A lecture delivered by JOHNY ML at the India Habitat Centre on 14/5/2002

On 14th May 2002, the India Habitat Centre Visual Arts Gallery invited me and the noted painter Anjolie Ela Menon to present papers on Installation art in India. She was supposed to oppose the installation art practice and I was expected to support it. Anjolie presented her paper to say that India did not need installation art, as its landscape was abundant in natural installations. She also said that Indian artists were aping only those installations done in the West three or four decades ago. The counter argument came immediately from the audience. Shantanu Lodh, a young artist said, "We have been seeing easel painting for centuries. What about that?" The message was clear. My presentation was extempore in nature. However, my ideas were put in paper before hand. It runs as follows:


It is an apology for installation art practice in general and for its Indian counterpart in particular. The lecturer/writer is put into a peculiar situation when he/she is asked to talk/write in defense of something. Then, he has to overlook certain facts that he really does not like in the practice, which he is asked to defend. The task is made further interesting and challenging when the lecture/paper is prepared to counter the views expressed by a staunch critic of a particular practice, here in our case the installation art practice.

The `for and against' sort of debates have a predictable character. The outcome is almost preset. The suspense is kept at bay especially when the discussants have already established their credentials in the public sphere. However, I have a feeling that the `for and against' kind of debates would really trigger new ways of thinking if the debaters are flexible enough to accommodate the sense made by the other.

I would like to recall two telephonic conversations that recently I had with two artists who are in their mid-careers with a good exposure to the world of art related debates. One fine morning, an artist friend of mine called me up. She was going to have her solo- exhibition in one of the famous galleries in Mumbai. However, she sounded desperate over telephone. A journalist in Delhi had called her floor-assemblage a `tacky installation' when she exhibited that in a Delhi gallery. So she wanted to know whether she should repeat the `tacky' stuff in Mumbai. She was at the verge of a break down. I could sense the moisture of her tears at this end. "Do you consider `that' journalist as an art critic?" I asked her. She said a hesitant `No'. "Do you think that the assemblage that you made as a designed addition to the works on the walls was an installation?" was my second question. She said an emphatic `NO'. "Fine, then what is the problem? You can go ahead and have that assemblage in Mumbai also," I said. I could hear the sigh of relief at the other end.

The second conversation was rather `to the point' sort. This time the caller was myself. At the other end was the man whom I revere for his intense sculptural practice and `ready witticism'. "If you were in my place what you would have talked in defense of installation art?" I asked him after presenting the issue. He did not take split of a second to give me an answer. "I am a sculptor. I like sculptures. That does not mean that I like all the sculpture made in the world. Similarly, I would love to see installations but I cannot say that I like them all. There is no precondition for liking or disliking a work of art," said the confident sculptor friend.

I am rather thrilled to draw a few conclusions from these two conversations. Primarily, one need not feel paranoia about a particular form of artistic expression. If you think that a changed mindset needs a changed expression that would occur naturally in your works. Second, an artist need not set parameters for judging other works of art. The approving and disapproving qualities of a work of art would reveal themselves when a pair of discerning aesthetic eyes looks at it. And third, as a critic I should feel paranoia about works that lock horns for proving their might in the field of art. Umberto Eco, the famous Italian semiotician and novelist talks about paranoia in an interesting way. According to Eco, if someone notices a `while' and a `crocodile' in the same paragraph and gets over excited about it we should not call him a paranoiac. However, if he keeps thinking about why those rhyming words are there, then we should consider him calling a paranoiac. I think critics in many ways show the features of paranoia and their profession demands it.

Nobody has so far fixed a very accurate time of the birth of installation as an art practice. If at all someone has attempted it was some thing like a village elder saying about his age! He would say, "I was a teenager when a crocodile, which came by the flood waters, attacked me." From this statement no one can make out how old is he now, when the flood occurred and when he was attacked by a crocodile. The case of installation is also something like that. It was there when Marcel Duchamp placed the Urinal in a gallery in 1917. It was there during the time of analytical Cubism. Constructivism and Futurism also had the elements of installation art. Minimalism and Art Povera movements contained the seeds of installation art. And everyone started recognizing it by the end of sixties.

Except the birth of a human baby (I am strictly talking about an exclusively human world) everything happens in `that' world thanks to revolutions, which keep happening visibly and invisibly. Rebellion is the root cause of revolution. When the artists of each generation rebel against their previous generation, new concepts and formalisms develop in their works and we call them by adding `-ism' as a suffix. Installation too happened out of a rebellion at the latter end of the avant-garde movement.

Installation art was primarily an attempt to give a new meaning to the old materials. Pitched against the socio-politcal realities of the sixties and seventies, the artists (of the west) wanted to break the white cube limitations of a gallery. They literally broke the frames of the paintings and liberated them from the age-old clutches of conventional making and viewing of art. They perforated the canvases, they shot at them and used live brushes. They brought found objects to galleries. They re-figured the minimal art objects to redefine space. They brought down the sculptures from the pedestals so that the museum quality and thereby the authoritarian quality of the art object was violated. They experimented with the space. They conceived works of art as something that redefined the meaning of the surroundings where they stood. It was like a dexterous couple doing acrobatics while performing ice-skating. Movements of the body are taken beautifully beyond all the logic of perception and conception.

Installation art breathed a fresh whiff of energy into the making of art. It soon became a physical embodiment of concepts that could have otherwise been expressed only through words. Installation art grew in concurrence with the growth of new theories and practices like feminism and post-structuralism. Advent of new technologies and mediums helped the installation artists (or rarely used installationists) to execute their concepts by using them. Above all the human body and the environment themselves became the most potential sites of installing the concepts.

By avoiding symbolism installation art maintains a sort of indexical value in it. Installation art does not yield to the narrative mind that believes in the symbolic order. Deciphering a symbolic order gives birth to a convenient narrative so that the meaning of a work of art could be fitted in to the symbolic as well as the hierarchical order of the society. Installation art defies it. As far as the installation art is concerned, it reactivates the context and its associations. Hence, the context generated by the installation art becomes its meaning. To put in other words, context becomes a language in installation art.

The language of installation has some sort of secrecy with it. Like the hermetic thoughts it transforms the visual elements into a linguistic phenomenon and at the same time denies that language any power of communication. But it does not mean that this language/context totally discards the chances of interpretation. The denial of power of communication is a temporary displacement of meaning. Each displacement of meaning brings in more and more associations until one reaches the right context of comprehending a particular installation. "If there is something to be interpreted, the interpretation must speak of something which must be found somewhere and someway respected." (Interpretations and Over-interpretations: Umberto Eco). I should say that this `respected' interpretation is not what a hierarchical society considers to be right. Its righteousness is in its power to forward a fresh idea or critique for the audience. does not take any responsibility whatsoever with regard to articles published here. Any suggestions/comments may be sent directly to the writers. E-Mail Johny & Mrinal

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