Moksha ShotsTM: In discussion with Jenny Bhatt
1...Amrita Gupta Singh: MokshaShotsTM: How did these works develop and what are they made of? There is clearly a cultural critique going on here, a grappling with the old and the new. Are you talking of a cultural confusion, a momentary existence in the spectacular gleaming surfaces that make urban life/culture of spending/the urban ritual?
Jenny Bhatt: The concept of MokshaShotsTM was first introduced in my last solo exhibition in Mumbai in January 2008. This series has resulted from a gradual transition over the last 2 years from the abstraction I was doing earlier. A MokshaShotTM, by my definition, is a taste of the Sublime. I had this idea that since we probably won’t get to full-fledged Moksha in this lifetime, we can get a glimpse of it. Each individual can make his own MokshaShotTM out of anything s/he finds fulfilling – art, a chocolate brownie, sex, a film, a vacation or a tequila shot.
This series entitled ‘Liberation through Consumption’ refers to the consumerist myth that fulfillment (Moksha) can be found through the purchase of a product or an experience promised by it. It is a suite of satirical works that critique Indian consumer culture.
Indians are hierarchical in their thinking in most aspects of their lives and this includes visual art –painting is perceived as higher up in the pecking order as compared to comic art and digital art as higher than painting. I wanted to challenge this notion by juxtaposing the various art forms, while handling serious issues. I experimented with this in an artist residency in Chelsea, New York City, in the summer of 2008. It was refreshing to work with artists from across the world, with diverse approaches and mediums like bees wax, circuit boards, photography, pornography, video, paper cut outs and drawing. I thought it would be interesting to go back to my own visual history and borrow from my comic strips, digital art and writing of the past, to appropriate my culture through my own art practice. Exchanging ideas and cultural perceptions as well as looking at the art shows in and around Chelsea, where most of New York’s major galleries are located opened up these new possibilities. We also had writers from leading art publications like Flash Art and Art Forum to do presentations and critiques, which gave me a clearer picture of how contemporary art from India and Asia is viewed outside it.
Indian culture has always been multi-layered and complex.
On the surface, urban India is a bundle of contradictions and I try to see it as it is. In the last 5 years, we have experienced rapid social, economic, political and cultural changes, which are yet to be completely assimilated. Urban India has bought into the glossy images, but is discontent and looking for substance and I wanted to address these issues in my work.
7...AGS: There is a theoretical base to the kind of works that you have been doing over the years. You have blurred the distinctions between so-called ‘high’ and ‘low’ art. What are the readings that stimulate your practice and who are your art historical inspirations?
JB: As a student, I started with reading Freud to understand Dali. Later I got interested in theories about the building blocks of matter. I was attending lectures on the Upanishads at the time and I found it fascinating that Einstein’s theory of Relativity talked about the same concepts as Vedanta. I started a meditation practice and wanted scientific validation for those concepts, so I looked into particle physics. While reviewing books for a mind-body–spirit magazine, I came across English multimedia artist Anna Bonshek’s book ‘Art, Creativity and Veda’. It delves into areas impacting the visual arts – late twentieth century debates in Art Theory, new definitions of culture and tradition in the context of an individual’s own consciousness and awareness and the impact of new technologies.
Another book I’d mention is Gary Zukov’s ‘The Dancing Wu Li Masters – an overview of the New Physics.’ It draws comparisons between quantum mechanics, modern psychology and Eastern thought, citing experiments. Then there was ‘Art, Culture and Spirituality’ which is an anthology of articles on art, science, philosophy and psychology, including authors C.G. Jung, Dr. Raja Ramanna, Aldous Huxley, John L. Dobson and Ajit Mookerjee. And there’s ‘The Quantum and the Lotus’, which is a dialogue between a Buddhist monk and an American astrophysicist who gave up his practice to join a monastery.
I grew up reading everything from Mad Magazine, Peanuts and Amar Chitra Katha to Mark Twain and Eliot. Currently the art books on my shelf are ‘Collecting Contemporary’, ‘Art Now’, ‘Andy Warhol, Prince of Pop’, ‘Internet Art’ and ‘Towards Ananda: Rethinking Indian Art and Aesthetics’. I also like to read artist interviews or artist biographies.
I like the concept of Advaita - duality is contained in oneness. I wanted to use it in my work. It also refers to the idea that everything is made of the same ‘stuff’ on a fundamental, subatomic level. So I extended this idea into my practice and do not see any hierarchies in so called ‘high art’ and ‘low art’. Both are part of my practice and I see them all as Art.
Art historically, I’ve been inspired by Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Dali (I saw a film that Dali and Disney made together which was exhibited along with artworks and drawings at the NY MoMA last year, which was incredible in its visual wizardry!), Raza, Husain, Gaitonde, Atul Dodiya, Anish Kapoor, Nari Gandhi, Miro, Gaudi and Isamu Noguchi.
8...AGS: Jenny, culture is an ideological process and as per Theodore Adorno, it is also an industry and related to economy and power. As an artist who is conscious of the problematics of current cultural production and the binary discourses of the East and the West, how do you tackle this problem in your work?
JB: One has to look at cultural practice in a Cubist or shall I say holistic way. The economy, an uneven distribution of power and living in India with a larger viewership in the West are all different facets of contemporary cultural practice. As an artist, I think I am honest to the articulation of urban Indian influences in my work, though I’m also aware that the West looks at it within it’s own framework and will widen that space only when it decides to look beneath the surface of Indian culture in general. Also, there are fundamental differences between the cultures of the East and the West, though in a globalised world, that is fast diminishing due to cultural and economic exchanges – which are good for cultural practice.
