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T.V. SANTHOSH
Kanchi Mehta

Flash Art 282 January – February 2012

 

 

THE SILENT WARRIOR

 

EVERY TIME I MEET with T.V. Santhosh, I cannot help but wonder how a person with such a soft-spoken and quiet disposition cre­ates artworks that are so visually bright and conceptually powerful. He always greets me with a mischievous grin, and we talk about everything but art. Over the years, I have observed that his paintings have become his voice. The “solarized negative” palette he realized a few years ago, with burning yel­low, red and orange contrasted with greens and blues, has become internationally rec­ognized as his unique style. His subject mat­ter heightens these hues with controversial images of prevailing social, political and religious unrest in India and around the world. Men at war, women praying in bur­kas — T.V. Santhosh captures frozen mo­ments of struggle and injustice. Most of the images he portrays are inspired by news and television. His interpretation of the media — and its reception — is part of an evolv­ing practice that questions the “system” and exploitations of power.

 
T.V. SANTHOSH, The Bleeding Land, 2005 (detail). Oil on canvas, 122 cm x 244 cm;
 

 

KANCHI MEHTA: Cinema strongly influ­ences your practice. Which filmmakers had an impact on you?

T.V. Santhosh: There are many films and directors I admire. There are many indirect influences, rather than direct ones. Watch­ing movies helps me to understand the language of cinema, as well the philosophy of art. There are several genres of film, lit­erature and art, and there are very distinct approaches to them. Especially in the case of cinema, because of the power of the medium and the kind of strong influence it can have on society at large, like Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925). Al­though it was considered propaganda, it was a powerful movie that directly reflected on society back then. Here, cinema is used as a tool of resistance, instrumental in moti­vating social change. Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky also formulated their own distinct language, altering our perceptions of cinema. While Bergman was existential in his approach, Tarkovsky was more spiritual in nature. In films like The Mirror (1975), Andrei Rublev (1966) and Stalker (1979), the language and understanding of the me­dium is so refined that you cannot separate the technical, linguistic, visual and concep­tual elements from each other. This kind of filmmaking is what I would have liked to produce. Metabolism Test (2003), one of my paintings, is the central image of Bergman’s movie The Seventh Seal (1957). In his films he asked many questions that were relevant then, and are even relevant now, such as, “What is the relationship between religion and society?” or “What is the role of war in shaping the human victory?” Filmmakers like Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Majid Majidi have made wonderful movies about religion and society in Iran. It is sad that one of the most interesting and influential filmmakers, Jafar Panahi, cannot make any movies after being banned, but he will be back. Kim Ki-duk, Andrei Zvyagintsev and György Pálfi are also making interesting movies.

KANCHI MEHTA: Cinema strongly influ­ences your practice. Which filmmakers had an impact on you?

T.V. Santhosh: There are many films and directors I admire. There are many indirect influences, rather than direct ones. Watch­ing movies helps me to understand the language of cinema, as well the philosophy of art. There are several genres of film, lit­erature and art, and there are very distinct approaches to them. Especially in the case of cinema, because of the power of the medium and the kind of strong influence it can have on society at large, like Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925). Al­though it was considered propaganda, it was a powerful movie that directly reflected on society back then. Here, cinema is used as a tool of resistance, instrumental in moti­vating social change. Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky also formulated their own distinct language, altering our perceptions of cinema. While Bergman was existential in his approach, Tarkovsky was more spiritual in nature. In films like The Mirror (1975), Andrei Rublev (1966) and Stalker (1979), the language and understanding of the me­dium is so refined that you cannot separate the technical, linguistic, visual and concep­tual elements from each other. This kind of filmmaking is what I would have liked to produce. Metabolism Test (2003), one of my paintings, is the central image of Bergman’s movie The Seventh Seal (1957). In his films he asked many questions that were relevant then, and are even relevant now, such as, “What is the relationship between religion and society?” or “What is the role of war in shaping the human victory?” Filmmakers like Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Majid Majidi have made wonderful movies about religion and society in Iran. It is sad that one of the most interesting and influential filmmakers, Jafar Panahi, cannot make any movies after being banned, but he will be back. Kim Ki-duk, Andrei Zvyagintsev and György Pálfi are also making interesting movies.

