Socio-aesthetic genesis of performance art
I search for the mechanic who created this body-clock of mine; Winding it up one day He let it go, so it keeps running a life time. Made a case of an almost nothing to put the machine in But with varicoloured varnish it looks so amazing!
– Alauddin Bayati
[T]here is a general shift under way, equally affecting the arts and the sciences, in which the old classifications organizing the intellectual map into disciplines, media, genres and modes no longer correspond to the terrain. The organizing principle of the current situation is the collapse of the distinction (opposition or hierarchy) between critical-theoretical reflection and creative practice.
– Gregory Ulmer
Since generically performance art is a 'grab-bag of arts that do not fit neatly into theatre, dance, music or visual art'1, the earliest signs of artistic expressions that may be clustered under such an elusive category can be observed to have made their appearance in the very beginning of the 1990s. The very first performance in the contemporary art context appeared through an irregular precursor, in an earlier event, a performance by Kalidas Karmakar, in Paris, in the year 1977, in collaboration with mime artist Parthopratim Majumdar.2 It makes Kalidas the first Bangladeshi artist to be formally involved in an experiment of possibilities of live presentation of body and its movement as a language of expression – which takes the shape of an interdisciplinary art form, straddling over mime and fine arts.
His second presentation, a solo performance, was also held in Paris in 1981. Another innovation of Kalidas was seen in the transformative pose through which the master painter Quamrul Hassan was made to present his own persona, to be caught in the camera of Nasir Ali Mamun, conceptualized against the backdrop of the Bangladesh's middle class utopic dream for a democratic heaven which they assumed would be possible only after the autocratic administration of the 1980's had been toppled.
Though practised as a supplement to his own forays into painting, Kalidas continued to devise strategies of bodily actions for which the art scene of Bangladesh was evidently unprepared, let alone possessed the will to produce commentaries of import. In the year 1990, on the sandbanks of the Padma, near the ferry port of Nagarbari, a performance of Kalidas, entitled Cry of Padma 1 was executed for a German television channel, as a conscious effort to echo the disastrous impact of the Farakka Barrage arbitrarily built by India depriving the deltaic region of Bangladesh of its fare share of water. In its aesthetical context the performance irrevocably pushed the parameters of mainstream art. In retrospect, the event can be framed as an experimentation that congealed into a compelling act of divagation. Performance art appeared in the west as a form of transgression. It encompasses a broad range of artistic practices that involve bodily experience and live action. Its radical connotations are derived from its capacity to pose a challenge to the conventional modes and artistic values of the past.'
Performance art had been introduced mainly by Allan Kaprow in the early 1960s, who interpreted Jackson Pollock's paintings in terms of the performance that was involved in the creative process. Pollock, an American Abstractionist who redefined surface painting, once said, 'Shifting of attention from the art object to the artist's action further suggested that art existed in real space and real time.'4 Thus, Pollock's action painting, which shifted the focus to the process from the end result, prepared the ground for the instrumentalization of the body as medium so that it is made to speak a language which one may situate in the expanding horizon of anti-art that challenged the established notions of art. The man who left a lasting impact on the art scene of the West for his performances and theories around them was certainly Allan Kaprow – who was an ideologue and an artist rolled into one.
At home, in the alluvial plains of Bangladesh, following Kalidas Karmakar's enthusiastic forays that often seemed like an fusion of bodily contortions and elements drawn from Shanatan (Hindu) religious ritual of Bengal, Mahbubur Rahman came up with his own action plan. Inspired by the dual concept of 'real time' and 'real space', two of the defining principles of performance art, Mahbub, in his very first attempt, presented a performance of swallowing the sun in Lama, Bandarban, a part of the hilly district of Chittagong. This was in 1994. All four constituents of this art form – time, space, performer's body/presence as a medium and the relationship between performers and audience – are noticeable in the site-specific performances of Kalidas and Mahbub.