That said, I believe there is and must be something of the universal in a work of art, for it to be able to communicate across culture and this has been a major concern in my work over the years. Globalization means we will have a common language of universal signs and symbols, but at the same time, we will need to preserve our identities and differentiators. As an artist, I am well aware of Western influences in my education, work and day-to-day life, and I consciously choose to be rooted in Indian Aesthetics and strike a balance between the two. That is the way a globalised world is moving anyway- incorporating divergent viewpoints within a single practice, be it in medicine, scientific research, technology or economics. How this translates into my work is that the references are to eastern metaphysical thought and the visual language through which these ideas are articulated is contemporary or pop. I’d go to the extent of calling it ‘YogaPop’. Specifically, this can be seen in works entitled MokshaBumTM Mandala, Eurekasana, ReverenceTM Mandala etc
Until recently, India refused to call cultural practice an industry. This is because traditionally, art was seen as something that must remain untouched by market forces. Ironically, that changed only after Tyeb Mehta’s painting crossed the million-dollar mark at auction, which got him wider recognition for an aesthetic of the finest quality!
The Indian art market (and I’m now allowed to call it that!) is not as mature as it’s western counterpart, but the level of professionalism and transparency have risen remarkably in the last five years. Systems are being set into place and we’re still taking our cues from the west, but things are more dynamic and exciting here and it’s a good time to experiment.
2...AGS: What inspired you to create these set of works? One sees an influence of Lyrical Abstraction, Pop Art, Andy Warhol, Takashi Murakami & Thangka paintings. You also said that music (trance, rave & electronic music) influenced your practice.
JB: My work grows with me, so I work in phases. My concerns as an artist grew from issues about the state of the urban psyche, to that of the spirit, to wellbeing and then the quest for fulfillment. At an early stage, I realized that what we see around us affects our psyche very deeply, so I decided I wanted to create positive images and it became important for me that my work has a universal language and communicates across culture. Spirituality has been an integral part of my life and is therefore also a part of my work, though I was very clear that I did not want to articulate it in the same way that an artist in his sixties or seventies would – our influences are very different, though we deal with the same concepts.
The lyrical abstraction came from a meditation practice and the intuitive mind, while Pop Art comes from the analytical side. I believe it’s important to integrate both faculties.
As for Warhol, he turned the notion of Art around on its head and opened up new possibilities for it while critiquing his culture. So has Murakami. He understands and has overcome the problems Asians have with making contemporary art and having it accepted by the west. His work grows from the Japanese subculture of Otaku and he is critical of the fact that Japanese society and culture is flat or what he terms ‘Superflat’. I admire the way he has extended his imagery into media and other forms of aesthetic practice like design. I also have to cite Maurizio Cattelan and Richard Jackson as influences, for the way they use humor and handle absurdity in their work. I like Marico Mori’s use of technology to address urban, spiritual concerns.
The traditional Thangka or Mandala was used as an aid during meditation. In my larger paintings, this process has been likened to how brands create gods out of products, people and experiences into objects of contemplation for the consumer. This eventually leads to the consumer’s mind space being conquered by them.
As far as music goes, trance, rave and electronic music are psychedelic, and improvisational in form, both are qualities that I enjoy in visual art. I would cite the music and videos of Bjork also as an influence.
3...AGS: You have created several characters in MokshaShotsTM which have developed from your practice in graphic media. Tell us about these characters and their performative role in your paintings.
JB: This series is a cultural critique and we know that Indians like to idolize – people, commodity and consumerism included! To satirize this penchant for veneration, I’ve created deities called MokshaPetsTM. Each of the 5 major deities has a Mandala (4’ x 4’ painting) of his/her own with their individual mantra on it. There’s MokshaBuyTM, the Consumer Goddess. Her mantra is ‘The Incredible Lightness of Buying’. Her insatiable appetite for all things consumable is manifested in her multiple hands that hold weapons of mass consumption. MokshaBumTM is the Thinker and Armchair Philosopher. He was first created 20 years ago as part of my comic strip. Age and wisdom have now qualified him for his job –Thinking. He never gets up, moves little and expounds a lot. Everything just comes to him. (For some people, life is just perfect!)
P.S. We don’t know if he has a girlfriend ;)
MokshasuraTM is the Necessary Evil. His mantra is ‘I’m a Chocolate Flavored Evil’. Arguably indispensable in today’s economy, he’s a small (if not large) part of us all.
ReverenceTM is the politically correct image of self-righteousness. His posture symbolizes the tenet ‘See no Evil, Hear no Evil, Speak no Evil and No Sex.’ This means he’s always truthful, saintly and eminently worshipable. His mantra is ‘Karmic Brownies are tax free.’
IrreverenceTM is politically incorrect. This means he is also always truthful, funny, not so saintly and thus a lot of fun! His mantra is “This is not the life I’d ordered.”
KundaliniTM, the snake symbolizes the Seeker. He is latent energy said to be at the base of the human spine. As it rises up the spine via the seven energy centers, the seeker is said to have made progress on the spiritual path. When it leaves the upper most energy center on the crown of the head, the Seeker is said to have attained Moksha.
The Third EyeTM is center of Intuition, situated vertically between the two eyes. It’s also the center of the brightest ideas -MokshaShots was one!
The EyeballTM is Awareness itself. Alert, but often misinterprets what it sees, it’s a favorite scapegoat of Maya (Illusion). It symbolizes Perception – it’s everywhere.