Johny & Mrinal

Art and shit. They are strangely connected since eon. `Shit’ is one of the words that we adopted from the western films as well as from the Euro-American policy makers. This word with a lot of power expresses what we really want to convey, at the same time it leaves a lot of gap in between the utterance of the word and the conveyance of its meaning. In short, the word `shit’ has got an ambiguity in itself. It does and does not repulse the listener. So when your spoon slips from your hands while eating you can say `Shit’. When something boggles your mind, you can shout `Shit’. Recently a well- known art critic clad in Thatcher suits told us in a meeting; `I do not want any shitty art here.’ Yes, the word shit is a beautiful metaphor devoid of its colour and stench./ Children express their wordless passions through the act of shitting, say the psychoanalysts. Perhaps this is from where the artists got the idea of using excreta as a powerful medium. If human feces is too repulsive then there is cow dung, which is shit at the same time holy. Irrespective of the identity of the bowels from which the muck is expelled, shit is a source of energy. Those who have doubt, check with the scientists and environmentalists. If shit can be this powerful why cannot be the act of defecating at par? It should be more artistic than Susanne Linke’s or Chandralekha’s choreographed movements. Sovon Som, a young artist from Orissa has found the action so inspiring and he uses it for his Video art.

Whether your action and appreciation is shitty or not, let us tell you Video as a medium is not so shitty. It had revolutionised the mindset of the Indian middle class before the onslaught of the cable channels began. Films and news came to one’s drawing room through videos. In small towns the meaning of the word `library’ was reconstituted as `video library’. And if you do not mind, the video-grapher demoted the still-photographer from his social standing as a key player and historiographer of marriages, deaths and all other human related ceremonies. The presence of the video camera redefined the whole concept of a function. Even deaths and marriages were re-enacted for the video recording! In more than one ways video changed the aesthetics of the Indian middle class. Kalachakra, the pioneering video magazine in India changed the aesthetics of journalism, though it became obsolete soon. Whatever Kalachakra proposed was later on taken up by all other news channels.

Against this background let us see how Sovon Som re-enacts or simulate the act of defecating. He sits on a western commode, European Closet in the Indian middle class parlance, which is placed in the middle of a lawn of a farmhouse. He makes some facial gestures. These could be the result of some motor-muscle-movements that happens all over the body during the act. Using editing techniques he does the usual gimmicks with the visuals. The second part of the video is a festival encasing martial arts. No logic is seen in this forcible co-habitating of two concerns./ What is the real intention of this artist? Does he want to register a critique of the paradoxical Indian situation in which one set of people revel on the `European closets’ and the other set goes to the open fields and waysides with `respectable Bisleri’ bottle full of water to perform the easing out act? Or does he want to make a shitty exotic exercise to please the foreign viewers by showing the Indian geography with sprout-like squatting figures with bare bums? If it is just an `aesthetic’ gesture, what would he be calling the visuals given by the Channels like V, M, and NG, AXN and a host of regional channels? If at all Sovon’s video art is an aesthetic product, in what manner does it differ from the other prints and paintings or any other art object that we see in galleries? Who could be his potential viewers, those who use `European closets’ or `the bum exposing squatters’? In the age IT video art cannot be gallery bound. It is expected to be disseminated through the cable networks. If the cable operators do not relent, hire one local cable channel and telecast it. Make multiple copies of the cassettes and sell them either through art shops or video parlors. Video art cannot be gallery bound. If it is it would be as absurd as a street play performed in an auditorium, that too with tickets!

