Touched

Organized annually since 2009 by the Whitechapel Gallery, Artists’ Film International showcases artists working with film, video and animation, selected by 14 partner organizations around the world and presented over the course of a year at each venue. This is the first season Project 88 has participated, represented by my Minds to Lose, 2008-2011. A series of 8 collaged drawings based on the performance of Petting Zoo and the related video Minds to Lose will be on display. I have selected the following videos, Ana Gallardo’s Estela 1946/2011, 2012, Kaia Hugin’s Five Parts—A Motholic Mobble (Part 5), 2012, and Katarina Zdjelar’s My Lifetime (Malaika), 2012, to show alongside Minds to Lose.

Something which I strive for in my work and which I look for in others is an equal mix of pleasure, anxiety, and comic absurdity. Touching and being touched, in all its senses, seems to be something that can encompass those three valences. Minds to Lose certainly achieved a balance of the three. The selected videos all can be seen encompassing and enlarging on the semantic field of “touch”—touching music, touching bodies, touching emotions and touching madness.

Appropriately , the archaic meaning of touch, from the thirteenth-century vulgate Latin toccare, to knock or strike a bell, is to play on a string instrument. The opening shots of Katarina Zdjelar’s My Lifetime, (Malaika), 2012, show instruments being plucked without sound being produced, and when the orchestra starts up, we see a lone trumpeter struggling to start on time or keep pace.(These instruments, human and mechanical, are the National Symphony Orchestra of Ghana. The video works up a gentle protest against the nationalist fervor inaugurated by Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of the state of Ghana, who established this orchestra in 1959.) The withdrawal of the body when under pressure is nothing new. Yes, musicians are a blessed lot, even a tribe touched by fire. However here in Malaika, we witness the sheer exhaustion of daily life, making the orchestra impossibly out of tune and out of sync. The bodies of the musicians try but fail to inhabit themselves fully. Each musician plays at will, maybe for the pleasure of the activity; but the group fails to harmonize. The anxiety and comedy of their circumstances belie the harsh living conditions that allow scant hours of practice. The musicians’ desire and ability clash, while their bodies sweat or nod off to sleep. Thus we witness a national orchestra performing a famous Swahili love song with as much emotional investment as a stranger to love. The irregular orchestra slumbers and sweats, losing consciousness, checking out from the travails of life.And yet the clash of group effort and individual consciousnesses makes an affecting portrait. Zdjelar’s Malaika shows bodies touching instruments while touched by exhaustion. As viewers we are pleased and uneasy.

Katarina Zdjelar, My Lifetime (Malaika), single channel video, looped, 5’ 37”, 2012.

Katarina Zdjelar, My Lifetime (Malaika), single channel video, looped, 5’ 37”, 2012.

Of course, the body could choose to splinter and fight when faced with pressure and when withdrawal is not an option. In Kaia Hugin’s Five Parts—A Motholic Mobble (Part 5), 2012, body parts are all touched, madly, affectingly, physically. The video commences with a head and four limbs descending precipitously and vertically into the blackness of the screen. At first suspended in inertia, the body parts soon twitch in restlessness, intimating the vulnerability of bodies and the hazards body parts can present each other. Suspended limbs start slapping each other, possessed, vicious. It is sad when the protagonist’s head is bloodied, because there is no helping hand amidst all these dangling limbs. She forlornly continues her upside down,wide-eyed watch. Eventually she bites an arm while the sounds of body parts slapping each other continue. If, as Minds to Lose asks, unconsciousness is a body part, then here in Motholic Mobble consciousness is a vicious live animal part. The body parts are fractious, restive, and dangerous, absurdly and comically so. Slapstick meets improv meets choreographed dance meets uncertain fragile skin of body. This tour de force of movement choreography and special-effects makeup is a film made for the screen, where the apparatus holding up all the bodies remains invisible. Hugin’s film references Picasso’s Guernica in its fracturing and distortion of a body, and in the inevitable loss in a battle of flesh. It is also an homage to Maya Deren’s experiments in choreography and film. In Hugin’s Mobble films, the main character goes through a variety of (compulsive) acts: she hangs, levitates, floats, walks backwards, or bores herself into the ground. Motholic Mobble is the first film of here to feature bodies other than her own. Here the group appears coherent if distorted. Time is histrionic, dramatic, linear, full of suspense. Mobble depicts bodies in touch with other bodies, replete with tactility and dangerous stirrings. We are touched delightfully, worryingly, comically.

