Narrating War: Performance excerpt, Pispala, Tampere, Finland, 2016

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?
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.
[*] 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.”

On Superheroes and Science fiction

You know, I’m quite keen on comic books. Especially the ones about superheroes. I find the whole mythology surrounding superheroes fascinating.

Take one of my favorite superheroes, Superman. Not a great comic book. Not particularly well-drawn. But the mythology… The mythology is not only great, it’s unique.

Now, a staple of the superhero mythology is, there’s the superhero and there’s the alter ego. Batman is actually Bruce Wayne, Spider-Man is actually Peter Parker. When that character wakes up in the morning, he’s Peter Parker. He has to put on a costume to become Spider-Man. And it is in that characteristic Superman stands alone.

Superman didn’t become Superman. Superman was born Superman. When Superman wakes up in the morning, he’s Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. His outfit with the big red “S” – that’s the blanket he was wrapped in as a baby when the Kents found him. Those are his clothes. What Kent wears – the glasses, the business suit – that’s the costume. That’s the costume Superman wears to blend in with us.

Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent? He’s weak… He’s unsure of himself… He’s a coward.

Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the whole human race.

Superheroes have not only the ability, but also a great tendency, or propensity to do that, as does, I believe, a lot of great literature, science fiction being my particular favourite. I find the idea very exciting that stories and narrative are unfolding in time ranging from alternate past and parallel present to uncertain futures; that seemingly unreal technology is commonplace. But more importantly it’s the excitement of possibilities, of complex hypothetical worlds full of possibilities. But at the same time, what remains consistent is the human condition. The genre of science fiction allows for generating a kind of distance in time and space to allow us room for examining our Human Condition, a kind of a wide angle lens to examine our own anxieties and exhilarations, our own at-once epic and intimate predicaments. Shakespeare did something quite similar…

If our culture sometimes seems to lack a sense of the numinous or spiritual it’s only in the same way a fish lacks a sense of the ocean. Because the numinous is everywhere, we need to be reminded of it. We live among wonders. Superhuman cyborgs, we plug into cell phones connecting us to one another and to a constantly updated planetary database, an exo-memory that allows us to fit our complete cultural archive into a jacket pocket. We have camera eyes that speed up, slow down, and even reverse the flow of time, allowing us to see what no one prior to the twentieth century had ever seen — the thermodynamic miracle of broken shards and a puddle gathering themselves up from the floor to assemble a half-full wineglass. We are the hands and eyes and ears, the sensitive probing feelers through which the emergent, intelligent universe comes to know its own form and purpose. We bring the thunderbolt of meaning and significance to unconscious matter, blank paper, the night sky. We are already divine magicians, already supergods. Why shouldn’t we use all our brilliance to leap in as many single bounds as it takes to a world beyond ours, threatened by overpopulation, mass species extinction, environmental degradation, hunger, and exploitation? Superman and his pals would figure a way out of any stupid cul-de-sac we could find ourselves in — and we made Superman, after all. All it takes is that one magic word.”

In the world of the superheroes, everything had value, potential, mystery. Any person, thing, or object could be drafted into service in the struggle against darkness and evil. We love our superheroes because they refuse to give up on us. We can analyze them out of existence, kill them, ban them, mock them, and still they return, patiently reminding us of who we are and what we wish we could be.”

“The interior of our skulls contains a portal to infinity.”

Superhero science has taught me this: Entire universes fit comfortably inside our skulls. Not just one or two but endless universes can be packed into that dark, wet, and bony hollow without breaking it open from the inside. The space in our heads will stretch to accommodate them all. The real doorway to the fifth dimension was always right here. Inside. That infinite interior space contains all the divine, the alien, and the unworldly we’ll ever need.


– Ali Akbar Mehta


September 2013

Not on Noah’s Ark, but on the Raft of the Medusa:

Recent Works by Ali Akbar Mehta


Normality is the somewhat misleading name that many of us give to the present. It is often the only means of remaining sane while enduring the abrupt horrors and dehumanising provocations that surround us. The artist, however, is not obliged either to neutralise himself to these horrors and provocations; nor is he afraid of exploring the regimes of consciousness that lie beneath the sanctioned threshold of sanity.

And so the jesters, harlequins, cerecloth-swaddled zombies and explosion- flayed refugees who populate Ali Akbar Mehta’s paintings and digital works are not strangers. Not at all, for we know them intimately well, these figures who dominate the 1983-born Mehta’s first solo exhibition: they are ourselves an hour from now, a decade from now, in the near future, or at any moment. Allegories of the present, veiled thinly as a post apocalyptic future, Mehta’s works alternate, tonally, between melancholia and the ludic, between Lent and Carnival. They emerge from a long tradition of critique-through-image that turns our conventions of time, space, gravity and propriety topsy-turvy: a tradition that counts, among its major exponents, Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Brueghel.

On the testimony of these works, produced between 2006 and 2011, Mehta is an explorer charting a demon-haunted world that balances precariously between compassion and oppression, instability and militarisation; the mushroom cloud of nuclear annihilation is always billowing on its horizon.


Mehta is a member of what has been called the generation of ‘digital natives’, who grew up with personal computers, wireless telephony, and electronic retrieval systems of every size and scale. The translation of substance into immaterial form is a basic parameter of the lifeworld he inhabits; with it comes the understanding that data flows rather than being confined, and that images and episodes too are part of ongoing, vast narratives rather than remaining in guarded pools.

Having been exposed to animation as a creative form in his parents’ animation studio, Mehta also embraces comic books, graphic novels, manga and anime as cultural resources.

