Seeking Alternative to the Idiomatic
But one is forced to translate thought into action and action into object... I am not a teacher who tells his students only to think. I say: act; do something: I ask for result. It may take different forms. It can have the form of sound, or someone can do a book, make a drawing or a sculpture. – Joseph Beuys
They, together with few other inquisitive individual artists whose periodic initiatives promoted interactivity in art, stand for the consistent search for the New in both local and global contexts and in relation to the re-invention and re-negotiation of the idea of the site and how it impacts the artistic production in any given circumstances. Thus the dialogic tendencies which had little or no opportunity to manifest itself in Bangladesh mainstream found an approximate outlet since the 1990s.
The gender-neutral pronoun 'they' represents the artists-run non-profit Britto. In the last ten years since its inception in 2002, the organization has gone through phases of trials and errors as they framed various programmes in line with their vision of divagation and also to freight their works into the mainstream. Their brand of 'alternative' art resulting from their relentless effort at staging the polar opposite to the already institutionalized mainstream, which consisted of activities more or less embedded in the idea of crossing over the bounds of the mediums and formalism.
Their praxis was and is an attempt at redefining what the contemporary creations/productions are supposed to look like and how they to overshadow, negate, re-negotiate or even interact with the mainstream in order to purge them of the methods of conventional painting to make way for contemporary art-making processes that are often cross-disciplinary.
What resulted from their stance, by and large, testifies to a counterintuitive process, but also amply demonstrates that what set the tenor of the works is the zeal to conjugate the means with the critical frame of mind that always, as a rule, took issues with the social and religious backwardness as well as aesthetic conservatism that presides over the Dhaka art scene. The knowledge – of progressivist/pragmatist hue – was and still is premised on the Western modern and postmodern breakthroughs, as is the case with most contemporary artistic cartel trying to rupture the moulds of the previous generations. But as they touched on subject matters and tackled new mediums in their gradual stride towards a more interactive practice, what they confidently began to integrate into their organizational body has now become widely-known, if not fully accepted, norms of practice. They have long sought to acquire an equilibrium between the new conceits learnt from the west and the visual politics of progressivist hue which has been brewing in the home ground in the last three or four decades.
Site-specificity and interactivity as concepts do not arise out of abstract thinking. Rather the very act of creation itself inaugurates such unique categories. Britto as a linguistic expression points to a circle, a definite spatial matrix, and it is no coincidence that their very own exhibition space has been named Space. Launched in April 2012, to coincide with the Dhaka Art Summit, it opened its door to the public with the showcasing of some of Britto's signature picks produced over the years. Britto artists make explicit the intention to inhabit an alternative zone – irrespective of how as a spectator one elaborates on the meaning of their praxis by interrogating the very base of the artistic proclivities they externalized over the last ten years. The intention to be divergent as well as diverse is always writ large on the sites they produce, which usually work as springboards to launch their own art framed against the mainstream sorority.
The idea of the alternative, categorically harped on by Britto's founder and trustee Tayeba Begum Lipi, a practising artist whose sculptural piece has recently been auctioned at London's Christies, is tied up with manifold intellectual inflections. Staging alternative art, or creating a platform for sustenance of such artistic practices, may be linked to nonconformity, pragmatism and even to the formation of new knowledge to lend them relevance, aspects that many may deem indispensable, yet, what figures prominently in such a practice is the attentiveness to the question of art's own purpose and status.
This question centering on the 'end' the alternative artists sometimes seek to attain with a deliberate intent and through specific means, opens the discourse (of the alternative) to the issue of production constraint. To be free from production constraint means to be able to dodge the demands for art as a regular form of entertainment or easy cultural digestion for that matter. Aren't much of the traditional art forms function from within such utilitarian premise? Conversely, the conceptual underpinnings of alternative art, an area which has rarely been explored in Bangladesh, posit that it be framed avoiding what goes on in the name of having been attentive to a set of predetermined aesthetic considerations. The tendency to aestheticize goes hand-in-hand with confirmation of fame and often gives rise to semi-modernistic mores that render most creations/productions coagulated and stifled; and it happens in a climate of conformity.
Britto's 10th anniversary presentation, dispersed in their newly-established gallery as well as the approach to the gallery, puts together works representing the conceptual/visual types they have so resolutely backed over the last ten years, though a diverse media and methods has also been underpinned throughout. With works gleaned from art produced during their workshops shares space with some newly developed installations, the organization has managed to forward a success story where the best of Britto is gathered conclusively drawing a line of demarcation between what they represent and what seems passé to them.
While Mahbub, Tayeba and others had exhibited together during the late 1990s, the array of new artistic devices they brought forth, some obviously giving rise to significant aesthetco-historical moments, had prefigured their current practice.
