Ali Akbar Mehta – Artist statement 2015-16

He is a Contemporary Artist working in diverse media ranging from oil painting and drawing to digital painting, photography, video, documentation and archival work.

His art practice has been concerned with creating new archetypal images involving Contemporary and Hybrid Mythologies, investigating the themes of the Hero and his/her position in contemporary society, the nature of violence, and identity. The concept of the mythic Hero and the link with a radical, transformational violence has fascinated him ever since his childhood involvement with graphic novels, cartoons and comics. A great deal of his visual vocabulary has been influenced by science fiction, manga, animation, cinema, music, mythology, philosophy and cultural anthropology.

He collaborates with robotic engineers, computer programmers, musicians, writers, theater and filmmakers and aims to found processes that would leave deep impacts on contemporary culture, technology and knowledge. He is also a poet.

In the last 10 years, he has established a multidisciplinary practice involving traditional drawing and painting, Digital painting, Photography and bookmaking. His background in 3D Animation, VFX and postproduction has facilitated an ability to support his Art practice forming a parallel body of work.

His desire to integrate these two streams of work have led to explorations in new directions of Transmedia performance installations, sound and video creation.

He is currently pursuing a Master’s Programme in Visual Contemporary Culture in Art at Aalto University’s Art, Design and Architecture Department, Helsinki, Finland; where he aims to explore digital technology in all its manifestations of audiovisual content creation, archival and documentation possibilities, and most importantly the hybridization of reality and sensory world building.

*

Born August 1983.

BFA (Painting) Sir J.J. School of Art, Mumbai, 2005

MFA (ViCCA) Aalto University of Art, Design and Architecture, currently studying

256 Million Colours of Violence, 2016

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Visit the project: http://www.256millioncoloursofviolence.com

256 Million Colours of Violence is a survey based interactive archival research project that asks the participants to choose a colour that to them represents violence. The project started as a response to the specific events unfolding after the Malegaon Blasts 1 (2006, India). Now, a decade after the event, this response has grown to encompass several other events in a world that is radically changing.

An inquiry into colour can lead to multiple directions. Colour is troubled light – a violently oscillating frequency entering our optical system that is translated by the visual cortex of our brain. When Newton split light into the visible colour spectrum it was science.Colours have become symbolic of emotions and thoughts, taking on animate qualities and connotations that surpass their scientific properties. Colour is a central feature of social life yet its value in sociological theory is ambiguous. Colour in its perception is familiar and intuitive and subjective in its meaning where we seldom understand it beyond the parameters of our own consentual social reality.

The relationship between colour and perception is fundamental, and this project is an attempt to dismantle our selves through our understanding of colour. Perception is informed by Context. The human eye is capable of distinguishing millions of colours, but total objective colour acuity is a skill more rarified than perfect pitch (the ability to identify a single musical note without accompaniment). Most of us need context in order to make accurate colour recognition but when coupled with the proper context, we notice very subtle differences in hue, lightness, and intensity.

Colour and its perception are an unstable and contestable phenomenon shaped by personal memory and social and material factors. Similarly, Violence and its perception are an unstable and contestable phenomenon shaped by social and material factors. When colour is coupled with a subject as topical as violence, we probably have a deeply personal and unique emotional response to it. Most of us, having a sufficiently distinct understanding of things could probably assign a colour value in terms of a quick interface of the emotional quotient associated with it. This often cannot be verbalised but may be linked to a sensory memory or association – this kind of attribution is done not as an intuitive understanding but rather as a Pavlovian learning 2 or an acquired understanding. Despite having no inherited political value, colour can be made political through a sequence of contextual references. Colour can become a complex dataset presenting a person’s nuanced understanding of the world. The format of the survey is intended to gather this understanding.

Most Data mining exercises and empirical scientific surveys require a culled group in order to eradicate diversity, a standardisation of the test group to remove ‘noise’. ‘256 Million Colours of Violence’ is a celebration of that noise which represents the diversity of Human experience and collective memetic history. It is also part of an ongoing discourse to reduce effects of stereo-typification through personal scrutiny of the word and meanings of ‘Violence’ by asking how is the narrative experience of colour embodied, embedded and extended in the contexts of these meanings.

