Constructing the Eco-dimensions of Intangible Heritage

By Kathleen L Wyma

August 2018

Exhibition: CON-struction

The lack of a bond between cultural identity, social awareness, and environmental protection is indeed at the core of the ecological crisis. Within these territories and landscapes, bodies—human or not—are nodes of ecological dynamics, political actions, and worldviews.[1]

CON-struction represents the culmination of Arunkumar H.G.’s sustained artistic investigation into the forces of global production, urban expansion and the ecological toll of unbridled material consumption.[2] Informed by both environmental and economic changes he witnessed in his natal region of the Western Ghats and the developmental initiatives unfolding around him in the urban environs of Gurgaon, this body of work conveys a pressing need to embrace recuperative husbandry. To evoke husbandry within the context of this exhibition underscores the artist’s cultivation of a more balanced approach to the use (or reuse) of available resources as a means to slow both the unwieldy juggernaut of development and ecological attrition. While husbandry is rooted in the act of conservation, the recuperative aspects of Arunkumar’s practice manifests most succinctly in his deliberate repurposing of solid waste materials collected from rubbish bins, roadsides or abandoned mounds of building scraps to create many of sculptural forms.[3]

In playing on the etymology of the prefix “con,” as that which connotes aspects of establishing correspondences, Arunkumar’s CON-struction visually explores what is at stake in the ecological disharmonies and blind spots that characterize the contemporary moment. Clearly there is no way to reverse the technologies of the present; however, we can become more aware of their implicit ecological cost. Writing in the early 1990s Madhav Gadgil and Ramachandra Guha observed, “…the country is living on borrowed time.  It is eating, at an accelerated rate, into the capital stock of its renewable resources of soil, water, plant and animal life.  Does this mean that we are headed for a disaster?”[4] Almost two decades have passed since the authors posed the question, but today it can no longer be taken as merely rhetorical. Arunkumar’s visual engagements indirectly answers this question to blend finely honed irony with real world pragmatism to offer meaningful and thoughtful insights into the high cost of living today. As such, the work included in this show emerges against the percussive sounds of urban expansion, the rhythms of increasing global temperatures and the rising tempo of changing weather patterns to actively foster palpable connections with the natural environment.

Common sense suggests that understanding of the world is often fuelled through representations that mirror cultural values or established social practices.[5] Encounters with these representations, whether they occur along the avenues of mass media, the sites of social media, or within the esteemed spaces of the art gallery have the capacity to crystallise issues and catalyse judgements about a set of topical issues. However, when representations (whether they take the form of commodities, material objects or visual images) circulate unmoored from historical context or sites of origin a dangerous gap emerges. To be sure, it is all too easy to forget that materials used to build cities or to create commercial products come from somewhere and the foodstuffs that grace market stalls are not svayambhu (self-manifesting). In the contemporary world everything that is produced and consumed functions as a dynamic determinant that potentially impacts the delicately balanced exchange between the anthropo-sphere and the geo-ecosphere. 

Aspirational Stories in Form

Faced with the problem of the ecological over-reach of humans, what kind of stories do we now tell about ourselves, and how?[6]  

Though not specifically narrative, each of the objects included in this exhibition tell multiple stories that condense the artist’s local, historical or cultural milieu. Through the deliberate choice of material and form, Arunkumar’s sculptures animate a diversity of ecological concerns. Designed to be generative rather than conclusive, the artist’s visual inferences are open-ended and his methods are meant to stir intellectual curiosity and foster further dialogue. For example, when confronted with the formidable Con-struction I one might first consider the formal attributes of the figure. The broad, rounded shoulders and elongated, serpentine arms of the figure seem to recall the sculptural styles of Jain or Buddhist traditions, and while many will recognize the art historical or cultural purchase of the form, the venerable figure is designed to refract the present rather than to recollect the definitive past.

