Tuesday, November 30, 2004

That Locked-Into-A-Shower-Cabinet Feeling

Every time I have an exhibition, I am amazed anew at how much hard work goes into a show. I don't know whether that's just because I haven't had very many. The one I've been preparing for, in Madras, is perhaps my ninth or tenth(I haven't been keeping track over the thirty-plus years from the time of the first one).

By hard work I DON'T mean the exhibits themselves but all the other stuff. The getting-the-work-ready-for-show stuff. The invitations. The guest list. The list of artworks. Recording the works on film (CD, now) so that I don't lose them forever in case any of them get sold. A brochure (I am not planning to print one -- I never have, so far. Too expensive. But there's got to be an "artist statement" accompanying the price list or else the reporters who wander in to stare uncomprehendingly at the work have no material to print up in their paragraph or two of press coverage. Left to themselves, they write descriptive passages such as: "There are some coloured patches on the walls") Just the sheer girding-of-neurons for putting the work on display.

Of course, I could greatly ease my burdens by choosing to have shows in the city of my residence. But that would be tooooo simple. So instead, I keep choosing to go ELSEWHERE, which involves not only packing the work but having to decide whether to frame the pieces before despatch or after. If before, it means that every item weighs three times as much as it might without the frame, and I increase the price of the work by the cost of the freight AND face the stress of traveling with large bits of unwieldy luggage. If after, it means shredding my nerves with tension, as the framing gets done in the five minutes between the time of my arrival in the city of the show and the show's opening. So far, I've gone for a mix of options -- framing some pieces before the show and others at the last minute, depending on size. For this show, however, all the frames are going to have to be done after arrival ... arggh. My nerves are pre-shredded.

Maybe other artists consider all of this as part of the territory of art. I feel towards it like a cat feels when it has been locked into a shower cabinet, with the hot water ON. But there's no option: if I produce work, I have to show it. The only artists who can get away with not having shows are those who are so successful that the world snatches their work wet off their canvases. And the route by which they get to be that successful is by having shows relentlessly, year in, year out, seducing reviewers, bullying patrons, bending over like contortionists until they reach the promised land of infinite saleability.

Meanwhile ... I've still gotta pack my pieces and fly away, on Friday morning. So far, I've got all the work completed -- aside from my prints, of which I will show around thirty pieces, there are 29 of my new stuff, what I'm going to be calling "hybrids" or "squiggle paintings" in my mission statement -- 24 in the 12"x12" size and five in the 18"x24" size. Their formal name is "mixed media collages" but so far everyone to whom I have said that has looked blank -- and well they might, because it doesn't say very much, does it? Neither does "hybrid" but at least it indicates the neither-fish-nor-fowl nature of the little critters and "squiggle paintings" give you a fair impression of one of their lead features -- i.e., very many coloured squiggles.

A few friends have been over to see them. Of them two have said they love them -- and one bought three right away! Of course I can only release them after the show but STILL ... it's very encouraging (oi, you! In case you're reading this, take a bow, please!). On the other hand, since this particular friend is an unusual person, unique in several ways, perhaps his tastes are a bit otherworldly ... ? Only kidding! Another friend, however, was disapproving. She felt I had neither explored the medium enough for it to be authentically funky, nor do the pieces have enough finesse to be fully valid as art.

She was frankly disappointed and we have spent a couple of hours trying to talk ourselves through this difficult patch. There are uneasy moments to be negotiated, like slippery patches of ice on the sidewalk, when a friend can't say she/he likes the work one has shown to her/him. On the one hand, I believe a friend has the absolute right to be unimpressed. On the other hand, the sense of having failed is usually painful to deal with. I can remember one moment, a very long time ago, when I had just finished a canvas -- it was still literally wet, and I was very pleased with it. It represented a distinct departure in style, something that I still think of as a turning point (it was aconceptual portrait of my niece, then about nine years old). But a friend walked in the door of my room that very morning, the first morning of its life, saw the painting, wrinkled his nose and said, "Yuck. Not good."

