by Ranjan Kaul
The Existential Condition of Secrets, Acrylic paint, digital print on
archival cotton rag paper, 43" x 64.5", 2023 (Image courtesy: Raghava KK Studio)
We are led into a surreal world full of drama and colour and spectacle at the iconic 24 Jor Bagh, New Delhi, housing the ongoing solo exhibition by artist Raghava KK titled The Impossible Bouquet. Hosted by The Gujral Foundation, to mark the occasion of its 15th year, in association with Volte Art Projects, the show explores the immense possibilities of human-machine engagement. Curated by Feroze Gujral, the series continues the multi-disciplinary artist’s encounter with the biggest disruption to the creative world, artificial intelligence, where he uses the AI tool to create his new ebullient series. Raghava, who lives and works out of New York and Bangalore, has, over the past 15 years or so, pioneered a ground-breaking body of diverse works that explore transcendence through the lens of the current digital era. His work traverses traditional forms of painting, installation and performance, while his practice is barely recognized as media of art (AI, neuro-feedback, board and video games, cryptocurrencies, etc.).
External view of the building at 24 Jor Bagh housing Impossible Bouquet
Raghava, KK (Image courtesy: Nimish Jain )
Curator Feroze Gujral, Founder and Director, The Gujral Foundation, expounds on what drew her to work with Raghava for the exhibition: “I have a passion for the off-beat and the on-trend. We must always look toward the future, immersing ourselves in the radical and revolutionary. As a concept curator, I am constantly seeking new ways of learning and transforming that allow us to support experimental and innovative projects by curious creators. It is very important to push ourselves into the space of enquiry in order to prompt critical dialogue about art and the future.”
Disruption in art using technology is not something new. Over the last two decades there has been a proliferation in the use of technology to create art, including the creation of NFTs (Non Fungible Tokens) that combine technology, art and business. While India has been tardy in joining the world of cryptocurrencies and digital trading, over the last few years there has been a reasonable number of successful NFT drops, including by Raghava himself. Among contemporary art disruptors, a name that instantly comes to mind is Banksy (pseudonymous English artist) known for his anti-authoritarian street-graffiti art. He came into greater prominence when an original Banksy was burnt and destroyed in a livestream video and sold as digital art through NFT for an astronomical sum of $380,000.
However, there are few works of art that have had as much an influential and provocative impact on the evolution of art as Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, a regular porcelain urinal, created in 1917. The only modification Duchamp made to the object was to turn it on its side and sign it with a pseudonym ‘R. Mutt’ (borrowing the name from a sanitaryware manufacturer), and claim the work as a piece of art, with the title Fountain. In today’s common parlance, the term ‘disruptive’ is regarded as something positive and ground-breaking; however, Fountain challenged assumptions of what an art object should look like. Duchamp's objective was clearly to create something aesthetically disagreeable (though it is debatable whether the ordinary urinal is indeed ugly, or in fact appealing, given its fluidic form and contours). Another relevant work that warrants mention here is Joseph Kosuth's One and Three Chairs (1965), comprising a physical folding chair in the centre, with a black-and-white image of the same chair on one side, and a textual description and definition of the chair on the other.
Left: Fountain, Marcel Duchamp, 1917 (Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)
Right: One and Three Chairs, Joseph Kosuth, 1965 (image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)
It is in the context of disruption and the interaction of word and image in art that we examine Raghava KK’s series. While Kosuth's work explored the role words play in conceptual art's emphasis on ideas over visual form, Duchamp, by giving the urinal a word-title, claimed it as his own work of art. In the present context, while Duchamp's intent was to present a piece of work that would be perceived to be repulsive and unacceptable as art as his damning response to bourgeoise culture, Raghava's The Impossible Bouquet, on the other hand, is a kind of inversion of intent. Bouquets are usually perceived as flower bunches, carefully arranged, aesthetically pleasing, but in Raghava’s case he juxtaposes strange, even impossible, material – recycled plastic, food, intimate parts of the body, hand-blown glass fused with metal – to create his “impossible bouquets”.
. . . goes the Bubble, Acrylic paint, digital print on archival cotton rag paper, 43" x 84.6", 2023
Raghava says that the series is inspired by the Dutch tradition of still life with flowers, using flower images belonging to different seasons, which can never coexist, to create his works. Now, using the human-machine interface, the image of the bouquet, a transient arrangement of aesthetic beauty, comes to life in the form of playful, impossible combinations, substances, arrangements and geometries, which are yet provocative and intimate. While giving up control to the machine makes for some anxiety, the ambiguity in the process is mirrored in the form of beautiful classical objects made from private, mostly hidden, impossible material.
