Tallur L.N.: Material as Metaphor


by Joao Ribas

Pictures are hardly ever worth their proverbial thousand words: there is an inherent inappropriateness, a totalizing absurdity, in the attempt at such translation, in the very heresy of that paraphrase. Not a thousand, nor a few, not an infinite, nor perhaps any words. Rather, it is the slippage between what can be said and what is represented or meant—in that chasm between word and thing standing as the horizon of meaning---that elides the brute facticity of the world into the most vivid images of it.

Such inexpressibility is of course at the core of the phenomenon of metaphor, in an echo of its Greek origin: meaning to transport, or transfer, as in the transfer of the meaning of a word to another, the two semantically linked by a poetic logic of resemblance. As Coleridge put it, it is precisely through such rhetorical tropes that the imagination fuses the opposite and discordant, arriving at the resonance in which, as paradox, an evocative combination nevertheless produces meaning that has the character of a discovery. So we “trespass on sentences that ash has muffled,” ever in the expectation of the singular clamor of new thought . True to such resonance, in modern Greek, mass transit vehicles are called metaphorai; one has to take a metaphor to get somewhere.

In the history of postwar art, this manifests itself as the return of the repressed, in the form of the inevitable presence of metaphoric resonance even in its deliberate suppression. The most evident example is that of Minimalism reduction. The degree zero of literalism, its clarity of form, simplicity of structure, and anticompositional stratagem, enacts a gesture towards the constitutive metaphoric potential inherent in material (not least of all in light and language.) Perhaps form cannot help but evoke, as material cannot but metaphorize itself.

This possibility, repressed in the formalist postulates of reductivism, speaks to an archaic, noumenal, or even totemic character of form, the numinous nature to the objects of human labor by which they are given a sense of immanence, of being wholly ‘other’. As Marx writes early in the pages of Kapital:

The form of wood is altered if a table is made out of it. Nevertheless the table continues to be wood, an ordinary, sensuous thing, But as soon as it emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing which transcends sensuousness. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing of its own free will.

In this sense, form becomes a sensuous thing that is supra-sensible yet social (in the sense of the social relations imbedded in commodity form), material yet metaphoric—even if anachronistic in a society that renders such potential immanence meaningless, not to mention useless.

Yet the impossibility of its translation is always-already twofold. It is not only semantic but cultural, existing in a linguistic field and a socius which escapes both our feeble attempts at circumscribing the infinitude of meaning---that neurosis in language that tries to delimit itself--but in the very substance of its meaning in context. The metaphoric trope suppressed in minimalism, for example, barely masks its peculiar specificity; similarly, a cigar, in its Victorian tumescence, is always and never just that. This is all the more so when the symbolic field is syncretic, abutting the local and the global, the modern and the archaic, the metaphoric and the material.

Such syncreticism is of course antinomic to the premise of modernity. One of the more enervating yet defining aspects of modernism is that it should be so normative in attitude, to the point of self-selecting. Tendencies and attitudes were made inimical that, in hindsight, appear productive by their union; and so in place of a kind of homespun syncretism, say between regionalism and formalism, a putative narrative of increasing specificity took root. This amounted to a reductive and largely academic reductivism, emphasizing qualities like the two-dimensionality of the picture plane and turning flatness, purity, and literality into fetish objects. But such a dogged orthodoxy is never content to simply propose norms. Rather, this type of modernism looked to sweep aside, dismiss, or disparage anything deemed antithetical to its internal teleology: read, the local.

That is, it seems, until the emergence of the postcolonial. As the material analogue of allegory is the ‘ruin’, so the postcolonial metaphor par excellence may be anthropofagia: or how the configuration of identity is enacted in a symbolic practice – that of cannibalism – in which the value of the Other is consumed to construct its own. This abiding metaphor is perhaps central to a signal issue within the logic of late capitalism: the place of autochthonous cultural forms within the development of globalization—that is the very cannibalistic character of capitalist accumulation.

