Creator, Preserver, Iconoclast

by Girish Shahane

On the ground floor of the elegant Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum stood an elaborately carved wooden artifact, reminiscent of ornamental gateways found in a number of Asian nations, called toranas in India, paifangs in China, torii in Japan, and hongsalmuns in Korea. In Bangkok, one such is fitted with a giant swing on which, during a religious ritual called the Swing Ceremony practiced in generations past, brahmins would attempt to propel themselves high enough to grasp bags of coins placed atop its pillars. The structure standing within the nineteenth century edifice originally named after Empress Victoria and her consort Albert, and changed to Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum during a wave of post-colonial renaming, carried no swing. Instead, a manually operated fan, or punkah, hung from its lintel. Two chairs, as ornate as the fan’s supporting frame, faced each other on a platform under the punkah. Sitting on these, visitors to the museum could generate cooling breezes by tugging on dangling ropes. Although the punkah promised no gold purse to brahmins, it manifested some connection with wealth: prominently carved on its wooden surface were the symbols for the rupee, officially adopted by the government of India in 2010 to denote the nation’s currency. The symbols revealed the sculpture was no antique, and the wear and tear on its surface a ploy to misdirect viewers. If the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum, immaculately restored in recent years, was an exemplar of the old being made new, the punkah had been subjected to a converse treatment by its creator, the artist L. N. Tallur.

Conceived in the wake of the global financial meltdown, the punkah, titled ATM (Anger Therapy Machine) was part of a solo exhibition displayed at the museum from December 2011 to early February 2012. Not only did Tallur’s works interact with the museum display, several were made in response to particular items in the collection. The museum houses a few vitrines of quaint wood inlay objets d’art depicting pretty women and landscapes. On a wall beside these, Tallur placed what looked like a giant cross-sectional slice of a tree, but was actually a sculpture made by sticking together hundreds of small wood pieces. Grafting, as it was called, not only mimicked the form of inlay, but raised a series of questions about the relative value of age and youthfulness, nature and artifice, and how they vary depending on context. The rings that venerable trees possess, and which mark them as particularly worthy of protection, were faked in Grafting, calling to mind cosmetic and surgical techniques used to make human beings, especially women, look young. The exhibit drew attention to the paradox of graceful artifacts being created by destroying another kind of beauty, embodied in a living thing.

The artist’s choice of title for the exhibition, Quintessential, hinted at one aspect of his working method, the utilization of typicality, especially of Hindu iconographic forms that have retained their currency for centuries. What it elided was that his interest lay not in essences, but rather in alterations in the function and significance of cultural artifacts engendered by technological developments, economic shifts, and contextual dissonance. His exploration of these changes has always been double-edged in the Duchampian manner, ironizing, simultaneously, belief in timeless tradition and in historical constructedness.

Marcel Duchamp is routinely invoked in any discussion of art that goes beyond the retinal, but there exists a specific connection in Tallur’s case, located in the style of explication employed by the two artists. In a preface or textual introduction to Quintessential, Tallur wrote:

“Einstein’s most descriptive testimony on the theory of relativity came when his life-long friend Besso died. Einstein wrote a letter to Besso’s family, saying that although Besso had preceded him in death it was of no consequence, ‘...for us physicists believe the separation between past, present, and future is only an illusion, although a convincing one’. A museum, normally exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment. I believe, when an object of art is ‘museumized,’ that it creates a fifth dimension; which is a further addition to Einstein’s 4 dimensions (time-space). This show quintessentially narrates my theory of a ‘5th dimension’.”

Duchamp, it will be remembered, was among the first artists to allude to the mathematics of four dimensions, and described the Bride, from his work The Large Glass, as a shadow in three dimensions of a four-dimensional object. He spoke of his 3 Standard Stoppages as, “casting a pataphysical doubt on the concept of a straight edge as being the shortest route from one point to another”. The pataphysical mode, inaugurated by the French writer Alfred Jarry and introduced to visual art by Duchamp, has remained a fecund source of inspiration in the hundred years since the first readymade. Tallur’s statement about relativity and museumization places him squarely in that tradition. Alerted to this, we, as viewers, must take with a pinch of salt every statement and act of naming by the artist, for his tongue is likelier than not planted firmly in cheek.