To home in on the essential elements of what is performative in performance art Richard Schechner has eavesdropped on the exchange between the two gravediggers in the Scene 1, Act 5 of Shakespeare's play, Hamlet. Referring to a speech he clarifies: '[A]n act has three branches – it is to do, to act, to perform'5, and takes it further by adding: 'The gravedigger divides an action into its physical attributes ”do”, its social aspect “act” and its theatrical qualities “perform”'6. Schechner has raised the most relevant question, 'But why does he [Shakespear] use the word “Act” twice – first as an overall category and then as a subject of itself?'7 The answer to which he has suggested in his own response:
'Any action consciously performed refers to itself, is part of itself. Its “origin” is its repetition. Every consciously performed action is an instance of restored behavior. Restored behavior enacted not on a stage but in “real life” is what poststructuralists call “performative”. It is their contention that all social identities, gender, for example, are performative. The gravedigger is not so much repeating himself as he is proposing a situation where the smaller (to act) contains the larger (an act). He is also connecting “an act” as something accomplished in everyday life with 'to act', something played on the stage. The ultimate example of “to act” is “to perform”, to be reflexive about one's acting.'
In a nutshell, within this restored behaviour, which happens to be the spiritual element in every performance, we discover the interrelatedness of its physical, social, creative or cultural features. This three-dimensional restoration can create an understanding of the total act, as is seen in Moniruzzaman Shipu's Green Man in Self-jail, and Saleh Mahmud's Surokkhito Bondishala (The Protected Incarceration) presented on the 1st of Boishakh in 1995, at the premises of the Institute of Fine Arts, Dhaka University, where these performances were less aware of the process-oriented self-reflexivity and, thus, was constructed to merely leave an didactic effect on the audience. These two presentations mark the dawning of a language which begged to be recognized as performance art, though, at that time, the artists themselves could only come up with a phrase which was merely explanatory – they called their acts Human Sculpture. Though one is often hard put to erase the fundamental difficulty in generically defining performance, later artists have specifically identified them as performances.
Presented within the site of a cultural festival, the performances of these two art students framed the concept of estrangement of the body intentionally locating it outside the context of established aesthetic norms. Yet, in line with the other acts of similar nature – namely jatra and the puppet show – they sported green coloured gears in an effort to stimulate public curiosity. Unlike the presentations of Kalidas Karmakar and Mahbub, they attempted to capture a 'concept' rather than the essence of the body. Their act must be judged in the context of a new-found zeal for installation and other forms of art at the Institute of Fine Arts, Dhaka University, when things were being done with a free spirit, uninformed by the western development in PoMo practices and pedagogy.
One year before Saleh and Shipu's performances, there had been a site-specific installation show in the Zainul Fair of 1994.10 It can be assumed that, being encouraged by the enthusiasm generated from this show, they endeavoured to conceptualize their performance as 'live installation', a phrase they also used in the pamphlet they printed for wide distribution. For these artists, the performance was like magic, which will set the rejoicing audience free from their conventional boundaries, bringing them face to face with a startlingly novel experience.
The pioneering acts of the two artists never got repeated by those very same artists. Instead, in the climate of the Institute of Fine Arts, new faces appeared who embarked on a sustained attempt to seize upon the body as the medium of expression. Starting from 1997 till almost 2000, Muhammed Imran and Muhammad Zakir Emon collaborated in quite a number of performances in and around the Institute campus, namely Shahbagh, TSC, Suhrawardi Uddyan, especially in front of Mollah's tea stall which is now known as 'Chhobir Haat' and also adjacent to Dhaka University. Their performances were distinctly antithetical to theatre, displaying many of the qualities of Allan Kaprow's concepts of happenings, which are as follows:
'The line between art and life is fluid, even indistinct. (2) The themes, materials and actions of happenings are taken from anywhere but the arts. (3) Happenings should be performed in several widely spaced locales. (4) Time, which follows closely on spatial considerations should be variable and discontinuous. (5) Happenings should be performed only once. (6) Audiences should be eliminated entirely – everyone at a happening participates in it. (7) The composition/ sequence of events is not rational or narrational, but based on associations among various parts; or by chance.'
On their own performances, Emon reflects that they discovered a sense of delight in their self-consciously devised acts. They were simply scripting a new reality through a new kind of self-expression. 'We wanted to watch the reaction of the audience to our playfulness, spontaneity, and instantaneous activity.' 13 These artists desired to examine the two-fold realities – public and private – through the participatory reaction of the spectators.