Oo!! That was hard. A punch straight to the SOULar plexus. He was being honest, but brutal too, under the circumstances. I never quite forgave him. It would have been okay a few days later, and perhaps in softer words. Or perhaps it would never have been okay ... I don't know. I am not particularly sensitive and react fairly cheerfully to criticism. But I have some issues with timing. In general, I avoid showing work when it is still in progress or when I'm trying something out for the first time. I really do hate being watched at work -- I don't even like to be asked whether I am about to start working on a drawing/painting -- it feels like ants crawling on the underside of my skull, yow. Just the thought of it right now is NASTY. Once I'm finished, though, I'm usually very calm and accepting of whatever people might say -- it's a bit like closing the door while changing clothes, but not caring if people boo when you come out wearing a glitter-bra over a khaki-coloured nun's habit.

Anyway, with the current work, I am happy to report, the issue of pain doesn't seem to arise. It's hard to say exactly why. Maybe it's because these things are sort of informal. Light-hearted. I am thrilled with them, but I realize there are many others who will not be. I know from my mother's reaction -- she saw four of the initial pieces I took with me to Madras on my visit of two months ago and said, "But where is the art in this?" -- that my friend of last week, the disappointed one, is not alone in her opinion. I am so sure of her motives however (I mean, I know that her disappointment arises from her desire to wish the best for me) that I can look upon her reaction as a kind of innoculation against all the rough moments that are the typical fallout of a show, even the low-key type I have. There will be annoying reporters and relatives who will look disturbed and long periods during which nothing at all happens except the thud of each minute following the next, with no new visitors and that cold, empty question hanging in the air: "Why don't I go home, drown my sorrows in KitKat and forget about being an artist?"

Ah well. More next week! The show is scheduled to begin on the 8th.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

... and in other news

Just because I've been in a creative frenzy doesn't mean that I've left off fretting about the US election results. And neither have several of my friends. Here are two thought-provoking links sent to me/us by friends:US Election Results 2004, by IQ and
Sorry, Everyone.

Two other friends sent longer documents, one of which is worded in the kind of paint-stripping language which isn't ideal for a nice little blog like this one(but I will send it along to those who ask politely for it, if they can assure me that under-age eyes will not be exposed to it). Here's the other one, sent by friends in Rhode Island:

California letter of Secession

Dear President Bush,

Congratulations on your victory over all us non-evangelicals.

Actually, we're a bit ticked off here in California, so we're leaving you. California will now be its own country. And we're taking all the Blue States with us. In case you are not aware, that includes Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, all of the North East States, and the urban half of Ohio.

We spoke to God, and she agrees that this split will be beneficial to almost everybody, and especially to us in the new country of California. In fact, God is so excited about it, she's going to shift the whole country at 4:30 pm EST this Friday.

Therefore, please let everyone know they need to be back in their states by then. God is going to give us the Pacific Ocean and Hollywood. In addition, we're getting San Diego. (Sorry, that's just how it goes.) But God is letting you have the KKK and country music (except the Dixie Chicks). Just so we're clear, the country of California will be pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, and anti-war.

Speaking of war, we're going to need all Blue States citizens back from Iraq. If you need people to fight in Falujah, just ask your evangelical voters. They have tons of kids they're willing to send to their deaths for absolutely no purpose. And they don't care if you don't show pictures of their kids' caskets coming home.

So, you get Texas and all the former slave states, and we get the Governator and stem cell research. (We would love you to take Britney Spears off our hands, though. She IS from the south, right?)

Since we get New York, you'll have to come up with your own late night TV shows because we get MTV, Letterman, the Daily Show and Conan O'Brien. You get ... well, why don't you ask your people at Fox News to come up with something entertaining? (Maybe you should just watch Crossfire. That's a really funny show.)

We wish you all the best in the next four years and we hope, really hope, you find those missing weapons of mass destruction.
Seriously. Soon.

Sincerely, California

Thursday, November 11, 2004


Ever since I returned to Delhi from Madras, I've been whirring like a bumble-bee, producing exhibits for an art show I expect to have in Madras, in December this year.

I'm going to be showing two types of work: one, a series of etchings (including a couple of lithographs) and the other, a series of small collages in hand-made paper and acrylic paint. The show will be held at ARTWORLD, a pleasant family-owned gallery, run by Sarla and Bishu Bannerji.

