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.”

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

Mumbai

2011

Kruunuvuori: The Perfect Ghosts of Helsinki

In in the midst of an old forest, next to a pond that could be anywhere in wilderness is the area of Kruunuvuori, which in the etymology of Suomi means ‘The Crown Mountain’ – which is about three kilometres from Market Square in the very centre of Helsinki as the crow flies – has ghostlike old villas hidden amidst ancient forest left at the mercy of nature, with only the slow inevitable passing of time as its companion. Dilapidated and forgotten for decades, these villas still struggle against elements and time.

The Kruunuvuori villas – one of Helsinki’s oddest and simultanously the most treasured and the most publicly well known secrets, may probably not exist for much long longer – (many believe that the year 2015 is the last year of the presumably indefinite building ban that it was placed under, and so the demolition of almost all of the villas could very well take place in the Summer of 2016). Of all the villas surviving their various states of ruins, only a few seem to be structurally sound enough to be conserved as Heritage Sites, although that they will be done so, is doubtful.

It’s hard to experience the Kruunuvuori villas without thinking of Charles Dickinson’s Miss Havisham’s abandoned mansion. After being left at the alter, the estranged character lets time be the sole master of her house and mind:

 

It was spacious, and I dare say had once been handsome, but every discernible thing in it was covered with dust and mould, and dropping to pieces. The most prominent object was a long table with a table-cloth spread on it, as if the feast had been in preparation when the house and the clocks all stopped together. An epergne or centre-piece of some kind was in the middle of this cloth; it was so heavily overhung with cobwebs that its form was quite indistinguishable. 

– Great Expectations

 

It used to be a village full of villas built in 19th century, when Laajasalo and all of eastern Helsinki were just fields and forests. The stunning coastline and lush forest made it a paradise. In 1905 Jacob Cygnaeus, (the son of the founder of Finland’s previous grammar school system Uno Cygnaeus), bought the area, and in 1914 it was sold to a German commercial councellor Albert Goldbeck-Löwe. Albert Goldbeck-Löwe acquired the area and developed it into a resort for the upper classes and the wealthy Germans who lived in Helsinki, but over time it became available to the middle class masses as well. The period from 1920 to 1950 are considered the peak golden years of the Kruunuvuori villas, with a steam boat service run for the residents connecting to the main land city of Helsinki.

After Germany lost the Second World War, ­as part of the armistice between Germany and the Soviet Union, The Governing Body of foreign properties moved the Germany-owned Kruunuvuori to the Soviet Union and the Communist Party of Finland and it became a holiday resort for its members. After that it was used by the Soviet Union and Finnish communists.

In 1955 the founder of Palkki Oy, Aarne J. Aarnio bought the area and in the late 1960’s architectural company Toivo Korhonen envisioned a city plan ofor 2800 citizens with 78900 floor squares of residential development. The signature of the deed of sale was the proverbial fatal blow to the status of premium and delux villa communities. Aarnio’s interest in construction was the development of a residential area – not the maintainance of a villa area.

Drawn up in 1968, the building plan included up to 12-story tower houses. However, the city did not want to agree to such a thing, because the area was too remote, the planned infrastructure was too massive and the task of construction would have been no small thing. And so, zoning laws hindered the construction plans – Aarnio tried to get the area zonimg and building permits from the governemnt proposing the building plan in 1977 – and again in 1982 with a reduced floor area. And once again 1998 – to no avail, the city governemnt was by now developing the southern part of the Laajasalo Peninsula – the Oil Port area for future use.

Of course, the villas still belonged to their former owners and while the community remained vibrant and active for a while, a feeling of uncertainty began to creep in and maintenance of buildings was soon being neglected. The negative successive building permit made Aarnio loose interest in the project – and the area was ordered to a building ban ­­. Silently, the decadence faded, and decay began to seize the mountain. In an ironical twist of fate resulting from thisstalemate, more than 90% of the region is owned by the CEO, who cannot do anything with it due to non-compliance of the governement, and the City Planning project concerning the Oil port in southern Laajasalo is already underway

The vast majority of villas are dilapidated, collapsed or burned. Last arson was 04/06/2015, when the red cottage – Lilla Kronberg turned into heaps of coal. In 2011, Helsinki was doing a study of two or three of the villa on the protection, but since then nothing has been heard. One of the possibly to-be-protected villa has been destroyed as a result of arson. The museovirastokin mapping found that two of the Kruunuvuoren villas are still active and urgent measures may still be salvageable, although the refurbishment would probably be too expensive an option.

