A Conversation with TV Santosh
by Anshuman Dasgupta
A conversation between the Art Historian Anshuman Dasgupta and Artist TV Santosh
ADG: What I often wondered about your works is the presence of two different registers of both representation as well as propositional dimensions. One seemed to invoke the stimulatory and mediatic images and another kind of works that are somewhat pastische (e.g. retakes on the past classics- such as Bergman's Seventh Seal along with a scene with lab rats, Holbein's Two Ambassadors and cohabitations like that).Could you please reflect on that?
TV: Yes, my works have gone through several phases of linguistic changes. Sometimes these changes are gradual and at times drastic. Though the linguistic strategies are different at many given points the underlying logic and concerns are more or less the same when seen from a larger perspective. These works that I did during the early 2000 belong to a stage where I had been looking at the history of World War II images. It was almost like an enquiry in to the strategies and political implications of the idea of enemy and the so-called notion of progress.
Interestingly, there is an absurd way of looking at scientific progress in terms of development of weapon technology, in-spite of the fact that the ecosystem is inching towards a great danger due to the side effects of such an evilsome progress. The complex idea of 'enemy' in connection with war and weapon politics is a treacherous reality. That is how both Holbein and Bergman come in to my works through the metaphors of death. In the case of Holbein, his very clever use of the anamorphic image of the skull stands for death and vanity by almost subverting the two ambassador's projected images as two important personalities with the objects of physics and other paraphernalia placed around, that represent the sitter's interest and social status in one of his most famous portrait painting.
In the case of Bergman, when he made the Seventh Seal in 1957, there was lots of death happening around after the World War II, He was possibly asking many eternal and existentialist questions that could be asked at any point in the history of mankind in relation with war, death, religion and God. In this movie death comes as a personification of metaphor. And he tells the story against the backdrop of the Medieval Period when people were dying due to the plague. I wanted to bring it back from a plague-infested era to a war infested modern time. Where death is not happening due to a natural catastrophe but is man made. That is how in my painting titled Metabolism Test, in the foreground there is a rat laboratory where possibly all kinds of wicked experiments take place and in the background there is horizontally stretched, enigmatic image of nuclear mushroom clouds.
Linguistically speaking, these paintings during this time are like reconstructions of metaphorical and historical references. Both fictional and real fused into one image that looks like a poignant moment captured from the history of the black and white era of photography. Yet, unlike a photograph, I wanted these reconstructed images to have the possibility of traveling backwards and forwards in time, opening a window to look into the angst of the future.
This eventually takes me to the next stage of looking; the news report images that deal with very current global happenings in relation with unresolved issues of war and terror. The Idea of 'enemy' increasingly has become more and more complex. Furthermore how the media has the potentiality to manipulate and reconstruct the idea of reality, and an accidental discovery of the 'conceptual possibility of negatives' in relation with fear and terror demanded necessary changes in my linguistic system.
ADG: Coming to the referential world of cinema, how did your interest develop?
TV: I am very fascinated by cinema as a medium. The power of cinema and its ability to translate complex reality is immense. Some of us secretly cherish a dream of making a movie some day.
ADG: Your interest - as is often seen over the last few years veers around the Media derived images, they are like a series, and thematically related - such as war, terror and Surveillance- how did you come to relate them?
TV: In the morning everyday, we start our day with looking at the newspaper. There is some form of war always going on somewhere in some part of the world. There is the war of the powerful and the war of the poor. But whether manipulated or true, the nature of our connection to the outside world is essentially through news media that unroll stories of the massacre of innocents, spectacular highlights of explosions, a flux of faces of people who make headlines, spitting the words of hate and propaganda that just struggle to hide nothing but truth. These news reports are almost like your extended vision. And reconstructing the bits and pieces of truths put together essentially generates a vision or understanding of the world of reality, eventually becoming a layer of experience. This is a part of everyday experience for anyone living in this turbulent time. A hundred years before we did not have this layer of experience, yet human crisis should have been the same. These works have not, in conventional sense, resulted from an 'immediate' experience; rather it is a process of identifying oneself with the world of reality as a subjective experience, in a process of enquiry into the world riddled with human crisis. But if I put it little more lucidly, without losing its complexity, I would say that these works are more perceptual in nature. That is why I may put it, that my works revolve around the question 'who is the real enemy?' This question can be philosophical, political, and as well as ethical. And why am I stuck with this question can be again a subject of enquiry. It needs to be addressed maybe, at much personal level, as being evolved as a person through intense cultural situations of eighties in Kerala made me question a lot of …….
