Alchemy is the art of turning stone into gold. Anish Kapoor is an alchemist, turning chunks of granite into metaphorical caves, their hollow blue centers echoing with the black secrets of the unconscious. Ten years ago, he was a priest spreading piles of scarlet or yellow or blue pigment on the wall or floor, through which massive cement vegetables thrust into the room like vivid deities. His work reverberates with his own strange juxtapositions. His parents are both Indian, his father Hindu and his mother a Bombay Jew. He spent his childhood in Bombay, his adolescence in Israel, and had his art training in England, where he now lives. In 1990, Kapoor’s work will represent the United Kingdom in the Venice Biennale. Ameena Meer Some of your early works are called A Thousand Names. What does that mean? Anish Kapoor I’ve always felt that my work had to be about something else and that’s what saved it, what made it be of any interest. I began to evolve a reasoning, which had to do with things being partially revealed. While making the pigment pieces, it occurred to me that they all form themselves out of each other. So I decided to give them a generic title, A Thousand Names, implying infinity, a thousand being a symbolic number. The powder works sat on the floor or projected from the wall. The powder on the floor defines the surface of the floor and the objects appear to be partially submerged, like icebergs. That seems to fit inside the idea of something being partially there. Now that’s actually taken another turn. They’re all about another place. They’re all about something here, which is something inside, something not here. That process seems to happen with emptying things out, making things voided. That seems to actually fill them up. Emptying them out is just filling them up. And that’s somewhere else. I don’t know how else to say it. AM Filling them up with what? AK I suppose something inevitable. Something unspeakable, unknowable, unmeetable. Filling them up with fear. Fear in that they’re all dark. Fear, I guess, is death. (laughter) That didn’t take long. AM We’re not talking about death yet. The other title you used was Part of the Red? AK I began to evolve a color symbolism for myself. Although I don’t think very much about colors now, I still feel strongly about it. So things came to be about parts. In this thinking about colors, yellow is the passionate part of red, and blue is the godly part of red. But red is a very physical color. It’s very much about earth, it’s blood, obviously. It’s very here. That’s how I understood yellow to be something passionate, next to the red. It also has to do with form. A flat red isn’t the same as a round red or square red. If the context is controlled, if the context is a given one. AM The context being what? AK I’m thinking, of course, about the way of making art. Right now, I’m trying to make something white. And once you start doing it in white, there are many different whites. And what is white? I think what I’m trying to find is so white that it’s whiter than white. I don’t know what that is or how I go about it. It’s actually white in relation to something that’s less white. AM In some places, like India, or parts of Africa, white represents death. In certain African tribes, they smear themselves with white ashes to represent dead people. And in India, widows wear white. AK This work is actually called, I think, anyway, A Virgin Is a Void. White meaning virginity, in the sense that I understand it here. AM Because then the virgin is a void, and the virgin can be death as well. AK Ah ha (laughter) exactly. But there you go. AM We’re getting back to sex and death again. AK Why not? It’s a good subject. AM I want to go back to the whole, to the work being part of a whole. What’s the whole? AK The whole is me. Me and not me, that’s it. A relationship with some deeper me. That’s a complicated subject because the whole doesn’t just refer to the whole of the body of work. The “whole” refers to something bigger—religious ideas, which are unknowable. AM That’s back to what you were saying about truth. Your work expresses some truth, that’s not being made by you, but coming through you. AK Yes, I mean, the artist as a dynamic vehicle and not an expressor of interesting thoughts. AM Or subjective thoughts. AK Well, inevitably, everything is subjective and subjectivity is vital, because that’s the only way there is of reaching anything. Subjectivity is everything. AM Subjective meaning your art, individual opinion. AK It must be. It must be. But I think there’s a moment when individual opinion is not individual any longer. When it’s something that you understand, that I understand, that somebody else understands. Actually, we live in a post-psychoanalytic era—or let’s say a post-Freudian era. Whereas the surrealists, let’s say, lived in the Freudian era. At that time, there was a very direct relationship with the personal psyche. Now, this is very difficult to define, there’s some need to not deal with the personal self. In a way, there’s nothing else I can do, but through it, to deal with something much more absolute. Something like truth. Something like that which is not just mine. It’s also a very difficult topic because of our time. It must have something to do with being able to have worldwide communication, having the atomic bomb. Having this huge quantity of literature. Things, ideas are available to us from all over the world, cross-cultural. Does this make sense? AM Yes. AK Do you agree? AM Do I agree? I don’t know, but probably that’s because I don’t believe in truth. But I don’t have to agree with what you’re saying. AK No, that’s true. It’s an interesting idea, though. I’m not sure I believe in truth as a fixed reality. I think it’s always changing and, in our everyday world, it’s certainly relative. But one of the things you’re able to do as an artist is to suspend the everyday world. I’m sure that’s one of the reasons I’m an artist, to suspend the everyday world and define it wholly in terms of what you make. AM Perhaps that’s only the case with abstract art. AK I don’t think it is. I don’t think it is. I think the relationship between abstract art and figurative art is much more—there’s no such thing as abstract art. AM Well, as opposed to representational art. AK But I think abstract art is representational art, at least mine is. AM Why do you think there’s no such thing as abstract art? AK In the end, I’m talking about myself. And thinking about making nothing, which I see as a void. But then that’s something, even though it really is nothing. Who can you think of who’s made abstract art? AM Who’s made abstract art? Well, how about Mark Rothko? AK I don’t think that’s abstract art at all. I think that it’s deeply spiritual. But there already, it’s something. AM But it’s not a picture of something. AK It’s not a picture of a thing. It’s the cause of it. That’s not abstract. I understand abstract in absolute terms. Anyway, it’s a silly argument. AM We’re not arguing, you’re talking and I’m asking questions. AK In a sense, this idea about something partial is also there in the relationship between the viewer and the work. The work doesn’t exist without the viewer, without somebody looking at it. To a large extent, all work is incomplete. It’s completed by the person who is looking at it. That relationship is what makes it whole. All of creation is set about by the relation of Shiva and Parvati—how does it go? It’s all like that. AM How much of your work is influenced by what you have seen in India? The pigment pieces made me think of piles of Holi colors, and the hollow stones remind me of temples. AK I think there’s an aspect of the Indian psyche which is about the other place. That’s important to me. But then, it seems to have been a focus of Indian thought and Indian art from the beginning. The colors—I mean a color’s a color. I suppose I supply a sensibility to it which is Indian because I’m Indian. AM I think colors belong to places. You walk down the street in London and everything is gray and everyone is wearing gray. Whereas if you walk into the desert in Rajasthan, everything is brown and gray, but everyone is wearing pink or purple or yellow. AK I think light has a lot to do with this. Generally, even London gets brighter in the summer, I mean the way people dress. I find that that’s something innate, one of those things you carry with you—light. It’s very important, actually. AM Sometimes when I’m coming back from India, wearing all these clothes I bought there, I’m on the plane and somewhere over the Atlantic ocean, I’d think, “Oh my God, what am I wearing? How am I going to get off the plane