Kaia Hugin, Five Parts – a Motholic Mobble (Part 5), HD video, 8’ 5’’, 2011

Kaia Hugin, Five Parts – a Motholic Mobble (Part 5), HD video, 8’ 5’’, 2011

Watching Ana Gallardo’s Estela 1946/2011, 2012, one is mesmerized by the partial image of bodies captured by a restless jostling camera; but the image tells us only so much, and we are touched to see hands massaging the hand of a wheelchair-bound old lady. Gallardo got to know Estela in a geriatric facility for retired prostitutes in Xochiquetzal, Mexico City, where Ana put in hours of social work. She took care of Estela, a woman paralyzed by several strokes, until Estela died. The film was shot by a neck hung camera, perhaps only to keep the hands free for work, but also lending the film a feeling of being shot on the sly. Once we learn the backstory, Love, Work, Body, Death, all these serious topics come together poignantly through seeing the act of touching. Thus is time unparalyzed and unfrozen by touch. Estela revels in tactile touching, where the paralyzed body of a retired geriatric prostitute is affectingly touched, emotional stirrings touching us. We are also touched pleasurably, anxiously, amusingly.

Ana gallardo, Estela, 1946/2011, photo camera videos, 6’ 24’’, 2012

Ana gallardo, Estela, 1946/2011, photo camera videos, 6’ 24’’, 2012

In my own film Minds to Lose, 2008-2011, one could understand that anesthetizing a group of domesticated animals and a human artist are the act of a person lightly touched with madness. The public performance of the work as Petting Zoo, 2008 invited touch: the grouped bodies were presented as a mentally checked-out petting zoo. In the film, multiple bodies appear and disappear into the black of the screen, multiple bodies share space on-screen, and animal bodies persist even while the presiding consciousness of each disappears to create a darkly anxious comedy. There the body goes. There the body thuds. There she touches the animal skin. It is ever so soft and fleecy. It touches on consciousness, on touching consciousness, on being touched by unconsciousness. The film considers what having a mind and rational consciousness means to a body under general anesthesia. The work is accompanied by a soundtrack of field recordings and fragments of traditional lullaby which addresses body parts associated with thinking and feeling. Using a single-screen with multiple divisions, Minds to Lose creates a forced familial commonality between humans and animals—two goats, one sheep, a donkey, and the artist—as they lose consciousness. It is about wanting to be touched while being out of touch.

Neha Choksi, Minds to Lose, single-channel HD video, widescreen, color, sound, looped, 11’ 54’’, 2008-11.

Neha Choksi, Minds to Lose, single-channel HD video, widescreen, color, sound, looped, 11’ 54’’, 2008-11.

This selection speaks to me and to each other, because these works touch on the business of life, what each one of us is bodily coping with and triumphing over and giving in to. The works are of bodies being touched and are about being touched, too.The bodies are all under pressure, stressed to an extreme of vacancy. But the vividness of losing self and also finding oneself again is also played out. Bodies are always either withdrawing, engaging; are charged with disquiet or with charming conflations. Bodies are absurd things. Touched things.

Neha Choksi
Bombay, 2013

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No Less A Drawing, 14 June – 6 July, 2013

 

There is the honoured way to draft a picture, to let a tip nick a surface. This is how drawing began when a point was pushed to make a mark. Beyond running on paper a pencil or pen, lead or ink the colour of soot, or caramel, one might even use fabric, film, or a wall, so that even a doodle on a train reflects the wonder of drawing. Though some drawn marks have been known to travel over land and also rocket into space through acts of walking, dancing, and speaking figured as art. Beyond this performative life of line, there are others which plot and plan. To fill a yen for a fictitious tree, for instance, one first imagines a green blob gradually pared by a point keen as a laser dot—this mental process describing an idea, or delusion depending on who’s seeing it, is no less a drawing. As everyone already knew.