Indeed, the uncanny, strangely familiar relic of a bygone era marks a particular threshold that, once crossed, encourages an interrogative consideration of the material used to create it. Hewn out of pieces of wood collected from an industrial site in Gurgaon, thick ribbons of reclaimed wood are pieced together with glue to form the body of the figure. The perpendicular lines of the laminated wood draw the eye to the solid vertical thrust of the form. Despite its unwavering formidable presence, chisel scores and hammer blemishes mar the skin of the figure to evoke a sense of ironic and erosive fragility.

The conflicting forces of creation and destruction/formidability and fragility are further played out through the combination of the additive and subtractive processes employed by the artist. These antithetical energies are undergirded by the inclusion of structurally redundant concrete pilasters that line the front and the back of the figure. The concrete buttresses hint at a need for physical support but they are also strangely overdetermined in their visual claims to functionality.  Like the cement exuding from the pits and fissures in the wood and the cement that amends the missing section of the bifurcated head, the material alludes to an attempt to artificially fill in the gaps by any means necessary. But what are the gaps? Are they evocative of cultural omissions? Misplaced values?

Perhaps filling the breaks and crevices shored up with cement are materially bound references to a set of cultural practices or calcified ideas about tangible and intangible cultural heritage. [7] Clearly the historic value of the form is incontrovertible but the wood used in its creation exists in an epistemological blind spot; its particular historical genealogy is effaced, its heritage devalued by its use-value. In this context it is interesting to note that the wood used for shipping is often emblazoned with the stamps of destination and not those of origin. The history of the wood was excised the moment the tree was felled, milled and re-formed into pallets or crates for the shipment of unknown commodities.[8] Indeed with each instance that Arunkumar employs reclaimed wood in his sculptures he affirms that their source point–the forests–are bodies that remain undervalued as living, breathing entities. As an extension of the principals of hylozoism, a theory that endorses the view that all matter has life, the efficacy of the artist’s gestures are not so much prescriptive but rather productive in their intent.[9]  And while the sui generis of the wood may be indeterminable – we can be made aware of what is at stake in its various material refinements.

Concrete is everywhere being poured at an unprecedented rate over the surface of planet earth. We are, in short, in the midst of a huge crisis—ecological, social, and political—of planetary urbanization without, it seems, knowing or even marking it. [10]

Arunkumar’s propensity to reclaim discarded materials points to the contemporary tendency to produce and consume without consciousness. The wood and the concrete used in many of his works are positioned as material adversaries that vie for a dominant position to mirror of the contest that unfolds around us on a daily basis.  The artist’s choice of cement speaks to how the endless flows of this ubiquitous material threatens to subsume the natural environment in untold ways.

As such, Con-struction II and Con-struction III ironically explore the high stakes of urbanism and the persistent creep of existential impingement. Con-struction II, in particular, exemplifies the idea of encroachment through the creation of a writhing figure, defencelessly sheathed in a pillory of concrete. Branches of felled Pipal and Neem trees found at a local metro-rail construction site course through the figure like arterial networks.  Despite the material allusion to vitality, the unyielding encasement paradoxically stifles the vibrancy of life. The ambiguous function of the horizontal support that extends from the hip to the arm recalls the functional redundancy of the pilaster in Con-struction I; however, the squared column of concrete that runs down the vertical length of body heightens awareness of the atrophied form and the wretched figure draws forth a series of questions about the desecration of nature and humanity’s presumptive power to harness it.

Of Other Bodies

The elephant, the rhinoceros, tiger and the bird that make up Arunkumar’s menagerie purposefully align with the idea of husbandry introduced at the outset of this essay but they also tap into the historical legacy of animal imagery within the visual landscape of India. Whether one looks to the presence of animals in the sculptural programs of temples or the murals that festoon the surfaces of rock cut caves, recurrent animal motifs serve as polyvalent and historically rich signs. The symbolic potency of animals also weaves through many literary traditions; they appear as anthropomorphised leitmotifs in the Jataka Tales that chronicle the previous lives of Buddha and as metaphors for human vice or virtue in the moralising tales of the Panchatantra.  These examples evince the rich capacity for animals to act as intercessors in the relationship between humanity and the natural world. 

