Afflicting the myths with radical interfacing
Re-examining semioticity through Ronni Ahmmed's spaced-out odyssey
The plane is like a desert that concepts populate without dividing up. The only regions of the plane are the concepts themselves, but the plane is all that holds them together.
– Gilles Deleuze
The ramification of sourcing myths and legends are usually floated in the form of textual complexity as well as grandeur of expression while it unpacks a sinuous narrative that tells tales at different psychosocial levels, at times evoking the primordial in humans. In its thorough excavation, the prakrity, or nature, that often lies latent in us is summoned to respond to the archetypes of which myths are a repository. The reactive mechanism that works up the human mind to the level of stupor, or call it the extra-sensory state, vis-à-vis the archetypes, usually remains an unreachable terrain in any other mode of thinking/imagining compared to what myths may exhort in us as they are the most pertinent portal to the collective unconscious. But artist Ronni Ahmmed's invocation of myths and legends has a definitive quirkiness to it – a dimension that apparently reveals his ulterior motive, intent as he is on interlacing various myths, historical legends, and folklore to devise his own chef-d'oeuvre. He thoroughly shakes the ground in which these tales are traditionally embedded – inscribed as they are on the social fabric as localized/collectivized memory leading to communal cohesion as his is a goal of bringing out a characteristic shift in the mapping the Mythos alongside expressing a deep disbelief in the power vested and privilege assigned to the Logos. He sets off an untying of the knots with social and psychological implications – to tease out new meaning as well as to venture beyond meaning. Ronni utilizes the mental surge that these tales bring forth and translates that into a visual deluge that serves to unhinge them from their context.
The result has been an overwhelming 100 by 10 feet canvas which is a meditation on Noah's Ark – the Biblical legend of the messiah whose mammoth boat was the refuge for a pair of every species and a way for him to ensure continuity of all forms of earthly life after the apocalyptic Deluge. Through this gargantuan project, the artist remaps the cultural signifiers to his heart's content, assigning value to the hitherto undervalued stories and events, bringing all texts – both overrated and underrated – into the level playground of art, which is a newly cultivated space of a conjurer who travels the length and breadth of historical time, defusing linearity, defying convention. In antagonism to the submissive mind with the habit of taking the trouble to carry the sacramental cargo from one era to the other, or from one domain to another, relatively unharmed during travel, Ronni musters an imaginative delirium akin to myths and folklores but creates a lore using the remnants of other lore. As for his lore – it is strikingly reflective of his own repertory of sensibilities – those that at times seem sacrilegious. From the rudimentary of narrativity that he thrives on the artist schematizes a grand narrative of a wholeness which gives off a feeling of myriad fragmentary views packed into one – a painting unfolds like an archaeological site smacking of history considerably ahistoricized. Does 'The Archaeology of Noha's Arc' posit a paradox through the unresolved question of authorial control? Or does it actuate an idiosyncratic interpretation through which to re-examine the power of myth as the reorganizing force of the consciousness, affecting our cognition as well as the order of memorizing/recognition at both personal and collective levels? Is it a negotiation which tends to provide the basis for an argument to take root along the line that reality and unreality have no predetermined boundaries?
If time and context are removed by Ronni's intervention, time is also restored and reconstructed in an 'imaginary' context which lies far beyond the scope of the actual text. By affectively dodging the cultural location and social condition through which one is to look at the myths with the intent of providing the basis for their relevance, Ronni unflinchingly plays with the idea of memory and forgetting. In fact his imagery – in its complex amalgamated form – produces a forgetting of what is known and performs a recollection of what is forgotten in such a way that what results is an extraordinary vision laden with cryptographs, to borrow a Deleuzian idea of how 'commentary can be organized according to two distinct moments' – one of forgetting and the other of recollection. If the attempts to extract meaning are synonymous with tracing the web of significations that binds a particular text to a particular time and space then Ronni has no intention to haul the contextual reality into the space-time configuration of the present for re-examination or reiteration/citation of certain truths. He revels in unravelling the mystic layers but avoids orientating his thoughts according to the grain of the text. Neither is he intent on subjecting it to the present-day reality and its capital-driven social order. Thus, his seminal piece avoids both empirical and symbolic representation.
