Deeply embedded in the forgotten cultural histories of Kashmir, Praneet Soi’s consistent engagement with the traditional craftsmen of the region has articulated a new facet of his practice. In his Srinagar series, Soi combines traditional material in a contrasting form with traditional architectural patterns, alluding to the confluence of diverse belief systems in the history of Kashmir. Soi continues to demonstrate formal combinations with aesthetic value in his works, making his practice unique, complex and investigations in contemporary meaning making.
With the upcoming show of Praneet Soi in Vadehra Art Gallery, Charu Maithani discusses the inspiration, experiences and processes behind his works.
Charu Maithani (CM): Your show opens in Vadehra next month. You are showing at this year’s Kochi-Muziris Biennale, and you have a solo exhibition at Bhau Daji Lad, Mumbai, next year. What works will you be showing at these venues? Is there any connection between the works or are they part of a series?
Praneet Soi (PS): The works at Bhau Daji Lad are specific to that space and its environment. The exhibition will have works that I have been creating with the artisans of Kashmir, China and my ongoing work in Kolkata examining the contemporary conditions of labour. The work with the artisans of Kashmir is a new one and has not been seen before.
One part of my practice is working with artisans and craftsmen. It gives me access to different processes. The other part of my practice is enclosing myself in the studio, where the moments and experiences collected from my time in the world permeate into my drawings.
The forthcoming show at Vadehra, For and Against Narratives, has a fresh body of work. It is about all the thoughts and circumambulations that have transpired over the past four years of working in different locales. It is looking at different ways of constructing and deconstructing narratives. It is also about encountering different subjects without worrying about their connections.
CM: You present a different experience of Kashmir in your works like SriNagar (2011), Srinagar (2014), Srinagar II. You look at history, albeit a different one; digging out cultural history of Kashmir with Central Asia. This history is away from the usual narrative of popular media concentrated on the recent history of Indian independence. Is this a deliberate attempt to contextualise artistic traditions in the contemporary socio-political narrative?
PS: It is a contrarian attempt. Kashmir does not enter the mainstream imagination in a way other than the usual that you mentioned. This made me curious about the borders of my country. Moreover, I’m Punjabi and my grandparents originally came from Lahore. So, this migratory history fuelled my curiosity, leading me to Kashmir.
Once there, I felt myself moving away from the media narrative and I got more absorbed into the history of the area. The history of Kashmir, its links to Central Asia, and countries like Iran, is not often mentioned today. I was also very receptive to the fact that I’m an outsider in Srinagar. Of course, I’m used to that … being a Punjabi living in Bengal, being Indian and living in the USA and now the Netherlands.
CM: Let’s talk about your use of human figures – Piggyback series (2003 – ), your work at Venice Biennale (2011), Four Miniatures (2009) and the paintings on the VanAbbe Museum. You take figures from popular media, specially from the journalistic domain; a media narrative already exists around them, but you decontextualize and abstract them, and simultaneously push them back into the cycle of visual culture production and consumption, while renegotiating the contemporary relations. Could you talk about your aesthetics being a reflection of your engagement with media representation?
PS: I went to the US when I left India in the late 1990s. The spectre of terrorism was only beginning to manifest itself in the media, and of course it reached its peak with 9/11. At the same time, I began to study the media gaze on areas where terrorism stemmed from. India was never a part of that gaze but in the flood of images, I recognized Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq. I began to notice, specially after 9/11, a different media gaze to events in Pakistan and Afghanistan, as compared to the images of the 9/11 attacks. The latter images are shown in an action movie narrative and the images from Pakistan and Afghanistan were shown in a biblical landscape. I began to question this mode of representation. My relationship with the images in the media came as a result of this contemplation. I began to scrutinize these images, gathered them, made drawings and asked friends to pose in a similar manner. I was able to discern the human body portrayed in different modes. I began testing forms of representation by fragmenting the full bodied figures further by stretching and distorting the image, and reconstituting them to cultivate a personal language.