wearing this stuff?” Suddenly all the colors I was attracted to there look totally bizarre. AK Right. AM I wonder how much of that is light and how much is the context. AK I think it’s much more to do with what the color’s about. Actually I’m a painter working as a sculptor. Color is a feature of that. Again, the works that I was making before the last couple of years, were all about radiation and giving out. The works that I’m making now are the opposite. They’re all about absorption, taking in. Consequently, the colors from being bright become dark and gloomy. AM Why is that? AK Well, there are a huge number of reasons. On one level, I don’t know—the early work was all about relationships between objects, between things. A number of different objects make it work. They define a ritual space. That was also about the relationship between the colors and the objects. Now, that space has moved inside the sculpture, inside the objects and consequently, they’re not about relationships in the same way. The relationship is probably much more self-contained within one thing. And the relationship is between the viewer and the thing, much more intently. AM Are you going to paint them from outside? AK The stones? No. AM They’re painted black on the inside? AK They’re blue. AM One of the things you’d said about Indian art, was that you thought modern Indian art was taking from the narrative tradition as opposed to the spiritual— AK I think Indian art has two very clear directions. One of them is phenomenological: to do with scale, to do with presence, to do with material. And the other is to do with telling a story. The narrative tradition, especially in the 19th century, is very important, but it seems to me that most contemporary Indian art is only dealing with the narrative tradition. I’m not interested in the narrative tradition. Storytelling is not for me. It’s the other side of it. This relates to my ideas about abstraction. The other side of the story is experience, the phenomenological. Arriving at something that isn’t telling a story, but is allowing you to experience your own story. I’m trying to make my work available to that kind of experience, that is a big difference. Indian artists of my generation, perhaps through their much more rigorous engagement with what it means to be Indian, are beginning to deal with things that aren’t superficially Indian. Aren’t to do with the telling of logical stories, but are to do with the real Indianness, which is as vague as smell and light and color. The other side of it is philosophical, metaphysical, whatever—I think that must be a definition of abstract art, too—it doesn’t narrate, but it allows for experience. This is an idea of art-making: the physical process being related to some internal process. This notion of the material that one’s working with—stone—and, color, whatever else, coming to be a home for one’s psychological material, one’s psychological matter. In the end, what one’s working with is oneself. Every piece of sculpture, every drawing, every painting is a kind of chemistry. It’s like an alchemy. What the alchemists did was to allow the various substances they were playing with to be the darkness of death, the brightness of the sun, and all these were, in the final analysis, the forces of the interior. By playing around with them, they were trying to arrive at gold. The gold was a spiritual one, the transformation of the matter was an internal one. I’m sure this is the reason why art costs a lot of money. In that ordinary stuff is transformed into a painting or whatever, that kind of gold, and therefore, it’s worth a lot of money. It’s a bizarre way around it but it makes sense. AM One of my professors at University in Delhi said that the difference between Eastern art and Western art, meaning literature as well, was that the Indian artist, in following a tradition, was making work for the audience, to please his audience. Whereas Western art was an expression of an individual experience. AK I don’t think that’s true at all. Because there are good artists and bad artists, or not-so-good artists. This kind of East-West stuff is rubbish. I mean, for me, being an Indian artist is not important. What is interesting is that there have been a significant number, since the mid-19th century—everyone from Van Gogh to Picasso—of European artists who have been able to look East. Van Gogh was hugely influenced by Japanese prints. Evidently, Matisse was, and Picasso by African art. They’ve been able to look to the other world and make that part of the Western tradition. It’s never happened the other way around. Not significantly, other than Tagore, who we think of as one shining example, but it’s almost never happened. I think there’s actually a prejudice there. I don’t think it’s allowed to happen which is why it doesn’t happen. Every time there is some move by an Eastern artist, or a non-European artist making something which uses some kind of Western idiom or some combination of the two, it’s always seen as influenced. This is a way of putting things down. It’s only recently, really recently, Salman Rushdie and others now, are beginning to deal with something which allows for a real opening up of both traditions. Traditional art, Eastern or Western, can’t happen any more. What’s got to happen is something else. Folk art really only happens in very closed societies, like the work of Tibetan monks, folk art, or tribal art, in India or in Africa, in closed circumstances. I think that’s a battle that really has to be fought hard. It’s something I’m trying to do myself, in making my work more than stones with holes in them. How does one bring in all sorts of other things which aren’t represented by the matter that’s there? AM This is going to sound very stupid, but for the logistics, if somebody buys one of your pieces—they buy this big rock—could they put it in their living room? AK If they want to. They could. AM And if one buys one of these pigment pieces, where the powdered pigment is heaped on the piece—they put it in their living room and spread all this pigment around—or do you come and set it up? AK Do I come and set it up? Sometimes. AM And then they can never vacuum again. AK They can vacuum—you see, I think people are mad and amazingly courageous to have those things in their homes. It’s marvelous, it’s wonderful that they do it. And surprisingly enough, they do. It’s a great vote of confidence. AM Do you put them in your own house? AK I have a lot of work of mine that I live with, but at the moment, no sculpture. Just paintings and drawings. I mean having a studio like this, I’m with it all day. I’m not sure that I also want to live with it. Actually, I think it’s really important to get away from it. AM To me, it would be like constantly rereading my own work. I don’t think I could do that. AK I don’t mind doing that. I have many works that I keep, that I won’t let go of. There are some, in terms of what we were talking about before, in which that internal journey, is quite significantly struck and if I can keep those, I do. AM We’re back. Let’s talk about sex, then death. Some people described your work as being erotic. I don’t think it’s erotic, but it is definitely sexual. AK No, it’s not erotic. It’s to do with origin. That’s the abiding theme of everything. And origin is necessarily sexual. The metaphor of the other place, passing through, is also sexual. So it comes in there, too. And it’s an aspect of life that’s very real. It’s part of our internal stuff, sex is a huge part of that. AM And in talking about being and non-being, sex is both. Here and not-here. AK There’s a difference between the way I think about it now and the way that I thought about it in the earlier work. In the earlier work, the notions of origin were very figurative. The imagery was much more direct than it is now. What is always around, is this idea of not being able to function, not being able to make any more work. In that way, being an artist is much more about death. AM You know that in French an orgasm is called, “la petite mort?” AK Yes. It’s obvious that there’s a very clear sexual parallel in that. It connects with fear, with fear of death. In a way with fear of arrival, too. There are all these kinds of ways in which being a sculptor and making visual art isn’t like being a writer or a musician. Somehow, in the work of a writer within the form of the novel or the short story, there is—there’s a conclusion. It begins and then it finishes. Visual art is—it’s a necessary part of it, that there’s no conclusion. If anything, there are some elegant questions, but there are no answers. AM I don’t think a piece of writing