Tallur L. N.’s Antimatter: International Vernaculars and Throwaway Epiphanies: the recent work of Tallur L. N.
By Chaitanya Sambrani
Tallur L .N.’s artistic career has proceeded along an unusual route. Following his bachelor’s degree, he spent two years studying museology before returning to study contemporary art. Having failed to gain admission to the prestigious MA in painting at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Baroda, India, Tallur accepted an offer to study museology at the same institution instead. His years in Baroda were spent as though in limbo, fluctuating between the taxidermic cabinets and dark corridors of the museology department, and his own aspirational experiments with assemblage and sculpture that borrowed equally from the more macabre and outlandish dimensions of natural history, and the modernist inheritance of the absurd and the surreal. It is possible to see the apparently disjointed and incoherent result of this intellectual and epistemological hybridity in the entirety of Tallur’s oeuvre since the beginning of the current decade.
A degree of biographical detail is essential when seeking to understand Tallur’s work. Hailing from the village of Koteswara (population c.14,000) on the westward-facing coast of the southern Indian state of Karnataka, Tallur’s life has been characterised by a series of migrations. It is anyway a leap from Koteswara to the erstwhile princely capital of Mysore where he studied painting for his bachelor’s degree at the Chamarajendra Academy of Visual Art. This was followed by the more central (in terms of contemporary art culture at least) destination of the Faculty of Fine Arts in Baroda for his master’s degree in museology, and again, to the UK for a second postgraduate degree at Leeds Metropolitan University, this time in contemporary visual art practice. In recent years, he has divided his time between his ancestral home in Koteswara and Daegu, Korea, where his wife’s family comes from. A continuing peregrination—Koteswara-Mysore-Barpda-Leeds-Daegu-Koteswara—interspersed in recent years with detours to Seoul, New York, Beijing and Bombay, have created for Tallur a sharpened sense of being in the world. Whether in small-town South India or the industrial urbanity of South Korea, Tallur encounters a relative monoculture where the sheer otherness of his other life serves to cast the familiar as strange in a constant double-take. This series of displacements has been vital to the development of Tallur’s his work, making it possible for him to focus on the substratum of the uncanny beneath the thin veneer of everyday normalcy. It was in Leeds that Tallur was able to experiment on a large scale with the possibilities of material manipulations, and where his earlier experiments withinvestigations into the quotidian nature of the absurd and the surreal came to bestarted being realised. It was also in Leeds that he started to develop his particular perspective on the global, peppered as it is with fragments of local cultures that surface persistently in the form of the outlandish, the absurd incongruous, and the subversive. Like many other artists from India before him, it was the experience of profound cultural displacement conjoined with the availability ofimmersion in a cosmopolitann internationalist art environment has been instrumental in the development ofthat led to Tallur’s being able to stake his particular, sharpened claim to contemporary visibility.
While Tallur’s recent work can be situated in a post-conceptualist lineage of object and installation oriented practice, it is also interesting to think about his work following in the footsteps of the late self-taught painter Bhupen Khakhar (1934-2003) who having failed the entrance test for the same degree in painting, had spent two years (1962-64) studying art criticism at the same school some two generations before Tallur (1998-99). I invoke Khakhar here to situate Tallur in a trajectory of subversive absurdity in contemporary Indian art. While it is true that owing to their difference in age and material practice, Khakhar may not be a prominent figure in Tallur’s own account of his influences, it remains art historically attractive to place Tallur’s practice in a tradition of the absurd that is so vital to international (and Indian) accountstrajectories of modernism, in India and internationally. Like Khakhar, Tallur is attracted to kitsch and popular culture; he is fascinated by the morbid and the macabre; he is both an “insider” and an “outsider” to the painful humour of a vernacular culture in transition, inevitably displaced and irredeemably distanced both from local roots and the spectral phantasms of cosmopolitan experience. Alongside Khakhar, the example of Atul Dodiya (b. 1959) is significant in devising an art historical ancestry for Tallur, particularly in embracing the culture of kitsch, and in the critical use of popular imagery and practices of memorialisation that are suffused with a deep disquiet. Unlike his elder contemporaries, however, Tallur more completely partakes of the deliberate conceptualist strategy of aloofness and distance. His work warily skirts the edge of emotional investment in his subject, while offering the audience a series of deferrals that simultaneously tantalise and confound, not least because of the exotic nature of their forms, materials and references.
