old stories of womanly fortitude and suffering preach?

Bhuta’s art shows this old conundrum in a modern light. All the objects that look solid are actually riddled with pressure points. The sculpture that looks like a lance and stretches martially across a wall is actually made of beeswax. The works that look like architectural supports could actually snap easily. The massive triangular sculptural installation looks like a monolith but is actually made of 12 pieces of plaster of paris. The column, made of graphite, has a gash in the middle, making its strength look dubious.

Look carefully at Bhuta’s show and nothing is what it seems. Every single artwork in Point-Shift and Quoted Objects is delicate, prone to crumbling. If as a buyer you ask the gallery what the longevity of these works should be — one of the reasons oil paintings are valued so highly is that they’re known to last for centuries — there’s no answer. That’s how novel the territory of Bhuta’s art is. There is no precedence for these works so no one can prophesy how long Point-Shift and Quoted Objects will last. They’re like today’s feminism — it’s up to the men and women of this generation to decide how resilient or fragile it will be.

Vulnerability appears much more obviously in Abir Karmakar’s new exhibition, Room, Interrupted in Passage. This new set of works is a departure from Karmakar’s established style in many ways. The paintings are small, which is a dramatic change from Karmakar’s older paintings which spread across walls like portals into sensual but unsettling worlds. This time, however, Karmakar has chosen to paint vignettes. The series is titled “Porno Paintings” and if you’ve seen Karmakar’s earlier work, you’ll expect to see Karmakar striking suggestive poses in the paintings. But “Porno Paintings” have no people in them; they’re just haunted by human presences whose imprint can be seen in crushed bed sheets, television sets that haven’t been switched off and windows that have been left half-open. Emptied of people, they seem unnatural. They’re vaguely reminiscent of crime scenes and also of the hotel rooms that Karmakar had shown in the show titled Within the Walls. It too had hotel rooms, but they had Karmakar in them. Naked and long-haired, Karmakar offered himself to the viewer, sometimes shyly and at other times, brazenly. In one painting, he lay curled at the foot of a sofa, as though rejected. To see hotel rooms again, but this time with no Karmakar, you can’t help but feel anxious as you remember how the man had offered himself so boldly in the older paintings. Also, don’t forget the title of the exhibition – Room, Interrupted in Passage. What was interrupted and what was the interruption that emptied the rooms of inhabitants?

Room, Interrupted in Passage is also uncharacteristic because Karmakar has not appeared in the show. There are figures in the show, but they are other people who have been chosen as models and actors. You may think that “Shadows of Distressing Dreams” shows images of Karmakar lying in bed, but there are actually four men and one women who have no connection to Karmakar beyond this work. This work and “A Long Whisper” are unusual for another reason: they’re not paintings. For most of us, it’s the first time we’re seeing Karmakar try his hand at installations.

“Shadows of Distressing Dreams” shows layered moving images projected on a white background that hangs like a laundered bed sheet on a washing line (look and you’ll notice clothespins have been used to hang the work). Karmakar set up cameras to film how four people slept. They’re all nude and Karmakar has used different transparencies to create a shifting, writhing set of images that show these people at their most vulnerable. Their sleep is fitful and they have no idea of how they’re exposing themselves – often literally – and so rendering themselves vulnerable. Watching the people and their fitful sleep, you wonder about their dreams and innocuous actions become suspect – what are they seeing that makes them twitch, cup their genitalia, clench their fists? The men come across as particularly vulnerable as they play with their genitalia like sleeping babies.

As you watch the sleeping male figures, it seems almost ludicrous that people like the ones you’re watching – helpless, unthreatening, exposed – can be tormentors when they’re awake.

Masculinity has been a disturbing and complicated terrain for Karmakar. Being a man and the baggage that comes with it has long troubled the figures in Karmakar’s art. His vision of masculinity is starkly different from the aggressive brutality that characterises the stereotypical Indian man, particularly like the ones who have been accused of gang-raping a woman on a moving bus in Delhi.

Here’s how current affairs makes art relevant and more poignant. Karmakar’s “A long whisper” shows a shadow of a male figure projected on a flimsy, gauzy curtain. The curtain hangs from a doorway and if you look down, you’ll see the base of the arch has the mosaic that is often seen as flooring in middle-class homes. The projection shows a tentative figure that hovers like a nervous wraith. All you see on the curtain is the outline of the male figure that becomes darker and sharper in its silhouette, as though the person has come closer and closer, until they’re on the other side; waiting. Despite the fact that Karmakar probably didn’t intend this, the shadowy man in “A Long Whisper” looks like a voyeur, peering through the curtain, watching the women on the other side of the purdah.

Meanwhile, Bhuta’s sculptures  perfectly-straight lines look terribly prone to breaking the moment you know how fragile the raw material is and I, for one, can’t help looking at the hollow, broken works like the pillar made of graphite — touch it, and it will stain your hand like black blood — and remember the woman who is fighting for her life in a hospital in Delhi. Say a prayer and let’s hope next year, the life reflected in art is more hopeful.

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