By Beverly Koh
If a city’s infrastructure is the skeleton, and humans are the blood flowing through it, then we can consider urbanization, with all its complexity, as an organism driven by the dynamic migrations of people into, out of, and within the urban space. In the 1921 documentary film Manhatta by painter Charles Sheeler and photographer Paul Strand, early 20th century Manhattan breathes with deep vitality and power as we see the awesome skyscrapers, smoking, powerful machinery and swirling crowds of people. In Manhatta, urbanization is celebrated.
And in Gigi Scaria’s works at the Singapore Biennale 2011, urbanization is also the underlying theme tying together his paintings, video and sculptural installations. Against the background of India’s accelerating economic growth and urbanization, Gigi Scaria constructs imagined cityscapes and addresses the impact of urbanization on India’s communities and social structures.
But unlike Manhatta, the cityscapes in Scaria’s work are void of anything forceful. Scaria’s body of work at the Biennale is ambitious, but for all that his works claim to be about, Scaria has fallen terribly short. His art, like virtually all the art displayed at the Biennale this year, is foremost conceptual, but not understanding his work this time is not due to having fallen into the rut of mistaking one’s inability to comprehend profound conceptual art as a flaw on the part of the artwork. Encountering his work is like facing a wall; it is dead, dull and inaccessible.
Open invitation 1 and 2 presents Scaria’s take on the future landscapes of our cities, and his is a vision where urbanization has expanded beyond our control and has consumed and trapped us within its confines. In his fictitious cityscapes, the buildings are homogenous, meticulously painted in uniform flat washes of color, dull and starkly bare. They are the mere empty skeletons of the urbanization as celebrated in Manhatta, devoid of anything alive which according to the description accompanying the artwork, is deliberate on Scaria’s part for it allows these imagined constructs to “exist for their own benefit” as opposed to “functioning as living environments”.
There is an obvious humorous irony intended, deliberate on Scaria’s part, by naming the paintings Open invitation 1 and 2. Nothing is inviting about the artwork and the sparse barren cityscapes it is presenting to the viewer, and Scaria perhaps intended his artwork to be cold and detached to show how they do not exist to serve as human habitats. And it is this insistence to portray this sterile and empty shell of futuristic urbanized spaces throughout his various artworks at the Biennale that is how the Scaria has managed to create the downfall of his art. The distilled imagery and forms of his artwork are lifeless and static. Scaria is so caught up with manifesting his artistic visions that somewhere along the artistic process he has lost sight of what he wants to say with his artwork. Whatever thought-provoking dialogue he is trying to engage with the viewer in his conceptual art is lost in translation.
His video installation is equally frustrating. I watch as a virtual book turns its pages on the video screen, carrying on the unfolding motif that we get from his paintings of the barren cityscapes; as the ‘book’ turns its pages, different landscapes are revealed to us in the same pop-out card effect of Open invitations 1 and 2. They are depictions of cramped congested urban cities, and similarly, devoid of the human. And as I stand there watching as the ‘book’ closes with an undecipherable phrase, I start to wonder about how I should react to this video work. Should I sniff disdainfully at the crude graphics and amateurish animation, worry that I am not feeling anything for the artwork or start looking around for the description card to reassure myself that there is something being portrayed here in this work that is worth pondering about but I had missed because Scaria’s work is yet again impenetrable and incomprehensible?
Yes, it is nice of him to include the sound of a turning page every time the page of the ‘book’ flipped, but it is a superfluous tidbit and nothing more. It does not serve to make the artwork anymore memorable or aid its aim, and that should be the consideration of anything an artist puts into a work.
With Steps of predicament, Scaria’s sculptural installation which is perhaps his most impressive work at the Biennale, Scaria is inspired by how architecture and city planning dictate social hierarchies. This sense of social structure is portrayed in how the triangular wedges of step-shaped apartment blocks revolve around a central axis, giving rise to a staircase winding from floor to ceiling. The abstract mimicry of windows and doors on the faces of the steps lend the entire sculpture a whimsical humor, which Scaria is fond of injecting into his work.
Displayed in the National Museum, boxed in all around by other Biennale works, Steps of predicament reminds me of a nice brightly colored piece of decoration. It was cheery to view at least, but again I was disappointed. Perhaps logistic issues restricted him in the placement of his sculpture, but ultimately it is only at the disadvantage of his art.
Steps of predicament carried on his work with sculptures that are created to exist within certain environments. Placed in the sprawling industrial landscapes of India, his previous works of his 2009 Settlement series are whimsical structures like the Steps of predicament, but their juxtaposition against the environment immediately establishes a humorous dialogue between the sculpture and their position and purpose. At the Biennale, Steps of predicament suffers as viewers of the artwork interpret the sculpture within its suffocating and unflattering museum space. It is as rousing as the hollow cityscapes Scaria is trying, but failing miserably, to entice the viewer into.
Yet, my main gripe with Gigi Scaria’s work here at the Biennale is not on whether it deserves to be shown or whether it is actually art or not, but on how there was nothing actually intuitive about his work for me. An experience with any form of art should be a rewarding experience for the viewer; it is not to say that we should always expect to leave from our time with any artwork with mini epiphanies, for that would be entirely utopian in ideal. We cannot always expect the artwork to be the active one in reaching out to us, but with his work at the Biennale, the artwork remained passive, unresponsive and made me wonder if all these tenuous connections I was attempting to make actually existed and when do I acknowledge that maybe I am the only one making the conversation in the dialogue between the artwork and the viewer.