begins and ends. AK You don’t. But the form, certainly the form of the novel has a beginning and end. It seems to me that only poetry has this kind of form. This continuing. AM I don’t know. In terms of my writing, it’s more of a thought, an idea. A novel or a piece of writing is more of a passing thought and one jumps on to it, and it doesn’t necessarily end where one jumps off. One stops writing there. It’s doesn’t necessarily try to conclude. It’s almost an arbitrary decision where to stop. AK But the form doesn’t allow you to be arbitrary, does it? AM It does. At least, the modern form does. I don’t know if people write novels anymore—if they really consciously did—according to rising action, climax, falling action, denouement anymore than people write classic sonnets. AK No. But what I’m trying to say is that by the fact that it’s a narrative, it must come to, however tenuous, a conclusion. One of the things about abstract art is that it doesn’t come to a conclusion. Every work is only a little way along and it still doesn’t come to a conclusion. It’s an ongoing investigation. AM It’s still a finished piece. AK With no beginning or end though. AM Beginning from the time you start making it to the time you think it’s finished, or the time someone starts looking at it, to the time they leave it to look at something else. AK Yes, but physically, not metaphorically. AM Then you could say the same thing about a novel. AK Okay, I’ll accept that. AM It could be physically ended but not metaphorically. The big questions might still not be answered. Otherwise, how could you continue writing? I can’t speak for everybody—but now I’ve interrupted you and contradicted you. Please—so your work doesn’t conclude, it doesn’t have an ending. Where does it go? AK It goes to the next piece. AM And eventually you’ll be finished. AK No. That’s the whole point. I mean that’s exactly where we started, isn’t it? That’s back to A Thousand Names, that’s back to never completing it, never being finished. In a sense, this is a contradiction because one of the things I’m about is absolute. And what I’m saying is that there is no absolute. But that’s a contradiction I feel quite comfortable with. AM Back to what you were saying about expressing truth. If truth is relative, then your expression of truth is different from someone else’s expression. AK Yes. AM Well then, how do you know that yours is the truth? AK It’s only true to me and I think if it’s true enough for me, then it’s true enough for you. Or for somebody else. AM In which case, truth is truth. One doesn’t need your background, or any background to see and understand the truth. AK Of course you do, as usual. It’s all got to do with the media. Contemporary art seems to include everyone and every way of doing things. In fact, it’s a very closed world that requires prior knowledge. Without it, there’s no way of understanding the language that it functions in. But that’s true of physics and it’s true of everything. AM But do you think the truth in art is an absolute truth, relative only in the sense that you need a certain background to understand it? If you take E=MC², obviously, one needs a certain background to understand it, but it is true, no matter what the context. AK It’s also true in art. A good work is a good work. Whether it’s in Africa, Latin America or New York. AM Let’s go back to A Virgin As A Void. AK To me, the notion of origin is very important, so I’ve made a number of works which have titles rather similar to that. It’s trying to engage with the place from which I emerge as an artist, which I feel to be feminine. I feel my creative self to be feminine. I feel that creativity itself is feminine. I think this is also very Eastern. One can speak of Western tradition, certainly in modern art, being basically phallic. Western sculpture is a phallic art. My work seems to be the opposite. All the works I have here in the studio, they’re all upright, and in that sense, phallic, but they’re all empty so it’s an inversion of that phallic-ness. They’re not towards the flat, but towards the concave. That’s very important for me. AM Then they’re hermaphrodites. AK It seems to me that that condition is desirable. It seems to be truth. AM What is truth? AK Your word, hermaphrodite. In talking about a post-Freudian culture, I’m obviously continually referring to union culture, which is less theoretical and much more cultural—more to do with global culture. Seeing the human being as manifesting the same things, the same truths, in various cultural forms. But the same truths. That’s a steady constant. These are themes which reoccur over and over again. Hermaphrodite being one of them. The joining of opposite things. AM Which you see as being opposed to making phallic things. AK No, I think that was in a special context. In terms of modern art, in my peculiar view of it. It’s another theme that’s been around a lot for me: opposition. Opposite things coming together. AM With A Virgin Is A Void, the idea of death in terms of black or white—death being black and nothingness and then sex being white and everything, or the other way around. AK Potentially, they’re both everything and they’re both nothing. It’s too vague to talk about death in these large terms. I think one has to somehow engage with it in particular—we’re going to, each one of us—but specifically in the work, in these dark spaces. They are spaces of wonder but they’re also featureless, also, in a sense, nonexistent. It’s the idea of making a sculpture that is actually not sculpture, just a hole in space that’s a non-object, a non-physical thing. It’s also futile because it’s not possible. Grappling continually with this impossible thing seems to me to be a direct parallel for any ideas about God. It’s totally intangible. One can’t illustrate it, make it, or have it be. One can only remotely refer to it. I think that’s worthy. That’s the stuff, for me, art ought to be made of. And that’s why it will always be incomplete. It’s impossible to complete. AM So art is about being and not-being. AK Exactly, exactly. AM Is that the truth? AK I made this very strange discovery, that by emptying out—it seems to be about being and non-being—as the works become more hollow, they also have become much more physical. The stones are very present and very physical. So there’s this curious dichotomy there. Sculpture has been about physical space: here, three-dimensional, projecting. The thing that I seem to be doing is the opposite. Making sculpture un-three-dimensional. The physicalness of the stone is about non-physicalness. About fear, about the other place, taking in rather than giving out.
If the expansion of the public sphere in Western history was transformative and essential in the creation of democratic, participatory polities, the character and role of the public sphere under socialism (from the former Soviet Union, to Eastern Europe, to China, North Korea and Cuba) has been radically different. In all these places, the power of the Party-State has long been constituted in part by the effective hegemonic monopoly on expression in the public sphere. In China, performance art in public has also performed several path-breaking functions, injecting questions about the human condition and visual interrogations of the order of things into the everyday life of ordinary people in society, and constituting ad hoc pockets of alternative public space. In Reform Era China, as a variety of forces erode the State monopoly on the public sphere, the State's weakening ability and/or will to regulate public expression ideas and practices is directly related to the changing relationship between State and society, State and subject, as well as changes in the Party's own identity and modus operandi. For this reason, activities that contribute to the creation of independent "spaces of appearance" and alternative public spaces also contribute to the transmission and diffusion of critical discourse and competing ideas and practices, and play a role in transforming the public sphere. Thus, contemporary art in China has functioned since its inception in the late 1970s as a relatively autonomous, critical and sometimes outright counter-hegemonic site of heterodox cultural production, and the performative interventions of public action art have been at the forefront of this movement. The State of Contemporary Art and Performance Art in China Performance art has frequently come under fire as officialdom in China has found cause for offense in the works of independent artists who emerged following Reform and Opening in 1978. This stance can be traced from the crackdown on Xiao Lu’s performance