Narratives in contemporary art

images9 Today, art has evolved from being skill-based to intellect-based. It is riveted to the story one tells. Art has always been a creative way of communicating and today using many media, art is used to explore contemporary issues, political view points and news, in addition to personal dialogues. Artists have begun to mix different disciplines to make their point. Art today speaks volumes; whatever it is, makes a point.

In order to make the viewer see the point, artists use a variety of methods. They use their own personal language combining it with symbols and signs along with “a” story line. Unless the narrative is strong and the ideas are combined well, the artwork rarely speaks to the viewer. It has now become very important to make a point of what one is saying in the narrative of the visual arts. Take for example some of the works in the recent Kochi Biennale, that was focused somewhat on the lost city of Muziris, which was once a trading port. Many artists chose to confront issues of loss, decay, death, memory and history in different ways.

Subodh Gupta, one of India’s few global stars, has been preoccupied with migration and the transition from one world to another. In this curated exhibition he took a large gigantic boat and filled it with an entire household of things, from clothes, to utensils, to furniture, to a bicycle etc. and suspended it at a 45-degree angle, making a point about the deluge of Muziris and equating it to the biblical theme. It was the instability that he addressed and if one knew of his focus on the migration, it was very easy to see his storyline as it fitted very aptly in this biennale. At another time one would have to read his defense of the work to understand that he spoke of middle class aspirations and one’s transition from one level to another, borrowing from his own experience.

Vivan Sundaram, on the other hand created a large sculptural installation of a city in a small format to evoke the old city that was submerged and filled it with water to shoot a five channel video that was projected on the floor covering a large shed which was about 200 feet long and 30 to 40 feet wide. The drama of the size of the projection brought the experiential layer to the viewer who walked into a dark space to encounter the video which immediately took them into the mind-space of the deluge.

The other artist whose contemporary narratives speak volumes is Amar Kanwar who uses film, objects and writing and combines everything into a vey provocative and sensitive installation. He is a documentary filmmaker who selects sharp points of view and creates the most sensitive and poignant portrayals of the issue. He excels in the art of storytelling with his visuals.

Not all artists use the environment or political issues, some artists use single images and allow you to imagine what they want to convey leading you with the mood as does Dayanita Singh, with her photographs. Be it a room with the empty chair or the portrait of a family, the narrative comes through in her use of space and light. In the case of the photograph of the room with the empty chair, she actually makes you feel the presence of the person and their life from the selection of everything she chooses to shoot for her frame and the quality of light that she uses.

Looking at yet another artist, the young and talented N Ramachandran from Chennai, he uses objects and images that he finds and combines them together as an installation of ideas, places and things that recall the journey he has taken. He makes the narration of the urban graffiti into a documentation of a time and ideology that he wants to connect with and at the same time touches a chord to take the viewer along on this journey too.

So today the narrative one tells in addition to how they tell it is the success of an artist. Merely putting together images and portraying skilful handling of the medium is not sufficient. It is about the dialogue and the ability to engage with one’s mind that points to the success of an artist. The relevance and context that the artist draws the viewer to, marks the success of the artistic dialogue. Often these works are found in private collections and curated shows, while few make it to permanent public spaces.

This is now the era, where the role of art “is for” the world.

For collectors, patrons and artists alike, it is now not about owning and hoarding art but about everyone enjoying it and allowing art to make a difference in the point of view and carrying a message.