“Amrit”: A Poetic Meta-Exhibition

Sunanda K Sanyal

(Catalog Essay: Maya Art Space, Kolkata, India, 2015)

Four white horses stand atop tall columns, surveilled by a series of watchful painted eyes; two bowl-like objects rest on a padded bench; a two-part slab with its own ocular sits on a tall wooden stool; seven white horses, standing in a row on a horizontal metal beam, confront a dark painted surface; dense, vertical rows of manufactured ceramic electrical accessories hang on the wall in a picture frame, flanked overhead by two painted panels… This is a glimpse of Partha Dasgupta’s ceramic installation Amrit. What are we looking at here? Are these replicas of archaeological remnants of a civilization that we have yet to understand? Or perhaps they are imagined metonyms from our own forgotten past, waiting for us to decode them in our current crisis as a culture and reconstruct memories of our histories and legacies? If some practicing ceramists are puzzled, or even disappointed by the exhibition, by that same token, some sculptors are likely to be energized by it. Either way, the response would stem from the fact that the ceramic objects, albeit central to the display, are but components of a broader intermedia conversation between ceramics, sculpture, and painting.

Those who know about my persistent critique of the rhetoric of high modernism might wonder why I support the work of this mid-career ceramist-painter, who not only has always maintained a careful distance from the postmodernist experiments that have dominated contemporary Indian art in the recent years, but who is also deeply invested in form, process, and authorship, among other things. A fair question indeed; and the purpose of this essay, in a way, is to respond to it. But in order to cover certain broader implications of my response, I want to cast my net wider, around a discussion of the contemporary relevance of the notion of medium in the visual arts, before turning to Dasgupta’s work.

Sculpture, ceramics, and the question of dematerialization

If one is asked to identify the most basic medium of expression in the visual arts, clay modeling might seem the most logical answer. Yet it is not. Despite involving one of the most primordial matters that is shaped by human touch, clay modeling unambiguously shares the same corporeality with its surroundings, manifested in its three-dimensionality. This tangibility of the product undermines the immediacy of the act of modeling (or of carving, for that matter) by restricting its status as an illusion of the tangible world, since, as an illusion, it ‘fails’ to be at least one step removed from that world (needless to say, this issue becomes more complicated for an object made through an indirect sculptural process, such as casting or firing). Painting –or more broadly, any form of two-dimensional mark-making— is the exact opposite of this. Nothing is more visceral than making a mark on a surface; it is the most direct and immediate act of producing an image.[1] And the outcome of this act is irrefutably an illusion, a complete fiction of corporeality on a flat surface that in no way interferes with the immediacy of its process of making. In other words, contrary to that of a three-dimensional image (sculpture), the process of making a two-dimensional image (painting) is direct, and its product –again, unlike that of a sculptural process– is more securely an illusion. This is why even a so-called realistic painting is always primarily rooted in imagination, even if meticulously informed by observation of corporeality. From this perspective, then, the most realistic painting is, conceptually speaking, more abstract than the most abstract sculpture.

Because of this tension between two- and three-dimensionality, painting in Western thinking, from the Renaissance until the end of the nineteenth century, always had a higher status as art than sculpture. Curiously, however, with the advent of modernism, it was sculpture, limited to statuary for centuries, which opened up for dialogue with the already changing practice of painting. On the one hand was the emergence –through the cubist experiments of Braque and Picasso– of construction as an alternative to the additive and subtractive processes of sculpture. On the other hand was the primacy of idea and chance encounter over object, initiated by Dada and Surrealism, most aggressively by Duchamp’s Readymades. These critical investigations of ontological questions of two- and three-dimensionality deconstructed sculpture to the extent that it shed its allegiance to its mandated materials –stone, bronze, wood—and eventually embraced virtually everything, from found objects and photographs to the human body, space, and light. It even extended to considering a painting –traditionally valued for the image on its surface and not for its objecthood– as an object, with a physicality and spatial role comparable to that of sculpture. In fact, dematerialization have so blurred the boundaries of the term ‘sculpture’ that it has often turned out to be inadequate in discussions of contemporary art; rather, it has been reinterpreted as an “expanded field”.[2] In that sense, sculpture now is more a mode of representation than a ‘medium’.

