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Analogy of Radical Visions

Artist as a pedagogue faces multiple challenges as he/she functions from a contested space of institution. How does one confront these challenges? Considering the latest set of paintings by Manoj Vyloor, Baroda based artist and researcher Sathyanand Mohan says that even within the institutional space there is a possibility of transcending our everyday selves.

If the artist is also a teacher, pedagogy, and the demands of the institution situates him/her in the center of a space of contestations whose implications extend beyond the more immediate limits of the institutional space into a more general consideration on the practice of art itself. A set of recent works by Manoj Vyloor, a Lecturer in Painting at the College of Fine Arts, Trivandrum, brings in those staples of art pedagogy, - life-drawing and the canonical work, and uses it as a heuristic device to examine the way the practice of art and the practice of everyday life, and of how the institutional and the social constantly rub against and infringe upon each other. Through it, there is a further attempt to elucidate the nature and construction of modern notions of selfhood as well its bearing upon the historical and political complexities of the present. Finally there is his take on nature and desire that holds out the possibility of a transcendence of our everyday selves, which is articulated here as a ‘dissemination’, or a scatteration into many in multiple becomings.
At the heart of his art is a philosophical and redemptive vision that coexists uneasily with a more humanist concern that holds out the possibility of betterment in the human condition through the emancipatory potential that is embodied in its institutions and works. Whether painting can aid in this betterment is an issue that is touched upon mostly by implication; his attitude to the question seems to be one of a skepticism that is tempered by hope. That this question needs to be raised at all in the first place can be linked, primarily to a kind of intellectual candour, but further to an ethical imperative in some of the trajectories within the ‘tradition’, which sees one of the functions of art as being able to account for itself in whatever contexts it may operate. These considerations translate themselves, insofar as they can be posed at all, into a didactic impulse that takes two forms in his work, - one, the more immediate business of teaching, the ‘daily grind’ which enters his work as references to the practice of life study (and as a number of citations of canonical works about which he says, “I deal with it every day”), and on the other, a reflection on the troubled ontological status of painting itself as a pedagogical tool. The essay will be looking at a few of his recent works in order to unravel these concerns as they appear in them.

The practice of academic life-drawing as we understand it today is one of the legacies, in our setting, of both the European Enlightenment and Colonialism, having been transplanted here as part of its civilizing mission that would teach the ‘native’ how to think/draw/conduct himself in accordance with its pedagogical and institutional rules, - which are in turn founded on a model of Reason/Rationality as a universal good. As such, to paraphrase Octavio Paz, it is one of the markers of a Modernity into which we have been forcefully delivered. The pair of works titled, respectively, “The Thinker: a model reviews” and “Truth Denied: a model reviews” offer a layered set of responses to this difficult legacy in the light of recent political events, - more specifically, that of the so called “War against Terror” which followed the attack on the Twin Towers. These works share a similar pictorial format in that the central protagonists are separated from the ‘(back) ground’ by the use of two formal devices, - one, the separation by depicting them in different media, and less frequently, by the use of a tubular structure derived from the works of Francis Bacon. This ‘theatrical’ division of space, which is quite marked across a number of works, seems to have been deployed in order to stage, and to emphasize the dialectical relationship between action/actors (the model and the canonical work) and context (the background). The theatricality is further reinforced by the way a language of gesture and the body is employed by the artist to ‘illustrate’ certain key themes and concepts across the body of his work, in a manner that frequently borders on the melodramatic (in essence a set of conventions used to heighten the action and thereby make it more legible), which is utilized here again as a didactic device. That this is a view from the margins is underscored by the common title of both these works: “A model reviews”.

