Monday, April 18, 2011

lights, camera, metaphysics: photography and performance, twice.

Here's the English text for an article I was asked to write last year for Du magazine, which is a Swiss art publication. It appeared there in German, so I doubt they'll mind if I post it here as well... I don't know how to caption photos in blogger. Ugh.

IN the first of the two photographs--both taken one sun-dappled day in the November of 1908, in the garden of his family's old home on Lawrence Road in Lahore—we see Umrao Singh Sher-gil as a young man, his curly beard still dark, his long hair unbound, sitting cross-legged in the image's gray half-tone shadows on an old-fashioned wicker stool in front of the garden wall, where the leaves on autumnal vines grow indistinct as they recede from focus. He's looking down at an unopened book on his lap, but it's obvious that his real gaze is inward. In the second photograph, he sits in a chair with his legs in precisely the same position, the book still in his lap, but the scene has shifted from shadow into sun, and with his hair tied into a Sikh's topknot, he returns our gaze with a stony, austere expression, haloed by a sun-charged sepia-tone wreath of branches and boughs swirling in the air behind him.

Tolstoy famously wrote in 1896 that art "is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings and also experience them." There was a great deal of skepticism among the late Romantics as to whether photography carried the potential for this sort of affective communication—its indexical candor seemed to belong to the world of matter, not spirit. But this two-part series of self-portraits by Sher-gil, titled "Moods of Metaphysical Emotions," makes a game attempt, overwhelming any superficial naturalism with meticulous staging and, in the process, communicating something of the ineffable activity of contemplation, by making visible what is otherwise hidden, and imaging the self in action. And it must be said that looking at this diptych we do indeed get some sense of his melancholic, introspective spirit. If it isn't quite a mirror for the soul, it is at least an interesting experiment, and an early sign of what was to come: Sher-gil's lifelong, amateur photographic documentation of the eccentric family he fathered with his second wife, an opera singer from Hungary by the name of Marie Antoinette.

The artist Vivan Sundaram, who is Umrao Singh Sher-gil's grandson and largely responsible for the revival of interest in this Indian photographic pioneer, has suggested that the reason we don't see many images prior to 1912 and his widowed grandfather's second marriage is either that he destroyed photographs from his first one—a more conventional match, to the daughter of a land-owning Punjabi family much like his own—or, alternatively, that it was his close contact with Marie Antoinette's anxious, European subjectivity that kindled in him the inspiration behind his remarkable career as amateur photographer. Whatever the case, together they embarked on a life recorded on glass plate, stereoscope and film, at first alone and then with their two daughters. One of them, Amrita Sher-gil, became one of India's most renowned modernist painters before her tragic and still-unexplained death at the age of 28. When her father died in 1954, he left behind an archive of intimate and, indeed, metaphysical portraiture: tableaux vivants featuring himself in symbolically charged wardrobe changes, alternately yogi and gentleman and scientist and philosopher; we see his daughters playing dress-up, his wife in costumed cameos in dark wooden interiors. Bound into albums the images demonstrate the radical convergence of the father's eye with the camera's, and the extent of this hybrid being's dramaturgical powers, orchestrating the hidden life of an unusual family of dreamers and artists and making it visible, performed for the lens.

In fact, Sher-gil's preference for the tableau vivant was as much a response to technological requirements as spiritual ones. All photographic portraiture from this early period was, by necessity, staged: the slow shutter speeds of available cameras required that poses be held for relatively long periods of time. To that end, photographers and their subjects drew on existing repertoires of gesture and setting, often from theater and other performance traditions, where painted backdrop, prop and pose were all available for appropriation and redeployment in the strangely intimate new theater of the studio. This is where the specificity of something like early Indian photographic portraiture comes to the fore most clearly; a huge body of early studio photography confirms that in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the boundaries between photograph, theater and painting in India were extremely porous indeed. But, as is evident in Sher-Gil's albums, the staged photograph could serve equally well as a vehicle for the enactment and transcription of more modern, cosmopolitan imaginations. By the time of India's independence, in 1947, the stiff visual codes of 19th century portraiture had absorbed and been transformed by a more heterogeneous array of influences—an inevitable development given the flows of images that accompanied and helped constitute the globalizing world under the aegis of Western imperial power. The popular cultures that developed at the national and regional levels in India during this period took on this heterogeneity of influences and—consciously or otherwise—emerged as powerful, hybrid forms of modern entertainment and social communication.