The aim of the Project is also to make the participant aware, or conscious of his/her decision regarding their choice by embedding it within series of contexts. Choice here is an active participation as well as a subliminal interfacing of several seemingly disconnected values.

Political parties and media are comfortable with the political position of attributing ‘no colour’ on religious, community or ideology based acts of violence so as to avoid issues of colour associations and its apparent, actual or perceived impacts on society. The inherent logic of the project takes their view and reverses it by stating that “Violence has a colour – it is a value of an acquired understanding unique to each individual.” The project is an artist experiment based on no previous survey or standardisation. The choice of the participants are purely their own, which is to say formed by unique combination of various elements such as parenting, religion, gender, social circles, peer group and education to name a few.

The project is addressing the notion of freely given information, conditional agreements and consent – to corporations and governments, as opposed to an artist project; that an artist may be require to profile its participants in itself seems like a joke. The survey hints at issues pertaining to equality of gender, skin colour, race and ethnicity; questions privilege, social class and problems of minimum income as well as confronts through inquiry the political-religious-socio-economic quadrangle as a constant existence in our lives today. It also acts as an introductory archive of several streams of information, and as such occupies a paradoxical position making the viewer/participant both the giver and receiver of information, if they so wish.

To this end, the viewer/participant is confronted with a question:

What according to you is a colour of violence?

If I ask you this question, chances are that you already have a colour in mind. It’s probably a very strong colour, resonating with intensity of how important this question may be to you. You probably have a specific colour in mind, you just need to pinpoint it specifically to lock it down – to triangulate its position on the map of the colour chart, as it were.

This might be easy to do in a palette of 8, or 16, or even 64 shades. As a choice, it may even fit into a colour that may be generic template for the question – but what happens if you are confronted with a digital palette of 256 million colours 3? Is your particular tint/shade/hue the exact same tint/shade/hue as the one you had in your mind – is your black / saffron / green / white / red the same as another’s?

Ali Akbar Mehta
2016


    1. The Indian Connection – The Malegaon Bomb Blasts, 2006 and ‘Saffron Terror’:
      Saffron terror is a neologism used to describe acts of violence motivated by Hindu nationalism. The acts are allegedly perpetrated by members, or alleged members of Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Abhinav Bharat. However, in some cases the motivation for the acts has not been clearly determined, and in others it has been determined to be unrelated to Hindu nationalism. The term comes from the symbolic use made of the saffron color by the Hindu nationalist organisations.
      The first known use of the term ‘Saffron Terror’ is from a 2002 article in Frontline. However it was in the aftermath of the 29 September 2008 bomb blast in the predominantly Muslim town of Malegaon in Maharashtra that it came to be used widely. In late 2008, Indian police arrested members of a Hindu terrorist cell allegedly involved in Malegaon blast. The blame for several of these attacks had been placed on radical Islamist groups.
      Former Home Minister of India P. Chidambaram urged Indians to beware of “Saffron terror” in August 2010 at a meeting of state police chiefs in New Delhi.
      Since that remark was made, a Hindu Swami in the Patan district has filed a defamation lawsuit against Chidambaram, saying that the saffron color is symbol of Hindu religion and that saints across the country wear attire of the same color. The Swami also said that saffron was a symbol of peace, sacrifice and God, and that Chidambaram has hurt the sentiments of Hindus by linking the symbol with terrorism. On 6 September 2010, a Gujarat court ordered a probe into the use of the term by Chidambaram. Chidambaram was also criticised by members of his own party (the Indian National Congress) for the use of the term.
      “Saffron or bhagwa or kesariya (Hindi equivalents of saffron) is not the issue here. The issue is terrorism. Terrorism does not have any colour other than black,” said Janardan Dwivedi, Congress general secretary and head of the party’s media department.
      Making plain the party’s disapproval of Chidambaram’s controversial formulation, Dwivedi said terrorism could not be associated with any color, “be it saffron, green, white or red”. He further said, “Terrorism is terrorism and should be opposed in whatever form it comes.” Significantly, he also stressed that “saffron colour has been part of our ancient tradition and is associated with our freedom struggle”.
      Home minister P Chidambaram did not exactly use the phrase ‘saffron terrorism’ but made it clear it was not his patent and in the past UPA and Congress leaders have found it quite expedient to refer to ‘saffronisation of education’ to target the previous NDA government.
      While vowing that he would follow the ‘party line’ as supreme, the minister said there were right-wing extremist groups and the message that they could be capable of violence should not be lost in phrases. He said, “Perhaps the use of that phrase has brought home the message. So, the purpose, in a way, has been served.”
    2. A method to cause a reflex response or behaviour by training with repetitive action. The Russian physiologist Ivan Petrovich Pavlov conditioned dogs to respond in what proved to be a predictable manner.
    3. Photoshop has a digital palette of 256 Million Colours.

