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Conceptual artist Kiran Subbaiah on The Anti-Inspirational. -  Will: A Desire and a Destination.
The Fuschia Tree
Editor's Note.
'Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus. Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners. So that if we will plant nettles or sow lettuce, set hyssop and weed up thyme, supply it with one gender of herbs or distract it with many—either to have it sterile with idleness, or manured with industry—why, the power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills. [WS, Othello, III.3]
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By Anirudh Karnick, Issue 19, Will: A Desire and A Destination, March 2013
Kiran Subbaiah‘s works stem from the definitive break from tradition initiated by Marcel Duchamp.

Trained as a sculptor, much of his work now melds different media – but attentively. I particularly like Belly Ache (audio), Pinnacle, Flight Rehearsals, Salt Water and the extracts from Concealments and While the mouth is still full (all video). Attentive to not just the way they treat moving images but also in their unnerving use of sound, silence, the voice. Unusually for video work, the body is present – fragile since corporeal. It is perhaps the chief source of the ‘uncanny and moving’ nature of the videos.

Some more of his work can be found at his website; and some more of his videos at his Vimeo page.

TFT: Do you think an education in making art is necessary? How useful do you think it is, beyond the access to resources that it provides?

Kiran Subbaiah: I spent 13 years in art-school. Teaching of art can be debated but learning is indispensable. Peers are what I miss most outside art-school.

TFT: You've spoken in other interviews of how art was a hobby in your childhood. In college?

KS: I was talking about art being a hobby in schools generally, rather than an academic subject. That made it more attractive. I liked most hobbies. They were conducive to daydreaming. In art-school, I turned to things other than what was in the syllabus to maintain the same spirit.

TFT:  An example from each of your three art schools?

KS: I made home-movies at the RCA, played guitar at a coffee-shop in Baroda and solved computing problems with another computer-enthusiast on paper (we had no computer then) in Santiniketan. After enrolling in art-school, history and mathematics also became hobbies.  

TFT:  A lot of your work now is conceptual (or rather, Conceptual). Were you creating conceptual art when you were studying in Santiniketan? Were you interested in it at all?

KS: The first time I heard the word with the capital was in Baroda. I remember asking “isn’t all art conceptual?” I also remember feeling very offended by Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ when I first saw it in a book in Santiniketan. I was trying to learn to draw like the Renaissance masters in all earnestness and felt vulgarity of that sort in art should not be permitted. It took many years before it clicked for me.

TFT:  As part of a note on your work, Girish Shahane had written: “Conceptually-oriented works are often one-trick ponies” (before going on to elaborate when they work). Don't you think work like yours (or that of Pors and Rao) is part of a lineage that starts with Duchamp, and that the work of, say, Benode Behari Mukhopadhyay and Francis Bacon is not similarly conceptual in nature? That perhaps it is anti-conceptual. In this regard, I'd like you to elaborate on what you mean by conceptual.

KS: The meaning of words can remain as in the dictionary. The Duchamp connect can also be made through terms like avant-garde or dada. The term readymade is more apt for establishing my alliance to his work. In that sense, I identify better with Man Ray. Man Ray’s readymade production was more prolific. Also, much of the other art he produced has inspired me. Duchamp may have bagged the prize for the readymade with ‘Fountain’ quite deservingly, but his works concerning the woman (Nude Descending Staircase, Bride stripped Bare… Etante Donne, Elle a Chaud au Cul Etc.,) are quite distant. I don’t like what I make out of them, or maybe I don’t get it.

TFT:  When you make objects or spatial works that are conceptual (such as 'Articulation' or 'Quest'), how important do you think the craftsmanship is?

KS: Just important enough to hold together the vitals for as long as possible.

TFT: How do you go about constructing something like the audio piece 'Belly Ache'?

KS: It was an evening spent modulating a single, short audio-sample on Sound Forge.

TFT: In an audio work like 'Appointments Remix', did you use messages from actual answering machines? Do you think it matters?

KS: Real messages, tampered. The process would not have interested me if it were otherwise.  The result would also differ.

TFT: Labelling your own belongings – you don't think that kind of work is just a dreary repetition of Duchamp?

KS: Dreary indeed - but surely not a repetition of Duchamp. His soul might take offence.

TFT: You've used different mediums. Do you work on your projects one by one? What is a usual day (if there is any such)?

KS: Generally I did it part by part as a part of a project. Usually I don’t make art; I run errands.

TFT: Other than the actual making of art, what in your life feeds into it the most?

KS: Other people’s art.

TFT: How does this viewing/reception of other art feed into your work? Is keeping in touch with Contemporary art important to you? Which artists have been important to you in the last decade – how?

KS: All art I make is a response to another’s art I have beheld and envied. I look at all other art out of interest rather than importance. Robert Filliou and George Brecht have been interesting me lately. I plagiarize them.

TFT: Do you think the formal study of art history contributed in any significant way to your making of art? (Whether it should or should not be on the syllabus is a different matter.)