installation in which she shot at her own work during the China Avant/Garde Exhibition in early 1989, leading to the exhibition’s early closure, to the arrests of performance artists Ma Liuming and Zhu Ming, leading to the dispersal of the Beijing East Village in June 1994 after the two were charged with "obscenity" and imprisoned for nudity in their performances, photographs, videos and paintings. Indeed, performance art has been treated by the Chinese State as a dangerous, unknown quantity and potential contaminant of public virtue. This attitude culminated in April 2001 after a slew of carnage-riddled, sometimes cruel performances and artworks that were slavishly reminiscent of Damien Hirst's work came into vogue the previous year. Outraged at the use of bodies—both human and animal, living and dead—under the rubric of art, the official animus towards performance art, tarred with this bloody brush, was formulated into pointed national policy directive. On 11 April 2001, the Ministry of Culture of the Chinese central government released an official policy statement 通知 ordering local authorities nationwide to "resolutely put a stop to the harmful phenomena of bloody, brutal, obscene spectacles, performed or exhibited in the name of ‘art’." To prevent the damage to "social decency, morals and manners," the MOC explicitly prohibited the exhibition and performance of such "art" in public, as well as the display and mechanical reproduction and dissemination of "video or texts, pictures and other forms" of the works. This directive represented a major setback for performance art in China, but by no means signaled its disappearance. Today, prohibitions towards nudity in art have largely been overcome in China. Violent art practices have waned and performance art is no longer singled out as a cancer on the corpus of public morality. This change has occurred in part because the art world has lost interest in gratuitously violent works, and this "fall from fashion" is as much due to a lack of originality, substantive, critical and aesthetic content of the work itself as State repression. Today, overt repression has been largely replaced by the velvet-gloved, near invisible hand of self-censorship, as many galleries and artists—reluctant to jinx their recent truce with the State—have begun to make strategic decisions to omit works that they know will lead to a crackdown. Dai Guangyu has characterized this as the rise of a "neatly arranged freedom 俨然的自由." Because of the unique character of public space and the growing tenuousness of State control over public expression in China, practices that contribute to this transformation of the public sphere are of critical importance. Three seminal cases of public performance interventions illustrate this dynamic: The Chengdu Public Action Art Movement of the mid-to-late 1990s, lead by Dai Guangyu; The Walking the Cabbage Project by Han Bing; and The Utopia of the Embrace by the Gao Brothers. Dai Guangyu and the Chengdu Public Performance Art Movement While the Beijing East Village is now a well-known chapter in Chinese contemporary art history, a set of parallel yet different developments unfolded in China’s Southwest. During the 1990s, the city of Chengdu in Sichuan Province was a vibrant site of avant-garde public art. Its community of artists blazed an alternative path for performance art. Spearheading the Chengdu Public Performance Art Movement was the charismatic, multidisciplinary Sichuanese artist Dai Guangyu. Through his critical writings, curatorial projects, and, most of all, through his socially engaged art, Dai Guangyu has been an active contributor to the Chinese contemporary art world for more than two decades. As Co-founder of the "Sichuan Youth Red-Yellow-Blue Alliance" of avant-garde artists, Dai Guangyu was a leading figure in the "New Art Movement" in the Southwest from the mid-1980s onward. After 1989, when avant-garde art was driven underground, Dai Guangyu organized a series of path-breaking public art events in Chengdu and elsewhere. In contrast to the mostly nude, transgressive experimentations of the Beijing East Village that took place largely within the temporary public spaces constituted by artists who converged around performance happenings in the courtyards where they lived, meeting repressive opposition and finally arrest when their performances were witnessed by locals and reported, the Chengdu Public Performance Art Movement introduced performance interventions into the broader public sphere shared by members of mainstream society to warm welcome and public affirmation. Their interventions were focused on societal and environmental woes afflicting the larger community—water pollution and environmental problems, misuse of public resources, protection of historical sites, etc.—rather than individual alienation and repression, identity and experience, and so they had little cause to take off their clothes. The most noteworthy aspect of the Chengdu Public Performance Art Movement lies in the group’s ingenuous engagement with the mainstream media, which was key to their ability to disseminate their work and its messages across a broad swath of society, and effect change through art. As Dai Guangyu put it, in the course of this movement, contemporary, avant-garde art went from being "strange, unfamiliar, and unreadable, to familiar, then recognized, and finally having an interactive relationship with society. Through the media, and the enactment of art in public, the movement in Chengdu achieved important inroads towards the legalization and legitimization of performance art and its insertion into public space [and in doing so] introduced a new model of power." The first public performance event in Chengdu opened a broad way for public interventions. American artist Betsy Damon had a grant and was working with American scientists who were investigating water pollution from its Tibetan source. On recommendation of the American Consulate, which had honored Dai Guangyu’s long-term activism by sponsoring his cultural exchange visit to the United States in 1994, Damon sought out Dai Guangyu for collaboration. Recognizing the local government’s potential receptiveness to an environmental awareness project conducted by a foreigner, he helped her organize a State-sanctioned public art project in Chengdu. Protectors of the Water, the first large-scale public performance art event to take place in the Southwest, was held in downtown Chengdu from 29 July through the first week of August, 1995. Participating artists included Yin Xiuzhen, Wang Tong, Liu Chengying, Zeng Xun, Yin Xiaofeng, Zhu Gang, Li Jixiang, and others. Among the works presented, several stand out. Yin Xiuzhen froze large quantities of polluted water and then "washed" them clean. Wang Tong bought ceramic water containers, filled them with clean, potable water, and then dangled them from a bridge over the polluted river. Yin Xiaofeng parodied a typical corporate promotional campaign. He filled basins for face or foot-washing with polluted water and invited people to enjoy a soak. For his performance installation Long Abandoned Water Standards, Dai Guangyu assembled twelve photographs of community members and put the images into developing trays filled with the city’s river water. Over the course of the week, people watched their faces be consumed, as the toxic waste of human industry visibly degraded their portraits. While "developing" the photographic prints in pans of polluted water, Dai Guangyu offered tea to the audience, pretending it was steeped in river water, now purified and safe to drink. He and other artists imbibed tea to reassure them, but no one from the audience dared drink, revealing shared public knowledge of environmental conditions. Every day over ten thousand people visited the performance installation site in the bustling downtown and engaged with the artists. People from all walks of life—homeless beggars, garbage pickers, retirees, petty merchants, business people, scholars, and local elites—roundly praised the project. The media followed suit with glowing reports. In the past, the media had shown suspicion towards avant-garde art. Indeed, at the outset of Protectors of the Water, they were still cautious; most had never heard of "行为艺术—performance art." But the public response was so overwhelming (even the city leadership attended) that they perhaps concluded it was safe to write positively. After the first positive report, journalists began competing to provide in depth coverage. After major papers began reporting, television followed suit. The experience convinced Dai Guangyu that "the alliance between media and art could play