SCAFFOLDING THE ABSENT: G. R. IRANNA’S PHENOMENOLOGICAL INVESTIGATIONS

November 15, 2011

 

The Guild Art Gallery recently presented an exhibition of five new large-scale works of G.R. Iranna from November 4-22, 2011. The exhibition titled Scaffolding the Absent, shows how Iranna meditates on human mortalityand the fragility of our existence. MOA reproduces catalogue essay by critic/curator Maya Kóvskaya, PhD.

“Martin Heidegger pointed out that in every fear there is the recognition of our vulnerability, our mortality, and that anxiety, that feeling of finding ourselves cast adrift, nothing supporting us, nothing to hold on to, is a premonition of what dying will be: a being cast from existence into the void, into nothingness.”

—Philosopher Alphonso Lingis[1] 

Death is the absence of life. Death is absent from life and makes its impending presence felt through our awareness of our own mortality. Thus being mortal means to host within oneself the possibility of death, and that too by living. In Iranna’s work, the static nature of birth and death, as two correlated time-bound events, bracket and punctuate the continuous nature of life. By focusing on this transitory amalgam of place and time that we call life, Iranna’s work implicitly engages questions about birth (where did we come from?) and death (where are we going?). Thus his work offers a phenomenological platform for examining conscious experience—understood as being present and living in this world. While birth is the phenomenon that triggers the event of our inevitable death, Iranna’s work hints at the significance of life as a celebration, rather than a mourning, of our mortality.

 

In this powerful collection of five new large-scale works from 2011, Bhiksu, The Valley of Red, Red River; Scaffold(ing), and Traversing the Void, G.R. Iranna meditates on human mortality and the vulnerability of our existence. “I wanted to create the fragile and slippery ground upon which our life and our existence rests,” explains the artist. Using the figure of the Buddhist monk and Buddhist iconography as a metonym for larger phenomenological questions, he applies his characteristic visual language in the service of “scaffolding the absent” elements latent in our search for an understanding of Being. Through his visual interventions, Iranna shows the struggle to articulate a language to explain our origin, our destination and our collective solitude as humankind. Even when we are together, we stand alone in tackling these questions that concern each of us and define the nature of our mortality. As such Iranna depicts our existence as built on frail foundations, an existence almost broken by myriad unknowns, and scaffolded by our search for meaning. 

Scaffolding is typically used as a noun, referring to ad hoc support structures, such as temporary architectural platforms used during the building and repair of an edifice (structural or social), but can also metaphorically refer to religious beliefs, systems of social regulation, dominant societal norms, and so on. Scaffolding can also be used as the gerund form of the verb ‘to scaffold,’ and as a reference to the activity or process of building a temporary platform that supports the erection of an edifice. To talk of Iranna’s work as “scaffolding the absent,” is to point to the way he limns the temporary, tenuous structures of (spiritual, moral, existential) support and meaning in his works, in order to push us to consider the foundations that give our lives meaning and purpose, and the possibility for existential healing. 

We can see the deeper functioning of Iranna’s “scaffolding the absent” in three major ways. First of all, with their characteristic abstract backgrounds, devoid of figurative, representational content, Iranna’s works embody “neither-here-nor-there” spaces that philosopher Michel Foucault called “heterotopias”—interstitial spaces at “the intersection of the real and the virtual” that collapse the binary between the two. Second, the works communicate through what post-colonial theorist Homi K. Bhabha interprets as the “Third Space of enunciation”—heterogeneous, hybrid, transnational and post-national discursive spaces of cultural production. In this way, Iranna transcends the pervasive Orientalist essentialism that is frequently implicated in iconic representations of “Eastern” spiritualist symbology. Finally, although nominally depicting religious symbols, the works are not representations of Buddhism, per se, but rather visual vehicles for exploring deeper phenomenological human questions raised by philosophers Martin Heidegger, Hannah Arendt and alluded to in the quotation by Alphonso Lingis above.

