Thursday, April 25, 2013

Atul Dodiya: Shutters Between Us

Although Atul Dodiya is one of India's preeminent contemporary artists, he is not well-known in the United States. The Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati has mounted his first solo museum show in the States (through May 7). It is very special and makes me look forward to a future in which his path and mine will cross again.
Atul Dodiya, 26/11,2012. Enamel paint on motorize
roller shutter with iron hooks. Exterior, 108 x 72."

The work Dodiya shows at CAC is a series of actual, mechanically operated, shuttered shop doors collected from Mumbai. The works consist of paintings on the doors—scenes of the outer world, of the street, merchandise, references to world affairs—and painting on the "walls" too, revealed once the doors are lifted so that we can look beyond. Behind the doors are private areas where individuals reflect on the events of the world, experience the night in safety, move in psychic space and time, away from the clutter of the immediate.
Atul Dodiya, 26/11,2012. Oil, acrylic with marble dust,
and oil stick on canvas. 82.25 x 61.5."

There's a basic element of play in this show. The visitor cannot experience these works without lifting and lowering the big shuttered doors, thus causing them to rumble loudly up and down their tracks. It's impossible to be furtive in the gallery: Attention is called to the presence of every viewer. Most of us pass through galleries silently as ghosts. Here, we come as foreign travelers to a market square, seeking—what? Exotica? Souvenirs? Cultural experience? Or our own familiar hearts, differently accented?

Dodiya's shutters place viewers in specific locations. We viewers can feel like the owners of the shops whose doors we open. We can be tourists or outright voyeurs, peeking illicitly behind shutters into the intimate quarters or bared souls. We may begin, at least, with our feet and minds placed on the dusty, ordinary street, but Dodiya's doors lift onto worlds we are surprised to face.

On the shutter of 26/11 appears a street art version of Edvard Munch's The Scream, incongruously topped with the logo of Bombay's Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, lettered in 19th-century, Victorian era characters. Behind the shutter, a man sits in a yoga pose that opens his chest. He exhales to cleanse his breath. The exhalation circumscribes and defines a whole world, including a boat with full sails skimming the ocean (near his feet).

 26/11 is the date (day and month in 2008) of India's "9/11," when Pakistani terrorists arrived by sea to attack several major sites of Mumbai, the enormous, elegant Taj Mahal Palace Hotel being most memorable among them—certainly most prominent in press images that hit this shore. Over 150 people were shot dead and several hundred more were seriously wounded during the terrible attacks of three days' duration. 

By invoking the Munch image as public response to the terrorism, it seems to me that Dodiya uses it as a universal icon of horror and grief. I don't really register it as "not-Asian," even against the calming breath, the opening position, and embracing gesture of the yogi. I think the greater contrasts are between the black and gray exterior with the aggressively yellow interior, and the watery horizontal strokes of black and white on the shutter, compared with the circle of fiery exhalations from the yogi. On neither the exterior nor the interior is the disaster itself figured; only mourning and attempts to achieve balance are portrayed. Evil itself, ob skene, does not appear.

Atul Dodiya, Dead Ancestors, 2012. Enamel paint on
motorized shutter roller with iron hooks. Courtesy
Vadehra Gallery.
Grief, death, and the struggle between resignation and anger appear throughout the work in this mesmerizing show. Another door along Dodiya's street is Dead Ancestors. It, too, is dark outside, and brilliant yellow inside. I'm enchanted by this exterior, which lacks any commercial markings. The head in which the shutter rolls up simply continues the nocturnal scene to provide a literally looming sky. The volume of the housing casts a deep shadow over the top of the shutter itself, to enhanced nocturnal effect. 

The great moon illuminates and brightens the figures in the warm night below. Dodiya has painted the night atmosphere not black and gray as in 26/11, but a warmer, brownish-gray. Against this, the pure white (not ghostly-white) figures act. All appear to be elderly, the prone figure perhaps near death, as a friend helps arrange his body. Is it a tree sprouting from his heart chakra? He is giving rise to new spiritual growth, if not to new flesh. As a scene of a past generation, this isn't a scene of death per se;  it is not lonely or anxious, but comfortable, warm, and kind.
Atul Dodiya, Dead Ancestors, 2012. Oil, acrylic, marble
dust and oil stick on canvas. Courtesy Vadehra Gallery.

If the shutter portrays the ancestors plying a world beyond this one, the interior painting perhaps brings us back to this side of death, where a faceless corpse is laid out flat, looking a death's-head skull in the face (as it were). The skull is propped against a delicately-pink, erect phallus. Unlike the skull and the body, it is represented with some natural detail, like the botanical profiles, which appear to have been hand-printed onto the canvas. Hindus worship the lingam, Shiva's phallus and life-force, which is represented as a column, not with this literal tilt. So, while this corpse is laid out between two planes, he would seem to be placed between two worlds in a couple of ways. The lingam here is a literally generative penis, not a sacred Hindu symbol; and the prone body may be ready for Western-style internment in the earth of the sprouting plants, or for the Hindu pyre that will produce the gray sky and smoke over the sun.
As in 26/11, this work seems to present Indian concepts in suspension between ancient ways and the Western ways that came with the Raj.

