“What is the role of the artist in the construction of a common history? What is the place for personal memory in this history?”1
The image of a circus is typically lead back to a large, occasional public entertainment taking place under a tent, which is significantly far from the original meaning of the term, as it refers to a circular, roofless arena where chariot races and public games were organised to entertain the Roman public during the empire. It was a strategy to disrupt attention from more urgent issues, and one that has proved to be effective over centuries, as the Latin adagio says “Panem et Circenses” (Bread and Circus Games) as a social measure to reduce political tensions.
Alaa Edris’ Circus includes some visual elements tracing back to the classical context: the architecture –although invisible in its entirety- is in fact what remains of an ancient amphitheater, with no further connotation to allow its recognition; the human presence is represented (almost magnified by means of focus in the polaroid films), as a polarizing element; the column drums both embody a sense of decay, of unscrupulously retained past and the sense of a repetition, naturally embedded in and cleverly implied by the circular shape of the fragments.
History repeats itself, as it would a musical refrain, yet it sometimes allows margins for ironic distortion. The ancient ruins, once celebrated and then abandoned, become a metaphor for the ascending/descending parabola, as the past seems to suggest, and even imply, that any (political, cultural, social, etc.) rise will inevitably be followed by a fall. While replacing the games and races of classic memory, a woman stands alone in the arena, a veiled woman, entirely out of context, since women portrayed in their modesty have been systematically, and almost institutionally, excluded from any public representation both in the antiquity and in more recent times, with the exclusion of an intentional promotion of virtuous behaviour.
But is it the case here?
The allusion to the circularity of Time is insistently reminded by all three works presented: the framing of the antiqued polaroid almost resulting in a peephole for a voyeuristic view is counterbalanced by the neatness of the enlarged, lit column drums, while the short looped video encapsulates the grandeur of a lost past in the dynamic quality of the medium, thus condemning the action to an endless repetition.
Illusion is a semper-present element in Edris’ work -almost an archive, in its collection and recreation of images, old myths, and more recent marketed dreams- rendered through overlapping layers, both physical and metaphoric, in a process that disrupts and distorts perception, imposing a revision of preconceived, accepted or otherwise absorbed, narratives.
“The question of the archive is not […] a question of the past […] It is a question of the future, the question of the future itself, the question of response, of a promise and of a responsibility for tomorrow.”
- Cristiana de Marchi
Methods of Memory and Materials of Recollecting
In the works of Chittrovanu Mazumdar, history is not just an ‘angel’ caught in the troubled winds of time. History that separates itself from its own textual coding, here comes to play the role of a ‘being’ that witnesses the accumulated sediments caused by the troubled winds of time. These sediments fall in layers, submerging the contextual meanings with the textual, facts with myths and knowledge with mysteries. In this continuum of witnessing there is only one perceivable moment, which we qualify as ‘reality’. In Mazumdar’s own words, ‘reality is an epiderm that wraps up the essential layers; the core.’ Then Mazumdar’s creative act is an act of incision made upon this skin, not always with clinical precision, but most often with methodical madness. The artistic subjectivity is called for a surreal meeting with the solitary angel of history in a desolated field, where they engage themselves in a dialogue to analyze the meanings of sedimentation.
Mazumdar, while talking about his works uses the analogy of digging. Before we go at length into this analogy, let us consider the materials that the artist uses to produce his works- wood, tar, wax, ceramic flowers, iron, and light. I find an interesting connection between these materials and a miner’s work, and his findings. The analogy of digging has a lot to do with the artist’s approach to history and the history of materials. Searching into the process of sedimentation for digging out ‘meanings’, resonates with the act of mining. In this process, several lost layers are recollected, recounted and made available for further use.
The found materials become source materials for ‘products’ and ‘byproducts’. The materials turn themselves into a language in order to join an already established linguistic system, paving way for industrial products (when the symbolism of the materials is divested from the act of implementation) and poetry (when the symbolism of the materials is treated and asserted in the linguistic plane). Mazumdar’s surreal meeting with history results into poetry of materials, may be of epic dimensions, especially when he says, ‘these works are almost like recollection of memories’. Mazumdar deflects the possible accusations of being a romantic (as in ‘poetry is memories recollected in tranquility) by fundamentally displacing tranquil thinking with physical action of layering and de-layering through pouring molten materials on to the surfaces of his choice.
It is an inevitability that in a material saturated world one slips from the exceptional and special to the generic and quotidian. According to Mazumdar, ‘we stand before a vast ocean of materials’ and the very vastness makes the choice difficult for an artist. Mazumdar’s interest in tar as a possible artistic material starts from his understanding of it as one of the most familiar industrial byproducts. Its inherent darkness that ‘annihilates light’ is an everyday truth. It submerges, layer up and suffocates what is lying beneath with its fierce strength to hold things together. By layering the pictorial surfaces with tar, Mazumdar attributes metaphorical values to this material, which could in turn suggest how the troubled winds of time generate tar like sediments that submerge what has been gone beneath before.
While tar is an industrial byproduct, wax is the byproduct of an organic action. However, both share the same property of layering things down; they can submerge what has gone before. Though the artist uses the same physical act of pouring molten wax on the plywood surface, the same way he does the pouring of tar on iron sheets, he creates an irony of meaning by revealing their ‘thing-ness’. Light plays the role of an external attribute emphasizing the organic-inorganic differences of the materials and their colors. Wax, being pale white, reflects light and the parallelism becomes all the more interesting. While tar annihilates light/life, wax gives out the suggestion of it being the light-giver/life-giver. In the relationship of ironies that Mazumdar creates, once again the quotidian material falls into focus.
Perhaps, the production of a deliberate narrative is not the aim of Mazumdar. In his surreal confrontation with the angel of history, what he envisions is a huge time-scape that encompasses all what have gone between genesis and now. The hi/story of genesis cannot go without a story or a quasi history. By looking at the juxtapositions and parallels that he creates out of the installation of his works one can make out how the artist consciously employs a larger narrative structure (thanks to the expanse of it we tend to see only the abstracted fragments of it) that starts from the ‘aum’ sound of the ‘origin’ and ends up with the electronically generated sounds of the contemporary times.
There is no easy viewing as far as Mazumdar’s works are concerned. Each gaze, each glance and each looking has to have a conscious effort. Mazumdar makes this demand on the viewers by not only loading his creative surfaces with layers but also by creating fragmented but rhythmic grids. Viewing is ruptured through these grids and in these ruptures one is forced to search for the lost. Interestingly, Mazumdar himself says that his works indicate a search; a search for the lost world. These grids makes the viewing an act of ‘confrontation’ and ‘conscious’ as if one were to sit up and work on a set of jigsaw blocks.
History shimmers in Chittrovanu Mazumdar’s works. How does an art collector approach these works with a lot of unconventional materials involved in the making? Are they durable? Tar is a durable material. So is wax. Both the materials can withstand the room temperature and a slightly increased amount of heat. Mazumdar does not treat the surfaces specially for increasing the durability or glaze. As these are time tested materials in other fields, they respond in the same way when they are brought into the art environs.