Ali Akbar Mehta_Harlequin Series; To Glory in Self, like some kind of New Monster, 2010, Archival print on Hahnemuhle paper, 182 x 121 cm

Naturally, then, Mehta is fascinated by the figure of the superhero: who is supremely powerful yet deeply vulnerable, benevolent yet sinister, weighed down by the knowledge of humankind’s ultimate fate yet aware of his role as a guardian of hope and renewal. If the archetype of the great hero enshrines the spirit of indomitable resilience, it also incarnates all the freight of fear and paralysing anguish to which humankind is heir. In many of Mehta’s figures, the ligaments are stretched, the bone is set at breaking point. Indeed, in Mehta’s handing, the body is often an unsettling hybrid of muscular presence and spectral apparition: it is made, seemingly, of ectoplasm or pulp that has momentarily assumed a shape which it may lose without notice.

In Mehta’s imagery of the suffering yet defiant body, we may detect an act of homage to his grandfather, the legendary artist Tyeb Mehta. We find this especially in the trussed figure, suspended from ropes, more prisoner than marionette and hung above the abyss, in ‘The Identity of Violence Series: Suffering and Rapture’(2010). That homage also animates the figure that has been twisted, knotted, folded double in ‘Triptych’ (2007) and jammed into the cage formed by the frame of the canvas.

Ali Akbar Mehta_The Identity of Violence Series; Sacrifice and Redemption, 2010, Oil and acrylic on canvas, 182 x 121 cm


Mehta’s preparatory process involves a theatre-like ‘characterisation’ of his protagonists: a detailed imagining of their ‘inner lives’, a fleshing-out of their ‘back stories’, a calibration of their emotional temperature based on episodes deemed to have taken place in the past of their fictive present scenarios. As in theatre, this characterisation is not made wholly explicit in the articulated form of the work; nor is it meant to be. Rather, it serves the artist as the substance that confers reality upon his characters, and is the continuing material substrate from which his images and the narratives that concern them will be conjured.

Mehta delights in portraying quixotic figures of unpredictable motivation as they move through the columned halls and terraces of normality, replacing these with the weaving shapes of hallucination and phantasmagoria.


Among his protagonists are the jester and the harlequin: the first permitted to speak truth to power, although in politically sanctioned satire and allegory; the second a shape-shifting trickster who celebrates all that is chaotic and out of joint. Accordingly, the artist favours a pictorial space that is psychedelic, its emphasis laid on the play of strange lights and pulsating auras. Indeed, to this observer, his canvases articulate the ominous psychological freight of Bikash Bhattacharya’s paintings of the 1970s.

Humankind lurches from one crisis to the next in Mehta’s post-apocalyptic ecologies, with little chance of redemption. We find predators and victims, survivors and demons, all conjoined in a common destiny, all adrift: not on a Noachic Ark so much as on a Gericauldian Raft of the Medusa. In the painting that gives this exhibition its title, ‘The Ballad of The War That Never Was’ (2010), one of the key figures is modelled on the Deposition, the enduring moment when the crucified Christ is taken down from the cross, except that this figure has no hope of resurrection; another figure in this tableau is based on Delacroix’s ‘Liberty Leading the People’, except that the banner is fraying, torn to pieces by the wind.

Ballad of The War That Never Was, 2011, Oil and acrylic on canvas, 152 x 198 cm


Or, as with the close-packed figures in ‘War’ (2011), screaming as they flail, wrestle and fall together in a grand tapestry of the damned, Mehta’s figures strike us as a contemporary version of Dante’s eternally condemned figures in the Inferno or Michelangelo’s in the Sistine ‘Last Judgement’. The mode of the history painting manifests itself again and again in Mehta’s work, through allusion and citation. But the inspired certitudes of history painting and its heroic belief in the ability of the human will to dominate all circumstance have yielded, in Mehta’s paintings, before a more tragic awareness of human fragility. This artist does indeed take man as the measure of all things, in the classical humanist formulation; but man is here a strained measure, bent under pressure. Precisely for this reason, Mehta’s protagonists speak to us of our own anxieties and exhilarations, sing to us of our own at-once epic and intimate predicaments.


Ranjit Hoskote





The End


Pitch Black tar of nothingness.

Paranoiac Schizophrenia

The brink of Death



Dream –


The cosmic Yin and Yang.

Circle of Life



The Beginning



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



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?





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



Twisting and kicking

Everything is upside down,

The white light calls

Life is death

Pink, Purple, Blue, Black

Feet first, I arrive

Stillborn .


A body split in two

A Body split in two, not mine anymore

Ripped, Torn and Raped – ash and dust shroud it

A Garden of Leaflessness, who says its isn’t beautiful?

A picket fence in my own home and the house of my people

Barbed, Spiked and dripping with poison hissing and burning

Blind Cerberus is on the prowl, he is everywhere, visible but unseen

The mad demon rampages and tramples around ceaselessly in

Schizophrenic chaos, vomiting anarchy like toxic luminous fumes

A mirror cracked, Shards fall to the ground like diamonds broken

And faces that gaze back a thousand fold, like voyeurs peeking and staring back at me

Each incomplete, a virtual reflection of a hallucination that rises up in the smoky bog of our prosperity

The stench of a Dying civilization the rising Bile of guilt

We laugh like mad children, nervous and tittering

Naked and stripped we point to each other in failed attempts at redemption

Drunk on the liquor of Aries, huddled in our private ghettos we are all alone

Mute spectators in the cosmic coliseum, we witness

The Genocide of hope, freedom and the reason to be

The vengeful Gods, The Iron Fist

A New World Order of Black and White

Mechanical men, a parade they say, drumming a requiem

Marching towards Xanadu, and to kingdom come

The inherent chaos of all things, compounded

And Don Quixote will fight the ogres no more



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)”