Atul Dodiya, Leopold, 2012. Enamel paint on motorized shutter roller
with iron hooks. Courtesy 
Vadehra Gallery
Leopold seems to take its name from a popular Mumbai eatery located near the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. It's purported menu and its emblematic juicy roasts suggest that it caters to an international clientele—or, at least, that it does not serve vegetarians exclusively. Each slat of the door on this stall features the name of a dish offered here, with its price. The silhouetted man is a mystery to me, but he seems, like so much in this and the surrounding works, to suggest the West before the East. His modesty is not maintained by a dhoti loincloth, but by the Biblical fig leaf, and his nose reaches the length of Pinocchio's. 

Atul Dodiya, Leopold, 2012. Acrylic with marble dust,
watercolor, and oil stick. Courtesy of
Vadehra Gallery.
The menu seems to offer Indian comfort food preparations of lots of red meat and organs, which can be accompanied by the ubiquitous Western delights of fries and soft drinks. Once more, the Indian forms hold largely Western content. This idea is bitterly underscored when the screen goes up to reveal a listing of vernacular dishes served in Mumbai's restaurants whose names you'll find heavily starred in Zagat's guide. Behind the menu selections, big rats run up and down a river of offal
and a skeletal human—unnervingly closely related to the corpse of Dead Ancestors—takes notes in some infernal book. "...It's breakfast and around Bombay—up and down the whole hungry longitude in fact...if I'm not mistaken," the artist writes. To work with contrasts this broad—between rich and poor, developed and developing countries, imperialist cultures and the ones too long subject—is to work where it is all too easy to make the contrasts seem less significant than merely gross or simplistic. Dodiya's combination of shocking image and understated text in Leopold shows him completely up to ironic contrast that appears to constitute a central challenge of his work.

Dodiya is a brilliant painter, a point that I had to return several times to the front of my mind. Presenting dramas that appear in two acts, on both sides of the shutter, allows us to think of his painting first as a medium for storytelling—or emotional narrative—and to neglect the mastery and beauty of his artistry  on metal and on canvas both. The shutters are often painted with watery, soft effects, evocative of memory or the distance of neglect or abandonment. (It's worth noting, too, that because the shutters are in constant real operation, their paint is literally softened and worn by their service: Note the gray stripes of wear along the left margin on this example.) 

Inside, the canvases have very different affects. He uses contrasts of sharp edges and bleeding ones; acid yellow against black; matte and gloss, and so on. His canvases are intense and taut. Even when they are not easy to interpret or are frightening, they are forceful as grappling hooks. They are difficult to detach from.
Atul Dodiya, Farewell, 2012. Exterior: Enamel paint on
motorized metal roller shutter with iron hooks. Interior: Oil,
acrylic with marble dust, oil stick on canvas. Courtesy of
Vadehra Gallery.

This view of Farewell, partially opened, demonstrates well Dodiya's brilliance at mingling several styles of painting—the liquid arabesque of vine leaves on the door; the highly textured gray skeletal form floating on the yellow ground; the dynamic, rough-edged, yet elegant black abstract shapes that sit like massively enlarged elements of language—perhaps forms borrowed from Devanagari, the writing system of Hindi. 

When I speculate about abstract likenesses to the shapes of Devanagari, I am of course, in one obvious sense skating on pretty thin ice. It's impossible for me—and surely for many Americans—to see Dodiya's work without being exceedingly aware how ignorant I am of Indian culture, Indian contemporary art, or even of the little bit I do to keep up with political and economic news of the subcontinent. Do I come to a show only as a tourist?

I'll readily admit to being a tourist in the sense of taking a visit to a foreign sensibility, a foreign culture, and a whole new world of references. This world calls on my imagination in  new and deeper ways than other shows I see of work by American and European artists. Being colonized in one's own home? I may not know it politically but I can relate to that through individual experience and emotion. Discrepancies of economic class and the erosion of society as a result? This undoubtedly comes in different flavors, but it's not unknown to me or other Western viewers. In short, where there are humans in the audience, connections will be made across cultures.

It also struck me vividly when I saw this show that I tend to think of experiencing art through information and ideas gleaned from my past experience. When it comes to engagement with this art from contemporary India, about which I know little, this art connects to my future experience. That is, Atul Dodiya's work has created a node of reference for me to which I will be comparing new experiences, adding information; around which I'll be expanding and creating my world of reference. Dodiya's work extends my sphere of art generally. But this is South Asian contemporary art for the present. It has me looking forward to new, unknown art engagements, rather than leaving me as usual, comparing my Now to Then.

All photography by the author.


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