Rodin’s “The Thinker” is one of the emblematic images of modernism/modernity, although the relationship of the image to its historical moment can be somewhat ambiguous if one considers the fact that it opens up the possibility of two very different kinds of interpretations at the same time. On the one hand it is a canonical representation of the thinking subject, - one of the foundational assumptions (from Descartes onwards) of the enlightenment, with its ideal of the rational man as the agent of history. It is an image of intellectual (and masculine) power in its sheer physicality and monumentality, but at the same time, it could perhaps be also read as an allegorical figure of doubt, vulnerability and interiority, of a breakdown in the certainties that reason guarantees. It is an image of the doubling of reason upon itself, - which one could say is the moment of criticism, instituted primarily in order to check reason itself thereby seeing to it that the institutions of modernity, which in essence guarantees and regulates the proper functioning of civil society, are safeguarded from misuse. That this painting is alluding to the “War against Terror” is made reasonably clear when one considers its juxtaposition with the fighter-plane and the ghostly traces of the two symbolic architectural forms of the Twin Towers and the fortress of Uruk (at Iraq) in the background. The contextualization of the image of the Thinker with the military machine of the “War against Terror” can be read, at one level, as an indictment of the complicity of modern systems of knowledge in military aggression; the confrontation between the model and the work, in which, metaphorically speaking, one becomes the inverted image of the other, is perhaps a supplementary allusion to the intertwined historical trajectories of Modernism and colonialism, and is a further reflection on the imperialist nature of American military adventurism. At yet another level, the painting also seems to be alluding to the failure of the safeguards that modernity has put in place against the misuse of its institutions, thereby suggesting some sort of a systemic collapse, a malfunctioning within the enlightenment tradition itself. This ambivalence towards the legacies of modernity can be seen to be operating at various levels within his recent works.

The citation within the other work in this set, “Truth Denied” [a maquette by a lesser-known, but no less celebrated (in France), contemporary of Rodin, Jules Dalou (1838 – 1902)] is the ‘female’ complement of the painting discussed above, and appears to have been quoted in order to illustrate a generic representation of loss that is compounded by the innumerable personal, familial, social, political and cultural losses that are the inevitable outcome in any circumstance of military aggression. This is a picture of mourning, within the conventions of the economy of gestures that the artist has employed, and it is interesting to note that this act of grief and abjection is already inscribed within the feminine; - a configuration to which even the protagonist of the work, in this case the model, does not have access. It could be, in the light of the complexities of its paired work, a reflection on the way the feminine itself is construed as ‘abject’, as the subjugated and invisible ‘other’ of the Enlightenment/Modernism; but it is also possible that the figure of the mourning woman is a metaphor for the ‘abject’ as such, socially, - as representing, and grieving for, those who are the victims of the pride and folly of an instrumental Reason. But where this work becomes somewhat problematic is in the binary logic of its conception/execution, which seems to be that of a relatively straightforward equation of gender with particular forms of subjectivity. The work suffers when these two forms of interiority - one of a reason reflecting upon itself and its limits, and the other one of a boundless grief are mapped onto the ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ respectively. Although each has its corresponding set of conventions and arguments (complex and nuanced as it is), and each complements the other, it nevertheless functions rather to the disadvantage of the overall impact of the work even as it suggests a lack in terms of the resources available to imagine both male grief/loss and female agency.

The feminine is also the central problematic of the work titled “Coded message, forbidden pleasures and attributed pains”. The title reflects the tripartite arrangement of the work, which stages, across three panels, the encounter between the Madonna and the messenger/angel who arrives to deliver the ‘good news’ of her conception, or in another sense, to announce the injunction of the law.  The principal actors are familiar from art-history; - the angel comes from Da Vinci’s ‘Annunciation’ and the Madonna from a painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The painting is, quite obviously, a contemporary take on the Annunciation, although the title makes it clear that the transaction is an unequal one, turning as it does on an interpretation of the Immaculate Conception as the responsibility of child-bearing and motherhood that is thrust upon the ‘feminine’ under the patriarchal order, which at the same time rests upon a denial of female sexuality/desire.  The form of the vagina/eye that occupies most of the center panel, under which sign the events in the painting are taking place can be read as a representation of the all seeing eye of the law that enforces its bidding through the denial of a potentially disruptive desire, but also, as a signifier of desire itself for both sides of this equation, having to do on the one hand with a lack and on the other with a prohibition. It would be easy to read the feminine here again as subjection, as a passive agent in the carrying out of a law that constructs it as a subject, but simultaneously it holds out the possibility, indicated here as residually present within those same spaces of subjection, of a potential to disrupt its overarching code. The ‘feminine’ is frequently configured as subjugation, grief, and loss in these works, yet taking into consideration his oeuvre as a whole, it occupies a rather complex position significantly overlapping with, on the one hand, nature conceived of as an almost polymorphous excess onto which it is often mapped, and on the other, with erotic desire as a site of a potential breaching of the limits of the self.

