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Of art, and/in Toilets 2018-08-05T07:50:35+00:00

Project Description

Kitab Al-Manazir – Alfasl Al’Awa | Group Show of 28 artists | Gallery One Two, Ooty | 29th April 2018 – 27th May 2018

Locally known as the Queen of hill stations, Ooty was once owned by Todas, the indigenous people of the land. In the beginning of 18th century, they sold a major part of their lands to John Sullivan, who founded the British settlement in Ooty and developed it as a summer capital and rejuvenation center of the East India Company. Since then, Ooty became a centre of political, military and industrial operations, and in the last two centuries, the Todas witnessed their humble aboard shifting hands, which is at present largely owned by the politicians and business dynamos, whose prime interest is to attract tourists and/or to involve in large scale plantations. Inspite of these developments and the resultant havoc, reserve forests, water bodies and botanical gardens decorate its vast landscape and the cool weather makes this a haven from the heat.

This sleepy little town was once the proud base of Hindustan Photo Films Manufacturing Company Limited (HPF), an Indian-based public sector manufacturer of photographic films, paper, and chemistry. HPF was closed permanently last month, after it was declared bankrupt in the year 1996. Light & Life Academy, a not-for-profit education trust, dedicated to teaching the art and science of photography is also set up in Ooty (2011) with initial support of Kodak India & Eastman Kodak, USA.

Irresponsible tourism has been increasingly affecting Ooty. In 2015, Shobana Chandrashekar, wife of an hotelier initiated a move towards cleaning the garbage left by both the locals and the travellers, which resulted in a group of individuals coming together under the banner ‘Make Ooty Beautiful’. As part of this coalition, last March, an unused toilet was converted into a gallery space, which generally opens between 5–9 pm.

Madhavan Pillai acts as the curator of Gallery One Two and its first exhibition comprised of watercolour paintings. Its second exhibition that opened on April 29 (World Pinhole Photography Day), 2018, is titled Kitab Al-Manazir – Alfasl Al’Awa (Book of Optics, Chapter One) – commemorating the first known text that describes the pinhole technique. It showed around forty digital prints of images made by pinhole cameras, shot by 28 artists.

Arjun Ramachandran provides a reading of Gallery One Two and the ongoing exhibition.

OF ART, AND/IN TOILETS | Arjun Ramachandran

It is always difficult to ascertain whether social events are truly connected, and further, to explain what the connection really is; the lurking threat is that there is something we do not know regarding the individual events and the larger world because of our far-from-perfect means of gathering information, as epistemology confirms. But here, I would like to think not only that the event we are going to discuss is truly connected to another event I came across on the internet, but also that their connection can be observed in somewhat enlightening ways – enlightening for me, at least. The central event in question here is the establishment of an art gallery in Ooty called Gallery One Two and its second exhibition that is presently ongoing. In a town that is well-known for its tourism industry, and one which shuts down almost completely at night, Gallery One Two (as mentioned in a newspaper coverage) aims to be a small cultural hub that functions after sunset; and to this end, a decrepit toilet complex was cleaned, repainted and remodelled into an art gallery with help from the municipality.

The second event, which is to be connected to the first, actually occurred earlier than the central event. Gallery 1,2 has a website and a Facebook page for itself. The website homepage only has a video, a clearly satirical one that also features artist James Turrell and art critic Peter Frank, which introduces Gallery 1,2 – which is actually a (fictional?) toilet cubicle with one “art work” hung inside; the website claims to have spaces in Los Angeles, New York, and Japan. To viewers at least passively familiar with the trends in postmodern art, the satire is easily understandable. The “1,2” refers to acts of excretion.

The connection between the two events must be clear for the reader by now; toilets, of course. This historical repetition does not fully conform to Marx’s addition to Hegel’s quote about history repeating itself, because here, the idea comes first as a farce (not in the same sense, of course) and then as a socially relevant project. And it is no doubt a socially relevant project, because the transformation of a repulsive space into a space for high aesthetics reflects the aspirations of the nation itself, a nation which encounters the reality of open-defecation on a day-to-day basis, making it impossible for its people to move beyond the physical repulsion of shit and onto the plain of an intellectual dialogue with the idea of shit. But this is not the case in the First World, in which shit has occupied a more central than peripheral position in modern philosophy, art and comedy. There have been many unused toilets have also been remodelled into bars, restaurants, showrooms etc. in the USA. This divergence that happens when an idea is transported from the cultural context of urban USA to a small town in Tamil Nadu provides a reference for us. However, that is not the whole story.

The newspaper stories of Gallery One Two of Ooty highlight the social aspect of it, but the curatorial note (titled My Philosophy of Toilet) of the exhibition, which accompanied their call for application put up in their website tends towards an encountering of shit in a First World framework, even though it ostensibly attempts to be a bridge between the Indian condition and the First World condition – a tendency typical of the educated elite –and tries to incorporate everything from Gandhi’s concerns of sanitation (and untouchability) to the toilet habits of Hollywood stars. It refers to the privacy that the toilet space gives, the sense of relaxation and solitude, and quotes Zizek and Martin Luther, and points out the connection between the drainage and the city. Quite curiously, neither aspect comes out in the exhibition itself – which only has some text relating to Kitab al-Manazir. The text is entirely confined to the technique, and the exhibition has little to suggest that the text lacks. The “shit” seems to have been flushed out.

Logo of Gallery One Two, Ooty

Logo of Gallery 1,2 LA, NY, Japan

But the question of why it suddenly disappeared while coming down from the curatorial note published in Gallery One Two website into the art gallery doesn’t seem to be a complex one, given that there are a few images of toilets included. The issue simply seems to have been that the original idea did not work out for whatever reasons, and a broader theme was taken up instead. The images that were intended to be part of the original curatorial idea have been included in the reframed exhibition, stripped of their connection with shit.

