Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Rashid Rana 2, 2012

Rashid Rana's mid-career retrospective titled Labyrinth of Reflections opened at Karachi's Mohatta Palace Museum earlier this week. This is a profile I wrote for the inaugural issue of IQ: India Quarterly, based on an interview with Rashid conducted in late April 2012. Both the magazine launch and the show were originally scheduled for September 2012; but the publication was delayed by two months, and the show by over six. This profile is best read alongside an earlier essay, also available on this blog, which focuses on Rashid's artistic development without including too many biographical details. I've also written a more theoretical piece for a monograph accompanying the Karachi show, which is probably hugely expensive. There were minor changes made to this piece in the final edit which are not reflected in the version I'm uploading.

 Up Close and Impersonal

 It’s a mirror. It is a skyline dominated by high rises. It is thousands of tiny images of Lahore’s streets. Rashid Rana’s Desperately Seeking Paradise II is all of these things; its nature shifts with the viewer’s perspective.  The sculpture is a massive stainless steel wedge covered with a grid of slats, the vertical fins attached at an angle so only shiny metal is visible from one side, while a shift in position reveals hundreds of niches. Each pigeonhole shows a photograph of a low-slung house, or an ordinary street view. Move back and the fragments coalesce into a towering cityscape.
When I meet the Lahore-based Rana at Bombay’s Chemould Prescott Road gallery in early April, a day before his solo show Apposite I Opposite is due to open, the fascinating Desperately Seeking Paradise II is in position, but a few works are still being placed, and more are held up at Customs. Those fail to arrive even the next day, and so the exhibition, spread across Chemould and Chatterjee & Lal galleries, is restricted to just the former on opening evening. Representing Pakistani artists is a fraught exercise for Indian gallerists. A thaw in relations between 2003 and 2008 spurred substantial cultural exchange, and growing demand within India for art from across the border. The terrorist assault on Indian targets by Pakistani assailants in November 2008 ended the détente, and led to restrictions on visas and trade. By then, Rashid had shown solo four times in India and established an enduring bond with art lovers here.
The bulk of his oeuvre, certainly the work for which he’s best known, consists of photomosaics in which micro and macro images stand in sharp contrast: A carpet constituted of slaughtered animals; a veiled figure made from pornographic stills; a Mughal prince composed of contemporary commercials; rush hour traffic aggregating into a pastoral idyll; and garbage turning into a seascape. After years producing two dimensional prints, Rana combined the mosaic form with his interest in architecture through two iterations of Desperately Seeking Paradise. The wedge displayed at Chemould Prescott Road was preceded by a stainless steel cube that cost USD 1,00,000 to fabricate. Rana can afford artworks as ambitious as these because he’s among South Asia’s top selling artists, represented internationally by the leading London-based gallery Lisson, which hosted a solo show of his work last year. Success, however, came to the 44 year old neither easily nor early.
His parents moved to Lahore from Eastern Punjab during Partition while still minors. His father joined the local police force and, seeing juniors pushing past to officer grade while his own lack of schooling restricted him to head constable, resolved to do whatever it took to educate his children properly. Rashid, the baby of the family, was spoiled by his parents and four siblings, as youngest children tend to be. He grew up without the burden of caring for or marrying off brothers and sisters. By the time he gained a Bachelor’s degree from Lahore’s National College of Arts (NCA), his eldest brother was a qualified aeronautical engineer with a job outside Pakistan, willing and able to subsidise further art studies in Boston. Rashid started off, though, in a municipal school, where pupils sat on the floor and wrote on slates. In sixth grade, he made the merit list of a state-level test, and was offered a seat in a better institution.
As he conveys these details about his childhood, he raises his voice to be heard above the racket made by the hammers and drills of workers rushing to get walls ready to hold large-scale photomosaics from a series titled Language.  He is briefly called away to supervise the positioning of one of the digital prints, and takes up the story where he’d left off once he returns.  “After I got a position in the board exam, my father told me he wanted me to become a badaa aadmi, a big man, and that thought stuck with me. I realized later he meant a civil servant or army officer, someone with power. But I was never interested in becoming a government official.” Outside of the military or administrative service, medicine and engineering were virtually the only respectable choices open to teenagers like him in the 1980s. Rashid presumed he’d pursue the latter since he was good at mathematics.  A career in art wasn’t on anybody’s radar. He painted as a hobby, spoiling old black-and-white family photographs by colouring over them, and excelled in drawing diagrams in biology class.
Happenstance led him to join a course at NCA, and he was soon hooked. The generation of artists who trained alongside him in the early 1990s would introduce Pakistani art to an international spectatorship, beginning with his batch-mate Shahzia Sikander’s selection for the 1997 Whitney Biennial. Sikander and fellow NCA alumni like Talha Rathore, Imran Qureshi, Aisha Khalid and Nusra Latif married traditional painting techniques with contemporary subject matter to create a style that came to be called neo-miniature. Rashid, who in the mid 1990s returned to NCA to teach after completing an MFA from the Massachusetts College of Art, found himself out in the cold during the period of neo-miniaturist domination. His art used contemporary technology rather than traditional technique; cited Euro-American art history more frequently than South Asian painting; and questioned cultural identity instead of fetishising it. “I put a lot of effort into my teaching in that period, but I was sulking a little bit. At that time, some NCA faculty members recently returned from abroad had developed an awareness of feminist issues and it was part of their agenda to encourage women artists. At least that’s what I observed. So I was doubly sulky”.  Today, secure in his current status as Pakistan’s most recognized artist, he gives neo-miniaturism its due, though not without tacking on a series of caveats. “It was the only significant trend, with the possible exception of Karachi Pop, to have emerged from Pakistan. My issue with neo-miniature was that it became a kind of obligation: it was the way you were supposed to paint if you were Pakistani. I objected to the bandwagon phenomenon, not only among artists but also among viewers. For about a decade people didn’t want to see anything else from Pakistan.” The sardonic titles he gave his own works at that time signaled his non-conformism. One was called What Is So Pakistani About This Painting, and another, his first photomosaic, I Love Miniatures. Exhibited in an ornate gilded frame, I Love Miniatures resembled from a distance a famous Mughal portrait of Prince Khurram, later known as Emperor Shah Jahan. The pixels in the mosaic were contemporary advertisements, laboriously cut, scanned and manipulated to make the larger image. Later on, he would discover software that did a better job of blending micro and macro. I Love Miniatures suggested the visual clutter of daily life in Pakistan ought to influence contemporary art at least as much as any historical painterly practice.
