Curator’s Note
Exhibition: TRACT
by Himanshu Desai
August 2010

The reading, interpretation and representation of Tract materialises from a strange investigation – not merely of Arun’s work but also some of his afflictions that have injected weight into his content.

Our collaboration began when we met in his studio in the summer of 2009. Arun began with confessing that he stood at the cusp of a new solo exhibition after almost four years, and that the nostalgia of his childhood home, and its paradoxical contrast to the political correctness of the suburban dream that he was trying hard to fulfil, had fuelled much of his work since his last show.

I drew quaint parallels with my own hanker for the motherland and secretly saw this as the perfect chance to come briefly out of hiding, if only to see if my sabbatical in London was worth the effort after all? Off late I had been moving in circles of varied persuasions – tattoo totting punk rockers, underground buskers, street performers, community art projects and interactive-media technicians -a domain where an inimical response to the term gallery is quite common. The question was -whether one should remain at a safe distance from scholarly turf wars and egomaniacal preservers of art, or quickly hop onto the green see if it was safe to come out and play? Either way it appeared that the time had come to re-calibrate, both for Arun and coincidentally for myself too. I remember I had left India soon after Arun’s last show Feed.

Working back at home again, would perhaps pose its challenges, as I would have to sway away from the pandemonium of interdisciplinary narratives and virtual spaces that I adhere to otherwise, and hone in on the possibility of assisting a gallery show once again. I am glad Arun was an easy prey who let me share his plans.

At first ‘Sacred Passage’ was the title Arun had in mind for his show, but soon I jolted him with a warning that we must do our best to dodge cliché’s, and in the best of both our interests search for a more punchy title that may generate both awe and mystery.

I can’t speak for Arun, but did wonder how he must have initially received the proposal of a collaborative strategy for narrative building, considering that he is a man who is difficult to bring into a haggle. Nonetheless, once I had pitched my tent in his studio I suggested that he should whisper his narratives to me, and let me whisper them to others. This did present the danger of the curator invading the artist’s authority over his own work. However, both of us being the stubborn men that we are, allowed our intentions to remain clean enough to enable us to use the whispering game as a deconstructive tool for digging up the eventual title.

The word Tract is pertinent to many of Arun’s concerns including environment, land and body. Dictionary definitions of the word stand proof:

Tract (trăkt)

1. Geography: An expanse of land or water (pertinent to Arun’s upbringing in agricultural environs that make him question the very nature of land or water ownership).
2. Anatomy: A system of organs and tissues that together perform a specialized function: e.g. the alimentary tract, or a bundle of nerve fibers having a common origin, termination, and function (suggestive of Arun’s interest in the effects of consumerism on nutrition, health and environment).
3. Liturgy: An anthem consisting of verses of Scripture (analogous to Arun’s lament on the loss of ancient agrarian wisdom in the face of capitalism. Although agrarian wisdoms survived largely through oral traditions, the dawn of modern communication and archiving only uncovers a need to salvage these narratives, which can now perhaps be revived in this era of user generated content).

Tract has no single message and is in fact intended to offer multiple layers of speculation and discovery to the viewer, and although this manner of storytelling may induce a degree of ambiguity and unease, the very intention is simply to coax speculation and keep any or all sermonising at bay:
Therefore we will be incoherent, but without systematically resigning ourselves to incoherence. [1]
The curatorial approach runs parallel to the artist’s complicated process of arriving at the works, much of which is speculative and incidental, if we consider that in Arun’s case the run up to making a sculpture in fact tells us perhaps more of the story than the sculpture itself. My role then, becomes of a curatorial assistant- a role that is aimed primarily at distilling information out of Arun’s many processes, and collating the residual outcomes of this exercise into a singular narrative that may be kept invisibly afloat in the gallery space.

Although Arun’s works appear phenomenologically simple- they draw upon a vast span of both experience and reference -that constantly feeds his contextual premise, making it an almost impossible task to simplify or give definition to the content.

Here is wonder: we have many more poets than judges and interpreters of poetry. It is easier to create than to understand it. [2]

The main dilemma however was whether as a curatorial assistant, it is possible at all to stand equally rooted in the culture of the object and the culture of the word- as we manoeuvre through the artist’s own oscillations between word and idea, object and action.