To be sure, Arunkumar’s collection (or re-collection) of animals within the exhibition weaves through the cultural densities of art historical and literary antecedents but he bestows his creatures with a sharpened concern for sustainable ecology. To poignantly point out what gets lost in the transaction between production and consumption, the artist casts each animal from a mould, a method of industrial reproduction. In doing so he draws an analogous relationship to the alienating effects of commodity production. And although each animal is created out of materials like cement, recycled waste paper, and wood fibre once it is released from the embryonic mould it takes on a distinct life of its own through a diversity of surface treatments. 

The tiger’s mottled skin is bequeathed, like the rhinoceros, a patina of iridescent black. Fashioned from fire-charred risers of shipping pallets carefully layered to form a delicate membrane, the treatment of the animal skin echoes the volatile fragility of eco-systems. While the tiger remains corporally intact, the rhinoceros suffers the indignity of being reduced to a mere appendage of a pre-existing wall. Confined and defined by the architectural imperatives of humanity, the visual irony of its truncated form rests in the acknowledgement that the dusty charcoal cloaks the animal in a stifling crust of carbon that literally reduces terrestrial presence.

The mass produced origins of the physical forms enable the animals to potentially serve not as pristine replicas but rather as simplified effigies of potential loss.  Collectively, they stand as mute distillations of life that are in turn animated, not by visual or textual narratives, but rather by the materials the artist used in the their creation. The carbon-coated surfaces of the forms are a bleak reminder of how we are burning through the capital stock of the forests at an unprecedented rate.

The debates over India’s forests are longstanding and reverberate through both the anthroposphere and the geosphere. The under-acknowledged value of the forest is frankly addressed in Homage to Hendrik van Rheede. The prismatic, faceted tree-like structure visually conveys a sense of artificial manufacture; however, its hard edges and abruptly angled planes belie organic orientations and the form seems more akin to architecture. Like many of Arunkumar’s sculptures, it is the confluence antithetical references, the juxtaposition of the natural and the synthetic, that sharpen the conceptual impact of the piece. The structure is ungainly and perhaps can be received as harbinger of the future; however, its frankensteinian presence is tempered by the inclusion of engravings from van Rheede’s Hortus Malabarius. This veritable tome-catalogues the flora of the Malabar forests and chronicles the rich biodiversity of the jungle.  As a provisional roadmap to possible recovery, the artist placed images from the17th century manuscript onto the jutting planes of the edifice to emphasise not only the lost knowledge of the past but also the myopic tendency to see forests as horizontal fields of timber.

The Return of the Object Lesson

Each object or image created by Arunkumar is encoded with multiple histories that weave through both material and form in a way that harkens back the practice of objects lessons.  Object lessons once promoted an acute awareness of origins through a step-by-step analysis of a given commodity that wove through visual descriptions, localities of production, propagation, cultivation and manufacture and trade. A discussion of black pepper, for example, would employ botanical examples, maps to locate the site of production on the Malabar Coast, a discussion of plantations, harvesters, and trade networks.  The object lesson cultivated a holistic yet multifaceted understanding of the world and its cultural and historical value rested in establishing the connective membranes that were often effaced or alienated through the logic of resource extraction or trade networks.

Vulnerable Guardians represents a contemporary take on the object lesson to stress the importance of reconnecting with the source of our daily sustenance. In creating this work Arunkumar once againrepurposes wood from shipping crates and palettes to create the supports for his multi-panel photo-installation. The placement of figures in the fields establishes their identity as valuable producers of food; however, the inclusion of the trees is a more enigmatic. We are left wondering whether it is the individuals who act as guardians or if it is the trees.