In 2002, the same year he made I Love Miniatures, he shifted from NCA to the School of Visual Arts and Design at Beaconhouse National University, a newly established private college in Lahore, where he was instrumental in framing a curriculum that departed dramatically from NCA’s focus on miniatures. By the middle of the noughties, the vogue for neo-miniature had faded somewhat, and other voices began to be heard. Rashid, never prolific, had become more productive since discovering photomosaics, and was increasingly recognized as the leader of a different kind of Pakistani art which explored new materials and techniques, and was international in style.
His rebellion against the hegemony of neo-miniature hints at a contrarian disposition. If pressured to act in a certain way, he is tempted to do the opposite. In 2007, he was invited to create a site-specific work in Manchester’s Curry Mile as part of an international arts festival. He proposed a photo-based piece in which individual frames hanging in street-facing windows would cohere into one giant image of rotting flesh. He knew perfectly well it wasn’t what South Asian restaurant owners, cajoled into participating in a community-based art initiative, would expect or desire. When the idea was vetoed, he showed, instead, a series of stills from a video that captured traffic and pedestrians in the neighbourhood. The grabs were pixilated to the point of abstraction, so it was impossible to tell White people from Brown ones. Rashid had replaced visceral engagement with cool, detached, formal exploration, while taking a swipe at the politics of multiculturalism. Both the options he offered the organizers of the Manchester engagement undermined to some degree the premise of the project. A version of the rotting flesh piece, titled I Do Not Always Feel Immortal,  was displayed at Chatterjee & Lal gallery in 2007 and acquired by Anupam Poddar, one of India’s leading contemporary art collectors and a vegetarian. It now hangs in a study at Poddar’s Delhi farmhouse.
Rashid’s recent double-gallery solo oscillated between viscerality and formalism in a manner similar to his Manchester commission. Having expanded the photomontage to a third spatial dimension with Desperately Seeking Paradise, he annexed the dimension of time in a series of new videos whose very title, Anatomy Lessons, suggested flesh and blood concerns. Huge monitors showed large-scale images seemingly broken up by glitches; each small glitch was a short video running in a loop. Anatomy Lessons 1 had a group of wrestlers going at it in a Lahore park, but with their body parts scrambled, inducing viewers into a guessing game of what exactly was being shown. A finger making a sudden gesture, repeated endlessly, seemed from a distance a little like a thrusting penis, and the entire tableau appeared more orgy than grappling match.
In contrast, another new process, which he calls photo-sculpture, led him to create a suite of austere meditations on the history of representation itself. He photographed objects from multiple angles, stitched the different views together digitally, introduced pixels to blur the images, and stuck the prints on metal cuboids. In some cases, the aluminium base was more or less the size and shape of the object photographed. A photo-sculpture of a gas stove, for instance, was easily recognizable as a pixilated simulacrum of the object it represented.  In other instances, the final form departed substantially from the reference object: a vase holding flowers was transformed from curvilinear to geometric. The movement from real-life object to flat image and thence to cubical form commented on the history of art’s attempt to capture the totality of three dimensions in two, whether through illusionistic rendering or the fragmentation of cubist painting.
There’s little of the austere intellectual in Rashid’s appearance. He is gregarious and enjoys the attention that comes with critical and financial success. His receding hair, very closely cropped, is set off by a soul patch. He’s gained some weight over the past six years; his sharp features have been blunted somewhat, and his pitted cheeks have grown just a bit pudgy. It’s not a face you’d notice in a crowd, but it comes packaged with plenty of charisma and a flashy dress sense. He favours all-black ensembles at openings and parties, but will wear a red shirt now and again, and occasionally try white-on-white. When he travels to an unfamiliar city, exploring shopping options is as high on his agenda as visiting museums. “I admit I believe in retail therapy, but I’m not as flamboyant as Subodh (Gupta, India’s best-selling contemporary artist, whose career parallels Rashid’s in many ways). I do like socializing, but after I got married a few years ago, I went through a period of being disoriented. I’d be chatting at a party, and suddenly think to myself, ‘What am I doing here; I don’t need it, I’m married!’ When you’re single, so much of your social life is focused on your libido. It took me a while to realize there are other reasons for small talk besides trying to impress women.”
Not only is Rashid a dandy, he’s also a diva (or divus, to use the accurate gender). He drives his gallerists to distraction with difficult demands. At the India Art Fair in early 2012, he was displeased with the way a heavy work from the Language series had been hung. As frantic dealers rushed to get their booths ready, he asked for a team of helpers to be summoned to the site, and finally settled on a position that was marginally higher than the original placement. “Five inches!” one of his dealers says, with a roll of the eyes, before adding that the work looked surprisingly better after the adjustment. Staff at Lekha and Anupam Poddar’s Devi Art Foundation, where he curated a seminal exhibition of Pakistani art titled Resemble Reassemble in 2010, remember him insisting a large false wall be moved by one foot the day before the show was due to open. They also recall with awe his ability to distinguish between six shades of grey, and to tell instantly when a wall had been painted one shade too dark or too light. “Those who dislike me call me a control freak. People who want to put a positive spin on it think of me as a perfectionist.” He points at a photomosaic. “Take this work. Most of the effort goes into building a library of images, but then, after it was almost 99% ready, I spent another month on it till I was satisfied.” The division he makes between ‘control freak’ and ‘perfectionist’ is a little like the contrasts in his montages, which tend to break down on careful examination. Those close to Rashid see him as both control freak and perfectionist.
If it helps that his control freakery is accompanied by perfectionism, it can’t hurt that his creations sell remarkably well. He’s among just a handful of South Asian artists whose market stayed reasonably steady following the global economic meltdown of late 2008 which brought to an abrupt halt a vertiginous rise in prices of contemporary art witnessed in previous years. While prices commanded by his work at auction have never approached the USD 623,000 dollars garnered by the photomontage Red Carpet I at Sotheby’s in May 2008 -- the highest amount ever paid for a Pakistani artwork -- three prints from the same series have been sold at Christie’s since for between USD 170,000 and 287,000.
At this moment, everything seems to have fallen in place for Rashid Rana. Perhaps because of the explicit nature of much of his work, it has been seen more widely abroad than in Pakistan. This discrepancy is being rectified through a retrospective display at Karachi’s Mohatta Palace Museum scheduled for September. He suffered a personal tragedy two years ago when his mother died; but she had the satisfaction of witnessing, before illness claimed her, his marriage to his wife Aroosa, also an artist, and the birth of his son Raed. His parents weren’t the sort to comprehend his work; Rashid never even invited them for show openings. But his father keeps beside his bed a large monograph published two years ago about his son’s work. “I don’t think he’s read it, but maybe it’s his way of indicating he’s proud of me. One thing my mother said tells me of the distance we’ve travelled. She was playing with Raed, and she turned to me, holding his hand, ‘Look, he has long fingers like yours. I think he will be an artist, too’.”

