Pondering the postmaterial the wastepickers' idiom(s)
‘Waste not-Want not' must seem to be a predictably hackneyed adage to begin a study of an oeuvre, dedicated clearly and evidently to the idea(s) of waste. However clichéd, this aphorism lends itself to multiple connotations and interpretations – all crucial – when sieved through the matrices of socio-cultural, political and economic complexities. The very idea of waste, if one were to analyze closely, is markedly different from that of the redundant – in itself a relative concept: for unlike the latter, it contains within itself possibilities and potentials beyond the subjectivity of its perceived utility. In this connection, one cannot help but hark back to Abananindranath Tagore's adage to his grandson, Mohanlal Gangopadhyay – 'Jaake raakho, shei raakhe', roughly transliterated as, 'That which you keep, keeps you'. Indeed, these were not mere cautionary words – the artist-poet lived by this simple philosophy that ultimately culminated in that brilliant book of his - 'Katum Kutum' – a delightful example of what 'wastes', when 'wanted' and nurtured, could cumulatively produce; what immense possibilities they could blossom into, transcending myopic functionality to achieve unimagined aesthetic qualities.
(Excerpt from the curatorial essay by Paroma Maiti for Waste Side Story, recent solo exhibition by Debanjan Roy at Akarprakar, Kolkata)
Since time immemorial, artists have been obsessed with the recycling of waste or that which is cast aside, using it not only as a material, but also as a signifier in the making of art. While it is unlikely that artist Debanjan Roy traces his leanings towards trash as a material of artistic choice as far back as Abanindranath Tagore, he certainly does trace his antecedents and lineage to veteran artist Partha Pratim Deb, his teacher and mentor. As far back as the 1970s, Deb dabbled in the use of discarded and found material, developing an unconventional, avant garde language in modern Indian art that well preceded his time. Though his first “garments” were made in the latter half of the seventies, in the nineties, Deb made a natural progression from these two-dimensional works. He graduated to constructing stitched, three-dimensional canvas sculptural objects. Resorting to the feminine act of sewing cloth to make sculptural work at a time when sculpture in India prided itself on being a largely masculine domain, Deb's initial attempt was to stitch overgarments. These later started to develop exaggerated appendages and when hung up, came to resemble hanging human figures.
Over the last decade or more, the celebrated artist Vivan Sundaram has developed a staggering body of work both conceptually and materially derived from trash. Extensively exhibited under the comprehensive title Trash, large tracts of the artist's extended preoccupation with urban refuse consists of miniature 'trashscapes', slum dwellings and garbage dumping grounds in particular, constructed in his studio. These small, but dense urbanscapes were then photographed through aerial views or animated in a series of chain reactions and videographed, creating vast, sinister vistas of non-biodegradable refuse that the city throws up each day.
Gagawaka: Making Strange developed as an extension of Trash over 2011-12; a collection of garments masterfully constructed from medical miscellanea, and materials culled from the flea market, hardware stores, junk shops, garbage recyclers, etc.; Sundaram collaborated with a fashion designer to execute this magnum opus. Flamboyantly and performatively exhibited on live models and mannequins in the manner of a ramp show, Gagawaka is an exercise in seduction and self-indulgence, at once propelling the humble and discarded to the high echelons of 'haute couture' and still beyond to the rarefied realm of 'art'.
Though the history of waste/trash permeating the artist's haloed studio space is widespread, designers too have never been impervious to its attractions. In the early 2000s, I taught Elements of Design at the National Institute of Fashion Technology, Kolkata, where freshman students were encouraged to think out-of-the-box and make constructions from non-conventional materials. This frequently resulted in the use of 'cast asides', maturing into graduating design collections constructed from trash in ensuing years. While fashion being an industry makes it difficult for designers to indulge in such idiosyncratic practices in a sustained manner in the very elitist echelons of 'haute couture', the occasional indulgence is not quite so uncommon – for example, former Levi Strauss and Dockers designer Gary Harvey created dress from cans, bottle tops and cardboard boxes.
Artists, on the other hand, being largely independent operators, can afford these indulgences in the name of 'making art' and make occasional forays into their own interpretations of 'haute couture' – sometimes to make statements and sometimes, I suspect, for a lark!