Interestingly, Tallur’sHis large-scale inflatables—with which he announced his arrival as a significant practitioner in the contemporary Indian art scene--originated from his two years as a student in the UKEngland. Made in England: A temple design for India (2001) is perhaps the signal work in his oeuvre, a sublimation of his migratory existence and a statement of a political position in the globalising world from the naïve yet knowing eyes of the interloper who speaks what Indonesian curator Jim Supangkat has characterised as an art language “with an accent” . This six-metre high inflatable mimicked at once the form of a Saivite temple from South India and an overblown image of trembling, tumescent male genitalia. The metaphor was compounded in that viewers could physically enter and exit the womb-dark interior, just spacious enough to hold one adult comfortably, through a red-lined slit between two of its upright air chambers that convincingly approximated an experience of re-entering and re-exiting the womb in a parody of born-again religiosity. Squeezing through this meagre entrance, carrying one of the provided flashlights in hand, the visitor/supplicant was offered no glimpse of the divine. The black interior of the “temple” smelled of plastic and featured mass-produced fluorescent stickers of cartoon characters and children’s toys instead of unique and potent images of celestial beings. Another layer of commentary was implicit in the obviously transportable nature of this edifice, made in England as it was, but destined for India. Tallur had observed the tendency among multinational corporations to indulge in acts of appeasement through public works when setting up manufacturing plants. While moving in with large scale investments and acquiring land to set up industries that benefited from India’s bountiful supply of cheap labour, these multinationals would often donate funds for the construction of religious and cultural buildings as a means to secure the goodwill of the communities whose lands, and sometimes livelihoods, had been re-purposed from agriculture to manufacturing. Tongue firmly in cheek, Tallur was offering his collapsible temple (it comfortably travels in a one-cubic-metre box, complete with its compressor and air pipes) as a one-stop solution to the dilemma of the international corporation wanting to set up shop in India. To continue with Supangkat’s metaphor, Tallur’s heavily accented speech is nonetheless alert to a continuing contestation over sites and modes of production that the replacement of mercantile imperialism by free-market multinationalism has not effaced. Remember that the nationalist struggle in India, especially the Gandhian ideology of anti-imperialism, championed the locally manufactured handmade as a weapon against mass-produced imports. Tallur now gives us a painstakingly handmade import as a mock-catalyst for localised mass-production.
Panic Room (2006) offers the audience a similar participatory experience of engulfment, perhaps more powerful because the work has to be voluntarily activated to full three-dimensionality after the viewer/participant has stepped into its enclosure. Like Made in England, this work originated in Tallur’s observation of a modern phenomenon that particularly affects the rural, agriculture-based economy in the Third World. Panic Room’s inflatable envelope of jute sacks is based on newspaper photographs of hoarded piles of grain sacks destined for the black market in the context of endemic food shortages and speculative profiteering. Playing on the idea of a fortified refuge against domestic invasion in an affluent economy, Tallur subjects the participant to a spatial and olfactory immersion in an inflated hoard of food. Here is also another sly gesture, toward the likelihood of conflict over the world’s shrinking food resources, and to the endemic spectre of starvation and farmers’ suicides haunting that haunts India’s stellar rapid economic growth in recent years.
Unapologetically opportunistic, Tallur trawls the flotsam of current affairs and the Internet to harvest outlandish ideas, rumours and hoaxes, while at the same time picking up news stories that offer insight into economic processes. Medical glossaries, market analyses, anecdotes about iconic design, disputes over intellectual property, spiritual formulae and moral tales, reports about technological disasters and environmental degradation—all these and more are fodder for his omnivorous imagination. Tallur thrives on the seeming anachronism of a precisely honed scattergun approach, capitalising equally on the mundane and the epiphanous.
An archaeology of obsolescence
In this reading of Made in England and Panic Room lies another clue to Tallur’s recent work: he returns over and again to fossick through the remnants of older worlds that are frequently palimpsested under the new in so many Asian contexts. In these returns to peel open the seemingly secure layers of modernisation and international linkages, he hints towards an abiding archaeology of obsolescence to characterise the contemporary. In this, heTallur harnesses another trope of contemporary society and its teleological pursuit of modernisation:, that of a rapid succession of obsolescence and constant reinvention. Reinvention does not however mean renewal, and the leftovers of progress, the discards of yesterday continue to haunt spirit in and out of today and tomorrow, especially in the rapid and often violent processes of transformation in rural India.