WAR • ROOM • ECHO – Regarding the Pain of Other Cyborgs_Performance excerpt, Pispala, Tampere, Finland

This reading from the book took place at The Memorial of the Red Guards, who died during the Finnish Civil War in Pispala, Tampere. The inscription in the stone says, ‘On this Pispala ridge, the Red Guard in Tampere last stood with weopans in hand defending their cause in 1918’.

The project is ongoing and a copy of the book in its current state is donated to the Pispala Library on the occasion of the exhibition, ‘Where does poetry nest?’, on 6th September, 2016 in memory of the over 5000 year old Civil War that the world, it seems, has not seen enough of.

Ali Akbar Mehta

  Missä runous pesii? | Where does poetry nest?
                  08­28.09.2016
Poetry—an everlasting inquiry of art, drives language outside its
borders. Poetry sets into play every possible moment of
signification by placing the exercise of imagination at the center
of all contradictions. Poetry as an aesthetic praxis outlines our
possibilities to challenge the everyday, locating potential
transformation at the centre of our political enunciations. Poetry
contradicts and slips between the cracks of meaning, propagating
evidence that something else is there. In its intimacy, it draws
complex figures from our emotions, just to blur them into new and
old unreachable impossibles, to keep us moving, desiring.

If we listen to poetry carefully, we realise that it is something social. Its sociality is voiced as a constant transgression to the de politicised forms of enunciation; these poetic echoes keep on challenging every space of retreat. Poetry captures tautology and pushes it to the edges. Since there is no purity in poetry, it confronts general assumptions with a subtle whistle that triggers a dance of our subjectivities, nude and broken out in sweat. There is nothing too radical for poetry; even if something has already been said before, it can always be said differently.

Poetry is looking back at us from the other end laughing,
flirting, fugitive.

Poetry grounds utopia not as something reachable, but as a practice for keeping the unreachable present. Inhabiting between sentences, it bears testimony that other histories have always been present, through gluing their words together. Within it, art becomes our interlocutor for these other histories, always rebelling, always demanding justice and dignity, driven by the air which feeds change. Another history which finds in every wall not a border, but a place for public denouncement and mobilisation.

Where does poetry nest? It is not a question asking for an answer,
but a question mark waiting to be followed.
D.M.
[*] The Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros recalled this question during his
time in Lecumberri prison: “Where does poetry nest? I can’t say how long ago this
question emerged within me. But it reemerged when I listened to Macario Huízar. And
the first time I followed it through to interrogation was in prison among a group
of dopers.”

Transition

 

The End

Darkness

Pitch Black tar of nothingness.

Paranoiac Schizophrenia

The brink of Death

Death.

Sleep

Dream –

Life

The cosmic Yin and Yang.

Circle of Life

Harmony

Light.

The Beginning

 

2004

The Ballad of you and me

The Dark; side of the Night,

Fiery Jazzy Dynamos of the never-ending kind

Fans of The Stranger Tales,

Schizophrenia and BLANK!