Why, then, has ceramics remained outside the purview of this expanded field of sculpture? The ready answer to this question is what is known as the ‘craft argument’, which has two sides to it. One is from the high modernist lexicon, where ‘craft’ is structurally opposed to the notion of ‘art’, fraught with connotations of inferiority. Needless to say, this old art/craft hierarchy today appears way too reductive than some diehard loyalists of postwar high modernism –particularly of the American kind– would have us believe. But the other interpretation of ceramics’ identity as craft, offered by the discourse of ceramics itself, has a very different dynamic. As Jo Dahn points out in an informative essay on the current state of conceptual ceramics, it is “…an ideal that owes much to William Morris’s utopian socialist view of craft production as unalienated labor.”[3] In short, ceramists are commonly proud to see themselves as practitioners of ceramics as a craft. Central to this argument is the question of material: unlike sculpture in the discourse of contemporary art, the medium of ceramics is fundamentally defined by its material –such as clay—as well as by the specific process of transforming clay into the final product. Too deeply entrenched in its own discourse as a medium to be dematerialized, ceramics is thus resistant to participating in any open dialog with other modes of representation.

It is due to this separate-but-equal gesture that ceramics has always had a rather curious status in the discourse of modern and contemporary art. Its position is somewhat like that of a live-in relative in an extended family home– that ageing, wise aunt who everyone is fond of, who has her own space, allowance, even some authority around the house, but who is never officially invited to the family dinner. The discipline has had its specific niche within the art world all along, with a more prominent presence than, for instance, metalwork, glasswork, weaving, fiber art, etc. It is respectfully taught in most art schools, and has its own hierarchies, journals, curatorial practice, audience, and market. And yet it remains, at best, a marginal insider to the art world. Even though many megastars of modernism –Picasso, for one—seriously experimented with it at some points in their careers, ceramics hardly had any notable role –far less than, say, printmaking– in the dominant shifts in the history of modernism. What is more, in a country like India, which has much stronger legacies of ceramic practice than any Western society (the making and use of ceramic objects are integral to the lived experience in many sectors of Indian society), its status in the discourse of modern and contemporary Indian art is not radically different from that in the West.

And yet, as Dahn reports, in a “steadily expanding” field, many ceramists today “…seek a symbiotic relationship between idea and object”, challenging, if not totally transgressing, its material precondition.[4] It is in this context of a ceramist’s challenge to the lack of elasticity of the medium that I see the creative enterprise of Partha Dasgupta. What draws me to Dasgupta’s work is not that it is obedient to –or conversely, defiant of– the boundaries that define ceramics; rather, while acknowledging them, it manipulates those limits and punctures them to broaden the scope of the medium and explore its discursive possibilities, particularly in dialog with painting.

A drifter in the house

Still clinging to its colonial roots, the curriculum of Kolkata’s Government College of Art and Craft has long outlived its relevance; in fact, it seems to be in a time warp. Previously an aspiring painter, Dasgupta entered the Department of Ceramics and Pottery at this institution much as a drifter, only after he failed to qualify for admission to the painfully clichéd Western Painting program. His choice of this particular field as an alternative to painting was largely influenced by the late Badhan Das, that legendary teacher at the art school who served as his mentor, encouraging him to think outside the box. Furthermore, even as a ceramist, Dasgupta never acquired a high level of skill in wheel-throwing, which is considered the epitome of mastery in ceramics, pursuing instead the slab-building technique and laboriously perfecting it over the years.[5] Finally, he was never formally trained in painting. Not a hardcore insider to either ceramics or painting, he is thus unburdened by many of the hierarchies of both fields. This non-conventional position on both fronts has benefitted him in unforeseeable ways, not least in granting him a spirit of freedom.

