Sumedh Rajedran

The CAUTIONER'S TALES

Recent Work by Sumedh Rajendran

RANJIT HOSKOTE

Sumedh Rajendran’s Sculptures seem always about to leap out of themselves, to defy the stasis imposed upon them by their material definition as objects occupying mass, volume and position. Their dynamism stimulates and answering restlessness in us, their viewers. These sculptures urge our imagination to exercise an emancipatory gaze: to bring into play, as we approach them, that twinned awareness of mobility and mutability which provides contemporary life with its ground beat, its basic measure.

Perhaps it is best, while viewing Rajendran's works, to treat them as theatre rather than as sculpture. Let us not demarcate the act of viewing them as a ritual to be conducted in a shrine-like space of repose. Instead, let us involve these eloquent objects in a rehearsal of the unpredictable dynamic that carries our world along, in our everyday experiences of speed, uncertainty, hazard and the constant premonition that the world is about to explode.

To leap out of oneself is to perform the rite of ecstasy. Ek-stasis was the name that the ancient Greeks gave to the perilous yet potentially sublime choice of stepping outside the place, role and definition that kept you stable, identifiable and, above all, normal by embracing flux and momentum, Rajendran's sculptures function as investigations, annotations and audits.

Rajendran's art is marked by a distinctive combination of formal finesse, expressive versatility, and an empathetic grasp of global crises and the exactions that these make on social relationships, culture, and our common humanity, His works open up their discourse in a world of nuclear weaponisation and ethnic cleansing, road rage and punk warriors, night combat and smart bombing, satellite surveillance and internet propaganda.

In dramatizing these occasions and conditions, they incarnate the continually shifting asymmetry between oppressor and victim, demagogue and dissident, victor and defeated. In the process, they articulate a range of tones including the enigmatic, the minatory, the memorial, and the reflective. Crucially, Rajendran's sculptures do not pose for us but invite us into a conversation.

Born in 1972 and educated at the College of Fine Arts, Trivandrum, and the Delhi College of Art, Rajendran has piloted a fresh approach to sculpture in India. He develops his sculptures which I have described elsewhere as sculptural composites through various permutations of stainless steel, perforated iron sheets, leather, tiles and concrete. [2] When I say that these works leap out of themselves, I refer both to the lively tropism that they demonstrate towards the larger world of experience, and to the specific challenge which they pose to the practice of sculpture in India.

Rajendran’s composites address the question of whether it is possible to make sculpture in India today. Not sculpture-installation, which opens up many fronts of entry and trails a ragged and overtly provocative edge through social space, but sculpture that is relatively self-contained and insists on its kinship with the classical topoi of the frieze, the niche and the equestrian figure: sculpture that is midway between the focality of the singular image and the distributed quality of the assemblage, but close to the former in affinity and intent.

In proposing a resolution, Rajendran records a series of departures: he redefines sculpture, relocates it in the contexts of other artistic practices. My reading of his sculptural composites is base, in the main, on a response to four significant and related departures: in the direction, variously, of collage as a key principle, the expression of the graphic element or drawing, spatial occupancy or the presence of architecture, and however old-fashioned my intuition my appear, a masculinity of feeling that is bound up with ideals of heroism and honourable conduct that have been devalued in the goal-driven present.

Collage comes across as a key principle in Rajendran’s sculpture. He crafts his effects from the fusion of, and the friction among, dissimilar materials and the symbolic associations they carry. In the suite of works that he presented in 2007, ‘Chemical Smuggle’ , he worked with tin sheets covered with newsprint: waste products form the packaging industry, which the homeless population of India’s cities uses to cover its makeshift homes, and which, in his hands, become raw materials for a portraiture of societal collapse.

Similarly, the white tiles that he employs are associated, in the popular mind, with public toilets. He began to work with them in 2003, having become fascinated by the striking yet unremarked paradox of people regularly constructing street side shrines, places of urinal. Such cultural anomalies are relayed into the compressed narratives of conflict played out in Rajedran’s sculptural composites.

Other kinds of hybridity imposed by purpose also find testimony in Rajendran’s iconography: since 2004, he has produced images that amalgamate man and tool, animal and vehicle, entities bound together yet separate, the unstable chimers of a planet looped by communication networks and linked by military manoeuvres.

Rajendran’s work has grown from his need to move beyond his training in sculpture and to embrace the techniques and materials of other form, such as writing or film-making. “I’ m interested in bringing different stories together, trying out different kinds of narration through material, “he says. “ Most of the time, the situation comes to me as material. I play with contrasts of association. I am concerned with the transformation of material into language. And you, as the viewer, can add your own imagination and experience.” [3]

I respond strongly to what I think of as the graphic element in Rajendran’s work. This is especially evident in his recent sculptures of men engaged in acts of struggle, which come across almost as copulations, of violence. In these tableaux of antagonism and annihilation in which the principal actors appear to have lost the human kernel and been reduced to killing machines. Formally, it is as though Rajendran were drawing through sculptural means.

