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June 2, 2004

The Naked Object of Magic: A personal encounter with the work of Sudarshan

Himanshu Burte


Sudarshan Shetty’s current studio is located in the vast attic of an aging school on a street
like any other in the older parts of central Mumbai. A large window looks out upon the
railway tracks to the west and the sunsets beyond them. The city rises up higher behind
the tenements bordering the tracks, becoming a constellation of lights as the dark covers
up the grit to cool the city with beguiling promises. To the east, a narrow lane buzzes
with the quiet urban industry of comings and goings.

The studio is both, warehouse and workshop. The space along the walls and the corners is
mostly filled with a large number of large and small toy-like objects. A couple of boats, a
‘broken-down’ table, a wooden horse, were once (or will at some time in the future be)
‘works of art’- for the moment they are ‘ordinary’ things, like actors out of character. The
relaxed clutter of strange but familiar constructions along the center of the space is
usually revealed as ongoing work. Ruins, then, on the one hand, and models, prototypes,
exploratory contraptions on the other, but neither distinguishable from the other with any
sense of finality.

A rich and fruitful sense of ambiguity has been one of the cornerstones of Sudarshan’s
work. The one move common across his oeuvre, is the unexpected juxtaposition of
familiar and everyday objects, images and events, which pushes the space of encounter
into a productive zone of tantalizing uncertainty, or more precisely, of multivalence. This
move connects the pink horse of Paper Moon (his first critically acclaimed exhibition
held in Mumbai in 1995) whose back is also a landscape harbouring a hut, to the tongue
swinging out of the horn of a gramophone, presented in ‘Consanguinity’ his latest solo
exhibition (New Delhi, December 2003). Even the elements that constitute his constructs
show continuities. The world of everyday contraptions, objects (especially those from
middle class showcases, or shop-front show windows) and bodies, continues to be
reconfigured from moment to moment in his work. The terms of this reconfiguration
emerge from a particular attitude towards the simultaneous triumph and futility of
everyday imagination and desire. After Bhupen Khakar, it is understandable if the
‘eternal joy’ of the bouquet of plastic roses is seen to be as nourishing of the imagination
as its fakery may be enervating.

Sudarshan’s works are resonant objects. They simultaneously embody the dread
muteness of objects as well as the quirky eloquence of beings. They are shadow beings,
and often, deftly exaggerated concretizations of the faces in the cloud. Sometimes, as
inanimate objects, toys even, their mechanical animation hugs the edge between
willfulness and mimesis. But something about them-maybe their uncanny, but obviously

and the ‘paintedness’ of fiberglass figures in ‘Home’. Parallelly. illuminating the frail grandeur of the body as well as of the dreams that self-love and lament bring to bear upon it. They led us into an engagement with the allure of the surface while also inviting our critical attention to that involvement itself. 2001. Sudarshan’s objects move quietly over the intentional plane. (from For Here or To Go. Despite the energy of their internal dissonance. has long been both. Though partly about the immediate reality of our delights and fantasies. ‘presence’. The principle of mimesis. but also from Paper Moon onwards. with Tiger Lily. deploy literal replicas of objects. and Tiger Lily (1996). Many of Sudarshan’s works. The ends have been closing in on us ever since. The disturbing ambiguity of the object’s apparent volition restages what every nostalgic. There are also works like the pink horse from Paper Moon (1995). even where found objects themselves could have been used. in which (apart from the practical complications involved) the use of ‘originals’ would hark at ends very different from those close to the artist. for instance. Sudarshan’s works help us restage in our consciousness a timeless phenomenon: the metabolism of mind that constantly prompts each of us to process societies of living and inanimate beings into our own peculiar lifeworlds. fluids. Sudarshan’s oeuvre wrests a rich and wide space from the crack between subject and object. object and instrument of inquiry in Sudarshan’s work. It hints at the possibility that this separation may well be an intellectual construct. Of course. With Consanguinity. and ‘Home’ (1998) which turn upon animal and human figures. while simultaneously leveraging the suddenly heightened eloquence of proxies like trumpets and gramophones.engineered mimicry of significant gestures. especially from Consanguinity. has been a constant feature in Sudarshan’s work in other ways too. The polychrome kite-paper surfaces of ‘Paper Moon’. Fukuoka) is my own knee merely a mechanical joint groaning at unexpected friction? This rich confusion points to the ambiguousness of boundaries between mimesis and independent will or volition. in this context. of mind and body (and therefore also of ‘thing’). one of us. Over the years. employ significant distortions of scale which necessitate the use of is us. it is now clear that works like these also kept a distance.hints at sleeping ghosts of volition within. body parts. of course. Sudarshan often engineers a face-off between human viewer and machine. and now in ‘Consanguinity’. making us introspect about the nature of subjecthood. a deceit even. The consistent use of ‘replicas’ in his work. is probably of some significance. Sudarshan appears to be scrutinising the body (and what it means to beings like us) more frontally than ever before. every child and philosopher knows well enough before she is disabused of the notion by analytical training: that we verily live in the objects around us. they have tended to speak less and less of the artisanal pleasure in their crafting. without any weakening of the urgency of their claim on our attention. The tolling bell. by staging an exchange of beingly force between the human viewer and the watched object. or at least. . bodies. In one sense. does not toll for us. every fantasist of the clouds. as the material anchors of the conceptual spaces they point towards. and they in us. on the other. A large number of his works. If the groaning leg of the table feels ‘pain’. and the literal and conceptual substantiveness of the object and its referents. maintained a tension between physical surface on the one hand.