a critical role in the legalization of performance art." Since a State sanctioned environmental awareness event organized with foreign involvement gave a positive pretext for the introduction of performance art into the public discourse, by embracing openness and reaching out to the media the Chengdu movement was able to accomplish a rare fait accompli that inserted avant-garde art and performance interventions into the public sphere, resulting in a decisive movement towards the legalization of performance art. After Protectors of the Water, the phrase xingwei yishu was openly and positively invoked in the local media. In fact, there were all sorts of art in their public shows—installation, painting, ink wash—but the media took to calling it all 'performance art.' Perhaps the illocutionary force of art engaging members of society in public was so powerful that even painting and installation works took on a performative valence. Performance art became so popular and well-know in Chengdu that "even tricycle pedicab drivers and newspaper sellers recognized us on streets, we were like famous people and they would ask us when the next show would be so they could be a part of it." Initially, the artists simply intended to use the environment as a point of entry into the public sphere for their art. But the transformative quality of their performative interventions was not limited to the public consciousness, the media, or the official attitude towards avant-garde art. In fact, the very acts they performed before the eyes of the community, and the dialogical process of engaging with members of the community about environmental problems, transformed the artists’ own thinking, their priorities, and sense of self in the process. "The truth is," said Dai Guangyu, "in the beginning, none of us artists actually cared about the environment, but by the end of the project we had been transformed by it, and came to care about this problem deeply. Before our knowledge was limited, but later we learned about it and realized its importance." The statement further underscores the performative notion of subjectivity as constituted through speech, action, practice, as well as dialogically, before the gaze of others. Following on this success members of the Chengdu Movement undertook many new public performance projects, among which many are noteworthy. In 1998, they were called to collective action by the impending demolition of the old city library that dated from the late Qing Dynasty and had extensive archival holdings. Real estate developers planned to tear down the library and replace it with a shoddy "tofu construction project" on the outskirts of town. While waiting for the new library to be built, the developer moved the library’s prized holdings to a damp, moldy, and rat infested storage facility. In response, Dai Guangyu organized the public performance intervention, In Defense of Memory. In Defense of Memory took place on 15 August 1998 and lasted a single day. The library was cordoned off so they could invite only a few people: newspaper reporters, radio and television reporters, and scholars to witness and record. The artists, including Dai Guangyu, Yin Xiaofeng, Liu Chunying, Zhu Gang, Zhang Hua, Zeng Xun, Zhou Bin and Hu Jian, had to bribe the guard with alcohol in order to gain access into the building and lay their action plan. A few days later, they went again and gave the guard two cartons of expensive cigarettes to go back inside with the media observers and execute their project. In Dai Guangyu’s performance, Diary, his young son, wearing a young pioneer’s uniform, dipped his ink brush in clear water and wrote his diary. Scrolls of photocopied images of Mao Zedong hung above him. Liu Chunying wrapped himself up like a mummy covered with calligraphy and was suspended from a shelf with books on his body. Zhu Gang read a book that contained no words. Yin Xiaofeng took seven vats and got some magazines from the trash, which he burned inside the vats. He dumped the ashes out from the second floor and then shattered the vats below. The media witnesses recorded everything. They had just finished when a low level manager made an unexpected visit. He was furious. He cursed the gate man, called the company’s security guards, and locked the artists and their small audience inside, threatening them and demanding their film. One reporter managed to escape undetected, while the artists let a critic negotiate for them. The latter told the manager and his guards that the artists were just having fun, that they liked to make art films, and they wouldn’t make any trouble. Finally, they were all released. That night, the performance intervention was made public. Word spread across the media, inciting discussion and protestations against the library’s demolition. The deal with the real estate company was rescinded and the library was saved (possibly to cover up any untoward personal profiteering of officials who facilitated the sale). The performance intervention, allied with the media, rallied the community to save their public library, giving the Chengdu Public Performance Art Movement a sense of how the power to effect real change can be constituted by speech and action in concert, particularly when injected into the broader public discourse. In 1998, a stretch of old Ming Dynasty city wall was discovered when a residential block was razed for real estate development. The artists each did performances at the Ming wall to raise awareness and prevent its demolition. Performances included Dai Guangyu’s, Fossil, in which the artist used polluted river water to paint classical Chinese landscapes on xuan paper 宣纸 on the wall. When the water dried, the image vanished, mimicking the disappearance of history as architectural relics are destroyed to make way for "modern" high-rises. Zhu Gang squatted inside a hole in the wall and read a book with no words—hinting at what a history erased of content might be like. Zhou Bin washed the old city walls and discovered a Guanyin Buddha carving. Later, Dai Guangyu spray-painted some of the old bricks lying around and filled the holes in the wall with gold-painted bricks. Local scholar Cha Changping and Dai Guangyu organized a social discussion panel with the media and residents about the fate of the wall. Numerous citizens called their hotline, eager to help protect the Ming wall. The media storm instigated by their performance interventions helped save a sixty-meter segment of the wall. From 1995 through 2001, Chengdu enjoyed an era of freedom for avant-garde art. This was challenged, however, when the Ministry of Culture issued its policy directive banning performance art. Although the wording of the statement singled out violence and nudity "in the name of art" as crossing the line, what followed was a backlash against performance art in general. The artists rallied together again in protest of the ban. Dai Guangyu curated an exhibition in a Chengdu bookstore that featured ten artists (one week each) and still enjoyed the local goodwill to have the event publicized in the media. Artists Liu Chunying, Yin Xiaofeng, Deng Xun, Zhu Gang, Chen Qiulin, Yu Ji, and others participated. Visually reflecting the way in which the Ministry of Culture ban served to hamstring artistic creation, Dai Guangyu’s performance involved being hung upside down and forced to eat an entire meal and drink a beverage while inverted. Until Dai Guangyu moved to Beijing in 2003, the loose confederation of avant-garde artists in Chengdu continued supporting each other in their public performance interventions. Since then, a number of artists—including Chen Qiulin, Yu Ji, and others—have also moved to the capital, where opportunities for exhibition and access to international opportunities vastly outstrip those in Chengdu. Nevertheless, the vibrant experimentation and collective public engagement there continues and there is still a greater degree of community solidarity there than in Beijing. Han Bing’s Walking the Cabbage Project Multidisciplinary artist Han Bing grew up in a small, rural village in Jiangsu province. A childhood of labor in the fields as a bona fide "peasant," as he puts it,—reclaiming the dignity of a word that is often used disparagingly—imbued his work with a sensitivity to the struggles of laboring people whose lives, livelihoods, identities and values have been thrown into flux by the State's juggernaut campaign of urbanized "modernization." In 1998, he moved to Beijing for Advanced Studies at the Central Academy of Fine Art and was struck by the contrast between the plight of working people and the materialist "Chinese Dream" propelling the nation’s