Strategies of Survival in the Age of Surrender

Strategies of Survival in the Age of Surrender

Geeta Kapur dwells on some of the key tactics employed by artists to enable political interventions
as she examines Tushar Joag’s multi-registerial projects, performances and drawings.

Justice League at Andheri

WITH NO PREFATORY DEFENSE FOR RELATING AESTHETICS with politics, I propose in shorthand three categories for consideration: Viewed historically, the generic mode for political art has been representational involving a self-conscious development of mimesis into realism.1 The aesthetic of representation is directly matched with representational politics, meaning democratic advocacy, wherein material rights of the citizenry are to be accompanied with the realization of ‘potential consciousness’2 by each individual in the desired social order.

Representational art and its generic form, realism, are at the same time challenged in its pre-eminence by more interventionist forms of enquiry, critique and resistance by artists in the 20th century. This is the vanguard mode as conceived within the revolutionary politics of Soviet Union in the 1920s. Consider the conceptual-collectivist styles of address invented by the Constructivists and by the filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. These remain the bedrock of all subsequent discussions on vanguardism – it is the historical avant-garde – though the term has greater flexibility now. Consider, further, the redoubtable Brecht and the legacy of his theory of alienation; and consider at the other end of the avantgarde spectrum, Duchamp and his subversion of the very institution of art. And consider, then, how these legacies, re-worked in the radical 1960s and diversified to leap beyond the modernistavantgarde binary, stake new claims for art-as-praxis.

The third, more recent category of what might be called political art is based on a participatory ethics, jointly shaped by artists, collaborators, audiences. Rather than the dialectically spelt antagonism of avantgarde art, participatory art practices take an anthropological turn, privileging a communitarian basis for aesthetics and introducing another kind of contextual discourse in art.

Modern Indian artists seeking political articulation have usually adopted the realist (/expressionist) language. Since the 1990s, different styles of intervention and, recently, more participatory modes have come to be practised. Available art-historical options, directed to praxiological ambitions, define an artist’s unique purpose: the consequent politics may be anticipatory – forecasting change; it may be rhetorical – escalating the message to a persuasive pitch; and it may be serviceable in that the artwork expressly serves a chosen cause.

For a moment, imagine Tushar Joag placed between the ‘last’ of our realist painters, Sudhir Patwardhan, whose representational ethics and compassionate rendering of the working class is duly honoured; and the ‘first’ of our vanguard documentary filmmakers, Anand Patwardhan who, driven to subaltern causes and activist movements, develops a film-form premised on praxis. This curious placement for Tushar serves something of a tendentious purpose. When Tushar comes into the Indian art scene, Sudhir Patwardhan’s work endures admirably, but the realist genre is over. Tushar, for his part, offers a surface-transfer of narrative interests – a comic-book storyboard that plays the representational idioms with popular, parodic, messages of a Crash! Bang! Win! Lose! variety.3 His drawings are rudimentary, caricatural: assuming the voice of a mocking alien, he offers pennyprint allegories on the state of public affairs, and even smuggles in private (sado-masochistic) forms of fetishisms to ‘cure’ the diseased body-politic – about which more later. As for the vanguardist praxis after Anand Patwardhan, the younger artist must envy such unflinching conviction, but given contemporary circumstance he, Tushar, adopts an altogether different stance. He is a chimerical player, symbolically subverting the game-plan of a (political) mafia; and he enacts this role in swift relays of entry and exit – tactics borrowed from guerrilla-style activism, citizens forced into fugitive roles, artists operating in the margins of high art. So, if I propose this odd inbetween- ness, it is to accommodate a hybrid style of political art – one that will fall short of the canonical definitions senior artists (modernists/realists, on the one hand, and avantgarde practitioners, on the other) can claim. And, yet: hybridity, a sign of our times, opens up the relationship between art and politics to some new possibilities.

Within my schema, Tushar is best styled as an interventionist – the one who might ride rough-shod over intersubjective concerns that the communitarian artist privileges; the one who deploys broad gestures, pitching into the public domain with an antagonist edge. Tushar’s art practice involves creating, rupturing, demonstrating the efficacy of a ‘situation’,4 meaning not only an artwork’s site-specificity, its locality, but the precise conjuncture where a suspended configuration of possibilities comes into focus. And where the artist-activist, repudiating the given situation, constructs in the utopian imaginary – an alternative situation. Tushar, dodging the (difficult) choice between sovereignty and solidarity, wins the badge of an enabling agent within already ongoing social movements – non-government, non-Party organizations, engaged in transforming the more organic communities into collectivities with a political voice.