Friday, December 21, 2012

Kiran Subbaiah, 2011

This interview, published in Art India in mid 2011, is the only one I have ever conducted by phone. It's an ABC piece, but provides useful information for anybody interested in Kiran Subbaiah's background. I was afraid Kiran would take the entire thing as a lark, but he provided straightforward, considered answers, with just enough of his characteristic tongue-in-cheek remarks to enliven the conversation.

 You studied at Santiniketan and Baroda. How did those very well known schools of art influence your practice?

Going to Santiniketan from Bangalore was a big cultural change. I went there when I was only fifteen and it was not difficult to learn a new language at that age. Learning Bengali gave me access to its prolific culture. I spent six years in Santiniketan and at the end of it I was actually thinking in Bengali. The art history side was strong in Santiniketan, we had a good art library and inspiring teachers like Kanchan Chakraborty, Arun Pal and Siva Kumar. But six years was a little too long… Rabindranath Tagore invented all those elaborate festivals with song and dance for every season, and it was like a movie that repeated itself every year.

How was Baroda different?

The problem with the art and general ambience in Santiniketan, at least in my time, is that it was still stuck in its Revivalist time warp, and a complementing space wrap of its location.  The institution was conceived around an ideological context of nationalism that existed before Independence. Going to Baroda felt like returning to contemporary India.

Usually when one looks at the work of graduates of Santiniketan or Baroda there are features in the work that locate them as artists who studied at those institutions. That’s not something I have noticed in your case.

When I was in Baroda, a lot of my motifs and aesthetics had affinities to other Baroda artists. But that changed after my first trip abroad. My dilemmas were always with aesthetics; not about what I painted or sculpted but how. Seeing the work of Post Avant-Garde artists like Mark Manders and Theo Jensen in Holland I realized I didn’t have to deal with aesthetics at all. I could make real things rather than representations of things. And that continues, in the sense that I don’t really deal with aesthetics, though of course aesthetics gatecrashes into art someway or another.

Your work has very little that’s identifiably Indian about it. Is that something of which you’re conscious?

Yes, there’s nothing intentionally Indian about it. During my art school days in India there was a strong emphasis on, and I would say even demand for Indian-ness in contemporary Indian art. I found this un-necessary, at least for our time.  There was no need to try to be Indian when you are Indian. The Internet was where I first found my first real sense of liberation from Indian-ness. and its audience were by default ubiquitous. I found many Net.artists from different corners of the world expressing their weariness towards issues of identity, nation and so on.

Indian artists often first gain international exposure through shows where they are grouped with other Indians. In such shows quite often, subject matter counts for a lot. Do you feel the reception of your work has been affected negatively because it does not check the relevant boxes in terms of national or political content?

I used to have an issue with curators who visited saying they were planning a show of Indian artists. Then, people like Thomas Erben explained to me that it was an important first step for Indian artists to be presented in the context of Indian art, after which there was a possibility of breaking out. I no longer have a problem being presented in such a context. Besides, I don’t think my work is not Indian. The Indianness in my work is like the Indianness in my accent. I’m not conscious of it, but it’s there. People who are not Indian tend to recognise something Indian in my work.

Taking off from the mention of accent, you have a great facility in language that is apparent in your work on video. The commentary accompanying your videos is always amusing as well as poetic. When did you first become aware of this talent?

I’ve never considered myself particularly good with language. It doesn’t flow for me the way it would for a writer. I spend a lot of time making changes, constructing the commentary of my videos. I may have learned some big words, because back in the 1990s there was a trend of using big words to construct long complicated sentences in art writing, and I really wanted to understand what critics were saying. But when I looked up dictionaries to find out what the words meant, I realised the same thing could be written in much simpler language. In my work I try to use the simplest words and, very rarely when there’s no option, I’ll use something complicated.

You construct not just the commentary, but every aspect of your videos carefully. They’re polished, finished products. How did you become adept at using video?

Many art students in my time fantasised about making films. Video cameras became affordable in the 1990s, and the school I went to in England had a Hi8 camera. Initially I used it to document kinetic sculptural work, then started cooking up scenarios for video. I watched a lot of video art at the time, since we had a good library of it.

Was there some specific training involved?

Not really, if I had questions I’d find answers for them on the Net or from friends. I did once join a professional film school in France, but soon realised that my kind of video making didn’t require that level of study.

You obviously have a feel for technology; teaching yourself video, working from Net-based instructions. And you’ve built a number of machines like the robot...

Again, if I have an aptitude for technology, it isn’t something I felt growing up. I wasn’t fixing radios as a kid or anything like that. Building machines myself was something I got into thanks to Kees Reedijk, a technical advisor at the Rijksakademie.

You are primarily trained as a sculptor, and I’d like to speak about that a bit. I’ve described your sculptures in a blog post as ‘one-trick pony artworks’. Is that a characterisation you’d contest or accept?

People have called my art one-liners. I accept that and don’t think it’s a problem. Early on, I tended to put too many things into one work and everything became a jumble, and the viewer was not sure where to enter. There’s a tendency among artists when they’re unsure about what they’re up to, to stuff too much into one work and convolute it. It was a process of enlightening for me to learn to simplify things down to a bare minimum that can still be enigmatic.

Apart from being a sculptor and a video artist and Internet art you’ve evolved an alter ego, antikiran. Can you speak about this persona?

It started with trying to find an email id. The ones that would have been more appropriate were already taken. So I tried some random short prefixes to my name and just hastily settled for ‘antikiran’ to get my account working. I had to cook up a less obvious persona to go with it… other than ‘anti-everybody’ or ‘anti-myself’. My friend, Sunil Abraham proposed the reference of matter and anti-matter … that’s the one I adopted.

At the Khoj Marathon earlier this year, you got Hans Ulrich Obrist upset with your unwillingness to communicate.

I don’t think he was upset. I was sitting right next to him, and I didn’t get that vibe. I think upsetting him was what the audience wanted me to do.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Jonathan Meese, 2007

This interview with the German artist Jonathan Meese was published in a catalogue accompanying his solo exhibition at Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke. Most successful artists develop a spiel, a particular interpretation of their own art, and grow increasingly reluctant to deviate from it. It becomes difficult for an interviewer to get anything from them that they don't also say to every other interviewer. In Meese's case, the problem is compounded by the fact that he's an enthusiastic propagandist for a cause. Any questions regarding details of his work he brushes aside, preferring to concentrate on what he calls the dictatorship of art. Its a concept that can appear naive, even puerile, at first glance. Probe it from different angles, however, and it reveals interesting contours. I'm very pleased with this interview, because I think its great length is justified by the gradual deepening of Meese's ideas in response to the questions.
Talking to Meese was a welcome change from interviewing Indian artists. He is passionate and crazy, while Indian artists are, almost all of them, sensible, worldly and rational. Having a bunch of Jonathan Meeses around would probably drive everybody nuts, but I wish there was a little more madness in Indian art and artists. It became apparent during the conversation that Meese and I have at least one thing in common: a shared contempt for the idea, extraordinarily well-accepted in India and within the biennale circuit despite the lack of any shred of evidence to back it up, that contemporary visual art can be an effective instrument of political transformation.

The Baby Animal of Art

I met Jonathan Meese on a crisp October morning at an address which had till recently housed his gallery, Contemporary Fine Arts, in the revitalised Berlin Mitte district, a focal point of the city’s dynamic art scene. Meese greeted me warmly and led me to his living room one floor up within the same building. We made small talk for perhaps a minute before he plunged into the issue that concerns him most: the ‘dictatorship of art’. I attempted to impose some chronological order on the interview, but he was more interested in putting across his view of art at large. To make sure his message got across, he repeated it frequently, and returned to the same themes when we picked up the conversation the next day in a neighbourhood café, before strolling to his warehouselike studio a few blocks away.
Meese takes propaganda as seriously – and as playfully – as painting, sculpture and performance. Like many Germans, he speaks excellent English. And, like many Germans who speak excellent English, he believes he speaks it badly, and apologises more than once for this perceived shortcoming.

