Encoding art with fragments of time : Santaran's cross-cultural capital
I wanted to expose the spirit of our own times. – Raul Hausman
Hausman, for his deconstructive stratagem, represents the anti zeitgeist, ivory tower-toppling strain which reached its pinnacle in the post1st World War Europe. The 'zeit' had always remained in check by the 'geist' in the Dada spirit, of which Hausman was an important stakeholder alongside other iconoclasts. To put it in a nutshell, they banded together to express the modern individual's negation of the dominant social-cultural patterns of their times, often in alignment with the will to bring a revolutionary change in the society's structure through the science-progress dyad – a framework that has presided over all utopian visions in the last century.
The striated praxis that once brought into view art that 'presents itself as destitute of meaning', in which 'one can understand the function of negation,' to borrow from Adorno, came to the fore when Europe, the birthplace of Enlightenment, hit the lowest ebb of human despondency. Perhaps with their wares, the Dadaists, following attempts from other radicals such as the Cubists, Expressionists and even the lone Metaphysicist Chirico, finally managed to axe the connecting chord with the long-held tradition of religious painting, rational discoursing and most of all an uncritical loyalty to Naturalism, which had been perfected over the last five hundred years. Dada as a modern movement was also a negation of the 'isms' that preceded it. The Dada camp, dispersed in cities across Europe, accommodated all kinds of stratagems conceived in the spirit of anti-art, which makes it a 'faith', a way of life, rather than a mere art movement.
The most celebrated member Marcel Duchamp aptly articulates this in his own works which are advanced using varied methods, and in turn assume a multiplicity of dispositions. His axiom, 'I don't believe in art. I believe in artists,' convincingly makes visible the iconoclastic spirit and the heterogeneity of the Dada project, which trashed many a modern diction and discipline to arrive at their acts of divagation.
To unpack a plethora of works staged by the members of Santaran at Bengal Art Lounge, last year, one needs to have an understanding of the heterogeneous germinations from the anti-art camp in the twentieth century European context. That strain seems to resonate with a lot of young souls of today's Bangladesh where there is a thrust towards art that easily aligns the new mediums and neo-Dada stratagems to challenge the old medium-specific modes of expression.
In the last decade, Santaran orchestrated a number of art programmes through which they brought into view a new socially conscious, critical art into the public arena. The members' enthusiasm for site-specific art, performance art, and public art has been made obvious through the staging of around fifty art events where one could sense the new patterns of discourse they feel emotionally attached to – the premise of which can be detected in the dovetailing of the new media with an awareness about the current social reality and its categorical neglect of nature.
Chittagong being their primary locus of operation, these artists – Monjur Ahmed, Noor-E-Elahi, Satabdi Shome, Bivol Saha, Shahidul Islam Khokon, Md Nasir Uddin and Tanjil Tushi – have been at the forefront of the transmutation that has gripped the art scene of the country since the new millennium. This last venue – where their artistic maturity became readily palpable was their last group exhibition entitled Equation of Time and Art.
One of the iconic pieces from this exhibition is Noor-E-Elahi's installation We are Listening. Made up of a giant human ear covered with synthetic fur, it is a talking ear without cavity. Equipped with a pair of headphones that emits a sound bite constitutive of moral teachings children grow up being imbibed in. Its premise is rather simple; 'Follow the path of the virtuous', 'Always speak the truth', 'Avoid the company of the dishonest,' which are repeatedly relayed to stress either the futility of traditional learning in the changed circumstances, or the gulf that appears between lives we live and moral positions we cast.
The other work which is visually attractive and signals a symbolic message is made up of a sleeping mattress overlaid with embroidered and appliquéd coloured patches. It assumes the shapes of two women whom its maker Tanjil Tushi proposes as an examination of the feminine 'self' filled with the thirst for coming to grip with its Other. Self Conversation, her sculptural entry, thus, produces a gendered commentary in a supposed proximity with the metaphysical region of solipsism.
Envisioned along the same line, with emphasis on the visual resonance rather than the conceptual frame, Khokon's take on 'being' and 'birthing' is rather a dystopic inversion of the Buddha image perched on a lotus. His Hope for an Embryo is a digitally produced image where an impregnated man is seated in a lotus position on a hand-drawn lotus, bearing a clement countenance. He, the artist himself, has for the sun-disk behind the head a swarm of ant-like mutants with helmeted heads reminding one of a military contingent. He has pictured himself in many other circumstances, and in one, the realistic buffalo seems to mar the absurdist line of exchanges tampering with his discourse of self-displacement and role-reversal.
Bivol Saha, the reticent member of the collective, dwells on the structure of faith and human action as he launches into a discourse with direct references to objects and visual tropes that bear metonymic significance in the context of the current violent times. A real cleaver – the readymade – pasted on the canvas on top of a red painted area in Best of all Creation 1, and a human prosthetic leg (looking very, very Bangladeshi) in Best of all Creation 2, are metonymic references to a disaster that is modern society, where the individual has been promised unbound freedom but is left with no option but a walk on a tightrope. He addresses violence understood not only as misdeeds of the miscreants, but as misadventures of the so-called rationalist project of modernity that has converged with the irrational financialization of the social sphere under the global postindustrial capital order.
The group leader Monjur Ahmed's response to the modern civilizing project of democracy seems a curious mix of the mundane with the sacred. As an artist he has been a critic of the secular and religious imaginaries which tend to mask reality. His images of hybrid dogs with human heads, where hands representing the invisible operators are also busy straightening out the tails, are a reference to the futility of our sham-democratic polity where most political and social acts are constantly given validation through the fabricated polls tabulated to fool the citizenry. His line of provocation takes the form of a commode (installed next to the gallery lavatory) lit from inside and subject to a projection of the secular sacred text of the shangbidhan – the constitution of the country. The artist, in his iconoclastic zeal, refers to the subsequent amendments introduced to the document, a reflection of the dubious culture of political expediency, parheps to condemn the blemishing of its true spirit based on the four pillars – democracy, nationalism, secularism, socialism. He also projects onto it the critical understanding that freedom lies outside the ambit of power.
Monjur is out to locate the chasm that runs through declared belief and the real intentions that guide human actions.
Santaran artists are ardent believers in what Ahmed Sofa had once pointed out while contextualizing the works of SM Sultan: 'Whatever is created by the artist, the entire gamut of the creative action is committed to social transformation….' Thus, artists of different inclinations freight quite visibly distinct pictorial dictions and discourses faced with the task of carving out their respective visual idiom. Confronted with the same social environ at the end of the colonial rule, if Zainul Abedin felt the need to survey human disaster that was Bengal famine of 1943, artists like Jamini Roy kept producing beautiful pictures based upon his own understanding of the traditional Bengali visual axiom where images of deities were an important presence. Perhaps, in the spirit of Zainul, the Santaran exhibition was framed as a site of de-axiomatization – sending a wake-up call to the Dhaka cognoscenti, one who is attuned to expect visually pleasant artistic constructions. Each member drives home the duel points that there is an urgency to articulate the real issues connected to realpolitik, and to be accommodating to such a discourse one needs to re-examine the very constitution of modernist art form(s) that has long been practised in Bangladesh along the grain of the 20th century European avant-garde movements.
Equation of Time and Art was presented at Bengal Art Lounge, January 27 to February 12, 2013.