When Philosophy animates Art
If you think art has a responsibility to locate itself in history or contextual ‘relevance,’ be it socio-economic or autobiographical; it’s time to think twice. It’s true that some form of art addresses purely formal concerns, devoid of social and historical context, but Sabyasachi Mullick’s recent works strive to set art free from serving even such aesthetic duties just as much as they refuse to be commentaries on human condition delimited by history and society.
At this precise point evolves the paradox. Is it not itself a duty to emancipate art from the confines of ‘duties?’ Mullick’s recent solo exhibition at Noti Binodini Gallery, titled Scaling the Immaterial, claims its first share of novelty by posing this question to the viewer. It is said every good art must have its own philosophy. Mullick’s oeuvre, as curated by Sadhana Naskar, in the exhibition gives this assumption a radical turn by making philosophy-proper the very object of art. Rather than ‘having’ a philosophy, the works are about philosophy in the literal sense. But the task is tougher than it sounds, for the kind of philosophy he deals with is not some intuition-based ideas about life, ethics, and human behaviour. The works operate within a rather strict rational framework realized through rigorous yet imaginative discipline. The area of focus of the artist is hardcore metaphysics or loosely put the philosophy of all what is.
To accomplish the task the artist has complemented his material pieces of installation with theoretical essays, all complied in his second book The Leavened Mind and Other Essays. As each of the eight installations has been accompanied by its complementary essay, the artist declares his works to be composite pieces of texts and material pieces of installation and video. The brilliant approach of treating visual art as a composite form of impersonal philosophical writing and physical pieces of installation earns the artist a recognition of rare originality.
Today every bit of the world we live in is pervaded by technology. The glimpse of reality that our myopic vision catches consists nothing but matter. Thus, the embrace of perverse materialism takes its toll by muddling up our natural inquisitiveness and thought. At this juncture, the artist sets himself a difficult task, of cleansing thought by questioning the supposedly materialistic nature of reality without falling prey of spiritualism and mysticism. The works purport to demonstrate neither spiritualism – as it is commonly understood – nor mysticism is required in order to scrape off the veneer which we took to be the absolute nature of reality. The material existence of things and events are not meant to be denied, rather the question is whether it is possible to comprehend the strange, intangible heart of familiar reality through physical matter itself. This act of peeling the layers of reality like an onion justifies the title of the show Scaling the Immaterial. The artist makes a grand display of his power of imagination to make the project a success. The works hit the bull’s eye by posing the reality of experience as constituting the heart of consciousness. What they vastly refer to are scientific facts, but the treatment is purely conceptual, reinforced by logic. The result is a critique of present-day scientific attitude.
To mention the most ambitious work of the show, The Leavened Mind comes up with the thesis that consciousness or the capacity of experience is present to some extent in each and every physical thing, be it living or non-living. The meticulously executed installation comprises of an array of plaster casts of familiar objects ranging from a dead cat to a human face and their photographs; displayed alongside some rocks, iron bars, bacterial culture plates, a dead pigeon and a telephone set. Another work Know Thyself plumbs the depth of our sense of self-awareness given naturally and most obviously. What the viewer gets to see in this video installation is a double image of the artist’s face, superimposed one on top of the other. The face, that is the speaker, is seen to be engaged in a monologue strained with a desperate struggle with language, for the questions he asks himself are preceded by their answers. With this manoeuvre of inversion of the temporal order of speech and its resulting incoherence, the artist attempts to touch the most fundamental concept of first-person experience of the self. The idea is that the first-person experience of the self that finds expression in words like ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘my’ are given to our consciousness without any descriptive account of our own selves.
While, The More You Strip, More Inscrutable You Become testifies a deep insight into the heart of physical matter. An unidentifiable object wrapped thoroughly in white linen and chains sprawls over the wall. Ordinarily, though it is hard to believe that there can be some material thing having no features or properties at all, one can take away the features such as colour, shape, mass and even material composition from an ordinary object. Thus if all such features or properties are imagined to be subtracted, something inexplicable and unknowable remains of the object.
Since all human endeavour has its own problems, Scaling the Immaterial too is no exception in this regard. Even though the commendable initiative of establishing the gallery in north Kolkata deserves appreciation, the gallery space didn’t do justice to the works of this the exhibition. The multi-coloured ceiling, the messy floor, shoddy and nasty pedestals, the peach coloured dirty walls and improper light arrangement have curtailed the scopes of the works to open to the fullest of their potentialities. But the main problem of the show consists in its communicability with the general audience. The works on display and the works of essays were not easy by any standard. However, the artist is candid enough to tell us that he doesn’t feel it necessary to disseminate his thought to every stratum of audience at the cost of being shallow. The radical fusion of art and philosophy often leads to misunderstanding the works as merely scientific.