Heterotopic Spaces

Using the mirror as a metaphor for spaces at the intersection of the “real” and “virtual,” Michel Foucault offers the concept of heterotopia. The mirror reflects a dual and paradoxical reality—one where our reality is reflected, and the other, where the reflection for a brief moment becomes a reality of its own.[2] Iranna’s pervasive absent backdrop, the feeling of movement imbued into static space, and his characteristic splotches sporadically dotting the canvases, project implicit references to an external reality that lies outside the works, performing a heterotopic function similar to that of the Foucauldian mirror that connects the perceived with the actual. Looking into the canvas is homologous to what happens when we look “in the mirror,” which Foucault describes in heterotopic terms: “I see myself there where I am not, in an unreal, virtual space that opens up behind the surface; I am over there, there where I am not, a sort of shadow that gives my own visibility to myself, that enables me to see myself there where I am absent.”[3] 

Heterotopic spaces in Iranna’s work are achieved through the artist’s use of “metarealistic” visual techniques; the splotches and the absent backdrop that engage the viewer in a mirror-like perceptual proximity with the work. Metarealism functions as a “form which, freed from conventionality, opens up onto the other side of metaphor, not preceding it like a literal, lifelike image, but embracing and transcending its figurative meaning.” The ‘meta’ prefix in the context of Iranna’s work “conjures up a reality that opens up beyond the metaphor, to a region where metaphor carries over or transfers its sense, beyond that empirical dimension from whence it took off” and in doing so “metarealism earnestly tries to capture an alternative reality.” Hence the splotches that manifest as indentations and holes in the canvas are a metarealist device in Iranna’s work and encompass an outer reality (ours) that mirrors the inner realities captured within the canvas.[4] We, the viewers, end up being part of a collective solitude reflected on the canvas, with mysterious splotches that seem to pour from our space into the topos of these paintings.

An initial glance at Iranna’s paintings might reveal a scene depicting Buddhist monks in transit (see Bhiksu, The Valley of Red, and Red River), yet the foreground of these images marked with splotches transfers the depth of meaning inscribed in the works. In this body of work, the subjects are always placed in front of an absent background that emphasizes the presence of the subject in a layered reality. Particularly, in Bhiksu (2011), Iranna crafts an image of monks seeking alms in their journey over a bridge that is sutured together and held up by nothing more than crutches. The monks are only partially shown from the midriff down so as to stress their movement on the canvas as they cross the precarious bridge, coming from an unknown place and moving towards another unspecified destination. The recurrence of splotches sporadically spattered across the canvas gives this painting a profundity and a sense of continuation beyond the frame. Much like Iranna’s other paintings, this work also gives the impression of a piece in en media res, as far as the connection between composition and the story being told via a series of images joined on one canvas. The splotches serve as punctuation marks for a visual discourse of alterity (Otherness), as well as form an index of alterity to draw further on the apparent surface reality, to modify it and extend it, and thereby interject in the process of its signification.

In Valley of Red (2011), innumerable monks in vermilion are gathered into a tight mass. They face away from the viewer towards an indecipherable horizon on a canvas speckled with several noticeable golden splotches. This painting draws out the vastness and the expanse of human presence when it is manifested in the collectivity and felt in the wider spirit of a congregation. As with the other works, the background is devoid of any discernable setting, creating a sense of the absence of place and time, and simultaneously accentuating the collective co-presence of the monks. The splotches are perforations in the superficial appearance in this work as in others and serve as points of reference or markers in the larger movements portrayed in Iranna’s paintings. 

As Foucault makes clear that heterotopias are “intersections between real and virtual spaces,” the splotched surface to the deeper reality of the presented subjects, along with the absent background, marks the spatial distance between the “real” and the “virtual” in the piece. It is precisely the combination of these that allows these artworks to offer metaphorical meditations on the illusory and ephemeral nature of life and the indeterminate significance of our existence. 