The curator tells me the photographs were selected with the idea of City in mind. He further tells me the exhibition is mainly meant to introduce pinhole photography to the viewership in Ooty. Having seen the exhibition before talking to the curator, this information settled some of my doubts since I had been lead to wonder why pinhole photographers were such lonely people who didn’t interact with other people, because self-portraits and urban architecture photographs dominated the show. The collection of images, from Asia, Europe and the Americas, fit into conventional formats and subject matter for the most part, and are at times indicative of the broader economic and social circumstances of the photographer and/or the nation. The slow shutter speeds continuously reiterate themes of transience, and perspectives are questioned by the distortions natural to handmade pinhole cameras. Most of the architecture photographers are either spherically distorted or have multiple perspectives/views superimposed; some of them have humans included, making them portraits with backdrops. Interiors deal with solitude, fantasy and disorder. Portraits are mostly self- (or reflect its format), and the subjects stoically pose for the camera. The trope of an image within an image occurs at least once. Compositional styles are familiar. Vignettes and similar distortions recur. Two images employ solarography.

Such descriptions may seem reductive. But what I perceive to be more important in the images than these reductions is the way they appear more like souvenirs than art works. To be more specific, they are souvenirs heavily influenced by artworks; they “feel” like fragments from family albums and postcards, heavily processed with tones and looks. This distancing is perhaps compounded by the prints being digital, since the surface lacks the texture of the image. It is impossible to weigh each photographer’s work and develop an interpretation, but the manner in which the show is put together, coupled with the curator’s words, make for interesting reading.

The selling point of the exhibition as it currently stands is the technique of pinhole photography itself, and the evidence of the technique in these images lies solely in the tonal identity and distortions, most of which in fact can be recreated in a digital environment and by itself are not enough to provide an affirmation of the chemical or physical techniques used. What survives then is only the attestation of the photographer, and in effect, the art object gets its value from this textual affirmation. This phenomenon is curiously reminiscent of the marketability of the vintage – an idea which survives solely on the myths and cultural connotations surrounding it. The vintage is only an “alternative” market (and traditional photographic techniques have been forcibly donned the “alternative” mantle for the sake of the market), and its consumers are predominantly made of people who are disillusioned in some way by the nature of products that come out in the market today, particularly in terms of fashion and aesthetics. In trying to escape this, they move towards an accepted “standard” in each field – we see this happening with automobiles, clothes, accessories, music, cinema, décor etc. Here, pinhole photography is being repackaged as a vintage technique which apparently makes its user different to the digital photographer; the aura is gained simply by using it. This also explains why most images imitate postcards, family album snippets and some “art photography” tropes – the thought goes into the technique itself, and not the image.

Such a projection of imported souvenir-like or exotic objects as art is a trend that seems to have gained popularity as a response to the perceived ugliness of modernist aesthetics in different parts of the world, and has been fuelled by market. The shrinking of art itself into art objects has been pointed out by many critics over the years, and has incited responses which themselves have later turned into marketable objects. The power of the market to subsume anything that evolves to counter it is perhaps working here, and it could be this that drives even the promoters of “alternative media” to conceive their own practice in terms of the images and formats disseminated in the market. The presence of centrally placed skyscrapers or other distinguished architecture in all conceptions of the City, the portraits that attempt to externally imitate (originally) iconoclastic art practices, the photographers’ response to the original idea of “My Philosophy of Toilet” which consist of mundane and external confrontations of toilets; all of these are representative of the un-engagement tendencies in popular art (from which no art form is exempt, I believe), and is also indicative of the persisting divide in the way art is practised among what could be called different “intellectual classes”. As such, what has happened at Gallery One Two need not be thought of as a new development, but as a continuation. The imports exhibited in One Two occupy two levels; one of the idea – taken from high philosophy, and the second, of the object – taken from mass-market-driven practice. The question that needs to be asked is whether the regional art practices can really nourish itself through interactions with such technique-oriented efforts.

Perhaps I am reading too much into this, and it was just that the execution lacked somewhere and the exhibition failed to come out as wholesome.

Cover and Images 1 – 4, Kitab Al-Manazir – Alfasl Al’Awa Pinhole Photography Show at Gallery One Two | Image courtesy: Arjun Ramachandran

Two series of images stand out among the exhibits, because they disagree with the interpretation put forward so far. Two Belgian photographers – Olivier van Rossum and Nathalie Hanncart – have exhibited two portraits each, and seem to be working on the same series in the same styles. These four portraits feature low-angle depictions of four individuals with a gathering being visible in the background. Martushka Fromeast and Malgorzata Mirga-Tas, a Polish duo, have exhibited six images which are part of a series made over an eleven-year period; these images also show a clear interest in building an individual language. However, without a view of the total series or any supporting text as to what these series are based on, nothing can be said about them; even though they do point towards a possibility of creative engagement with the pinhole medium.

Gallery One Two is trying to address the challenges of converting a toilet complex into an art gallery, such as moisture and leakages. It has efficiently solved issues of lighting and ambience, and seems to be equipped well enough to conduct other events. I do not know of the potential that such an initiative may have in a place like Ooty, but Gallery One Two seems to have enough support to be able to make a mark. It should also be commended for bringing local government participation in the art field, and for highlighting the importance of art and placemaking in a society. Having gained an interesting and unique space in the town, One Two can only go forward from here.

This article was published on 21st May 2018.

Arjun Ramachandran is an upcoming photographer, with interests in cinema and literature. He extends his services as Associate Editor of Photo Mail. He writes in English and Malayalam.