The confrontational/protest art which already prevailed amidst the political activism of the 1980s, and the later development where Mahbub has contributed enormously, together went on to mould Britto's personality. Britto has made its name by conflating protest art with the dialogic mode of art of the postmodern dispensation as they have been promoting a form of interactive art, which at times relied on the technological advancement introduced through the globalized practices of the new media. The art space seen as fluid spatial construction now holds suspect the art space (the traditional one) that is constant and, thus, stands in isolation.
No doubt, art that takes interdisciplinarity as its focal point has always found a much pertinent coordinating element in the new media.
As we witness how Imran Hossain Piplu, Yasmin Jahan Nupur, Prmotesh Das, and Masum Chisty make use of photoshop and photography to their advantage, notwithstanding the most ambitious manipulation of the video channels to buttress a mixed media construction by Mahbubur Rahman, we realize the possibilities they together unfold. If Mahbubur Rahman's Alteration Gesture is an elaborate take on the subject of the terminality of our age, with reference to the body and its powerlessness, which can easily be juxtaposed against the atrophied social body – the source of our woe. It is this social state of disrepair referenced to and almost forensically investigated into using the wounded body/self of the victim which intensifies the tragic narrative.
Imran Hossain, whose take on violence through sculpted meat and its raw visuality, vaguely recalls the work of artist Nisar Hossain, but takes its cue from the conceptualist extremism we witness in some of the globetrotting artists (showcased in Meat After Meat Joy, curated by Heide Hatry, 2008). If Nisar's 2001 fleeced rooster photo installation had once, perforce, to accept a visual blow, Imran went a little further and exposed the raw textures and colours of fresh-cut beef.
The process of decontextualization, which is audaciously at work in many a piece showcased here, and the in-the-face attitude of some works, is given material wait and ambiguity by Tayeba Begum Lipi.
Assembled in a series of similar-looking bras with especially-made razor blades, her Bizarre and the Beautiful makes us pause as we try to locate its context. By swapping the attributes of the two articles in use – bra and blade – the artist makes this work point at once to a well-armed resistance to the male gaze and an invitation to it. The possibility of self-inflicted pain also packs it with psycho-social neurosis and in turn evokes ambiguity around the female body and/or self-image. While the work presses the viewer into reacting to the sadomasochistic air it generates, a question may surge to the fore – does the work somehow negates the feminine body sensed through its construction and subtlety?
The polar opposite of such image of ambivalence is found in Yasmin Jahan's compassionate take on womanhood, which looks more like a panorama of experienced reality drawn up in dream sequences. Depicting her own journey of child-bearing using photographic references that are at best be called synecdochical, the artsy images, which the artist threads into a quaisi-romantic narrative, shows her in a state of communion with water and air. In each photograph she seems to enjoy the proximity to nature and almost swoons amidst the dense environment as if to evoke the state of being born into a world where hapticity has been reclaimed. The work tilted Discovering Myself could have been a mirror to the self for all to discover the 'other' as 'self', or self as the other, had it been devised as a self-effacing gesture.
The exhibition also included art that seeks to regenerate or re-emphasize past traditions: as in the work of Molla Sagar, Maynul Islam Paul, Laki Osman and Chandra Shekhar Sarkar.
In cotrast, by tempering with an image of evidentiary value, Promotesh Das Pulak seems to play a pleasant visual pun on the unsuspecting viewers by re-orchastrating a given visual. The artist places himself besides a group of freedom fighters in a photograph taken during the war of liberation (1971) in a garb that matches the rest, thus problematizing an otherwise documentary image.
To overlap the given narrative with another imaginary one, by deliberately tempering with the past, is to let the past be hauled into the province of 'here and now', perhaps, to renew a signifier lost in time. Whether or not it opens up possibilities to explore different resisters of emotion around independence, one witnesses that the past is merged with the present to generate new meaning. The piece of pastiche, inspired by contemporary global trends, operates from the space between history and the politics of representation, and, perhaps, also carries a desire to self-mythologize.
Among others whose conceptual means have yielded significant results are Monir Mrittik, Md Hasnur Rahman and Khondokar Nasreen Ahmed. Monir's Thinking about Thinking points to the circular relation between subject and object; and also perhaps alludes to the solipsism that pervades the discursive space we tend to dive into in order to impact the worldly affairs, yet, which, in the final analysis, seems futile as we are caught in a catch twenty-two situation.
The promontory through which we experience a selection of artworks by Britto artists leaves the viewers more or less satisfied. And to surmise the gist of it in one breath one can say that the elements are all laid out in the most ingenious manner possible, however, do we detect a lack of interrogative spirit that actually have given rise to the idioms in use? It is an issue that calls for serious attention.
The inaugural exhibition was presented at Space, from March 30 to April 15, 2012.