Reading signs of divagation
'Punctum vegetationis' is a botanical term which refers to the component of regeneration; most dictionaries explain it as 'the terminal cell of a stem, or of a leaf bud, from which new growth originates.' When exactly do we witness similar regeneration in art? Before such regeneration, do we see the end point or the terminal stage of all the traditionally dominant trajectories? Is this the point of inflection from where one is able to map the end of the past era and the beginning of a new one? One realizes, with one's close inspection of the chain of events that had transpired, that it is barely possible to give an account of the change employing a linear framework.
When signs of divagation start to appear they are recognized through their slow and deliberate incursions into the social sphere. Unlike political regime changes, change in the cultural paradigm simply does not follow a consensus on the part of the people; it occurs when, through introduction of new stratagems the artistic turf is radicalized.
When an emerging paradigm slowly and deliberately infiltrates the social arena one cannot simply assume that the flow of the stilted cultural productions will automatically pass. What is passé simply continues to live – enjoying an afterlife causing one era to be populated with a number of cultural streams loosely representing a number of eras and their attendant paradigms; and we are served on our platters a smorgasbord consisting of old and new varieties of modes of expression. This fact, along with the reality that one aesthetic fountainhead may flow in several new directions, renders the history of art nonlinear – making the evolutionary interpretation seem unfounded.
In the place of an imagined straight and progressively moving line there appear several lines crisscrossing the cultural landscape often showing the telltale signs of tensions, interactions, negotiations between similar and even opposing patterns of expressivity. In our clime, some emerging streams, sometimes even take their point of departure from a new 'trend' which had already enjoyed its heyday in the West. This is where critical intervention can and will make a difference by ensuring emplacement of the discursive, rather than the formulaic strategies, in the sites of artistic practices. Perhaps this is where Depart must work as a mediating agent to transform the 'bostu' (material) to bear upon the 'bhab' (sensibility), to employ two dynamically linked terms, which, through many an erroneous interpretation, are usually perceived within a dichotomous frame. Lalon Fakir, the eighteenth century dialecticist speaks of the interchangeability of both bhab and bastu. His songs set forth an ontologico-epistemic structure that intersect many a past religious and nonreligious traditional thought-streams, and, thus, helps define the human being in a new light by returning to the body – the very site of meditation and action.
While we await full acknowledgement of the artistic vanguard by the mainstream psychographies in Bangladesh, perhaps, in our mind we keep spinning myriad 'end points' of the so called 'medium-specific', 'essentialist' interpretations as well as forms of art that still take such interpretations as a guiding light. Though, in reality the stumbling blocks in the shapes of noncritical pedagogy, and the primacy of the institutionalized knowledge it produces, however nondescript they may appear at present, alongside our own sluggishness in challenging such loci, together contribute to the continuation of the status quo. In such a cultural climate the validation of the 'conventional modern' practices are easily obtained. On the other hand, there is little interest in what 'arrives early', let alone any consideration for the reappraisal of what once went unnoticed. This is the reason why a good number of alternative platforms have been floated to intervene and acknowledge the new practices, including the artists-run collectives.
Currently, we witness a refreshing change in mainstream's response to new art: galleries are slowly recognizing the polemics and praxis that had actually begun in the 1990s, and have received a decisive thrust in the recent years. One may assertively state that things, at last, have started to look up. Though, in Bangladesh, the traditional easel painting is still defined in relation to medium-specific sensuous qualities, there are artists who, even in the realm of pure painting, are departing from the norms in search for effective new means of transmission to signify the changed social realities. In some areas, especially with the digital and video art languages, we see emergence of the techné which, besides being based on interdisciplinarity, is 'overconstructing' (Barthes's trope) the themes through which they appear. Some even draws on an established recipe in order to shock and surprise without much success. All such 'new' efforts, thus, demand critical-theoretical mediation, of which only a fraction is being supplied by Depart. What seems imperative now is not simply institutional or financial validation of art and textual practices, which is necessary, but to keep a sharp eye on all such new articulations in order to recognize the value they have added and the potential they hold to inflect the cultural arena leading to robust regeneration. There should also be an effort to establish a genealogical map, through which one will examine all such novel gestures in relation to the established Western paradigms.
On the question of the Western paradigms, there is an apparent rift between those who choose to opt for fluid praxis in the context of the current global surge for installation and new media art and the ones who are either somnolent about it all, or intentfully keeping their distance. The polemics around art simply follows this line of division: on one hand, there is art cast in the vocabulary of the perceived 'indigenous' or the 'local' tradition, and on the other , art which is predisposed to Western influence. In reality, there is no ground for such a deeply polarized view of the art world, as between the two poles of ethnocentric and globocentric art there appears a grey area wherein sits both Bangladeshi avant-garde and the indigenous post-avant-garde practices.
