Blind and Blinding Bodies
Blindness is a pathological condition where the human being’s ocular engagement with his surroundings gets disrupted. This disruption causes logical discontinuities while pushing the human being into a state of ambiguity. Ocular deprivation is one of the tactics that the State uses for taming a rebelling individual and converting him into a conforming citizen. Ideological indoctrination through the systems, which Louis Althusser qualifies as Repressive State Apparatuses, prepares the individual to turn ‘blind’ to certain situations so that he could follow the ideology without causing crisis to himself and to the State.
Ideological State Apparatuses like schools, jails, asylums, police, family, and so on, though designed as institutions that reclaim the citizens from aberrations and mould them as ‘models’, covertly function as punitive ‘military-industrial’ complexes that literally control the body and mind of the rebelling individual.
‘Birth of Blindness’, the first project in 2008 by G.R.Iranna probes into the material and philosophical aspects of reclaiming the bodies of citizens and rebels by the State. Blindness, for the artist, is a process of erasing cognition and memory; blindness creates a new citizen with a clean mind where the state could inscribe novel socio-cultural codes. State ‘envisions’ the individual ‘body’ as ‘eyes’ which could be blinded through the exercising of power. This ideological transposing of eyes is achieved through inflicting pain on the rebellious body and as Naomi Klein in her ‘Shock Doctrine’ observes, isolating an individual from his familiar surroundings is the severest way of inflicting pain/torture.
The men in Iranna’s sculptural installations are hooded and herded. In ‘Death of Smile’, they look like fresh captives from a rebellious front. Shocked by the unexpected seizure, blindfolded by black hoods, each member in the group looks completely isolated. Squatting precariously on the floor, their soldier-like classically toned bodies are tensed up in the expectation of an impending torture. The conspicuous absence of the perpetrators of state violence underlines the hallucinatory presence of ideological powers and this scene could be from any torture camp like Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib. The scene exemplifies the process of ‘blinding’ or ‘erasure of identities’ for ideological re-inscriptions. Isolation, both physical and psychological, makes them disoriented and their level of comprehension falls into abysmal depths. “People who are exposed to isolation for the first time develop a group of symptoms that include ‘bewilderment, anxiety, frustration, dejection, boredom, obsessive thoughts or ruminations, depression, and, in some cases, hallucination,” observes the Physicians for Human Rights Report.
These bewildered people, completely subjected to the state power and authority become a new metaphor for Iranna as he has been working on the metaphysical state of objects and human bodies for almost a decade. Perfect male bodies with tonsured heads in Iranna’s works once represented the spiritual transformation of human beings through transcending the carnal desires. Their monk-like stillness and acrobat-like movements portrayed the artist’s intention to elevate physical body from its quotidian values. Having accomplished his transcendental quest, by 2006 Iranna seems to have transported his affinity for material body to the realm of political thinking. Body as a tool for negotiating socio-cultural and political realities and body as a field of ideological contestations come to play an important role in Iranna’s works as he expands his aesthetical expressions from pure painterly formats to sculptural renditions.
State’s intervention on the individual body and the body politic finds a clear articulation in an untitled painting done in 2006 by Iranna. Here a crouching human figure with all his dignity stripped to nil is seen trampled by a powerful single leg originating from the upper edge of the pictorial frame. The facelessness of the State is exemplified in this image of a single leg and it is for the first time that Iranna conceives the human body as an entity subjected to torture. In the same year, Iranna brings in the aspect of ‘blinding’ as a form of torture and deprivation in one of his pivotal sculptures titled ‘Make Sure You are Breathing’. A standing human figure, again the classical masculine body, with its head and uplifted hands covered by a gunny bag, literally and metaphorically portrays the act of blinding and sensory deprivations.
Taking off from ‘Make Sure You are Breathing’, Iranna’s researches on human body as a field of subjection meet with the political articulations of Imperialism, proliferated all over the world through the effective use of invasion and torture. The use of gunny bag as a gagging, cuffing and blinding tool becomes a recurring metaphor in Iranna’s works as he perceives the perpetuation of imperialism operative only in places where the rebelling bodies are deprived of sensory powers. The CIA funded psycho-physiological researches on methods to ‘elicit truth and information’ from captives emphasize that the deprivation of sensory powers makes the captive to denounce his own personality and become clean. The more the captive resists the more he is deprived of his sensory abilities. His body becomes a willing receptacle, mangled, tamed and marked.
Deprivation of sensory powers, whether it is employed by the State or by any other agency, at once is a form of ideological persuasion and metaphorical articulation. Bodily deprivation and subjection emblematized in ‘Birth of Blindness’ not only forwards a critique on terror perpetuated by the State but also it raises a critique on the ways the contemporary human beings are subjected to self-imposed blindness. Iranna by herding the hooded perfect human bodies conjures up the vision of an asylum-like world where individuals are expected to obey the rules and never allowed to take the lead. This portrayal of life in asylum/camp is not only poignant but also ironic.
Contemporary images culled out from the immediate global/ized realities, while generating a critical discourse on body and political terror, also find linkages with myths, parables, religious practices and anecdotes from the universal visual culture. In one of the sculptural installations in ‘Birth of Blindness’, ten human beings are seen kneeling as if they were completely surrendering to a higher force. Here Iranna plays with this ambiguous meaning of genuflecting. The posture could either connote the supplication to God, almighty or it could be an unconditional acceptance of the powers of the state. The men here are blind-folded. The ambiguity of these images subtly initiates the issue of religious fundamentalism, generally attributed to a sect that does its prayers in a particular way. The blindness of fundamentalist religious practices is poked at here as the artist conveniently places these bodies on some kind of trolleys generally used by the handicapped beggars in streets. Iranna’s critique is double edged here. While holding State as responsible for human subjection, he also points his accusing fingers at those people who ‘blindly’ follow certain anti-human ideologies, independent of state authorization. Iranna calls both the parties ‘handicapped’.