Exhibition text by Prajna Desai, Curator

Participating artists: Baptist Coelho, Chirodeep Chaudhuri, Hemali Bhuta, Huma Mulji, Mahesh Baliga, Neha Choksi, Raqs Media Collective, Rohini Devasher, Rehaan Engineer, Sandeep Mukherjee, Sarnath Banerjee, Shreyas Karle, and Tejal Shah

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I

DRAWING IS THE IDEA

Shaker drawing, which flourished in the United States during a spiritual revival in the 1830s and 1840s among secluded pockets in Massachusetts and New York, was interchangeable with transcendent practice. Seeded by visions, the drawings were harvested mainly by women. One modern Sister R. Barker (1890-1990) described it as “the season of the Spirit Drawings whose messages are now hidden in the deep things of God.” As solitary exertions, the drawings might have ebbed within the benign roster of female labour, equally homebound and private. There was also the peril of prohibition. For Shakers, activity beyond hygiene and nutrition was grounded in the common sense of work, be it practical or spiritual, or had to be in order to warrant effort. Sacralizing the drawings was a necessary save that confirmed the makers as spiritual ‘instruments’ and validated their arguably eccentric pursuit.

Modest means aside, pen, ink, and water colour limn lambent visions. Graphically precise and annotated by esoteric symbols, ecstatic speech, and hard to read script, Shaker drawings juggle communal architecture schematized as distilled forms and decorative gewgaws. Circles, squares, rectangles, and columns figure prominently among discrete images of fussy clocks and chintzy necklaces gleaned imaginatively beyond the frugal backcloth of Shaker homes. In others, are pictures of fruit, flower, foliage from the natural world, all under the umbrella of visions.

Where to some the physical act of witness or vision might read as record, Shaker documents name the drawings astutely, as signs, notices, rolls, sheets, rewards, tokens of love, even. Which says that the human ‘instruments’ were far from documenting. Rather to draw was a functionally precise theory of how penetrate spiritual truth, and drawing the physicalized idea of how to get there.

Enter Mahesh Baliga.

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Mahesh BaligaDrawing Competition, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 72 inches, 2007

Mahesh BaligaWhenever you want to paint a grass look at it as if you are a cow, acrylic on canvas, 32 x 68 inches, 2007

Mahesh BaligaCropping, acrylic on canvas, 48 x 72 inches, 2007

II

A COMMON SPELL, or everyone draws

There was nothing cavernous about the Stockton State Hospital or DeWitt State Hospital near Sacramento city in northern California. Yet for thirty two years (1931-1963) of residency split across these establishments, Mexican-born migrant Martín Ramírez drew and painted with the catatonic intensity of a man mentally on the run but trapped inside a cave. Locomotion and stasis was his elemental trope. Or so it would seem from the mix of dizzying perspectives inside confined spaces and ambiguous claustrophobia recurring across his 400 preserved works. A true survivalist, the artist used what was on hand and wasted nothing. He used found paper, wrappings, mushed coloured crayons, concocted glue from spit and starch, and graphite sticks.

Ramírez was technically not an inmate, but institutionally detained for mental instability after eight years as a railroad worker in California. His output while certainly not crackpot expertly re-fashions the neurotic tendency towards compartmentalising thoughts and expressions. Vacant porticoes, a klieg lit stage, pod-like cars, trains ensuing into and out of tunnels, and stunned Madonnas, all these proliferate as disjointed vignettes. There is a back story to it all but it is not visibly coherent. For instance, a repeating horseman motif might echo his previous life as a rancher in Mexico, but it does not tell what that meant to Ramírez, whether he liked riding or wanted to escape it.

Rather, it’s the throbbing line webbing across the picture plane that makes the clearest link across works. This linear pattern is concentric, elliptical, and parallel in form, and replicates obsessively, causing the impression of animated sound waves pervading the frame. If it is true Ramírez spoke little during his near lifelong hospital tenure, it makes sense something else in his life, feasibly his pictures, would pulsate with noise. Everyone needs a shout once in a while.

Even so, the oral resonance, if any exists, is not of speech but visual chant, or pictorially repeating invocation, something along the effect of doodles and tally marks. Of these forms, both being the most common graphic output of incarceration, there is no record in the artist’s biography. But the ostensibly self-regenerating line of Martín Ramírez unmistakably shares their repetitive focus and functional abstraction—as if it too were muttering under the common spell.

Also in Baptist Coelho and Chirodeep Chaudhuri.

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Baptist Coelho, Sixty-five days more to go… , digital print on archival paper, 32 x 43 inches, 2009

Baptist Coelho, (un)identified #2, digital print on archival paper, 32 x 43 inches, 2009

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Chirodeep Chaudhuri, XXX: Mumbai’s suburban train graffiti, Digital prints, printed on Hahnemuhle paper, dimensions variable, 2006-07

III

HOW TO PRESERVE A SCRATCH

The archaeological site of Comalcalco which gives the adjoining modern town its name, was once the centre of a thriving city (AD 600-800). Built within kissing distance of the Gulf of Mexico, a day and a half by foot inland from the lagoon of Mecoacán, it spanned 42 square kilometres and marked the westernmost edge of Maya civilization.