ADG: I remember that you were trained as a sculptor both in Santiniketan and In Baroda. How do you relate to sculpture as a medium today?
TV: Yes, when I came to Santiniketan I was very much excited about the possibilities of sculpture; Sculpture was something new and refreshing to me. There is the strong presence of ground breaking works of Ramkinkar Baij and these were there for everyone to see in Kala Bhavana campus. I remember students used to work on most experimental nature of works for 'Nandan Mela' than in their classrooms. In my case, that initial excitement with sculpture did not last much due to financial difficulties. I remember all through my student days I just struggled to survive.
As far as the history of sculpture is concerned, in last few decades sculpture has undergone a sea change, in terms of the use of space and material and of scale and concept. I still think there are so many possibilities left unexplored in areas of sculpture. The real challenge in sculpture is in dealing with the limitation of the materials. And it involves the process of both exploring the maximum possibilities of each material employed as well incorporating non-traditional sculptural materials. That is how the use of LED scrolling text panels comes into being. Unlike the text I used in my early paintings, which was my own writings, the texts used for those sculptures were re-edited versions of the testimonies of the victims of violence. In the works like A Room to Pray the LED panels placed on the floor of a room constructed of bones, play the role of an 'image' of a burning carpet of letters. Those testimonies allowed me to connect with history on a different level, reminding us of the absurdities and cruelties of our dark time.
ADG: There were also a very drastic transformation in terms of attitude and level of engagement so far as one compares your sculptural engagement and the painterly practice if one compares the two. How do you reckon that?
TV: There was a time when I could do both sculpture and painting simultaneously as a parallel practice influencing each other. But at one point of time painting took an unexpected direction and there was a long gap of not being able to do anything in sculpture. And when once I managed to come back to sculpture I had to go back in time to where I had stopped in order to get a link to start it afresh. Essentially the context and concerns of all my works remain the same but linguistic systems are not the same. Also in the case of sculpture there are chances of drastic changes from one set of works to another. My sculpture's logic of language is very similar to the paintings of my monochromatic period. There are several layers of associations, the use of scrolling text adds to it. In both cases, there is this same system of incorporating images from history and the idea of reconstructing metaphors with the real. In many sculptures this 'real' from history is so intense that it crosses to the extent of the surreal. Like thirty soldier dogs standing in a military formation with timer devices attached on to their backs have a very strange, disturbing historical connection. It is during the Second World War that some countries used dogs as suicide bombers. They train them in such a way that they would starve the dogs and then send them to find the food items placed under military tanks. So in the actual war field they attach time bombs on to the dogs and send them into the enemy's field, exploding themselves and the enemy's military tank in the process of a search of food.
ADG: Coming down to the media derived images- to me they suggest a kind of repetition etc. does it also not pitch an argument, even if by default, against the argument of originality? If so, can it be seen as a contrasting side to the more creatively engaged Santosh with the past art scenes, while the stimulatory works may suggest another ambience, another atmosphere?
TV: We have seen it in history that those who created works by questioning and problematizing the idea of originality and authorship, ironically enough eventually have been considered to be the most original artists and authors of ground breaking postmodernist discourse. Some negate originality in order to be original. History has an eccentric law of cyclical dynamics that unsettle first and then recondition it. We know that ancient eastern aesthetics did not worry much about the element of originality. We almost know where and why such theories emerge at a specific moment in history. I believe that originality is a natural outcome of an artist's creative potentiality that involves both his conceptual and practical abilities, whether he is against or for it. In my case, frankly speaking, if you mean by 'repetition' an overuse of a system of language for a stretched period then it is partially because of my inability to find a new direction in a creative process and partially because those unresolved stories I deal with are nevertheless becoming more and more relevant and complex. Or if you mean 'repetition' in a sense, as a 'system of reproductions' of already existing media generated, collective visual memory, then in my case, there is no intention of questioning the idea of originality nor does the question of originality itself interest me much. Even though, theoretically my works, in some way, seem to be addressing this issue I am not giving much importance to it, mainly because I consider my practice involves a definite process of reconstructing conceptual imageries. Possibly, there is another way of looking at it. There is a need to reinterpret what is the fundamental role of an artist's subjective as well as perceptual experiences in his creative process. Well, I may be taking it to another level, but essentially, it is about the reality we perceive and experience, through whatever means. There are distinct linguistic differences between both stimulatory and mediatic phases; it is like a previous phase became a catalyst for the next one. And I hope the next level is already evolving.
Image Courtesy: The Guild Gallery