Sculptures in Quotation Marks

By Peter Nagy



"I am strongly drawn to Camp, and almost as strongly offended by it."
Susan Sontag, Notes on ‘Camp’, 1964.[1]


It is a story often told yet always worth repeating. Upon applying to study in the Department of Painting at the Faculty of Fine Arts, MS University, Baroda in 1996 (then, surely, India's best college of art), LN Tallur was denied acceptance yet informed that there were vacancies in the Department of Museology and that if he applied he would be accepted. Never one to waste an opportunity, Tallur followed this suggested path and one can today attribute many of the particular qualities of his art to this fortuitous detour.

By studying Museology, Tallur became acquainted and habituated to how objects are categorized, packaged and contexualized within the official structures of the art world; how pedigree, value and meaning are put on display using a variety of devices; and how concrete objects can be manipulated by the whims of curatorial and critical conceits. These studies seem to have led Tallur towards a more nuanced practice of sculpture, one which addresses not only the making of objects but also their positioning in regards to their audience, and an acknowledgment of how diverse this audience actually is. There is something of the magician in Tallur's version of being a sculptor. It is as if his sculptures are brought on to a theatrical stage and subjected to a variety of tricks, both visual and conceptual, all to the astonished gasps of his captive audience. Art and Magic may have been symbiotic long ago, when both were more closely associated with Religion, but in our rational and secular times, Art has been nudged closer to Science. Strange then that Tallur came to an association with Magic in his Art through the portal of Museology, which implies a more scientific approach to the study and presentation of objects. Yet it is indicative of Tallur's mischievous nature that his studies in Museology brought him to see the tropes of the art world to be as malleable as clay, things to be carved into new shapes, assemblages ripe for reconfiguration.

Which brings me to Tallur's most recent presentation of new works, that which was entitled "Smoke Out" at the gallery Chemould Prescott Road in Mumbai. Wandering among the works in a variety of materials, sizes and shapes, arranged, it seemed, by no particular logic, I felt as if I was attending a masked ball of sorts. Each sculpture seemed to possess an identity not entirely its own, mixing metaphors and exchanging costumes so as to befuddle any simplistic cognition the audience may have hoped to encounter. Masquerade may be an unusual association to glean from an exhibition of sculptures, but Tallur further facilitated this reference with his chosen title for the show. Were we to infer that any visible veracity (to materials, history, or the artist's identity) was being expunged in the way that bees can be "smoked out" of their hives? Or were we on the receiving end of copious tokes of the hashish pipe, resulting in an inebriation of logic and the inability to discern what we may actually be looking at?

Masquerade has recently been modernized into the more expedient discipline of Drag, which has diversified from its initial form of simple transvestism into more complex assemblages involving race, class and irony. Drag has now become synonymous with Identity Politics, the smorgasbord of visual options available through clothing, make-up and hair styles supplanting heredity, sexuality and socio-economic positioning as grist for the mill in our constructions of ourselves. Tallur's sculptures might be Institutional Critique (a recent trend within the contemporary art world) in Drag, as they juggle with historical references and fiddle with couture trappings before they are presented at the Debutante Ball. Many of Tallur's works start with pre-existing figures which are then combined with other elements and often cloaked in a substance (such as tar, paint, shellac or graphite) which masks their original identities. Often only the visible hint of protruding feet or hands gives us a clue of a figure's pedigree, as they silently suffer the shenanigans imposed upon them by the House of Tallur.

Let us take, for example, the sculpture entitled "Hot Seat" from Smoke Out. The artist gives us a figure seated in what is known as the Lotus Position, being a yogic posture associated with the Buddha and any figure in meditation. These crossed legs act as a loaded pedestal of sorts, signifying Oriental Enlightenment as a five-minute noodle, carrying the subconscious weight of centuries of sublime sculpture from across Asia but now also the burden of Buddhist tourist kitsch which often pretends to be Fine Art. A coat of gold paint on these crossed legs adds value but also bling: the veneer of royalty and the desperation for attention of the nouveau riche. A bit of midriff is exposed on the figure, in a viscous tar black matching the scorched wooden top of the bench on which the figure sits. The upper part of the figure is covered entirely in a cloak of thick chain-mail, as one would find in a medieval suit of armor. The drapery of the chain-mail alludes to both the hijab (the head-covering worn by Muslim women) and a futuristic caplet one might find in a science fiction film. The abstracted form is figurative, the drapery hanging from a pair of broad shoulders, yet provides no clue as to what species may be accompanying the humanoid legs. "Hot Seat" is typical of the works in the show in that it is self-consciously artificial and parodies a variety of sculptural sources, smashing together disparate materials into a puzzle of references. It comes as no surprise that Tallur's practice ushers sculpture into the arena of Camp, that grey area of both questionable taste and sincerity, defined as something that provides sophisticated entertainment but is often accused of being "teasingly ingenuous to a fault."