development. Mornings Han Bing attended art classes, and in the afternoons he spread a cloth out on a pedestrian overpass and sold pens and notebooks to passers-by for pennies. Eventually he saved up the money to buy a coal burner and cooking pot. He bought rice and a cabbage—the cheapest vegetable on the market and the staple food of the Chinese poor—and dreamed of his first "real" home-cooked meal while painting at the academy. But when he returned home, he found his room had been robbed, and his pot, coal burner, and seven oil paintings were gone. All that remained was that lonely head of Chinese cabbage and a rusty knife. Without the money to replace these items, he endured a harsh winter, watching his cabbage slowly wither, unable to cook it, and unwilling to throw away good food. As Han Bing and his cabbage grew thinner and thinner together that first winter in Beijing, he began to contemplate why the Chinese so love their cabbage, which they would store in huge mounds to get them through the winter. He discovered a tenderness toward ordinary objects such as a humble staple food or simple tools of labor, which sustain the subsistence of so many people year in and year out and yet are seen as unglamorous reminders of a recent past of poverty by those better off. The growing gap between rich and poor and the way that the nouveau riche cast aside modest (and monotonous) winters of cabbage in favor of ostentatious gluttony in fancy restaurants where intentional waste is now a symbol of good fortune, was food for thought that stuck in his throat. If a full stock of cabbage for the winter was once a symbol of material well-being for Chinese, now the newly-monied flaunt their "name brand" pampered pooches, as if to show they no longer need to rely on the lowly cabbage, and now not only fatten themselves to the point of obesity, but also have enough food to spare for a pedigreed pet. Yet, for the poor and struggling, the realities of cabbage as a bottom line have not changed—what's changed is the value structure that dictates what is valuable and what is worthless. Wondering how what we have, or do not have, changes who we are and how we come to know ourselves; how the act of desiring and possessing things can constitute our selves in various ways and change how we understand our lives, Han Bing began exploring the boundary between human beings and the objects that we use to define ourselves, as well as the relationship between our everyday practices and the status quo norms and value structures of the world, which our choices and actions, sometimes unwittingly, constitute. In his eight-year ongoing Walking the Cabbage Project, Han Bing walks a head of Chinese cabbage on a leash in public spaces. This playful twist on a serious subject inverts an ordinary practice in order to stimulate critical discourse in public. A quintessentially Chinese symbol of home, sustenance, and comfort for poor Chinese, Han Bing’s cabbages provoke questions about contemporary social values. Walking his cabbage on a leash, Han Bing strolls through populous urban centers and public places—from Tiananmen Square to Beijing’s Wangfujing shopping district, from the trundling public buses and subterranean metro lines to the hip Houhai lakeside strip of old Beijing hutong alleys, swank bars and cafés. But the travels of Han Bing’s cabbage are not limited to Beijing, or sprawling metropolises like Shanghai and Guangzhou, where he has enacted his performance interventions as well. His cabbage has been walked on the Great Wall, on elite resort town beaches at Qinhuangdao, in the picturesque water towns of Suzhou, and even in Hanhucun—the tiny rural village where he grew up. Han Bing walks his cabbage in wildly disparate environments—from the small agricultural plot of his parents in his home village in rural Jiangsu, where he helps them plant a new crop of cabbage, to the million-dollar dwellings and the privatized public spaces of "Euro-style" gated communities of the Chinese nouveau riche; from the idyllic minority village of Dali in the southwestern mountains of Yunnan, to the westernized Bund in Shanghai, and more—juxtaposing, with both pathos and tongue-in-cheek humor, the spaces of everyday life in contemporary China along the way. Since 2006, Han Bing has globalized his intervention, taking his cabbage to Japan, exploring the cross-cultural significations and consternations produced by his performative interventions in the labyrinth of the Tokyo subway lines and across the mammoth city. In the financial district of Ginza, he embodied a playful spectacle of non-conformity amidst the prim-suited business people. In Harajuku, he was joined by a small legion of alternative young hipsters, self-proclaimed "Lolita girls," Goth teens, punks, and Cosplayers, in a group cabbage-walking bonanza. In 2007, he toured the United States for three months, walking the cabbage in locales ranging from tourist-choked Hollywood to Santa Monica’s Venice Beach; from snooty Beverly Hills to the hippie-hold-out Berkeley, where homeless people joined the performance; from the aquamarine beaches of Miami to the churning banks of the Mississippi River; from Brooklyn's Polish neighborhood of Greenpoint to San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury; from Time Square and Fifth Avenue to a cattle ranch in the provincial East Bay suburb of Livermore. During the opening of his solo exhibition at the Columbia Art Museum in South Carolina, over a hundred people gathered to take part in a group cabbage walk throughout the town, including anti-war protestors and Women in Black. When there weren’t enough cabbages to go around, some took turns, while others marched alongside, clutching nothing but green, webbed cabbage leaves. Later that year, Han Bing walked his cabbage on cobblestone streets in Belgium and chic boulevards in France. He was harassed by security guards in Brussels, but joined by delighted onlookers in Paris. In 2008, the Chinese cabbage was indigenized and swapped for the local British working class mainstay—the Savoy—in Han Bing’s mass performance of The Walking the Cabbage Movement in Manchester, hosted by the Asia Triennial Manchester. He localized his interrogation of social class and sustenance, possessive individualism and conspicuous consumption with one-hundred and fifty cabbage-walking Manchester folks—homeless people, housewives, grandparents, kids, gay activists, white collars, and immigrants—taking Savoy cabbages on leashes for a three-hour walk across the city, inciting puzzlement, delight, and much debate across society. The scale of his outreach in China is reflected in discussion board banter, fiery debates, and reports by bloggers who have either seen Han Bing walking his cabbage and posted their own pictures on the Internet, or helped circulate these guerrilla images across the web, along with apocryphal stories about his identity, and their interpretations of the significance of walking a cabbage. The phrase liu baicai 遛白菜 has now taken on connotations including "totally original," "mentally warped," and "alternative cool," among Chinese chat room "netizens," and a guerrilla photograph snapped at the 2004 Beijing MIDI Music Festival has been available for download to cell phones. There is ample evidence, in fact, that Han Bing’s performance of Walking the Cabbage is arguably the most well-know work of Chinese contemporary art across the broader society in the People's Republic. Chinese bloggers in particular have engaged in spirited debates about the meaning of this public spectacle. Some have written impassioned diatribes decrying this symbol of the "alienation of the times," while others have responded defending the practice as a sign that people have become more independent and free to express themselves. Others have taken this performance as an animal rights statement, while others still have interpreted it as a comment on the disgracefulness of China’s current culture of wastefulness and exorbitant leisure (especially with regards to food and entertainment among the nouveau riche), and this cacophony of opinion is part of Han Bing’s objective. "By making people think for themselves," he says, "the great variety of ways to be a person and live in the world, become more visible, become more viable choices. Freedom requires having choices about how to live. I want to show that we have alternatives." The Gao Brothers and their Utopia of the Embrace The principles and passions animating the oeuvre of multidisciplinary artist brothers Gao Zheng and Gao Qiang for the past twenty years were forged in the crucible of persecution against their family during the Cultural