Iranna’s paintings embody heterotopia as space and subject. In Traversing the Void (2011), the artist presents young Buddhist monks in meditation standing in line on an orderly array of bricks that compose the rickety, scaffolded bridge they are crossing. With a lotus flower clasped in praying hands and a brick balanced on each of their heads, the novice monks traverse the bridge against a green background that is formless and void. Although their legs are not in motion, the movement within the image is implied in the heterotopic function of the bridge. Like the boat as a classic example of heterotopia, due to its insular mobility, the bridge offers a model of heterotopia inverse to that of the boat in its transitive connectivity. Indeed the bridge, as an indexical sign—by virtue of relations of contiguity—is always an in-between place connecting two spaces or worlds. Similarly, the heterotopic subject in this body of works is the Buddhist monk. Existing on the margins of society, in a self-contained, ritualistic space built upon shared notions of birth, death, life and transcendence, the monk is a self-peripheralized being, heterotopic in the manner of the boat, in “that the boat is a floating piece of space, a place without a place, that exists by itself, that is closed in on itself and at the same time is given over to the infinity of the sea.”[5] 

Hybrid Semantics & The “Third Space of Enunciation”

With its hybrid visual semantics, Iranna’s work surpasses the usual limitations of historical reference based on a traditional or national cultural perspective. The work strives for much more than an empirical representation of the subject (i.e. Buddhist monks) and visual embodiment of a theme (i.e. Buddhism). Instead, Iranna presents Buddhist monks along with visuals of Buddhist life as a metonym for religion, belief and faith in general as a way to introduce larger issues about our existence, our quest for an understanding, and our need to signify the events of our lives that shape our beings, our reality and our limited time on earth. 

 In doing so, the artist evades essentialist critical interpretations that would read his work as trope-ridden representations of “Eastern” subjects. The immediate challenge as an artist to employ Buddhism outside of the thematic concerns bound to cultural context and national paradigm express an effort to revisit the cultural significance of Buddhism in encompassing topics that are coherent with the preoccupations of contemporary societies. In making such adjustments Iranna seems to evoke Homi Bhabha’s “Third Space of enunciation,” a proclamation that affirms that “the structure of meaning and reference” is rendered as “an ambivalent process” that “destroys” the “mirror of representation in which cultural knowledge is customarily revealed as integrated, open, expanding,” statically positioned, unified, absolute and total.[6] 

Of the “Third Space of enunciation,” Bhabha writes “such an intervention quite properly challenges our sense of the historical identity of culture as a homogenizing, unifying force, authenticated by originary Past, kept alive in the national tradition of the People.”[7] Iranna’s use of images drawn from Buddhism are not meditations on Buddhism itself, but rather these appropriations serve as an entry point into a larger exploration of the search for faith and meaning. As such, these paintings invoke the “Third Space of enunciation” that is unbound from a cultural lineage, a concrete historical past, and a determined national identity. This mode of cultural appropriation resonates with the present context of cultural hybridity and heterogeneity of our global societies.   

In Scaffold(ing), 2011, Iranna transcends formal categorizations as the artist appropriates the quintessential icon of Buddhism—the golden statue of the Buddha. Yet the countless scaffolds that suspend the statue in the air obscure what lies within them. The work offers an iconic sign—which represents by relations of resemblance—for the state of human faith, around which we have thrown up so many ad hoc support structures that we can hardly make out what lies beneath. The result is a reincarnation of cultural signs elaborated in a contemporary paradigm to reveal open spaces for contemplation and exploration, which is the core of what we might call a “Buddhist phenomenology.” 