(rather than to only re- framing the found object to generate new associations). At the other extreme where literal representation may serve the cause of irony alone. bequeaths a different weight to the otherwise ‘frivolous’ distortion of the mirror shape. On the other hand. Seoul). we ourselves are revealed to have created out of the ‘realities’ they embody. A spread of black heart-shaped balloons covering a wall opposite an open rack containing the remains of the artist’s workday. is to take the bauble. An example of the former occurs in Tiger Lily. outrageous and apt at the same time. By this time. is clearly linked to an implicit critique of established notions of imagination and creativity. we have woken up and smelt the bouquet of plastic roses. By honestly declaring their ‘reality’ as replicas. It begins by . his works leads us to puzzle over our surrender to a space of allusion. in a certain manner of speaking. as well as the clear critique of over-advertised distortions of reality. The wit of the associations that make up this narrative. Within that tradition. This faith in the capacity of simulacra to be real. I personally believe that it is his most intense formulation yet. The general gestural restraint of the work (except for the deceptively ‘simplistic’ irony of black hearts). This understated theoretical dimension of his work. Sudarshan’s special project. and the determination to construct a formidable space of signification with a society of stand-ins.that of Valentine’s Day decorations in retail stores. therefore.but redeems a deeper vision with the inscription in their midst. Sudarshan plays with the danger of ceding the ‘weight’ of the represented object to the heavy hand of ironic comment. places Sudarshan squarely in an established tradition. Japan in 2001. The caricature here is direct. the non-art) object. simultaneously extends and contravenes some of these more established modes of formulation that hold together Sudarshan’s oeuvre. confused and ascendant at the same time. As elsewhere. a principle that governs the transition of products of the imagination into the ‘real’ world of the market. lonely. as the gem it really is. that tightens the experiential tension by momentarily confusing our sense of whose side the artist is on. there is the risk of a devaluation of the referent in the pursuit of an ironic stance. that of the angular look at the status of the art (and also. in proposing his protagonists. which says. and pass it off convincingly in the implosive narrative of a work. could easily have consigned the work to the banality of ‘social comment’ alone. in a work presented in Fukuoka.everything is going to be alright (2000. It is only the real sense of monumentality that Sudarshan imbues the frivolous gaggle of ‘hearts’ with. however.Sudarshan takes significant risks by committing to mimesis. in which the tilted mirror (upon which hovers a petite Narcissa) exaggerates perspectival foreshortening in its distorted shape. pushes the envelope of obviousness in caricature. ‘Consanguinity’. and emphasizes the extra layer of distance that replicas introduce between the perceived sign and its referent. helps relieve the work of the tedious responsibility of succeeding completely at subterfuge. the mannequin (a literally false consciousness if there ever was one!). the complementary whiff of an epic dimension introduced by another component. In fact. This automatically involves an address to the idea of authenticity. For instance there is the obvious risk of surreally transformed replicas lapsing into naïve drama or caricature. Sudarshan does skate close to either edge on different occasions.

