When objects of fact become objects of concern...
The Alchemy of L N Tallur



By Dr. Parul Dave Mukherji


During the late 1990s, when social historians, cultural anthropologists, and economists were blurring their disciplinary boundaries to talk about the social life of things in the age of globalization, a young L N Tallur failed to get admission into the hallowed portals of the painting department of India’s most prestigious art school, the Faculty of Fine Arts in Baroda. Instead, he joined the least competitive museology department in the same institution and decided to devote his full attention to the life of objects.
He not only escaped a conventional art school training but museology brought him into close encounter with the world of objects and valuable cultural artifacts that warrant preservation and care. The world of objects took him beyond thinking of art in terms of occupying a wall space though painting or creating singular sculptures standing erect on pedestals. Early on, it awakened a curator within him when the very figure of a curator was still a nebulous entity in the art world in India and led him to occupy a double position of a maker and a viewer at the same time.
Almost like maker of a commodity, he shrewdly recognized the fleeting time that viewers of art spend in art exhibitions looking at art. He not only wanted to grab their eyeballs for longer but also claim their bodies for a prolonged phenomenological encounter. His early works were shaped as boxes that played with viewing angles, so that the viewer had to bend down, crouch or kneel to peep through holes; the works offered themselves to be opened. Some art works were designed as a set of drawers from which sprang most exquisite shapes and objects: as if they were waiting for the viewers to bring them into life. And Tallur, in the process, turned viewing into a performative act.
These works of his student days were created around the time when the Indian consumer was taking birth on the horizons of an altering social and political landscape. Indian markets were opening up to the world paving the way for the Indian rupee to be recognized as a universal currency and the revolution in information technology and mobile telephony produced a new media-scape which was slowly displacing the earlier artist-citizen by a nomadic one-always on the move, no longer constrained by the geography of the nation statei. He was soon to reinvent himself as a maker of things, objects, and spectacles and installation as an art form quite easily served him as he began to take on the role of a cultural translator.
Tallur traversed many cultures with an ease of a cosmopolitan traveller. His source of strength laid in his being embedded within the local culture of Karnataka he grew up within, the vernacular tradition of local craftsmen and artisans and his deep familiarity with classical sources of Indic thought from the Vedas to the Puranas through the mediation of his mother tongue, Kannada. At the same stroke, he could detach himself from this indigenous grounding and take a broad look at it from the lens of the colonial past and contemporary global modernity. What made this multiple takes and retakes on one’s past, memory and current state of the world is the lens of an ethnographer: not
a conventional ethnographer who separated his culture from that of the others, but a contemporary researcher who would not be constrained by one’s ethnicity or national identity but see common threads running through disparate cultural landscapes. He could read Bhagavad Gita through Marx to bring out the connections between political and moral economies just as, in another instance, he could, like a cultural anthropologist, trace lives of objects that he wanted to engage with in his works. He retraced the arc of trade contact between the Mangalore tiles from its place of production in Karnataka to its European market through the interventions of the Swiss missionaries from Basel since the middle of 19th century. This research into archival sources would feed into number of versions of works that would be titled differently. Balanced Diet in this show is a variation of Veni, Vidi, Vici on display at the Kochi Biennale in 2012. Small terracotta figurines of the hatha yogis inspired by the BhauDaji Lad Museum’s ethnographic collection, strike different postures on the terracotta roof top, creating an equation between immortality sought by the fragile human bodies through yogic discipline and that which a museum bestows on its objects.
Always between languages- that of words and that of objects, Tallur’s respect for the eloquent objects far outweighs that of the verbal language.
In his own words:
Verbal language is so stupid that it always demands a statement. It has never
allowed me to be mysterious.ii
The only time he was forced to deal with written words was while writing his Masters dissertation, which he entitled as Museum's non verbal language: Multi sensory approach in museum exhibition design. Objects once again became his focal points and it was to them that he both began to pose questions and elicit answers from. Not like a ventriloquist who, through sheer mastery of a voice throw, got inanimate things speak back in his own words, but he understood objects through their formal shapes and grammar of their ontology. As if every object you care to hear, have something to say but goes unheard because of the ambient noise of human needs. They are not some isolated mute things that are forever ordered to assume shapes to ease modern life style but inhabit recalcitrance or a stubbornness to be just as they are.
