Sunday, April 15, 2007

Gulfnews: Install and Enthrall: Chittrovanu Mazumdar

Installation art has moved from the expanses of public spaces to the confines of the home. With equally stunning effect.
By Devjani Cox, Special to Unwind
04/06/2007 07:34 PM |

A Mumbai-based art lover recalls a moment when she visited an art exhibition where the entire floor of the venue was scattered with scrunched up newspaper, while above, large swathes of sheer white muslin were draped along walls lit to perfection. The effect was surreal. As you walked over the balled-up newspapers, it produced sounds akin to walking on autumnal leaves and when you looked above, you were greeted with a wintry starkness. That was it.

Indian audiences gathered were not amused. Where are the canvases? They demanded.

Welcome to the world of installation art, the nomenclature for an art form that takes into account the viewer's entire sensory experience, rather than a display of objects in isolation.

Genre is born

The term was coined in this context with reference to a form of art that had arguably existed since prehistoric times but was not regarded as a distinct category until the mid-20th century. Allan Kaprow used the term 'Environment' in 1958 (Kaprow 6) to describe his transformed indoor spaces; this later joined other terms, such as 'project art' and 'contemporary art'.

Largely used in expansive public spaces, installation art is now beginning to move into homes as well. Art collectors the world over have some installation art in their possession, even here in Dubai. Take Jean Allen's home in Umm Suqueim. A native of New Zealand, Allen's home is filled with huge installations with a distinct story to tell. While art connoisseurs such as Allen know and understand it, there are many who have heard the term for the first time.

Almost any arrangement of objects in a given space can now be referred to as installation art — from a conventional display of paintings to a few well-placed sculptures in a garden. It has become the catch-all description that draws attention to its staging which engages the viewer like no other art form does. The ongoing exhibition of the works of well-known Indian artist Chittrovanu Mazumdar at 1x1 Art Gallery in the city is an attempt to instill the lure of installation art into the minds of Dubaiites.

Multi-sensory effect

Mazumdar puts together an ensemble of varied sensations and insights in a powerful exhibition housed in an unassuming warehouse off a busy thoroughfare in Dubai.

The installation engages fully with its spatial context where the overriding element is one of astonishment. The artist spent several weeks studying the site, acquainting himself with its contours.

The non-gallery space may seem improvisational in nature, but make no mistake: each and every installation is meticulously organised, subtle, measured and compelling. This is a process, not a product, untitled, with variable dimensions crafted in the medium of surprise: the finely glowing filaments of the bulbs on dimmer, the shimmering surfaces of copper and bronze, the shocking pink photographs arranged on a wall, the hundreds of black frames of photographs taken by the artist himself and suspended on a floor that is lit red and seems to drop into nothingness. This combines with the dead weight of the zinc block with lead fonts and metal hooks. All this is wired to a background track that is a collage of sounds — human and inhuman, some sounding like whiplashes, heavy breathing, unintelligible utterings, electronic bass growls and shreds of orchestral dissonance.

The result is a multi-sensory experience, a tapestry of stimuli woven in light, sound, image, text and touch. As you step deeper and deeper into the house, delving into darkness, you dive further into topography where every sense is in operation. It feels like a hallowed space, one ruled by opposites that are at once intimate as well as cosmic, light as well as dark, sound which is also stillness, the visible in the invisible, the palpable in the impalpable.

Another complex layer is added to Mazumdar's work by the fact that he is loath to share every gradation of his work with his viewers. Imperceptibly, the viewer assumes the role of one engaged in a solitary act of contemplation, one of the primary objectives of an exhibition of this kind.

Viewer's participation

While the works of these artists make the visitor feel aware of the space they are in, many in the 1990s placed more emphasis on the viewer's active participation. According to Claire Bishop, an art historian and critic based in London, installation art is a trend that cultural critic Nicolas Bourriaud described as "relational aesthetics".

For 1997's Untitled, Rirkrit Tiravanija re-created his New York apartment at the Cologne Kunstverein and kept it open 24 hours a day, allowing visitors to come in and make food, sleep, watch TV, or have a bath. Christine Hill made Volksboutique, a fully functioning second-hand clothes shop, for Documenta X in 1997. Whilst Mazumdar's did not encourage viewer participation in quite the same way, it definitely had the power to astound.

Shock value aside, the way in which installation art persists on a viewer's presence in a space, has necessarily led to a number of problems about how it is recalled.

You have to take large leaps in the mind's eye if you haven't actually experienced the work first-hand. As Bishop puts it, it is like a joke that fails to be funny when repeated; you had to be there. What is perhaps difficult to ignore is that this once-marginal practice, which faced opposition by the art market of being difficult — if not impossible — to sell and probably to a large extent still is, is now the cynosure of the art world.

— Devjani Cox is a UAE-based interior designer

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