A conscience in pursuit of an elusive revolution

A conscience in pursuit of an elusive revolution

Chaitanya Sambrani remembers Tushar Joag (1966-2018) and his exceptional work.

… art cannot on its own bring about societal changes – not without a political revolution – but an atmosphere conducive to such a political revolution can only be created by the questions that are raised in the ideological/cultural sphere. Art is responsible for maintaining cultural continuity as well as providing ruptures that bring a fresh outlook through its questioning of the present.

— Tushar Joag, statement from unicellpwc.org (website now defunct)

Tushar Joag. (Background) Riding Rocinante: From Bombay to Shanghai via Sardar Sarovar and the Three Gorges. Maps, motorcycle spare parts, tools.
Dimensions variable. 2010. (Foreground) The Realisation of Kanthaka. Sculptural installation. 152.4 cms x 100 cms x 365 cms. 2010.
Photographs by Thomas Fuesser, West Heavens project.

The bewildering passing of Tushar Joag on the 18th of December 2018 has prompted questions that begin to seem trite and hackneyed even as they are articulated: we ponder the fragility of life and meditate on mortality as the bond that ties us together above all others. We remind ourselves to be kind to others in our lives, to hold them close and never to part in anger. Clichés, perhaps, but nonetheless true. And so very easy to forget in our self-propelled descent into the trappings of the world. What happens when a consciousness suddenly departs from within our midst, especially when that consciousness is articulated with such passion and is complex and conflicted in equal measure? To those who knew him well, Tushar could be gregarious as well as sullen, as generous in caring for people and things he loved as he was obstinate in opposing what he saw as wrong. He was as given to the passionate embrace of unconditional comradeship as he was susceptible to crippling, isolating doubt and mistrust. It is too early to offer an art historical assessment of Tushar Joag’s work; the best I can do at this point is to share some insights into his public persona and his private being, to speak about the triumphs and travails of a fierce conscience in pursuit of revolutionary transformation.

As artist, activist, educator and ‘public interventionist’, Tushar was no stranger to what he saw as the inherent contradictions of a politically committed art practice. The professional artist must make a living from the products of creative labour. And yet, this living is dependent on the mercies of an art market that is at best well-meaning and more frequently in pursuit of economic and political agenda that are in direct opposition to the transformative aspirations of ‘political’ art. He was also well aware of the price that is often paid by the integrity of the art practice if it is wedded to a facile reiteration of sloganistic pronouncements. Throughout his career, Tushar Joag grappled with this double-horned dilemma. The personal and the professional in his case were separated by the thinnest and most porous of membranes.

The experience of displacement was a vital factor in shaping Tushar’s subjectivity, as has been true of many other artists and intellectuals. The experience of being a recipient of the largesse of a ‘First World’ location (and the inevitable connection of its wealth with colonial exploitation) resulted in his sense of righteousness becoming galvanised into an exploration of the causes of injustice. Spending two years (1998-2000) in the supportive and comfortable atmosphere of the Rijksakademie van beeldende kunsten (Royal Academy of Fine Arts) in Amsterdam resulted in him presenting a ‘closed’ studio at the Open Studios event intended to celebrate the achievements of resident artists. In the ensuing period of utter disenchantment with the art world, he destroyed most of his own work and whatever documentation he could find.

Tushar’s career as an artist was not straightforward in any conventional sense. Having completed his Master’s degree at the Faculty of Fine Arts, Baroda, in 1990, it would be 15 years before he had his first solo exhibition (Willing Suspension at Gallery Chemould in 2005). He refused to chase the self-affirmation of the solo show until conditions were right, and until he had something worthwhile and cogent to say. In the meanwhile, he undertook two residencies of two years each (Kanoria Centre, Ahmedabad, and Rijksakademie), taught and conducted workshops for students of art and architecture, and participated in over 20 group exhibitions in India, England, Pakistan, Sweden, Cuba, Korea and Australia. The majority of projects Tushar participated in were built out of a sense of shared purpose. The most famous of these is Open Circle, which he co-founded in 1998. Via Open Circle, he helped foster a range of activities ranging from workshops for artists from India and overseas (funded by the Rijksakademie International Network RAIN) to collaborations with the World Social Forum. In one way or another, each of these projects fed into his ongoing quest for an art practice that would complete the circle between the demands of his conscience and the imperatives posed by economic and political conditions in India and overseas.