Arun has simply too much to say to the viewer – there are his sculptural works; his documentary practice (photography, paper and magazine clippings, both internet and bibliographic research); his performative efforts of e.g. cultivation, growing crops etc; his experiments with edible materials (sugar, salt etc.) and so on and so forth. It is therefore simply next to impossible to tell his story within four walls i.e. through merely a gallery space alone, which for me translated into a great balancing act between literality and metaphor, and it was therefore only logical to segregate the text from the visual and necessitate the unfolding of the narrative through contrasting means:

• a visual book that tells the story Arun’s exploits without speaking a word
• a blog that acts as an information dump and containing the sifted residues of research and documentation, including references that are both deliberate and incidental
• drawing of references to farmers quotes and folk lore etc. that are as invisible operatives in Arun’s art making processes
• minimising the artworks to a display that is sparsely populated and to the point

The dismantling of Arun’s numerous narratives into details that are fed into different media is therefore deliberate and was done in the hope of creating different levels of immersion and release for the viewer i.e. visually, literally, and virtually or even in casual talk and interaction. The following notes outline my interpretations of Arun’s work and approach that have emerged from such hermeneutics:

Tract marks a trajectory of speculative probing that Arun took in arriving at a solo show after a gap of almost four years and lets us peek at his negotiations between suburban life and the yearning for a return to his rural upbringing. It reveals Arun’s nostalgia for the rudimental on-goings of his childhood home – the Hosamane household, which paradoxically, is in constant conflict with the political correctness of the suburban dream.

Artist’s premise

The disquiet of environmental loss, abandonment of elemental wisdoms, and the meaninglessness of ‘land’ in context with human, animal and plant co-habitation, all indicate the contextual premises of ‘Tract’- making it akin to possibly a yet undiscovered ‘sacred passage’ back to Mother Nature- a path that stares us in the eye, as we go about consuming anything and everything in our way, provided it all comes with the best available discount, attractive packaging, quick delivery etc.

Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es. (Eng: Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.) [3]

How do we compare the food habits of the rich and poor? Perhaps we must re-articulate here and instead say- you are what you can afford to eat; or where you eat; with whom you eat and how much you eat.

Tract can well be used as a tool to gauge the thickness (or strength) of the food chain as it meanders through the many strata of society that we humans have so craftily carved out for ourselves. Furthermore, as suburbia blots into the geography, ever seeping, ever expanding- it springs plenty of surprises for us to dwell upon, for example mutating species of cattle-folk that will happily eat our litter (plastic bags etc.).

Where does the ‘food chain’ end? Perhaps in landfills –gigantic dining halls that we’ve built for our birds, insects, rodents etc. to descend upon.

Tract shadows passages of food and/or the ritual acts of ‘feeding’ that are defined not only by one’s occupation or social stature but also by availability of resource and affordability– giving itself an intrinsic connection to biological and ecological contexts. Simply put, it gazes, haplessly or not, into face of ‘consumerism’ and its variables of demand and supply, choices, options, user preferences, morphing habits and most importantly on our so called dominance over planet earth as its supreme species. Through Tract, Arun has attempted to raise questions about our own (mis)interpretation(s) of the word progress (its validity, sustainability, use and abuse).

Element

If actions spoke louder than words, then cultivating a crop atop a dining table must make for a sizable testimony of Arun’s blues, which flood his artistic expression. His work can perhaps be rather fittingly perceived as non-verbal narratives of a nostalgia that is privy to specificities of neither medium nor material; as it impregnates the diverse palette of wood, plastic, earth, compost, sugar, salt, crop, photographs, prints or simply digital data on a disc drive.

‘Earthen’ is the operative word that dominates the view as you survey his artworks. It manifests both as context and action – with the acts of sowing, cultivation, rearing and with the use of edible materials etc. – all playing to the many contexts that the word Tract lends definition to. Lest we forget, that the performative aspects of this sort of art making are not in any way surrogate to the unfolding of the narrative, au contraire- his process is elementally honest to the nostalgia, by virtue of the transubstantiation of emotion into physical embodiment (artwork).

Roleplay
Arun’s dry satire steers him clear of the cliché’s of ‘green’, ‘organic’, ‘activist’, ‘environment-conscious’ etc. while his melancholia of farmlands and dearness to agrarian wisdom allow him to personalize his experience of suburbia -and not necessarily sermonize his doctrine to the viewer, instead cajoling us to ask- where do we go from here?
The flâneur’s expert knowledge of the city involved, however, more complex skills than systematic and dispassionate observation. It was accompanied, by all accounts, with a discriminating taste that allowed him to differentiate genuine quality from charlatanism in the goods and commodities that he observed in shop windows. In other words, he brought to the task of urban flânerie not simply the classifying skill of the natural scientist, but also the inner sensibility and moral compass of the sentimental hero. [4]

