13th March 2013, 2811 words
(Article published in ‘Art & Deal’ monthly art magazine, Issue 58/Vol.9 No.27 / April 2013, Ed: Siddharth Tagore, Art Konsult, New Delhi) (also see: [email protected])
The Swiss performance artist Pascal Grau from Basel had enacted a still-performance, along with the students of College of Fine Arts (Bangalore) as characters in it (2009), at Bengaluru. The theme was appropriating Mysore traditional painting, with each and every Indian mythical character in it standing still for half an hour, in the background of a painted plaque. It was recorded in both stills and video formats. The audience had no given instruction whatsoever. Yet most of them were as still as the characters were. At least their intention was not to disturb the performers, who seemed to not even blink since they were trained for a week how not to blink! The audience had empathized with the characters without any predetermined agreement or rehersal, howsoever. The bifurcation between the active role of the audience and the performative stillness of the artists had begun to mutually imitate! It is a strange case wherein art in public creates creative residues which might or might not be the result of its own doing.
K.Venkatappa had almost initiated a tradition of ‘displaying’ his works in his last years, after he moved from Mysore to Bangalore permanently; after the difference and dispute with the then Mysore Maharaja. The patron-king was dragged to the court by his subject-artist; and the court dismissed the case in support of the supreme authority of the king over his subjects, since the court itself was being subject to the supremacy of that very royalty! Those who wanted to watch his works had to do so only in front of the willful artist, in his studio at Malleswaram, from then on. The artist would use a lamp to show the relief sculptures literally in varying lights. There was a specific case wherein one of the spectators stepped upon one of the relief by K.V and broke it into more than two pieces, while watching another of his paintings! K.V was an artist who had been witness to all those audience who had seen his works during his lifetime! The art product was proposed to a selected public gaze while that public itself was under the surveillance-view of the artist!
Karnataka Lalitkala Academy had invited mainstream artists to go to rural villages and paint on the real bullock carts a decade ago (2002, curated by K.T.Shivaprasad). The opposite of this was improbable, not for the artists but for the governing agency of art. Complementarily to this project from urban to village, another sector of the government had willingly acted as a cultural agency for a bus project in which artists painted on buses, some of which travelled even to the villages. Similarly the collaboration between craftsmen and artists by funding agencies like IFA finds the urban artist as appropriate to lead the collaboration, for, it presumes the ability to discourse with a rural audience as that which lies within the ‘peripheral control’ of the urban.
There is a difference of about at least six decades mutually, between the four above said art programs which occurred in and around Bangalore/Bengaluru. In all the four cases the audience behaved as if there was ‘no preset mode’ of behavior while watching art (Pascal), believed in what the artist (K.Venkatappa) pedagogically narrated as ‘description’ of his works, while the public watched his works; and perceived art from a premise which was not where Art itself thought it did not belong to (as a ‘spectacle’, the paintings on the buses and bullock carts). The public in relation to visual arts in India after independence, or even before it, seem to have consistently retained certain anonymity as far as its (public participation) role is concerned. Or at least the art community feels so.
The definition of ‘public’ in relation to various art forms not only (constantly) alters but defies a singular, similar functional operation called as ‘definition’. Architecture divides the public into the ‘client’ and the ‘non-client’, there is ‘no public’ for popular cinema since the public is the decoding and deciding agency of the very taste of the film and its maker. Theatre, like an art movie, treats the public as the ‘elite’ and the ‘cultured’, as well as insists a certain preparatory education and taste amongst them. If cinema is decided by its public, theatre decides its public. Visual art always treat its public as an always-desirable-entity and don’t have evidence to prove the existence of a consistent entity called as ‘the public’. Public art and public sculptures are specifically based on this very premise—it might yearn for an ideal audience, while more and more creative experience would be contained within the physicality of a medium. In other words, the public is neither exposed to the working methodology of an artistic creation nor are informed that there could be artworks whose essence is contained in the process of its own making. This is exactly the difference between ‘public art’ and ‘art in public’.
