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Sense and Sensitivity of Contemporary Art: Part Three

Significant New Trends

by Ranjan Kaul

In Part One of this essay we discussed how the various disciplines in the visual arts such as painting, sculpture, photography, film and architecture, are becoming increasingly inter-connected. We also saw how art has over time become multidisciplinary and now overlaps with other creative arts such as poetry, linguistics, dance and dramatic performance. We explored ways of viewing art in Part Two, and in this concluding part we examine two key trends in contemporary art.

One exciting trend that is seen today is somewhat of a revolution in the visual arts is art installation, which makes for a fuller utilization of space and intermingling of art with architecture. Visual artists are no longer confining themselves to their own art creations but are often appropriating the gallery and public spaces with their art installations. For instance, British artist Anish Kapoor has been creating huge installations combining engineering skills and often dynamic form with his art. One of his installations was a spiralling whirlpool dyed black which he erected in Brooklyn, creating a seemingly endless hole.

Let’s explore the works of two Indian artists who have been for some years consciously blurring the boundaries of art as practised in yesteryears with their installation projects.

The two images given here (Images 1 and 2) are that of a large project by Asim Waqif, an Indian artist whose projects are cross-overs between art, architecture and design. In this innovative creation of a Durga Puja pandal in Kolkata in 2019, the artist worked in situ for over a month with a team of bamboo and cane crafts-persons from West Bengal and Assam. The project spread was nearly 8000 sq. ft with a maximum height of 60 ft. As you can see from the images (for a more detailed view of the project, click on the video link below), the project used an intricate structure built by intertwining cane, bamboo, cloth and rope, incorporating interactive graphic elements, painting and sculpture along with innovative electronic and audio-visual elements. In the video at one point you can see an electronically controlled beating of drums and also other intriguing art objects.

In Image 2 you see a lion, the lord of the animal world and symbolic of Dharma, who Durga uses as her vehicle. While the lion painting is rendered with popular imagery, Waqif seems to have creatively brought in some cross-cultural elements in other parts of the installation. In Image 1 we can view an unusual and contrastingly smaller origami-like sculptural form of the goddess in one of her avatars alongside other figurines. The setting is curiously reminiscent of Nativity scenes, constructed with criss-cross arrangements of cane and bamboo with an asymmetrical red arch at its entrance that provides an interesting contrast, constructed with inter-fitting elements. Outside, as in Image 1 also, at places spiraling forms built with bamboo tied closely together add depth and visual appeal.

According to Waqif, “This immersive space was embedded with an interactive electronic and acoustic system to create a game-like environment, where people’s movement and behaviour created different light effects and soundscapes.”

He adds that while contemporary discourse emphasizes sustainability and use of local renewable resources, use of such principles has been an integral part of most pre-industrial societies, including India. For him, the project aimed to reflect his underlying optimism that new technology instead of contradicting will reconcile with traditional vernacular systems.

Image 1. Durga Puja Pandal by Asim Waqif

in collaboration with a team of bamboo and cane crafts-persons.

Image courtesy by Asim Waqif and Arjunpur Amra Sabai Club

Image 2. Durga Puja Pandal by Asim Waqif

in collaboration with a team of bamboo and cane crafts-persons.

Image courtesy by Asim Waqif and Arjunpur Amra Sabai Club

The second installation project titled “The Red Rain” is a kinetic work created by the contemporary artist Rita Kumari Prasad, as part of an Indo-Korean Exchange Exhibition held in 2006. The still image, Image 3, given here does not do full justice to the work as it existed when it was exhibited. For a week, the exhibit had “teardrops” of molten, viscous red leather sluggishly flowing down continuously to the floor. The artist created this “rain of blood”, as she describes it, by precipitation of red leather combined with acid. One can imagine how unsettling this innovative work would’ve been for the viewers, almost shaking them out of apathy. While at one level the work represented the gradual degradation of the earth’s environment, at another level, the red teardrops symbolized human pain and suffering.

Rita Prasad says that her intention was to metaphorically represent the toxic climate and corrosive violence we see today, destroying the very soul of human society.

Image 3. The Red Rain by Rita Kumari Prasad, red leather and acid, 13’ X 13’ (approx. area), 2006.