From the non-descript streams of actions of the early years to the recent presentation of performances that choose to examine the body in relation to nature, Muhammad Zakir Emon has come a long way. Taking into account a number of his untitled performances between 1997 and 2007, it seems that an ethico-political horizon appears in his works. A joint work with Mohammed Imran in1998, called Gol Moricher Kalkathi (the mechanics of the black pepper) and Mokam in 1999, a solo performance in 2008, The Reflector and Reflector Related Reaction and finally in Exploration in the year 2011, an ascending curve can easily be discerned.
Around the late 1990s the emergent aesthetic fabric began to be inscribed with the new ethos centering on new politico-aesthetic activities making their sluggish entry into the mainstream. The artists were still in the quest for a rhizomatous territory through irregular cavorting. Parallel to this, performance art, the novel newcomer in the contemporary scene, has had another shifting principle flourishing in the seacoast city of Chittagong. In 1997, through the initiative of a cultural activist group led by Professor Abul Mansur, called Shilpo Shamonnoy, Mahbubur Rahman had an exhibition which left a decisive impact by instilling vitality in the field of the performance art practice for the near future.14 In 1992, German artist Rothman conducted an art workshop in Chittagong where he did mention 'performance' as existing within the perimeter of artistic movement and artist Sanjeeb Dutta showed some attitudinal approach to performance art through his performance-like activity presented there.
The artist whose own performance and initiatives led to a new surge of site-specific art in Chittagong where performance began to occupy a special niche was none other than Abu Naser Robii. A powerful exponent of performance art, he, as the head of Porapara Space for Artists, organized a series of workshops between 2009 and 2011, deeply impacting the new generation of artists bucked up to break free of the tradition of the medium-specific practices, where the mediums and knowledge bases remained boxed and forever separated.
If by virtue of the act a place can acquire its meaning, then Robii's performance is primarily a dialogue between the body and space. Regarding the site-specific performance, he is concerned with an ontology of the phenomenon of a situation that coalesces the body with space. From the performances like Leaf and Life (2005), Conflicts of Life and Happiness (2006), we can deduce, taking help from Schechner's book, Performance Theory, that the transformation of natural space (also body) into cultural (cultivated) place is accomplished through 'writing (performing) on the space'.16 Robii '[…] sees his own evolving physique as what it is – an act of nature, on which the rational mind of the artist simply acts upon to educe meaning, or to narrate ideas and emotion.'
In his performance, inspired simultaneously by ideas from the Chinese Zen Buddhism, Indian mythology as well as the Islamic and Christian spiritualism, it seems 'the physical presence that actually is an investment in egotism in real life is allowed to enter a transcendental stage […]'.
Following in the footsteps of Mahabubur Rahman, through whose inspiration Robii broke newer grounds, many other exponents of this form began to walk a tight rope between personal practice and collective intervention. In 2003, Robii and other contemporary artists like Dhrubo Hasan, Joydeb Roaja, Nayem Mannu, Tawfique Taher et al organized an Artists' Talk in Chittagong, Dhaka-based artist Mahbubur Rahman also joined forces. Immediately after this event they arranged a workshop on performance art on the sea shore of Cox's Bazar, which is a significant event that propelled a well synchronized conceptualizing process towards the fruition of this art form. The aforementioned conveners were joined by Noor E Elahi, Monjur Ahmed, two rising artists of Chittagong of that period, while French visual artist Ayona Cozannet, Mahbubur Rahman and Tayeba Begum Lipi also joined in.
In the same year, through the enthusiastic management of Robii, an interdisciplinary art show called Exposition 2003 was organized in Chittagong. About twenty one young artists participated in this two-day long show, of whom at least eight to ten presented performance art. This exhibition is memorable in the sense that, for the first time in this country performance art made its formal appearance in the art scene. Assisted by the Britto Arts Trust, which was established in 2002 to promote alternative art practice, a ten-day long specialized art workshop was held at Jagatmitra Ashram in 2004, where Ayona Cozannet, a French performance artist, was the conductor. Many enthusiastic young artists from Dhaka also joined this workshop. The outcome of this workshop, alongside some of the actual performances, was presented at the Alliance Française in Dhaka, under the title Movement Will Become Sculpture. In the same year, a performance event was organized by the NGOs in Chittagong, presented during a conference on human rights, through the participation of Robii, Monjur Ahmed, Joydeb Roaja, Hasna Hena Porosh, Satabdi Shome, Yasmin Jahan Nupur and others. Interestingly, this event saw an amalgamation of the dominant NGO narratives of development and progress and a genuine enthusiasm for the local context. Perhaps, this even has left a deeper mark on the art scene, as one often witnesses, an conspicuous social reformist position inspiring many a narrative of the artists in Bangladesh.