Rajendran mobilises a lexicon of tensions in his work, drawing these form the fissures within the Indian social formation, caught up as it is in the throes of a transition towards globalisation driven hypermodernity that has been mapped onto political mobilisations based on the contemporary rephrasing of ethnic, caste, religious and regional identities.

He draws, also, on the epic anxieties of the sub continental situation, with India and Pakistan having declared themselves to be nuclear-weapons states and moved a few steps closer to the impending catastrophe of nuclear warfare. The global unrest following the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the destruction of the World Trade Canter in New York and the attach on the Pentagon in September 2001, and the various simmering conflicts in South Asia, complete his atlas of unease.

“I am interested in invisible realities, which you can feel rather than see,” notes Rajendran, when I share with him my enthusiasm for the graphics emphasis in his sculpture. “So many situations are traps. We live in hierarchies, and the ability to overpower another is a guarantee of the ego’s existence. Stabbings and street fighting that have become part of our normality. I look, in my work, at the unequal relationships between individuals and between nation-states, at how we torture other, how we manipulate other. My concern is to make a graphical representation of these, like signs on the road, society’s traffic signs.” [4]

Rajendran’s sculptures possess a compelling sense of spatial occupancy: not only because they are sculptural entities but because they communicate and architectural emphasis, the solidity and amplitude of built form. Through his adroit use of tiling and metal, his composites often become metonymic of the patchwork facades and DIY neighbourhoods so intimately associated with the improvisational, informal architecture of India’s metropolitan areas.

Or he might decide on a more literary and allusive usage, as in his earlier suite of work, ‘Final Call’ (2006), where he carved and archway into a cabin trunk being carried across unnamed distances by a sleek helicopter. And so Rajendran’s sculptures become, in their own right, built presence: we are struck by the thought that he might intend these works as maquettes for more epic forms, scale models for more monumental conceptions.

Rajendran savours the coexistence of forms, periods and purposes, and to the manner in which history becomes spectacularly visible in everyday life and yet is naturalised to the point of invisibility, so requiring re-activation. His favourite example of this phenomenon is the interstitial geography of Delhi: the historical periods through which the great city has transited are not arranged neatly in horizontal strata, but are articulated as the cobbled and sutured components of a fluid, miscegenated and plural contemporary. A mediaeval monument, for instance, might stand next to a shanty, a workshop or a middle-class apartment block.

“Every figure, every incident has its specific architecture for me,” says Raendran, in response to my observations. “Site, for me, means a venue for built form and also for the social psyche.” He offers the examples of the Babri Masjid and the Twin Towers: symbols condense large-scale narratives and bodies of feeling into a tight compass, he indicates, and if removed or lost, create formidable challenges of coping. The narratives float without anchorage, the bodies of feeling become nomadic. How do we cope with the loss of symbols, he asks, implying both the possibility of renewal and the danger of vengeance that attend such loss [5]

Rajendran’s sculptures have an assured, unapologetically masculine feel to them. This is true enough of the forms that are charged with obviously military import, such as the elegantly yet robustly shaped weapons. But it is equally true of devices such as the leaping halves of horses and the vehicle raised like a seesaw and broken by a treacherous fulcrum, which appear to be cast as elegies, as the memoirs of a heroism and a code of honourable conduct that have been eclipsed by the ruthlessness of strategy.

I suspect that these concerns stem from the emotional upheaval which the sculptor underwent, like many individuals of sensitivity across the globe, during the Iraq War. As he watched the television coverage of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and the hunting down of the Ba’ath administration by US force, Rajendran began to wonder how he could deal sensitively and intelligently with this narrative, dispensing with the commonplaces of embedded reportage while retaining the tragic core of the events. And how could he transpose these resonances into the streetscape of Delhi, his own primary habitat?

In wrestling with these questions, Rajendran seems to have tapped into a deep vein of tragic classicism. On the evidence of his art, he has realised that the nation-state offers a nominal citizenship but no talisman of belonging that the hard edge of identity can destroy the Self just as effectively as it can destroy the stigmatised Other that an intellectual and spiritual nomadism is the only homeland that someone in his position can ever know. In the troubling yet woundingly accurate locution of Borges, which occurs in the stanza that I quote as the incipit to this essay: “Nadie es la patria, No one is the homeland.”

The haunting melancholia of Rajendran’s art is informed by this realisation; by his engagements with the breakdown of civility, communication, mutuality and the recognition of a shared condition. The situation on which he dwells are concerned with revenge paid in blood, loyalty demanded under pressure, false subsidies, sins donated while rewards are withheld, promises that are broken, vision that have been betrayed. We have the distinct impression of an artist who has elected to take up the long and thankless task of maintaining vigil: he waits for the apocalypse, though not as a fatalist but as a cautioner. These sculptural composites are the cautioner ’stales, which Sumedh Rajendran tells us on the way, not to Canterbury, but to Armageddon.

(Berlin, March 2008---Bombay, June 2008)