Sunday, 24 May 2009

Alternate, still mostly modern

Deccan Herald. Sunday, May 24, 2009. Edited as : An Alternate Modern Twist

It was cold. And rainy. And grey. With the BBC weatherman promising cloud upon cloud for the next three days, spring-time London couldn’t hope to get more Londonesque. To beat it, we couldn’t find a better time to get more ‘un’Londonesque. So while most Londoners travelled away to the respite of holiday lands, we stayed put to enjoy the city-in-respite without the crowds, inching traffic and congestion charge.

Destination: Tate Britain. Now before you tense your forehead, let me also add that we had in tow, our excited son full of seven-year-old beans. Yes, I am still talking about ‘the’ Tate, and what was expected to be a rather sombre journey through 500 years of British art and situational history, quickly turned into an invigorating little excursion, most enjoyed by our delighted little boy.

Time has certainly moved on fast. If we are here in a day when children are being welcomed into worlds ear-marked for the erudite, Art, once an exclusively mature indulgence, was also moving on.

It was the Tate Triennial and with the fourth one on show, a new movement was being debuted – it’s name, as ambitious as the idea of bringing in yet another group dynamic to what has already become quite a nebulous system of classification. It is not based on documented historical periods (largely European) or cultures that progressed within those designated number of years anymore. Seeing as our histories have, for the last few decades, after all, been a series of concurrent contemporariness, this new groupism, apart from crushing all boundaries of structure and medium, also devolves all divides of region, its reach as centric as it can be omnipresent. And though we are, in fairness, at a new temporal point globally and politically, I cannot debate convincingly whether or not its art deserves another definitive term. Parisian curator, Nicholas Bourriaud, however, has taken the opportunity of Tate’s Triennial and christened this era of absolute freedom of form and more encompassing world culture, ‘Altermordern’.

In marking a formal end to the age of post-modernism and its numerous veins, this is the ‘new’ new age of art where alternative perceptions of occurrences find credence in forms that are individualistic and illustrative of an understanding and ethos that is the artist’s own, be it cultural or academic. Altermodernism thus envisages itself as a kaleidoscope of sorts, a cannon of modern expression that is borne out of the various differences and multiple realities that lie across geography and the parity of thought and intention that the relative comparison of these very differences have brought about.

The situations and themes are essentially the same as before and with the culture-clock formally sounding its last on modernism and post-modernism, my confusion with this whole dynamic of altermodernism, is possibly on par with yours.

But Subodh Gupta’s show-starter, Line of Control, makes me ‘want’ to understand this term. Also quite the show-stopper, from what I could see on the day, this extraordinary work is decidedly free of all boundaries as we know them. As one steel tiffin-carrier after bowl after ladle after tumbler fused together to explode in a giant mushroom cloud into the Duveen galleries above, my own desi sentiments flared in rapid action.

An unexpected work of art would produce the expected reaction of intrigue. But what transpired thereafter was anarchy, one, cleverly constituted and held together as cohesively as the stimulus itself. Layer upon layer of shining steel pots and pans quickly turned interest to amusement, until my eyes moved up to the mushroom-top and a dark realisation of what this work was iconic of came home.

Like a storm, an onslaught of variously calibrated emotions evoked quaking images of carnage, injustice and suffering. But this work rendered thus, also invoked another stream of thought − and that, I suspect, was the specific intention of this fantastic piece.
While my mind did its cartwheels through the deep and frivolous, my little boy squealed at every kadai he spotted and rejoiced at every katori he recognised before, of course, worrying about the adhesive logistics of it all. My husband was completely ‘blown’ away by the concept, the more practical scale of the project and how many man-hours this immaculate instantiation would have commanded.

In true altermodern spirit, a familiar stimulus provoked surprising reactions. This hugely inspiring piece of art turns grimness on its head, as Indian steel-ware explodes through a prestigious British museum. Its ascent depicts a gruesome western plot reverberating reminders of exploitation, human limitation and helplessness. In its completion, it magically exudes the very eastern philosophies of forgiveness, re-creation and fulfilment.

What started as the symbol of a heinous nuclear disaster, in gaining girth, dissipated, instead, a medley of contradiction. Phantom aromas of exotic foods, the warm promise of imaginary hot clay ovens and the divine satisfaction of the gustatory palette, settled the senses replete with visions of creativity and eagerness bustling forth from traditional Indian kitchens.

Momentary though these mental images were, the very quirky steel mushroom explosion set off some shining emotions of hope and contentment. Contemplating the sequence of action, reaction and consequence, what struck me was this − the darkest cloud is suspended within the silver lining of light and infinite possibility. Nothing lasts forever. Change will revisit. And therein lies the future.

Though my mind was in a thought-trance of human will and response (and its various hues and tints), I was also bursting with pride. An artist of Indian origin had, through the medium of Indian implements and astounding originality produced the signature piece marking the beginning of a new movement in time. In placing it at the centre of the pantheon of British art − the Tate Britain − Indian sensibility stamped its indelible mark in yet another realm of world panorama. It further succeeded in moulding positivity in anyone that gave this piece even a little attention. I assure you, no one walked past that giant cloud of Indian kitchenware without consideration, or, in the least, amusement.

How many of these purveyors dwelled in thoughts of war and depravation and how many were stirred by simple memories of home and happiness, would make interesting anthropology in itself, but John Millais’s frightening Ophelia, William Blake and his troubled ‘visions’ and the Clore Gallery – the room dedicated to JW Turner, awaited an equally mesmeric audience. We had to move on.

And this is where staunch Tate Britain really broke all boundaries. At the end of the very first gallery, stood two colourful kiosks filled with art and craft items. Tate had taken it upon itself to keep even the littlest visitors enthralled – in their own art. Children sprawled on the floors right through the galleries, amidst numerous strings of colourful fluff, straws, ice-cream sticks, strips of paper and cloth. The intention was to draw inspiration from any of the famous artists adorning the walls and create their own work. Supervision was the onus of parents but no one was complaining. As for our experience, our son proved to be a true altermodernist. Drawing stimulus from John Linnell’s darkening landscape of The Windmill, my little boy’s bright and sunny rendition was a sailing success.

Outside, it would have taken a lot more than British cold and rain, to dampen our Indian spirits.