There had been more artistic activities in 2004 which helped advance the cause of the pioneers. 'As part of his activism, Robii, with the support of his contemporaries, launched Porapara Space for Artists, an artist-led organization that supports artists in their efforts to frame new ideas and expressions as they strive to go beyond the modernist traditions and norms'.
Another of Chittagong's artists-run organization – Santaran, arranged an art camp in Alikadam, Bandarban, in 2005, where quite a number of artists presented site-specific installations and performances. Santaran's initiator Monjur kept coming back to his own form of body-oriented performances which were primarily framed around concerns over ecology and the parochialism that pervades the social-political arena of the country.
The series of specialized workshops arranged by Porapara between 2009 and 2011, through their activities and influence, signal a powerful impact of the sort of a spring awakening in the Chittagong based performance art. The two performance workshops, conducted by Japanese artist Seiji Shimoda, for two consecutive years, 2010 and 2011, can be marked as decisive aesthetic interventions in this field. Shimoda's personal performance lexicon has been developed around Zen Buddhism, due to which one can see a predominance of minimalism and void taking central position in his performance theory. Anything, for that matter, other than body and action is rejected as superfluous. For the artists in Chittagong, Shimoda's aesthetics was an inspiration to venture outside the dominant sentimentalist and photogenic visual languages.
Palash Bhattacharjee, the latest important exponent of performance art, expressed in clear terms that they learned the simplicity of performance from Shimoda.20 To reap the benefit of these workshops, in 2011, Porapara organized the first international performance festival in Bangladesh. In this, Japan's Nippon Performance Art Festival (NiPAF) joined hands with the Art Institute of Chittagong University as a foreign collaborator. Dhaka Art Center also was a venue of this celebration. One can discover the notion of multiplicity rather than multiculturalism in those performances presenting art as an organic expression of agents maligned by the Late Modern ennui of overproduction of commercial and cultural objects – one which continues in the backdrop of the violence unleashed by the global hegemon – the US. In the 12 day-long performance event dispersed across venues in Dhaka and Chittagong about 55 young artists presented more than 250 performances. These workshops inspired and engaged many a painter and installation artist including Rokeya Sultana, Dilara Begum Jolly, Niloofar Chaman et al.
While performance art is yet to gain public approbation and the attention of the cognoscenti, its progression continues, though much of the acts that now pass for performance seem self-defeatingly framed around the image-producing calisthenics.
In this developing stage of performance art, two factors are particularly noticeable among the Chittagong artists. Firstly, they are embracing the languages introduced by Seiji Shimuda, Mahbubur Rahman and Ayona Cozannet, which was later turned into a stable knowledge base through the establishment of Porapara Space for Artists. Secondly, the emergence of a number of young artists like Yasmin Jahan Nupur, Afsana Sharmin Zhuma, Palash Bhattacharjee, whose multifaceted artistic endeavours added an extra dimension to performance art, can easily be seen as the second wave in the history of performance art in Bangladesh. Alongside these young artists, some Chittagong based artists with more experience, like Niloofar Chaman, Dilara Begum Jolly et al frequented the region of performance art to reinvigorate their creative repository. Chaman's engagement even goes back to the very first international artist's workshop organized by Britto, at Gazipur, Dhaka, in 2003. However, the aesthetic stratagem of Abu Naser Robii, Afsana Sharmin Zhuma and Palash Bhattacharjee deserves special mention for they have supplied the much needed vigour and brilliance to the embryonic performance art scene of the country.
Before this surge of performance through which the younger generation of artists seek to redefine the self/body and expand the perimeters of their current practices, Dhaka mainstream saw sporadic events of performance, especially through the programmes organized by Britto. Alongside the Britto-organized workshops and site-specific programmes, where performances always provided a way for the artists to depart from other forms of expression, artists who have contributed significantly by expressly supplementing their regular vocation as painters with performance are Nisar Hossain and Ronni Ahmmed.