In Taxicabs and other Neon time machines

Soul ascending next dimension/ Astro transcendental

Starry Starry sky,

Show us a new song

A threefold thunderbolt rhapsody

Racing across from the Midnight past to midnight black

The path of excess leads to the tower of wisdom

Sometimes…

 

A Kafkan wilderness – Cold metal Grey and dry dust

Rain-washed black tar, speckled with charcoal grey

Grey rats grey birds grey dogs and other grey bipeds

No red – only something soft that may pass for mud

A few tufts of hair and slivers of chewed out bleached bones

Awash with the waters of the Styx / and Poison / polluted

Cold hands of a wind tickling Embers burnt / barricaded

Damp, dank and dark are the colors of this world

Lifeless and drab, there are greens and blues

Dreamless machine lives and washed out hues

Drink from the flowers / Eat the seed

Dancer of Death of the nether never land

Are you following me?

 

Overlooking civilization / Murakami upside down…

Super-non-Flat / where we are

Prisoners of own worlds isolated manifest before your eyes,

In parallel world Timespace Continuum wormhole Black hole reality

As breaths compress / stars die / Atlas, turns the axis

We could be starlight, with nothing to prove / suspended animation

In between the lines lies lice lies and blood thirsty sex

Mindless – opinions fed to drug fuelled masses

They eat feasting on rotten meat / fleeced

Atrophy to nerve ending capacity – no time. No time

I’ll be there when you’re gone

 

Movement / no movement – pregnant stasis

The inherent soliloquies of a six billion planktonian people

Vast oceans of sand and watery deserts / barren and unforgiving

Can we know ourselves if we don’t know where we are?

Is it silence that we hear, or a roar

A grandmaster playing Psychedelic, thick like tar

Mushroom cloud substance, gooey chaotic stuff

Thunderous, deafening, tumultuous / Brownian motion funeral march

Narcotic anarchic / Supernova Fantastic / stretching like elastic

Surrounding us engulfing us choking us drowning us

Womb of pain /Anti Mother / the Phantom Zone

Will we be destroyed by our very own silences?

 

2014

Stillborn

 

Wrapped in a mother’s womb,

Secure in my cocoon

I hear…voices

Joy and pain are one

Ecstasy, Agony

Feel it all, little one

The circus is beginning.

 

Numb I have become

Warm and intuitive, mutate

To Cold and calculating,

Push, pull,

Strain, break

No joy, no pain

Nothing.

 

Twisting and kicking

Everything is upside down,

The white light calls

Life is death

Pink, Purple, Blue, Black

Feet first, I arrive

Stillborn .

 

Notes on Adorno and The Culture Industry

Karl Marx said, ‘Religion is the Opium of the Masses’. Theodore Adorno, 20th century philosopher and film theorist, has arrived at an understanding, that ‘Mass Media is the Opium of the Masses’.

A student of Karl Marx and Hegel, Adorno and his colleagues waited for the prophecised revolution of the proletariat, a movement that did not come to pass. The young intellectuals questioned this – with utmost belief in Hegel’s dialectic system of cohesive global understanding and in the belief of the rightness of Marxist thought – they realised that the problem lay in the popular media culture – the main culprits of arrested development of society –‘Culture Industry’.

Culture Industry today is infecting everything with sameness… the living cells crystallize into homogenous, well organised complexes…The explicit and the implicit, exoteric and esoteric catalog of what is forbidden and what is tolerated is so extensive that it not only defines the area left free but wholly controls it. Even the most minor details are modeled according to this lexicon’. For Adorno, individuals were aware of social issues but the Culture Industry was a glue that was tying everybody up. He believed that if the shackles could be broken, the society would change. The Culture Industry created Burgiouse Art, which destoyed True Art. It produced Art that was packaged, stylised and designed to be escapist and easy to digest, slowly numbing society. ‘Film denies its audience any dimension in which they might roam feely in imagination… They are so constructed that their adequate comprehesion requires a quick, observant, knowledgeable cast of mind but positively debars the spectator from thinking, if he is not to miss the fleeting facts’ and so ‘The products of the culture industry are such that they can be alertly consumed in a state of distraction’.