The Crown Mountain is a mysterious place, ideally seen and experienced in person. Amongst the woods and fog stands this beautifully sad monument, a decaying memory of the old glory days of the aristocracy and high bourgeoisie that still resists the ravages of wind, snow and builders without scruples.

The possibility of alienation in a city that claims cosmopolitanism as a constant, cannot be attributed to the loss of cultural space specifically due to revisits to the city’s history, but bizarrely it has and specifically in particular covering up of history that attempts to erase many diverse histories. The Project aims to shed light and make people aware of the forgotten public and personal histories related to the Kruunuvuori Villas. it fights nostalgia by documenting it, recreating it through videos, conversations, staging ethnographic reconstructions and most importantly through a dissemination of information that is misconstrued and twisted to hide facts in plain sight.

Ali Akbar Mehta

2015

null.void @Kallio Public Library

 

A 3 minute excerpt of my radio performance, which was a One Hour Reading session of Wars from 2000 to 2011, at Kallio Public Library as part of Chimurenga’s Pan African Space Station live radio broadcast. For the full one hour radio broadcast of the performance, check out The Chimurenga Archives at http://panafricanspacestation.org.za/

{
null.void;
// a sermon of nothingness and a space odyssey of zero movement and tycho magnetic anomalies
}

null.void; is a Transmedia Performance-lecture recitation and Research Project. It comprises a procedural audio soundscape of glitch sounds using static and radio frequencies, and a performance recitation of a comprehensive list of every war, battle, siege, sacking, revolt and revolution spanning 5014 years of human conflict and violence.

 

*null.void will eventually become a part of a currently-in-developement project titled WAR • ROOM• ECHO: Regarding the Pain of Other Cyborgs

Of Men and Supermen

 

Of Men and Supermen is about the nature of truth, the hidden and the apparent and the difference between the real and fictional. They are extracted from a larger body of archival site specific work based in Mazgaon and Wadibunder that is a cross section of a layered and multi- tiered space, which comprises an eclectic mix of temporary setups, chawls, shanties and tenements, amidst more permanent historic landmarks and its inhabitants.

Documenting the life and living conditions of specific loosely strung together communities of people forced me to revisit these sites on a daily basis, and resulted in these spaces becoming stages set for the performance of the everyday.

These stages enabled the idea of the fictional to percolate into the realm of the real, generating a new urban metascape and transforming people into the Superheroes of their own narratives.

These works engage with the duality of identity, overlapping the real and the fictional, forcing them to coexist and dissolving the barrier between the two.

 

Ali Akbar Mehta

2012

The Possibility of Alienation

 

The possibility of alienation in a city that claims cosmopolitanism as a constant, cannot be attributed to the loss of cultural space specifically due to revisits to the city’s history, but bizarrely it has and specifically in particular name change that occurred many years go now erases those many diverse histories.  Ali Akbar Mehta studied at the JJ School of Art that stood at the beginning of the road that leads into the city’s eastern districts.  As one drives onto a flyover that shares the same name with Ali’s school and was built to circumvent the congestion and surely the people who gather at Bombay’s famous Bhendi Bazaar, one witnesses many ‘Stars of David’ that adorn the muralesque facades of the neo-gothic and art deco buildings that exist on the stretch.  Here ‘Mumbaikars’ stare into the homes from the cars of a community whom they might not easily find in the endogamous housing societies of Bombay.

The buildings that line the roads of Bhendi Bazaar were built by Jewish merchants who were Sephardic immigrants from Baghdad and were initially inhabited by indigenous Bene Israelis from the Konkan hinterland, soon Muslim tenants replaced the migrating Baghdadis and the area soon was host to many different merchant communities which include the Dawoodi Bohras, Jains, Ismaili Khojas and Memons.  In the days of a siege that slaughters thousands in Palestine, Jewish charity runs a school mostly attended by Muslim children while the synagogue is colloquially called the mosque.  Not far from here is Mazgaon that translates from Marathi as ‘My village’. The varied urbanscape today actually arose from leafy plantation houses that once house the East Indians of Bombay and Parsis who were escaping the malarial crowd of the city.  The East Indians were descended mainly from indigenous fishing communities that were converted to Catholicism by the missionaries’ activities of Portuguese missionaries and inquisitions against the locale populace.   A certain bourgeoise arose from families that claimed Mulatto or Portuguese descent, one such family was the De Souza – De Lima family that was granted Mazgaon as an agricultural estate.  The Island of Bombay contained many East Indian villages and Matharpakadi is one that remains though constantly nudged by realtors essentially a village.

