(left) Every autumn, Kali is worshipped in a popular festival in Bengal, where communities sponsor clay images that will be immersed in water after ten days of worship. There is a multiplicity of ways in which the deity can be imagined. Anita Dube participates in this multiplicity by creating her own representation of the goddess.
Dube uses soap dishes to create a semblance of divinity. The fact that she uses bathroom objects is almost outrageous, as the bathroom is seen as an unclean space where divinity should not enter. Yet the bathroom is also connected with ritual, as it is the space where one is cleansed before worship.
For Soap/Lick, Dube stacks a column of seven soap dishes. They are identical, apart from a small protrusion in front that grows progressively larger from top to bottom. This small change is crucial to the work, as this protrusion looks like a tongue, a symbol of Kali. A trident passes through all seven soap dishes, another emblem of Kali. Thus Dube represents the Goddess without having to attribute to her the human characteristics of a face and a body. Covered with red velvet, the soap dishes lose their everyday connotation. The colour red is also associated with divinity, with Kali who spills the blood of the demon and with divinity in general due to the use of vermillion during worship.
(centre) Subodh Gupta is widely recognized for his use of steel utensils, cow-dung, milk-cans and other symbols of village and underdeveloped India. Behind these seemingly static symbols lies a journey: the journey of everyday objects into the sphere of art. On viewing the broader oeuvre of Gupta that spans more than a decade now, we see how the ‘social and symbolic transactions of objects’1 are foregrounded when he appropriates these materials for his art works.Vilas, made in 2000, seems distinct from his other works. Rather than using what he describes as ‘icons from everyday life,’ Gupta makes a comment about the art object itself. The criteria for what makes an object a work of art seems to be undergoing change- virtuosity in execution, subtlety and detail are no longer benchmarks. Rather, art happens when the artist’s celebrity status gets associated with an object.Vilas, the title implying ‘erotic pleasure,’ is an installation composed of a leather couch and a photograph of the artist sprawled on it. These objects are not products of Gupta’s or anyone’s, craftsmanship. Instead they bear the stamp of the male artist’s imposing presence (quite like a signature), in the form of his own seated portrait.
The domain of art is generally occupied by the male artist producing images for a male viewer. Here the male artist’s gaze at the viewer, and his flagrant self-exposure, mock the conventions of nudes in art. The photograph in Vilas is an update on Edouard Manet’s Olympia. The Vaseline smeared on Gupta’s figure elicits an ambivalent sexual pleasure, in the subject, as well as in the object as a work of art. ‘Look at Me!!’ it exclaims, ‘Here I am and this is Art!!!’
(right) Ashim Purkayastha plays with the political icon. He licks the icon, cuts through the icon, juxtaposes the icon with political opponents and digs a finger into the icon’s nose. The political icon that Ashim plays with is Mahatma Gandhi commonly known as the ‘father of the nation’.
When Andy Warhol used the Christ-like face of Che Guevara to make a serigraph, the hands of the artist became the site of a pop iconic explosion. That Warhol image of Che Guevara is ubiquitous — seen on beer cans and T-shirts, it is now assumed to be the face of a rock-star.
Not all political icons need an artist’s intervention to gain a pop identity. Chairman Mao of the People’s Republic of China became a pop icon through his own propaganda posters. When artist Zhang Hongtu frequently used Chairman Mao’s icon, once drawing a Stalin moustache on Mao with the comment, ‘He is a Chinese Stalin’, the artist’s hand became the site of a pop iconic implosion. Zhang Hongtu confessed that he felt guilty when he cut the image of Mao because he felt that he was committing treason or even blasphemy.
Unlike Che Guevara and Chairman Mao who were Communist cosmic beings, Mahatma Gandhi was the messiah of a Colony. He redefined ‘freedom’ and ‘struggle’ forever through his role of politician-as-saint. Worshipping ‘Bapu’ is not only part of post-Independence national folklore but is also a constitutionally mandated duty. Even though many artists from Nandalal Bose to Atul Dodiya have created and used the Gandhi image, Gandhi has become a popular icon through the presence of his image on stamps and currency notes. It is these transactional, national signs of everyday use that Ashim Purkayastha snatches to play with.