CM: Also, here you are working with different media as well. You are working with images inspired from print and television media, and completely changing their form to paintings and cut outs. So, there is a transference of media.
PS: I worked mostly with print media because I was collecting newspaper images. Between 1999 and 2003, BBC had a beautiful section called ‘Panorama’. ‘No Comment’ was a section on Euro News, which broadcasted a few seconds of rolling camera – unedited footage from different places around the world. I was also following a few war photographers, and continue to do so. In the Netherlands there is a very interesting photo contest called ‘World Photo Press’. It is a competition that looks at the best of the world photography. All these different media bleed into all the series of works on human figures in different ways.
CM: I find architecture to be a recurring image. Sometimes explicit and many times quite subtle. You provide different perspectives of buildings, sometimes in unrecognizable shapes and forms, your ‘cut-up technique’ (as referred to your works by Charles Esche) also has a structural manner of arrangement. Your ongoing series Architectural Studies (2012 – ) is a mediated study on space and perspective. What draws you to the architectural arrangement of items in your artworks? Is it connected to the spatial relations of your transcultural life?
PS: How do you picture a contemporary landscape and what meaning does it offer? As most of us are based in cities, the city landscape forms our surrounding. I enjoy exploring architecture and travelling to see the works of well-known architects. But, the architecture in my works are not masterpieces, but quotidian architecture. An average American or European downtown or Indian suburb like Gurgaon is filled with a variety of typical, unexceptional buildings. They pose as symbols of modernity. In that, I think, lies a critique of progress.
CM: The Astatic Machines are an attempt to invite audience to interact and participate in the process of making art. Sculptural pieces with slide projectors depart from the usual viewing and making of art works. Do you as a painter, sometimes feel the need for audience interaction in a work, something that paintings do not provide as an immediate effect?
PS: Just to go back a little, Paul Klee’s book, Pedagogical Sketchbook, is like a handbook for the students at the Bauhaus. The book is prepared very simply. While reading it, I was excited by the possible means to encourage people to draw. Painting is fettered by the changing visual culture and the fact that artmaking is becoming less manual. Today if you really want to encourage people to draw, you have help them overcome the fear of the first step.
Astatic Machines were first designed for a Children’s Biennale in the Netherlands. The machines in the work were designed and arranged in the same way that I was using in my studio. They are an apparatus of tracing the old fashioned way. I was making drawings by projecting them on the canvas and tracing the lines. Then I would move the projection and the canvas to get a different size and to review my work. It is the same way in which the audience interacts with the machine. I designed it in such way that it could be wheeled around. It is exciting to see an image that floats around and fragments in space. One can easily sketch around it or trace it.
CM: Several of your works are presented as slide shows. Could you talk a little bit about its use in how the works is presented? It allows juxtaposition of images, arrangement in a sequence, it’s like a film, but here there is a slow process of encountering each image.
PS: A lot of processes that take place before my work gets painted, are lost irrevocably. But through the slide show I am able to extricate some of them.
The slide works are also able to highlight the filmic aspect of my work. I am quite influenced by cinema. One of my Professors in California, Jean-Pierre Gorin who has worked with Dziga Vertov, later became a good friend of mine. We used to have long conversations around cinema. The cinematic thinking definitely permeates through the slide works.
CM: The theme of labour is also quite prominent in your work. From Notes on Labour (2008) to the series on Srinagar, a constant reference is made to hand-made object and challenging the notion of labour being inferior in a society racing to technological advancement. At the same time it can be seen in relation to art production. Do you make that kind of connection as well?
PS: What I am trying to say is that the gesture is important. One has to believe in the gesture that leads you to a different point than envisioned. In the act of creating, detours are important. For example, I had no idea about commencing my work in Kumartuli. It took a completely different turn once I started. The process of painting is the same – I start from a point and it takes me on a journey. I am open to that process…it is a belief system. On a political level, when I talk about labour, I am talking about the daily movements that constitute work.
This piece was written for Critical Collective (www.criticalcollective.in), September 2016.