Adorno goes on to describe, in great thoroughness and detail the problematics of the Culture Industry. He speaks about the dependence of culture monopolies on corporations and big industry, ‘the true wielders of power, to ensure that their sphere of mass society… is not subject to a series of purges’; He speaks about packaging and style of having no individuality – ‘the style of the culture industry, which has no resistant material to overcome, is at the same time the negation of style…up to Schonberg and Picasso, great artists have been mistrustful of style’. The systematic creation of ideals and beauty and the lack of a difference between ‘real or reel’. Film was the most important media that fabricated subjectivity and it was so strong that the viewer doesn’t even realise that he is imitating ‘the street outside as a continuation of the film he has just left’. Sameness and standardisation and mass production were killing the possibility of new Art.

During the 30’s, when a number of Jewish intellectual escaped to The United States, they found that even in places like Berkeley and California, the American culture system was designed to control the people. He believed that the system was in a state of decadence and decay, and that Art was providing a ‘false synthesis’. Apart from a few such as Kafka, Beckett and those in his own circles such as Schoenberg and Pierrot Lunaire, he considered everything else false. Adorno’s theories start bordering on paranoia, and he sees everybody as producers and reproducers of the Culture Industry manipulating a fractured society of para-Nazis ‘at once enthusiastic and fed up…in the synthetically manufactured physiognomies of today the fact that the concept of human life ever existed is already forgotten’.

The Culture Industry is converting us into ‘cultural’ products with programmed desire – The system brainwashes you to have needs that are driven by the Culture Industry. ‘The more strongly the culture industry entrenches itself, the more it can do as it chooses to with the needs of its consumers –  producing, controlling, disciplining them; even withdrawing amusement altogether’. The shamelessness of the rhetoric “What do people want?” lies in the fact that it appeals to the very people as thinking subjects whose subjectivity it specifically seeks to annul. ‘The powerlessness of everyone is reflected’.

At one point, he sounds almost hopeful, saying ‘Demand has not yet been replaced by simple obedience’ till you realise, that it is utter desperation that he is feeling, ‘This is the incurable sickness of all entertainment. Amusement congeals into boredom, since to be amusement, it must cost no effort…the product prescribed each reaction…through signals’. Adorno starts to think no change is possible. So he and his contemporaries, want to make things as dark as possible in order to wake people up from their complacence. They were not interested in banishing popular culture, but in changing the state of the system, which they saw as a collective machinery. They attacked, in their writing, many famous composers, like Wagner, whom they felt were producing music simply for entertainment. They wrote against Jazz, they wrote against the radio, and mostly they wrote against Film and Television.

It is all too easy to believe – to start seeing that patterns being unraveled – The formula films, with the fixed blend of action, drama, suspense; the calculated charm of the hero, the idealised beauty of the heroine are all calculated templates. That ‘hit songs, stars and soap operas conform to types recurring cyclically as rigid invariants…In film, any manuscript which is not reassuringly based on a best-seller is viewed with mistrust’. The soap operas and their ‘Obtusely ingenious surprises [that] disrupt the plot…the pure nonsense which, as buffoonery and clowning, was a legitimate part of popular culture’, One can even go as far as to see this similar pattern emerge out of the Contemporary Art scene –The Artist is a solitary figure in the sea of machinations of the Art Gallery/Auction house/dealer/curator combine – The ready supply to the demands of structurally designed ‘taste’ and the meaningless-ness of True Art in the face of Art as investment and determination of worth through auction/sales. In the fact that true departure form style has always been met with skepticism and mistrust. What Adorno calls ‘inferior work has relied on its similarity to others, the surrogate of identity…obedience to a social hierarchy’. How easy it would be to believe that yes, the fact of the matter is that Art in itself does not matter, but are merely objects, pieces in fact to be moved around like pawns to the maneuverings of the economic interests of markets and capital. ‘Freedom was the freedom of the stupid to starve, in art as elsewhere…You are free not to think as I do; your life, your property – all that you shall keep. But from this day on you will be a stranger among us’. A world where it is not about the Art, but the negotiations to survive/climb the ladder of success – ‘The more all-embracing the culture industry has become, the more pitilessly it has forced the outsider into either bankruptcy or a syndicate’.