In the year 2001, Nisar Hossain's interactive installation entitled Portrait of a Killer served as an important point of departure. Interestingly, it was the result of a performance staged in isolation. The artist himself considers it a performance with the photographer as the interactive viewer.
The artist as an agent provocateur faced with a dilemma surrounding art production in a country where a buyer can cajole the artist into producing work of his/her own choice, provides the setting against which Ronni Ahmmed 's 2003 performance Man Comes from the Grave and Returns to It was produced. It was a videoed documentation of a protracted performance involving several actors, including the artist. Screened at the Bengal Gallery of Fine Arts in the concluding episode of the artist's fourth solo exhibition entitled Tales of Pseudo-Myths, this hinged on a fictional narrative. Since performance art can break the definitional boundary, having adopted in its inception an aesthetic-political stance and since performance can be 'live or via media', Ronni let his work appear as a video. A multilevel synthesis of literature, visual art, theatre and popular culture is discernible in this unabashedly interdisciplinary performance where he mocks at the authoritarian codes that rule the art world.
Another introductory signal of performance art in Bangladesh can be located in Ronni Ahmmed's work presented at the Bengal Gallery of Fine Arts in 2007, as a component of the residency programmme of Britto Arts Trust in collaboration with the University of Lincoln, England. Visiting performer Claire Charnley paired with Ronni Ahmmed to present a performance centered on language and meaning in a specific context which was an edition of Claire's cycle of a workshop that she takes to far corners of the world. Claire is a lecturer in the University of Leeds, who, since 2002, had been performing around the world, in collaboration with the local artists, thinkers, writers and curators, in order to investigate the dominance of English language in the historical, cultural and political realities of these countries. About the process and objective of her own work, Clare said:
'Speech as a series of collaborative performance poses questions about communications between two different cultures/languages simultaneously exposing and critiquing the dominance of English language in the contemporary world. It always involves close collaboration between myself, whose mother tongue is English and the native speaker of the local language.'
At the launching event of Depart at the Dhaka Club in 2010, Ronni's third performance was a hyperbolic equivalent of the strident visual language that one encounters in his painting. This work introduced another new trend in the field of performance art in Bangladesh. Ronni conceived this mainly as a playwright-director-designer and the meritorious theatre activist and actress, Ritu A Sattar was the performer. Not only is this significant in its approach which was metatheatrical, but also because more importantly it tries to 'express the unknown through this postnationalist, postindustrialist' condition where the subject can only subvert the hegemony of the mainstream by displaying the symptoms of a borderline personality trying to go beyond the temporal-historical reality.
Though the genesis of performance art has been influenced by the signals from the developing western culture, its social genesis is very old. If we turn our attention to the various aspects of the ritualistic and performative features integral to the life style of this region, the performative elements in the cultural patterns can easily be discerned. The impact of the rituals deeply touches the social unconscious. Additionally, artists of this clime often find inspiration from the popular cultural acts of the snake charmer, the monkey dancer, the apothecary vendor and similar folk activities, which releases them from any kinds of normative limitation to a rediscovery of the warmth and pulsation of quotidian life.
The pre-Vedic ceremonial worship – the jagya, in which objects were given as offerings into fire, accompanied by incantations, still thrives in this society.
A popular religious culture is the Shiva dance in which the performer combines the masculine aspect of life expressed through destruction while the feminine unveils itself as demure and delicate through creation. Kali centered religious rituals abound in the use of organic painting materials and bodily trancelike situations. During the Chaitra Shangkranti (a summer festival), the ritual of charak puja, an act of turning on a revolving scaffolding, through all its different stages, is nothing but an extreme body act. The floating of the pitcher of Devi Manasa, (the snake goddess) is a site specific, ritualistic performance. Another rural performance is held at the times of drought involving smearing of the body with mud, rolling on wetted earth singing, 'Allah give us cloud, give us rain, give us shade' and traversing the village, begging for rice. The adoption of vek or transformation by the Boishnabs of Bengal is another devotional, ritualistic, symbolic act. Another sacred performance is Shitla Puja (offered to this goddess of epidemic), to protect the community from chicken pox, cholera and plague. In commemoration of the tragic history of Karbala, the Muslim Shiites' ritualistic marsia chants, tazia processions, with followers inflicting pain upon the body through flagellation, are part of a ritual invoking the restoration of the Muslim governance or Khilafat, representing the body as Khilafat.