Tallur’s acts of digging away at the interstices of the pre-modern and the post-modern reveal startling juxtapositions, much in the manner of the “marvellous chance encounters” prized so highly by the Surrealist avant-garde in Europe at the end of the first quarter of the twentieth century. Of the myriad forms of the avant-garde from that heroic period, it is the revolutionary project of Surrealism that seems to find continual echoes and inheritors in recent art, especially in non-Euro-American contexts. The negation of conventions such as bourgeois morality and cultivated aesthetic taste together with the freedom of associative couplings makes it possible for artists like Tallur to muster their peculiar range of experience and aspiration to unusual and surprising ends while essaying the rôle of the naïve interloper exempt from the strictures of genteel behaviour and social graces.
In one of the works on display here, the artistTallur’s fascination with the project of Surrealism continues in Juggernaut (2008), where the artist officiates at the “arranged marriage” of an aircraft, a building and thea bhoota image of a bullock to present a thoroughly disquieting beast that reflects the viewer manifold in its polished silver teeth, uncovered in a rictus of permanent agony, or of menace. (The cult of bhoota (meaning ghost, but also past or bygone time) and preta (corpse, undead) deities is prevalent in the southern part of coastal Karnataka. These demi-gods are considered analogues of living creatures and are imbued with a potency that may be expressed in benevolence or in mischief. Tallur has also made use of bhoota images in other works, which I will discuss a little later.) There is also a veiled reference here to three other facets of Indian tradition, the first being to the numerous fusions between animals, humans and celestial beings that grace the architraves and gargoyles of Hindu temples, especially in the South. The second reference is suggested by the appearance of this work as a maquette for a potentially gigantic wheeled building, the likes of which are used to carry images of deities pulled along by means of ropes by the faithful who consider themselves fortunate to be able to render service to the divine. Juggernaut is a corruption of the most famous of these chariot processions (or ratha yatra), of Jagannatha (lord of the world, Krishna) in Puri, Orissa that yields the English word juggernaut implying an unstoppable, crushing force. The third reference is to wooden toys with wheels, frequently featuring local animals like the bull and the elephant that in the not too distant past, were common amongthat can sometimes still be seen in the homes of rural families in southern India. Like many other things, they are rapidly being replaced by mass-manufactured plastic toys such as airplanes, guns and superheroes as boundaries between worlds collapse and older ways of life are lostsubmerged (though not entirely erased) by the crusihing tide of the new. Tallur’s sculpture with its pitted skin of rusted plates held together by twisted nails conjures up a monster of science- fictional proportions, the result of a complete mismatch between disparate conditions. The “marvellous” potential of a “chance encounter” between a bull, a plane, a building and a toy in the artist’s studio gives birth to an enduring genetic anomaly at the heart of contemporary cultural and technological transformation. Tallur conjures up a mutation triggered by extraordinary pressure—a pathetic beast literally cobbled together from the leftovers of modernity—a battered creature of Frankensteinian fury and misery.
In Alzheimer’s (2006) the works Bulimia II and Bulimia II (2008) Alzheimer’s, Tallur reprises processes of decay and consecration making use of termite-eroded bhoota figures, embedding or overlaying them with silver as though to restore a measure of life and protection to icons that have outlived their usefulness. These works are elaborations on the assisted readymade, though their cultural meanings and the amount of labour applied to the found objects make the comparison limited. The prancing horse figure in Bulimia II is a diseased remnant, a fragment of a prior representation of energy, speed and vitality. By encasing it in polished silver and placing it on an a chair/throne of awkward and dysfunctional design, Tallur plays the role of a mock conservator even as he makes it clear that the restoration of organic or spiritual function to these twice-dead fragments of the past is a cruel and futile labour. Furthermore, he invites the question of whether such restoration is worthwhile. In other words, the works present a contrarian argument where the abandoned past is sought to be reinstated through a massive change in context. Discarded artefacts of a living faith are now transformed through the artist’s audacity into objects of contemporary art. Here’ as in other places, Tallur charts a trajectory closely skirting the troublesome terrain of primitivism and its relationship to contemporary art. Does the fact that it is his own ancestral tradition that Tallur uses as raw material for his conceptualist experimentation place this endeavour in the realm of affirmative reclamations of tradition? I suspect the answer is not so simple; it is complicated by Tallur’s assumption of the position of intimate stranger, both in his rural hometown, and in the metropolitan art circles of Bangalore, Seoul, or New York.
