The lightening should have struck me : Arindam Chatterjee's spectral vision
‘History has shown us that there is always a darkness inside the light… Maybe we should be looking more carefully into the darkness.'
– Anslem Keifer
The moment one steps inside the gallery, Arindam Chatterjee's works at a glance appear to be suggesting a bleak dark world where spectres of death and decimation dance across the canvases casting their long hovering shadows beyond the frame. This set of works was presented at Gandhara Art Gallery, framed as a solo exhibition entitled The Lightening Should Have Struck Me, last November. Uncanny and disturbing at the outset, this gripping set of recent works by Arindam ranging from the emphatic to the misty, vigorous to the deadpan, is an extraordinary engagement with the bad-blood, the stench, the apocalyptic. Circumventing any allegorical trope or cross-referential alibi or even historical allusions, Arindam proposes, as Ranjit Hoskote says in his catalogue essay, '...a powerfully dystopian vision of the world, and of humankind's place and destiny within it.' Having said this, on a more experiential register these works also suggest a world where the sound is muted. The silence is deadening while a certain kind of primordial desolation can be heard whining almost imperceptibly.
Despite this overwhelming sense of catastrophe, Arindam's works do not decisively exude any sense of tragedy. This is precisely why his works would not leave us content. There is no space for remorse, no mourning; it is all about encountering the irreversibility of dark forces playing out in an apocryphal yet a profoundly palpable space. This is where Arindam's sensuous handling of his medium creeps in, making his art a pleasurable experience to look at in the time of despair and persistent historical malaises. This sensuous handling of the medium is misleading only because it is rooted in the ferocity and deftness with which he explores and extends the life and language of his mediums.
Be it charcoal or acrylic or watercolour, Arindam ruthlessly employs them to excavate into the ground of contentment to rip it apart and scoop out the symbolic vestiges of a devastated landscape in which he pitches his bestial figures and human bodies caught in various moments of incarceration or predicament. His gestural abstractions in tangent with the representational proclivities eschewing any narrative trappings create a compelling empathy characteristic of expressionistic art that turns the viewers towards the examination of self and psyche.
Privileging this inescapable encounter over a confident apathetic bravado supported by a sense of entitlement, Arindam thus posits his art as a daringly vulnerable condition as opposed to a culture of narcissism that encourages a self-indulgent life.
While engaging oneself with his works one cannot escape the thought that perhaps Arindam is not reflecting on history as much as he is reflecting on an emancipated notion of time. Quite evidently he reflects on the moment – with a strong belief that it is the moment struck by a lightning, as it were, that captures and bears the brunt of time. For Arindam, time is brutal, to say the least.
Time does not leave trails of flower-meadows behind, it only leaves marks of destruction and damage in the most visceral and literal ways. Time in other words is destiny human life and sufferings are fettered to.
Arindam's imagery brings back the dark moments when life is scorched and silenced. The relevance of this position reminds us of Theodor Adorno, for whom artistic expression became corrupted and untrustworthy after the Holocaust. Furthermore, it (art) was also experienced as inadequate in the wake of the incomprehensible cruelty and suffering. This immobilization was memorably expressed by Adorno when he wrote, 'After Auschwitz, to write poetry is barbaric.'
Arindam's works make us face the 'archetype of destruction' head-on. In an age of denial, Arindam refuses to be dictated by the act of destruction, he refuses to naturalize the process within the dominant narrative – he, on the contrary, encounters it, no matter how bleak, how terrifying the wasteland is.
From a classical perspective, an artist like him would ideally make it evident that he is following these confrontational strategies without losing sight of the presence of the creative force.
Probably Arindam too is aware of it. But he silences these streaks of creative forces pitilessly. And here lies the paradox. He cannot silence them altogether. Time and again the portrayal of the archetypal force of destruction without splitting off the force of creation is the flip side of this act of silencing. In some of his works, the menacing creatures, flames, scorched land, bestial incarnations are also symbolic of a potentially creative spiritual presence - a presence that illuminates. Simultaneously, creation and destruction are part of the same process.
Born in 1970 Arindam Chatterjee grew up in an era when economic liberalization brought promises which evaporated even before they were uttered, bringing in a terrible surge of deportation, displacement, evacuation and mindless abolition of land and life. He has seen the boom deflating, noticed the river shifting, observed the exodus continuing. Yet, he still has a dream. He is still engaged in recovering the meaning of the visual language from its flamboyance and narcissism.
This is where Arindam's works gleam despite the fact that they portend impenetrable darkness.
‘The Lightening Should Have Struck Me’ was presented at Gandhara Art Gallery, Kolkata, from November 6 to November 29, 2015.
Soumik Nandy Majumdar teaches at the Department of History of Art, Kala Bhabana, Visva Bharati, Santiniketan, where his focus is on Indian traditional arts including folk and tribal traditions as well as modern European art and Chinese and Japanese art. Majumdar contributes to journals and magazines of the region in both English and Bengali.