The practice of chants and devotional songs in the Baul camps is not merely a site-specific, ritualistic lifestyle but a knowledge generating philosophical school as well. In the Nadia School of Bengal, philosophy is considered not simply through the lens of ‘cogito model’. In Bengal, especially in the Sufi/Boishnab tradition, the body and ‘bhaab’ or consciousness is seen as indivisible and life is a continued performance. The duality of body and mind is primarily a modern western concept. Judging from one angle, a segment of performance art in this country is a result of replicating the chronological evolution of the western culture, from yet another, it has always existed in a living form in the urban and rural folklore, sacred rituals, religious concepts related to different schools of philosophy, stratified in the grain of the societal structure. So, the fact is established that though performance art is considered as a modern aesthetic development, in effect, it is not a stranger to society as a whole. We discern among different religious groups like Jain, Buddha, Boishnab, Shaiba, Ganapatya, and the non-religious Shakto sect, the active manifestations of their faith is clearly discerned in their performances. Their creeds and ethos are often enacted through the practices of Chauryapada and Churashi Siddha and the musical streams emanating from Sri Chaitanya, or other ballad makers and minstrels like Lalon, Padmalochon, Phatik Goshai, Jadubindu, Rashid, Radhashyam, Panju Shah, Houra Gosai, Ananta Gosai, Duddu Shah, Radharaman, Dwijodas, Jalaluddin Khan, Alauddin et al. Now, how much of the indebtedness for the assimilation of performance art could be attributed to this culture is a question yet to be explored.
[S]o I principally tried to push beyond the threshold of modern art into an era of anthropological art, as a beginning in all fields of discussion …. – Joseph Beuys
The French interdisciplinary history scholar Mark Bloch believes that history is not merely a chronological, censured report of events; rather it is more of an evaluation and appreciation of developments from the perspective of causes and conditions. Fact finding, in our clime, often is an end in itself. Yet, we are aware that to map the development of performance art, which is only in its formative phase, the artistic maneuvers discussed above need to be evaluated in light of the thesis of Bloch.
The approach to performance genre has been a means to inscribe the art scene with anti-art, anti-aesthetic stratagems, and here in Bangladesh it is often being employed thoughtlessly even to instigate nationalist passions. It seems that the methodology of modern performance the concept of Via Negativa, which means negating the aspects of skill and setting – derived from the Polish theatre activist and scholar Jerzy Grotowski 's 'poor theatre' – has only seen occasional application.
The body-oriented oral discursivity, which is the ultimate achievement of the Nadia school in Bengal, often posits that the human body/self is not merely a thinking subject, but a unique performing subject. The body/self of today's artist is yet to absorb the multiplicity of home-grown narratives and performances – ones that still lie outside the ambit of the educated middle class. As for the ‘against the grain’ acts of the artist-performers of the country, it does provide some respite in an atmosphere of declining academic practice; perhaps, an occasional spark of novelty, though with very little substance produced to illuminate the space connecting the body, the mind and the universe.
Nisar Hossain's search for the face of the killer
Way back in 2001, at the 1st solo exhibition of Nisar Hossain the artist was seen as the initiator of a number of conceptual diversions, through which he distanced himself from the linearity of his customary two dimensional works executed in oil or acrylic. One among them presented a series of photographs of the artist in the act of a strange, morbid performance. For Nisar Hossain it was a point of departure; yet, an event that he could not present in public due to characteristic inhibition. Thus he arranged for the performance to take place in a private space, outside the public gaze, with a photographer recording the sequences.
His inspiration came from a real life event redolent with human derangement. In a far off village a father had killed his beloved small son in the likeness of the sacrifice of Isaac by the prophet Ibrahim, and through this travesty of mimicking a mythic sacrificial act, which reads as nothing short of madness, artist Nisar Hossain planned to explore the very fabric of the human psyche – potentially harbouring a killer.
