Art review: Glimpse of Thirst

It’s been a while since I reviewed a show (formally, I mean). This is my take on Shine Shivan’s latest show, Glimpse of Thirst, which was carried in this week’s Tehelka. It’s here. I’m rather chuffed I managed to sneak muppets into a proper art review. Go me!

It has some potentially objectionable…images. Like a man masturbating in a forest. If you are one of those inclined to be offended don’t click above link and don’t look at the phone-photos below.

The rest of you may proceed. I’ve pasted the text of my review below the photos.

THE FIRST time the Indian art world saw Shine Shivan, it was in a 2009 series of photographs titled Sperm Weaver and he was wearing a white, frothy wedding dress. On one occasion, it seemed to drape down the bark of a tree, like the beanstalk that Jack climbed in the fairytale. Instead of Jack, it was a naked Shivan climbing the tree in the photograph and, because it was taken from below, his magic beans were proudly and unmistakably on display.

There were a few things a viewer could glean from that debut show: Shivan’s art seeks to disturb the viewer and he likes dresses. These have remained constants in his work. In every show since Sperm Weaver, which established Shivan as one of Indian contemporary art’s most promising artists, he has tried to up the ante. The imagery has got increasingly more graphic. The undercurrent of violence in his early works has turned into obvious brutality. A Shine Shivan show isn’t simply about viewing art. It’s like getting into a staring contest with the artwork. This is a particularly apt description of Glimpse of Thirst, Shivan’s most recent show, because of how many lidless eyeballs you encounter the moment you enter the gallery.

Glimpse of Thirst is made up of a wardrobe’s worth of unwearable dresses and jackets, ghoulish dolls, a video and a couple of installations that could perhaps be described as sculptural. The massive space of Gallery Maskara (it was once a warehouse) is crowded by dresses and installations. A video is tucked away, at the back of the gallery and behind a sign that warns the viewer of adult content. To reach it, you must make your way through Shivan’s gory dolls’ house. Every work in Glimpse of Thirst is desperate to grab your attention. Perhaps the most muted piece is the massive pile of electric pink hair-like strands vaguely reminiscent of Mr Snuffleupagus from Sesame Street. Like the muppet, and despite its colour and size, this installation maintains a low profile. Unlike the muppet, it’s entirely forgettable.

The moment you enter the exhibition space, it feels as though you’re faced with an army of snazzily-dressed zombies. Lidless eyes stare at you from heads that have brutally-rearranged bone structures. Eyeballs adorn jackets. Dentures, parted or taken apart, catch the light and make the face seem like it’s mid-scream. Viewers of delicate dispositions may go all out with their own screams, given the macabre elements in Glimpse of Thirst. Teeth cluster over the side of a face, marbles made to look like eyeballs stare out of jackets. One sculptural work, made mostly of fabric, has something that looks like a half-formed foetus. The goriest of them all is a hanging installation, made out of artificial hair, doll heads, feathers and fake skeletal bones. Blood-red paint coats most of this installation. Under it, on a wooden board, is a hunched skeletal form.

Gender is a shifting, uncomfortable business in Shivan’s works and Glimpse of Thirst suggests we construct our gender identity by cobbling together elements from different experiences and sources. Consequently, the idea of the man or the woman is a Frankenstein’s monster, much like the characters and outfits Shivan has created for the show.

Ever since Sperm Weaver, Shivan’s work has suggested a complicated and uncomfortable view of femininity.Glimpse of Thirst reiterates this old theme. The dresses are opulent and flamboyant, but they’re not beautiful. They reek of violence and are extremely menacing. In Shivan’s work, the feminine is not maternal but murderous, wearing phalluses like plumage and stringing up bloody skulls. In comparison, the masculine is the one that tries to nurture, and so Shivan has a pregnant man and comparatively tender images of men making love. Although most of the show uses black elements, Shivan has used rich colours — like red, pink and yellow — as accents. There’s grandeur and opulence in his horror-couture creations. Come up close and you’ll see there’s an explosion of detailing: sequins, mirrors, stitches, appliqué, quilting, fur trimmings, beadwork, embroidery, penis-shaped appendages, marbles, a used shoe, skeletal bones, fake hair, cement, feathers and goat hooves.

Perhaps the most elegant-looking piece is ‘Second Hand Pepe II’, which is a gown, complete with a fitted, corsetlike top and a flouncy skirt. The top, however, is open and you can see a spinal column, white and gleaming in the light, emerge from the darkness of the fabric. ‘Second Hand Pepe II’ is suspended from the ceiling and circles slowly, at the same spot. It’s a haunting sight.

After all this carnivalesque gore, the video with its muted greens feels like a relief initially. Set in a fog-obscured forest, it begins with a naked Shivan who is seen preening and parading himself (and his visible erection) rather aimlessly. After striking a few elegant poses, he begins masturbating and this becomes an increasingly frenetic activity. Shivan scampers around the forest, his face pinched with concentration and discomfort. He presses against a tree, almost squats, leans back, runs away, comes close; all the while persevering with the task in hand. At times, it seems like Shivan is trying to avoid the viewer’s gaze. Yet, there are moments when he walks up to the camera (and consequently, the viewer gets an eyeful). By this time, the video is anything but soothing and it’s worth wondering why Shivan felt the art world needed to know what he’d look like if he masturbated in a forest.

WHEN SHIVAN made his debut, it wasn’t just the provocative nature of his work and his willingness to make an exhibition of himself that drew people’s attention. The sophistication with which he layered stories and ideas into his works, and the way he used material unconventionally suggested here was an artist who could create a sensation. His work was simultaneously bold and coy. It commanded attention because of how accomplished and clever Shivan’s technique was, and because the ideas in his work lingered with the viewer.

While the technical aspects of Shivan’s work remain as strong — whether it’s taxidermy or stitching or sculpture, he does a commendable job — the determination to be disturbing is steadily robbing his work of depth, subtlety and novelty. This was evident in his last show, Suck Spit, which tried to shock viewers by using faeces and marrying his ‘post-feminism’ with crude puns (like “Cock Dump”) in the titles. Glimpse of Thirst slides further down that slippery slope. It isn’t just that Shivan persists with themes that have reappeared in every show, but that he has relied almost entirely on shock value. Garishly red blood, skeletons and skulls are ploys used by low-budget horror flicks and TV serials. When an artist uses such devices, one expects something insightful or a clever take that seems novel. Glimpse of Thirst, teetering between disingenuous and self-indulgent, is neither.

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