Comalcalco was designed typically. Great ceremonial centres were scaled by open plazas, tall pyramids, vaulted, palatine buildings, and longitudinal courts in which to play ball. Yet it was special by choice of material. Prompted by scarce limestone deposits, common elsewhere across Maya cities, engineers here chose to build with oyster shell mortar sourced from the nearby lagoon, coastal palm fibre plentiful by the shore, and wood logs, but most notably, with thousands of fired clay bricks.

Hence the derivation Comalcalco from Nahuatl—a widely spoken Maya language—in which comal means ‘griddle’ on which to bake tortillas, calli is ‘house’, and the locative ‘co’ translates as the preposition ‘in’. This gives the toponym Place of the House of Griddles in reference to Comalcalco architecture’s baked bricks which resembled the common household griddles used in the 16th century. That was when the site discovered by Spanish invaders got its name.

Etymology apart, the bricks intrigue by what’s on them. Inscribed legends and motifs are legion. Four percent of the now over hundred thousand bricks preserved by excavators feature animals and birds, illegible symbols, sparse text, figures, and images of buildings. Some images are in low-relief, but most are scored with an eager intensity of line. Oddly enough, this marked lot was treated democratically. Because mixed in with the blank bricks, mortared over and painted with slurry, scholars believe the inscribed bricks were never meant to be seen. Yes, packing them away from sight might suggest it was the act of making the bricks that was important, not the material objects, which in the end is seemingly at odds with the fact of the inscribed bricks being left unwet before they were mortared. The procedure ensured that when the mortar dried and compacted it didn’t stick to the scratched drawings, kept them safe as it were.

This of course is not the only way to preserve a drawing.  

As Sandeep Mukherjee and Neha Choksi show.

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Sandeep Mukherjee, Untitled, acrylic and embossed drawing on duralene, 57 x 48 inches, 2011

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Neha Choksi, Fontana’s Smile, modified C-print, 36 x 36 inches, 2010

Neha Choksi, If you could see me now, modified C print, 36 x 48 inches, 2010

IV

CODES, or the secret of lines

Khipu are knotted string mechanisms that were used for official record and communiqué in the Inka empire. Khipu is the word for ‘knot’ and ‘to knot’ in the Quechua dialect that is spoken among the modern Quechua of southern Peru near the ancient Inka capital of Cusco. The devices were made of coloured yarn or thread spun from camelid wool or cellulose from cotton. Like other oblique systems of record, such as labanotation dance records, for instance, khipu can be beautiful to look at. When spread on a level surface they resemble eerie deep-sea creatures, ethereal, stringy, and enigmatic. Structurally, a khipu comprises a flexible suspension line with pendant strands of varying lengths and colours. Each strand holds clusters of knots which come in three main types. Each cluster is a digit in base 10, a number which would have been read, scholars suggest, either numerically or as a code denoting non-numeric data or concepts about things, persons, and place.

The reading order always linear moves horizontally and vertically across cord colour and spacing, colour seriation, size or knots, spaces between and across knots, and repetition of colour and knots. Colour transformation was meaningful as was a shift in scale and magnitude of knots. The slightest structural variation in knot and ply direction and shifts in hue would have altered information; and that only a handful have been only partially decoded suggests the device called for its own literacy.

Khipu readers, mostly members of the ruling class, were trained in yacha huasi, or houses of learning, sort of like modern universities, or boutique schools. Seniors and graduates joined the bureaucracy and maintained the secrets of the realm or re-communicated them in time of need. No different was the khipu’s behaviour, which bent equally to control and manipulation. Additions were possible by proliferating the strands in length and looping more knots to bloom greedier clusters or undo old ones. Whether or not this actually took place, the possibility of extension was ever latent.

Because unlike marks on a page, a line freed in air seems to have a life of its own.

As in Raqs Media Collective, Hemali Bhuta, and Rohini Devasher.