The artwork first saw the light of day in his solo, in 2001; and later it was restaged in 2012 at The Country of Rising Sadness, an exhibition of contemporary art, curated by Ebadur Rahman as part of the Samdani Art Foundation's scheme to promote Bangladeshi art.
For him the idea of the ghatok, or the perpetrator, is transposable: 'as the man who was in sympathy with the people in 1971 might have changed into a person who stands against them at present.' This transmutability of the human being has been the key to arrive at the final photo installation which is actually the result of a performance caught in stills in its myriad sequences. It was the very first performance of Nisar, and this was enacted to capture the essence of a man gone overboard with his faith. The final display incorporates a mirror, upon which a small news item on the killer father is pasted. The mirror acted as a device to filter the sinister side of a seemingly sober human being that which has made the artist rethink the link between a subject and the act of unreason which translates into the killing of his son.
The artist examines the killer father of that news item through the person of the artist himself. Here, one witnesses the concept of einfühlung, or empathy, made to turn on its head: the artist wants to know the perpetrator through his own act of divagation – a transformative 'ritual' where the mask of talcum powder provides another layer of tissue through which the 'unfamiliar', 'unexplainable' is introduced to the viewer. The colour white perhaps, represents the cadaver-like strange state of being – the subject inflicted by unreason.
The work, in its semiotic interpretation looks like a multispatial construction where, through an intersubjective frame, the artist's body articulates the gestures of the killer – thereby expressing a language that is foreign to his 'self'. The other, in this changed and charged circumstance, is explored with the hope of getting the message across – though not in a simple linear narrative, but in an experiential mode. To ensure that this performance affects the itinerant bodies on a visit to the gallery, the artist, in the original presentation, kept a powder container with a puff next to the mirror to transmit the sense of unease and defamiliarization as a way to elicit a recognition of the transformative power of the ritualized act of killing. It is through returning to a mental state that the grimaces and wails emitting from the powdered face of the artist portray – effectively captured in the photographs displayed – that the killer’s psyche is unveiled.
Though Mahbubur Rahman feels that he is 'not a hardcore performance artist'1, he has been a prolific performer – especially in the later part of 1990s. When we analyze his works such as The Bright Artist (2003), Enjoy the Democracy and Transformation (2004), which went on to having repeat performances till 2010, Pink Rose Falls down Along With Me and Mr. and Mrs. Pink Rose (2007) and Give Peace a Chance (2008) – the title cribbed from a John Lennon song, signifying a deep interest in self and its place in the world. Apart from self-searching, Mahbubur Rahman's work is often an effort to use history as a frame of reference – one which is presented in a particular eco-social-visual context. The body and space combine to catalyze a transformative potential in his work, which, in its final presentation, leads one to the discovery of its civilizational ramifications.
Mahbub staged two collaborative performances with his wife Tayeba Begum Lipi – one in Finland entitled Slave of the Civilization in the year 2003, and the other, Love Bed performed in 2011 in the Sanatan Mela – an eponymous mela organized by the family of a deceased art student in Bagerhat. Love Bed is a clear reference to the bed-in by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, during their honeymoon at Amsterdam in 1969 – paying homage to peace, in protest of Vietnam War. Mahbub and Lipi's Love Bed also attempts at reengaging the political aesthetics by emphasizing the ethos that 'personal is political'.
In some of Mahbub's work, as in many a piece by those who followed in his footsteps, one notices a tendency to produce a spectacle without being aware of the politics of spectacle. At times the performances in Bangladesh seem uninformed by the fact that this form of art primarily attempts at cancelling out the Cartesian dichotomy which relies on the 'cogito' principle to return to the indivisibility of body and mind. Through body, a performer attempts to create expressions with appeals to different emotional levels. Mahbub's work does show the body's relationship with spatiotemporality, but it also occasionally appears as an instrument to produce a series of scenographic samples. As a result, body does not occupy a place as a natural reality within time and space, but becomes a complement to the 'sight'-oriented cultural scene, becoming an image in itself. And also, in the globalized, monopolized, prescribed socio-cultural realities of Bangladesh, that assigns the role of the state apparatuses as ancillary to the global hegemony of the Capital Order, one which governs the macrocosmic order of things, one sees no scope for exposé in some of the work of Mahbubur Rahman. When he is political, his narrative is often embedded in the nationalist-progressivist frame that projects a fragmentary view of the realpolitic.