This very lack of how an artwork arrived at; and a showcasing of only the finalized, objectified artwork as ‘art’ to the public gaze and ease, is the birth point of the phenomena of spectacle specific to public. The classic case of Hebbar and Venkatappa’s works at the museum named after the latter, stand testimony to the latter (objectification of art), while the relevance of artist/tutor R.M.Hadapad (unavailable for those after his demise) relies on the former (the essence lying in the process). Is public art, in this sense, a wave, trying to reclaim its premise as an ocean, of which it is a part (and parcel) of? Art is not only given to the public as art or enacted as public art but also the idea that they contain meanings and meaningfully they carry social message, easily readable by those alien to visual art, are the internal details of the anatomy of spectacle specific to the visual art public. Interventions, improvisations, site-specific activity, interactive sculptures and interactive performances, all in all, relive in the public sphere as a ‘memory’ that juxtapose or superimpose with the other entertaining public performances.
‘Public art’ is not different from, but wishes to deliberately differ itself from ‘art in public sphere’. The former is an intervention, an act, a performance, that is recorded and documented, since its physical entity implies to be short-lived. This is in contrast to Art in public, which is by and large a propaganda from the establishment, usually made up of long lasting materials (like an equestrian statue in bronze), in (or without) contrast to the short life of public art. Art in the public is intentional while public art is already a genre as well as a pastiche. Also, the latter contains a heavy colonial imposition of monumentality of chosen personalities. Art, in such cases, ‘serves’ those personalities, who are supposed to have served the public! Hence art in the public flies on a carpet of contradiction. It is also a colonization of object(ives) over/as art. Since the intention to ‘make art public’ is based on a lack of as well as yearning for something different from the already existing creative circuit of art imageries. The lack is that of a difference in one of the beliefs of art that art is a specialized, urban entity.
It is an art form which wishes to acquire a new ‘frame’, with the awareness that the frame itself is in the act of discarding the already existing elitist one, paving way to a more secular one, but never being conclusive. In a deconstructivist sense, public art or an attempt towards it is an attempt to construe a frame which is both an ‘extension’ of the artwork as well as marks the ‘boundary’ of that artwork. Hence public art unlike art in public (in India) in the last two decades has been performative in essence, by and large. It is so because it is the performative attitude of art which doesn’t and cannot repeat itself; and hence cannot be framed, in order to become a defined frame, which further might hold the potential of challenging its (own) present status as something ‘absolutist’, resulting from an urban, elitist bourgeoisie preoccupation.
The art of Communist Russia, Rivera, Siqueiros, Joseph Beuys, Banksy, Graffiti and the popular arts are varying art forms in public domain which have succumbed to contesting the pleasure of ambiguity of a certain frame called the public sphere. Historically both the ideas of ‘public art’ and ‘art in public sphere’ are religious in the sense absolutism is inevitable for institutionalization of religion. Yearning for a public sphere for art is not to ‘expand’ as much as to ‘reclaim’ a lost general characteristics of art. The birth of the museum as a continued entity of the feudal setup (Duncan, Carol) in democratic times as well as tradition, dislocated the public, made obvious this dislocation through framing an elitist code-of-conduct to art; and the colonial and capital found their ‘prey’ and ‘poverty’ in the form of the colonized and the slums (respectively). Hence the very intention to either expand into the public or reclaim the public decides the nature of public art and art in public, so to say.
The public response to art varies in different situations (read it as ‘nations’), problematising a singular definition of the notion of ‘public’. The school children in Europe, for instance, might have come face to face with more museum art than that most (and renowned) writers in Indian languages would have, in a lifetime. The matter of ‘availability’ and ‘concern’ for art are mutually connected in this regard, though one cannot be sure about which one led to the other. The absence of a genuine museum culture or visual cultural policies might have not made art popular in India and/or the lethargic response to visual culture might have frozen the evolutionary process of Indian museum tradition. The charging of only five rupees for the entry ticket to see the Dutch (famous Muttoncherry murals among others) Palace at Kochi might come as a pleasant shock, since some would often not even be able to find an exact change since it is a pittance. Before the public would be ready to congratulate ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) for almost not pricing the entry ticket, one also realizes that there is hardly any printed matter about the museum for sale either! This is one simple classic example to establish as to how Indian museums and the agencies operating and controlling them, operate. The public is hence forced to comprehend classis art on the basis of a spectacle and nothing else!! And they carry the same attitude into whatever is availed to them, even when the offer doesn’t resemble classic nature of art. Absence of an instantaneous but lasting information at the site of the visibility of the museum imageries enhances the personality of the metaphoric visual spectacle—a construct evident in the problematic relation between art and its public.