Revolution, when their father, accused of bourgeois sympathies and intellectualism, was killed in 1968. They learned early the power of love as a source of strength and the power of idealism as a talisman to against disillusionment. Likewise, their meditations on love and the generative power constituted by people coming together in recognition and celebration of their mutual humanity is reflected in their ongoing eight-year public performance intervention, Utopia of the Embrace. On 10 September 2000, the Gao Brothers gathered one-hundred and fifty volunteers together in their hometown of Jinan to realize their first mass public performance art project The Utopia of the 20 Minute Embrace. Using three busses, they ferried volunteers to the site on the south bank of the Yellow River. Most volunteers did not know one another or the Gao Brothers, and there was some anxiousness regarding what they were about to do. In China, platonic hugging is not a common habit, even among friends and family.To assuage nervousness, the Gao Brothers did a demonstration, first hugging each other and then hugging volunteers, in order to break the ice and show that hugs were not something to be embarrassed about. They explained their belief that every human being knows innately how to love and needs love, that everyone has the ability to embrace and the desire to be embraced, at least in the abstract, and that this action could unlock our hearts and enable us to find an agape-like love for humanity inside ourselves. With this explanation, the participants began to relax. They each sought out and gingerly embraced a stranger. While the Gao Brothers initially expected people to embrace members of the opposite sex, most of the participants seemed more comfortable holding someone of the same gender. They closed their eyes and for the first fifteen minutes the participants held each other like sisters and brothers. For the final five minutes, the entire group came together for one mass embrace. The only human sounds were the rush of breath and the beating of hearts. These twenty minutes of unfamiliar intimacy left many with powerful, complicated feelings afterwards, and this strange experience had become "a gift in their memories." On 31 January 2001, the Gao Brothers organized a group of friends and took to the streets of Jinan for another public performance intervention. On corners, roadsides, pedestrian overpasses, and public squares they engaged in lingering embraces with one another. Throughout the day and evening, curious strangers—some profoundly moved by the spectacle—joined them. Among these was a patrol officer, who became a spontaneous participant in the performance. As word of this performance spread, curator Harald Szeemann invited the Gao Brothers to participate in the 49th Venice Biennale in 2001. A mass hug performance was planned for 8 June at the Giardini di Castello in Venice, set to the music of Bach. The brothers posted messages across the web, inviting people to participate and asking them to bring friends, families, and colleagues. When their applications for external passports were denied due to previous blacklisted activities, the Gao Brothers were forced to miss their own Venice Biennale performance. So they used the Internet to stage a worldwide performance to take place in real time alongside the one in Venice. While the performance was taking place in Venice, the Gao Brothers assembled friends and strangers in the Jinan Liyun Modern Dance Troupe’s theatre to hug in synchronicity, closing their eyes and searching for a partner, while others worldwide participated simultaneously. This became their first worldwide "Global Hug Day." In August of 2001, they hired twenty migrant laborers to embrace each other for the public performance, 20 People Paid to Hug. Then, in October of 2002, they worked with the Fangshang Middle School in Donghai County, Jiangsu Province, to realize a group hug performance of over two hundred people. The numbers of their participants grew in 2003, when they organized the 10,000 Person Embrace as part of the contemporary art exhibition for the opening celebration of the ritzy Jianwai SOHO real estate development. However, because of cultural inhibitions against the public display of physical affection and lack of understanding by the bourgeois crowd at the opening, only a small number of people were willing to embrace a stranger. In an attempt to breach this divide, 10,000 Person Embrace was recast as Embracing 10,000 People, whereby the Gao Brothers began to hug as many people in attendance as possible, one after another for several hours. The Gao Brothers took their public intervention to Europe in April 2006, when the BBC invited them to London where they "freely embraced" strangers passing by. Following this performance, the Gao Brothers went to Nottingham to orchestrate a performance of more than a hundred people as well. In June, they were invited to Marseilles and organized another performance with around a hundred people. Accompanying their solo photography exhibition at the 2007 Rencontres D’Arles, the brothers performed another intervention in the square not far from the pub in Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night. I had the honor of translating their message to spontaneous participants. It was my first mass, public hug experience, and I found it profoundly moving to embrace complete strangers without reservation. Many participants openly wept during the twenty-minute hug session, overwhelmed by the simple power of the human touch and the reawakening of our sense of connectedness through the embrace. Since then, the brothers have organized mass hug interventions in Berlin and Tokyo, Hong Kong and elsewhere. Future plans include mass hug interventions across China, as well as worldwide in public places, war-torn ruins, and zones of conflict. This ongoing public performance art project is rooted in the belief that love can reclaim our humanity; not the bourgeois love of a significant other, but the love of fellow human being, strangers with whom we share our public spaces, but with whom we almost never share our hearts. In an era when politics and economics in China have served to alienate people from one another, the Gao Brothers have responded with this fundamental human capacity and need—love. By staging mass group hugs interventions in public, the Gao Brothers ask us to use our flesh-and-blood bodies to re-member the bond that we share with our fellow human being, to literally heal the dismembered body politic through love, to hold our fellow human beings close and allow ourselves to confront the distances between us—distances to which we have grown far too inured, distances that allow us to treat each other without compassion or respect. Holding a stranger in your arms, surrounded by people doing the same, may not remedy all the woes of our world, but it can performatively instantiate and remind us of our connection to one another and reawaken us to that strange magical fusion of our indisputable commonality and irreducible differences, and the latent power constituted by our coming together. Conclusion While the many public performance art interventions organized by Dai Guangyu and his collaborators in the Chengdu performance art community took place in the days before the Internet had reached a broad swath of the urban public in China, the collaborative role of the mass media was central to the fait accompli of legality and legitimacy that he succeeded in engineering for performance art in China’s Southwest. Likewise, media collaboration provided a vehicle for spreading the causes championed by the artists—environmental protection, cultural preservation, social activism, public accountability—helping turn local, eye-witness events into larger formations of widely shared public discourse about important aspects of the human condition and social responsibility for their community and shared fates. By the time Han Bing began his Walking the Cabbage Project, the age of the Internet had begun in urban China. While the sort of media collaborations effected by Dai Guangyu in Sichuan, far from the political centre, were less transferable to the highly monitored, tightly regulated mass media of the nation’s capital, the growing realm of the Internet has provided a relatively less restricted vehicle for the viral transmission of critical discourse arising from Han Bing’s Walking the Cabbage Project. Likewise, the Internet has played a pivotal role in expanding the reach of performance art in the public sphere for the Gao Brothers’ Utopia of the Embrace Project, offering a medium through which people not physically