The work of Indian artist Tallur L.N. functions precisely within such complex notions of translation, metaphor, and locality, in which cultural production contends with the intersection of vernacular tropes and their symbolic field, and their implicit displacement in the circulation of global capital. Central to his practice has thus been the symbolic economy of the local, the translation of a material culture itself in transition—the notion of Indian cultural identity a syncretic, multivalent, and shifting notion historically---into a sculptural language defined by such a metaphoric structure of difference:

To reconstitute the discourse of cultural difference demands not simply a change of cultural contents….It requires a new revision of the social temporality in which emergent histories may be written, the articulation of the “sign” in which cultural identities may be inscribed .

Tallur approaches this transculturation through the use of literal object matter---solid metaphors of a sort---as sculptural material, with an attention to what Rilke called “the silence of their concentrated reality.” As such, an object within a symbolic field is transformed into an object of aesthetic labor within a new regime of signification, through a metaphoric change to the material object itself. This is the key to the termite eaten wood in the votive sculpture of Alzheimer’s, (2006) or the transportable, inflatable Lingam of Made in England (2002).

Thus, in Tallur’s work, traditional and contemporary Indian symbols are present, mutatis mutandis: the elephant, the jute grain sacks, Nandi figures, etc. The two current prevalent metaphors in his work are the digestive system---an anthropomorphic metaphor of decay and consumption---and the souvenir, itself a kind of consumption of place and culture. In Souvenir Maker, 2008, viewers are invited to operate a barbed wire making machine—producing a technology designed to assert property and boundary---to create a souvenir in the form of Indian milk bottles used to preserve gold colored barbered wires. Tallur’s abject assemble of Digesting System mines the metaphor of consumption through its literal and metaphoric overtones of the body—in the same way the autochthonous can be said to be digested through the reterritorializations of capital.

It is precisely here that the productive power of the untranslatable returns, enforcing the way, in the words of Henri Lefebvre, “the worldwide does not abolish the local.” Tallur’s work evinces how material, meaning, and metaphor can perhaps never be fully consumed, much as words, even in their plenitude, can never do justice to the image.

Pictures are hardly ever worth their proverbial thousand words: there is an inherent inappropriateness, a totalizing absurdity, in the attempt at such translation, in the very heresy of that paraphrase. Not a thousand, nor a few, not an infinite, nor perhaps any words. Rather, it is the slippage between what can be said and what is represented or meant—in that chasm between word and thing standing as the horizon of meaning---that elides the brute facticity of the world into the most vivid images of it.

Such inexpressibility is of course at the core of the phenomenon of metaphor, in an echo of its Greek origin: meaning to transport, or transfer, as in the transfer of the meaning of a word to another, the two semantically linked by a poetic logic of resemblance. As Coleridge put it, it is precisely through such rhetorical tropes that the imagination fuses the opposite and discordant, arriving at the resonance in which, as paradox, an evocative combination nevertheless produces meaning that has the character of a discovery. So we “trespass on sentences that ash has muffled,” ever in the expectation of the singular clamor of new thought . True to such resonance, in modern Greek, mass transit vehicles are called metaphorai; one has to take a metaphor to get somewhere.

In the history of postwar art, this manifests itself as the return of the repressed, in the form of the inevitable presence of metaphoric resonance even in its deliberate suppression. The most evident example is that of Minimalism reduction. The degree zero of literalism, its clarity of form, simplicity of structure, and anticompositional stratagem, enacts a gesture towards the constitutive metaphoric potential inherent in material (not least of all in light and language.) Perhaps form cannot help but evoke, as material cannot but metaphorize itself.

This possibility, repressed in the formalist postulates of reductivism, speaks to an archaic, noumenal, or even totemic character of form, the numinous nature to the objects of human labor by which they are given a sense of immanence, of being wholly ‘other’. As Marx writes early in the pages of Kapital:

The form of wood is altered if a table is made out of it. Nevertheless the table continues to be wood, an ordinary, sensuous thing, But as soon as it emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing which transcends sensuousness. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing of its own free will.