In her ground-breaking essay "Notes on Camp" of 1964, Susan Sontag defined Camp as "a sensibility that, among other things, converts the serious into the frivolous" and one which "emphasizes style at the expense of content." Reading her essay today is to witness a theorist's particular confusions as she tries to make sense of profound cultural shifts taking place (which we can easily now recognize as the transition from Modernism to Post-Modernism): the emergence and codification of Gay Culture; the disruption to the supposed linear progress of the visual arts that was Pop Art (not only a monkey wrench thrown into the system but also the bull in the china shop); the regurgitation of past styles into those of the present (such as Psychedelia swallowing Art Nouveau whole). Sontag's lists of what is and is not Camp ("the operas of Richard Strauss, but not those of Wagner") have no relevance today, as our world and lives have been so completely sublimated into the all-consuming maw of Neo-Liberal Capitalist Camp. "Camp sees everything in quotation marks," said Sontag. "It's not a lamp, but a "lamp"; not a woman, but a "woman."

Come to think of it, hasn't that been the nature of most art since the Duchampian Revolution? It's not a urinal, but a "fountain"? Apparently, Monsieur Marcel envisioned three kinds of readymades: there are the found objects that he simply signed (such as the "The Bottle Rack" of 1914); there are the adjusted readymades, made up of several common objects brought together (such as the bicycle wheel mounted on a stool); and there is what he termed the "reciprocal readymade," which would entail taking an art object and making it functional in some way (his suggestion being to use a painting by Rembrandt as an ironing board). Tallur, the Museologist turned Sculptor, has always been aware of the functional side of art objects (for contemplation, for entertainment, for economic investment, for social status, for nation building) and often starts with historical art objects (usually reproductions) and transforms them by adding other objects or by disguising them in some way. Not confining himself to only art objects, Tallur also dredges objects up from the canals of the popular, the decorative, and the quotidian, always aware of the multiple values (use, symbolic, and exchange) of each. Upon completion, each sculpture by Tallur resembles a lasagna cooked up by Roland Barthes: layered with multiplicities, oozing seductive ironies, creamy and crispy in the same bite.

Yet, if Camp "emphasizes style at the expense of content" (as Sontag claimed), how then do we explain the fore-grounding of style AS content? Some of the more curious objects in Smoke Out are a pair of sculptures which have been given the same title as the exhibition. Occupying a tall steel table are large chunks of a speckled grey granite. One part takes the simplified form of a pig or boar and the other seems to be three random, slightly geometrical rocks piled on top of each other. All have been shot through with circles of various dimensions and depths, certainly executed with precision machinery and not the soft hands of nature and time. Yet these circles seem entirely random, having no pattern or purpose, and as if done by someone other than the artist himself, perhaps even as malicious defacement. It is as if random graffiti is allowed to determine the identity of the forms and, hence, their reception as art works. As if the artist had no concern for either content or style or is willing to allow a style arrived at through haphazard chance to determine the meaning of his works. It is as if everything one is taught in art school has been thrown out the window and the principles on which art objects are evaluated by consensus have been rendered moot.