Well Acquainted with Unsentimental People, Acrylic paint, digital print on
archival cotton rag paper, 43" x 43", 2023
(Image courtesy: Raghava KK Studio)
Untitled, Acrylic paint, digital print on archival cotton rag paper, 4’ x 2.5’, 2023
(Image courtesy: Raghava KK Studio)
I inquire from Raghava the details of the process he has adopted to create the series. He explains that he first shows AI (‘seeds it with’) his own earlier paintings in the series, "Impossible Bouquets" done in the traditional style. This sort of AI (a specially adapted version of DALL-E, Stable Diffusion, etc. created by Raghava and a team of specialists) has learned from looking at billions of captioned images on the internet and has formed an internal model of the association between word and image. So, when shown Raghava’s earlier painted series, the AI quickly learns the artist’s composition and style and creates several versions of bouquets. It is then guided (‘prompted’) with very specific phrasal sequences (typically involving stylistic choices and instructions to use images of hidden and private parts of the body as material) to create “Impossible Bouquets” of its own.
Examples of 'prompts' given to AI on display at the show
There is much playfulness, mischief and naughtiness in the prompts in the form of binaries - concrete and abstract emotion (see the above examples). The resultant images are now digitally edited and upscaled using algorithms and then printed on paper. Finally, the artist enters into a dialogue with the image created by AI and responds to it, almost as a critique of its flatness, by painting over it. To achieve all this Raghava works with a team of specialists: AI Engineer Leonard Pauli and Creative AI Consultant Karthik Kalyanaraman of 64/1.
In a free-flowing conversation, Raghava talks about his motivation to create these works: how he views the creation as a process of self-discovery; how he has tried to simultaneously provoke and please the viewer, working with an element of surprise and as well as what came alive aesthetically, acting almost as a transcendental tool, as it were. By investigating his own vulnerability and allowing AI to play its own tricks on him and his art, Raghava explores the space of the play between concealing and revealing, shame and arousal. The immaterial and non-judgmental AI allows the artist the space to talk to it in intimate and transgressive ways that would be nearly impossible with a human. Yet, there is hardly any quarrel that the final product meets the standards of what would be widely perceived as beautiful, classical and socially acceptable.
Envisaging an AI-enabled future, Raghava imagines a labour-less society as against the current decentralized "swarm" that only values physical transactionality. As he optimistically remarks, "Can we shape our collective futures using this beautiful disruption? This playful series explores the outcome of engaging in real dialogue with AI. My work poses a crucial question about the future of art; can the embodied human limitations of flesh and bone respond creatively, and without fear, to the advances in creative image-making made by bodiless ‘software’?”
A quick word on the curation. Spread across two floors, the entire display space has been thoughtfully converted to resonate with the show, be it the lighting, the grey, magenta pink and turquoise walls, the glowing 'prompts', the messages on the walls, the angled partitions, or even the way the titles are designed. The displays are not crowded, allowing the viewer adequate breathing space, with areas opening out to the outdoors. The room installation with back-lit works, mirrors and painted walls and ceilings, makes for a phantasmagorical, out-of-the world immersive experience, as if one were transported to the metaverse cosmos. Raghava informs me that for the displayed works in the room, the black was painted several times over to get complete opacity. There are also interactive windows through which when we peep through we see moving images.
Top: Raghava in a dance pose mimicking his works, as it were
Bottom: A shot inside the installation room with mirrors and wall displays
Peeping through an interactive window
AI has been much in the news of late because of Chat GPT (Generative Pre-trained Transformer), the natural language processing tool driven by Open AI-developed technology that enables real-time conversations with machines in a human-like and intuitive manner. While the technology indeed has immense potential benefits for individuals and for society at large, there are concerns as well, such as its use to spread misinformation as also the model's inability to differentiate between erroneous and reliable sources. The AI tools that Raghava employs are also based on natural language processing. So, given this reality, before we know it, AI will be shaping art, posing challenges as also opening up opportunities for artists. This too has serious implications for art education, which will need to be revamped quickly. (Raghava informs me that he along with his colleagues at 64/1 are already working on a new art curriculum.)
Will such disruptions further alienate common people from contemporary art? Few will disagree that contemporary art has today become elitist and exclusive. If ways and means can be found whereby digital technology and AI can be used to close the current chasm between art and society, then alone can such disruptions prove to be beneficial to humankind.
Raghava, KK is a represented artist of Volte Art Projects.
The exhibition is an official collateral event of India Art Fair 2023 and among the highlights of the Fair's VIP Collector’s Programme. It will remain open at 24 Jor Bagh, New Delhi, till 16 February 2023.
Ranjan Kaul is a visual artist, art writer-critic, curator, author and Founding Partner of artamour.