The particular uses of citation in this work also brings up the question of the function that these celebrated images have had within the economy of representations in Christianity (more specifically, that of the Church), - and by extension looks into the uses and limits of painting itself as a pedagogical tool. These images have had a long and often contested history within painting, having been deployed in the Christian “public sphere” in the service of various didactic purposes that were amenable to diverse secular and religious appropriations. These public art forms, which were widely circulated in the communities and contexts which they inhabited, were entrusted with the task of disseminating the doctrines of the Church through biblical exegesis, moral instruction and so on, - a didactic function already circumscribed by institutional constraints.  Latter day invocations of these images, apart from the specific uses to which they have been put, already embody the accretion of their historical meanings through time. Through a staging of the relationship that these images have had to power and desire, and in the way that they have themselves functioned within and in order to legitimize the Church and its discourses of patriarchy and oppression, the work also invites us to reflect, in a more general sense, on the complicity of representations in the prevailing order.

If the human is the fundamental pivot around which things turn in his works, it is only insofar as it is contextualized within the social on one hand, and the cosmic on the other. A recurring feature of these new works (for example, “An Ordinary Man as Sited Against a Backdrop of Extraordinary Events to Come”) is the cosmic scale at which events occur; this added dimension interacts with the human and the social in intriguing ways. These three registers of ‘being’ exist in a fundamentally fluid form, exhibiting various levels and degrees of overlap. The cosmic canvas throws into sharp relief the boundaries of the ‘human’, and allows him to imagine/speak events and occurrences that are beyond its scale of intervention; - the fractal is his formal vehicle of choice to delineate this cosmic drama, evoking a sense of History (or Time) as an entropic, error-prone system transforming itself exponentially and unfolding chaotically, regulated by internal laws of its own to which we have at most limited access. There is a strong apocalyptic strain at work here which is not in itself particularly new, having figured prominently in his oeuvre for quite some time now. It need not be recalled that the apocalyptic is itself a figure of speech that has been repeatedly invoked in order to envision a terminal crisis. It is a visionary mode that is born of a radical dissatisfaction with the current conjuncture and which posits its total destruction as the precondition for a new beginning; it points to a desire for a (perhaps fictitious) “return to innocence”, to a start again from scratch, on a clean slate as it were. We can reasonably guess at the various epistemic and social crises he is alluding to here; but the apocalyptic imagination also dovetails into the cosmic scale at which events transpire in these works in the sense of a slippage or a collapse between the historical and the mythic. It is a way of staging history itself as myth (as cultural memory), or rather in these works, of elaborating the mythical present. This is made particularly clear, for instance, in the first work that was discussed in this essay (the two paintings titled “a model reviews”), - in the way that the two ‘mythical’ structures of the Twin Towers and the fortress at Uruk bracket the action in the painting, thereby setting it as much within a mythical compass as it does a historical one. This formal and conceptual move invites us to reflect on the long memory of history, of the way in which, in its simplest formulation, current conflicts have had centuries of bad faith behind them.

The last section of this article will be looking at the ideas of nature and desire that recur again and again, scattered across works like “Inverse Proportion : The Cosmic Seeds”,” Inverse Proportion : The Pollen Carriers”. These ideas are more alluded to than spelt out; they are processes that are in a ceaseless state of animation in the backdrop within which events occur – the background music of our existence that we have ceased to hear. Nature is primarily flux in these works, a series of endless transformations without beginning or end; it is also Eros, invoked here as its organizing principle which is that of a constant and continuous seeking out of the other. Erotic Love, often represented here as curiously chaste, has been a hallowed, primary site of an overcoming of the constraints of our bounded selves in Manoj’s works, as we can see from paintings like “Altar of Earthly Desires”. The three citations of the “Kiss”, chosen from widely different points in the history of painting, overlays the rituals of erotic love onto the ceaseless cycles of the natural world in order to speak of them as analogous processes, an image that finds a further echo in the centrality that ‘pollination’ has in his works. The encounter of the butterfly and the flower is conceived of as being primarily erotic in nature, but it has a further and more immediate task, perhaps born of pleasure, to initiate within this imaginative universe which is that of a dissemination, or a scatteration, of (the object of ) desire across space and time. It evolves out of a poetic perception of the universe as a living organism whose microcosmic and macrocosmic orders mirror each other and are inseparably related to a greater organic whole.  Pollination is an image that evokes multiple registers of meaning in these works, from the migrations of planets and the stars in the ebb and flow of the seasons, to the peripatetic trajectories of cultural forms on their endless journeys. But perhaps what is of real importance here is this sense of an essential decentering, a doing away with boundaries and fixities, of the fundamental multiplicity and excess within Nature and its processes that serves as an example and points the way through analogy to new and radical visions of the self and how it can be realized and performed.


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