Dasgupta, however, is fully aware of the difference in the meaning of the term ‘freedom’ between the more elastic medium of painting and the norm-based ceramics. In the latter, for example, freedom must be exercised with due respect for the norms of process in order to achieve any meaningful results, for any serious lapse in the steps would yield nothing. But far from stifling him, this compliance with the specificities of ceramic process complements his adventurous forays into uncharted territories with a form of discipline that is crucial to any rebellious gesture; in fact, his diligence to process paradoxically offers him opportunities to tease and tweak those very norms. For instance, an impressive knowledge of a wide array of firing and glazing techniques, combined with a deep understanding of the resilience of clay under varying temperature allows him to play with a stunning range of painterly mark-making on the ceramic surface. The lines, tones and textures almost magically disguise the sense of fixity that results from firing and glazing, offering instead the immediacy and fluidity of painted surface. Dasgupta consciously approaches ceramics as a medium closely tied to painting, despite the indirect nature of its process. “From its process to visuality”, he explains, “surface or painterly quality always exists, and it’s treated that way.”[6] His approach to painting, however, is much freer in its bold exploration of form through process, unhindered by his lack of a rigorous background in observational drawing. It is as if he lets go of all the vigilance required of ceramics for a visceral, intuitive engagement with paint and canvas. Shapes and motifs from his ceramic projects, albeit radically transformed, often appear in his paintings, as if to revel in their newfound identity as fictions at one remove from corporeality, an existence complementary to their other, tangible selves rendered in ceramics. Such a strong symbiosis between ceramics and painting, maintained with acknowledgment of the norms of both, yet without subservience to the mandates of either, is evidence indeed of a drifter at work.[7]

Stelae, 2015.

The exhibits, though, have more discursive functions. First, the objects are predominantly architectonic in structure. Built unit by unit, they echo the basic formal property of slab-building, the foundation of Dasgupta’s ceramic process. He openly admits that this is a challenge to the stereotypical notion of organicity as an innate property of ceramic objects.[8] But it goes beyond that, as Dasgupta drastically manipulates vantage and scale to repeatedly alter the beholder’s sense of space vis-à-vis the objects. While we look down at the more intimate Amrit, we confront our own scale when facing The Stele, Taranga, and Horses on Pillars, before feeling like giants in front of the humorously titled The King Kong Point, faintly evocative of skyscrapers. The mode of reception changes yet again as we come face-to-face –slightly above eye-level– with the encased twins of Manuscript, which, rather than sharing our space, appear like tableaux on the wall. Needless to say, special attention to lighting, cast according to the desired mood of each exhibit, crucially contributes to the total experience of one’s perusal of the gallery. More common in sculptural installations, such multiple approaches to scale and points of view testify to Dasgupta’s interest in poking at the limits of the norms of ceramic display to make it communicate with the dynamics of a sculptural installation.

Amrit, 2015.

A more remarkable strategy along this line is his experiment with the base and the pedestal. The base, usually a physical extension of a sculpture, is meant for stability, whereas the pedestal is an external support with a crucial ontological role –much like that of the frame of a picture– of marking the boundaries between corporeality and its illusion, between signifier and referent, while itself remaining neutral. The moment the pedestal is tampered with and given a specific identity, provocative questions are raised about the distinctions between object and sculpture, between reality and representation. This is why it has been central to the deconstructive experiments with sculpture since the early years of modernism, evident in some of the early work of Brancusi, followed by those of Duchamp. As usual, Dasgupta adopts multiple approaches to the base and the pedestal, though for most of the exhibits in this show, the two collapse into one. Of the eight pieces not displayed on the wall, only one (Horses on Pillars) has pedestals made of both ceramics and metal. Four of the others use wooden structures (The Stele, Taranga, The King Kong Point, Stelae) ; one is a heavy, horizontal metal beam (The Fleet) ; another, a low, padded bench (Amrit); and finally, metal cubes (Samudramanthan). While each option offers a case for a rich discussion, I shall comment on the predominant one. The low wooden structure used in three of the pieces is actually a cross between a seat and a floor-desk, known in Bengali as jalchouki. Traditionally a writing-desk, it is now commonly found in the shrine-room (thakurghor) of nearly every traditional Bengali Hindu home, where it usually serves as the sacred throne or footstool for home deities. Thus, used in the exhibition context, it immediately sheds its tradition of neutrality and becomes an active part of the work, raising at least two issues: first, it provokes us to ask how and when a quotidian object becomes a work of art; on the other hand, for those who are familiar with its extraneous context, the object situated on it becomes loaded with complex connotations grounded in the local culture. What is more, aside from appearing in two colors (wood and black), this seat/desk/throne/footstool sits on top of a much taller version of itself in two of the four exhibits (Stelae and The Stele). This double-tier approach, in which the taller structure is not a common cultural object but an invention of the artist, accentuates the shorter one as well as the object that sits on it. Such explorations of the pedestal strongly contribute to the courtship of the ceramic objects with the discourse of sculpture, without compromising their own identity.

Stela, 2015.

Horses on Pillars, 2015.

Finally, what I find most important in Dasgupta’s attempt as a ceramist-painter to reach out to the expanded field of sculpture is a strong sense of totality in his work. While each of the exhibits has a distinct title and identity, ‘piece’ or ‘work’ is perhaps a misnomer for them; ‘ensemble’ would be a more appropriate label. Each object, its pedestal(s), and the accompanying painting(s) form an ensemble. Even the ones without any painting (Amrit, Manuscript, Taranga, The Stele) share formal and structural kinships with the ones that do, ultimately bonded by the strategically arranged lights. Vigorously interacting with the gallery space to create an environment, the entire display thus powerfully vindicates the truism that the whole is more than the sum total of the parts.

King-Kong Point, 2015.

Samudra Manthan, 2015.

This installation strategy with crucial attention to the totality of effect in the gallery is a bold translation of Dasgupta’s collaborative work in fabricating the public space of the pandals of Durga Pujo. Over the last couple of decades, institutionally trained artists have taken leading roles in embellishing the pandals of this most important annual festival in Bengali culture. Yet the question of the relevance of these projects to local contemporary art has hardly received any critical attention.[9] While many of the artists working in this arena claim to keep it separate from their studio projects, Dasgupta is not one of them: he consciously carries his technical and conceptual expertise to the designing of pandals, and in return, brings back the learning experience from there to the studio. For example, he has used a variety of utilitarian ceramic objects, such as bricks, roof tiles and manufactured electrical accessories to produce highly innovative designs in his Pujo projects. On the other hand, the lessons he learned from the arduous task of integrating the physical space of a pandal into a design for public consumption has become influential in his exploitation of the gallery space to produce a total effect. This environmental effect, I believe, is the culmination of all of Dasgupta’s creative inquiries into the discursive potential of ceramic, painting, and sculpture, which is why it provides the context for my concluding observations.

Fleet, 2015.

Manuscript, 2015.

