The spectacle of forgotten societies

Bruises on the leaves of a plant, brutally etched with the urge to announce young love. Lost in the remoteness of an infamous ‘lovers park’, the gapping wounds on leafs make for a compelling image, but only someone, who cares to engage with the invisible and the insignificant would notice. An artist does, and picks op the plant (shoots an photograph), brings it into his studio, and carefully overlays the wounds with soft translucent paper, healing the wounds (layering his visual), and re habilitating it within the discourse of contemporary urbanity.

It seems a shade out of fashion at the present time, to dwell upon the materials used by artists and an artist’s formal intention, at a time when ‘concept’ and ‘context’ take precedence. This article chooses the domain of the unfashionable, perhaps on a cue from the artist’s work. His is an art of constant subversion of the fashionable, in the manner that motifs are chosen, rendered and images presented. Samit Das’s urge to mark upon and undermine the finished surface, gives one the impression that he shares a Jamesonian lament about the postmodern celebration of surface-ciality. This neo-Marxist engagement with culture has become unfashionable in this neo liberal world, but then maybe (again) here fashion is being rethought via a leftist disengagement.

Samit works with photo prints and painting mostly on the same surface. He shoots a large number of images mostly from the city or architectural spaces. But there are three clear trends in the images he shoots. Sometimes he will shoot extreme close up of city walls…will the dirt and graffiti (primeval instincts of the middle class), or sometimes he will shoot an object or a part of architecture…purely for the aesthetics of the frame, other times…he does more documentary style photography where in he travels and documents changes in urban visual culture or planning. These very different formal impulses, almost always co-exist within a single work of art, layering one other, almost duplicating the city through its stratified play of surfaces through a fragmented representation over layered with scratching, paints and collage combined with digital manipulations.

These chaoses studded across the earth-scape (called The City), has historically been linked to the rise of the middle class, and a lot of the cultural discourse of early modernity has been around the lived experience of the middle class in these urban centers. This class which was previously central to the imagination of modernity, and the cornerstone of culture formation, increasingly has become marginal in the global imaginations of urbanity which is being increasingly centered on a late capitalist, neo liberal re-presentation of the urban and urbanity. Samit Das is engrossed with the marginal, but not limited by it, and often chooses to engage with the play between marginality and mainstream status of objects, spaces and lifestyle. The Hindu mainstream, it is not marginal by far, but the popular Hindu road side deities are marginal within art discourse. So when he does a photo series on the gigantic Hanuman near Carol Bagh (New Delhi), he orients our focus to aspects of the cities visual culture ignored within the white cube, yet the manner in which he frames the icon captures the looming saffronization of the Indian mainstream popular culture. The image of a richly saffron hanuman dominating, and looming over a flyover captures the state of late-capitalist development which is slowly dominating the culture-scape of contemporary India.

When he does a photo shoot of the Gurgaon – Delhi road, and all the flyover construction, he is framing the mainstream, and the manifestation of its notion of development. Then again, he is not really interested in the concrete magnificence of the flyover, for the artist the under construction fly over is a pre forgotten site, inhabited and built by the immigrant workers, visually embodying the debris of their makeshift occupation. The artist layers it up, setting it against the backdrop of a gargantuan city, interweaving within it a narrative laced with the elements of the spectacle, class violence and human empathy.

There is an engagement with both the picturesque and the popular in his framings, but he locates the picturesque within neglected urban contexts…desolate leaves in isolated parks, old mosques subsumed by contemporary apartment blocks, graffiti etched walls noticed only by unfashionable lovers, a lonely tap leaking in search for its context…all these motifs dominate his visuality. Somehow all this always carries the memories of his middle class origins …and has connections with his cultural roots…there is nostalgia…but he also looks the middleclass in a catch 22….dominant, but in the margins.

For him the middle class is also a class which is privileged and cursed to have to constantly role play in terms of class identity, having to be equally comfortable with slums and heritage hotels. Thus any individual (agent) from the middle class carries layers of experiences. Seeking a journey of growth and development, but somehow never forgetting those crowded journies in public transport even while driving his/her plush SUV. I somehow feel that this picture of the middle class which the frames for himself informs his relationship with the materiality of artistic production. The artist has a knack for the low tech, though he is extremely comfortable with high technology, and that comes in his material wood, photo copies, high quality prints, digital layering, and complex use of paper.