You were born in Tokyo, I believe. How long did you spend there?

I left it as a young child. My father served in the British air force during the war, and moved to Japan afterwards. My mother’s sister also lived in Japan and my mother went to visit her, that’s how she met my father. But quite soon after marriage she grew homesick and brought us to Germany with her.

I saw a video of one of your performances in which you were dressed like a samurai in a Kabuki play, with perhaps a touch of the geisha as well. So you’ve obviously retained some affinity for the land of your birth. That performance seemed very spontaneous to me. Do you rehearse much beforehand?

Not at all. I take some stuff with me, some masks for instance, and toys, and then it just happens. But the art doesn’t go through my body. There is a secret skin between me and the art. I never express anything of myself, the art is what it is. It is not a part of me, it is a part of itself. If you see a painting by me, it’s impossible to say something about me by looking at it.

So you reject the idea that art is an expression of personality…

I think that leads to nothing. Art is something very normal. It’s a function like blood flowing through your veins. Everybody can play, we don’t need geniuses.

But surely some art is more impressive than other art, surely there has to be some differentiation made, some judgment.

True, but judgments are wrong because we cannot prove them. You can always say that Picasso is this or that, but you don’t really know. It’s always mysterious. If somebody says that he knows the way, then he’s a liar, or else he should be the dictator of art. But there is no artist like that. Art itself is the dictatorship. Art is so strong, it is above everything. I think it will take over power, real power. The next revolution will not come from the street, but from art itself. I believe we are in a very important situation now. The only alternative is art. Art will be the power of the future, even in parliament. Not as decoration but as a principle.

And through that, what will humanity gain?

It will be the first time in history that something will reign over us. We have always had kings and leaders. We should give power to an abstract entity, it will change everything, because then our ego will vanish. We have too much faith in human power. There are some who believe in religious power, but that is nostalgic. It’s already happened and it didn’t lead us to something new. We have to give something power that was never in power. Art will take the power anyway, but we can be humble and we can play and then it will come much quicker. And I as a human being want to see this revolution to come, I want to see that art takes over.

This reminds me of what some Marxists believed, namely that the revolution will come anyway, but one has to act to ensure it comes quicker. So there’s a role for free will within a larger deterministic structure.

But what we can do is very unclear. Maybe just play. Play and be humble. Let the thing happen. Don’t give your taste a chance. Don’t nail your opinion to the gate. Just play like a baby animal. And what happens to you while playing is not that important. Maybe you produce art, maybe not, you don’t know. The revolution is a logical consequence of such play, but we never allowed it in the past. We always wanted a group of people to be in charge, or a king, or a certain party. But art is the party. It’s not desirable for artists to create a political party, because art is the party. It already has a name; you don’t have to found it.

Does art need to be political in order to bring about this dictatorship of art that you speak of?

Not at all. Art is political, but in its own way, not in my way. The artwork is not interested in whether I’m happy, ill, right-wing, left-wing , bad, good. That is not its business. I cannot blackmail art by my ability or talent. Art has its own ability. It is its own fantasy, its own talent, its own politics, its own love, its own hate, its own strength. I can be weak, but the art made can be very strong. Moreover, it’s not important that I make it, what’s important is that it is made. Once it’s made it is free, it does what it wants to do, develops its own consciousness. This also means that art cannot be taught. Art teaching is just something funny, a kind of game. Art professors are useless. It’s OK they exist, but they should not have power.

Did you reject art teaching while still in art school? Is that why you didn’t complete your degree?

Yes, I felt it was senseless to give me a degree, because the things I made wanted to be in the world anyway. Whether I’m an artist or not, I don’t know, because art doesn’t tell me. I just produce my toys and throw them out and people take them, or art takes them, and says thank you.

You entered art education quite late. What did you do before that?

I was in art school between the ages of 23 and 28. Before that I did what my mother wanted me to do. She wanted me to be a banker so I started studies in that direction, but I was no good.

Were you a misfit in art school? Did you have a lot of friends?

I did, yes. I wasn’t the arrogant type, so people liked me, but I enjoyed working alone. I thought of the school as a ghost castle. I went there very early in the morning or very late at night, even slept there, which was possible at the time.

Did you do well academically?

It was not an issue. At one point I refused to take an exam, but they said, “it’s OK, it’s not necessary for you anyway.” At that time my art school in Hamburg was very good about such things.

Joseph Beuys is obviously a big influence on you, and he taught for decades, so schools can’t be that bad…

I don’t say they are, but I taught for a while, and I noticed students had so much fear, there were so many rules. I believe it’s very important to say, “I don’t know.” We are all humans playing a game.

I am intrigued by the way you combine the idea of the artist as instrument with the notion of art as a game. The belief that art speaks through the artist who does not have much volition is a romantic, mystical view. It goes with a valorisation of nature and instinct. On the other hand, those who speak of art as a game tend to be urbane, ironic, self-conscious, very unromantic and unmystical. In your art as well as your discourse, there is an unusual merging of the expressionist element with the pop attitude.

In the game of art you cannot use a recipe book. There are no rules and there is no rituality. People often say that my performances have ritualistic bearings, but this is not a fact. Because in art there is no God, there is no way to address this god. You just play, your limbs work around, but you have no control. I am not a madman, I am not in a trance or on drugs. Of course, I drink a lot during some performances, but it’s not about me, this whole game is not about me.

You must be more pleased sometimes with the way things turn out than at other times. Is there a feeling within you that you now recognise which indicates that something good is going to emerge?

That happens, it’s in the nature of being human, but I always tell myself it is wrong. You feel, sometimes, that this is going to be a big thing. But you should just work like an animal. Do it for the thing. If I should say what I did twenty years ago is not as good as what I do now, I’d be a liar. Because then I’d think that I am more important than the art.

When we were walking up here we passed a collection of early works by you and you were rather dismissive of them. I thought they were powerful images, but you said there was too much Picasso in them.

I should not have said that. I’m a human being and so I do such things, but to say something like that is not humble enough, it gives me too much importance. Art is important, the artist is not. When I die, there’s still something there, which is beautiful. There are artists who destroy their early work. I consider that unfair, because how can you judge? You do what is necessary and then let somebody other judge. Animals don’t think, “Wow, I just did something much better than what I managed yesterday.” Maybe they do, but I like the idea that you just do your duty.

One of the central ideas in Indian thought is somewhat similar to what you’ve expressed. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna advises Arjun, who is a warrior, to do his duty, which is to fight without distraction. Krishna says one must act without thinking of the fruits of one’s actions. It’s a sentiment often expressed in India but seldom truly acted upon.

For me the idea comes from the Nibelungen. Do your duty whatever happens. It’s the law of the thing itself. What you say tells me it’s not particularly German. But it’s true, we think too much of the fruit.

Speaking of which, we live in a pragmatic world, with the art establishment and the market. You have to work within this framework and yet you have to tap into a different side of yourself in creating your art. In a performance for instance, you go out there and are one thing, then come out of it and are in a different world. Do you find the switching difficult to handle?