Umrao Singh Sher-gil was many things, but man of the people was not among them; when the British authorities confiscated his estate for alleged ties to the radical US-based anti-colonial Ghadar Party following World War I, it seems only to have reinforced his predisposition for genteel, impecunious introversion. The popular culture of the Sher-gil household was idiosyncratic to the point of solipsism. The same cannot be said for the photographic worlds of one of Sher-gil's most unlikely photographic legatees, contemporary Bangalore-based artist Pushpamala N, whose chameleonic work draws from a dizzyingly diverse repertoire of visual codes, mining and repurposing her sources: the colonial archive, bourgeois portrait-studio, movie-hall promo shots, religious iconography and theatrical set-design, among many others. Pushpamala herself appears in all of her elaborately choreographed images, but this is no simple self-portraiture: flamboyant costume-changes, melodramatic role-playing and period-piece studio effects push the artist's consistent presence to the point of fracture, as though refracted through multiple, competing prisms.

Where Sher-gil stays at home, Pushpamala is a time-traveler and a nomad, a “phantom lady,” to borrow the title from one of her most influential early series, a “photo-romance” shot in Mumbai in 1998 and exhibited for the first time at the Chemould Gallery there. “Phantom-Lady, or Kismet” consists of a series of twenty-two black-and-white photographs, accompanied by hand-written texts, with a mise-en-scène that draws deeply from the chiaroscuro cool of film noir, and obliquely frames a story about two sisters—both of them played by the artist—set on Mumbai's humid midnight streets. The exhibition marked a significant shift in the career of Pushpamala N, who had trained as a sculptor in the 1980s at what was then perhaps India's single most important institution of arts education, the M S University of Baroda. The influence of her time at Baroda, and particularly her exposure there to the “Narrative School” of painting associated with Baroda luminaries like Bhupen Khakhar and KG Subramanyam is palpable in “Phantom-Lady.” Like Khakhar, Pushpamala pushes at the boundary between high art and kitsch, mixing satire and transgression, making of the city a theater-set where the roles of heroine and victim are never simple, and identity is as much artifice as essence.

If Umrao Singh Sher-gil's tableaux vivant predate the modern photographic turn toward the candid and unstaged, Pushpamala N's contemporary series-based work looks back from the other side of that divide, reappropriating early studio techniques, props and shooting styles in order to create images that refuse to allow us the snapshot's illusion of ingenuous artlessness and immediacy. There is a counter-naturalism to her work: the camera's lens is refigured, set free from its pose of neutrality and impassive transcription. In Pushpamala's work, the camera is the organizing principle for what unfolds before it. Any external reality that it captures has been performed—often with great difficulty—as though for its benefit alone. The stiffly held, costumed body, the dramatic lighting and composition, the over-worked print itself, all remind the viewer that nothing—image, identity, self—comes easy or natural on film. The camera becomes, in her work, not a form of finding oneself, but for fracturing it, for losing it in ecstatic frames of archetype, cliché, mask and mimicry.

An image from Pushpamala N's latest work—a series called Apaharana (“The Abduction”)--shows the artist cinematically framed in what looks like a suspenseful still from a mythological drama. Pushpamala appears as Sita, the wife of one of India's great epic heroes, Lord Ram. In this scene, we see her reflected in a lotus-pond, forlorn and distant, imprisoned in the palace of her abductor, the demon-king Ravana. His mustachioed visage lurks behind her, an arch-criminal entranced by his own capacity for lust-fueled violence, in the thrall of forces beyond his control, unable to consummate his desire for his captive and unable to pull his eyes away. The density of layering in the image mirrors the multiple, contested history of its source material—a twice-told tale at the heart of South Asia's rich narrative tradition—and simultaneously evokes early twentieth-century South Indian regional theater, contemporary cinema and ancient Tamil epic poetry. Pushpamala sits inscrutably at the center, both object and auteur, captive and captor, a goddess of some kind, on film.

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Monday, February 28, 2011

Bidoun #23 Squares » Whirling in the West By Alexander Keefe

Here's the opening of my piece in the most recent Bidoun, an account of the rise, turbulent fall and rebirth of the Dia Art Foundation, told through the eyes of co-founder Sheikha Fariha al-Jerrahi (nee Philippa de Menil)... for the rest please see the link at the break.