Similarly, the artist’s entire training and exposure layers up in his works. Government art college drawing, Shantiniketan water color, his travels across euro-American residencies….you can see it all there, but layered and re used. Much like the way he does his visuals, he has a huge archive of clicked images and the often reworks them completely….like cutting it up and redisplays his older work. This reuse of motifs, creating clichés and reworking them is a strategy Samit learns from the popular, in the domain of which one can reclaim and re appropriate the past without being burdened by its historicity, or being weighed down by the high modernist anxieties over ‘repeating’. Thus one sees Samit Das focuses on the middleclass objects and environments… gives them iconic status (which is often an intertextual iconicity built up as images get used reused over periods of time thorough different bodies of work).

There is this synchrony in the manner in which values inform his formal, content, and display strategies but in the display strategy his interest in the architectural urban space is spelt out. This compliments his engagement with urban marginality…of both human and space. What do linkages and intertextualities (if modes and strategies can be read as texts) between the formal approach, content and modes of display do to the aesthetic value of an object? Answering this question maybe crucial as one tries to locate his artistic practice within the re formulating spectrum of contemporanity in Indian art.

The manner in which he mixes his media…the self consciousness about the various mediums and their politics, the manner in which he appropriates photography in to painting (and vice-versa?), and the of the range of formal and media-tic values that inform his works, are these in dialogue with his engagement with urban marginality…of both human and space? There is a manner in which the artist constantly resists the temptation to aestheticise his three/two dimensional objects, and paintings. They, though very skillfully put together, carry the roughness of a middleclass locality, rather than the glitz ness of a mall.

I visited his framer’s workshop along with the artist, and saw his works preciously framed behind glass. Much later, visiting his studio, I asked whether he was disturbed by how his rich reworking of surfaces gets single layered by the glass, resulting in his multiple layerings being transformed into a single image. The artist’s answer was revealing. Acknowledging a discomfort, he expressed a feeling of helplessness as not being able to do away with the need to protecting the surface, in part lamenting the lack of alternatives, then going on to say that he was planning his display in a manner though which he hoped would subvert the lustrous finished-hood, that his works now embody. Samit has always shown the keenness to break the four white walls of the galleries in which he has shown in, expressing discomfort with the formal values of the ‘white cube’, and realizing that those straight walls, impose an order on ‘the city’, taking over the chaos induced spectacle he so celebrates.

His use of materials and techniques would seem to have their rooting in the European modernist tradition, by this I refer to his use of collage, and the graffiti. Both have their origins in the heady days of the European avant-garde, but such readings of trajectories will be valid only if one has to draw Samit Das into an Euro-American centric discourse. If one chooses to look beyond that discursive framework, then one notices that the artist draws inspiration from the collage he sees forming on the walls of the walls of the cities…stickers, pamphlets, political movie posters. Similarly with graffiti and over marking, the artists often see them as gestural and violent, and the celebration of ‘intuitive’ mark making is almost Greenbergian. Then again, Samit was taken up by graffiti, as the omnipresent mode of popular expression in the public sphere. This is not to say that the artist was insulated form the modernist avant-garde. Certainly the history of collage, and the gestural gave Samit a certain feeling of legitimacy during his formative years, but (just) maybe, it is more appropriate to say that he finds different predecessors, and different inspiration…both combining to give conviction to his formal impulses.

A half open lock clicked many years ago finds place amongst an ordered chaos of translucent paper, and an carefully chosen arbitrary shred of an old silver gelatin print. The lock’s iconicity (underlined by the outlines of its shadow) is undermined by the layered scratchy background which almost creates a feeling of monochromatic wholeness. There is no story being told, but instead we have stories unfolding in tranquil simultaneity. The open lock as a motif is an oxymoron, inviting one to imagine what has been left released by the lock. The recurrence of the motif across the body of artist’s works invites one to conjure a story around the artists fascination for the motif…but these are not stories one can tell discounting the markings and the orchestrated violence of lines dominating the background, interfered with by the soothing translucence of the rice paper layering.

Latika Gupta

Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. (1991) Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Kant after Duchamp, Encyclopedia Of AestheticsEdited by Michael Kelly.–New York, NY:

OxfordUniversity Press, August 1998

Clement GreenbergAvant Garde Attitudes (1968), http://www.sharecom.ca/greenberg/avantgarde.html

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