Image courtesy by Rita Kumari Prasad

The two installation projects discussed above vividly demonstrate how artists are now boldly pulling down preconceived fences of the very idea of visual art and redefining it with their individual sensitivities and imagination.

Let’s now look at a second important trend in contemporary art widely referred to nowadays as “appropriation”. Here the artist consciously “borrows” existing images and elements of culture to create a personalised work with new meaning and expression. Senior Indian artist Kanchan Chander, over her years of art practice, has experimented with figures and torsos without heads and limbs, treating them as subjects, and freely embellishing them with decorative motifs and intricate detailing. In the last one and half decades, she has extended the embellishment to the “appropriated” and sourced faces of female actors of Bollywood and Hollywood, such as Marilyn Monroe, Waheeda Rehman, Suraiya and Meena Kumari. Describing her process, the artist says that she sources the pictures of these actors from wayside markets of old Delhi, enlarges and prints them, and then finally embellishes them with mixed media. Through her art, Kanchan wonderfully combines the Indian tradition of embellishment with the contemporary trend of appropriation.

Here are two representative works from her series (Images 4 and 5). Most of you will recognize the first which shows twin images of Meena Kumari. The artist says that here she used mirroring and embellishment to create visual drama and enhance aesthetic appeal.

Image 4. Bollywood 2 by Kanchan Chander, 30" X 36", 2013

Image courtesy by Kanchan Chander

Some of you may not recognize the two visages in the second painting (Image 5). The central one is that of Frida Kahlo, widely regarded as Mexico’s greatest artist and venerated as a feminist icon of the first half of the 20th century. The artist began painting after a near-fatal accident.

Kanchan Chander says she greatly admires Frida’s life and work and was inspired after seeing a film about the Mexican artist icon. Kanchan adds that she finds the entire process of creating her art – from sourcing materials to the final embellishments – therapeutic and a source of solace.

This is another thread that binds Kanchan – who’s herself had to cope with a challenging personal life – to her Mexican icon. Here we see a very different colour palette from the near-monochromatic work depicting Meena Kumari – use of bold and brilliant colours as Frida herself used. The diffused inset at the bottom is that of Kanchan Chander herself, who has worked on a series called “Frida and Me”. Kanchan says she kept her own visage small because, as she humbly observes, she regards herself as relatively insignificant in relation to Frida Kahlo. The addition of the butterfly near the cheek and the vibrantly coloured bird near the head in the painting are also elements that the Mexican artist used in her works; by incorporating these images Kanchan Chander in a way pays homage to her icon.

Image 5. Frida and Me XXV by Kanchan Chander, 17.6” x 19.6”, 2011

Image courtesy by Kanchan Chander

We have seen how visual art over time has evolved into becoming an ever-expanding, multi-discipline, if one can call it that, breaking boundaries, opening new doors, demolishing out-dated ideas about what visual art is about. As an illustration of where the frontiers of global contemporary art are reaching, let’s take a brief look at the works of the four finalists of 2019’s Turner Prize, one of Britain’s most prestigious art awards.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan worked with “ear-witness” accounts as narrated by those oppressed by the Syrian regime to create a library of sound effects to recreate a horrific Syrian jail; Helen Cammock’s film examined the role of women in Northern Ireland’s civil rights movement; Columbian artist Oscar Murillo’s installations explored themes of migration and labour which in recent times of Covid are equally relevant to India; and finally, Tai Shani created a feminist artwork called “Dark Continent”, which was inspired by the idea of a city filled with women that attacked the racist white male order, again a theme that finds parallels in the recent country-wide protests across the US. Each of the four artists attacked far-right politics and fascism in their own ingenious ways. The four finalists created a history of sorts: standing together for solidarity and multiplicity, they jointly petitioned the jury to view their work as a collective and because the toxic climate had brought them to stand together against individualism. They won the award jointly – art is not about competition! As the example of the 2019 Turner Prize shows, contemporary art is more about the here and now and can be appreciated with an open mind and an awareness of the reality of an ever-evolving social, political and aesthetic order.

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Ranjan Kaul is an artist, art writer, author and Founding Partner of artamour.


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