No wonder museums are enthralling sites for Tallur where the fate of objects and viewers are interlinked. The museum objects show a thin line between commodity and collectibles and objects that have participated over a long time in the life of community, having accrued layers of memory enjoy enhanced status. Museums can also be the end points of the life of an object that may have changed many hands and locations, like the sacred objects that were made in the market place but find their terminal point in a temple. Again, the possible conflation of a museum and a temple around sacred values underlies Tallur’s recurrent interest in icons and ritual dimension of viewing.
Ukai (Cormarant Fish Hunting)
L N Tallur’s recent show at Nature Morte Gallery, New Delhi unfolds around the central theme of Ukai or cormorant fish hunting that evoke many resonances in which museums feature prominently. Museums, long considered as a sign of Western civilization that created spaces of enlightenment and edification, have a strange connection with religion. If, as the biblical narrative goes, God to rescue and preserve
all the species in the animal word willed Noah’s ark, a natural history museum was its deathly double that instead, preserved dead animals as a spectacle. Tallur was fascinated to learn about the process that natural history museums deployed to extract skeletons from elephants. Swarms of beetles were cultivated around a dead elephant to gnaw away the flesh of this mammoth beast until an intact elephant skeleton remained! Such an instrumental use of animals in the acquisition of another animal was not unique to the West. Once during his trip to Shanghai, Tallur witnessed a peculiar form of fishing which is termed as Ukai in Japanese, now a tourist attraction but can be traced back to 10th century CE China and Japan. This ancient Far Eastern technique in which fishermen used trained cormorants to help them maximize their yield, relying on the bird’s natural instinct to swoop and catch fishes. However, the birds had a snare fitted along their necks to prevent them from swallowing the fish! For the fishermen, these birds of prey were pure tools in the fishing ‘industry’.
UKAI (Image 1 + A Detail)
The sculpturesque assemblage, Ukai, places a solitary cormorant within a trough filled with coins that have no place in the universe of a bird’s desire. Little does it realize that the very rings around its neck that turns it into an instrument for fishing are connected with the profit that the fishermen gain in form of more coins? The profusion of coins around this cormorant makes a mockery of its own ‘natural’ desire, which has no place in the political economy of fishing.
Tallur through Latour
From Objects Claimed to Objects’ Claim

The penetration of human instrumentality into the world of animals becomes almost paradigmatic of the operations of global capitalism that defies any distinction between the world of nature and that of culture. iiiThe Ukai method of fishing becomes emblematic of the deep reach of capitalism into the minds of the consumer where the logo of the company works like a powerful agent or a modern cormorant to capture the consumers’ attention and colonize their memory, while ultimately mocking at the ‘agency’ of the free consumer.
Path Finder (Image 2)
If Latour declares on the behalf of Western modernity that “We Were Never Modern”,1 Tallur did not have to try that hard hailing from India’s uneven, colonial modernity that threw up many a contradictions to the march of ‘progress’. Tallur animates several of these contradictions in his practice by bringing the opposite ends of the spectrum- the technological and the artisanal or the spiritual and the rational to speak to each other. Wooden carvings and aluminum foil covered figures are juxtaposed next to mechanically reproduced objects and flashing modular LED screens. Zen guru like figure in a meditative pose attempting transcendence in Path Finder (Image 2) gets splattered with mud thrown up by the mechanized wheel. Using machines, Tallur makes the ancient confront the contemporary - where hand carved wood meets the machine and stones take place of missiles.
Democracy at Work
(Image3)
Democracy at Work (Image 3) again plays with anachronism as an outmoded gadget for defense, however menacing it may look. Elaborate contraption is staged to work on the age-old bow and arrow principle to demonstrate the obsolescence of attack in a democracy when the division between the internal and external enemy is at stake and where there is always a time lag between signals and their coding.
Live Stock (Image 4)
Live Stock (Image 4) is yet another dig at global capitalism’s instrumental rationality. Two wooden male figures encased in an aluminum foil mirror each other as inverted images where it is only the accidental placing that turns one into an active and the other, a passive body- calling into question the process through which a live body becomes a logo or a statistic. Stock market is yet another arena which encroaches into the animal world where a bull and a bear function as a coding to signal the fluctuations of the market that have parallels in the verbal language that flash on the screen with relentless repetition.
Transitional Objects:
Museums and galleries have remained distinct spaces in India until recently- the former houses works from the past that have historical, ethnographic and aesthetic value in varying combinations whereas the latter accommodate art works by modern or contemporary artists. The demarcations between these two have been muddied recently since some modern art museums have opened their doors to contemporary artists to engage with their collection. Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai has taken a lead in this direction since 2010, inviting practitioners as diverse as the performance artist, Nikhil Chopra and sculptor Sudarshan Shetty. For Tallur, inhabiting the space of a colonial museum like the Bhau Daji Lad Museum (originally the Bombay Victoria and Albert Museum) animated several registers in his imagination. I refer to the following works as transitional -not in the sense of incompleteness but as pointing to their double codedness in terms of their ability to traverse the sacred and the secular spaces and gesture to a museum and a temple at the same time.