I've shown the etchings before and so am not terribly worried about how they will be received -- I know they are at least competent at the level of drawing. It's the other ones, the collages, that will represent very new work for me and I am curious to know how they will be received.

My work is normally easy to recognize for what it is -- as an illustrator, I tend toward black-and-white line-drawings, clearly representational, with decoration worked into the clothes and background. My etchings are an extension of this work. Most of them feature figures of people and animals or combinations thereof.

The new collages, however, are explorations in colour and texture, almost wholly abstract. I began playing around with hand-made paper about a year ago, entirely because I happened to visit a wonderful store filled from floor to ceiling (well, okay, not QUITE the ceiling) with thrilling colours and textures of paper. I have always had a lurking fondness for pure colour-fields, and have always liked the early cubists for their starkness and purity. Of course the sad (and obvious) feature of their work is that once you have seen one all-red painting, you've pretty much seen every all-red painting: the surprise -- the "hook" -- that type of art uses can't be repeated very often before becoming repetitive.

In my current work, I am not pretending to any terrific new insights -- truly, all I have is bits of paper and some paint, combined together in very simple arrangments -- but I've had so much delight making these pieces that I feel the need to share them. This is, for me, a sharp departure from the way I normally work. Perhaps because of my years as an illustrator, when I draw, I am usually very concsious of how the result will be interpreted by another observer -- an illustrator NEEDS to be conscious of the third-person perspective, because the usual purpose of an illustration is to augment or illuminate (literally -- the word suggests the meaning of "bringing light to") some other thing, most often a piece of text.

While working on my etchings, I continued in the same basic vein, though I was no longer embellishing some text. I was amused to see the images that emerged. There is a range of familiar themes -- people of one sort or another, slightly stylized and in some cases distorted -- presented with an edge of whimsy: the bull with the man's head and the dogs with bird-faces; the carpet-couple and their trio of child-rugs; the faintly smirking lioness; all in clean lines on plain paper. I could not break myself of the habit of drawing with unseen observers hovering just behind my shoulder so in a sense, when people respond to my work, I half-anticipate whatever they might say.

With the collages, by contrast, I cannot sense any presences beside me. I am alone and playing with the paper, feeling almost surprised to be reduced to this child-state of pleasure. I smile when I have cut a broad stripe of knobbly turquoise blue and placed it hot against a dense, fuzzy black sheet, shot through with wriggling bits of satin thread. It is a very simple pleasure, completely unrelated to the very familiar pleasure of completing a drawing while knowing that it is, for its type of drawing, accomplished.

There is a certain undeniable sense of ambition and conquest in the second pleasure, an element of competition (i.e., with other talents and forces in the world). With the first there can't be anything but just my own, private, inarticulate delight. There's no way to share it -- like (for instance) the wholly internal pleasure of ice-cream -- except by inviting someone else to try it, and to HOPE that they will experience the same pleasure ... There is, after all, no way of knowing for sure.

Each time I have completed a piece -- most of which are small: 12 inches square -- I stand back, trying to imagine if anyone else, seeing it, might get the same pleasure as I do when I look at it. So far (since I haven't shown these pieces to more than a couple of people) I haven't had much to go by in the way of response. The few people who have seen these new ones have said they like them, but then, since these respondents have been my close family, I don't really expect objective responses (though they would FIERCELY deny any partisan feelings!!). I am not very hopeful, but at the same time, I am undeterred. How odd it is, and how different from my usual working methods, to be unconcerned what the observer -- The Observer -- is going to think! Is this it, then? Is this what it feels like to be an artist?

I will eventually post pix at my currently defunct Magnoliazone web-site, whereupon I will also post a link here to the site.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Waking Up To Reality

It's almost a relief. All these weeks of suspense, imagining there was a chance that the Democrats could win the US presidential election when the cards were stacked so heavily against them, have now ended. We can resume life as we know it, extracting tiny scraps of meaning from the great blocks of brutishness and stupidity that surround us.