What’s difficult for me is the fact that the revolution is not here yet. But in the game I’m never really unhappy. The art market is just a side game. I think people should put all their money into art and nothing else. All the money of the whole world should be put into art. One drawing should cost 100 billion dollars, as much as the whole income of a state, to show how absurd money is. And that will lead us to the next stage. We still think art is decoration. But we humans are the decoration. We don’t really believe in the power of art, that’s why we make connections between art and politics.

The last documenta was interesting in this connection. Activists have fought for years to ensure certain groups women, third world artists, sexual minorities and so on are better represented in museums and prestigious shows. documenta 12 was a great victory seen from the perspective of such representation. What was surprising was the framework within which political artworks were exhibited. Their placement, it seems to me, required us to view them as ‘mere art’. I use the phrase in a nod to artists who connect their work with political movements as a way of validation or justification. When judged by the criteria of art, much of their work is found wanting, as documenta 12  proved.

At the moment I think art is very weak. It is just an illustration, a documentation or an archive of what is happening. But it never provides utopian ideas. There are other people, teachers, say, or bureaucrats, who can illustrate what’s happening. Artists should look into the future and think about the alternative.

It’s as if art is trying to catch up with history, history has overtaken art.

I have opinions, everybody has them, but art should be more than opinions. Or else we should have 60 million documentas. In Germany, many people talk about private mythologies or private obsessions of artists, I think that’s a contradiction. Something private can never be mythological, and if something is mythology it means it is beyond your personal life. It is above you or underneath. It is something bigger or smaller. This concept about the private obsessions of artists, which I think was invented in Germany, just makes you want to weep.

I am interested in art that contains social or political ideas, and I include your work in that category, but not art which proposes it be viewed on the basis of criteria other than those that belong to art.

I ask myself why these artists don’t enter the political scene. Because they are more politicians than artists. Or human rights people. It’s great to be a human rights activist, but then be that rather than wear the uniform of ‘artist’. If you really want to change something in reality you should do what’s necessary for that. But not under the code-name ‘art’.

These developments in art that you speak of, how do you keep abreast of them? Do you enjoy visiting art fairs or biennales?

I went to all of these things in the past but I’m not doing it any more. I try to keep myself informed in other ways, through magazines and things, but I cannot go to a fair, because I cannot go ten meters without meeting people I know.

I visited Frieze just before coming to Berlin. It’s amazing how art fairs have gained prominence in the past few years. Now they’re at the same level as major biennales.

They are potentially more interesting than biennales because biennales are often based on the personal tastes of one person or a few people, which can become very one dimensional. But artists should not go to fairs. Our work should be there, and we should go there once or twice for the experience, but then we should just do our work and let our gallery handle that. There are too many ways to keep one away from work. Too many parties, too many shows, too many fairs.

Germany has a well known history of political extremism, and an equally deep but perhaps less well known tradition of what might be termed artistic extremism. In the aftermath of the second world war, the country programmatically eliminated all forms of extremism, and perhaps artistic extremism was a victim of this purge. Only a few artists, like Werner Herzog, for example, carried on the tradition. Since you express yourself in extreme terms, I see in your proposal of a total separation between art on the one side and life and politics on the other, the desire to sidestep a connection with German political extremism.

What you say is somewhat true. After 1945 it was required that every extreme thought should be rejected. Understandable, but now it’s sixty years gone, and we are in this very weak situation. We should give power back to art, to literature, to cinema. We had Fassbinder, Beuys, Baselitz, a few people, but only a few. The conviction that you as a person are the most important thing, that if you feel good the world is good and if you personally feel bad the world is bad, this dominates our society at the moment. It’s such individualism that makes our art so weak. We have standard art everywhere, which we never wanted.

That’s an interesting paradox, of how societies glorify individualism but become more generic in the process. It brings me to a prominent feature of your persona, the uniform. You always wear dark tracksuits made by Adidas, a big German multinational, precisely the kind of corporation accused of spreading the uniformity you abhor. Is it an ironic gesture?

No, a uniform allows me not to think about what I wear.

But anything could become a uniform; the fact that you chose to make one from the product of a German multinational is surely significant.

If everybody dressed the same, something would change. The fact that we all dress differently makes us even more the same than if we had a uniform. I really believe that. Personally speaking, I am afraid of reality, that’s why I need security. And these stripes somehow define me, provide a limit to my body which I like.

James Joyce spoke about how the German word ‘Leib’ has a sense of wholeness, while the English ‘body’ is broken into two…

We have a skin to secure ourselves. It’s our natural frontier. And it means something. We should keep to our possibilities. In certain ways we extend everything into total weakness, and forget to make the really good things strong. I’m here in Berlin and they say, “the art scene is boiling, everything is strange here,” but nothing is strange. People are all the same, they produce the same stuff, they all behave the same. OK, then, why not accept that and start over. There is no difference in colour, there is no difference in behaviour, there is no difference in religion, it is all just simulation. We are all the same. Blood going through our bodies, we have to eat, digest and breathe, that’s all. We are not the powerful element of things. The power is outside, not inside. I don’t believe in soul. We put our soul somewhere else thousands of years ago. We took it out of our body because we felt so individualistic. And it never came back, it’s somewhere else.
This is important for the work in the sense that I want to create overkill. I have no problem doing drawings, sculpture, performances, stage design, I even did a theatre play on my own, I want to make films, I want to do everything.

Your work is singular, and yet you have collaborated a fair amount with other artists. How did these collaborations come about?

I love other artists, really respect them. If I work with Albert Oehlen or Daniel Richter or Joerg Immendorff, it’s like I’m meeting captains of other ships, and we do something together and then go our separate ways. I’m very open to collaboration. It’s all about putting your own importance aside and doing things. Better to do things than to think about them. Too much theory is bad because theory always comes after the deed. Now in art school they say, “don’t do this, don’t do that, this is already done, you shouldn’t paint, sculpture is not possible in this age, or don’t do video, don’t do film, it’s not art.” And I think, “How do you know? How do you know so much?” (Laughter)
For me art is like children’s birthdays. You celebrate birthdays with your friends, and those are the people I work with. We have a lot of good food, we do some strange things, then we separate and the next day something else happens. I like these people; they are their own rules, their own law.

Have you faced a lot of criticism for your absolutist statements? There’s an argument originating in Siegfried Kracauer’s book From Caligari to Hitler, which sees a connection between art forms like Expressionism and authoritarianism. It sees expressionism as ready to embrace dictatorship. It’s been a very influential thesis.

I am criticised a lot for talking about the dictatorship of art. People always think that I am speaking about a human leader. Or they say it is not acceptable to use a Hitler salute in art, but I always say it belongs to art, it should not come to reality. It should be on stage or in books. We didn’t do that 100 years ago, or 80 years ago, which was a big mistake. I always discuss these things with my mother, because she was born in 1929, and lived through the war. I ask her, “Why did this happen? Why were the artists not strong enough?” And she says, “That’s not the point.” (Laughs)

What does she think about the dictatorship of art?