In defiance of the materialistic agenda of our time, in opposition to the conventional practice of the mad rush towards meaning, Ronni's decontextualization brings into existence an interfacing that is made possible only after the original text is considered equal to that of a spoof or caricature. In this non-hierarchical, non-judgmental way of amassing imagery, while keeping the palimpsestic possibility wide open, the artist stands to destabilize the official hermeneutics, challenges the univocal response to textual matters, and throws things open for interpretation acting as a mediator, a conduit for the rest of us to enter the neutral zone – the psycho-topology – from where imagination tends to flow. If emptying the texts of their original content is not part of his grand scheme, he does attempt an extreme mutilation of their corporeal bodies, simply by voicing a disapproval of the idea of sticking to the originals. His technique affords an argument for the fact that we continuously restructure and recreate myths in order to keep alive the imaginative core of our selves or the current of consciousness within the busy field that is society. But, what does one want to accomplish in one dramatic tableau? What made the artist of 'The Archaeology of Noah's Arc' to bring together a flurry of excitingly disjointed ideas and have them interlaced into an alter-text which is the magnum opus constructed as an idea exraordinaire? One whose passionate engagement with myths, fables and popular nursery rhymes intersects with the absurdist frame of mind, may mistakenly be seen as an agent provocateur displaying a distinct metaphysical bend of mind, a distant gaze that is never given to rational considerations. Playing havoc with our quest for reality through the project of rationalism, Ronni's deviant and travelling properties stand for the denial of logic – a human construct – which has done little to improve our understanding of the world as we know that facts are not always close to the truth, let alone insights. Ronni demonstrates that his way of repressing what makes sense opens up the possibility of the non-sense leading to some insights even extraneous to myth-reading and even myth-making, thereby repositioning the reader in relation to the narrative, emphasizing what is non-literal and nonlinear in a given text. As for meaning, we may resort to Raphael Rubinstein, whose observation is deeply liberating: meaning is less intrinsic to the object than it is contingent upon relations established in the aesthetic situation between the object, the artist, the viewer, and contextual modifiers.
The acrylic on canvas painting apparently accomplishes a duel chore – firstly, by disavowing a fixed position vis-à-vis all kinds of narratives, it questions certainty and free us from our servile attachment to all authoritative interpretations; secondly, by initiating the mutation of the source materials (the narratives), it let them travel through time – making them part of a stream of consciousness that hovers over the present without settling on a perch to become a part of the present historical time. And this ahistorical dimension of this historical painting can be located in the 'plane of immanence' – to draw on Deleuze once again. What the philosopher of non-philosophy offers in his postulation of plane of immanence shares is a kinship with what the horizontality (both conceptually and physically) of the painting does to the act of painting itself; it displays a process in action. Conceived as 'thought's "non-philosophical image"', or the vertigo of philosophy, the plane of immanence for Ronni is the ground from where to institute this (a)historically-conceived painting that presupposes work of art as a continuous play of difference which simultaneously nulls the subject-object as well as presence-absence differentiation or existential or universal instantiation. Thus, as a work of art, Noah's Ark attaints a desubjectification which can neither be found in the idealist mode of expression nor be detected in the realist, expressionist or formalist ethos of the moderns.
This 100-foot-long saga, told in a language that seems to employ a series of deconstructive devices that challenges verbal language as well as its kin, visual expression, turning the tableau into a narrative image as the stuff of imagination brought into existence to stimulate our existence. Ronni, by refusing to separate the past from present, or content from its visual construction, can be seen as a creator of a time machine constantly in motion – creating indeterminate movements to and fro – shuttling across the ages, andalso between process and projection. This enables an encounter which at once evokes a strong poetic awakening and a primordial craving for freeing one's self from the decadent organizing principles of our time. The goal of generating new organizing mechanisms almost seem self-propelled, occasioning redemptive intervals or creating fissures which we may define as substantive fissures in the fabric of constructed reality. His rebus or ideogram creates a force field from where this reorganizing takes off. It also privileges an understanding – or pushes one onto the level of an extra-sensory awareness – which is liberating in itself, as is any living form of ritual that goes beyond 'lived and livable' reality. If rituals are of collective construct, Ronni's is of an individuated form of that spirit or act. That the work had generated mass-appeal at the time of its display at the Dhaka Alliance Françoise gallery, clearly testifies to its power of drawing the human mind to its field of play. As a gargantuan mix of tales told in hyperboles in a wavering cadence, Noah's Ark chooses to renounce societal norms and their ethical holds on the individual through the imaginative scope it continuously creates. It thrives on excess; abundance is its raison d'être alongside being a cerebral action painting that lays its faith on an orgy of seemingly disparate visual elements. It is a Biblical tale recontextualized, reorganized, and reframed to fit into a spectrum of ideas that align themselves to a collective striving for transcending the boundary set by interpreters or hermeneuticists. The acrylic on canvas is a demonstration of human capacity to mythologize through visualization, putting image before thought as well as beyond thought. But, it is also grounded on an edict that lets it work through the recollection-image to create über-image.