To further lead us to question Tallur's mentality stability (or just plain anarchic sensibility) I give you as evidence the work entitled "Tolerance 2." This elaborates on a previous sculpture made a few years earlier that also used the Lotus Position legs as a base for what looks like a pile of found stones balanced on top of each other in ascending size (but is, in fact, all carved from a single stone). Presented at the opening of the exhibition with smooth, polished surfaces, the artist made available to the audience a pair of electric engraving tools, inviting anyone and everyone to etch into the surface of the sculpture whatever they liked throughout the course of the exhibition. Not only did Tallur allow others to permanently mark and mutilate his pristine sculpture, he relinquished all control to its final appearance, seemingly unconcerned with how it would be finally rendered for posterity. It is as if he harnessed the powers of Psychic Automatism, a graphic technique developed by the Surrealists to be fully realized into painting by the Abstract Expressionists, to make his art, channeling the collective unconscious of his audience into the final veneer of his sculpture. To return to the subject of Camp: has Tallur allowed style to cancel out content, or is he perhaps emphasizing the seriousness of frivolity?

In Note #36 [2] Sontag stated that Camp is "the sensibility of failed seriousness, of the theatricalization of experience." Certainly, the museum is the theatre of art and also, to a lesser extent, is the gallery space. Tallur, the Museologist turned Sculptor, is well aware of the scenography, costuming, lighting and exaggerated make-up that are necessary components of this particular theatre. He is aware of the inherent theatricality of sculpture and its presentation to the public. Certainly, the endeavor of creating baroque decor from the undulating ribbons of saw blades, as he does in the work "Threshold," acknowledges a possibly exhausted theatricality. Tallur's use of a wide range of pre-existing sculptural forms speaks of the impossibility of locating any sort of "authenticity" within culture today, a failure (or even hostility) to comprehend quality or seriousness, and our collective inability to escape from the quicksand of the simulacra. ("Camp taste transcends the nausea of the replica"; Sontag, Note #46. [3]) The works of LN Tallur open a Pandora’s Box of dilemmas based upon taste, style, influence, and derivation, but with a sense of respect for that Box itself, and its indebtedness to artifice.

Peter Nagy, July 2018

[1] from Wikipedia:
“Notes on ‘Camp’” is an essay by Susan Sontag first published in 1964. It was her first contribution to the Partisan Review. The essay created a literary sensation and brought Sontag intellectual notoriety. It was republished in 1966 in Sontag’s debut collection of essays, “Against Interpretation” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; New York). The essay codified and mainstreamed the cultural connotations of the word “camp” and identified camp’s evolution as a distinct aesthetic phenomenon.

[2] Note #36: But there are other creative sensibilities besides the seriousness (both tragic and comic) of high culture and of the high style of evaluating people. And one cheats oneself, as a human being, if one has respect only for the style of high culture, whatever else one may do or feel on the sly.

For instance, there is the kind of seriousness whose trademark is anguish, cruelty, derangement. Here we do accept a disparity between intention and result. I am speaking, obviously, of a style of personal existence as well as of a style in art; but the examples had best come from art. Think of Bosch, Sade, Rimbaud, Jarry, Kafka, Artaud, think of most of the important works of art of the 20th century, that is, art whose goal is not that of creating harmonies but of overstraining the medium and introducing more and more violent, and unresolvable, subject-matter. This sensibility also insists on the principle that an oeuvre in the old sense (again, in art, but also in life) is not possible. Only "fragments" are possible. . . . Clearly, different standards apply here than to traditional high culture. Something is good not because it is achieved, but because another kind of truth about the human situation, another experience of what it is to be human - in short, another valid sensibility -- is being revealed.

And third among the great creative sensibilities is Camp: the sensibility of failed seriousness, of the theatricalization of experience. Camp refuses both the harmonies of traditional seriousness, and the risks of fully identifying with extreme states of feeling.

[3] Note #46: The dandy was overbred. His posture was disdain, or else ennui. He sought rare sensations, undefiled by mass appreciation. (Models: Des Esseintes in Huysmans' À Rebours, Marius the Epicurean, Valéry's Monsieur Teste.) He was dedicated to "good taste.”

The connoisseur of Camp has found more ingenious pleasures. Not in Latin poetry and rare wines and velvet jackets, but in the coarsest, commonest pleasures, in the arts of the masses. Mere use does not defile the objects of his pleasure, since he learns to possess them in a rare way. Camp -- Dandyism in the age of mass culture -- makes no distinction between the unique object and the mass-produced object. Camp taste transcends the nausea of the replica.

Published in 2018 By Chemould Prescott Road & Arario Gallery ISBN No 978-932964-0-0