Monday, May 25, 2009
Kiran Subbaiah's Suicide Note
The warm reception accorded to Kiran Subbaiah's body of sculptural objects has led gallery Chatterjee&Lal to follow up the artist's solo show with a sequel titled Sleepwalker Daydream Part II, consisting of video and new media work.
The new show is full of interesting stuff, including two interactive creations, but the stand-out effort is undoubtedly Subbaiah's 2006 video, Suicide Note. I'd heard good things about it before, but saw it for the first time last week, and can confidently state it is the most accomplished work in video by an Indian artist that I have viewed till date. Here, finally is someone who can use creatively both the language of video and the language he speaks. I've often argued at conferences and in informal discussions about language being a central problem in Indian media art. Unlike painting and sculpture, which are purely visual, media art frequently incorporates text. In my experience, Indian artists are normally wanting in that department (they are also normally inept in their handling of video, but that's a different story). Whenever I've raised the issue of language, artists as well as fellow critics have usually reacted with politically correct outrage, or else dismissed the issue as insignificant. International curators, too, have been happy to select work based on its politics rather than its command of the medium. Subbaiah's resonant, ironic commentary is a crucial component of the work and adds immeasurably to the texture of the finished product, which ought to be the case in all video art.
Suicide Note is a poetic and comical meditation on life, death and art. The artist casts a cold eye over his field, extending from one of the earliest artworks created by humankind, the 25,000-year-old Venus of Willendorf, to very contemporary trends. The video projector screening Suicide Note is placed on a base that periodically swivels to shift the image to a different spot on a panoramic screen, mimicking a three-channel work. The deity presiding over the 25 minute exercise is Marcel Duchamp, who famously exhibited a urinal signed R.Mutt. Subbaiah echoes that revolutionary act by making a believable sculpture out of a toilet brush and signing it K.Subb.
Critics and curators have not yet given Subbaiah the attention he deserves. That's because his sculpture and video contain nothing identifiably Indian, nor do they engage with hot button political issues like globalisation, sectarian violence and sexual orientation. Hopefully, with Thomas Erben in New York and Chatterjee & Lal in Bombay promoting his work, he will gradually make it to the top tier of Indian art where he clearly belongs.