ATM (Anger Therapy Machine), that quirky aid to regaining one’s equanimity in times of financial crisis, was paired, through proximity, with Chromatophobia, which promised a way to ward off such crises. Chromatophobia had previously been displayed at Delhi’s Nature Morte gallery, and had, in fact, lent its name to Tallur’s solo exhibition there. It was inspired by a custom in the artist’s home state, Karnataka, of hammering coins into doorsteps in the hope of preventing wealth from leaving the house. Tallur reconfigured this arrangement in the light of other money-related superstitions. A thick, inclined wooden log hinged on a metal rod supported by two bronze figures, reminiscent of Chola divinities, perhaps of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. The rod went right through the faces of these figures, and terminated at each end in a metal disc resembling a giant nail head. The log was covered with coins bashed into cracks in the wood, and visitors were encouraged to add their own rupees to the mix with a hammer provided. Although it seemed like fun and games, the violence of the hammering, mirrored by the brutality evident in the smashed-through faces of the bronze goddesses, formed a physical correlative of the psychic desperation so often connected with making a living. The word chromatophobia or, more commonly, chrometophobia, refers to the fear of money but, in so calling the interactive sculptural piece, Tallur had employed the same sly strategy familiar from the naming of Quintessential and ATM. Just as the proverb, ‘Money is the root of all evil’, is properly emended to, ‘The love of money is the root of all evil’, the fear of money in Tallur’s Chromatophobia was in actuality the fear of losing it.

The bronze goddesses of Chromatophobia were not the only sculptures subjected to indignities at the artist’s hands, or those of his assistants. In a niche framed by tube lights within a room near the museum’s entrance stood 0+0=0-0, a life-size, purpose-built androgynous wooden figure that looked traditional without being identifiable with a specific style or period. The figure was apparently well advanced in destroying itself by taking an angle grinder to its own head. It shared the room with a miniature marble figurine imitative of Rodin’s Thinker that might well have wondered whether the clash between iconophilia and iconoclasm being orchestrated by Tallur across the museum’s galleries was anything more than an intricate zero sum game.

On the museum’s upper level, a bronze Vishnu, recumbent on a multi-headed serpent, was enveloped by a coin-studded lump of cement, as part of a work titled Chamber B (the legal designation of a room in Kerala’s Padmanabhaswamy temple, a shrine that made news after its vaults, ordered opened by India’s Supreme Court, were found to hold mind-boggling amounts of gold, silver and jewelry). In the work Eraser Pro, named after a software program that scrubs web-surfing histories from computers, a found sculpture of Gandhi had been vigorously polished till the entire front of the hollow statue fell apart, leaving a barely-recognizable shell. It was an overt pointer to both the excessive idolatry and premature forgetfulness of contemporary Indian politics, and perhaps about idolization itself being a form of forgetting history. Pedestal on Pedestal consisted of six bronze bases fused together into one hexahedronical arrangement, and placed on a contemporary painted plywood block. Deities that originally stood on the metal pedestals had been sawed off and discarded, so only their hollow feet remained attached and visible.

Enlightenment Machine, like 0+0=0-0 and Eraser Pro, turned to a damaging purpose polishing tools normally associated with enhancing clarity and detail. Acts of destruction, the artwork appeared to suggest, are merely an unreasonable extension of creative means, a good thing taken too far. The title spoke of enlightenment, but what illumination could possibly be encoded into the brass statuettes whose features had been effaced by an over-enthusiastic leather strop? Was the erasure an allusion to the European enlightenment, to Locke’s tabula rasa on the one hand, and, on the other, to Rousseau’s counter of the naturally good human being corrupted by the process of socialization? Or was it a semi-satirical reference to the philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna’s catechistic exposition to Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, which is at the core of the modern Hindu view of life? Arjuna’s crisis on the battlefield was that he would have to face and kill people he admired, sometimes to the point of worship: eminences such as his guru, Dronacharya and the patriarch of the clan, Bhishma. What war, he asked Krishna, could possibly justify such acts? Krishna replied that the personalities to which Arjuna was attached were ultimately illusory. What counted was the eternal soul, unborn and immutable, which no war could destroy. Each soul would take on another body in a future life, in an unending cycle, unless it achieved liberation through a special kind of disinterested equanimity:

