What makes us who we are? Does history hold any significance in our postmodern lives? Will virtual concepts eventually dictate real-time lives? Through various media, artist Baiju Parthan attempts to answer these questions and inspect the “philosophical implications” of technology.
His canvases juxtapose the markings of the virtual world with those of the real, and through it remarks on our lives run by devices. “Our realities are changing,” says Parthan. “This is what communication technology is doing to us. It plays havoc with distances and interactions.”
Take two: Parthan with two untitled works to be exhibited at the show.
In his next exhibition, Liquid Memory+Rant, at the Capital’s Vadehra Art Gallery, 51-year-old Parthan’s recent works will amplify his quandaries about the wired world. And, he does it by employing the very thing that is his favourite dissertation topic: technology. Parthan passes pictures he is working with through an ASCII editor, which reads images. “I use the program to look within images and break them down to the codes that make an image. Once it is read like that, it has no historical perspective, no story,” says Parthan, who duplicates that code on to his canvases.
At his suburban studio in Mumbai, his study table is a cacophony of wires and metal: A computer screen borders a 32-inch Samsung plasma, there are three external hard drives on the floor, a card reader, a DVD writer, and a Dopod phone. Technology has been his constant companion since the mid-1990s, when he first learned to manoeuvre his way around it. “I’m an insider. I reflect on the world I live in, and I engage in it,” he says.
But his engagement with the art world has not been a long one; just about 20 years. In the years during the Emergency, he was just a botany student who was flirting with civil engineering as an option for further studies. “I was trying to fit in,” he says of his immediate environment in the communist hotbed of Kerala.
A chance reading of Harold Rosenberg’s The Anxious Object changed Parthan’s course forever, and he took off to Goa to study art. But art school, with its predisposition for Western art, put him off, and he decided to never paint again. Instead, he took up a job as an illustrator, first with Science Today, and then with Illustrated Weekly of India. “I made Rs300 a month; I survived because there was a canteen at the Science Today office that served meals for 50 paise,” Parthan remembers. (His works are now sold for more than Rs4 lakh.)
He returned to art after a break of about three years. Parthan’s earlier works were marked with mythology, shamanism and areas related to his studies in comparable mythology at Bombay University. So when, in November, Time magazine said of Parthan that he has “abandoned a financial sure bet—mystical paintings—for a more avant-garde series”, it was a rather constricted look at his works. Because even though he is definitely of the here and now, his pieces such as Ancestral Presence—Missing Link Series are definitely mystical and metaphysical, even animistic. And abstract themes are not unique for an artist who says the absurdity of human life bothers him. “I have watched the last 20 years go by like 20 days; I haven’t had a chance to assimilate life. If the next 20 years also go by like that, then it bothers me a lot,” says Parthan.
At a time when even artists seem like practical beings who must work with market compulsions to make a mark, Parthan stands in a corner, decidedly refusing to engage with art openings and launch parties. “I don’t trust the establishment. I am always on the periphery.” He says he sticks to solos now and only when they come to him, and he’s still uncomfortable with his place in the world. “If you get too comfortable, then your art dies,” he says. “There must always be a kernel of discontent.”
At his studio, an amplified guitar stands next to a high-legged bar stool, and dusty Bob Dylan CDs on the shelves. You can visualize Parthan, a product of the flower power era of Goa, take a break from his painting with some amplified blues, playing and painting for himself.
Liquid Memory+Rant will be on till 15 January at Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi.