Exhibition ‘Displacement’ by Abir Karmakar
Curation and text by Birgid Uccia
The exhibition ‘Displacement’ by Abir Karmakar contains five large-scale oil-on-canvas paintings from the series ‘Home’, first displayed at the Kashi Art Gallery, a traditional house in the South Indian style, as part of the 3rd Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2016. For the current show at Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke, ‘Home’ has been complemented by three recent paintings, revisiting the core subject matters of the Biennale, such as site-specificity, identity and place, memory and belonging.
Showcasing Karmakar’s virtuoso skill at creating convincing visual illusions, his untitled paintings of domestic interiors are rooted in the Dutch genre of the 17th century. Known for ranking his artistic practice within the lineage of Western art history, Karmakar draws on this early modern period, where the value of a work of art depended as much on its content as on the quality of its execution. His interiors evoke home as an inward looking world of quiet stillness. Painted with compositional clarity, these repositories of private experience have less to do with functionality than with the way in which they convey a certain Stimmung, the tentative mood of its inhabitants. These interiors represent a space of refuge in an often diffuse, semi-tenebrous light, where time seems to be suspended. Simultaneously, they manifest the inexorable march of time as the external world constantly threatens to invade this encapsulated realm of privacy.
Whereas in the classic Dutch genre the figure is depicted in relation to the space, Karmakar’s interiors are devoid of any human presence. In muted colours, he celebrates the palpable tension between the glaring absence of the figure and its presence made visible through the objects of everyday life. Suitcases, kitchen utensils, clothes, trinkets, and furniture imprint the empty space with their marks. They are not inanimate objects, but encode a layered past, memories, and a belonging that go beyond their utilitarian function. Manifesting an expressive subjectivity, these objects draw a psychological portrait of the absent figure in relation to the space, similar to Candida Höfer’s large-scale photographs of empty interiors. ‘I realized that what people do in those places – and what the spaces do to them – is more obvious when nobody is present, just as an absent guest can be often the topic of a conversation.’ 1
The delicacy of Karmakar’s brushstroke and his technical proficiency with paint lends these objects almost anthropomorphic qualities, such as the ability to withdraw from the external world by dreaming. ‘The furniture takes on elongated shapes, prostrate and languorous. Each piece seems to be dreaming, as if living in a state of trance, like vegetables and mineral things. The draperies speak an unvoiced language, like flowers and skies and setting suns. […] Everything here has its appropriate measure of light and delicious dark, of harmony itself.’ 2
Apart from being a dreamy refuge of privacy, Karmakar evokes home as a social space, mirroring the cultural mores and habits of a Gujarati urban middle-class family of the 21st century. For his interiors, Karmakar took photographs of the domestic environment of the befriended family, throwing light on the profound transformations Indian society is undergoing. At the same time, he retraces the story of several generations of his own family. Migrated from Chittagong (now in Bangladesh), this personal story reflects the collective destiny of migrants at large, whose existential dilemma lies in displacement and rootlessness. Exploring the notions of home and identity formation, Karmakar’s interiors, the arrangements of sofas and curtains, mirrors and framed photographs with garlands, TV sets, and staircases that spiral to nowhere, speak of the loss and longing for an origin, of a certain nostalgia that is inexorably tied to the possibility of return. Home is a space between a domestic reality and the evanescent memory of something lost that lingers on in fantasies and symbolic imaginings.
Karmakar’s quest of ‘What is home?’, a metaphysical quest in its very nature, invariably leads him to deconstruct the topos ‘home’. Rather than being rooted in a clearly identifiable and permanent place, the idea of the original home seems to arise from the process of migration itself. It can only be looked at from the vantage point of dislocation as the modus vivendi of migrants. Their acculturation and integration cannot obscure the fact that identity is constructed and transformed through the dynamics of dislocation, with the shifting of home being embedded in the temporality of human existence. Even ‘non-migrants’ find it hard to unambiguously define ‘home’, as one can have several homes that only partially match with a physical place. The various implications of home as a geographical, political, social, and emotional space lay bare its historical conditions and impermanent nature.
Karmakar’s skillful play with illusionism and the capability of ‘deceiving the eye’ reveals and hides its false premises. In some interiors, he faithfully follows the tradition by fooling us into thinking we are looking at the real thing, rather than merely a two-dimensional representation. Using pictorial devices such as mirrors, windows, and doors, he creates the illusion of a three-dimensional space on a flat surface. However, in some interiors he inverts this deceptive technique. One way of successful inversion lies in the reconfiguration of the relationship between painting and space by linking it to the contingencies of the site-specific context.
Integral to the production of the paintings for the Biennale was the incorporation of the physical conditions of the Kashi Art Gallery, such as size, scale, topographical features, and sequence of rooms. In an attempt to align the dimensions of his interiors with the exact dimensions of the walls of the Kashi Art Gallery, Karmakar saw himself forced to render some of the painted objects with slight distortion to fit the spatial requirement. He then cut a door-shaped opening into the canvas of one of the paintings that were displayed at the entrance hall. This cut-out corresponded to the exact location and size of the entrance hall door of the Kashi Art Gallery. Instead of deceiving the viewer with a painted door resembling a real one, Karmakar forced the viewer to literally walk through the painting to access the rooms behind. Bringing Lucio Fontana’s radical gesture to mind, that consisted in overcoming the flat limitations of picture making by slicing the canvas, Karmakar boldly ‘assaulted’ the canvas in an attempt to expand the medium into the physical space.
Offering an experiential and historical understanding of the Biennale site, Karmakar decided to take the term ‘site-specificity’ one step further. In a critical approach to throw light on the adoption and assimilation of this term into the dominant culture, he links it to the dynamics of displacement. He ‘dislocates’ five paintings displayed at the Kashi Art Gallery and has them ‘migrate’ from the institutional context of the Biennale to the commercial space of the Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke. Assigning these paintings a new ‘home’, Karmakar repeats the bodily experience of walking through the painting at the gallery. He adds an additional site-specific dimension by taking the paintings off the wall and placing them on the gallery floor.
Similar to the radical modernist gesture of freeing the sculpture from the pedestal, Karmakar places the interiors as autonomous, free-standing elements in room 1+2 of the gallery space. He challenges the idea of what constitutes ‘painting’ by exploring the expansive terrain between painting and material object. The language of painting is used to ‘interrogate rather than accommodate the given architecture, disrupting the spatial conditions of the art work’s site.’3 Dividing the gallery space, these free-standing elements share the floor on which they are placed with the beholder, creating the actual experience of walking on a stage, where the art works assume an almost theatrical quality.
Establishing an inextricable relationship between the work of art and its site, Karmakar demands the physical presence of the viewer for the work’s completion. His aesthetic aspirations exceed the limitations of the medium of painting by turning the viewer from voyeur into protagonist. Simultaneously, he embarks on a reformulation of the role of contemporary painting. Acknowledging the challenges the medium has been facing since the invention of photography, he advocates an expansive practice that defies the clear differentiation between pictorial and physical space, proposed by art theorists such as Rosalind Krauss. In discussing the purism of modernist paintings, Krauss suggests that the ‘[p]ictorial space is that which cannot be enteredor circulated through; it is irremediably space viewed from a distance, and is therefore eternally resigned to frontality.’4
In room 3 of the gallery, Karmakar stretched one painting ‘dislocated’ from the Biennale on a make-shift wall. This convex-shaped structure helps him to adjust the size of the painting, reflecting the slightly bigger dimensions of the wall of the Kashi Art Gallery, to the gallery wall. One is reminded of Karmakar’s earlier series ‘Views’ and ‘Angles’, 2014, keyhole visions of empty, hermetically sealed off interiors with no signs of a living being. But unlike these earlier series, where the beholder is completely kept outside, the interiors of the current show ingeniously explore the interdependence between pictorial and physical space in that each brings the other to awareness. Articulating the pictorial space in its expansiveness, it includes both beholder and maker, ‘each with his own space intact’.
Karmakar’s reflections on site-specificity not only address the ideas of production and display, but extend it into the mode of distribution as an imperative of the commercial space. Unlike the institutional frame of the Biennale, the gallery brings to mind the cycles of the capitalist market economy, which circulates art works as exchangeable commodities. Exploring the genesis of painting, from mural to easel-painting, Karmakar traces the medium’s history from being organically connected to architecture to its execution on a portable support. In room 4, the last one in the sequence of gallery rooms, he ironically plays with this genesis. He paints one detail of the medium-sized interior, which he created specifically for room 4 – a skirting made of geometrically patterned floor tiles typical of Indian homes – on the bottom of the column, which is part of the architectural structure of the room.
This gesture reminds us of early murals at a time when painting hadn’t gained mobility and autonomy from architecture. By reassessing the relationship between painting and architecture, Karmakar demonstrates that site-related works of art are not just exchangeable commodity goods that fall victim to the ‘tyranny’ of capitalist market forces. As the series ‘Home’ and ‘Displacement’ manifest, his interiors, experienced in situ, are not based on a physical permanence, but perceived in an ‘unrepeatable and fleeting situation’, emphasizing the spatial particularity and temporality of the location. As such, Karmakar resists the homogenization of space and commodification of painting. Rather does he respond to the open-endedness of the medium and celebrates it as continually expanding and evolving, forcing us to critically rethink the prevailing conditions of its production, perception, display, and distribution.
1Candida Höfer, in: ‘Candida Höfer en México’, Galería OMR, México: Turner, 2016, p. 104.
2Charles Baudelaire, ‘The Twofold Room’, in: Francis Scarfe (Ed.), The Poems in Prose, with La Fanfarlo, London: Anvil Press, 1989, p. 37.
3Miwon Kwon, ‘One Place after Another. Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity’, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002, p. 5.
4Rosalind Krauss, ‘Léger, Le Corbusier, and Purism’, in: Artforum, vol. 10, no. 8, p. 52.