On the contrary, the Indian artists who presume that they have a certain offering to the public in the form of art presume the latter to be a singular entity, like their western counterpart. The bifurcation between the middleclass and an elite society is not similar in the east and west. However, the reason behind this is the prejudiced construct from within which Indian art community equates ‘public’ with ‘outsiders’. At the same, it takes up the self-proclaimed responsibility of educating public through art (K.Venkatappa’s attitude) and educating public about art (the Bangalore-based artists’ run initiatives like Bar1, 1Shanthiroad, Jaagai in general). Thus every time there is public art in debate, the known parameters of art-artist-public permutation and combination is temporarily reconsidered. Yet, art in public domain is to public art like popular cinema is to ‘art cinema’ or like noun is to a verb.
Public art and art in public in India is the direct repercussion of both the Museum culture and its lukewarm existence in India (always in comparison with something else, elsewhere). Arguably yet there is not much proof sufficient enough to acknowledge that there is an Indian museum culture in relation to visuality and visual education. It is obvious that the similarities between a museum and public art is that both are received by the common mass only or mostly as a ‘spectacle’, either during leisure or by accident. Otherwise, what is offered in a public premise is always that which is offered with awareness that it is an offering ‘outside the gallery space or white cube’ rather than ‘being there in the public’. In this sense, the culture of public presence is a marker of a convention of absence of something else, elsewhere.
The ‘relation’ between Public art and Art in public, no matter what format, material, and thematic concern it embodies, intends to be within the mass though arguably (and thematically) it can exist without a public mass! Since it is over-conscious about being amidst mass, it is also aware that its known audience is, strangely, absent. It also implies that the artwork is over and done with, before it is offered to public as if it is well dressed. This is what I mean by convention of absence, very necessary for witnessing a spectacle. Spectacle banks a lot upon lack of information. It takes on the language of the films, because this is a media whose basic constituents, like architecture, include the public/clientele opinion as an integral part (though not inevitable part) of its occurrence. Hence any public art, even that of standing alone, aloof, solitary involves an opposite: a performative nuance. When art becomes public, the opposite of art is at operation; and art utilizes this towards aiming at the clueless public regarding what they don’t yet know.
Thus ‘spectacle’ is an inevitability in the renewed relation between three ‘A’s (artist, artwork, audience) and the public premise. Randomly consider a select set of performative videos by a few Indian artists: Anita Dubey, Shakunthala Kulkarni, Surekha, Smitha Cariappa, Dimple Shah, Mangale Anebermat, Geetanjali Rao and Bhavani G.S, among others. They have almost re-intervened themselves as appearances and performers, apart from being artist personalities. Even those Khoj-related artists (both Asian and otherwise) who addressed Bangalore as the ‘theme’ as well as the public premise, as ‘the’ site for artistic intervention, could be included into this categorisation. From Kochi-Mujiris Biennale (2013) to NiNaSam annual October cultural week at Heggodu, (near Shimoga; need to be stressed again that it was K.V.Subbana’s brain child and he was honoured with no less than the Magsaysay award for the making NiNaSam possible—the urban cultural elitist preoccupation articulated into a rural situation); and the largest public gathering at Kumbha Mela, are some of the varieties of the notion of artistic presence in public premises. Public premise is more of a construct rather than a physical space wherein art and the public domain interact with the other at varying degrees and from one to other. The more art enters a public premise the more intense is the absurdness of spectacle for the mass; the more the public does the same with art, the less accidental is the process. These and similar yearnings are read variously as an attempt to pedagogically colonize the public sphere, taste-wise, or to prove one’s creative ability by presenting it in the language that the public wishes to be in.
Altogether, art placed in a public domain or presented as a public-image results in a sort of spectacle, an unwilling quotient of such an act. The public, used to feudalistic art in public, expect and receives only that which is according to their taste nurtured by art in public, even when they respond to public art. The sensibility of those who orchestrate public art is gauged on how they take note of this domestic prejudice of a mass as well as the art in public which has been the main cause for such a preconceived notion. Arguably this is one of the main reasons as to why public art refutes to be a long lasting event, and prioritize a temporary performance that would be later be available through technical documentation. In this fervor, the documentary nature of technology in relation to art, looses its self and also becomes a part of being ‘art’. As a result, while the monolith character of art in public, through its audience, is contested by public art, the non-artistic ability of technology is invited into a premise of artistic nuance. In this sense, public art and art in public, together, are willing to sort out the mutual differences; and hence, it is inevitable that art in public domain should be willing to address one’s past cultural preoccupation in a renewed way.//