By the time the auctioneer’s gavel fell, marking the bankrupt denouement of the Dia Art Foundation’s heroic first decade, the obituaries were already being written. All the elements were in place for what Phoebe Hoban in New York Magazine dubbed “Dallas in SoHo”: an elusive oil-money dynasty in turmoil; a wayward heiress; an archipelago of prime real estate sites, transformed into shrines. There were big egos and even bigger lawsuits, featuring angry titans of the American contemporary art scene, high-flying dreamers suddenly dispossessed by an arts foundation like no other.

Launched under several aliases and in near-secrecy in 1974, Dia was the well-funded lovechild of a German art visionary named Heiner Friedrich and Philippa de Menil, a strikingly beautiful spiritual seeker and youngest scion of the Schlumberger oil fortune. De Menil’s largesse had created a kind of refuge from the speculative market in art then taking shape in New York, and a new canon of monumental, spiritually charged epics: a SoHo gallery floor buried, permanently, with black earth; a hollowed-out volcano, transformed into a science-fictional archaeo-astronomical laboratory for perceptual flight; a Promethean bed of nails poking dangerously into the desert sky, awaiting some gargantuan penitent. Read more!

Monday, August 2, 2010

Ustad Abdul Wahid Khan: Raga Darbari, ca. 1930

There is a shrine in one corner of the current location of La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela's Dream House, at 275 Church Street, in Manhattan's TriBeCa, dedicated to two individuals without whom the Dream House would not exist: their teacher and guru Pandit Pran Nath, and above him, on the wall, one of the few extant photographs of Ustad Abdul Wahid Khan, who was Pandit Pran Nath's own teacher.

But perhaps "teacher" isn't the right word. When Pandit Pran Nath first left home in Lahore, in his early teens, and approached the Ustad, who lived in the same city, he was roundly rejected. Ustad Abdul Wahid Khan, for one thing, was not into taking on Hindu students — he is on record as having objected vocally to his more famous cousin and contemporary Ustad Abdul Karim Khan's unusual practice of accepting Hindu, especially Brahmin students to his innovative neo-gurukul, the Arya Sangeet Vidyalaya, in Poona. For another, he was just extremely old-school and of a markedly quietist Sufi bent: he refused to be recorded (the music in this short clip is from a radio session secretly recorded by a sound engineer at All India Radio in 1947), rarely performed publicly, resisted the modernizing, reformist adaptations and adjustments that Ustad Abdul Karim Khan embraced, and was just a generally thorny individual. Pandit Pran Nath used to say to his students — not without a sense of pride — that the poor hearing he had in one of his ears was due to the beatings that he received regularly during a very rough apprenticeship — one that began with years of menial service to the household and only gradually moved into explicitly musical matters.

Ustad Abdul Wahid Khan's style, like Pandit Pran Nath's, tends toward the epic and glacially slow: he preferred the ati vilambit (or super-slow) and the alap, or unmeasured introductory section to a raga. For singers of the Kirana gharana, the alap section is infused with a deep and esoteric mysticism that, by both its very nature and by the stringent demands of discipleship, is not something that can be or should be discussed openly, on the internet or anywhere else. Sound is God, said Pandit Pran Nath, and that much you may know just from listening to this brief sample of his rendition of the austere, architectonic nighttime raga Darbari. This is precisely the sort of raga that Kirana khayal singers excel at: grave and powerful, and extremely difficult to master — and when mastered capable of delivering intense emotional and physical effects. When I spoke with La Monte Young about my interest in the Kirana gharana, the first question he asked me was whether I had heard the recording of Abdul Wahid Khan from which this is taken. I know he considers it one of the most important recordings ever made by any artist. According to gharana lore, the reclusive Ustad only practiced two ragas: Todi in the morning and Darbari at night, and that when he was asked why, he answered that if morning were to last forever he would drop the Darbari.

Slow tempos, sustained tones, sonic sacrifice to the Unseen, discipleship and soul-shattering aural gnosis? Thank God the sun sets, and night comes. Read more!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

cross-posted from Brown Town: Walter De Maria "Ocean Music" 1968

Walter De Maria: Ocean Music (1968)

This is the first installment of what will be a series of posts to music I listened to during months of researching my piece on Pandit Pran Nath in the current issue of Bidoun. There will be everything from deep dhrupad to raucous No Wave, with much time spent in the middle, not to mention along oxbows and the trackless backwaters... However, no time will be spent linking to file-sharing sites, except in the case of recordings that have passed into the public domain somehow or other. The reason is that I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to many of these artists, sometimes directly and personally, for their help and inspiration. I know that many of them feel stolen from because of the file-sharing that's done by people who, after all, usually are ardent fans of their music. It is a weird paradox. Please support these artists by buying their work! They deserve no less.