In this sense, form becomes a sensuous thing that is supra-sensible yet social (in the sense of the social relations imbedded in commodity form), material yet metaphoric—even if anachronistic in a society that renders such potential immanence meaningless, not to mention useless.

Yet the impossibility of its translation is always-already twofold. It is not only semantic but cultural, existing in a linguistic field and a socius which escapes both our feeble attempts at circumscribing the infinitude of meaning---that neurosis in language that tries to delimit itself--but in the very substance of its meaning in context. The metaphoric trope suppressed in minimalism, for example, barely masks its peculiar specificity; similarly, a cigar, in its Victorian tumescence, is always and never just that. This is all the more so when the symbolic field is syncretic, abutting the local and the global, the modern and the archaic, the metaphoric and the material.

Such syncreticism is of course antinomic to the premise of modernity. One of the more enervating yet defining aspects of modernism is that it should be so normative in attitude, to the point of self-selecting. Tendencies and attitudes were made inimical that, in hindsight, appear productive by their union; and so in place of a kind of homespun syncretism, say between regionalism and formalism, a putative narrative of increasing specificity took root. This amounted to a reductive and largely academic reductivism, emphasizing qualities like the two-dimensionality of the picture plane and turning flatness, purity, and literality into fetish objects. But such a dogged orthodoxy is never content to simply propose norms. Rather, this type of modernism looked to sweep aside, dismiss, or disparage anything deemed antithetical to its internal teleology: read, the local.

That is, it seems, until the emergence of the postcolonial. As the material analogue of allegory is the ‘ruin’, so the postcolonial metaphor par excellence may be anthropofagia: or how the configuration of identity is enacted in a symbolic practice – that of cannibalism – in which the value of the Other is consumed to construct its own. This abiding metaphor is perhaps central to a signal issue within the logic of late capitalism: the place of autochthonous cultural forms within the development of globalization—that is the very cannibalistic character of capitalist accumulation.
The work of Indian artist Tallur L.N. functions precisely within such complex notions of translation, metaphor, and locality, in which cultural production contends with the intersection of vernacular tropes and their symbolic field, and their implicit displacement in the circulation of global capital. Central to his practice has thus been the symbolic economy of the local, the translation of a material culture itself in transition—the notion of Indian cultural identity a syncretic, multivalent, and shifting notion historically---into a sculptural language defined by such a metaphoric structure of difference:

To reconstitute the discourse of cultural difference demands not simply a change of cultural contents….It requires a new revision of the social temporality in which emergent histories may be written, the articulation of the “sign” in which cultural identities may be inscribed.

Tallur approaches this transculturation through the use of literal object matter---solid metaphors of a sort---as sculptural material, with an attention to what Rilke called “the silence of their concentrated reality.” As such, an object within a symbolic field is transformed into an object of aesthetic labor within a new regime of signification, through a metaphoric change to the material object itself. This is the key to the termite eaten wood in the votive sculpture of Alzheimer’s, (2006) or the transportable, inflatable Lingam of Made in England (2002).

Thus, in Tallur’s work, traditional and contemporary Indian symbols are present, mutatis mutandis: the elephant, the jute grain sacks, Nandi figures, etc. The two current prevalent metaphors in his work are the digestive system---an anthropomorphic metaphor of decay and consumption---and the souvenir, itself a kind of consumption of place and culture. In Souvenir Maker, 2008, viewers are invited to operate a barbed wire making machine—producing a technology designed to assert property and boundary---to create a souvenir in the form of Indian milk bottles used to preserve gold colored barbered wires. Tallur’s abject assemble of Digesting System mines the metaphor of consumption through its literal and metaphoric overtones of the body—in the same way the autochthonous can be said to be digested through the reterritorializations of capital.

It is precisely here that the productive power of the untranslatable returns, enforcing the way, in the words of Henri Lefebvre, “the worldwide does not abolish the local.” Tallur’s work evinces how material, meaning, and metaphor can perhaps never be fully consumed, much as words, even in their plenitude, can never do justice to the image.



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