The Losses and Gains of Translation
Tradition in Indian traditions is a are characterised by complex accretions of plural impulses and influences. Despite the overarching tendency to see it traditions as a singular envelopes, it they remains a site of vexation due to its their mobilisation for various political projects, including that of nation building in the context of colonisation. In recent times, the rise of fundamentalist politics has seen a monolithic construct fabrication of tradition being invoked in the service of cultural purity. The vertically disjointed and fragmented appearance of Tallur’s work Colonial Sisters (2008) serves to upfronthighlights the constructed nature of tradition and to highlightunderscores its internal inconsistencies. Tallur frequently makes use of the skills of craftspeople from his village in executing sculptural work. Often, the artisans he chooses belong to distinct traditions and bring with them different skills with materials and figurative idioms. Within the Indian context, their respective skills are usually cast in a hierarchical relationship to each other, while being subordinated to the overarching notion of an ancient and medieval Hindu-Buddhist canon. The division of labour that Tallur has devised for Colonial Sisters serves to highlight the connections and disconnections across divergent streams within the presumed singular envelope of Indian tradition. Using the single motif of a mother/goddess figure with a child on each hip, Tallur literally deconstructs the sculpture in the first instance, in the manner of a three-dimensional puzzle. In this, he plays with the expectations of his the gallery-going audience, schooled as it is not to touch works of art by offering despite the beguiling invitation in this case, to play with building blocks, to try their hand at reconstructing the “classical sculpture” as though from a kit, “by numbers.” Next, he offers up a split reconstruction of the same formulaic figure as interpreted by a traditionally trained sculptor on the viewer’s left, and by a folk artist on the viewer’s right, presenting a bilateral asymmetry that in its visual discomfiture mis-alignment parallels the tension between versions of what is termed tradition in the Indian context. The work stands in for several acts of translation, from the ancient “classical” to the contemporary “traditional” and “folk” and ultimately to Tallur’s own “conceptualist” intent in presenting the work to an international audience in the United States, specifically in New York.
In other works, artefacts of a recent though fast-disappearing past persist within the construction of a present in a literal reassertion the coexistence of multiple layers of history in contemporary India. During the first decade of what can be called post-modernity in Indian art, the teacher, artist and poet Gulammohammed Sheikh (b. 1937) had argued against the teleological strictures of progress and ontological priority, offering the post-colonial artist a way out of the historical bind of always playing a chronologically posterior role in the grand narrative of modernist endeavour. For Sheikh, Living in India means living simultaneously in several cultures and times…The past exists as a living entity alongside the present, each illuminating and sustaining the other.
Nearly two decades later, Tallur’s work presents this enduring simultaneity of dissimilar situations as being uncomfortable and perhaps destructive rather than “illuminating and sustaining”. The optimism of coexistence implied in Sheikh’s writing has been replaced by a struggle for survival. The wooden figure of a rampaging elephant—recalling the figures of animals and composite creatures carved into the base of pillars in South Indian temples-—emerges from a scaffolding of iron and a concrete pillar; a ceremonial lamp stubbornly burns on while being enveloped in a growing mass of cement. Will the elephant break through the concrete and steel to reassert its animal primal energy? Or is its animation in the process of being swallowed by the faceless obliterating encroachment of reinforced a concrete virus? Will the lamp corrode the cement with its heat and soot to reclaim its position in the (old) order of things where lighting the lamp graces the beginning of all activitiessymbolizes beginnings, or will it be engulfed and snuffed out? Or is this old order under siege and about to be snuffed out by the irrepressible energies of “development”?