She doesn’t like the word. For her dictatorship is always negative. But the dictatorship of nature is not negative, it’s something we accept as normal. If we go too close to the sun we will die; the sun is a dictator. Like water. Water will take us down, it is the dictator of the situation. It’s not bad, it is just what it is. I think it’s important to give these words a chance to develop into a new direction. A word cannot be bad, we only think it’s bad. We have to give it a positive direction.

There have been instances of words being reclaimed in the manner you suggest. African Americans did that with ‘nigger’, for example. There was a moment when it was an interesting political act and then it became banal. So in a way the process of reclamation is continuous. You reclaim a word, it becomes banal then you move to something else.

I wait for the day when in the Bild Zeitung it says, ‘DICTATORSHIP OF ART’. It has to be claimed, it has to be said, and then you can move on. But it has not reached the people yet, we have to wait till it reaches them and then we can open a new book. You just have to let words play with themselves. This is only interesting as long as it is not in everybody’s mouth.

To get back to Kracauer, for a minute, I think he and others were positing something fairly subtle. It wasn’t a critique of artists who said they wanted a dictator but a critique of art which manifested a desire for a higher authority of some kind. Your statements seem to fit that definition.

The only authority that is useful is the authority of art. We always think we are the centre of the world, the main figure in the game but the game is the main figure itself. We are just side figures. I believe art existed before human beings and it will exist when we are gone. We are just in-between

It’s interesting you don’t even consider the existence of humans necessary for the existence of art… It brings up the larger question of what you think art is. You were saying humans are like instruments, but without humans what is the instrument through which art is expressed and appreciated?

I think nature is much more humble towards art than us. Like a river: it knows how to behave. Like animals: they know what has to be done. And the hills. Mount Everest is art in itself. Some crystals are art. Maybe some human beings are art, we don’t know yet. When we are gone, art will live on. We always think that the fact that we look on something is so important. But for example in the sands of Egypt there are sculptures lost for 4000 years. Then we drag them out of the ground, but they were art even when they were in the sand. It’s not so important that we look at them. The best time in a museum is when all men and women are gone, when the paintings can talk to each other, which is more beautiful because they have so much to say to each other. We are the weakest thing in the whole game.

You’re very interested in the medieval tradition, both the tradition of chivalry, of knights and also the religious and mystical side of it, the quest for the Holy Grail. Can you speak about that a bit?

Art is like alchemy and the medieval age was the great age of alchemy. I think we have to go back to that, because art is something very simple, very geometrical. There are perhaps just four elements which you mix and art is produced. We always think it’s more complicated, because we look into the mirror and see ourselves. We should not look into the mirror, let art look into its own mirror.

Your paintings and sculpture, don’t strike me as simple in the way you’re describing. There’s quite a lot happening there.

I work very fast, faster than anybody I know. I’m the fastest person in sculpture, people tell me that in the foundry where the sculptures are cast. You go there, you do it, you finish it and then it’s done. Not so much thinking involved.

The sculptures of yours I saw in London at the Frieze art fair had the feel of some of Otto Dix’s paintings. The ones he made about the first world war with the shattered soldiers.

They are guardians of art, according to me, or children of art. It’s all about these strong figures. Knights, children, vampires, animals. More and more we have to look at animals. We have to look at Scarlett Johansson, she should be the dictator of beauty.

Not many people will object to looking at her. Why do you think she should be dictator of beauty?

For me she is a key figure at the moment. This baby animal is about volume. This body is filled with necessity. The skin is so thin it’s like water. She has done with herself what is necessary. She’s no human being anymore, but a standard, a good standard. Marquis de Sade, Ezra Pound, Picasso, Andy Warhol, Scarlett Johansson, this is the chain.

That’s your canon, the great tradition (Laughter). You’ve used a lot of references from film in your paintings and installations, even before you became fascinated with Johansson. You like horror flicks, obviously.

I was always a big collector of films, magazines, books. I think I have about 5000 films, 20 to 30 thousand books and countless magazines. I might buy something because of the title, because of what the cover looks like. I buy it, sometimes watch it, I need it around me. I like radical things like pornography, military items, religious stuff, manifestos, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, all these major figures, I need them around me.

Even when you use a figure from English literature, you pick Ezra Pound, who was well known for his fascist sympathies. Wagner, Nietzsche, all these controversial figures from cultural history aside from dictators. These are acts of provocation, right?

But it’s so childish! What I do is so exaggerated, I think it’s difficult to see a provocation in it. People should understand it’s just a game. I never want to provoke. Art can never harm you because it’s another world. It is not reality. If you feel offended there’s a problem in you. I’m saying come on play with me, play with Nietzsche, play with Wagner, because art is the only playground where you can do that. It was a mistake not to play with Wagner when he was alive. Nietzsche, of course, was like a baby animal himself, because he was so funny.

Why not, for instance, use figures like Gandhi or Mandela?
(Long pause. This is the only time during hours of talk that he stops and thinks after a question and phrases his answer with evident care)
It’s the belief that art is stronger than dictators, and that you can prevent Hitler from coming by building up the strongest art that is possible. Stalin on stage is good, Stalin in reality is not good. The strongest art piece possible is the dictatorship of art. If it would have been there in the 20s, 30s, 40s, Hitler would have had no chance. I absolutely believe that tyrants flourish because art is not strong enough. We have to write better manifestos than what these politicians said, stronger than what Lenin or Stalin said, Caligula said, Nero said. I have total respect for Mandela and all these others, but I don’t need to fight them

One of the canonical figures you mentioned was Andy Warhol. He said he’d have liked to be a machine, and called his studio a factory. But after his death his co-workers revealed that he would spend long hours closely supervising the work. He was very hands on and detailed in what he wanted and how he wanted it. So he had cultivated a persona, a mask of indifference which disguised his actual dedication. I’m interested in knowing how much of your work and your rhetoric is a mask.

You’re right, Warhol had the perfect mask. I also have a mask. I want to be the baby animal of art. That is my role. But if you were to take this mask away there would be another one. If you took away one million masks then maybe my real face would come up, but then I’d be dead in every way. When I go out on the street I lose one hundred masks. When I go to an art meeting I lose a thousand. Because these things take so much strength away. I have to find new masks all the time and this I can do best when I’m alone.

And the mask can be more interesting than what’s behind it. The desire we have to strip away the mask to see the real person is pointless.

Yes, the uniform is more interesting than the skin, it is protection that is needed, like animals have. Turtles have a shell. With the mask, with the uniform, one is alert, prepared, like a weapon. When you are playing you are always alert. What Warhol showed us is that it’s not about egoism, it’s not about the human. He said the machine was OK, and strangely the machine was very human. He positioned his work so cleverly. He didn’t take art and put it under the ass of a politician, but made a political volcano, a political art volcano. Es war der Zentralorgan der Kunst, die Zentralmaschine der Kunst, die Machtzentrale, die Kommandozentrale, das Dynamo der Kunst, der Motor der Kunst. It was like a building, like architecture, like a U-boat, like a torpedo. When I think of Warhol, I never think about a human, I always think about stronger material. I think of metal, of light, of illness, of wigs, so many nice things!

