Last man standing
Noor Hossain entextualized
1. The country of rising sadness
What is truth, that it can happen as or even must happen as, art? How is it that there is art at all?
– Martin Heidegger, The Origin of the Work of Art
What is it that turns art into a mode of dissension, or, looked at from another direction, transforms acts of subversion into art? When does this relational interdependence become a necessary strategy for art? A very pertinent question that arises out of a protest against the conventional volume of artistic practices in Bangladesh, leading to the loci of alternative sources which skirts around our lived or historical experience; experiences which, if affirmed relevantly through repeated retrieval, would carve out a space for renewals. The possibilities of life find a window by way of art thought of as a quest for truth. But when does truth realize itself through art or when does art reverberate with truth? Can art be art devoid of the verity of life? How does life incorporate this correlation between art and truth? What necessitates the emergence of art as an instrument of protest so as to gain on truth?
The Country of Rising Sadness is predicated on etching out a well defined trajectory of the significant events in the art scene of Bangladesh, scaffolded as it is, by both context and compassion, with an aim to bombard our culture and living with ballistic questions to help art articulate its inherent character and make way – if 'violently', disruptively – for sublime revelation.
With an awareness of a potential economical 'bust' threatening Bangladesh in the political flatland of the 80s, it was Noor Hossain who, turning the physical body into a symbol of transgression transplanted it onto the plane of the political body, thereby became the whistle-blower on the mute discrepancy between art and life.
His diction of protest turned the spirit of agitation into art, or, in other words, brought art closer to truth. Noor Hossain was searching for an accurate expression of rebellion. Through the actual act of protest he tried to resurrect its ultimate manifestation. Noor Hossain sought to transcend the void – that white/empty darkness – that shrouds a hundred festoons and a thousand slogans. But, soon, Noor Hossain fathomed the inadequacy of the voice of agitation and the conventional methods of protest. Henceforth, through Noor Hossain's radical efforts, was unleashed the onset of a new reality.
2. Corporeality and art
It would be necessary, in sum, to choose between art and death. Or else to choose between an art linked to technics, on the one hand, and on the other, an art that would exceed art and technê, while also fulfilling their authentic destination, in order to set-into-the-work truth itself.
– Jacques Derrida, Copy, Archive, Signature
Before that day on which he made the fateful appearance and fell victim to the aggression of a collapsing power, Noor Hossain had graced the procession many a time, many a soul had raised their voice in unison chanting 'down with autocracy', yet none of the cadence of their slogans could match the eloquence Hossain displayed. The urgency and immediacy that the bare-chested Hossain brought in would not have been possible had his act of uniting text with the body – or in other words, the reflective self and the corporeal self. This act of heralding new possibilities – the momentous presence of the body as the medium for communication, turning it into an immediate vehicle for a slogan, marked a turning point. If truth was not established in the banal world through the mediation of corporeality, history could not have tasted the breaking of a new realism and its artistic herald of a new reality. To present the truth, Noor Hossain not only appealed to the reality of the body; in the process of rising to the truth he also led life towards realizing death.
Life is such that one needs to seal a deal between art and death. Is it so? Why is it so? What compulsion draws us into making such an inescapable choice? Or when does art outlive death to reconcile itself once again with life? The awakening that blurs the line between life and death – from which point of departure does it make its way into our living? Art is the seamless intermediary zone where life and death shape one in light of the other, shifting boundaries and relentlessly persisting in claiming the other in order to ascertain its innate value. Life actively engages itself in unveiling death, while death, on the other hand, strives uncharitably to outdo life. Art is the only ground that accommodates both, where the moments of their creative manifestation initiate prolific dialogues with the world around. These moments subsequently, and in the course of history, introduce man to a network of subjunctive human or other interactions. The question is: which of the turning points of history are directly informed by the paradigm-shifting conflicts that can trace their sources back to art?
3. His soul contains the Heart of Bangladesh
It's always been the artist who perceives the alteration in man caused by a new medium, who recognizes that the future is the present, and uses his work to prepare the ground for it.
– Marshall Mcluhan
Our art evolved as it wore the battle gear in Blossoming Steel, our disenchantment found expression in the poem that spoke of our rising grief through its plea for the basic necessities like 'milk and rice'. The saga of the pent up grievances, memories and revolt, led to the reactionary agitation against the despotic regime in the 80s, propelling the currents towards a burgeoning reality of a radical variety. The trend also spread simultaneously into the art scene as it did in relevant activism. Open-air theatrical performances alighted to the streets from the stage, passing processions roared slogans inspired by snatches of revolutionary poems, the traditional subject matters of abstract art were deconstructed- and in all, these tumultuous activities began progressively to restructure Bangladesh. The Country of Rising Sadness entails an effort to steer the prevalent complacence through yet another onslaught of critical assaults. On another level, it attempts to enquire into the dialogic exchange between the contra-dimensional tones of the successive art practices in Bangladesh, to inquire into the nature of the perceptive responses that art forced into the realm of history.
The legacy of the language that grew out of the dialectics between politics and art as part of the protest against military autocracy and its breaches and promises still permeate our collective existence. That is why we need more exhibition sites along the grain of the Country of Rising Sadness – one that served as an archive of cumulative experience framed within the socio-economical, political and national spheres. An art spaces thus have the potential to become the hotbed for signs and symbols that might open up ways to formulate a narrative(s) bringing to light dormant possibilities.