 
A Mother Among Mothers who does not know her Son’s journey, 2008. Oil on canvas, 122 cm x 183 cm.
 

KM: What is your philosophical approach to your work, and how is it different from the way you look at your life?

TVS: My work is not intentionally political. It is an investigation about the angst and despair that continues to persist. Almost like a “butterfly effect,” which signifies one small incident that eventually turns out to be a larger catastrophe. Like an endless cycle of revenge, where religion, power, knowledge and hatred is involved. Although I am not religious in a conventional way, I am interested in some kind of mystical en­ergy. I don’t think that one must succumb to the accepted notions of its conventions or exploit it for power. I look at religion in a more humanistic way — and my life in an eclectic way. I still believe in the relevance of Marxism, its pure intentions where equality and human rights become essential compo­nents of society. In order to understand the language and elements in my work, one has to apply the same worldview. I don’t limit myself to a rigid framework of understand­ing, and therefore my work keeps changing every few years.

KM: Your subject is relevant to the past, the present and the future. How does your work fit into a global platform with reference to philos­ophy and ideology? And what is the relevance of the color palette to your subject?

TVS: Initially, my work was more mono­chromatic. The gradual transition to bright colors is merely an extension of what I was doing before, or rather, it is an area that I could not explore in my previous phase. My monochromatic works were almost like looking at historic pages, trying to find the implications of violence and war. War and terrorist activities can be viewed at many levels. One man’s hero is another’s enemy. When I depict something that happened in history, I connect it to what is happening now. There was a period between the mono­chrome and color works when a crucial shift occurred with the use of the photographic negative. It made me realize the possibility of juxtaposing the positive and the negative. Hence I did not see a need for the diptych: I merged the elements of positive and nega­tive in one canvas. It is like looking at the same issue, differently. How the media proj­ects reality is an integral part of my work. My linguistic and philosophic aspects are in­separably intertwined with the possibility of exploring the local and the global through photographic negatives. Local elements like faces become obscure in a negative. Hidden implications are encoded within the nega­tive. And if you make it positive, it is auto­matically decoded. Fear, Nation and False Promises (2004), a title of one painting, can connect us with historical, social and politi­cal references. Although the original image comes from the Iraq War, it could be any­where. False promises are made; truth is manipulated and nationhood is questioned. And the idea of animosity is manipulated by the system as propaganda.

KM: Do you struggle in order to sustain your position in the global arena?

TVS: The struggle is constant, and every sensible artist has to go through it. As a per­son I don’t look for recognition from out­side. My work is a confrontation towards my understanding within. People have two identities. One is constantly changing, and one is changeless. We must confront both at the same time and believe that there is something changeless in you, even though the world around you is constantly chang­ing. This balance must be maintained, oth­erwise it becomes very difficult to survive in this competitive and fast-paced environ­ment where saturation and stagnation are professional hazards. When I feel either of the two, I stop working for some time.

 

Metabolism Test, 2003. Oil on canvas, 121 cm x 304 cm. All courtesy The Guild, Mumbai. Photo: Prakash Rao.

 

KM: Over the years, your work has reflected very subtle changes visually, primarily because these changes complemented the ideology of your work. What is your opinion about shift­ing artistic practices by an artist over the span of his career?