Obituary (Image 5)
Obituary:
If through objects, Tallur constructs and deconstructs commodity fetishism, fear or neurosis generated by money is alluded to from time to time. In pre-modern societies driven by religious drive, money
was seen as sacred and profane at the same time. It was shocking for European visitors to Indian museums to witness the Buddhist visitors throwing coins at the statue of the Buddha. In Obituary (Image 5), coins are embedded in a wooden palanquin and the viewers are invited to light the incense and drop them into the structure through the holes that later emitted smoke outward. The ritual that this act creates endows sacral value to the installation and the artist ironicizes the redemption from crematophobia(fear of money) that this modern ritual was going to offer to its public.

Bell and the Cat (Image 6)
Likewise, a large metal bell, too oversized to be of use, in Bell and the Cat, (Image 6) exudes a symbolic presence as a vestige of a way of life that has lost meaning in the contemporary society, even if it draws its title from the famous Tom and Jerry animated film of the 1950s and the common phrase-belling the cat. While its handle in form of an eroded body of a semi deity shows years of prolonged use, the clapper is in the shape of a sardonic grimacing face that seems to be petrified of its transition into a gallery space.
Meditating on the museums meant for Tallur an engagement with temporality itself. Even if museums confer a timeless “museum status” to its objects, each of its exhibit have to be placed within the grid of space and time and that is how each object acquires an ‘address’- where it was made or found and the time of its execution. Those who produce copies of antique artifacts or fakes, mimic ‘the old look’, sometimes to the astonishment of a connoisseur who is unable to tell the difference. It is this ‘place-less- ness’ of a fake, which hovers between the past and the present that fascinates Tallur and compels him to allude to art forgery.
Treasure Trove(Image 7)
Art forgery becomes a metaphor for erosion of memory within which a fake can pose as an authentic art work. Alluding to the Indian Treasure Trove Act of 1878, Treasure Trove (image 7), presents a figurine of reclining Kubera, as an Indian counterpart to a Chinese laughing Buddha-both symbols of prosperity, hence auspicious, in these countries of emerging economies; of which multiple copies flourish in the tourist market. However, what mars its lightness of being is the hovering coin bag cast in terracotta that smothers it from the top as an uncanny presence. As Kubera sinks under the weight of his own prosperity, the work encases itself as a museum collectible in a glass case, cocking a snook at the Colonial Act itself. Apart from the sardonic humour, it stages a profound disenchantment with the paradox that the very site of surplus of money is inevitably the location of chromatophobia or fear of money!
This work shares resonance with an earlier installation that Tallur created at the Bhau Daji Lad Museum in 2011entitled Anger Therapy Machine. It consists of a colonial punkha or a fan which has intricate wooden carving using the motif of a rupee symbol. Ironically Tallur pulls this recently invented symbol into the space of a museum in the very year when the Indian rupee had become a universal currency in the global market. A pair of intricately carved chairs is placed in this ATM, which is not a place for cash withdrawal, but that of conviviality for anger management under the cooling effect of a colonial fan that depended on the human labour of pulling the ropes. Coins and museum objects have much in common- both rely on authenticity to acquire value.
Tallur turns this value on its head by letting the CNC machines “carve” an effect of a termite eaten surface and generate an antique look. In a sense, authenticity and forgery are posed as the two sides of the same coin!
I
Do or Die (Karma Yoga)
So far, we have engaged with art works that were placed for critical viewing through visual delectation. Despite their three dimensionality, (with the exception of Orbituary), they unfolded their meaning through visual appearance, however sensuous that visuality may be, grounded as it was in varied material- wooden carving, metal sheets, bronze, glass shelves, LCD screens.
Do or Die (Image 8)
In Do or Die (Karma Yoga),(Image 8),the installation hinges on its performative aspect. If the wheel made its appearance in Path Finder as the subversive element in splattering mud on a meditating figure, its performance as a wheel was restricted to itself. However, Do or Die consists of a complex wooden structure built on the primitive ‘gear’ system of toothed wheels where different wooden barrels of different shapes and sizes synchronize with one another in circular movement. The visual logic of representation that ran through most of other works suspends itself as this installation demands ‘labour’ from the viewer.