Buddhism as a Metonymical Vector for Phenomenological Interventions

Iranna’s work dialogues with phenomenological preoccupations regarding the nature of Being. “I wanted to capture our ruptured faith, our broken values and the incompleteness of these in contemporary societies, and Buddhism was just the vehicle to do so,” he explains. As such, one could characterize Iranna as a phenomenological painter. Central to phenomenology is the belief that in a world bereft of coherent external meaning, we must each confront the big questions and come up with the answers ourselves. Iranna poises his subjects over the abyss of these questions, and the individual inward path towards transcendence and Becoming provides the segue between Buddhism and Phenomenology. Even as we are together, in the search for meaning we are ultimately always alone. Thus the collective solitude of the monks shown in some of the paintings exposes our mortality, which is bracketed by points of aperture (birth) and closure (death) that engulf life to reveal the fragility of our existence and the absence of a functional support system or structure to give that existence meaning. This resonates with Martin Heidegger’s writings that present ‘the question of Being’ in terms of aperture (in its open-ended willingness to seek an answer perpetually) and closure (in its willingness to be finite and determined) as well.[8] 

The visual lexicon of scaffolding, crutches and sutures in Iranna’s paintings are a “recognition of our vulnerability, [and] our mortality,” which phenomenologist Alphonso Lingis described. But more than presenting existence as an unanswered, ambiguous question, unconditionally delimited by our mortality, and thus an overwhelming and traumatizing phenomenon, the scaffolding, crutches and sutures in the works show attempts to heal these traumas through faith in spite of the epistemological uncertainty and fundamental unknowability of the putative objects of our faiths. Herein lies the core power of Iranna’s recent paintings. In re-engaging the concerns underlying Heidegger’s “the question of the meaning of Being,” the artist addresses what philosopher Hannah Arendt called “the human condition.” Arendt argues that central to the human condition are three existential facts that we all share: our “natality”—that we are inserted into a world not of our making through birth; our “mortality”—that we die and that our time on earth is finite; and our irreducible, common “plurality”—that the unique stories of each of our lives are both made by each of us and also make us singularly who we are. Moreover, according to Arendt, these three facts create the basis for empathy and solidarity as we manifest ourselves in this world, narrating and writing the stories of our lives and defining ourselves through speech and action before a community of others.[9] Here Arendt breaks with Heidegger’s bleak phenomenology, which fixates on our mortality. Instead Arendt offers a vision of generative power, which valorizes the human capacity for action, meaning-making, and new beginnings. 

In works such as Red River (2011) and Valley of Red (2011), the crowd of monks mirrors humankind as a collectivity determined by these facts of our natality, mortality, and plural uniqueness. By coming together in word and deed we can constitute public spaces before the gaze of the community. In The Red River (2011), a sort of panning movement across the canvas brings a collective mass of monks into focus, creating the visual effect of motion. With its subjects moving diagonally downwards like a flowing river, the piece inherits the density and fluidity of water. The backdrop is indecipherable, giving the image present an enduring sense of time, and Iranna’s trademark splotch marks divert more conventional linear readings or interpretations of the scene. The artist’s metonymical use of tranquil Buddhist monks en masse suggests that although we pass through life on an inherently feeble ground, the acceptance of our mortality and the celebration of life as a gradual movement toward death can be transformed into a path towards existential healing. As the monks appear meditative with their eyes closed, conveying the force of the group expressed through a sense of togetherness, the painting evokes Arendt’s generative power as a source of hope for the human condition.   

Conclusion

Multiple layers of absence are present in this recent body of work by G.R. Iranna. Absence appears in the phenomenological sense as the absence of explanations and definite answers to the questions of existence. It resides in the spatio-temporal dislocation of the figures against the heterotopic space constituted by the absence of background and foregrounded perforations in the surface appearance of the works. Indeed, heterotopia makes absence into a space of possibility. Absence appears in his paintings in the more literally Buddhist sense as absence of desire, longing, struggle, manifesting as transcendence in the search for meaning. Visually there is also an absence of horizons; there are paths but no destinations. Sometimes there is an absence of faces, or facial expressions, and the monks are depicted on a journey with an unknown destination, traveling upon the most fragile and unsteady of supports—bridges cobbled together with metal sutures, held up by wobbly crutches, as if to question whether the structures of faith available to us can actually support the weight of the human condition. 

