A thing of beauty may be a joy for ever, but for successful contemporary Indian artists, it is the bizarre and unconventional which gives them the kicks. Modern art, which commands lakhs if not crores, turns logic on its head and sometimes manages to throw up a surprise factor by presenting the extremely ordinary as extraordinary.
For instance, I’ll Get You My Pretty — a title with a reference to The Wizard of Oz — by New York-based Rina Banerjee, is an installation that has a three-feet-long, otherworldly creature with a skull in place of its head as the central piece. Hovering above is a huge dome with white lights and below the ready-to-fly monster is a map of the world made of shells, sand and mica. A critic described it thus: “In short, the installation was quite a sight. Bizarre, gaudy, sinister in a darkened room, over-saturated with potential narratives, highly specific, weirdly gleeful and mysterious.”
The Kolkata-born artist abandoned a career in science to pursue art and is now supported by leading galleries of the world. Her background in polymer engineering is perhaps responsible for her obsession with different kinds of fabric but she also makes use of disparate objects such as taxidermy alligators and wooden cots, fish bones, ostrich eggs and light bulbs to achieve an effect that often borders on the macabre. Rina explains that in her view, all that is “visible” is beautiful.
“The bizarre and unconventional are in fact more visible and they beautify themselves. The poor, the sick, the aging, the hopeless youth... corruption, oppressed... misery of so many… if it could be swallowed by a single beauty, we could all rest in peace like sleeping beauty,” she says. “I think many artists, like other people, are as attracted, if not more, by the unfamiliar.”
Damien Hirst of Delhi Often called India’s Damien Hirst, Subodh Gupta commands huge price tags for his works like the British artist but the comparison also has to do with the seemingly weird installations that both often come up with.
Subodh, who became the first in 2008 to break the $1 million barrier in sales, had made headlines early in his career when, as part of a performance, he lay naked in an open field after smearing himself with cow dung. Another time he went Full Monty after greasing himself with Vaseline. But over the years, he has perfected a style which involves creating art out of ready-made objects, especially Indian kitchen utensils. Subodh doesn’t think twice before asserting that art is not at all about beauty. “For me, art is about love, it is about time. It is also about reality where there is beauty as well as beast,” he tells us.
“Every artist has a style. My language is also different. It all depends on what the public likes. When Van Gogh was alive, nobody liked his works. What about Picasso’s Guernica? No, art is not necessarily about aesthetics.” What about the attention-grabbing installations of his early days? “When you start out, everybody tries to understand the language of art and experiment a lot. But in the same way that a tailor becomes better and better in making suits as he keeps doing it, one’s style also develops. You learn through your own mistakes.”
Toilet brush as sculpture
Bangalore-based Kiran Subbaiah has been attempting unusual works in different media. A sample: Some years back, he came up with a video titled Suicide Note showing a sculpture made out of a toilet brush which he signed K. Subb. The reference clearly was to Marcel Duchamp’s urinal that he had signed R. Mutt. For a while, he indulged in Net art and his site offered downloadable pseudo viruses that fortunately repaired your computer after temporarily dislocating it. Yet, he thinks his works “are not that unconventional or bizarre”. “Maybe they are in the context of the local art scene, but I think works of a similar nature have been there in the West since the 80s,” he says. He admits that his approach is not aesthetic and he never tries to make his works beautiful. “For me, a work of art is like a word which has a meaning. It’s more literal in nature,” he says.
Mumbai-based Sudarshan Shetty’s works were once described by a critic as “giant toys”. The most eye-catching among them perhaps is that of two skeletons of cows hopelessly trying to copulate from an impossible angle. At the Bandra-Kurla complex, he recently set up a giant double-decker bus with silver wings but firmly rooted to the ground. The artist explains: “I think the uncanny has real potential to locate meaning within an audience simply because it disrupts assumptions and is linked with the subconscious.
Everyone has expectations, perhaps at no point are those expectations more armed than when looking at art: a particularly theatrical form of looking at the world. So if work can somehow demand a double-take, then I feel things become exciting in terms of experience.” He goes on to add: “Bizarreness or the look of the macabre could just be a means to an end, further tools, perhaps decidedly at odds to an accepted idea of what is beautiful, to describe an artist's intended position.” It took a while for the art world to accept Sudarshan’s works as worthy of acquiring but now they are sought after.
“I do think that my work has always had a certain awkwardness, semantically as well as logistically, which may have had a delayed interest until any sort of momentum gathered. As for the turnaround, I am not sure,” he says candidly. While daring to be different, what the artists are also doing is to create what they like rather than come up with what is liked.
Rina has this to say about her intriguing other-wordly creatures: “The other world is our world. The world we reject is where the boundaries are raised and they are raised by us first. There really is no limit to what I would take into my work...I open myself when I am making my work. I even take joy in imagining gravity being turning…sometimes making it vanish. I am working with metaphors here but also grasping for science. If the powers in the world could be lifted, what would be the shape of things? We are creatures that fear captivity, enjoy shelter, need more than just being alive to want to live. We need to ask questions.” She definitely does, through her intriguing art.