(Proposed) monuments to (future) obsolescence
Digesting Times presents the grotesquely elongated figure of a bullock—the primary motor of subsistence agriculture in rural India—proceeding to make a meal of current affairs in the form of an edition of the English daily Times of India. The text accompanying the first version of this work (a digitally altered print of a bullock, 2005) in Tallur’s 2007 catalogue references the burgeoning amount of electronic waste burdening the environment:
The computer market changes so fast that a newly produced computer becomes obsolete by the time it reaches its end user…These junks are either being used as land fills [sic] or incinerated or being sent to poor third world countries [where] environmental recycling and disposal standards are often non-existent.
Meanwhile, in e=mc2 the headless figure of a soldier stands half-submerged in a bath of spent oil. The one remaining arm of this charred warrior clutches an extinguished torch, in this charnel house of a past battle. The remnants of conflict are presented as spectacle for the audience, but there is again the added discomfiture of figuring out what battle is being referred to. Iraq is of course the first answer, with its continuing tragedy of human suffering and political injustice in what a battle for the world’s shrinking oil reserves. Further references could be made to the vast number of headless statues in museums, each one testifying to the aftermath of conquest where victors symbolically behead or topple the effigies of their opponents in a recreation of sympathetic magic. To confound matters though, Tallur has chosen to erect this tableau on the foundation of an iron vessel used for making jaggery (unrefined sugar, an essential ingredient in traditional food and medicine) by boiling sugar cane juice, a rural, small-scale industry that has become practically extinct with the dominance of factory production in recent decades. The Einsteinian title relating the production of energy to a destruction of matter presents the last piece of this puzzle; the seemingly inexorable forces of physics provide an uneasy analogue to historical transformation and permanent conflict.
Scientific progress and technological nightmares are conjoined twins in Tallur’s work. He is drawn towards mechanical contraptions that creak and rattle, wheeze and groan. Untitled (2008) with its towering pile of inflatable mattresses accompanied by surgical forceps on a hospital bed is thoroughly disquieting in its invocation of a teetering pile of scorched bodies. Tallur declines to name the disaster via a title, preferring perhaps to gesture towards brutalization as an existential state in our times. Nor is this a brutalization born solely of war and riot. The ghastly phenomenon of farmers’ suicides triggered by the replacement of food crops by cash crops like cotton and soya beans using genetically modified seeds with their “terminator technology” has claimed the lives of tens of thousands of male breadwinners and consequently condemned their families to even greater suffering. Tallur had made a somewhat direct comment on this through Hangover (2006), where a six-foot tall effigy of coconut husks and clay was suspended from the rafters. Though the works have not been seen together, the companion piece to these two, Export Design (200x) continues to explore with morbid fascination the limits of human depravity and destitution that is are constantly glossed over by reports of high growth rates and the stratospheric wealth and global ambition of India’s billionaires. Export Design appears at first glance to be a giant suitcase or packing container mainly swathed in white, but with large gaps in its skin through which an interior structure can be glimpsed. Up close, the surface of the work resolves into a thick, lumpy mass of tangled synthetic fibre and human hair with a red LED counter embedded in it. The interior features a narrow mock-up of a surgical chamber, with a humanoid operating table upholstered in rexine, and with a large hole gouged into the upholstery where the figure’s left kidney would be. Having previously designed an inflatable temple for India, Tallur now proposes a reciprocal export module pointing towards the illegal trade in human organs from the rural poor and destitute migrants in the slums of India’s burgeoning cities. Export Design (200x) shares its title with an earlier work by Tallur. Export Design (1999, shown where?) was a briefcase-sized MDF box on legs that the viewer could open to reveal an assemblage of fur, paper and wood-engravings in the form of an anatomical diagram of the renal system surmounted by a mercury vial.