In Ronni's prolific and forceful hands all forms take on a dimension we may call non-forms, as at times they transcend their recognizable characters and even transgress the form's formation to redefine the typology. Even the tiger is twisted to the extreme to look like a cross between an exotic snake and the four-legged mammal; the ominous clouds that hover in the vast sky turn into rain-spewing beasts, the portrayal of the invading Ikhtiyar Uddin Muhammad bin Bakhtiyar Khilji with his 17 armed men, the famed conqueror of Bengal, who overwhelmed the then weak regime of the last Sen king, in the eighth century AD, are like apparitions – at once ethereal and beastly. There are intentional anachronisms: from the oil-lamp associated with one of the Arabian Nights' tales there is a rocket shooting through the clouds; the Spiderman and Batman too appear in cameos in hybridized form. Other innumerable hybrids aside, the protagonist, Noah, takes on the shape of a large, portentous head painted on a large red sail. It spreads over the mid-zone of the canvas providing it a point of focus. Hanging on the top of the lateral sails are three sons of Noah, transformed into mere logos mimicking the cubist way of deconstructing a face following a certain spatial orientation. With the rest, the policy is plain and simple: faith in fluidity, or in stretching the forms to extreme to facilitate hybridization of an extreme kind. Perhaps the primordial in man meets the post-verbal-era visual considerations in this piece. Then again, one must consider the fact that it is after we had been able to muster language that as humans we were able to grapple with as well as properly define matters we often brand as irrational and absurd – emotions often perceived as throwback from the non-verbal-era existence. But, Ronni unabashedly draws on the magic of both the worlds – the visual strength of the world before language and the ever-increasing possibility of expansion of that world in the presence of language – as language itself is a construction that allows for metonymy, metaphor, and synecdoche to sway over plain literal, unimaginative communication.
With Ronni, the entire world appears in synecdoche. The references are just plain cues to enter a fantastic domain of possibility of movements and continuity. No matter how the viewers want their references, the artist – inclined as he is to add value by challenging the very structure of values – will never serve them unscrambled. From the order of things expressed in the recent opus (where the Ark is not merely an object of contemplation but a field of immanence) as well as from their constitutions, it becomes obvious that Ronni lays his hope on the world of subtexts, which is the domain of the mystics and visionaries. Through the plethora of images that crowds the huge boat and the couple of chunks representing the shores (one of which represents the Biblical mountain, Ararat), the desire to read, create, and null and reconstruct the way we perceive the world within (in our thoughts) and the world outside (in our textual and actual practices) is discernable. The work took one and a half months to finish. He deliberately chose the mode of the travelling salesmen who used to carry hand-drawn pictures to advertise their wares. Though the draughtsmanship that Ronni applies emulates low art sensibility, his proposition is a poetic adventure into the domain of popular myths and folklore where verticality of thoughts meets the horizontality of playfulness. But, he does this without venturing into the deep water of faith and the idea of the Holy. 'The Archaeology of Noah's Ark' was open for public viewing for the first time from 18 to 28 February 2005 at La Galerie, Alliance Française, Dhaka; later that year, it travelled to the Chittagong chapter of Alliance Française. It is now in the collection of Mermaid Eco Resort, Club Mermaid, Pechardeep, Cox's Bazar, Chittagong.
- Gilles Deleuze, Pure Immanence: Essays on a Life. Zone Books. 2001.
- Gregg Lambert, The Non-philosophy of Gilles Deleuze, Continuum, 2002.
Photos: ZEENAT AHMED and SHOHANA SHOFIQUE