MAXIMUM CITY

Ole Hagen

‘I am all-destroying death, and the origin of things that are yet to be, I am the gambling of rogues, the splendor of the splendid’. This is how Suketu Mehta, in Maximum City, quotes the Vedas to invoke the chaotic spirit of the contemporary Indian megacity. If the city was a surface, it would be one that would be both dazzling and dingy, one that would be including the seductive and the repulsive. The city that Mehta describes is Bombay, the Bombay he can remember and the Mumbai he returns to visit after living in New York for a chunk of his early years. - ‘It is just like Bombay’. This is how New York is explained to people in India, he says. So on the one hand we have an image of the timeless and universal surface, seen from a distance, which, when used to describe the city, invokes a fleeting pattern emerging from human activity, the effect of the invisible forces that compels humans to act. On the other hand we have an image of the need for orientation that comes from establishing a reference point. We are reminded of a situation so many times reiterated in postcolonial theory; that the Western idea of centre, origin and imitation might as well be inverted. Part of a modern day orientalism could be our tendency to presume cities foreign to us to be unlivable and chaotic, failing to recognize the different logics or patterns of existence that include radically different temporalities. Living inside is different to observing from the outside. On the other hand, when on the inside we sometimes fail to notice the hidden impact particular patterns of life can have on our bodies and minds. In modernist notions of the ‘city symphony’ that we might encounter in early films, montage structures are used to convey the fragmentation, newness and alienation that comes from not feeling able to keep pace with changes to the urban landscape. Though in a transferred sense we find traces of the use of ‘collage’ as a working strategy in the works of Suhasini Kejriwal and Young In Hong, these approaches are not used to simply convey the fragmentary as such, rather they constitute new multiplicities or wholes. If we consider the more ‘postmodern’ sensitivity to the city, terms such as ‘psychogeography’ have emphasized the way in which experience defines topography, the atmosphere and sentiments that accompany the spatial dimensions of our lives. This dimension may come to encompass an image of the city where myth and history are part of a ‘fictional’ understanding of the real, a reality that cannot be constrained by conventional space-time relations. Such an idea of the real is a little closer to describing the sensibility of the two artists in this show. In Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Marco Polo describes a range of different cities to Kublai Khan. Somehow they are embodiments of patterns of phenomenal experience that all emerge from impressions of Venice. Marco Polo describes cities that are like repeated dreams. However stunning and strange, a dream will seem familiar to us through its embedded atmosphere of significance. We therefore both accept the dreamscape for the logic of what it is and marvel at it at the same time, even while we are in the dream. The inferno of the living is something that is already here, says Calvino’s Marco Polo, it is an inferno formed by being together. He describes to the Khan two ways of escaping this inferno. One is to become such a part of it that you no longer see it, and the other is defined by the vigilance of recognition. The second choice involves recognizing what, in the midst of the inferno, is not of the inferno and then cultivate it. From Polo’s description we may conclude that if the inferno already exists so also must paradise. We can further infer that the second option for evading suffering is hard to undertake without constantly risking supporting a projected image of paradise instead of cultivating the living. Even if the artist aspires to follow the option of vigilance it is also inevitable that like other humans she has a life and suffers a portion of immersion. It is against this backdrop that the problem of distance and nearness defined by Mehta’s Vedic gaze and relative locality can be raised. Though no doubt temporality and complexity are evolving forces, that contemporary theorists love to historicize, in their quest to avoid statements of ‘universality’, we should be allowed to doubt whether the notion of ‘unlivable’ postmodern spaces and the problem of defining enduring notions of ‘place’ is so different to the age of the Great Khan. The migration of cultures, the ‘globalising’ effects of empire building and the confusion of what defines the local is no doubt the background against which Polo, in Calvino’s account, defines the ethical dilemma of the artist: How can recognition occur without immersion? We should not think that recognition is a matter of decoding. Countless artists have claimed to ‘critique modernism’ in what is often just a (modern) embrace of the idea of an objective, historical overview of codes. Recognition, even as it occurs in the Vedic view of the fabric of life, is not a ‘God’s eye’ point of view, but a lived experience of affective forces, that might give room for selective cultivation as well as visions of the dream-like quality of immersion. Two international artists that are as familiar (or un-familiar) with life in Calcutta and Seoul as life in London, are making work that to a degree emerges from the experience of the speed of urbanization that occurs in some fast growing Asian economies. It is notable how both the embroidered paintings of Young In Hong and the black line acrylics of Suhasini Kejriwal, even though they use industrial materials (acrylic) and elements of industrial techniques (machine embroidery), employ a time consuming sensibility that is at odds with the speed of urbanity indirectly conveyed by the imagery. The quality of line drawing embodies a steady continuity of gesture that is like the persistency of a line of thought. This is the speed of registering and observing, a type of ‘recognition’ that is deliberate without thereby resulting in images that can be easily decoded and reduced. Like with dream images, the newness of the combination of disparate elements or perspectives in these 2D works is embedded within a coherence that makes the totality seem like it should always have existed. Since the acceptance of dream images is founded on their sense of subjective significance, there arises from encountering these works a notion of the city as the vision of a collective subjectivity, a newness that has always been a possibility of the collective imagination. In contrast to the fleeting lines that make up the figures of the artists’ paintings, there is also the presence of the monumental. Kejriwal’s sculpture is a mimetic assemblage of stacked goods, mimicking the idea of the shelf display, where what you see is what you get, as well as its double, the waste that you’re not supposed to see. But the undeniable immediacy that meets the eye does not fulfill the promise it imitates, neither in terms of consuming nor disposing. What is left to be ‘consumed’ is only the presence of the stack or monument, the symbolic representation of instant gratification. What is there to invoke rejection can also not be disposed now that it is encapsulated by the monumental. It is a monument to what cannot be obtained once it is rendered as a monument. In Hong’s paintings the monumental is present mostly in traces that suggests that her figures could have been modeled on images of monuments, rather than people or images of people. In these works the monumental is left without the hierarchical context it needs to function. A kind of ‘democracy’ of the image emerges, where images lives new lives in the imaginary scenarios or worlds they populate. The total images or scenes thus seem to suggest multi-temporal precursors to changes in the ‘real world’. In her video documentation of Miner’s Orange, the normal content of the symbols to be paraded is removed, so that the parade is one of pure affect. What is paraded is the parade itself. So we can get the sense that the city the two artists portray is one of smoke and mirrors, as ephemeral and varied as Polo’s Venice. Essentialist value systems that might have been used as the headings for campaigns of progress are seen to be eroded by the rivers of change they once promoted. But despite this vacuity, there is still the sense here of how the collective vitality of human subjects are present even in the cities of images that the artists have gathered from the collective imagination. What makes this possible is the care and sensibility the artists have executed in the work, their ability to recognize and cultivate what is thus in itself not of the inferno, even if it should happen to picture elements of inferno. This is their way of avoiding blind immersion. What at the same time creates the texture and surface of the vitality they render into images, are the forces of inevitable desires beyond history and identity that the Vedas allude to. In Kejriwal’s large painting there is a sense of a vanishing point beyond the horizon. This point might be seen to be the magnetic future towards which the city is growing, but it could also be a point of freefall infinity into which the city is slipping. The gravity of the pull cannot be avoided, but the speed of falling can be registered according to multiple temporalities. In the vortex of the fall, that this exhibition particularly conveys through its still images, people, animals and things are equal in the non-biased measure of gravity. This equality has to be conveyed through a type of maximalism. This is Maximum City.

(MAXIMUM CITY, Young In Hong & Suhasini Kejriwal, Exhibition Catalogue 2012, James Freeman Gallery, London)