Although several of the ensembles have a noticeable anthropomorphic appeal (Samudramanthan, The Stele, Taranga, Horses on Pillars, Stelae), the individual objects and the architectonic structures to which they contribute are made up of distinctly quasi-abstract forms. What is more, they possess a strong sense of lyricism. In addition to the occasional writings on some of the surfaces, there are subtle syntactic links that connect the forms to shape a deeply personal visual poetry, which inevitably provokes a reaction –favorable or not—from the beholder; it is difficult to walk through the gallery and remain dispassionate. Yet this is by no means a formalist experiment, for almost every ensemble in the display has a referential role. Situated on wooden pedestals and displayed under focused light, the objects in Stelae, Taranga and The Stele acquire a sacred aura reminiscent of Hindu shrines with non-figurative objects serving as foci of devotional attention; the marks and tones on their surfaces mimic the patina on such shrine objects, suggesting sustained use and weathering. Furthermore, while the two bowl-like components of Amrit are hard surfaces sharply contrasted by the softness of the padded bench, they also recall clay plates used to hold food offerings in Hindu rituals.[10] Moving on to Samudramanthan, it is not difficult to see the shadow of a rural couple in the two phallic shapes, each of which is topped with a hoe blade balancing a ceramic block on it. In short, the objects in the exhibition are anything but self-referential. But as soon as such extraneous ties are recognized, the question posed at the beginning of this essay resurfaces: what are we looking at here?

Specimens, 2015

That the ensembles overwhelmingly allude to notions of history, culture, and myth is undeniable. In addition to the dominant presence of the stele-like structure, which is one of the most ancient types of archaeological remnant, there are stylized horse figurines that seem to have been excavated (The Fleet, Horses on Pillars), scaled-up images of antique texts (Manuscript), irregular ceramic blocks (The King Kong Point), and not least, a large number of identical objects framed as precious samples (Specimens). Once this thread of archaeological references is located throughout the display, the exhibition at once acquires a different identity altogether, revealing another display of the same objects within it. In other words, we seem to be witnessing two exhibitions: the one an art display in a gallery, for which replicas of civilizational remnants are produced by Partha Dasgupta the artist; and the other one a museum display of (ostensibly actual) archaeological specimens, brought together from an unknown archive by Partha Dasgupta the curator. The two are physically inseparable because their boundaries merge, and the objects in the second display dwell in their own reality within a fiction created by him. Thus, pregnant with another, metaphoric exhibition in a simulated, self-reflexive space within it, the exhibition we are physically inhabiting –Amrit— becomes a meta-exhibition.



[1] This sense of immediacy of painting has been used time and again to argue for an immutable authenticity innate to the enterprise of painting, ostensibly testifying to its purity as a medium. This is a position from which I hasten to distance myself. I do not contend that the directness of mark-making in any way implies that it is an unmediated, pure articulation of the artist’s thoughts. Albeit thoroughly mediated, a painting is just more adept than a sculpture in concealing the mediation beneath the intimacy and immediacy of its making. Thus, the discussion of mediation in painting is much trickier than in the case of sculpture.

[2]  See: Krauss, Rosalind, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field”. In Rosalind Krauss, Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1985.

[3] Dahn, Jo, “Elastic/Expanding: Contemporary Conceptual Ceramics”. In Buszek, Maria Elena ed., Extra/Ordinary: Craft and Contemporary Art. Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2011: 169.

[4] Ibid.,: 153, 169.

[5] Partha Dasgupta. Personal interview, January 2, 2015.

[6] Ibid. My translation.

[7] While there is reasonable interaction between the objects and the paintings, the latter unequivocally remain confined to their role as backdrops. In light of this, the next logical step for Dasgupta would be to enhance the dialogic relationship of the painted canvases with three-dimensionality by exploring their objecthood, perhaps by bringing them off the walls.

[8] Partha Dasgupta. Personal interview, January 2, 2015.

[9] See: Sanyal, Sunanda K, The ‘Theme Pandals’ of Durga Pujo: an Unexplored Discourse”, Art News & Views, 3(3), November, 2010: pp. 52-3.

[10] A quasi-religious (read: Hindu) aura, grounded in an indigenous cultural feel, is palpable in the gallery. This is both a strength and a troubling aspect of the display. As for the latter issue, one could not rule out the chance of the exhibition inadvertently aligning itself with the insidious parochialism of Hindu fundamentalism, in which case the artist’s creative efforts could be co-opted by that political ideology for its own agenda. This possibility could have been avoided and the presentation would have been more complex, had the imagery been chosen from a wider range available in the globalizing Indian culture.

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