As a pioneer of performance art Mahbub thinks there is a limitation in this field since the members of this society do not want to share their experiences with each other, an atmosphere not ripe for performance.2 While accepting performance art as a platform for participatory human experience, Mahbub wishes to define the main theme of his work in just one word- 'spirituality'. Capable of evoking a subjective desire for metamorphism in many of his works, he got himself involved in performance art because, to say in the words of Otto Mucht, he wanted 'to overcome easel painting by representing its destructing process.’
– DEPART DESK
- The writer's interview: Mahbubur Rahman, 2012, Dhaka.
The performativity that stems from 'devotional practices' has its own 'natural' disposition well defined within the Boishnab canon in Bengal. It is said that Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and Advaita Pravu, two of the three exponents through whom Bengal Boishnabs danced their way into their 'othered' or 'second nature' – meaning, shed the temporal existential mode to enter a state of spiritual stupor. To reawaken in the masses a sense of universal humanity and to reform the oppressive caste-based social order, Chaitanya inaugurated a new 'subjectivity' through introduction of chants – 'Hari Hari' and 'Hare Krishna'. It is not only through chanting alone that they redefined devotion/religiosity in Bengal; by way of recorporealization of devotion through the introduction of a new mode of 'being in the world' this new strand of Boishnabism mediated a new 'spiritual order' to govern both being and becoming. Such a point of departure is contingent upon the rendering of one's subjectivity in relation to a spectrum of bhaabs or imagined states of being, among which daashya bhaab and naari bhaab provided a complementary framework for the body to be stimulated by and to transform into a sensitized body. If the former can be translated as having acquired the characteristics of a daash (slave) vis-à-vis the Pravu or the Master, the latter is a way for each to face the almighty in the guise of a woman as Radha is to Krishna. 'Childhood', 'early boyhood', 'later boyhood' and 'youth', these four stages of human life are also made to associate with the corresponding bhaabs, the first, baalya bhaab being one of the most talked about in this school of thought. In the Boishnab practices invoking the 'child' in a grown human is considered to be of prime importance – a way to rid oneself of the social constrictions and their effect on behaviour. In the collective imaginary of Bengal as well as in the local historiography such a unique method of reframing the human subject is often overlooked to prioritize the cultural celebration that accompanied the emergence of Chaitanya. Thus, the performative way of transforming the being/body – which is connected to the new framework of the technology of self – remains out of sight as far as the educated moderns are concerned.
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- Richard Schechner, Performance Studies: An Introduction, Routledge, London and New York, 2002, p 137.
- Source: a conversation between Kalidas Karmakar and S M Saiful Islam, Dhaka, 2013.
- Dr Virginia B Spivey, Performance Art, An Introduction, www.smarthistory.com
- Schechner, p 141.
- Ibid, p 141.
- Ibid, p 141.
- Ibid, p 141.
- The writer's interview with Maniruzzaman Shipu and Saleh Mahmud, 2012, Dhaka.
- The writer's interview with Mahbubur Rahman, 2012, Dhaka.
- Ibid, Moniruzzaman Shipu.
- Allan Kaprow, Assemblage, Environments and Happenings, 1966, pp 88-89.
- The writer's interview with Syed Abu Zakir Imon, Dhaka, 2013 .
- The writer's interview with Abu Naser Rabii, Dhaka, 2013.
- The writer's interview with Sanjay Chakraborty, Dhaka, 2013.
- Richard Schechner, Performance Theory, p 156.
- Depart, Abu Naser Robii: Personal Involvement, Impersonal Act, Vol. 1, issue April 2010, p 41.
- Ibid, p 40.
- Depart, Vol 1, Issue 2, April 2010, p 41.
- The writer's interview with Palash Bhattacharjee, Dhaka, 2013.
- The writer's interview withNisar Hossain, Dhaka, 2012.
- Claire Charnley, Catalog, Bengal Gallery of Fine Arts, Dhaka, 2007.
Translated by SITARA JABEEN AHMED