“He who neither despises illumination, attachment, and delusion when they are present, nor longs for them when they disappear; who sits unruffled in their midst, situated beyond the qualities (guṇas) of material nature (prakriti); who remains unwavering, aware that the qualities alone are active and not he; who is indifferent to pleasure and pain, and looks on a clod, a stone and a piece of gold with an equal eye; who is wise and holds praise and blame to be the same; who is unchanged in honor and dishonor, who treats friend and foe alike, who is detached from reward-oriented undertakings -- such a man has transcended the qualities of material nature.”

The Hinduism of icon worship, of legends where gods appear all too human, seems at odds with passages like the one quoted from the Gita which point to an abstract ultimate power bereft of all qualities (the nirguṇa brahman of Vedanta). It might be an over-reading of Enlightenment Machine to interpret it as a commentary on saguṇa versus nirguṇa philosophy, however it is no exaggeration to suggest it carries echoes of that dispute. For one thing, Tallur’s consistent evocation of Hindu philosophical concepts, including quotes from the Gita, indicate how central they are to his perspective. Further, the way Enlightenment Machine looked and was installed within the museum established a clear link with the Mahabharata, the epic of the war that Arjuna had hesitated to fight. The polishing apparatus in Enlightenment Machine that rendered figurines faceless was contained within a wooden cable drum cut off at the bottom to create a flat base (if Pedestal on Pedestal destabilized what had been designed to provide a firm support, Enlightenment Machine anchored what had been built for mobility). The drum looked like a giant wheel with a portion embedded in the floor, and immediately called to mind the tragic character Karna from the Mahabharata, one wheel of whose chariot sank into the ground at a crucial moment in the great battle.

As if to underline its connection with the ancient epic, Enlightenment Machine was paired with LED (Light Emitting Diode), a glass showcase filled with sawdust, under which one could vaguely discern the outlines of a chariot. The few details viewers could glimpse sufficed to identify it as common Indian living room bric-a-brac, a representation of Arjuna and Krishna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. The sands of time that covered the archer and his divine charioteer strengthened, through transposition, the connection between Enlightenment Machine and Karna’s chariot buried in the sand, and by extension, the work’s relationship to the philosophy of the Gita. Reverting to the idea of the zero sum game, we can now interpret it as a meditation on both the zero itself, famously invented in India and called shunya, and of the Buddhist concept of shunyata, which means nothingness, void-ness or hollowness, and is a state empty of the self, where the ego has been erased.

In the background of Tallur’s iconoclasm and erasures, then, lies a complex play between contemporary ideas, mainly originating in Europe, and classical Indic philosophical concepts, as also a battle within each of these configurations, for neither is monolithic. The Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum presented an excellent staging ground for these clashes, having originated as a colonial project within a young Indian city that grew to prominence under British rule.

The history of the museum itself, as well as of the imperial period generally, played as crucial a role in Tallur’s meditations as did longstanding philosophical ideas. The historical was foregrounded most clearly in the installation that gave the exhibition its title, Quintessential (Live virtual transmission system), its centerpiece a wooden elephant whose upper half had been cut up into blocks that were haphazardly strewn about the main body. The inspiration behind this fragmented form was the story of the massive monolithic pachyderm that had once stood on an island off Bombay’s coast. The island is called Gharapuri by locals, and was named Elephanta by the Portuguese who were the first European rulers of Bombay. In the Victorian era, when the appreciation of antiquities by British officers was invariably coupled with an urge to ship them to Blighty, the basalt elephant was nominated for such an oceanic voyage. It proved too heavy for the crane, fell from a height, and shattered. Restored, it was moved to the grounds between the Victoria and Albert Museum and the city zoo, as appropriate a placement as any for a dislocated 6th century animal sculpture. Tallur’s wooden jigsaw puzzle version was accompanied by reference books in vitrines, an 18th century print by the Daniells depicting the elephant in situ, and a live video feed of the elephant sculpture in its current state.