with the gift of sharp wit that is the hinge upon which the reflexivity of the works turns. the line of ballet dancers.interrogating the ‘distance’ his objects usually interpose between themselves and their referents through the ambiguousness of their reality. instead. quite unexpectedly. secured their reflexivity by inflecting and re-staging real world objects. the pink horse. In comparison to Consanguinity then. ‘Blood’ is blood. the indirect address to the body that the bleeding trumpet offers. The body is not the terminus of the route to significance here. the ever pervasive menace of inanimate machines. And yet. enacts a possibly fearsome alligator dance. Consanguinity offers a new directness in representing components of works. while simultaneously playing with the distance that such metaphorisation institutes. long ‘tongues’ and pickled ‘eyeballs’ could have easily lapsed into sentimentality. provides the backing up space necessary to be able to view the diverse associations the objects set off. the cow and baby in ‘Home’. and the trumpet is a trumpet (though it is also a species of ‘intestine’). It is revealed. Here the fleshly pink depths of the boat and the aborted lyricism of the groaning violin-dance upon it.the threat to vanished or expected bathers. while preserving a measured ambiguity at the level of the associations they set off. his earlier work appears much quieter. It should be obvious by now that Sudarshan’s works set up a particular conceptual space that is organized around a circuit of deferrals and deflections of the probing and reflective gaze. It is. Here. In the time we spend before the work. more oblique. to have been a proxy for the phenomenon of . and ‘safe’ by its literal subliminality. by introducing a new and self-contradictory directness. or even the caricatured cabinet from Paper Moon. the directness of reference only intensifies experience. so close in fact that one is amazed that any distance for reflection remains at all. A similarly reflexive wit governs the simultaneous invocation of mortality and desire. he complicates his strategy of mimesis and indirect address. from different angles. By contrast. the mannequin in Tiger Lily. a variety of possibilities. Sudarshan is used to speaking of the body through the object and machine. For such distance is still preserved. almost ‘cool’. The direct referentiality of dripping red liquid. the sense of dread that subtle intimations of the machine’s mortality evoke in Sudarshan’s work that provides the ballast to what could have been merely playful explorations into embodiments. while out there. That distance. and hint at a necessary reconciliation between dreams of graceful hedonism and the reality of arthritis. but defer closure on what promise may be read into them. For instance. is itself a second order deferral. Here. That sense of dread evokes the feeling that all this matters. That deferral is complicated by the continuous deflections at the intentional plane. we chuckle at how deep the stab of ‘mere’ fantasy sometimes pushes. He comes close. speak of sensuality and ungainliness as being twinned in sight and action. made fascinating by the rhythmic beauty of its movement. The sudden clatter of their coordinated snipping (at what?!) set off by a sensor which activates the mechanism as soon as anyone comes close. in actual experience. to our bodies. to erasing that critical distance between stand-in and the real thing. we realize. in what I can only call the cello-boat. but not quite. by bringing every event closer to us.have passed behind our minds. They evoke images of great immediacy. finally. Take for instance the array of scissors underwater in the bathtub. water is water.

Sudarshan’s works are thus sometimes revealed as being Trojan horses. is not the space of ready theoretical critiques. Sudarshan’s works continue to be staged in that space of the imagination in which. That tension is a blessing. These objects.on the street or in the kitchen. the blazing pinkness of the rexine shirts takes the breath away at first. for instance. here.are revealed in his work to be the very structural frame upon which may be developed a life-nourishing practice of the imagination. This profound realization of the existential import of banality. the everyday world is both site and resource for the building of significance in our lives.the mere scaffolding of our everyday routines . It must be mined. . which disturbs the objective distance. The giant black hearts provide a contradictory experience of delight in the perverse monumentality of the balloons. and the very rich imaginative superstructures he is able to build upon it. and two. are part of ‘beingly’ experience. inveigling themselves quickly into our consciousness with their direct sensory appeal. thus. It is a sign that we still have modes (and the practitioners) of concretizing a significant response to life that the all powerful word has difficulty reframing. It may be argued that such a practice is not the privilege of the artist alone. They almost always offer images and experiences. which sustains a peculiar tension between word and image. the absorbing ambiguity of the trumpet-intestine is seen to resonate with a level of import beyond the fate of the body it appeared to refer to. is not something that the experience ‘leads to’ and is thus difficult to retell through language without loss of defining nuance. and dread at their demonstrable capacity to blitz the greyness of reality with their dramatic triviality. and may well be delivered in a peculiar amalgam of comment and experience (each undercutting the other).the company of tools and the society of objects is the nourishing matrix of everyday lives. In that it is a poetic quest. The ‘critique’. till suddenly. Given that the phenomena of distance and identification. give to Sudarshan’s work the resonance and endurance only possessed by the richest of fairy tales. is soon forced to turn upon itself. repackaging (and thereby reducing) to fit its own special banality. that are genuinely arresting in themselves. and the objective distance this reading sets up between us and the object. the direct sense of identification that the sight of ‘blood’ automatically sets up. in which the very vividness of an experience raises a flag for the critical viewer. and we never really outgrow the claim of that fluorescence. He works with and thereby illuminates the potentially infinite inward resonances that we can access in real-world objects as well as in their imitations that line middle-class cabinets of stunted curiousities. In the world outside the‘being’. It is rather the force field of elusive irony. And yet. the visibly mechanical fluid circulation system within which the trumpet performs an impersonal ‘digestive’ function. the intensity of the aesthetic experience itself becomes the newer object of critical attention The deeper space of significance that Sudarshan’s work opens up. Our empathy for the bleeding trumpet is founded upon twin footings. The precisely crafted visual shock is almost enough. In a work like ‘Six Ways to Embalm Your Dead’ (1998). the pleasure of our surrender to their charms (and horrors).