Mazgaon was a geography of military intrigue and was fought over for by the Abyssinians sealords of the Mughals, Marathas and the Parsis.  These wars changed the use of land in the area as it was distributed.  The Parsis specifically the Wadia family began a ship building yards, the Bohri Muslims began to service the trade as grocers, petty exporters and in recent years the primary actors in the marine hardware and boat construction business.  The Chinese dockworkers, dentists and tanners set up a China town with a Taoist temple and a cemetery not far away.  The Chinatown was dismantled after the Indo-China war along with its Mahjong clubs and its residents packed of to internment camps in the arid heat of Rajasthan.

Ali Akbar Mehta maps Matharpacady, the remnants of Chinatown, his Bohri grandparent’s apartment and the Wadi Bunder where ships are brought to be torn apart on the dry dock. Here he fights nostalgia by documenting it, recreating it through videos, conversations and staging ethnographic reconstructions of people’s homes within Clark House.  The structure of the art space, which is of an early 20th century colonial apartment, lends itself with ease to these interventions.  Through these interventions Ali stages a dramatic critique on the ghettoisation of the city on communal lines into two communal flanks of east and west after riots of 1993.  Alienation manifests in drawings of superheroes who stretch across the city’s skyline, these are drawn on gateway paper illuminated using the reflection of light and mirror. They are placed aside scenes of the Mazgaon recreated by a poster painter who refers through Ali’s photographs while rendering them using a palette of colour scene in the colonial Bombay School and often used to stage revisits to the city’s history by Bollywood.  Site, Structure and Stage thus reclaims a space by revisiting certain histories purposefully ignored in writing the city’s history by creating narratives around architecture, language, mercantile culture and personal histories around a site that demarcates a certain geography.

 

Sumesh Sharma

Curator, Clark House

Artist Statement

I am a Transmedia Contemporary Artist exploring digital technology in its manifestations of audiovisual content creation, archival and documentation possibilities, and most importantly the hybridization of reality and sensory world building. My practice is formulated across diverse media involving drawing and painting, digital painting, photography, bookmaking, video, data mining, documentation and archival work. My background in 3D Animation, VFX and postproduction has facilitated an ability to support my Art practice forming a parallel body of work. I regularly collaborate with robotic engineers, computer programmers, musicians, writers, theater and filmmakers and I aim to found processes that would leave deep impacts on contemporary culture, technology and knowledge.

My practice is concerned with collective memetic history, narratives of memory and identity formations in relations to the ‘Other’, making visible silenced histories of violence and trauma by encoding new archetypes, hybrid mythologies, and culture jamming. My work, by shifting from practice of image-making, to that of knowledge production, confronts through inquiry the political-religious-socio-economic quadrangle as a constant existence of our lives and investigates the themes of the Hero and his/her position in contemporary society, the nature of violence, and identity; and attempt to reconcile and/or disrupt histories with necessary counter-perspectives.

Violence and its perception are an unstable and contestable phenomenon shaped by social and material factors – a fundamental condition ‘lodged in the core of human experience.’  It is simultaneously private, public, self-intimating and collective. Although trauma manifests as a physical, emotional and psychological bodily sensation, its measurability, locus and description remain ambivalent. As an intangible concept, trauma is thus difficult to define, as it ‘has no referential content,’ and resists objectification in language. Since the experience and interpretation of pain is highly subjective, its representation translates invariably between individuals, societies and cultures. Its depiction or its narration then, has the potential to serve many symbolic and metonymic functions, as a document, a record, a vision, a fact, a possibility, which can be judged, critiqued and understood within the context of its presentation. Though my work, I attempt to understand how the narrative experience of Violence, Trauma and Pain are embodied, embedded and extended in the contexts of these meanings and find ways to confront the potency of a (post) conflict space down to its basic vocabulary out of the need to ensure narratives are not erased or rendered invisible.

I am currently pursuing a Master’s in Visual Contemporary Culture in Art at Aalto University’s Art, Design and Architecture Department, Helsinki, Finland.

I live and work in Helsinki and Mumbai.

*

Born August 1983.

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

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