I'm starting in medias res--like Dante--and in a peculiar corner that nevertheless invokes, I think in a beautiful and completely trippy way, an entire scene and sensibility. It is something of a prelude to the main event, just to test the engines, although like the "chorister whose c preceded the choir. It was part of the colossal sun." This is Walter De Maria's "Ocean Music" from 1968, available on Ubuweb. De Maria is usually known as the "Lightning Field" guy, and this is understandable because the Lightning Field, from 1978, is incredibly sublime and, in my opinion, is easily one of the most important art works of the post-war era. That said, De Maria did a lot of other very interesting, and completely different things, including his two well-known permanent installations in New York from the late 70s, both of them in Soho: Earth Room, and The Broken Kilometer. What is less well known is that he was also a musician and composer, and came to New York from Berkeley about the same time as his friend La Monte Young, around 1959, did some sculpture and early conceptual works (the term concept art was coined by his friend and sometime band mate Henry Flynt), organized happenings, and performed on drums with the proto-Velvet Underground band called The Primitives, as well as with La Monte's seminal and intense mid-60s group the Theatre of Eternal Music alongside Angus Maclise, Tony Conrad, and John Cale. De Maria's drumming pulses without apparent time meter--achieving a kind of stasis-in-flux that you see in a lot of La Monte's music as well--much more so than Angus Maclise, whose music tends more toward neo-pagan psychedelia and ritual frenzy.

By the time Pandit Pran Nath took up residence in New York, in 1971, De Maria had stopped playing music, but he was part of the same circle, and must have seen him perform many times. Like I said, this is an oblique beginning to the Pandit Pran Nath music series, but I think it is a really great example of where avant-garde music was headed, at least among the New York downtown composers, musicians and artists associated with La Monte Young, just on the eve of Pandit Pran Nath's arrival on the scene.

In "Ocean Music" from 1968, we start with a very mundane, ambient field recording of ocean sounds, but it doesn't linger there long, at least not only there. The sound begins to blend, at first imperceptibly, with De Maria's wash of percussion. Then things start to get fairly psychedelic with some overtones and other apparent effects kicking in and taking it to a whole different place. Like a Hindustani alap, it starts slow but builds in intensity toward a full-on secular re-enchantment, an aesthetically induced state of kenosis, an exhilaration mingled with awe. The music so clearly points at the impending Land Art scene--in which he was about to play a major role--and toward the Earth Room, the first iteration of which was installed in Heiner Friedrich's Munich gallery in 1968, the year of this recording. This was the last sound recording De Maria made, to my knowledge--I would love to find out that I am wrong--and it was used as part of the soundtrack to his 1969 film "Hard Core," a post-Spaghetti Western that itself slowly builds from mundane realia to post-minimalist freakout-- a film that stands quietly alongside, or somewhere between the space-cowboy post-westerns of Jodorowsky and Hellman.

But De Maria is a Thoreauvian at heart, perhaps by way of Wallace Stevens, an American gnostic and desert-rat, a searcher after the effectual Real hidden behind appearances, an advocate of moments of rupture, of earthquake epiphanies and transcendent states of consciousness. His invisibility on the present day art scene is self-imposed and deliberate, but from what I hear he is not a recluse, and he visits the Earth Room regularly in Soho. So should you! I'm writing about his work as part of a forthcoming Bidoun piece--the follow-up to the Pandit Pran Nath profile--an essay that takes on the rise and shattering fall of the first ten years at Dia Art Foundation, from its cryptic founding in 1974 to its very public collapse and rebirth in 1985. Meanwhile, stay tuned for more music!

As usual do not try to: Read more!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Lord of The Drone: Pandit Pran Nath and the American Underground

I have been remiss recently with my clunky dear old blog, but perhaps this will explain why, my just-published story on Pandit Pran Nath for the wonderful folks at Bidoun Magazine, who were kind enough to post it in its entirety online. Please check it, along with some great photos shared by the incomparable La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, at Bidoun's web site. Here's the teaser...

First comes the drone of the sci-fi supercharged tamburas, fluxing and oscillating, too high up in the mix for the bureaucrats and professors at All India Radio, way too high. It’s like the rush of a marsh on a midsummer night with a million crickets, or the howling wind stirring the power lines outside a cabin in backwoods Idaho, or the hushed roar of the stream in front of a hermit’s cave above Dehradun: see the blue-throated god lying there, recumbent and still, his eyes shut, the dangerous corpse of the Overlord waiting for the dancing feet of his bloody, love-mad consort.