From a diversity of perspectives—that of heterotopic spatial discourse engendered by metarealistic techniques, as well as the hybrid “Third Space of enunciation”—Iranna’s work performs the function of “scaffolding the absent,” deconstructing the very elements it formally offers, and bringing the latent instability of the invisible structures underlying them to our attention. Thus Iranna offers a “scaffolding of the absent;” a temporary structural outline of that which is invisible within the frame, but contextually present in its visible absence, and in doing so, he asks us to reflect upon our human predicament and consider the possibilities for healing our existential wounds. 

[1]Alphonso Lingis. 2006. Defenestration (Deleuze Conference Paper). http://gavinwit.googlepages.com/Lingis.pdf. Accessed 30.07.2007. 

[2] Foucault, Michel and Miskowiec, Jay. 1986. “Of Other Spaces,” Diacritics, Vol. 16, No. 1. Spring, pp. 22-27. 

[3] Ibid, p24. 

[4]Epstein, Mikhail. 1999. Russian Postmodernism: New Perspectives on Post-Soviet Culture. New York, Oxford: Berghahn Books, pp. 105-112. 

[5] Ibid, p27. 

[6]Bhabha, Homi K. 1994. The Location of Culture. London; New York: Routledge. p37. See also: "It is that Third Space, though unrepresentable in itself, which constitutes the discursive conditions of enunciation that ensure that the meaning and symbols of culture have no primordial unity or fixity; that even the same signs can be appropriated, translated, rehistoricized and read anew." p37. 

[7]Ibid. 

[8]Heidegger, Martin. 1927/2010. Being and Time. Revised Ed. Trans. Joan Stambaugh. New York:  State University of New York Press. 

[9]Arendt, Hannah. 1958. The Human Condition. Chicago: Chicago University Press. 

Maya Kóvskaya (PhD, UC Berkeley, 2009) is a Delhi- and Beijing-based scholar, art critic, curator, and writer, with over a decade of experience in China. She has worked on numerous exhibitions in the capacity of curator and/or critic, including Excresence (curator / critic 2011), A Pair of Lungs, A Lack of Faith: Vijai Patchineelam Solo Exhibition in New Delhi (critic, India, 2010), Earth (critic, India, 2010); A Cry from the Narrow Between: Tejal Shah & Han Bing in New Delhi (critic, India, 2010); Passages: China at the Crossroads (India, 2009); Chen Hui-Solo Exhibition (critic, PRC, 2009); Black Screen (critic, PRC, 2009); Action-Camera: Beijing Performance Photography (curatorial coordinator and critic, Canada, 2009); Chinese History in Animal Time: Huang Rui Solo Exhibition (critic, PRC, 2009). In 2011, she is currently curating upcoming exhibitions in Bombay, New Delhi, and Cochin. 

Maya has taught at the University of California, Berkeley, the Renmin University of China, in Beijing, and Beijing Capital Normal University. She has also lectured extensively at various institutions, including the Asia Society, the Center for Chinese Studies, Institute of East Asian Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, UCLA, University of South Carolina, USC Center for Asia Studies, Columbia Art Museum, the Xi’an Museum of Fine Arts, and Baroda Faculty of Fine Arts, the American Anthropology Association, among others. 

Her writings have appear in art catalogues, academic volumes, and magazines, such as Art India, Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, Art Review, Flash Art, Contemporary, Art Concerns, Take On Art, Art ETC, Art Concerns, Art iT, Eyemazing: International Contemporary Photography Magazine, and Positions: east asia cultures critique. Her book on Chinese contemporary art, China Under Construction: Contemporary Art from the People’s Republic (Futurista Art, 2007) is available in bookstores worldwide. She was Critic in Residence at the Khoj International Arists’ Association In Context: Public.Art.Ecology program (2010) and is currently working researching a comparative book on art interventions and the public sphere in China and India. Maya’s writing, research and scholarship has received a variety of academic and professional awards and fellowships, most recently the 2010 Yishu Award for Critical Writing on Contemporary Chinese Art. 

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Untitled 66” x 70”, Acrylic on Tarpaulin 2011