Closely looking at these works one could clearly make out that Iranna as an artist does not simply isolate his images from art history. Iranna’s human beings are affiliated to the tradition of Laocoon, the glorified male bodies of Michael Angelo and the critical narrative tradition of Pieter Bruegel, the Elder. Iranna, in ‘Birth of Blindness’ almost evokes the narrative of ‘The Parable of the Blind Leading the Blind’ by Bruegel, in which he critiques a society burdened by the pathological symptoms of blindness and corruption. A free hanging installation of casted animal hides titled the ‘Vice of Innocence’, directly connects to the visual tradition of holocaust and war, in which politically driven massacres are identified with butchered animals and their hanging hides. In yet another twist, the artist links up religious fundamentalism and terror in the globalized society with an abattoir site, where the human beings are slaughtered and hung, and even the dead bodies are ruthlessly vandalized.
The frozen terror that one sees in the sculptural installations of Iranna is in some way given a different articulation in the four paintings that he presents in ‘Birth of Blindness’. In the paintings, Iranna chooses to be more direct but elegant. His critique on the imperial blindfolding of people comes out quite strongly when he titles one of his paintings, ‘Playing with White Ball’. A rugby match is about to start. Both the team members are waiting for the referee’s whistle. But look at them, all the players are hooded with black masks. They know they are in the game but they don’t know what they are going to do with the game. Iranna makes a subversive statement by calling it game of ‘White Ball’, whereas the ball is brown in color. The implied meaning is pretty clear in this double articulation of the artist. They are playing a ‘White’ game using the ‘Brown’ ball. The impending collapse of these players reminds the experience recounted by a camp detainee in the US. They blindfolded him and put him in an isolated cell. He says that he spent 1100 days in the cell and he calculated this by listening to the chirping of birds twice a day; at dawn and dusk. The players in the painting can only calculate their games by harking to the nature. But how long is it possible?
Iranna generally does not paint female figures. However, in ‘Birth of Blindness’ the artist makes a deliberate choice of bringing a female figure. In the ‘Untitled’ painting, a young woman is seen standing in front of a huge piano, which is played by a masked man. She seems to be singing to the codes played by the man. Behind the piano one can notice the presence of a tiger that spreads terror amongst the participants of this concert. Could it be read as a parable of democracies controlled by the ‘disinterested presence’ of Imperialist forces? The man and woman engaged in a musical rendering are really controlled by the presence of the tiger. Their bodies are as tensed as the bodies of the men in the sculptural installations and they do not know what would be the prowling tiger doing next.
The beautiful but tensed body of the woman in ‘Untitled’ painting could be read as a counter thesis to the elegant masculine body of the matador in ‘Afternoon Sacrifice’. This man, like the players in ‘Playing with White Ball’ does not know the mighty power of the ‘Bull’ that he is supposed to cajole and conquer. The bull with all his masculine arrogance confronts the viewer with sneer. One could see the possibility of this elegant matador getting hurt or killed by the bull as he is masked and is unaware of the mightiness of the bull. He shares the destiny of the rugby players. The only image that balances this palpable terror is the image of a donkey, a beast of burden seen in the background of the painting.
I would like to connect this image of donkey with the painting titled, ‘I Want to Hear the Scream by Me’. Four men with covered faces are seen walking towards somewhere with four children perching on their shoulders. Their emaciated bodies tell that they are laborers and are heading towards some work site. Their bodies are in perfect contrast with the masculine athletic bodies of the captives, fundamentalists, musician, matador and the rugby players. While their bodies are subjected by the state ideologies for reclaiming their minds for the purpose of ideological proliferation, these men’s bodies are unclaimed by the state. They are the dispossessed human beings who do not have ‘a past or future’. The dispossessed and unclaimed bodies of the laborers become a discursive point for the artist in order to debate the State’s desire for masculine and rebelling bodies.
The donkey seems to be following these dispossessed men. And this is the same donkey that we see in the sculptural work titled ‘Wounded Tools’, which I would call a masterpiece by Iranna. A life size donkey, with a saddle-sack full of agricultural and construction tools, stands mute in the middle of a space. The sharp edges of these tools are covered with bandages stained by blood. Each tool, for Iranna is not a wounding implement. On the contrary, they are the wound themselves. They are the tools of those dispossessed men, who are always pushed out of the state and corporate sites once their work is done. Through the poignant double play with the images of wound and wounded, Iranna foresees a future where more and more people would be rendered dispossessed and unclaimed. They are the fugitives in their own land and only a beast of burden like donkey would follow them. A deeper contemplation of this work suddenly brings in the image of Jesus Christ and his endless journeys as an infant and as a grown up rebel. The wounded tools in the saddles then appear as the body of Jesus Christ, who received wounds in his body for redeeming the people. ‘Wounded Tools’ embodies the crux of Iranna’s project; the muteness of the donkey stands for the silent suffering of the claimed and unclaimed bodies.
February 2008, New Delhi
(JohnyML is a Delhi based writer and curator. He edits www.artconcerns.com)