One is drawn within this framework of thought till one realises that the text has a biased logic that is driven by the need to be true. Adorno’s view of Utopia is essentially fatalistic. Perhaps it is Hegel’s model of Thesis>Antithesis>Synthesis that is essentially linear – similar to Western music format of point:counterpoint, or the linearity of time in Western theology of Creation and Judgement. Synthesis is always doomed to become the Thesis of the next era.

Humanity has always had music and storytelling and dance – the basic forms that contribute and are the base materials for all other art forms, be it theater, radio, film or jazz. From the days of the primitive man, groups or tribes have huddled around bonfire, listening to stories that may have been instructive or merely escapist. Stories, weather myths or folktales are essentially operating on a personal, social or mythic (racial) scale of human understanding. We have learnt how to live, the qualities that we must posses as human beings and the narratives that we are a part of – through these stories. Are episodes of ‘I love Lucy’ Art? Perhaps they are – after all, they were funny, insightful explorations of American culture of the mid-1950. Perhaps WWE is a representation of contemporary American mythology, much as Superhero comics have been.

Structurally, they perform a catharsis – a purging of emotions. Also, if we consider the what Indian Aesthetics describes in the Rasā Theory – In it Rasā is described as the ‘essentialised experience’ of a re-presented event, that enriches rather than performing a purge of emotions. Accordingly, the storyteller’s circle around a tribal fire is as important an institution of education as is the highest exponent of Adorno’s True Art. If all Art form enriches, then even the most banal Mass media may have the potential for some kind of cultural value. Whether Mass Art is the same as Adorno’s idea of ‘True’ Art is another matter altogether.

If we look at the important tropes of stories that have remained with us, whether it is the Hero and his quest, Tragedy, Comedy, or even religion – they have evolved our worldview throughout time. In doing so, they have also simultaneously evolved and remained alive as signs, symbols and signifiers. Signs, symbols and signifiers have been translated as memes that display cultural-evolutionary properties. Like the DNA or the (mostly) detrimental virus, a meme needs a host – the complex mechanism of enzymes all the way up to a cell to republish itself. The transcendence meme “convinces” its host that it is imperative for its survival and the survival of its kin. Memes reflect the same laws that guide genes (an analogy drawn by Dawkins only to make the laws governing memes comprehensible. Whether memes and genes are perfectly analogous or not, is not relevant) – preservation, heritability (learnability, ease of communication, tendency to be transmitted), reproductive isolation for speciation (chinese whispers), mutation causing genetic diversity (adaptability) and self-propagation.

Memes have a bad habit of genes – they become vestigial. The keep reproducing themselves long after the relevance is lost, long after the answers to the riddles have been established, long after the theories guiding them have been dis-proven.

Let’s accept that in the absence of a teleological purpose, it might be wise to invent one – or rather evolve one with a near infinite foresight. If we have evolved to rely on crutches of delusions and fallacies, clarity of mind can be life threatening, and hence, met with an intuitive repulsion.

“To survive, to avert what we have termed future shock, the individual must become infinitely more adaptable and capable than ever before. We must search out totally new ways to anchor ourselves, for all the old roots – religion, nation, community, family, or profession – are now shaking under the hurricane impact of the accelerative thrust. It is no longer resources that limit decisions, it is the decision that makes the resources. (Alvin Toffler, Future Shock)”

Finding Icarus (For Tyeb Mehta)

 

Icarus finds his wings again,

The falling, now paused, becomes flying again;

Beyond midnight, as the night turns to day,

Peace, finally settles on his brow again.

 

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,

The new day dawns again;

As the rain washes the tears and the world,

Mars red, burnt umber and parchment white fill the canvas again.

2009