What about his counterpart in Germany, Beuys? You combine Beuys the Shaman and Warhol the Popmeister. So let’s talk about Beuys.

They are two sides of a coin. They were never human, they were just coins. If you toss this coin, Warhol will come face up more often than Beuys. The side of the coin which represents Warhol is lighter. Because I think Beuys weakened as he grew older, Warhol did not. Beuys thought too much of his own importance. It was a big mistake for him to go into politics, founding the Green party. Actually it’s unfair for me to say this, because I don’t know how deep he went into it. He’s a giant, and its all right when you’re a giant to lose a finger, because you have thousands of them. If Beuys had a thousand fingers, he lost one, Warhol never lost a finger. I’m sorry, this is such a childish way of explaining things!
I love Beuys. I think he looked so beautiful. If you look at his face, there’s something so special and wonderful in it, not in the manner of genius but in a normal way. When you are in the public eye so much you’re bound to make mistakes. It’s part of the beauty of an artist to talk rubbish to make mistakes. Nowadays many artists are afraid to say anything for fear it might harm their career. They are so under pressure to do the right thing. Beuys said such childish things, and that’s beautiful.

What are you working on right now?

It’s a group of paintings for a show in France. I’m working around the theme of the Count of Monte Cristo.

That’s very popular in India.

(Surprised) Really?

Yes, it has a rags to riches story, betrayal revenge, the works. 19th century novels make great soap operas, it’s been adapted quite often. This show obviously has a French slant. Do you try and connect what you create with the place where you’re showing?

I always refer to the French revolution anyway, Robespierre, Saint-Just and others. But I will also use German words and English ones, it should not be purely French.

You seem to work on numerous paintings side by side.

Yes, in fact I was filmed while working on these.

So you don’t have a problem painting with somebody watching?

Not at all. Because there’s no secret behind it. It’s very important to show how simple art is. Art is not about working long on something or trying to show you have certain skills. It is not about something that you learned, so you feel, “I am now able to do it”. Because if you know how to do it, it is not necessary to do it any more. You might as well stop.
This is why development in painting is not possible. The moment you notice, “Wow, I am developing,” it is finished. Development can only mean stiffness.

You spend a lot of your time in here?

Yes, I’d like to just stay in here and play, and throw out whatever results, and my gallery people can come and take it away and throw me some food and alcohol in return.

I study the paintings lying on the studio floor, flick through a book on Scarlett Johansson that he hands me. I think I have enough material, I tell him. “Are you sure?” he asks, doubtful, as if three hours of talking is far too little. I am certain, I say, thanks a lot, see you in Bombay. He wants me to pose for a photograph before I leave. Picking up an old instant camera, he begins clicking at a rapid pace. As I look on, bemused, he dances around the studio, taking pictures from all angles till the roll is exhausted. Even the act of photography is a performance, imbued with the childlike playfulness and excess in which he revels.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Atul Dodiya, July 2003

This profile of Atul Dodiya was published in Man's World magazine in July 2003. I wrote another profile of Atul last year, in advance of a show at Chemould Prescott Road gallery. It was published in Time Out, and took the story of his development forward. I've made a few modifications to the draft on my machine, can't recall what, if anything, was changed by the editor before publication.