I will admit that the early hours of Wednesday were grim -- it was awful to see the numbers crawling up, never quite crossing the mark and then ... ahhhh. Knowing that Bush actually won the popular vote this time makes it all the more disheartening, though, like I said, it's a weird kind of relief, a negative relief. It's better for those of us who believe in freedom, democracy, human dignity, respect for all living things, respect for the planet, to KNOW the truth about the rest of humanity, than to live in ignorance of what the majority of our species is like. It helps us to be on our guard and it keeps us alert. It makes it impossible for us to pretend that something like a single election in just one of the world's nations -- even if that nation is the most powerful one, currently -- would be enough to turn our species off the lemming-path it is currently racing along.

So after an initial morning of melancholia, I have slipped back into my normal life -- as, I am sure, have most of us. No doubt the Republicans are wriggling about in their pleasure-palaces, like leeches in a blood bank, feeling obscenely thrilled with themselves. But they're on the same planet as the rest of us, and when their shameless excesses rebound on everybody, they will suffer too -- EVENTUALLY.

This is cold comfort, of course. But what else is there to think about now? After all: if you and I can afford to spend a small part of our lives on the internet, surfing non-essential websites such as this one, it means, most likely, that we spend only the tiniest part of our working day fretting about environmental and political realities. By contrast, there are millions of fellow-humans for whom there is no stepping back from the crisis -- they do not say, "Oh, things are bound to get worse!" because for them there is nothing worse than what they live with TODAY.

So it occurred to me, as I fretted in my genteel, armchair-ridden way, that there's no genteel approach to solving the world's problems. The day will come when there will be no armchairs, and no leisure time, not even for the wealthy. This is already true in some parts of the world, but until it's true for everyone, the chances are ... we'll do what we can to maintain the status quo to suit wherever we're at.

This is a bleak thought, yes. But I was thinking about the Black Death today (there's a sort of reason for it -- I mean, aside from the Republican victory -- some months ago, I posted small note-papers in different rooms in the house, with historical events listed per century on them. It's supposedly a method of remembering what happened in which century. Today, standing in the 1300s, which happens to coincide with the kitchen, I caught a glimpse of my note-paper, peeping out from behind a shelf-door, where it had been hidden for some months) and I was thinking about the almost inconceivable horror of those times: the darkness of ignorance competing with the nightmare scourge whose cause and remedy were to remain unknown for countless decades ahead.

Quite possibly, we are sliding towards another type of cataclysm, along different lines perhaps, but surely just as horrific. Knowing this may not save us from the slide. Then again, maybe we can become more conscientious about conserving those things that are good and worth saving so that whenever next humankind heaves its way up out of the slime again, our era will be interpreted accurately. Books, I think, are the best way to preserve a record of what we have known of reality -- I don't think electronic data will be retrievable as readily as books.

Stone would be better, of course, but a trifle bulky.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004


A young M.Phil student has made my work the subject of her dissertation. We corresponded by e-mail earlier this year and met a couple of times. Last month, she was kind enough to send me a CD containing the dissertation. I can't tell you its title or her name yet but will hope to, some time in January next year. For the purposes of this post, I'll refer to her as "M.Phil.". And yes, it's all been rather fun.

She's focused specifically on two stories from "Hot Death, Cold Soup" -- the title story and Stains -- and on "Getting There". It was particularly satisfying for me to see a close reading of GT. At the time I wrote the book, I had hoped it would be picked up for its comments about feminism and the protagonist(i.e., myself)'s difficulties in relation to the movement at least as much for its description of my ill-fated trip to Holland.

Alas, with reviewers like Anita Roy dismissing it as "chick lit"(though I think she meant it as a compliment), there wasn't much chance of that -- it got its scattering of chuckles and raspberries, before being forgotten. I felt suitably put in my place. My editor did try to warn me that the book would do better if positioned as a "novel", but I couldn't stomach that idea. The whole point of writing the book (for me) was to produce a sort of confessional, even though it's a very mild one as confessionals go. No way I was going to pass it off as fiction!

