Avant garde Romanian-French poet, essayist and performance artist Tristan Tzara in his manifesto, “Feeble Love and Bitter Love, II”, explains the essence of manifesto as “a device of artistic communication of ideas and objectives of an individual practitioner of art or thinker”. He says the manifesto is a communication made to the whole world, whose only pretension is the discovery is an instant cure for political, astronomical, artistic, parliamentary, agronomical and literary syphilis. It may be pleasant, — and good natured. It’s always right, it’s strong, vigorous and logical…
Every modern art movement has a manifesto that declares the motives, objectives and views of the artists concerned — and are scripted even today across the world. It serves as a document and declaration to record and preserve ideas of a particular group of artists, who practrise is avant garde. The first art manifesto was written by a “group of artists” known as “futurists” in Italy in 1909 — and carried forward by Vorticists, Dadaists and Surrealists after them in the run-up to the World War II. That was the time, when the best and the most meaningful of the art and political manifestos were written — addressing issues of freedom, art, literature, politics, revolution and change.
The movement that began in Europe and then spread to the United States — has since travelled to the developing worlds of Asia and Latin America where art movements are picking up from the war time threads of the West to create new native manifestos — that speak of immediate realities based on indigenous art, variants, regional politics and social concerns. India is integral to the new manifesto art movement that is sweeping through the developing world to forge broad connections between art, development, politics and people in shifting global power equations.
An exhibition, “We are Ours: A Collection of Manifestos for the Instant” at the studios of the Khoj International Artists’ Association in New Delhi, has brought manifestos by 27 leading Indian contemporary artists to “speak about their artistic philosophies, traditions, wisdom, modernism in art, views on politics and practices”. The manifestos are conflicting — each representing the diverse and often multi-cultural backgrounds of the artist, training, evolution, inspiration and practice. Unlike a marked movement, the manifestos on display at Khoj are mirrors of the artist’s persona — a delight for art lovers — allowing them to explore the inner worlds and outlooks of the individual artists in terms of their aesthetic practises and views about life in general.
Curator of the show Himali Singh Soin —an art writer — says the exhibition has a cosmic significance. The number of artists — 27 — is the number of bones that the human hand is made of. Manifesto — in Latin — can traced back to the word “man” which means hand. “Manifestos by hand”, the curator said.
“Historically manifestos were made on the brink of great revolution – of wars and at the end of wars — by individuals seeking a collective voice and a mass dispersal of a firm statement of sentiment, solidarity and safety. They are somehow an antiquated form. The purpose of commissioning art manifestos was to create a constellation of manifestos of the ideas that lie between the artists and the history of art, its institutions and its socio economic cultural origins — bringing the artist and the existential together,” Soin said in her curatorial introduction to the showcase.
“The artists on show is a selection whose practices are founded in their conceptual and philosophical engagement with the ways we live within forms — here, a studio standard, A 4 sheet of papers, reproducible flyer and a simultaneous symbol of the dawn of industrialization and its demise in the face of a digital revolution,” Soin pointed out
“I am a writer. I like the format. I think there are manifestos everyday all over the place that speak about everything — it is an aesthetic movement created out of texts. There are people stating their beliefs, their art and their missions in life. This exhibition has come out of such a need to express— an art movement. I have used A4 (paper) as the size medium to bring all the manifestos under one format – for a sense of uniform homogeneity,” the curator told this writer.
A cursory look at the exposition can be disappointing. Bare white walls of the newly-refurbished Khoj Studios clash with the white of the A-4 pages, spartan material used for mounting some of the manifestos and the miniature scale of the works. But a closer inspection throws light into the innovative practices used by the artists to express their “stories”. Most of the stories are existential – nihilistic – and surreal with traces of the “abstract” and the “quaint”. Indian conceptual art — as many critics say— is irrevocably cast in the social realities confronting the country. It in turn tells on the personal realities of the artists and their arts as well. Not all of it is happy.