The East-West dichotomy, which had surfaced in the colonial period when Calcutta (now, Kolkata) was the cultural center, when some of the artists of renown simply missed the fact that tradition and modernity are not mutually exclusive. The division that emerged continues to affect the narratives of the present. It is an incontrovertible fact that at an earlier stage of our history, artists set the stage for modernity in the then undivided Bengal through interiorization of the dominant Western modes. What is worrisome at present, that unlike the artists of earlier generations, today, some have developed a habit of 'pick and choose', taking to artistic dictions like 'new agey' shoppers in a mall.
On the other hand, what is laudable in the strategies of many a young renegade is the decidedly lighter projection of a serious intent, grounded in the production of both one's own 'being' (in its metaphysical dimension, of course) and art. All this is forwarded as a counter-narrative with, perhaps, the hope of effectuating a gaze shift and recasting of their position vis-à-vis the very culture of image making amidst other forms of image production from within the 'spectacle society'.
In the culturally impregnated climate of this Late Capitalism, with the authority of the Symbolic Order engulfing the entire social site, reality often remains annulled. It also makes a partition to arise between artist and art. Art as a testimony/mirror to reality – which is too linear a framework to be able to take into account all the complexities of the contemporary spectacle society – seems to afflict our efforts often resulting in what one may dub as an apparent atrophy, or the fetishization of the image making process itself. The procesual nature of art making, where form, matter and the societal forces come together in an unconscious realization of often indeterminate goals, thus remains out of foci.
As the residents of the political society, 'where the extension of the domain of war' has caused a division to appear in relation to one's position vis-à-vis the World Order, artists often think of the cultural space as a clearly demarcated 'neutral zone' to seek and attain alterity. Though, one should know that alterity actually is a process one needs to occupy himself/herself with by acknowledging the material forces that guide the individual focused on change.
The 'differentiated practices' may often seem inadequate in the context of a society in flux, affected as we are by the violence that continues to scar some of the locales across the globe. The world that appears as a mise-en-scène interspersed with the footages from what is good, bad and ugly, demands a spectacle and idea-image to speak, though synecdochically, the language of the current apocalyptic age. Hieronymus Bosch could make appear gargantuan scenery which, in turn, translated the world through an apocalyptic mode befitting his goals. Goya, who operates from a slightly different register, using a less apocalyptic but similar idiom with dramatic effect on the psyche, seems to situate himself on ground Zero, where things 'fall apart' to echo the external chaos. As he addresses the unreason of war and strife impulsively, impassionedly by employing archetypal imagery in the service of theatricality, Goya seems as relevant today as he had once been in his own times.
On the other end of the spectrum, the 'consensus' image/art is the one that the culture industry often deems important and keeps pushing for. So the 'new' alternative image/art must appear by seeking to generate 'the othered' – to make visible the 'profane' amidst the 'sacred', in the secular sense of it, of course.
Artists set to make a fresh beginning, achieve their goals by taking detours, as did the Chapman brothers of Britain with a new appropriationistic stance. Their encounter with Goya's entire suite of Los Caprichos clearly resulted in the heightening of the drama and irony through superimposition of the sourced capital-era images. The brothers seem to transplant the violence and 'facelessness' of the victims into the site of the apathy of our 'post-historical'* age; and by effectuating a deferral of the haunting and catharsis, in order to deal with the absurdity of the unfolding events, their achievements can be explained in relation to what the Lettrist International once theorized as Detournement – where one makes use of the Capital-driven 'images' to counter the hegemony they once were part of. Lalon, too, comes off as an innovator in such a context, providing one with a unique array of 'tools' – with which one may start working with the 'material bodies' which function as cogs in the machine of the 'body politic'.
In the end, one must resort to poet Nazrul Islam, who is often lauded for being a rebel, but is often kept outside of the Bengali nationalist radar. A discursive poet, whose corpus is rich in crossreferences, he writes emulating Lalon's transcendental materialistic polity: '…not only have I been made to forget my kool [social status], but He [the Other] too has forgotten His,' referring to the magical influence of 'sneha', or tender loving care. Art too should be forgetful of its status – as all such stratifications are a symbolic gesture of a historically grounded relational framework whereby art serves the gentry. Only by being forgetful of such a social bond alongside the dominant validating machineries, art apparently remains relevant across times.