We began our dialogue with an eye to art as the harbinger of a context-based reading of reality as much as the rite of passage that initiates art into history. To repeat after Derrida, in order for art to celebrate its entry into the cult of truth, it must surpass itself. This particular 'surpassing' relates to transposition of art from one state to quite another: when art moves away from the techniques assuming which it asserts itself in an objective relevance. It is when art shies away from presenting itself on its own terms that marks the point of departure leading art towards a materialist goal. Art no longer retains its true state of being. Within this process of transition, when art competes against death for survival, truth shines through. Truth takes on a life of its own.
Through the animated revival of truth art reveals itself in its inherent traits. Or in other words, art paves the way for a new reality. But what is that truth or when does it present itself by breaking through the structures of art's characteristic techniques and methods? It is that which has the power to elude all the confines of conventional aesthetic formulations.
4. Living in the heart of art
Art is the distinctive countermovement to nihilism.
Contiguous with this belief, Martin Heidegger raised the question, at the outset of his reflections on art, as to- at which point of contact and through which processes an artiste arrives in the arena of his own creation. In fact, what sleight of hand it takes for an artist to call forth recognition for his art. The contemplation that is intertwined with the pretext of a search for beauty, self gratification or a reflection of personal taste is too inadequate to equip us conveniently to appreciate art. Heidegger sets art's goal as a means to reach out to truth. So that, truth reveals itself to the world in the form of art.
Like all the materialist and subjective elements that surround us, truth is also begotten of an elemental source. Commonly what we call aesthetic evaluation dwindles away in the process of the final analysis of the collective innate qualities embedded in things, the harmony of sense perceptions and configuration of form and content. To illustrate his point Heidegger brought to the fore the image of the abandoned pair of the farmer's shoes in the middle of the field. No structural analysis can help discover the continuum of relevance between the shoes and the world at large that the farmer inhabits. The purpose of art is, however, to unravel the implication of the objective presence of the shoes in the same way that Bangladesh is left exposed in the face of Noor Hossain's bare body. In addition to bringing such an 'undisclosed' – at the surface – world to light, art, also paves the way for novel eruptions, new realities.
The evidence of performativity epitomized in Noor Hossain's corporeal body consummates the correlation between art and truth. The distinctive acts of signifying his death, the photograph immortalizing his defiant run to reach the forefront of a procession with the livid letters glaring out of his body or being celebrated in the poems of Shamsur Rahman, are individual efforts in the performance of art. This performative art in itself attempts to preserve the moment of reckoning. The very act of entering the moment of truth establishes the continuum linking art to that of a successive timeline. Just as art cannot exist independent of its creator, likewise, without a conservationist who affirms a lived relationship with art, art becomes prone to losing its being or to extinction. And through this lived relationship the dialogue between art and the present gains new lease on life in renewed contexts.
A faceless icon of democracy
Noor Hossain is the faceless icon of democracy. Faceless, because he need not be identified as who he actually was, and understood in the context of where he came from or who his forbears were but what he has now become: an easily decipherable / legible symbol. He is meaningful as a symbol of martyrdom forever inscribed into the tapestry of nationalism. His death turns him into a representative of the people's will asserting itself against the backdrop of a protracted fight for democracy that preoccupied the Bangladeshis throughout the 1980s. He is now safely entrenched in the landscape of the nationist semantic – occupying a niche in the national consciousness as a sign of the collective will to unseat a hegemon represented by the erstwhile Ershad junta – illustrating the aspiration of the dreaming majority.
The nationist narrative where Noor now resides, after having been entextualized to be co-opted by history that glorifies a trope/myth that permeates our senses, connects each of our 'self' with the ebb and flow of an imagined national life and its continuum of collective dreams and aspirations. His symbolic presence in that consciously constructed narrative works as a transformative force through which the man that was Noor – a subject who decried his given social-political reality – was changed into an object of attention/adulation/glorification – a product of a rhetoric that remains inexhaustible due to its ceaseless renewals.
Iconicization enforces the separation of the corporeal man from the image-sign that he is made to transform into. The sign is readable and deemed meaningful in the larger context of a nation, which is an 'imagined community'.
The dissemination of such signs in the political-cultural landscape is a prerequisite for nation building – as is evident in the iconization of Sheikh Mujibur Rahaman, or Ziaur Rahman for that matter. On the politico-cultural turf, the metanarrative of Bengalihood is apparently contingent upon the larger than life icons such as Ranbidranath Tagore and Nazrul Islam. Such iconicity has less to do with poetic achievements than the cultural urgency to reclaim an imagined past. Noor too has made his way into the paradigm of nationalism, one that tries to keep all 'othered' paradigms at bay by consolidating the narrative that decouples his background from the nationist history. Only by reviving the context of his own reality can Noor Hossain be reinstated on the turf of reality – where one may get a chance to know him with the context in place.
The body of Noor emblazoned with a slogan – read as an image-sign – generates adequate inspiration for us to revisit the days of the political upheavals that resulted in the final fall of the autocracy after ten long years of misrule. But as a symbol he belongs to the educated minority. And it would take a counter-narrative to retell Noor's story in which he could be seen as the representative of the majority and also as a voice arising from the less exposed nether zone of a society divided along class lines.
– DEPART DESK
This article is a reworded version of the preface to the Country of Rising Sadness, organized by Samdani Foundation.
Translated by SHARMILLIE RAHMAN
MUSTAHIN ZAHIR is a writer and activist based in Dhaka.