Atul Dodiya

Atul Dodiya is severely jet lagged when I meet him at his studio in Ghatkopar. He has slept afternoons and woken nights for a week since returning from New York, where his solo show at the Bose Pacia gallery was very well-received, as all of his exhibitions are well received. The first public presentation of his work in 1981, at the annual Monsoon Show hosted in Bombay by the Jehangir Art Gallery, received a rave notice from Dnyaneshwar Nadkarni, art critic of the Times of India: “He devoted a whole column to my paintings, and wrote, ‘I would put him at the top of the ladder’”, Atul recalls. Two of his four canvases at that show found buyers, fetching 2000 rupees each. Ever since, the orange-red bindis that signify the sale of a work have featured prominently at his exhibitions, as have accolades from the press.
Atul’s career moved into a higher gear after a landmark show at Gallery Chemould, Bombay, in 1995. In the eight years since then he has repeatedly demonstrated his mastery over oils, expanded his range to watercolours, and created impressive three-dimensional works as well. While inserting a heavy dose of popular culture and humour into his imagery, he has also sensitively explored personal relationships and, more recently, taken a hard look at the state of the country in politically oriented works. He has established himself, arguably, as the premier artist of his generation. Even those who would contest this assessment would agree that no other contemporary Indian artist under the age of fifty has achieved a similar combination of critical acclaim and commercial success.
Since early 2001, Atul’s career graph has shown a distinct international slant. He didn’t travel abroad until the age of 31 in 1991, when he was offered a French government grant for a year-long stint in Paris. He says, about the delay in experiencing world art at first hand: “I never applied for a scholarship to go abroad after graduation, even though I loved Western art very much. I felt I needed a strong base here. I had noticed that when a few friends returned from residencies in Paris or London, their work showed a lot of confusion. I felt I should know my people, my surroundings, my neighbourhood; I shouldn’t go as a student.” Eight years after the Paris stay, he spent a few weeks in Italy on a fellowship. But his first showing abroad had to wait until 2001, when he was selected to create works for the Tate Modern’s Century City show in London, a giant exhibition that featured a decade from the art of nine global cities, of which one was Bombay (1992-2001). 2001 also had Atul presenting one-man exhibitions in Berlin and Tokyo, and participating in group shows in Yokohoma and Montreal. The following year, his work was showcased at the prestigious Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, and he participated alongside other Indian artists in Vancouver, Vienna and Manchester. In 2003, he was invited to exhibit in Oslo and Chicago, before his solo at Bose Pacia in New York in May.
Now, he sits before me in the flat where he grew up, a modest, single-storey chawl in D.K.Wadi which has served as his studio since he, along with parents and six siblings, moved to a larger flat nearby in 1987. His family was not wealthy, and he studied in a Gujarati medium school. From an early age he demonstrated an exceptional talent for drawing, and by the time he was twelve he had decided to become a painter. He loved film too, a medium whose images were to become part of his repertoire. He remembers the impact made on him as a seventh grader by Satyajit Ray’s ‘Nayak’, when it was telecast on Doordarshan.
Despite a conviction that his future lay in art, Atul was initially pressured to become an architect. But he was terrible at maths, and failed the SSC examination twice, putting paid to any ambitions his family members may have had of nudging him into a technical profession. His father had indulged his love of painting, even buying him a first class train pass valid for travel downtown so that he could view exhibitions. Atul was, after all, a son born after four daughters. When the time came, his father agreed to let him join the J.J.School of Arts.
He found J.J. bereft of inspiring teachers, apart from the abstract painter Prabhakar Kolte. The institution had a tradition of placing technical excellence and painterly values in the forefront unlike, say, the Department of Art at M.S.University, Baroda, which laid emphasis on political and historical issues. J.J. also had a good collection of books on art, though reading them was a problem: “I realised that almost all the books were in English. If I couldn’t speak that language or read it, I’d be missing a lot.” Atul devoured the images in these books and doggedly taught himself the language in which they were written. Throughout his time at art school, however, he wrote examinations in Marathi rather than English.
At J.J. he met his future wife, Anju Bhatia, one of the ‘south Bombay girls’ who crop up frequently in my conversation with him. Girls who spoke convent-school English; who were bold in approaching eminent artists for discussions; who always admired Atul’s ability and helped him improve his English skills; girls who, for the most part, married and stopped painting, though some were talented enough to make an impact.
Anju Bhatia was never going to give up painting. As Anju Dodiya, she has managed to carve out an important niche as an artist, playing a crucial role in the reinvigoration of the medium of watercolour. Anju lived on Malabar Hill (“in the same building as Vinod Khanna”), a locality much further removed from Ghatkopar than the physical distance between the two would indicate. Her father, a qualified chartered accountant, owned a factory in Nashik and a travel agency as well. Atul’s gold medal from J.J. didn’t exactly qualify him as the ideal son-in-law, but he promised to get a job teaching art which would provide a steady income. He never did accept offers that came his way, confident that his painterly vocation would come good in due course. Meanwhile, he made ends meet through a few tuitions, “teaching south Bombay girls”.
Abstract painting was the dominant tradition at J.J., and mysticism the dominant attitude. Atul wasn’t keen on either: “Abstract painters concentrate on aspects of colour, form and texture. But I felt this was also a limitation, making good looking abstract paintings; it needed to be broken somewhere. If you spoke to J.J. graduates about their work they would say, ‘It’s visual art, it has to be experienced, what can you say about it? What can you say about blue? Blue is blue!’ Then many would go into some kind of spiritual explanation. I was interested in literature, Gujarati as well as Marathi. Writers and poets speak about people, about their surroundings; I wanted to do that in painting. We used to listen to P.L.Deshpande and read his humorous writings, but could one have a sense of humour in visuals?”
For four years after graduation, he searched for a form that would enable him to address these concerns. The purchase of a camera in 1986 proved a turning point: “I found that the photographs I was taking worked more like a sketch for my painting rather than interesting images in themselves. If you take the way the world looks and change it a little bit, you can create an interesting visual.” He began to make paintings that had affinities to the realistic style of the British painter David Hockney, and were influenced by the humour in the paintings of the Baroda-based Bhupen Khakhar.
Two solo shows followed, in 1989 and 1991, and then the year in Paris, which precipitated a new crisis: “I was totally baffled by the great paintings I saw in Paris, from the early Renaissance to current work. Seeing all that had already been created, there was a time when I thought I would stop painting. When I returned home I was afraid that I’d do something which is just a repetition of some western master. It took me three years, from 1992 to 1994 to get out of this mode of thinking.”
It gradually dawned on him that he shouldn’t try and define what he was going to paint, but rather paint what he felt like, and let that define him. An eclectic series of pictures began emerging: “I could paint something related to my sister’s illness; or a self-portrait influenced by a poster for the film ‘Baazigar’. But there was a common thread running through it. The images were autobiographical, social or involved popular imagery.” Another consistent feature in his work was art historical reference: “I wanted to meet the artists whose work I loved, but I couldn’t, so I thought I’d have an imaginary dialogue with them by including, say, a Picasso reference or Matisse reference in my painting.”
His next jump was to paint a series on Mahatma Gandhi. The first major Gandhi painting was triggered by an invitation to participate in a show commemorating fifty years of Indian independence. After this he considered creating a suite of works on the Mahatma, whose life and thought had been a major influence since his school days. But the idea of a Gandhi series was onerous: “I knew that painting Gandhi, whether you like it or not, has a lot of political connotations. Then I came across a quote from Gandhi where he said, ‘I am an artist of non-violence’, not a philosopher of non-violence. That led me to see that in all his acts, his wearing of khadi, the Dandi march to make salt, the structure of his ashram, he was like a conceptual and performance artist, a little like Joseph Beuys.” Atul also changed his favoured medium for the Gandhi series, a courageous decision vindicated by the results: “I was always doing oils, while I’d watched Anju doing interesting watercolours. I felt the kind of attentiveness you require working with watercolours, the precision and spontaneity, was appropriate to the subject; also the fact that water is pure and transparent. Even your posture while you paint changes, and so does your whole way of looking at art and life.”
He continued working with the medium in a series of large-format watercolours titled ‘Tearscape’. These pictures, subdued in tone, and often bitter in spirit, were dominated by a hideous, skeletal old crone looming over a map of India. The hag of ‘Tearscape’ was a major departure from Atul’s familiar photo-based realistic figuration. The paintings created around this time proved, if proof were necessary, that the artist made no compromises for the market, although he was happy when his works sold. Many of the paintings revolved around defecation, decay and death, hardly the stocks-in-trade of saleable art. And yet even these works found willing buyers, usually serious collectors interested in art as exploration rather than decoration.
At around the same time, he was engaged in creating the first of his ‘shutters’ for the Century City show in London. Inspired by the experience of a curfew in which all shops downed their shutters, Atul crafted a series of two-layer paintings: the first image would be on the corrugated metal of the shutter and the second behind it. The shutter could be rolled up to reveal the painting underneath, or brought down to hide that view. A major source of the shutter paintings, as well as the Gandhi and ‘Tearscape’ series, lay in the sectarian violence which tore Bombay apart following the demolition of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya, and in the inter-communal tension which has become central to India’s contemporary politics. The mosque demolition and the Bombay riots had been followed by a serial bombing of important Bombay locations, in which three boys from Atul’s neighbourhood died.
Death pervades Atul’s recent creations, notably a sculptural assemblage called ‘Broken Branches’ which consists of nine display cabinets with bones, prosthetic limbs, simple tools and photographs arranged carefully within them. Some of the photographs are of Atul’s father, whom he often painted and sketched since his days at art school. The photographs used in ‘Broken Branches’ were taken during a terminal illness which claimed his father earlier this year.
As Atul speaks of his father, an image crystallises of a charismatic man with an impressive moustache who was always ready with an anecdote, in some ways a throwback, or a link with a vanished past. His expression in these final photographs, which display and sometimes zoom in on his horribly distended belly, combines dignity and helplessness in equal measure. ‘Broken Branches’ also continues to address Atul’s preoccupation with Gandhi and communal violence, managing a remarkably seamless combination of the personal and political.
Looking back on his development, Atul reflects: “Sometimes I feel doubts about my lack of consistency. After painting a serious picture related to Apur Sansar, I went on to a lemon yellow work with Gabbar Singh on it. I wonder how I can have such a range. It’s as if I like everything, and can handle everything… but is it a kind of showing off? When I finish a work, though, I find it is satisfactory, for instance I am very happy with the cabinets.” All this is said with a transparent earnestness which characterises all his speech. As I leave I ask him about the burgeoning ‘school of Atul’: The paintings of Prashant Salvi, who won the Bose Pacia Emerging Artist award a couple of years ago, and Ratnadeep Adivrekar, who bagged the Harmony Emerging Artist award earlier this year, show unmistakable echoes of the Dodiya style. And there are many more like them. “Let them use aspects of my work if they want, I’ll have changed by the time they imitate something,” he says, making a dodging manoeuvre with his hands.