It is said that the shape of our culture is very much defined by art of that particular era; that the art and culture are very much the alter egos of one another. It reflects the thought of masses and elites, their concepts of divine and material, of purity and pollution and about their socio-political- economic values. According to Charles Merewether – “One of the defining characteristics of the modern era has been the increasing significance given to the archive as the means by which historical knowledge and of remembrance are accumulated, stored and retrieved. Created as much by state organizations and institutions as by individuals and groups, the archive, as distinct from a collection or library, constitutes a repository or ordered system of documents and records, both verbal and visual, that is the foundation from which history is written.”
Yet archives, just like art itself, is far from being immortal. Its own preservation and salvation has always been a battle against nature, time - and man. For the past few years, my work has addressed the nature and behavior of archives, and in turn, how they shape and define but also distort history and thus our understanding of our present and future. Works from my ongoing projects such asThe Lost Museum: The Fate of World’s Greatest Lost Treasures that was recently installed at Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum (formerly Victoria & Albert, Mumbai) act as a global survey of artworks, cultural and historical artifacts that faced their unnatural demise because of human intervention, specifically in various wars or conflicts throughout history. Instead of vandalism or fortuitous destruction, the exhibition focused on iconoclasm - on works of art that were consciously destroyed to mark the political or religious supremacy, particularly when the destroyer of the work was against the philosophy of the work itself.
While this project is still on-going and expanding, this exhibition and my most recent lectureGlimpses of the Vanished Originals led me to ponder about yet another facet of destruction of the work of art – this time because of its transposition from its original context i.e. when it is removed from its original intended space and re-contextualized in an ‘alien’ environment, hence altering the meaning, perception and interpretation of the work.
Although India is one of the oldest civilizations with cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Varanasi having continuous history for at least 5000 years, the contemporary society, with rapid political, social and economic growth, has aggressively marginalized the history, pushing it further and further into the outer realms of its emotional and psychological reality. Much of the history now almost exclusively lives in marginalia and is treated as if it’s in the backyard - discarded, ignored, neglected and taken for granted. Ancient temples, monasteries, forts, monuments and havelis that were once beautifully painted and carved now sit in ruins, engulfed by extreme overgrowth of ephemera- whether printed or architectural along with web of wires, lights, billboards and hoardings. The loss of ‘aura’ that Walter Benjamin so famously criticized in a mechanically reproduction of the original is, in this case, lost in the original itself. If it was the interaction between the subject (viewer) and the object (artwork) in the desired space and time, with the faculties of sight, touch and smell that the work was considered to come to its conclusion, it has almost completely been destroyed, as the original is now utterly fragmented, visible only through the screen that is marked by the debris of modernization.
Worksfrom the body of work Googlepaedic Narrations and the Dysfunction of Damage are in response to this phenomenon that provokes us to ask: “In what way is the document sufficient in representing those histories where there is no evidence remaining – no longer a thread of continuity, a plenum of meaning or monumental history – but rather a fracture, a discontinuity, the mark of which is obliteration, erasure and amnesia? Furthermore, these works may force us to ask: What temporal zone does the document occupy, what is its relation to the past, to the present and even to the future? Is what is materially present, visible or legible adequate to an event that has passed out of present time?”
The effect of this marginalia, in my opinion, is manifested in two ways. In one way, the history personified by art-objects is re-contextualized from its origin and moved into the privacy of museum and collectors; and/or becomes susceptible to de-evolution and is victimized by the society. Worksfrom this collection are reaction to both these manifestations and comment on this transposition of art-objects into an ‘alien’ environment, in this case, galleries, museums and other institutions.
While each image reflects its past and story; gentle manipulation of existing documentation through structural, data and contextual transposition eludes the original narrative and these objects are assigned new meanings and are metamorphosed into new images. Works in this exhibition thus encourage us to consider these vital questions: “What will we retain? What will become eroded? What through time and age will we be losing? Kumar’s work becomes an allegorical tale cautioning us to be aware, to actively be discerning and safeguarding our history as it belongs to those who come after us as much as the monuments, oceans, forests, and great works of art we document.”