Unlike the truncated rhinoceros or elephant these guardian figures, though vulnerable, vigilantly refuse to succumb to encroachment. The constellation of images reveals a commitment to creating awareness about the integral roles farmers and forests play in the preservation of environmental biodiversity. However, the inclusion of a lone Bedaru Bombe, an inanimate object designed to protect the fields, is the only figure graced with a suggestion of animation. Dapples of red, yellow and blue skip across the surface of her dress to hint at a life that belies her silent watchful form.

While Arunkumar repurposes found materials it might be fruitful to think in terms of his husbandry as one that cultivates new ideas through an active engagement with spolia – materials or artefacts taken from elsewhere and reused to create something else. The use of spolia has a long history in India and the term has largely been used to speak of the repurposing of architectural material; however, in the context of this exhibition the term may be expanded to speak of intangible cultural heritage in an expanded field that includes not only monuments of the past but also the natural environment. [11] By bringing the spolia of modern life back into the exhibition space and reconfiguring it as aesthetic objects Arunkumar re-values their particular contingencies and asks us to look again.  Whether one considers his strategic juxtaposition of organic and recycled material with those of development (cement, aluminum, wood and glue) or how they meld within his artistic expressions, the work included in this exhibition emerge as enlivened metaphors that speak of probable loss while charting a path toward potential recovery. His creative restoration of these materials is a decisive conceptual tactic that underscores a need to become more aware of the twinned peril of environmental erosion and urban accretion. 

Kathleen L Wyma is an art historian and independent curator who specialises in modern and contemporary Indian art and photography. She completed her Ph.D. in 2007 at the University of British Columbia with a thesis entitled The Discourse and Practice of Radicalism in Contemporary Indian Art 1960-1990. In addition to her curatorial endeavours Wyma regularly contributes articles and exhibition catalogues on Indian contemporary art. Her recent publications include: “Poetics and Procrustean Possibilities,” Zakkir Hussain: The Procrustean Bed (Mumbai: Guild Art Gallery, 2017) and “Photography at the Edge of Representation: Rethinking Photographs of Rural India,” in Photography in India: From Archives to Contemporary Practice, eds., Aileen Blaney and Chinar Shah (Delhi: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018). She is currently an Assistant Professor in Fine Arts at The University of Hong Kong.

[1] Inovina Serenella et al., “Introduction,” Italy and the Environmental Humanities: Landscapes, Natures, Ecologies, eds. Iovina Serenella, Enrico Cesaretti, Elena Past (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2018), 8.

[2] The path has been consistently mapped out through Arunkumar’s visual engagements with environmental issues since at least 2006.  See for example: In-site, Aicon Gallery, New York (2018); Seed of Reckoning, Mumbai Art Room, Mumbai (2012); Tract, Nature Morte, New Delhi (2010).

[3] In 1997 India’s urban areas generated approximately 48 million tonnes of solid waste and it is anticipated that by 2047 it may surpass 300 million tonnes.  R.K. Pachauri, “The Future of India’s Economic Growth: The Natural Resources and Energy Dimension,” Indian Futures, Vol. 36 (2004): 707.

[4] This Fissured Land: An Ecological History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 3.

[5] Here I obliquely refer to Gramsci’s notion of common sense as “the ‘realistic,’ materialistic elements which are predominant, the immediate product of crude sensation.” The Antonio Gramsci Reader: Selected Writings 1916-1936 (New York: New York University Press, 2000), 344.

[6] Dipesh Chakrabarty, “Whose Anthropocene? A Response,” in “Whose Anthropocene? Revisiting Dipesh Chakrabarty’s ‘Four Theses,” edited by Robert Emmett and Thomas Lekan, RCC Perspectives: Transformations in Environment and Society, no. 2, (2016): 112.

