core - relations
The aesthetics of protest and the new geo-reality
History in both past and present tense
It was Matanga, the Bodhisatta from the chandal family (lowest cast in the brahmanic hierarchy) who first resorted to performances with socio-spiritual implications to hammer home the point he thought mattered at that time.
The Jataka tale, which frames the story in an edifying, yet captivating narrative, goes like this: To eliminate the practice of untouchability Matanga thought of teaching a lesson to those who made it into a social custom. He, therefore, one day threw a tooth-pick in the river, which flew and got entangled in the hair of a haughty brahman, whose name was Jatimanta. Furious, the brahman looked around and found that it was Matanga– the ‘low caste man’– who had thrown the tooth-pick in the river. Fretting and fuming, he went to him and rebuked and rebuffed him. Further, he threatened him to quit the river-side instantly lest his head would split into seven pieces on the seventh day by the force of the brahman’s spiritual power. Matanga was not frightened. He accepted the challenge boldly and did not leave the place. Instead he demonstrated his power by stopping the sun to rise for seven days. People of the locality then got annoyed with the brahman, because he had insulted Matanga, who in turn had stopped the sunrise.
The river and the toothpick were some of the earliest accoutrements with which an act of defiance as well as intervention began and slowly developed into Matanga’s metaphysical display of power and spiritual polity.
In retrospect, it now amounts to a performance built in the form of an ethical discourse, as is the case with the president of Maldives and his Cabinet who attempted to hold a meeting underwater to spotlight the dreaded fate awaiting that archipelago nation, in the context of the rising temperature of the global environ. This deviant act– conceived as an indictment of sorts– issued signals as a non-combative mode of communication, that were sent across the globe to the nations that are responsible for the rise of the sea level and the resultant disappearance of the shorelines.
16 feet underwater, Maldives’ cabinet– in scuba gear– staged an alter-event and in turn projected the looming crisis– the disaster that awaits the people of that island nation. The existence of an entire nation is under threat due to the ecological misfortune brought on by industrialization and irresponsible modern living.
At that physically watered down and epistemically significant meeting, the Cabinet signed a declaration calling for global cuts in carbon emission that would be presented before the UN climate summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, in December.
Fish as witness, or as symbol of death
Remapping the route of protest is, in one way or another, a reconstruction of faith in the language of social acts in the form of performance, one that had seen its beginning long ago and was given a definitive social-political premise by Matanga.
Fishes witnessing an act that highlights the concern of existential import, while the ocean water provides a significant backdrop against, or into which humans are elements of a lore that was, and the place called nation apparently no longer is (or exists). The two elements are locked into one to make people pay heed to a special cause. Thus, by striking a portentous note, the government of Maldives commits itself to the foretelling of a story, one that alludes to, if not charts, the dreadful end of their lived and the living world. The ocean that defined, shaped and reshaped the place and its people threatens to turn the very natural as well as human milieu into what the Americans often refer to in their every day colloquy as “History”.
In comparison Damien Hirst’s* shark in a large vitrine– the seminal work of death as the all-engulfing signifier turns an ogre of a creature of the seawater into an object for popular gaze shift. It is an American pop concept of ‘history’ brought back to provoke response– though through a small-scale (re)construction of what is called memento mori in Western parlance.
Jacque Lacan frames death as a symbol of an absence, the signifier that ‘materializes the agency of death,’ the presence of absence; the Maldivians are worried about the ultimate effacement– a form of an eternal absence– the erasure of the earth’s habitable land as well as the ecological condition that supports human form. The troubled zone itself is the embodiment not only of the physical annihilation that rewrites the island nation’s fate, but also the absence of attention that is a form of denial of the gradually unfolding predicament. World’s gaze– one that has been organized around the concept of progress and profit– is fixed on symbols of its affiliates only, pushing reality itself to the periphery.
If the dialogue between life form and art form is central to the Hirst’s piece that dates back to the early 1990s, the Maldivian performance exemplifies the dislocation (in the physical sense) of the geo-reality within which people and culture are contained and are made into one. The Maldivans do so by mirroring the results of the man-made catastrophe that is already showing its portentous signs.
While Lacan links death instincts to the problem of speech, we may point to the fact that in today’s world, not many ears would remain cocked up to listen to the voice of concern. Hence the performative intervention provides a way for the people whose voice scarcely reaches the target ears. It communicates through conceiving of an alter-text, or message, and by enforcing a decoding we as worldly people have now become accustomed with.
Hegel stated long ago, that ‘the word is the murder of the thing’ and, amidst the hullabaloo of vitrined shark and the shock arts that build their muscle through aesthetics and discourses generated to legitimize the political excesses of the superpowers, life is being slowly murdered in the rest of the planet. The Maldivians' excess-annulling act helps to contextualize both art and politics, against the backdrop of a vanishing reality, with drastic geo-social implications.
- DEPART DESK
*According to White Cube archives, Damien Hirst is 'best known for the "Natural History" works, which present animals in vitrines suspended in formaldehyde such as the iconic 'The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living' (1991) and 'Mother and Child Divided' (1993). His works recast fundamental questions concerning the meaning of life and the fragility of biological existence.