Caught between the real and the empirical
Shishir Bhattacharjee's recent oeuvre
Shishir Bhattacharjee has long been concerned with the representation of the real. The 'real' takes on a nationalist political slant in his iconography as he examines the current social chaos in the light of the politics of the Partition and the perceived fallacies that led to the formation of Pakistan, all this from the point of view of someone inspired by Bengali identity – a concept that gave ideological basis to the liberation war of 1971. Over the last twenty or so years Shishir has been in the habit of responding to his immediate surroundings with a ready stock of imagery which he deftly employs to effect shock(in the deshi context, of course). However, his antics, in spite of its goal to deemphasize the naturalistic interpretation that still comes to mind when the word 'real' is uttered, always seem to veer towards a savourable, anesthetized look – where the shock of the real is already blunted to a degree.
As has always been his streak, Shishir scans his everyday reality with an eye that searches out the unsavoury (the critical elements) and the ideal or iconic (the patriotic codes), employing them in the service of his language that oscillates between social critique and nationalist passion. Constructing his somewhat caustic menagerie in a rather anemic mode with graphic precision, using line as a central element to which the colour black provides the decisive thrust.
Shishir, in this particular exhibition entilted Daag Tamasha, advances the nationalist theme that attaches much importance to the land and its natural setting. In several drawing-based images of grassland, river or water the resonantly aesthetical is reminiscent of elements that befittingly figure in romantic compositions, both literary and visual. Shishir is now party to investing wholesale these new elements in the nationalist enterprise he had once launched.
Black and white being his preferred vehicle to execute the 'marks', Shishir stages his tableau morbide(s) – where the seamy side of life is fervently depicted; sometimes managing to put together an ensemble akin to the theatre of the atrophied and ossified, and at times simply failing to achieve that very theatricality. In his consciously manipulated domain, amidst the choreography of life eroded what had never found its place is the life lost in the modern-day desert of the real. Shishir, like the German Dadaists, used to infuse his canvases with a critique of the faltering bureaucracy and a concept of crises-ridden statehood; which have been an enduring preoccupation of all the socially concerned artists in Bangladesh, especially those who emerged in the early 1980s under the banner of Shomoy, of which Shishir was an important member.
As he softens his language in his current oeuvre, the collage of disjointed images seems to ensure that the repellent (dismembered bodies) finds its place beside the venerated (elements of nature and innocent faces). This combo of a language, which results directly from the marriage of the empirical with the perceptual or the inner pattern through which the empirical is distilled and made to appear as art, is the realism loaded with symbolic tropes – those that demand decoding. His current allegiance to the treasured 'ideal' or the 'iconic' seemed to have been triggered by the nostalgia for a rural idyll that is now sorely missed by the artists who take it to be on the verge of decay, or as it might seem from the center – the city.
In Shishir's attempt at making his language elastic to accommodate both the idyllic and the sarcastic what got lost is the edge/pitch that always testified to a distraught, if not interrogative mind
kept afloat by a clear anti-bourgeois logic. And one must be reminded of the fact that his oeuvre flow from the very anti-bourgeois tendencies that galvanized the works of early twentieth-century German Dada – especially that of George Grosz.
As Shishir embarks on a symbolic communiqué where one finds the inscriptions of signs/objects that are not hard-to-discern – which one may rely on as cues to decipher his seemingly jumbled expressions – he simultaneously moves further from the process of 'truth telling'. His stance clearly suggests a 'hands off' attitude towards the hyper-reality of our time – where truth formulation itself has been rendered problematic.
The visual elements in use are mostly sourced from the stream of life and at times are arranged as hybrid pictograms – which follows in the aftermath of imagination made to travel as far as can make a bird mutate into an airplane, or a dog vomiting shoes and sandals.
While 'displacement of objects' remains restricted to the layering of one onto another, the overriding presence of a rather obvious nationalist discourse resolves the end result into an irredeemable linearity– one that has dogged the Bangladeshi Bangalis since the war of independence due to the fact that the 'collaborators' of the erstwhile Pakistani junta have been let off the hook to enjoy a free (in social-political terms) reign in a country they did not want. For Shishir the quislings of history are here to stay, even though as the most derided enemy of the people and this singular overbearing sentiment inflects most images he produces. Though he comfortably distances himself from getting to acknowledge the 'other' betrayals that followed the war of independence – the dissolution of democracy by the then Awami League to form a one party hegemony, the rise of the lumpen bourgeois during the two consecutive army regimes, the futility of the quasi-democratic system that flip-flops between two political camps since the restoration of democracy in 1990, and the overall degradation that resulted from overfinancialisation of a society which had no experience in line with the tradition of the capital order. Though the trauma, travails and the pandemonium of a social origin sparks his concern, yet Shishir shows a marked deficiency in registering the changing World Politics that has led to numerous dromological fallouts.
The unipolar polity of the Big Brother America and the devastated sites of conquests – namely Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya – the effect of which has been palpable as far away as Bangladesh, is something Shishir has not paid much heed to as a political commentator of a time when violence has become the norm. Instead, the dexterity of lines, the result of a craft honed in both art proper and cartooning in the last twenty years, seem to reign supreme above all else.
Besides echoing the violence and social degradation that beset our time encountered in the everyday mishaps, events and occurrences – which has been his forte since he emerged in the early 1980s, Shishir now contemplates images that evoke the rural almost touching on the secular myth of a sacred land lost in time. Yet the depiction of the 'sunny side' of life, no matter how Shishirized, appears as a digression in his world as it fails to congeal the passion into a major aesthetico-philosophical preoccupation. The artist surfs through some of the aspects that result from the bond between nature and human without showing much emotional or intellectual corroboration.
Shishir's concerns – usually captured in a series of linear depiction of motifs – often used to revolve around representations of prevailing religious bigotry of the Islamic hue juxtaposed with the excesses of the bourgeois class. At present, however, the artist has veered his attention into things that bear little political verve. Through his reminiscence of the rural Bengal he has pushed his precarious as well as predatory humanoids, dogs, birds, cats and half-entities to the edge making space for meticulously rendered grass blades, ripples of water, wide-eyed as well as multiple-eyed adolescent boys – the last visual trope perhaps, a reference to his own childhood. Illustrating his longing for a land that was and would have become his ideal Bangladesh, the artist plays with a two-way conduit with no specific advantage to his own established language. Thus, Daag-Tamasha or the farce of marks, in literal translation, simply fails to live up to the myth that Shishir has become over the last twenty or so years.
Lived experience is given a cognitive-conscious spin to peddle dystopia – though the modernist morbidity a la George Grosz simply do not endorse a negation of modernism as the artist lets the viewers traverse the phenomenal world where the physical evidence of social decay serves as the main point of attraction. The (dis)homage that Shishir has been staging in the last ten or so years remains devoid of tonal as well as aesthetical nuances – a conscious choice suggesting a resolve to underpin the very act of appointing deaestheticization as his chosen strategy for art production. Yet why and how the real infiltrates the canvases and papers of Shishir is subject to scrutiny – as the series of tableaux in his last exhibition seemed to have been propped up as a celebration of nature and the place of the body in that very milieu – though, overshadowed as it was by a shady side of life that may irk some and many.
Daag-Tamasha was presented at Dhaka Art Center from March 14 to 24, 2013. All works were showcased under the title ‘Daag-Tamasha’.
GOLAM MORTUJA is an art writer based in Dhaka.