TVS: As an artist, it is very important to reinterpret yourself. Stagnation can kill an artist. Alvin Toffler’s book Future Shock (1970) analyzes the time history has taken to move to the next phase within different fields of science, culture, politics, etc. There is a pattern of parallels emerging at the high points of each shift. Initially, every field has taken centuries to move to the next level. Art was the same. With every movement, like the Renaissance, the High Renaissance, the Baroque era, Impressionism, each style has taken a hundred or more years to sus­tain, evolve and graduate into another style. Within each, there have been many smaller points represented by subtle changes, but the basic ideology remains the same. To­day there are many movements prevailing at the same time. And, like the process of fragmentation, they are becoming more complex. An immediate change is expected, and the time between two high points has been reduced. With art today, it is the same. Which is why we get dissatisfied very quickly with an artist working in the same style for a long time. If an artist is satisfied with his progress, however slow it is, we must respect the rhythm. The profit-oriented ideology of the neo-imperialist and capitalist outlook has influenced us. Before, many galleries disapproved of changes in artistic practices with style and medium, but now they have adapted to it. In India, galleries are slowly opening up to challenging art and encour­aging artists to innovate their visual strate­gies. Young artists may not be comfortable handling new media but follow it merely because it is the trend. The “notional” pres­sure to be a rebel and the psychology of the viewer’s fast-changing approach to art creates a vicious circle. Extreme individu­alism is the product of modernity, and the fragmentation of the social fabric further creates a divide. It has become almost like a natural process that we are a part of, con­sciously or unconsciously.

 
T.V. SANTHOSH, Living With a Wound II, 2009. Fiberglass, steel, wood and LED, 145 x 215 x 56 cm;.
 

KM: How do you perceive this generation of artists, their conceptual works and new media?

TVS: Conceptual or new media art is merely derivative of what has already been origi­nated. If you are thinking in the logic of lan­guage, then it is merely a reinterpretation of what someone who was not necessarily an artist conceived, now being adapted to new methods and media. The younger genera­tion is always attracted to new trends; it is natural for them to break away from con­ventions. We must be aware of the dynamics of the art market, which are very complex and powerful. Like many rebels in history who later became part of the system, many anti-gallery, anti-market art movements have been absorbed into the same system. An artist is appreciated only if his work re­flects his true potential. Not because the audience expects it. Personally I am not in­terested in the idea of a change forced from outside, but rather a change that is an inner necessity.

KM: Which contemporary artists from India do you admire? And internationally?

TVS: In India, I like the practices of Su­darshan Shetty, Atul Dodiya, Riyas Komu, Subodh Gupta and Baiju Parthan — and there are many more. From among interna­tional artists, I like Maurizio Cattelan, Neo Rauch, Christian Boltanski, David Salle, Jeff Koons and Wim Delvoye.

KM: If you weren’t an artist, what would you have been?

TVS: I would have loved to be a filmmaker, and yet that comes under the category of be­ing an artist. If I had not been an artist, then I would have been possibly a monk. Not a monk who renounced the material world, but one who lives in this world, with the en­ergy to change it. There are many ways of looking at monkhood. There are people who abandon the daily, mundane life, and also there are people who come back into this same world with a different purpose, like Buddha. I would have liked to be the latter. Like the term “Paramahamsa,” meaning the Supreme Swan, which even after emerging from dirty and muddy waters is yet pristine and white with their feathers untouched, which is the quality of a self-realized master who can separate the truth from delusion.

 

 

Kanchi Mehta is a curator, critic and art historian based in Mumbai. She recently organized “India Escalate,” the Indian section of the Prague Biennale 5.

T.V. Santhosh was born in 1968 in Kerala, India. He lives and works in Mumbai, India.

 

 

Selected solo shows: 2011: Nature Morte, Berlin. 2010: Aicon, London. 2009: Jack Shainman, New York; Gros­venor Vadehra, London.

Selected group shows: 2011: Moscow Biennale; “Indian Rainbow,” Luce Gallery, Turin; “Collectors’ Stage: Asian Contemporary Art from Private Collections,” Singapore Art Museum. 2010: “The Silk Road, New Chinese, In­dian and Middle Eastern Art from The Saatchi Gallery,” Tri Postal, Lille (FR); “I think therefore graffiti…,” The Guild, Mumbai; “The Empire Strikes Back: Indian Art Today,” The Saatchi Gallery, London; “In Transition: New Art from India,” Richmond Art Gallery (Canada); “Initial Access,” Frank Cohen Collection, Wolverhampton (UK).

 
 

Untitled, 2009. Water color on paper, 61 x 76 cm. Both courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman, New York.

 
 
 

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