In a similar vein that harnesses the take-away interactivity of many recent works, Tallur has revisited in 2009 an earlier (2005 ) project that features the production of precious barbed wire. Souvenir Maker: Designed in America, Conceptualized in India, Made in China, Sponsored by Korea. Yes…we are conditioned to think under flags features a barbed wire making machine that the viewer/participant can turn on for 30 seconds at a time, and accompanied by an instrumental soundtrack of national anthems from (how many in all?) countries. Finished samples of pieces of gold-plated barbed wire are on display alongside in narrow glass jars uncannily similar to those used for storing food in kitchens or pathological specimens in museums or laboratories. Making the viewer into participant is of course a well-trodden trope of contemporary art. What is also implicit here is the production of nationhood through acts of boundary marking, recalling Benedict Anderson’s thesis on the nature of nations as “imagined communities, imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.” Further, as Anderson argues, the nation is characterised by an assumption of deep, horizontal comradeship, which persists in spite of the presence of inequality and violence. The participant/buyer who produces a little piece of precious barbed wire and takes it home in a display jar is ipso facto recreating the essential judicially-sanctioned precepts of the institution of private property, as well as the constitutionally-guaranteed conceit of the nation as a discrete community whose membership is limited, and its sovereignty inviolable upon pain of treason. In his previous artist’s book, Tallur supplied readers with a discussion of historical disputes over the patenting of machines used for producing barbed wire, and even reproduced a copy of a his own application to the Patent Cooperation Treaty, asking for a patent to be issued to his Souvenir Maker. Significantly, the discussion of patent disputes relating to this now ubiquitous device of property control and national security traces the origins of twisted wire barriers to the later nineteenth century (1863-74), a time of capitalist consolidation as well as imperial expansion in large parts of the world.
Continuing his fascination with things that creak, groan and rattle, Tallur presents us with Digesting System (2009), a work that hints at the apparatus of smoothly controlled industrial processing through its conduits and receptacles that endlessly transport small objects by means of high frequency vibrations. Looking for all the world like battered and grease-encrusted mounds, the three feeder structures endlessly channel a succession of small objects from one to the next. Like the beds in Untitled (2008) the thick coating of black silicone on the machines serves to evoke a sense of remnants or leftovers, particularly in the aftermath of disaster. The system keeps functioning, endlessly processing its passengers in an ultimately aimless journey. Digesting System is populated by a multitude zoomorphic forms which sometimes suggest the shapes of humans or familiar animals. As they are interminably ingested and ejected by the rotating feeder bowls, pile-ups and roadblocks take place in a clear gesture towards the urban snarl of cities like Bombay. More ominously, the work gestures towards the historical state of the present moment, where as the Irish poet Yeats was to foresee in 1919, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” In its mindless regurgitation, Digesting System is a dark allegory of the modern world chanting its automated litany of triumphs and disasters. In 1852, Karl Marx had commented on Hegel’s assertion of the recurrence of events and personages by appending to it “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” In our time perhaps, the very possibility of tragedy itself has been effaced, replaced perhaps by a succession of farce upon farce.
Over this spectacle of thoroughly dystopic propositions presides the benign figure of the loincloth-clad artist in Man Carrying Halo. Appearing as a vacantly smiling guru-charlatan, a fleshy ascetic with his hand raised in benediction, the bearer of this crude wood-inlay halo is the cipher that unlocks this feast of absurdity. Tallur’s recent work is a series of (proposed) monuments to future obsolescence. Refusing to subscribe to mainstream accounts either of progress or of rebellion, it charts a contrarian course that mocks every platitude and undermines every form of political correctness. The questions it raises are as relevant to the artist as to his audience, and the smiling face of the Man Carrying Halo is only a trite façade that deflects the questions back on to the questioning gaze.
Resolutely catholic in references and materials, Tallur’s recent body of work is characterised by a varied flotsam left behind in the triumphal wake of “the storm of progress” to invoke Benjamin’s meditation on history. Like a purveyor of illicit goods on the black market, Tallur solicits our attention to his phantasms, these irruptions of perversity that the purportedly rational arrangements of the nation-state and global capitalism would like us to forget. If at all it is possible to contemplate a counter-discourse in the form of contemporary art, then Tallur’s work would suggest that it manifests as ghost-in-the-machine, bhootas who refuse to die away, bugs that defy programming, and irregularities that refuse erasure.
“Time and Space died yesterday. We already live in the absolute, because we have created eternal, omnipresent speed”, proclaimed Marinetti in the Manifesto of Futurism in 1909. A century later, Tallur’s work reaffirms the death of future-driven progress. The future is already obsolete. Eternal and omnipresent speed propels us headlong into a chaotic intermingling of conditions where the vernacular and the international commingle in uneasy marriages, and where epiphanies are only to be found stumbled upon in the refuse heapamongst the endlessly accumulating pile of debris.