So it reached the market looking neither like a novel nor a panties-off memory-download. I hated the cover (a cheap rip-off of an Air France ad) and felt that the publisher (Picador UK) had lost confidence in the book, which in turn meant that I lost confidence in it myself. I wished -- and STILL wish -- they had agreed with me, that one of my drawings on the cover would have made all the sense in the world. *sigh* The book wouldn't have done any better on the market, but at least it would have looked stylish or, next best, weird.

Given this history, it is certainly VERY gratifying that someone has bothered to give the book serious consideration. M.Phil's point of entry is feminism, an ideology that she subscribes to and has made the focus of her work. My initial response to her, when she wrote to say she was going to be looking at my work through feminist spectacles was that I don't call myself a feminist any more, which may make it rather difficult for her to proceed. But she persevered. The result, I think, is quite interesting.

I continue to maintain that I'm not a feminist while M.Phil. believes, regardless of what I say about myself, that my work is surely irrigated very liberally by streams of feminist thought. And yes, I would agree, it is. Does this mean I can never cease to be a feminist? Or are we allowed to switch off our ideological orientation in mid-life? And if we do, does that mean we are doomed to drift, rudderless, through the rest of our lives? Or that we cannot be trusted to maintain any set of deeply cherished truths? Or is it possible to find other, equally great or greater, truths in mid-life (and beyond)?

I don't know.

Between the ages of 17 and 30, I would have definitely described myself as a feminist, even though I was starting to fall off (as described in GT) the platform in my mid-twenties. By my mid-thirties I was uncomfortable being included in feminist forums, but was still okay being connected with Kali for Women, the publisher who brought out "Hot Death ..". By that time, in 1996, I was 43 and had confessed to Urvashi (Butalia, co-founder, with Ritu Menon, of KfW) that I no longer called myself a feminist. She said it was all right, she didn't mind(though I think Ritu may have). I felt guilty: I was and still am very grateful to Kali for publishing my stories and I continue to think that the printing of Hot Death was easily my most pleasurable publishing moment. Nevertheless, even at the time it came out, I think it may have been more honest to say that I was actually uncomfortable being FEMALE, not just a feminist.

This is a statement that I make with boring frequency even though I know I'm never taken very seriously. It's an irritating statement, because it's like someone saying she wants to run away from her own shadow. It can't be done -- and that being the case, it makes much better sense to enjoy what there is, than to be forever trying to run away from it. I know this. Still and all ... I run.

It's not that I'm interested in becoming or being some other sex(once upon a time there were two sexes, then three, then some time in the eighties it was reported that there were seven recognized sexes -- sexualities, perhaps is the better term -- but now, news just in from the front suggests there are at least thirteen. And growing). All regardless -- and perhaps because I am routinely asked to participate in feminist programs or co-opted for inclusion as a woman-artist or woman-writer (I turn down most invitations of this sort) -- I find myself butting my head against the familiar old walls, finding the familiar old bumps and bruises.

Speaking to M.Phil and reading her dissertation brought all the territory up once more. Once more the lurking, whisper-in-the-gut guilt -- there's a sense in which being a lapsed feminist is like breaking a sacred trust -- like saying "I don't believe in fairies!" out loud, and immediately flashing mental video of Tinkerbell, fluttering in distress ...

I believe that feminism is an ideology which works very well -- is perhaps crucially important -- for young women. Given the tough options life offers them, it becomes really useful to have something gender-specific to hang onto, to believe in and to build confidence. It's later on that it becomes harder to believe seriously in the idea that men and women are on a par or that there's justice and fair-play in the world.

Those of us (women) who have relatively pleasant and stress-free lives, when we look around -- how is it possible to ignore the wretchedness of other women's lives? How is it possible to sever the link between their female condition and their fate? I mean: is it possible to maintain the view that men and women "can" live as equals when we can see that equality between the sexes is by no means the norm anywhere in the animal kingdom, including amongst our species?

I have for a long time toyed with the notion that the problem (i.e., MY problem) with feminism lies in the defining label -- that is, the word "feminism" is what bothers me. It suggests that it's specific to women, whereas perhaps -- and this is only a trial-idea -- a better term would be one that suggests a grand general freeing up of humans from the trap of their birth-condition so that they can achieve whatever is the maximum of their potential. Or at any rate, just be happy.