Interview: Riyas Komu on political works at India Art Fair 2018
Riyas Komu's solo exhibition Holy Shiver is a response to a State in deliberate conflict with its founding principles. The title Holy Shiver is a reference to the conceptual strand discussed by Austrian zoologist and ethologist Konrad Lorenz in his book, On Aggression.
Calling the behavioural tendency of willing to kill or be killed in defence of one’s own community, Lorenz talks about how this tendency physically manifests in the tingling sensation in the spine - a pre-human reflex for the raising of hair on the back of an animal as a preparatory step for a fight when confronted with an enemy, explains the artist. The communal defence mechanism can be thought of as a useful example of what makes certain people kill or be killed in the defence of the communities they belong to, he says.
Born in 1972, Kerala, Riyas Komu lives and works in Mumbai and Kerala, and is a co-founder of the Kochi Biennale Foundation. Riyas will be also be honoured along with Bose Krishnamachari at the Asia Society's second annual Asia Arts Game Changers Awards India programme, at the India Art Fair 2018 in New Delhi. Ahead of the festival, we caught up for a chat with the artist, who will be showing Holy Shiver at Vadehra Art Gallery.
Please tell us a little about the artworks that you will be showing at the Art Fair this year.
Riyas Komu: I am exhibiting a series of limited-edition woodcut prints that explores some of the acts of physical violence in social spaces throughout the history of independent India. The series explores the misuse of power by the people - to self organise, to take law into their own hands, to disregard constitutionally granted freedoms, and to use caste based oppression to bolster State-sanctioned authority. The images themselves are frozen in time, but they become a reminder of how people’s ignorance promotes and sustains enmity in our social space.
I think it’s important to highlight the casual cruelty with which people simply kill off other people for not subscribing to their beliefs of for being different. And we cannot hide behind ideas of nationalism for long, because I see more ‘national egoism’ than nationalism in these conflicts.
The series titled Holy Shiver is an extension of my solo show that opened at Vadhera in Delhi on February 01, 2018. Holy Shiver is a reference to the conceptual strand discussed by Austrian zoologist and ethologist Konrad Lorenz in his book, On Aggression. Calling the behavioural tendency of willing to kill or be killed in defence of one’s own community, Lorenz talks about how this tendency physically manifests in the tingling sensation in the spine- a prehuman reflex for the raising of hair on the back of an animal as a preparatory step for a fight when confronted with an enemy.
How do you perceive artworks that make a political statement?
RK: I have been making and creating works of art that have political undertones since the early stages of my career. I don’t see them as “political art”, I see it as art. As I mentioned earlier my solo exhibition will be on at Vadhera, Delhi from February 1 - March 3, 2018.
I don’t consider my art as a means to carry a message or to make statements. I see them as an archive of our times. I think it’s also a reflect of the time and space where I grew up and live now. I come from Kerala and grew up in a very diverse and open social space with a certain history of co-existence and co-dependence. That element, or the thought of it, has always been there in my works. My latest works at Vadehra and the Indian Art Fair also, in many ways, explore the recent fractures in the cohesiveness of our democratic systems and co-dependence.
Give us your overview, of the rise in political art over the last few years, as you have been witnessing it - as a viewer, and as an artist.
RK: I don’t agree with the idea of political art enjoying a separate “sphere” or deliberation. You cannot separate artists from the time and space in which they live and work. They are citizens and social beings and have been creating and shaping political responses throughout history. There is nothing new in art being political. If you look at the evolution of art practices you will see very interesting responses to the times.
The idea that "All art is political in the sense that it engages society in some way, either influencing or influenced by it" - does it apply to your practice?
RK: Yes. But I don’t set out to make political art, or art that has the effect of sloganeering. As I mentioned earlier, the art I make is a response to our time, and it is informed by our histories, lived experiences, and the socio-political spheres of our everyday life.
What, according to you, is political art - in essence?
RK: ‘Political art’ is not a category, it is a wide-ranging argument. It defies easy categorisation because many of the artists while not being explicitly political are in fact responding to the times in their own way. So I don’t think political art needs to have the obviousness of protest or activism.
It can be subdued and be indirect. And many people’s politics is not with the State, it’s with their community, with issues of discrimination or with issues that are generally not discussed, or sometimes its with art itself. Wouldn’t that also be political art? I am unsure as how to define or identify political art in a time like this.
If you can remove the idea of abstract art from its form (painting, sculpture, etc) then you can remove the idea of political art from its form as well. Besides I don’t think we should overstate what art can do in a society, whether political or not. But since only art can do what it can do, we must also protect it.
Is it essential for artists to make politically charged works, to possibly gain larger visibility?
RK: Again, as I mentioned earlier, an artist does not live separate from his society and surroundings. He is a part of the socio-political system. But when we assign a term like “responsibility” on the artist then you are also imposing the same on the role of art itself, and that’s problematic.
And if an artist creates a work that’s political in nature, it most definitely is not to gain larger visibility. I would say it’s a natural progress of her thought or her right as a citizen to make a point. Now, suddenly, there is this persistent call for art that’s useful for artistic activism, for intervention in the political reality, etc, but I think this is simply self-defeating. You can’t manufacture political art, it’s a response, a worldview that’s shaped over time.
A lot of contemporary art tends to get discussed in closed, often select groups. How would you like to encourage discussions on art among larger groups of people, and possibly extend art appreciation in a more inclusive, rather than exclusive manner?
RK: If you mean to say that the general public has lesses access to contemporary art, then that’s true. But we have to understand that we are a country that doesn’t have many good museums or a culture of going to the gallery. This is where initiatives like the Kochi-Muziris Biennale becomes effective, because it creates a platform and opens up contemporary art from around the world to the public.
I am also curating another project called the Young Subcontinent as part of the Serendipity Arts Festival in Goa. The objective of YS is also to create a space where we move away from eurocentric practices and ways of looking and encourage diverse voices to tell our own stories. I think it’s time that we own up to our own histories and not be spectators and consumers of it.
We see many contemporary artists addressing concerns of racism, identity, power struggles, and empowerment, among other issues. How effective do you believe their attempts are, to produce artworks that make a difference? How do you believe these artists need to be supported more?
RK: I don’t believe the role of art is to pass on a message. But it needs to be pointed out that there is a growing call for “useful” art as an appeasement strategy, to be content with providing symbolic gestures. You cannot just see art as a communication strategy.
I do believe that the artists need to be supported more. We need to build better infrastructure for art and support institutions that already exist. I believe we need to have more academic and critical analyses of our own art and not overtly rely on international judgement or acknowledgement to do things here. While I understand the value of partnership, the core-ideas should be coming from us. I am not speaking about protectionism or national identity but we need values to emanate from here than be replicated here. I think we also need to reimagine the way we teach arts in schools here, of how we engage our children and youth with art and culture.
There's also the question about balancing the aspects of aesthetics, beauty and taste, with technique and skill. How important is it, in your view, for a powerful work of art to also be visually, and artistically pleasing and beautiful - perhaps, to emphasise the underlying message?
RK: There have been many researches and books written about this. But I disagree with your implication that artists start a work or “add more aesthetics” to it to covey a message. That’s the function of design.
At a time when 140 characters (now 280?) count as a complete thought maybe the role of art is simply to highlight the resistance born of complexity - of the dissent implicit in artistic works, perhaps occasionally remind us that some things cannot be condensed for convenience. It provides a way for a set of concerted actions that can happen only outside its sphere - which is also why I insist on people seeing the works than me explaining about them.
Riyas Komu's Holy Shiver is on display at India Art Fair 2018 and also at Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi, February 2-March 3, 2018.