Stay tuned for more on this story, including a playlist of the music I listened to for this piece very soon. And I'm researching the follow-up even as you read this, another story for Bidoun on the first ten years of Dia Art Foundation, which funded La Monte Young and Pandit Pran Nath, along with a (very) few others you may have heard of: James Turrell's Roden Crater, Walter De Maria's Lightning Field, Donald Judd's Marfa project, Dan Flavin's one-man museum in Bridgehampton... Time to take a fresh look at this history and the forces behind the stunted version we now have. Stay tuned for more, but as usual do not click the read more link after this... Read more!

Friday, February 26, 2010

crossposted: American avatars, Part 2. Walton Ford's birds.

More stuff cross-posted from Brown Town, where you'll find me posting on occasion nowadays... This here is best seen there, where the image has a caption and the whole thing just looks nicer.

Next stop on the desultory voyage a l'avatar Americain is this huge watercolor by Walton Ford. I was flipping through his recently published super-deluxe Taschen coffeetable raisonné the other day at the public library and was especially struck by Ford's Indophilic early 90s series "Avatars--The Birds of India." The style of the series is the same as what you see elsewhere--retro Audubon-esque, done large on paper, with lots of ersatz marginalia scrawled across it in various scripts and media--and the theme is one he apparently returned to a lot in that decade, a theme I will loosely term: the scourge of Westernization in India. I may be oversimplifying but basically, in this bestiary of his, the allegory runs something like this: the nasty identical-looking starlings who arrive in hordes and fuck, eat, peck at and otherwise exploit beautiful, unique-looking native South Asian birds? Those are either lame tourists or even lamer old Orientalists. The beautiful ones getting ravaged? Well, those would be the natives. (It should be noted that NRIs don't exactly get a free pass--they tend to hang out with starlings, let's put it that way, as do parrot-collaborators.) Where he really nails the theme, however, is in the words: on one side you get the straight native dope (in this one I see some tantric symbols, some Sanskrit, and some earnest-looking all-caps wisdom: what pros in the Indophilia biz simply call "the classic") and on the other, a bit of reductive western claptrap (here a nasty-looking blue jay--allegorically speaking, this is a tour-guide from Minnesota--squawks out bullshit explanatory texts sampled, it would seem, from various outdated surveys of Indian art, culture and society). The vulture and the stork? Don't worry: both authentic natives. Both abound in ancient Sanskrit stories. But that little pink piece of flesh they are fighting over? That's on you, West! Stay home!

Addendum: I almost forgot to add that I came across another Walton Ford recently, not at the library this time, but as the infographic to this Financial Times piece on the Indian art market called "Indians in Trouble." Is this not a weird choice? Read more!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

crossposted: American avatars, the devil and Mr. Jones

More stuff cross-posted from Brown Town, where you'll find me posting on occasion nowadays... This here is best seen there, where the photos have captions.

I am going to burn down the world
I am going to tear down everything that cannot stand alone

There were so many American avatars before Cameron's. Among them: the biweekly underground zine/mouthpiece of the banjo-playing acid-folk pioneer and charismatic hippie cult leader Mel Lyman, self-published between 1967 and 1969 in Boston.

I am going to shove hope up your ass
I am going to turn ideals to shit

The "shadow-Dylan" Lyman was many things, but he was no Indophile: his notion of the avatar comes via many layers of mediation, as part of our shared inheritance that is the Great American Weird, a sepulchral gift from Emerson perhaps. Ultimately, for Lyman and his followers the wisdom of the East was the "Eastern cop-out," no better than the other "false resolutions," no different from what they called the Christian cop-out, the African cop-out, the Humanist cop-out… Lyman's revelations were meant to be as American as acid and Frankie Valli and Benjamin Franklin. It all reminds me of Nietzche, in his final, lunatic days, signing his letters alternately "Dionysus" and "the Crucified One," no longer able to keep them apart. Lyman wanted to be the Avatar of a Bacchic Christ, not of a Krishna.
I am going to reduce everything that stands to rubble
and then I am going to burn the rubble
and then I am going to scatter the ashes
and then maybe someone will be able to see something as it really is

Echt post-Orientalist psychedelia from a megalomaniacal, hipster madman and his maenads:

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