Haute Couture is a collection of garments constructed from waste by Debanjan Roy, recently exhibited within the larger solo body of work Waste Side Story. First seen as a masterly and distinctive sculptor in wood, Roy has made several shifts in both material and preoccupation in perhaps a dozen years. His consideration of plastic/polythene as medium for sculptural use goes back roughly four-five years. For a fair part of this time, Roy has been engaged with tongue-in-cheek comments on internationally acclaimed icons such as Gandhi or Rabindranath Tagore. Among the Gandhi sculptures, each rendered to factory finish, is one constructed from printed polythene bags collected from wastepickers on the eastern fringes of the city of Kolkata. Like a double-edged sword, the polythene bag at once commodifies Gandhi while its use, by sheer dint of association, elevates its hierarchical position from 'discarded' to 're-accepted'.
Haute Couture similarly employs the use of plastic packets used for the packaging of foodstuff such as biscuits, potato chips, butter, and other dry savoury snacks and nibbles. Printed on transparent polythene, these packets are backed with silver foil and laminated before the consumable is packed in them. All the packets used by Roy are gleaned from wastepickers in a colony of urban refuse on the eastern fringes of the city. After sorting and cleaning, Roy makes use of only those packets that are intact, flattening them out to construct the Haute Couture collection.
Like any fashion designer, Roy made a series of fashion illustrations prior to executing the garments. 'Illustrations' in the true sense of the word, as opposed to 'drawings', akin to preliminaries, belie his sculptural lineage. Partially coloured in pencils, these illustrations both design the garment and specifically earmark the packets to be used on each portion of the garment – a selection sometimes made on the basis of having a balanced colour palette and sometimes to cheekily make the packaged commodity correspond to the desirability of a body part. For example, the bustier of a flowing evening gown is constructed from packets of 'Victoria Premium Butter' while the waistband is constructed from packets of 'Orange Delite'!
Though normally executed with the help of paper patterns and muslin fits, Roy gives no evidence of using either of these two methods to construct an incongruous collection of largely western and stray fusion wear. Executed by a neighbourhood tailor, these garments have neither the expertise nor the finesse of high fashion, nor the sculptural beauty of Gagawaka. Installed on mannequins or makeshift hangers, in either instance, they sit poorly on the body, creating a silhouette that is distinctly frumpy. Roy argues that he attempts to make two ends of a spectrum meet by hierarchically elevating commodities of mass consumption to levels of haute couture, meant for the specific consumption of the elite, thus according his work an element of dark humour. Of course, by further displaying it as 'art' in the gallery space, thus alienating it almost entirely from its already doubtful identity as an object of utility, the artist further underlines its hierarchical inaccessibility.
In 2004-05, Roy's classmate and fellow sculptor, Adip Dutta took a mould of three potato chips packets together and cast it in handmade paper, gauze, dried leaves, etc. On this, he drew images of botanical specimens in the tradition of colonial botanical illustrations, thus attempting to transform an easily available banal object into a rare object from the natural history museum. Roy attempts a similar work in Waste Side Story, sculpting the chips packets in solid wood as if preserved for posterity.
Transforming 'the banal to the beautiful' has remained Dutta's consistent preoccupation for nearly a decade now and a parallel can perhaps be drawn here with much of Roy's work in Waste Side Story. Nor, clearly, is Haute Couture without precedent.
In the final count, however, I would read Haute Couture differently in its intentions from both Sundaram's Gagawaka and Dutta's practice. I would rather hearken back to Roy's mentor, Partha Pratim Deb's practice from the 80s that the artist himself describes as 'fun-making'. With the disarming ease of a beguiling prankster, Deb's work from this phase became an increasingly scathing and complex commentary on social and political issues. Prolific to an extreme, Deb paid little heed to the finish or durability of his works and Roy's Haute Couture perhaps follows a very similar vein – that rare occasion when the artist lets down his hair and has fun. Haute Couture is a collection of street wear, with a young, hip and happening pulse. Like the materials it uses, this collection exemplifies the ‘Pop-ular’ and exults in its exuberance. In so doing, wittingly or unwittingly, it draws attention to the burgeoning consumer goods industry in ‘India Shining’, the massive quantities of waste that it generates, and the indelible footprint that it is leaving on a fast-degrading environment. Haute Couture is no more serious in appearance than a packet of potato chips is to consume, but if the viewer chooses to delve into it, its comment is as hard-hitting as consuming potato chips can be in the long run!
DR PAULA SENGUPTA is an artist, academic, curator, and art writer. She is currently Assistant Professor in Printmaking at the Faculty of Visual Arts, Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata and Secretary of the artists initiative Khoj Kolkata. She is author of The Printed Picture: Four Centuries of Indian Printmaking published by the Delhi Art Gallery, New Delhi in 2012 and Foreign & Indigenous Influences in Indian Printmaking published by LAP Lambert Academic Publishing, Saarbrucken, Germany in 2013.