As for Arun, he even extends his anxieties onto whatever or whosoever he may happen to survey – workers and colleagues in his workplace, taxi drivers, security guards of lofty apartments etc. His work follows the route to suburbia that inadvertently is taken by expat farmers, tribals, country folk etc. eventually culminating in a manner of playful storytelling, and uncovering his role as satirist – imaginably a hybrid between as a miming jester and an urban flaneur, who besides surveying the surrounding decay might as well entertain us with his oft quiet yet viral artworks:
• Miming – because his language can be mute and suggestive on the one hand, and on the other –no less than a loud bemoaning (of for instance, the slow demise of ancient agrarian wisdoms that may already be beyond resuscitation). It lets him be sourly mocking, yet to the point in his articulation.
• Jester – because he has the facility to remain humourous as he morphs his nostalgic woes into works that are toy-like and, or playful. Thus the wonderful paradox of a mute Bhagawatha or Sutradhar.
• Urban Flaneur- because his work is often an outcome of his surveys of the city, the suburbia and the populace, often exposing the epic possibilities of the banal that we may as well be blind to, as we go about juggling between what to buy and what to bury.
Tract gathers its momentum from the persistent exodus of whole agrarian populations into cities, a pouring that is constant and ever thickening, and happens simultaneously as we get sucked deeper and deeper into the hypnosis of urban glitter, that is in ample distribution through idiot boxes and mass produced budget computers. Perhaps this is in itself a denuding of the morphology of progress as we know it.

1. Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference
2. Michael de Montaigne, “Of Cato the Younger”, in The Complete Essays of Montaigne, translated by Donald M. Frame.
3. Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, Physiologie du Gout, ou Meditations de Gastronomie Transcendante, 1826.
4. Mary Gluck, Popular Bohemia: Modernism and Urban Culture in Nineteenth-Century Paris>


Trough Traces: Arunkumars’ Arbitration on the Transforming Ecosophy of Food

Exhibition: TRACT
By Anshuman Dasgupta
September 2010

Hesitancy and authorship do not always go together. Some artists/ authors do try and match them though; the works then can become uneasy mixtures– forming a amorphous objects, living contradiction of sorts.

Arun’s works rely on the signatures of the visible, often inferred through an amalgamation of personal experience and information routing. The result could have been chaotic, but the chaos is stalled because of a few factors. One is the stunted deliberation on the status of the objects, wherein a plant’s growth is suggested and is left in its full grown state. Hence the status of the art works does deliberately address the issue of authorship via the status of works as works and not as texts.

Diary as ecology

The author comes and vanishes according to the strength or weakness of the propositional presence of an (experiencing) subject.
Anybody who hails from Vidarbha and the dry and arid regions subjacent to it, knows about crop yield, irrigation, anxiety over pests etc. Arun recounts the familial story of tending cattle, working in the fields and withstanding the trauma of one square meal a day.

So, to a “Farmer’s son” the physically present soil and the equally present crop yields the size of the barn, the volume of the water flow or the swell of the yield would matter and would translate via their many integrated properties, some of which get noticed by the urban eye, while some get overlooked.

Arun as a subject–experiencer is slightly different from what Arun as an author would be, as he recounts life in the villages of central and north Karnataka wherein the production of maize is the only source of income for many farmers of the arid regions. He recounts how a lot of farmers only get to eat a single square meal a day. These stories are bizarre as far as ecology is concerned, but Arun- as a somewhat maverick author, tends to incorporate all the deliberate deviations. Thus the diary, an innocuous entity may turn into an ecological register because of its attachment to the experiential ‘nature’ as well as the artifice.

The Hunger story

The story is forever contentious and forever growing. It has a possibility of taking on cultural layering which comes with comparing across cultures that may give us a certain kind of solace, a deceptive veneer of complacency. But, that is not the end.

That is where the story begins. Tales of development and tales of deception and exploitation continue to mark each other as mutually supportive political mythologies. Thus, hunger and related calamities continue in Andhra Pradesh, the dismal economic treatment meted out produce a negative effect in the aftermath of Green Revolution in Punjab.

The story of draught is a common tale amongst the Vidarbha, Telengana and Karnataka farmers as well as farmers elsewhere in India by now. It is so widespread today that we blame it on global warming forgetting the protracted and continuous difficulties that these farmers face at all times.

The descriptive economy, notwithstanding its expanse of meaning may produce a journalistic quick shrunk effect, but the respect of the experiential defers that proposed immediacy of grievous circumstances of the farmers and their statistical/numeric or general and quick descriptions.