[7] Recognition of intangible cultural heritage is gaining greater currency amongst policy makers; however, the established criteria are not elastic enough to include the forests or the diverse ecosystems of India. Bhaswati Mukherjee opines, “[H]eritage does not end at monuments or collection of objects of arts. It also includes traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendents [sic], such as oral traditions, performing arts, religious and cultural festivals and traditional crafts. This Intangible Cultural Heritage, by its very nature, is fragile and needs protection and understanding since it is an important factor in maintaining cultural diversity in the face of growing globalisation.” “India’s Intangible Cultural Heritage: A Civilizational Legacy to the World,” In Focus: Ministry of External Affairs (January 29, 2015)

[8] RK Pachauri notes that while there has been an increase in awareness about the relationship between forestry and diminishing biodiversity, there has been also been significant unreported destruction of specific forests in India and a consequential decline in biodiversity. “The Future of India’s Economic Growth,” Indian Futures, Vol. 36 (2004).

[9] Hylozoism in appears in both the Indian tradition of Jainism and the western philosophical traditions of the Greeks.

[10] David Harvey observes, “China has consumed more than half of the global steel and cement over the last decade. In just two years, from 2011 to 2012, China produced more cement than the United States did in the entire twentieth century.”  “The Crisis of Planetary Urbanization,” Uneven Growth Tactical Urbanisms for Expanding Megacities (New York: Museum of Modern Art, November 22, 2014–May 25, 2015).

[11] The Qutb Mosque in Delhi is the most notable and recognizable example of this practice.  For more see, Finbarr Barry Flood, “Appropriation as Inscription: Making History in the First Friday Mosque of Delhi,” Re-Use Value: Spolia and Appropriation in Art and Architecture form Constantine to Sherry Levine (Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2011), 121-147.

Insights into In-site

By Kathleen L Wyma

January 2018

Exhibition: In-site

The blood of the villages is the cement with which the edifice of the city is built.[1]

Arunkumar HG’s In-site marks the culmination of a sustained artistic investigation into the forces of global production and the ecological toll of unbridled and escalating material consumption.  Informed by both the environmental and economic changes he witnessed in his natal village in rural Karnataka and the urban developmental initiatives unfolding around him in urban environs of Delhi, this body of work points to the tacit contradictions of industrial and economic development and the need for a recuperative husbandry.  To evoke husbandry in this context is deliberate as it allows me to briefly discuss how the forms, materials, and methods employed by the artist potentially stand as a clarion call for the careful management of the land and the preservation of its resources.

To be sure the elephant, the lion, the boar and the other animals included in Arunkumar’s menagerie align with the idea of husbandry but their presence also connects to preservation of cultural knowledge and the continuance of cultural traditions.  Found in the sculptural programs of temples, the decorated surfaces of rock cut caves, painterly and narrative traditions, the presence of animals attests to their historical function as polyvalent signs.  Whether one looks to Jataka Tales that chronicle the previous lives of Buddha or within the literary tradition of the Panchatantra, a series of moralising tales that speak of human virtue or vice, animals are key arbiters that cultivate greater understanding of our connection to the natural world. 

Arunkumar’s collection of animals also performs a mediating function, but it is one that is ironically enlivened by the choice of materials and methods used to create them.  Concrete, aluminum, wood and glue are commonly used building materials and in reclaiming these construction materials to form the bodies of the animals, the artist positions them as silent proxies that mark a lost connection with the natural world.  As if to demonstrate how the loss of one thing is filled by the introduction of another Arunkumar alludes to the industrial practices of mass production to create his animal figures.  The artifice of his animals is visually declared by the residual marks left by the moulds used to cast them and the signs that are emblazoned on their bodies.  It is ironic that we can readily understand the language of hazard signs but may fail to realize that the animals are also cautionary symbols.

In our global present, development is promoted as the hallmark of progress and it is often sited as a panacea for many social problems; however, the materials, methods and visual metaphors used by Arunkumar in this exhibition poignantly strip bare the promise of development to hint at the nature of its existential threat.

[1] Mahatma Gandhi, Harijan (23 April 1946): 198.

Curator’s Note

by Himanshu Desai
August 2010

Exhibition: TRACT

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).


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).

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 

By Anshuman Dasgupta
September 2010

Exhibition: TRACT

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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