Drawing energy from subaltern struggles that are once again at the fulcrum of Indian politics, Tushar joins hands with groups and movements working to empower ordinary citizens dispossessed by corporate regimes as also by the (Indian) state – now compromised to negotiate its once-progressive policies (the developing/ developmental economy) in favour of global capital. The very terms on which Tushar sets up and stages his role as artist/activist/organizer/curator, presupposes that the situational dynamic will, in fact, exceed the limits of an artist’s, of Tushar’s, own practice.

Tushar has engaged with initiatives/resistances from within his activist group, Open Circle (1999-2008),5 and singly, in the capacity of a ‘CEO’ of Unicell (2005), a fictitious one-man company undertaking public works of a fantastical/farcical variety.6 He has produced images and strategies to illustrate and oppose the trauma of ‘slum’ demolitions in Bombay (exposing the real estate interests camouflaged as civic needs), and placed this in the larger context of urban and rural displacement, camouflaged by the rubric of development. One of the greatest instances of displacement being the Sardar Sarovar Dam, and the chain of dams planned to be built in the Narmada Valley, Tushar has participated over several years in the ongoing struggle (the Narmada Bachao Andolan). More recently, he initiated a collective project, shown as work-in-progress in Kolkata, titled SEZ Who? (referring to consequences of the Special Economic Zones, a tie-up between India’s neo-liberal government and the corporate sector).7 With Majlis (a Bombay-based research and resource forum for radical art and social action), he has conceived and organized artists’ exhibitions, installations, performances for the World Social Forum.8 Even as WSF mounts cumulative protests against all forms of exploitation – and especially in the agricultural sector by exposing how third world peasantry is pauperized by neo-imperialist graft – it also celebrates world-wide solidarity against global capital. The one aspect demands investigative artworks, the other invites the carnivalesque, and Tushar with his artist-teams works with both aspects. Social and political movements require popularizing campaigns, communicational strategies, survival kits and, not least, symbolic acts of aesthetic and discursive significance by members and comrades, including documentarists, journalists, scholars, artists. Tushar belongs here and follows each brief with supporting texts.

Tushar Joag. SEZ Who? Installation view. 2009.

The straightforward connections for Tushar’s work (with and without Open Circle, through and beyond his mock Unicell) are to be made with other artist-activist platforms, such as the Delhi-based SAHMAT, with its long-sustained ‘Artists Against Communalism’ campaign (and art practitioners like Vivan Sundaram and Ram Rahman working as its core ‘curators’)9; Bombay’s Majlis, set up by the filmmaker, Madhusree Dutta, and feminist lawyer, Flavia Agnes10; the more recent Periferry, in Guwahati, run by filmmakers, Mriganka Madhukaillya and Sonal Jain.11 Individuals whose art practice continues to overlap with Tushar’s include his artist-wife, Sharmila Samant (founder-trustee and longest working member/coordinator of Open Circle); the tech-savvy, high-flying Shilpa Gupta (also a member of Open Circle at its inception), and Inder Salim – performer-provocateur, blogger – working frugally in liminal spaces.

A morally charged romanticist with doom in his heart and magic at his command, Tushar does many things that are willfully contrary. As an artist he has always courted the surrealist language; his sculptural production is conspicuously fetishistic; a cache of bizarre playthings erupts from his ejected/projected anxiety. How he then ‘utilizes’ these gadgets, how he lines them up for mock-drills in ‘crisis management’, gives us a measure of his artistic ingenuity. His Commuter Attachment Systems (CAS, 2005), is an elaborate kit of clasping/grasping devices designed for desperate commuters on Bombay’s local trains (with a footwork choreography conceptualized for quick manouvre). His Street Vendors Mimetic Scheme (2005-07) offers an object-masquerade (with a suite of performative drawings) for street vendors harassed by the police. He has drawn up floatation devices for humans and cattle, likely to drown in the rising flood-waters of the Narmada. Contrariwise, he proposed, in 2005, that Bombay be converted into a Venice of the East, where a canal system stretching from Goregaon to Colaba would facilitate the navigation of the working population across the choked city. To this purpose he, as CEO of Unicell, hand-delivered with his ‘staff’, 6,000 eviction notices to residents of middle/upper middle-class colonies, receiving numerous replies, both bewildered and enraged.

Tushar Joag. SEZ Who? Installation view. 2009.