Visitors to the museum who overcame their hesitation on being faced with an unfamiliar art form, and tried to reassemble the scattered body parts, must have been surprised by the heaviness of individual pieces. Throughout the exhibition, Tallur played masterfully with preconceptions, telegraphing a series of false tells, to use a poker term. The massive-looking log of Chromatophobia was hollow, while the elephant, which appeared relatively light, weighed over a ton. That weight played a role in its further dismemberment. The artist was keen that the piece travel, mimicking the proposed journey of the sculpture that inspired it. An opportunity presented itself in the shape of the Skoda Prize show in Delhi’s Lalit Kala Akademi, at which point a video link was arranged between Delhi and Bombay, so viewers at the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum could see the elephant in its new environment. The officials in charge of the Lalit Kala Akademi, however, were adamant that such a heavy piece might damage the narrow spiral staircase controlling access to the exhibition hall. The only way up was to saw in half the main remaining section, a solution Tallur accepted with pain mixed with the realization that it provided a productive echo of the events of 1864. The artist foresees, or hopes, that Quintessential will undertake one more journey, this one to London, the culmination of a long narrative arc.

If Quintessential skewered imperialist looting, the exhibition didn’t spare current Indian practices either. One display case contained a roughly conical stone, two feet wide at its base and two feet high, on whose face were carved the words, ‘Temporarily removed for restoration’, a phrase that was also the work’s title. Using such an enduring form for a transitory message signifying a makeshift arrangement illustrated not only the laxity of Indian museums, but an entire culture of letting things slip.

Quintessential (Live virtual transmission system) was one of two room-sized installations in the exhibition. The other was Hatha Yoga, a four piece assemblage that surely ranks among Tallur’s most impressive achievements. It originated with a yogi on a bed of nails: a small figurine in a display case at the museum. It is easy to see why it appealed to the artist. First, it highlighted a counter-intuitive property of nails, which are sharp enough to pierce skin individually, but create a reasonably comfortable support when grouped together in a tight grid, thanks to the way weight gets distributed. Second, the orientalist cliché of the fakir on his bed of nails introduced into the equation the history of imperialist representation. Third, as the artist explained in a text handed out to visitors, hatha yoga resembles a museum in the sense that both are concerned with preservation: hatha yoga seeks to preserve the corporal body, a museum our physical heritage.

The yogi reclined at the apex of a quadrilateral arrangement. Facing him was a nail-making machine that would, at the press of a pedal, draw in wire from a loop and spit out finished nails. The remaining two corners of the diamond were occupied by large winged figures, each a dignified sentinel. For one, the artist had borrowed the form of a kneeling garuda from the museum’s entrance, hacked off his beak, put him through gender reassignment surgery, and covered him (now her) with sheet metal embedded with hundreds of rusty nails. The second was also female, with European-style wings and a voluptuous Indian figure. She was inspired by a medieval French statue of an angel holding the holy nails, bringing the crucifixion story into the work’s ambit. This angel, too, had an industrial look, but shiny white rather than rusty. The gleaming paint covered her entire body except the feet, where the wood was left bare, allowing for the absorption of moisture that will rise into the main body over time, and crack the white coat from within.

Hatha Yoga addressed a number of Tallur’s preoccupations and seemed a kind of summation of them, without settling into a singular, and therefore narrow, definable meaning. As with his practice in total, the work was a meditation on the nature of time and mutability and on the relationship between tradition and modernity; technology and artisanship; east and west; past, present and future; creation, preservation and destruction.