Manjunath Kammath is sleeping inside his computer-monitor. Thank god he is not shown doing the other act. A face in close-up and the eyeballs are visibly moving inside the eyelids as if sensing the presence of the camera. Once in a while he opens his eyes, observes the onlookers and then goes back to sleep. The monitor is placed on a comfortable cushion. A sleep that is dehumanised and then computerised. Does Kamath want to say that the Americans are insisting the IT professionals to take up an 18 hours or 24 hours day so that they can take rest thereafter till they die? An innocent sleep killed by a scheming Macbeth. No more sleep for the king. He will be tossing himself in the bed. We do not think Kamath intended it. For him it is just a language, perhaps an elevated and up to date art lingua. No we are not against Kamath. But we are against his art for it does not have a critical edge. He does not look into his deeper self and identify the ugly truths there. When we confront his billboard `print’ the critical edge becomes as flat as a playground. You go to any up-market shopping mall or you just watch the ads that appear in newspapers. Kamath simulates the dominant advertisement visual language. The problematic arises here. Why does one imitate a language? As a parody with clear reference or a pastiche without reference at all? Post-modernism gives theoretical flexibility to use pastiche as a respectable art language. When it comes to Kamath’s works simulation of billboard for the opposite purpose is automatically reversed, perhaps without the knowledge of the artist himself. It is rendered edgeless thereby it becomes a glorification of the hegemonic ideology of the market, that is make the man more and more a consumer. Kamath the protagonist of the billboard evokes desire in the onlooker. He/she craves not for the act of licking popcorn from the real bowl but the desire is directed towards the protagonist’ clothes and other consumer wares on his body. In other words, the artist reproduces the desire that he wants to kill and what the market want to see reproduced through the cultural workers. Even the mock-scientific charting of the taste buds in the format becomes an added appendage to the market ideology. We, as critics would like to believe that Kamath as an artist reproduces his personal desire as a consumer in a larger glossy format.

A rose is a rose is a rose. If Madam Stein forgives us, we would add that while saying art is three times away from the reality, Plato too meant the same. Here we have Mritynjoy Chatterjee and Raqs Media Collective presenting an interactive site, which they rightly say that rehashed from the world wide web (www) information garbage. We quote from the artists’ statement, ``The artists, coders, and writers who generated the materials that we have used here are our co-workers. In this sense, and in other senses that you will discover as you navigate through it, this body of work is a work about work.’’ (Italics added). And they have got Walter Benjamin and his consideration of city as a drawing room and the hoarding as the works of art as a convenient tool. A revealing line from Benjamin as quoted buy the Raqs group, ``the principle of a Work of Art has always been reproducible.’’ True reproducibility brings more participants. And social participation changes the art and its quality.

Where do we see the mass participation in the `Work in the Age of Virtual Reproduction’? The participation in this work is two folded. On the one hand the visuals and texts are rehashed by a group of people. Also it is relevant that the garbage material used is also produced by a group of personalities unknown to the user and the `used’. And the result is a fusion of various brains, various ideologies, thinking levels and varied ways of participation. Once you rehash them to be a third comprehensive product and give to the social participants, that is the gallery goers, the second level of participation happens. But most of the social participants found this as messy and confusing. Finally they took the pleasure of handling the mouse. And that too can be result of a work of art.

We do not insist that the art to be pedagogic. But when you leave the gallery you need to carry something in your mind to brood over. What does Raqs Collective give us to ruminate? Where is the critique? What does the Raqs Collective think about the malnutrition in India? What does it think about the Indian beauty industry? On what level it wants the participants to play the game of participation? What is the computer density in India? And what percentage of Indian populace is connected to WWW? Walter Benjamin’s, Foucault and Barthes’ theory of the death of author and participation of the collective holds any weight only when art is disseminated amongst the populace in a larger way. With paintings and sculptures and up to an extent with the graphic arts also this has happened and the individual artists are still fighting it out whether they are dead or alive. Computer and WWW even during the post-capitalist days (is it possible to call India a post-capitalist country?) IT and WWW are still in the hands of the hegemonic ideology. If police, school, hospital, jail and media were reproducing the ideology of the State (Foucault) in a so called uni-polar world the IT is everything rolled into one, a good and efficient tool in the hands of the hegemonic ideology. If somebody has any doubt about it, please replay the Independence Day speech delivered by the Prime Minister of India Shri. Atal Behari Vajpayee at the ramparts of the Red Fort on 15th August 2000

An art critic and artist friend of us, who used to be one of the younger generation even a few months back and of late graduated into older generation says that what we see in this show is an experiment with new language. It is a celebration. Then we would like to tell her that it is a celebration of tragedy. When tragedy is celebrated in this way it becomes a farce or a mock epic. And we would like to add, whether the language is new or old when you tell some thing new with it, it should be sharpened to its maximum. The British gave us English and we used the same language to liberate us from their own clutches and to lead ourselves to progress. Why the new IT lingua could not be used towards that effect? Why Indian boys prefer to shit only in Western closets?

Authored and Published by JOHNY M.L MRINAL KULKARNI . Send us your responses, if any, in this address: or

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