The performative act that informed his early student days boxes when viewers were urged to open drawers and peep through holes becomes more demanding as stated by the title of this work- Do or Die. Viewers now have to lift their arms in a somewhat ungainly, menial posture and exert their body weight to rotate the wooden lever. Based on the mechanical principle of an oil press, where the act of turning the handle lets the

oil ooze out of crushed peanuts or mustard seeds, here you gain nothing except the experience of Karma Yoga- the exertion of the act of labour.
Karma Yoga was much celebrated in the sacred text of Bhagvad Gita that consist of a dialogue between the mortal hero, Arjuna and divine Krishna about the ethics of waging a battle with kinsmen.iv Ironically, Lord Krishna justifies the battle as a moral act if the action and reward are kept separate. By letting Marx intercept the conversation, Tallur sees complicity between Karma yoga and its internalization that sanctions the caste system. By dissociating action from its reward, one is robbed off of one’s right to question one’s place in the world in the name of organic community that ultimately maintains the status quo of a hierarchical society. v
Bruno Latour, once again, helps us to understand Tallur’s works through his distinction between an object and a thing. An object is a product of scientific objectivity that dissociates itself from value, whereas a thing is when object is seen in the complex networks that bind it to human or humane world, not given to the cold logic of instrumental rationality.
The handmade jug can be a thing, while the industrially made can of Coke remains an object. While the latter is abandoned to the empty mastery of science and technology, only the former, cradled in the respectable idiom of art, craftsmanship, and poetry, could deploy and gather its rich set of connections.vi
Perhaps, herein lies his answer to Arjuna’s dilemma: to fight or not to fight.
Once objects of fact, product of cold calculation that thrives on exploitative relationship to the world rise to the level to objects of concern, they become things and part of a social and political web. Objects become things when the false boundaries between nature and culture fade away. Objects become things when their voices are not muted by the soliloquy of human speech and are heard in the rumblings and ontology of their existence. Objects become things when they lose their monadic lives and live in their interconnectedness with others. They are gathered.
“Things that gather cannot be thrown at you like objects.”vii


References
Appadurai, Arjun (ed.) The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK, 1986).
Latour Bruno. “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern”, Critical Inquiry 30 (Winter 2004).
Mathur Saloni and Singh Kavita (eds.) No Touching, No Spitting, No Praying: The Museum in South Asia (forthcoming, Routledge).
Rajagopal Arvind. Politics after Television: Hindu Nationalism and the Reshaping of the Public in India, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Spivak Gayatri.A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Towards a History of the Vanishing Present, Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1999.
i See Arvind Rajagopal’sPolitics after Television: Hindu Nationalism and the Reshaping of the Public in India, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001, for the impact of television, specially the TV serials based on Indian epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata on the way public sphere developed in India in the wake of economic liberalization since the 1990s.
ii Excerpted from the artist’s statements from the front cover of the catalogue of his exhibition entitled Past Modern: Interactive Art Objects held at Bose Pacia Modern, Soho, New York, USA ,1999.
iii It is here I find an elective affinity between Bruno Latour, the French anthropologist and philosopher and contemporary Indian artist, L N Tallur. Like Latour, Tallur is keen to retrieve the agency of the objects and his attention to their materiality is more than a formalist concern.
ivThe Bhagavad Gita is a part of the Indian epic, Mahabharata that takes form of a dialogue between Arjuna, one of the five brothers from the Pandava clan and Lord Krishna who was both a divine presence and Arjuna’s charioteer. This episode unfolds against the impending battle between the rival clans of the Pandavas and the Kauravas. The war offers a context to Lord Krishna to promulgate the doctrine of Karma Yoga or the action-oriented way of life in which action remains pure of the desire for reward and constitutes an ethical behaviour. This was meant to undermine the fatalism created by the rival theory of Karma which regarded one’s present life as the fruit of past action. However, both points of view served to naturalize the caste system, which, in the Bhagavad Gita, received a divine sanction from Lord Krishna.
vSee Gayatri Spivak’s political reading of this episode in the Mahabharata: “...the grand lesson of the god Krishna to the prince Arjuna absorbs the fragmented temporality of phenomenal experience into an omnitemporality governed by the law the god represents. This chronotype transformation then serves to legitimate the order of the castes, which are names at the end of the episode”. Gayatri Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Towards a History of the Vanishing Present, Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1999, p. 9.
viBruno Latour, “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam ? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern”, Critical Inquiry30 (Winter 2004), p. 233.
vii Ibid, p. 237.