present were nevertheless able to participate in—and even initiate—parallel performative interventions in real time alongside the Gao Brothers’ interventions. Indeed, the Gao Brothers have successfully used the Internet to post invitations soliciting the participation of myriad strangers in their mass hug performances, disseminating knowledge of their project among not only to China’s growing population of "netizens," but also around the globe. Some have speculated that their pioneering performances may have inspired the "Free Hugs Movement" that has spread virally on YouTube in recent years. Just as the emergence of print media in the West once enabled the emergence of a sense of common national membership in the "homogenous empty time" of a shared set of information consumption practices, in the past decade, Internet technology has enabled the emergence of globalized networks of affinity, affiliation, shared discourse, critical debate, and even coordinated co-actions and performative interventions that transcend national boundaries and reaffirm the sense of common humanity (our shared natality), interdependence and mutual vulnerability (our shared mortality), and the glorious myriad ways of being a human being (our common and irreducible plurality) that Hannah Arendt linked to the constitution of polis: the generation of power through speech and action in concert, and the transformation of the public sphere. If performance art is but one of many ways in which questions about the human condition can be visually and conceptually posed, performance art in public space—particularly that which critically engages and inspires the participation of ordinary members of society—has the capacity to function as a form of performative politics, creating zones of critical discourse and introspection that challenge the status quo and change the topography of the public sphere. In China, where State power still feeds on the ability to dominate and manipulate discourse in public and the capacity to act as a gatekeeper of public culture, regulating public expression, performative interventions in public space offer critical optics through which to view the human condition and offer alternative standards by which to judge the order of things. By Maya Kóvskaya
Entwined in the very roots of being are the impalpable sources of sensations. The body, is a tangible instrument that experiences and breaks the opaqueness of the world. The self too has a body, its exterior dimension, its surface, a biological anchor, and then a mind, its interior dimension, the invisible infinite space, its abstract force, treasurer of indelible impressions, innumerable associations and memories. The mind and body or the inside – outside dialogue is an ongoing one, always undergoing transformation. The antithetical structure of the world intrigues G.R. Iranna because of the inherent dualities that govern life. Although it is rather difficult to comprehend why, if life is movement, one seeks stillness, if a journey, one seeks destination and if transit, one desires permanence, it does appear that just as opposing forces aim at unity, it is this negotiation between the body and the mind, surface and depth, the past and present that engage Iranna’s sensibilities. The artist sees the self through confusion, contradictions, narcissism, caught up in things, front and back, a past and future and it is from this mingled feeling of pain and pleasure that Iranna’s art flows. His recent paintings reflect forms and images that belong to an agrarian environment – the earth space, its energy, agricultural tools, the ox, all recurrent in his art. They do not reflect the urban industrial city where he lives and works now. Iranna belongs to the village of Sindgi in Bijapur, to an ancestry of farmers. Early in his life, he was religiously and culturally oriented to the Lingayat sect as a believer in Lord Shiva. He moved from attending a Sarangmath in Singdi to a Fine Art School in Gulbarga and from there to Delhi, to attend the Master’s Program in painting at College of Art. Amidst the urban social fabric, the old and new values stood in sharp disparity. The complacency of the past and the challenge of the future equally nourished his life, helping him break frontiers between the visible and the invisible and between secret and knowledge. G.R. Iranna’s work seems to be conceptually engaged in the dialectics of immobility and transition and these may well be the thoughts that predominantly surface in the art of one who migrates from where he is rooted to where he is temporarily placed. The dim and distant is revived by an intimate contact, while the immediate environment is removed from the here and now. Iranna draws the world of which he is the center. His paintings are a private landscape illuminated by long drawn recollections, by shadows of the real. Farming and fertility images have an overwhelming presence in his work. As if extolling the earth, his pictorial space transforms into expansive field tracts, muddy ochre and browns, representing the sensuousness of the earth’s body often bathing in yellow sunlight. The plough is the most sensuous tool for Iranna as it splits opens the body of the earth to participate in the regenerative process. It is as the farmer’s son perhaps that he realises the importance of fertility more than others, worshipping both the fertile land and the tools of his livelihood. The opposing energies of procreation have been fused in our traditional images of Shiva and Shakti and the linga and yoni which are strong, potent visual symbols, sacred and ritualized. Iranna draws upon such iconographical source but personalises them. He speaks through himself. As the experiencing self, he appears naked, standing or reclining without moving – still and rooted within his territory, gazing into images that soothe him. In his earlier works, the self was so monumental and rock-like that it was compressed or fitted into space either through truncation or fragmentation. There was a dislodgment felt by the figure in an undefined space. The recent works seem to represent figure-space reversal, the figure reducing in size and the world in terms of space extending beyond. Even the emblematic tool has become large and psychologically more important than the figure. A preference for large canvases and tarpaulins highlight a painterly approach, where the pigment itself transforms into a sensual sunstance, swirling to represent the action and the object as well. Using the process of overlaying, Iranna animates the surface with riotous profusion, evoking a range of tactile values. His is a volatile libidinal energy at work that enjoys the carnal presence of the paint as it carries overpowering sensations and the raw feel of the erotic. It is rather interesting to see how convincingly he articulates the interplay of surface and depth on a two dimensional format. Through colour, he creates visual illuswions of cavities, paint raining on the canvas, the earth opening its mouth or simulating a small cut in the canvas making its dark interior visible, with things sprouting our from within, revealing simultaneously the inside and the outside. This is beautifully achieved in the painting captured in the magic of the nocturnal light where amidst the verticality of the lit candles carefully organised in space, one’s attention is fully drawn to a dense black shape that suggests a mysterious opening to enter into, while the golden flat shape juxtaposed becomes suggestive of its lid. The theatricality of the figure and the object is in its positioning, more often than not creating between them a magnetic pull. One sees a figure placed on the magnified blade of the tool, the sliced pice of which is pushed above and tensely positioned. The static and the moving, the strong and the vulnerable, the soft and the hard, the sharp and the round, the delicate and the coarse are contrary forces meaningfully construed to be felt with the same intensity. Often on a large canvas where everything is hard and outlined, our attention is pulled by the strength of a small blue soft form. Visual equivalents of sound, touch and even taste are articulated and made visible. In Iranna’s pictorial world, the self acquires an uninhibited, unfeigned presence in a private space, subjectively projected in signs and symbols that carry within them a poignant nostalgia, made sacred in gold and silver. Images imprisoned deep within, as if unknown secrets, surface to seek liberation. Roobina Karode, Art historian, Critic September 1998
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Bench: 102 x 16 /In
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