The ‘I’ of the beholder

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WHY DO we look at art? How do artists satisfy viewers? Do they intuitively know what is beautiful? Peak Shift Effect, a show marking 25 years of Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi, tries to answer these questions.
In neuroaesthetics, peak shift effect signifies that an artist can magnify visual stimulus to peak a viewer’s response. An artist picks on the “principle of beauty”, says curator Gayatri Sinha. “Science is recognising now the artist’s natural talent that practitioners have long known. Why do generations of people visit museums to see art objects? Because beauty has a universal quality.” Sinha has tried to adapt the theme to this group show, the first of the three in the Gallery’s roster this year, that hunts for an aesthetic in all aspects of life — domestic, public, death and history. The idea is to see the three floors of the Gallery as an evolving space — the ground floor houses works that play with domesticity, the second floor asks questions of one’s identity in the city, the third has works drawn from history. Yet, what is intriguing in theory fails to transform into practice.
On the ground floor, Hema Upadhyay’s Pedestrian continues with her signature theme of placing her body in her art. The figures running across a carpetsize canvas on the ground are of the artist herself. If you remove them from their patterns, the work fades away. “It questions the elevated status of art. The audience, which at first is a spectator, goes on to become an important part in disintegrating it,” says Upadhyay.
On the walls, there are breathtaking pictures by Sunil Gupta, a photographer known for shooting the LGBT community in the most candid manner. Here, the life of two gay men is documented through hats, formal tuxedoes, close-ups and a classic noir setting. One of the finest shots is Film Noir Angels, where halfnaked men look down in a queenly manner from a balcony. Says artist Atul Bhalla, “The objects in the room are intimate. You have to approach them to interact.” The two frames of his diptych Two Chairs in Johannesburg show the same chair with small differences. Bhalla calls this “an exaggeration of still life”.
Exaggeration takes a different form in Shilpa Gupta’s print-on-mirror work I Look At Things With Eyes Different From Yours, which is meant to be an anchor for the room. However, it fails to impact. Placing a mirror right at the centre of the room seems too literal an exercise to blur the lines between the viewer and the viewed, and does not raise questions of audience participation in art.
The first floor opens up thematically to city spaces. Praneet Soi’s acrylic on canvas Sliding Ground poses questions — are the displayed bodies male or female? Is the concern gender, sex or violence? “I collect my images from media reports. I talk about how the city stamps out the identity of a fallen body,” says Soi. Abir Karmakar’s Porno Painting series looks at a hotel room from different angles. Exquisitely detailed, it is unsettling in its implied voyeurism. Ordinary urban haunts bec ome murky spaces threatening identity and privacy. Karmakar’s skill as a painter is absolute. “It evokes a mix of vertigo and voyeurism,” says Sinha.
The second floor’s centrepiece is Riyas Komu’s intricately detailed wood sculpture Safe to Light. On one end is a handpump and on the other, a world map carving, evoking scientific progress through history. Komu has recreated an ancient Iranian apparatus used to draw oil, while the map gives it a contemporary context of oil wars. Jagannath Panda’s references to Indian history, though, get lost in their minimalism. Why is a Mughal astride a horse kicking a pig? What does a collage of a butterfly, a lamp-post and an Aladdin-esque lamp mean? It is frus tratingly spare, as if the artist forgot to leave in the next clue.
The works range from stunning to baffling, but there is no significant departure from trends in contemporary Indian art. Critic Meera Menezes says that Atul Bhalla’s works are “poetic” and Mithu Sen’s installation Cannibal Lullaby gives “beauty to macabre”, but “I can’t seem to join the dots of the larger curatorial concept”. As a curator, Sinha asks: “How do artists respond to our turbulent tim es?” Most contemporary artists already engage with social realities on canvas. This show, though enjoyable and at times challenging, fails to go beyond.
On till 2 March at the Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi
Aradhna Wal is a Sub Editor with Tehelka.