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Raqs Media Collective, Drawings of a Conversation, black and white prints on archival paper, set of 4 framed prints, 31 x 31 inches (each), 2012

HB, Untitled

Hemali Bhuta, Untitled, (2012), black ink on arches paper, set of 10 drawings, 7 x 10 inches (each)

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Rohini Devasher, Bloodline, archival pigment print and single channel video, 60 x 60 inches and 45 minutes, 2009

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Rohini Devasher, Arboreal, single channel video, 16 minutes, 2011

V

THERE ARE AS MANY DRAWINGS IN THE

WORLD AS THEIR FORMS OF LINES

Seventeen meanings for the word ‘line’ From Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1775)

1.            Longitudinal extension

2.            A slender string

3.            A thread extended to direct any operations

4.            The string that sustains the angler’s hook

5.            Lineaments, or marks in the hand and face

6.            Delineation, sketch

7.            Contour, outline

8.            As much as is written from one margin to the other; a verse

9.            Rank

10.          Work thrown up; trench

11.          Method, disposition

12.          Extension, limit

13.          Equator, equinoctial circle

14.          Progeny, family, ascending or descending

15.          A line is one tenth of an inch

16.          A letter; as in, I read your lines

17.          Lint or flax

In work by Tejal Shah, Shreyas Karle, Sarnath Banerjee, and Rehaan Engineer.

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Tejal Shah, inside my mothers womb, photo collage, gauche and enamel eyes on archival paper, 38 x 28 cm, 2012

Tejal Shah, breakfast in my inner city, carbon pencil on archival paper, 38 x 28 cm, 2012

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Sarnath Banerjee, The Ascent of Anivash Deshpande, acrylic and ink on paper, 21.5 x 29.5 inches, 2011

Sarnath Banerjee, Omlette, ink on paper, 30 x 22.5 inches, 2011

Sarnath Banerjee, Sunday Afternoon, acrylic and ink on paper, 29.5 x 21.5 inches, 2011    

VI

DRAWING FANTASY, or basic truths

Santa Maria del Priorato or the Church of Our Lady of the Priory in the Villa of the Knights of Malta in Rome maintained a blank charisma for almost two centuries after its construction in the 1550s, and became tastefully more so after the completion of Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s renovation designs in 1764-66. One cares about this church for three reasons. It was Piranesi’s sole architectural commission in a lifelong affair with re-envisioning classical architecture and has housed his tomb since his death in 1778. The third reason is atmospheric and visual. It requires a leap of faith to reconcile Piranesi’s cautious renovations with the vertiginous images of architectural space on which rests his vaunted reputation as a proto-surrealist.

Piranesi’s Carceri d’Invenzione or Invented Prisons (1745-50, 1761) are fantastic even today. The series of 16 etchings are imagined sums of classical architecture in its wholesome and ruined state. Deep cavernous interiors, labyrinthine warrens, and swirling staircases interspersed by audaciously high bridges hang over large machines bathed in technically precise chiaroscuro. As if the eye is viewing up from a hole in the ground, a distant and partially subterranean vantage builds a delirious picture of Roman ruins from which Piranesi borrowed the basic blocks of his fanciful constructions. In this peculiar aggregate effect, the Carceri play with the notion of Renaissance Wunderkammern or cabinets of curiosities—physical rooms in fancy houses filled with exotic and wondrous objects culled from early exploration across the world. The Carceri prints present a microcosm of Classical Rome over which Piranesi had the most exquisite control. But the pervasive sense of distortion muddies that fascination, and questions what exactly is real about the past.

Albeit restrained, a similar wunderkammern frame encloses Piranesi’s original design for the piazza of Santa Maria del Priorato that was built from scratch and iconographically embellished with unrelated citations. These include the antique site history on which the church was built through Italic cult symbols referring to the native goddess Bona Dea, Etruscan terracotta sculpture motifs from ancient Tuscany, and reproductions of the obelisk form from distant Egypt. But here the physical distance spanning the juxtapositions flattens potential surprise. Instead the piazza exudes a Neo-Classical grandeur in tune with the antiquarian vogue among certain quarters for reverent impressions of the past.

By this time, bowing to expansionist effects which enabled the rich to avail of foreign curios more easily, aristocratic wunderkammern had already given way to the earliest state Kunstkammern or art rooms (museums), institutions that sought to classify inventory of art and science in so-called logical taxonomies. Likewise, the Carceri, in particular in the first state prints with their peculiar sketch-like effect, also press the curiosity-of-the cabinet relationship with old Rome through the more analytic filter of 18th century science and modernism.

Let’s just say, it was a case of the humble drawing going quicker to the quick than the colossal form.

As perhaps in the way of Huma Mulji.

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Huma Mulji, Untitled, collage and acrylic paint on paper, dimensions variable, 2013