KS: Its informal study is better. More than anything - it puts you in the shoes of an audience.

TFT: Do you engage with aesthetic theory?

KS: To some extent. I prefer it when it reads like short fiction or absurdist poetry.

TFT: In 'The Original Experience', Maurice Blanchot writes that aesthetics makes of art an object of reflection and knowledge – it may reduce it by explaining it, it may again exalt it my elucidating it, but art for the aesthetician is “a present reality around which he constructs plausible thoughts at no risk”. Would you agree?

KS: I agree completely. Sure disasters sans risque.

TFT: Do you feel the reviews/criticism of conceptual art have been able to say anything useful, beyond articulating the concept and its ramifications?

KS: The significance of ‘Fountain’ is primarily the volume of literature generated around apparently almost no effort in its making. I’ve heard it said that in Goldsmith’s, students stood around a cube, talked about it and took down pages of notes for their conceptual art class. Without discourse, the conceptual art object is as good a non-existent.

TFT: Which reviews/criticism of your own or other peoples' work have you found most thought-provoking?

KS: All criticism of my work provokes my mind to be rid of thought and my guts to turn inside out. Praise on the other hand is never enough. I’m more on the lookout for writing that prophesizes what is yet to come so I can make it. Charles Esche has some convincing things to say.

TFT: Other than Contemporary art, which art-forms – literature, music, cinema, painting, sculpture, architecture – do you find yourself most interested in?

KS: What I’m most interested in is not so much dependant on art-form as on attitude or taste.

TFT: Right, I understand. But give me a couple of examples.

KS: I have a soft spot for urban contemporary folk culture, which manifests itself in many forms. Good street performers (not Contemporary Performance Artists) are my heroes.

TFT: Are you attracted to art that has an attitude or a taste that is similar to yours? Do you think this attitude is uniquely contemporary or do you find it in some art of the past as well?

KS: Leonardo is one of the few contemporaneous artists from the past. Otherwise multi/inter-disciplinary practice is quite uniquely a contemporary phenomenon. Boundaries between what art is and what not, have blurred considerably. The practice of someone like Theo Jansen may be closer to engineering but has been more readily accepted as art. The field of art is hungry to expand. My attitude and taste behave similarly.

TFT: Do you discuss your work with others as you're working on a project?

KS: It’s my only superstition: Not to discuss work in progress with others lest I get bored just by talk and never make it. Conspiracy thrills.

TFT: Why is it not enough to simply explain the idea to a friend but to actually make the object? Does the conciseness of expression and its not being in (day-to-day) language contribute?

KS: Yes. Talking about other things or even other peoples’ art makes better conversation. Some ideas can only be exchanged in day-to-day conversation between friends and may have nothing to do with art, nor make sense when spoken about in an interview.

TFT: Is writing the text in English integral for your videos (such as 'Suicide Note') or is it a matter of convenience since it is mainly in English that there is a market and viewership for your work?

KS: I would have preferred Hindi or Tamil to the language I think in. I could have rubbed shoulders with Amir and Rajni in the stunt and dialogue fan market.

TFT: I have mostly watched your videos on Vimeo. Other than the authority conferred by the space, do you think it makes a substantial difference if your film is looped in a museum?

KS: The experience of viewing could be perfected in a museum. But in my experience www has proved to be the better. Curators can have their own agendas on designing the viewing space. As a viewer, I prefer to have access to all the playback controls while watching a video.

TFT: You are deadpan in your videos. Outside of them?

KS: I don’t see myself in the mirror the moment I blink.

TFT: This question is rather broad but if you'd be willing to answer it: what according to you makes a work of art successful? Or would you rather it failed – and if so, what makes it fail better?

KS: Surely nothing definitive, or always something unexpected.

TFT: Which Indian artists working at present do you admire or find useful – and why?

KS: Ask me about dead artist if you like. I prefer to maintain diplomacy with the living.

TFT: Very well, which dead artists then?

KS: Umrao Singh Sher-Gil. I believe I am his re-incarnation.

TFT: Do you think it makes sense to ask you questions about yourself to access your art?

KS: Vasari went a long way with that question and proved me wrong.

TFT: Do you read the biographies of other artists? Which artists? What interests you in another artist's biography?

KS: I prefer reading auto-biographies of artists, with a specific interest in the creativeness of their memory. My favorite ones are by film-makers: Autobiography of a Liar, Magic Lantern and Sculpting in Time.  Artists also make self-portraits. The most enigmatic ones I have come across are by Rembrandt made towards the end of his life. One also cannot help but look at an artist’s life’s body of work as biography.

As told to Anirudh Karnick, who prefers not to.

Kiran Subbiah is Time flies like arrows and fruit flies like bananas.

Also in this issue

Illusion: Seeing Beyond Seeing
Meaning: In Search of Significance.
Melody: A Different Tune
Rhythm: Ordering Time

Dhrupadi Ghosh is an old friend of mine. We have often had long sessions of adda late at night, discussing her dream projects since her college days at Santiniketan, where she majored in Sculpture.