This is prospectively a slowing down process, a realm of possibility with a prospect for sustenance- in agriculture, industry and developments. Daily living, for a farmer or a farmland worker demands a constant engagement with material facts and their patterns, it demands a sustained and sustainable participation.

The food story

The food story is just the other side of hunger story and may take on a spectacular visage. Tales of food are prospectively linked with bounty, with prosperity as in the festive celebrations all over India and South Asia.

It is marked as a tragedy if on some occasion that is meant for celebration, the bounty shrinks into a grim unbecoming situation- such as scarce production of food due to natural calamities.

Food offers an exotic surface to culture, by which cultures can be conspicuous by their presences. Food culture is thus both an entry point as well as an exotic veneer to any culture.

The absence of bounty in the realm of food is more often a private story, in the preserve of a family, until its width and depth and pervasiveness spreads out and encompasses the whole world. Thus families would withstand it until it becomes fully blown public question such as in case of a declared draught/ flood/ famine situation which generally drew media attention.

Arun hails from a family of farmers; hence each story of bounty or scarcity of food takes him down the memory and experience of living the anxiety related to food. In Delhi and NCR he hardly can exercise the demonstrative capacity of a farmer-artist, or a former farmer and now an artist… He still does make the apparently absurd but strategic attempt at demonstrating the rice production – rice and wheat in their different states of growth and maturity thus replace the table tops, the dinner becomes only a prospect. In the realm of food a static prospect is always already absurd.

The transformation story

The stories which relate to the questions of land are always laden in anxieties of the future unless they are pronouncedly promissory or mythic. Arun’s attempt at revving up his otherwise prospectively quite a grim story is to be slightly loose in terms of the dictates of the genre. Photographic image of a potato, which resembles a man’s face (actually, a joker’s mask), is funny and relational at the same time. There are different kinds of, often even critical, questions it may raise, while in itself being just funny.

The familiar stories of agriculture and state, the realms of their overlaps thus are points where a curious alienation effect seems to make an entry. For example, how the state as a governing body is empowered to think of land as its property and thus takes over the question of the community’s own regular practices as a streamlined practice of exchanges… Arun’s works at times latch on to the symbolism of the public realm as seen in the coins, the units of measure for the capital- that display a truncated plant of maize with its branch in bounty to advertise the ( frail) power of money as capital that state advertises in its currencies. We can see the other side this practice in the fairly innocuous orientation of an Indian weighing machine which weighs us for our weight while indirectly refers to our food habits and our ( conspicuous ) consumption, not to mention its’ acting as a surrogate tarot.

The weighing machine made by Arun is partially a found object and partially a ‘combine’, joining many usual components together with selectively alien and fantasy-objects. These combines live as a collage of ‘part objects’ of a nation state, which governs by emblems as tokens, filled with promissory signs from the agricultural field, making their appearances on many occasions in the public world of fragments and then as a derive in Arun’s works.

Most of the dining tables Arun picked up from the vintage furniture shops form the mere frame for the plants so far. The processed product hardly appears in many of the works of Arun, except for in case of the sugar mound.

The suger mound forms a sugar cast diorama resembling an ancient religious city such as Borobudur, or even the ‘alien’ cities shown in the Hollywood films. The suger mound is also to be attacked and salvaged by battalions of ants, but before that the fantasy city shows its future- the sugar provides us with the clues. It’s a play of irony all the way. The usual, low tech methods of making sugar mounds out of mould are deployed processually to bring out the effect of the impossible and the absurd.

We, or at least some of our viewers, who hail either from urban or land detached suburban circumstances tend to receive the agricultural products as packaged commodities. Many of the urban consumers may also be aware that the neatly packaged things sent to us as offering have some kind of production story behind them, a story of labour and patience without which even the saplings would not grow, let alone the raw material turn into a product.

There are many images, especially one recurrent motif of a growing and tender sapling, lone and vulnerable that appears in Arun’s photographic work, reminding us, prospectively of the vulnerable status that we as human beings enjoy on earth, in our much overlooked, mutual dependency with nature, which we accept only while already being pushed to the edge.

The tool as well as the hand metaphors keep coming back in Arun’s work, they enjoy an ambiguous status, much like the personal and deeply felt daily feelings of suffering or pleasure occupy in the tables of history.

The point in Arun’s work matches, often in the raw, with the predicament of the nation India, but in terms of the technological future it shares a certain space with an imaginary science fiction scenario, which is subtly present to inform of the prospective future. So, even the hands that sow the seeds, which symbolically and eventually feed us, turn pink, violet, or blue in appearance. They are also truncated, suggesting violence that could overpower the tender labour, which the intimate knowledge of farming and agriculture entails for the insiders.

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