The language of art

  • The artists displaying at the Siddhartha Art Gallery currently are wrapping up their three month long residencies at M Cube, an artist run studio space that is now in its fifth season
- Sophia Pande
The most interesting aspect of both exhibitions is that both rely on text in some form or the other, whether it is the blurbs explaining the works or the texts embedded in the works themselves

Jan 31, 2016-It is not easy to write about art; especially when the vocabulary of translating visual images into words itself can be so difficult. Recently I finished re-reading Sarah Thornton’s excellent Seven Days in the Art World, a sociological perspective (although Thornton is an art historian too) on the phenomena surrounding the mysterious, cultish environments that exist around the world of contemporary art, spanning the artist’s studio, auction houses, art fairs, gallery exhibitions, studio critiques or “crits” throughout the course of fine arts programmes, and prestigious arts journals that amalgamate gallery reviews as well as sometimes extremely esoteric art historical texts that are incomprehensible even to academics. There is a lot to learn from this lucid, candid, thoughtful, penetrating book, but most relevant to this piece is one of the ideas: that not all art needs to be “explicable”, not even to the artist himself. 

Which brings me then to Susan Sontag’s seminal essay, Against Interpretation, from 1966, that argues strongly against, as the title declares, reading into things. Sontag argues that texts, paintings, photos, art of every kind should just be taken for what they represent at their “sensual” face value, without the viewers trying to extrapolate meaning. While Sontag later refuted this essay herself, it does give birth to some very interesting questions, such as, can even very abstract conceptual art be allowed to speak for itself? Or does it need an explanation? 

Personally, I do not agree with either Sontag’s extreme, nor the idea that art does not need to be explained—as part of a responsibility of the artist himself. Great artists might be able to get to a point where they embrace the mystery of creation, channeling their artistic powers into works that are both powerful and inexplicable, but most artists can and must start by learning the rules that govern fine art, which are to be able to draft, craft, and execute what they imagine first before untethering themselves from those strictures and embarking on making pieces that break the rules. Only after you learn the rules can you start breaking them, and maybe making up new ones. 

Both artists displaying at the Siddhartha Art Gallery currently are wrapping up their three-month long residencies at M Cube, an artist run studio space that is now, with these two simultaneous exhibitions, in its fifth season of residencies open to artists of all disciplines—the work exhibited is a result of those three months. L Bazra Lama’s show declares, right at the ground floor entrance that, “This is not…art”—describing five separate pieces of work in different media, ranging from straightforward canvases and drawings, to an installation and a mixed media riff on the current blockade’s effects on the everyman. 

Yoan Robin, a Belgian artist, has text on the wall defining his delving into the processes behind creating art saying “trying to make simple things” followed by a line right under this inverting the last two words “trying to make things simple”. Trained as a typographer, Robin is interested in the concepts of translating and interpreting abstract and concrete ideas by both trained fine artists as well as craftspeople, questioning whether a product need be defined by the maker. 

The most interesting aspect of both exhibitions is that both rely on text in some form or the other, whether it is the blurbs explaining the works or the texts embedded in the works themselves. These are not shows that can be understood without explanations. 

The work of making this kind of art easily accessible lies then in the curation, in this case, on the part of M Cube team, and even more specifically in the hands of the persons who decide how to compose and place the blurbs next to pieces so that they can inform the art.

In Lama’s case, writing in the English language hinders his ability to relay his process of conceiving the more theoretical pieces in the show. His works are meant to be satirical, a sentiment that can often be misconstrued or just plain baffle people who are not familiar with certain artistic tropes. Personally, I needed a sit down with both Lama and Robin in order to fully understand what they were trying to get at. 

I am not saying that these two shows are outright confounding, just that with a little more care they could have given more food for thought to the lay viewers. One of Lama’s most interesting pieces, a canvas of a man with a long nose, upon which a parrot is perched, is a delightfully clever, tongue in cheek work, but without an existing knowledge of the Pinocchio story (whereby a man who lies is punished by his nose getting longer with every fib), and an understanding of what “parroting” means in a certain kind of vernacular, it is hard to understand that this piece, however enjoyable to look at, is actively satirising disingenuous politicians whose untruths are shamelessly repeated by sycophants. 

Robin’s abstract sketches, torn out of his notebooks and reproduced onto metal plates by Narayan Maharjan, a sign painter whose job entails painting number plates, are similarly cryptic. Because of this artist’s history with typography, Robin invented a system whereby words and concepts are represented by a series of symbols that he uses in different combinations to create meaning, for instance one knot can mean a moment, and two knots together could mean a situation. Together these complex symbols can make picture poems, which are intricate and fascinating to look at but are also possibly indecipherable to all but the most attentive and rigorous of viewers without words to accompany them. 

These two shows are not for everybody, but then again, all appreciation of art is to do with personal taste. For those who want to take the time though, and who are interested in the unorthodox, it is an interesting walk through a variety of concepts, not always easy, but intellectually stimulating, opening up ideas that are not always successfully translated by the artworks but at least should be commended for the attempt. 


Published: 31-01-2016 10:04

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