Artist Aditya Pande, has installed an 10-minute video, “Half-Full” as his manifesto— depicting a man placed in a visual circle beating a semi-circular wall of clay in rapid motion. “I have been working on a series of art about circles, half-circles and the joining of the dots— an extension of my initial experiments with clay as a medium. The video captures a slice of the clay installations and the circles as abstract forms to show how everything in this world overlaps in full and half circles. It reflects motion and cyclical movement of events and situations in life,” Pande said. Life is often interpreted as a full circle in Indian philosophy.
“It is my manifesto,” Pande said.
Artist Mithu Sen, known for her radical art of feminism, freedom and abstract reality, has deployed “optical illusion” as a practice to depict a magic realism rooted on the premise of “everything being real and unreal at the same time”. Her installation, “Dosen’t Exist” in acrylic, A4 space, mirror, cotton gloves and light, is an interactive art work. It engages the viewer to understand “her manifesto” by donning a pair of white cotton gloves to study a small light etching on a white A-4 wall space. A mirror placed against the wall reflects two words, “Doesn’t Exist”— but once the mirror is removed with the gloved hand, the walls appear bare. “It is an illusion — nothing exists,” Mithu Sen tells this writer about her manifesto.
An installation by leading contemporary artist Bharti Kher, “What Can I Tell You That You Don’t Know Already”, uses a set of seven A4 size mirrors cracked manually in complex patterns to reflect on life and its “strains”. The installation may be a testament to human relationships— the seven mirrors depicting seven lives cracked and scratched in tight webs, commenting about existential complexities, angst, emotions and their abstract expressions in conceptual art.
Artist duo Pors & Rao, in their “Hand-held” manifesto comments on a broken trajectory of vision, kinetics of life in a multi-media installation crafted from paper, wood, motors and process sheets of mathematics that goes beyond a manifesto. The essence of the work as the artists point out is to “imitate the motion of someone trying not to move”. The result is a irregular prism of movement — an elusive sense of movement and conflicts within reality of truth.
Artist Hema Upadhyay creates “Simple Life” with eight long-grain rice inscriptions, 10 A4 standard paper to express her conventional wisdom around the concept — “Beautiful people always avert their eyes”. The rice grains are pasted on the paper in serpentine alignments. The magnifying glass brings her manifesto to life— “Nothing remains the same … There grows no herb to heal broken hearts”. Each grain carries her manifesto in narrative idioms of fables— intricate and minute.
Chittrovanu Mazumdar’s “Perpetual Palimpsest” in three wax tablets, two copper and lead plates, one lead book, three lead presses and one print on paper tells of his manifesto — “What we erased had no name”. It can be interpreted as his outlook to the past — the print, the press, the plate, the tablet and the painstakingly printed book with leather flaps — brushed below the surface in the tide of the new digital flood of word and information. Old, grey, used, burnt and blackened with soot. The installation laid out on a counter is nostalgic – bordering on grief for an era long gone.
Artist Praneet Soi sums up the collective manifesto of the Indian conceptual art in contemporary times with his slogan —“Travel not with, but in Time”. A map that resembles the dots game guides the viewer through the maze of art works spread across two floors — arranged in abandon.
The manifestos at the Khoj were loosely grounded in the “counter-culture manifestos” of the 1960s-1970s, a section of art critics suggest. They “reflect the changing social and political system” of the times in the deluge of the “counter-culture” revolutions like “feminism”, “colour power”, “performance art” and “conceptual art” to overthrow the existing order — and conventions.
This phase of art in the west was characterised by a “certain degree of disenchantment with systems and an element of Kafkaesque existential blues” as the metamorphosis gathered steam.
(List of artist at the Manifestos exhibition at Khoj International Artist Association (in New Delhi) – Akash Nihalini, Sahej Rahal, Abhisekh Hazra, Mithu Sen, Shreyas Karle, Rabir Kaleka, Pors & Rao, Surabhi Sataf, Nikhil Chopra, Jitish Kallat, Prayas Abhinav, Kiran Subbaiah, Chittrovanu Mazumdar, Aditya Pande, Rajorshi Ghosh, Bharti Kher, Hema Upadhyay, Shilpa Gupta, Yamini Nayar, Hatain Patel, Prajakta Potnis, Neha Choksi, Raqa Media Collective, Aradhana Seth, Zuleikha Chaudhuri, Praneet Soi, Vishal Dar”.