Tushar remained relentless in his quest to expose the absurdity and venality of government and corporate administrative machinations. He saw the state and multinational capitalism working in tandem, complicit in global systems that pursued power and wealth through repression and dispossession. With his invention of Unicell Public Works Cell in 2004, he undertook a series of role-plays, disguising himself as entrepreneur, inventor, planner, engineer and bureaucrat. Unicell enacted futile pursuits such as Looking for Flora (2005), when the now-renamed Flora Fountain in South Bombay became a fleeting ghost of unrequited desire and unresolved history even as a lightweight replica of the edifice journeyed north to south along the city’s malls, parks and beaches. Joag produced fake schemes for urban transformation (Venice of the East), produced streamlined (and entirely useless) choreographies and comical suction devices to ease the daily hazards of commuting (Commuter Attachment System), constructed prototypes for mutable vending stalls that turn into street furniture (Street Vendors’ Mimetic Scheme), produced drawings, posters, digital graphic images and grandiose sculptures mimicking and mocking the construction and destruction of monuments.

Tushar Joag Riding Rocinante: From Bombay to Shanghai via Sardar Sarovar and the Three Gorges (Detail). Maps, motorcycle spare parts, tools. Dimensions variable. 2010. HOMAGE

Through these myriad pursuits, relatively little was produced by way of commercially viable work, and the sparse sales of his work frequently amounted to a fraction of those from other contemporaries, which never ceased to trouble his mind. Things were often tight, but Tushar and Sharmila’s home remained a venue for many long and loud feasts. He even took jobs working as a designer and maker of sets for the film and wedding industries. He knew parenting to be serious business, and took it very seriously, cuddling and cajoling his children into doing the right thing, and never letting on that it was in fact they who had him wrapped around their little fingers. Meanwhile, his artistic persona became more and more that of a man possessed by forces far greater than himself. He would glow white-hot with outrage and disgust at corruption and injustice even as he sought to remain fully engaged in the children’s daily homework. His missionary zeal was sometimes amiss in the contemporary art world, large parts of which he perceived as being built on hubris, grandstanding and duplicity.

Tushar projected an amiable, articulate and confident persona, comfortable in a gentle virility. And yet, underneath all this was a deeply sensitive individual who took things so seriously that they became a consuming compulsion. In 2011, he undertook a durational performance titled Right to Dissent in which he locked himself up in a tiny cubicle for six days and nights filling notebook after notebook with a dogged refusal to lose faith in the Indian judiciary and democracy. Sometimes, Quixotic ambition and the willingness to undertake risks had become central to his art practice of social intervention over the last decade of his life and career. Invited to participate in the inaugural contemporary art exchange and exhibition between Chinese and Indian artists, he came up with a seemingly preposterous idea: he would acquire a motorcycle (after 23 years of not having ridden one) and ride it from Bombay to Shanghai via the Sardar Sarovar scheme on the Narmada and the Three Gorges dam complex on the Yangtze. Producing an exhibitable work for the show would be a matter of improvisation if and when he had finished the odyssey. Crossing all kinds of terrain from sweltering plains, blazing deserts, landslide-hit mountain passes and sub-zero temperatures, he did make it to Shanghai in 53 days, and then proceeded to produce a room-sized sculptural installation made from his maps, tools, clothing and the dismantled motorcycle and sidecar. Self-consciously invoking the variously fabled journeys of Siddhartha Gautama, Faxian, Xuanzang, Don Quixote and Che Guevara, he undertook his own journey towards realisation and reconciliation.

Living and working in Noida and Delhi since 2013, Tushar Joag’s work as academic, teacher and mentor brought him into close community with a range of people: schoolchildren and their teachers, art students, activists, curators and fellow artists, and dreamers chasing the possibility of a better world. He seemed always to be on the brink of the next big undertaking, wholly investing body and soul, plunging heedless of consequence into the next chasm that needed crossing. He was aware that some of his pursuits were Icarian, but this did not stop him burning the candle at both ends, until the end. The conscience blazed bright, no matter how elusive the revolution.

Though Utopia remains somewhere in the background of the whole endeavour it remains a malfunctioning effort — Tushar Joag (UnicellPWC)