Dystopia revisited : Anisuzzaman’s visual interruption
A sword stained with blood is stabbed into the ground as it is done mostly after the battle is fought and won; a tiger sliced into half bleeds profusely; the perpetrator responsible for the death and destruction is seen buried himself upside down into the sand, his bare feet ooze blood. These images of nightmarish, dystopian and man-made catastrophe are from a digital painting of Anisuzzaman Sohel's first major one-man show.
Sohel's attempt to map how meanings are constructed and identities are formed is presented in a complex language and style that may at first appear difficult, and can be unsettling for viewers approaching his work for the first time. He challenges the common-sense assumption that clear, transparent language is the best way to represent and communicate reality. In fact, as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak suggests, the transparent systems of representation through which things are known and understood are also the systems which control and dominate people. Sohel through his disturbing and at the same time beguiling images points out that what representational images and language share is a reliance upon culturally determined codes which are learned.
To convey his own idioms and syntaxes, Sohel has invented his own language through a mélange of digital prints, computer graphics, acrylic, watercolour, and pigment pen.
Sohel rejects transparent and comfortable representation of the world. We know from Spivak how transparent representation of the world is bound up with the history of European imperial expansion from nineteenth-century British colonialism to twentieth-century US foreign policy-making, the development policies of the World Bank and the World Trade Organization. This dominant representation of the world is, Spivak writes, 'the assumption that when the colonizers come to a world, they encounter it as uninscribed earth upon which they write their inscription.'
For Sohel one of the main problems with this transparent model of the language of representation is that it has been variously used to represent and constitute the world as a stable object of western knowledge.
In The Tragedy of the Self, he elaborates the themes of alienation, rootlessness, lack of identity, solitude, and social fragmentation. The alienated people of his canvas are living in an hallucination, an exhilarating blur, a reality evaporating into mere images, spectacles, strange new warps in time and space, fixated on commodities, on products, on collages of identical images—all sameness, all surface.
The shadowy figure in the painting is being stabbed not at the back but in the front by his inner self represented by another darker shadow. The headless figure has no clue that he has been stabbed.
The images of headless, gruesome figures in Sohel's canvases are in essence photographs of himself doctored by computer graphics. He is the agonized subject of his own paintings,living in a consumerist and 'hyperreal' Baudrillardian world.
His Agony with Ecstasy series on black model board paper is particularly arresting. The drawings of the fragmented human figures are done by a plotter machine. His experience in working for advertising agencies over a decade appears to have honed his ability to exploit the impact of images. After drawing the image with the plotter, he used acrylic colour and pen to achieve chiaroscuro and convey a three-dimensional effect.
The second work of the series shows against the black model board paper white human figures in mental agony. The disjointed heads cry for help and with no assurance of help anywhere the helplessness only intensifies. Murderous knives are floating and appearing from a bad dream; an unknown bird sitting on the sliced off head of the human body shrills its despair; images of a dog and a broken branch of a tree –all these cast an eerie glow over the painting.
What disturbs Sohel most about our age is that it signals the end of a genuine awareness of history. He feels that an awareness of history is precisely what we now need to piece together our shattered language and selves, which like Humpty Dumpty, have become fragmented. It is what we need to unify the past-present-future of language to unify our psyches and our lives.
The production of knowledge and how it permeates our sense of reality has become suspect to Sohel. He offers an overt challenge to the way we think about culture and representation of the real. In the series Brain Facts we encounter realistic drawings of the gray matter of the brain with images of machine guns, tanks and shopping trolleys imprinted on it, much like the bar code as if we are all designed to be scanned and read by computer for identification.
Jean-François Lyotard questions in his most celebrated work The Postmodern Condition how the lives and identities of people are constructed by contemporary structures of knowing. He argues that knowledge has become a commodity that is bought and sold on the market and is also the basis of power in society. The global competition for power is now fought out as a battle for knowledge just as it used to be for resources like coal, gas and oil.
According to Lyotard the social bond is composed of language games. The very structure of society is made up of the statements made in it and the rules it develops to decide whether particular moves are legitimate or illegitimate. Just as different types of games have distinct sets of rules, different societies have diverse forms of politics, laws and legitimation. As subjects, we exist within this series of language games, whose different sets of rules make up who we are. The organization of knowledge in society thereby determines the identity, the self-image, the ideas and aspirations of the people that make it up.
Sohel deliberately problematizes his languages to point out the fact that what we understand as transparent reality or simple truth is never simple and cannot be reduced to any structure.
Sohel's recently-done series The Habit of Enjoying the Disagreeable is a scathing commentary on the latest phase of a capitalist world system, a phase that has erupted on the world scene with the unrestricted growth of multinational corporations. The acrylic on paper works show profile pictures of the artist with different expressions of moods and emotions. The heads are void containing only images of a bar code, shopping trolley, pistol, crane and tractor.
In this new capitalism corporations are invading our unconscious mind by advertising. The cultural forms of our times reflect the dislocation and fragmentation of language communities each speaking, in the words of Fredric Jameson, ' a curious private language of its own, each profession developing its private code or dialect, and finally each individual coming to be a kind of linguistic island, separated from everyone else.'
A vibrant political culture requires community groups, libraries, public schools, cooperatives, public meeting places, voluntary associations, and trade unions to provide ways for citizens to meet, communicate, and interact with their fellow citizens. Neoliberal democracy produces consumers instead of citizens. Instead of communities, it produces shopping malls. The result: an atomized society of disengaged individuals who feel demoralized and socially powerless.
Karl Marx pointed out that the capitalist economic system relies upon a single universal medium, that is money, by which to gauge and evaluate all that can be exchanged and sold. The use of a single medium of exchange subordinates every product, commodity and thing into one universal trading system. This represses the possibility of categorical differences between products, commodities or things. Both traders and consumers under capitalism often recognize the absurdity of tying every product, commodity and thing into one universal system of exchange governed by the index of money. The problem is that in their social activity itself, in what they are doing, individuals are acting as if money, in its material reality, is the embodiment of wealth as such.
Sohel's take on money as a universal medium is being elaborated in the series Monetize He has taken the intricate designs of banknotes and created a new currency with images of bullets, pistols and lethal weapons of modern day warfare.
For Sohel, the traditional disciplines of rational academic inquiry have restricted the way we think about texts and ideas in relation to the social, political and economic world. Before we can learn anything about the economic text of globalization or the debauchery and deceit of western hegemony, he insists that we must first unlearn the privileged systems of western knowledge that have indirectly served the interest of capitalism.
In a recent interview with the Harvard Business Review the Chinese multimedia artist Ai Weiwei said, 'Creativity is part of human nature. It can only be untaught. Kids are put through a strong social-educational process that makes it impossible to develop unique thinking. The competition is like a tunnel from which there is no escape. That makes society simple and maybe even effective, but it's not human.' He was responding to a question on whether creativity can be taught.
Sohel's oeuvre speaks out for creative freedom through bending the traditional language of representation.
The exhibition ran through September 15-22, 2013, at Dhaka Art Center.