Live by fire
In A Face to the World: On Self-Portraits, the critic Laura Cumming sketches out the domain where self-portraits oscillate between the self and its public existence. 'Having to create a definitive face for all time' can be daunting and even the most extrovert of artists can falter.1 Why do self-portraits then? Vanity would be an obvious answer but there is more at stake –the impulse to present oneself as if in a rehearsed address, as an 'embodiment of their art', as a kind of expectant intimacy. Yet as Cumming goes on to note: 'How dismaying it is to be alone, how hard it is to represent or even just be oneself in the wide world of mankind.’2 And it is within this context Shimul Saha's masterful Self Portrait series takes on meaning.
On view as part of Bengal Art Lounge's Fragments of the Anthropocene exhibition, Saha's ink and graphite portraits were an examination of that which gives identities their particular forms. Despite betraying a sense of exposure, self-portraiture in the more traditional sense exudes control. Those characteristics, those bits of ourselveswe call identity – tenuous, ephemeral yet entrenched – emerge in the self-portrait as an interface. That is, the artist's rendition also meditates a specific presentation, re/presentation and self-presentation. Think of a face, a face in partial light, a face in repose, a face agitated, pensive, in prayer, wounded, a face turned over and angled, a face with a downward gaze, all these and infinite other possibilities can manifest as self-portraits. They say as much or as little as the artist wants them to say.Controlled by the artist, their partiality also signals complexity – identities as messy and ephemeral as opposed to elemental.
With Self Portraits Saha upends these assumptions to mesmerizing effect. Not that these assumptions are misplaced but they have been dislocated by a narrative and politics of the elemental. Our 'identities' are increasingly tethered to an impersonal basic unit, national ID cards, Google accounts, biometric chips. If a face tells a thousand stories, these 'identifiers' tell only one; they are unique to each of us but also reductive. Self-portraits in that traditional sense can never be definitive and the control an artist exerts is in conveying complexity and fluidity. On the other hand,individual identities affixed to a database strive for the definitive at the cost of the multivalent. Mutability and messiness inherent to identities are also their saving graces.But with unique identification numbers, there is no escape hatch, they are assigned and from then on you are who you are, fixed, immutable, condemned and strung along a recorded trail.
Saha forces us to reckon with these questions of identity when he presents self-portraits as blown up thumbprints, national identification numbers, their black and white palette only a reminder of the stark, insidious transparency of a data-based identity. Saha's IDs as self-portraits remind us that their unique-to-the-individual characteristic reduces possibilities rather than expanding them. Presenting oneself through self-portraits as Cumming asserted has given way to a loss of presence, and with that, loss of control of oneself as we have ceded that terrain of 'rehearsed' address to an enforced yoke of authenticity. For Cumming, self-portraits are never meant to be 'documentary evidence’3 but today inhabiting a self means a constant exercise in documenting evidence, to prove we are who we say we are. And Saha triumphs in serving up that reality which is increasingly surreal. Fittingly and in what can only be a logical extension of this trajectory, with facial recognition technology we have entered a new territory of self-portraiture, where our faces can be deployed against us, to tell that one story instead of thousands.
Another kind of mutability is on display in Saha's Towards the Being, a light installation of rotting leaves. Minute details of veined foliage fold and flow into each other paralleling a microscopic glimpse of the flesh. Each panel offers a close up that is tender in tone, but illuminated in a bluish white hue, together they emit a corpse-like cool. In an interview about the show Saha revealed that cancer in particular and diseased and degenerating bodies in general are pivotal to this series,14 but a body progressively decayed by cancer is also a body held captive by cancerous growth. Entanglements of growth and decay are not an odd couple, but fundamental to this age of the Anthropocene, which though unsurprising, still feels like a revelation while experiencing Towards the Being– a necessary confrontation that leaves us stunned.
Zihan Karim, the other half of the duo whose works constituted the exhibition, showcases pieces where contemplation about authenticity takes on an outward turn. In the same interview Karim stresses, rightly, that the 'notion of “reality” is sometimes absurd.’5 Viewer as onlooker, the role and place of the gaze all feature prominently in his works. In Oven, video of a seated, rotating deity is projected within a microwave. The irradiated figurine, as if held hostage within the microwave's confines, exposes our helplessness in merely looking in but not really looking out for each other's shared predicaments.
In the Corporate Fantasy series an amalgamation of images show men and women at various stages of action – talking on the phone, meeting, thinking, standing, gyrating. The specifics are not important as much as the sense that they are doing things, reenacting in a constant loop the touchstone of modernity – productivity. It doesn't matter what we are doing as long as we are doing something, where even leisure has to yield a productive experience. Seen in this context, the faceless characters some of whose faces are covered in brown paper bags appear unsettled, almost wounded by that absurdist play called reality. Here Karim's depiction approximates the suspense of silent cinema on two-dimensional planes with such verve that our dismay quickly morphs into an unmistakable realization – bizarre as they seem, such mindlessness is not a fantasy but lived reality for many of us.
Karim's Door fixes our gaze on a video of an abandoned building. Viewed through a peephole, a stripped down façade feels like a transgression but it is not only that. The looped video invites and repels at the same time when the viewer is unsure whether she is looking in or out, unsure whether the 'gaze' intrudes or ameliorates. Whether her presence is unnecessary or required. This uncertainly and the anxiety it produces in the viewer is Karim's achievement, a nod to the epoch of the Anthropocene, an unwieldy term and concept but apropos as a 'sign of our power, but also of our impotence.’6 Ultimately this paradox, the entwinement of human, material, and the natural worlds, codependent and co-constituted, occasionally regenerative but rarely beneficial, animates both the artists' works. There aren't any definitive answers, but built on that foundation of ambivalence what both Saha and Karim produce are incredible, in effect and affect.
The exhibition 'Fragments of the Anthropocene' ran from January 30, 2016 through February 27, 2016 at Bengal Art Lounge.
PARSA SANJANA SAJID teaches at Independent University, Bangladesh and Jahangirnagar University. She's the co-convener of Bayaan Collective and a novice here: https://www.instagram.com/semipreciousmetal/.
- Laura Cumming. A Face to the World: On Self-Portraits. HarperPress. 2010.
- Fragments of the Anthropocene Exhibition Catalogue. Bengal Art Lounge. 2016.
- Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptise Fressoz. The Shock of the Anthropocene. Verso Books. 2016.