Apocalypse now

Different strokes

Apocalypse now

In February 2009, T V Santhosh’s first overseas solo exhibition, Living with a Wound, took place at the Grosvenor Gallery, London. The works presented in the show were the artist’s response to the 26/11 terror attack in Mumbai, in which more than 170 people were killed, and a further 300 were left wounded.

Four years earlier, when he had painted Hundred Square Feet of Curses (oil on canvas), his reference had come from the crammed rehabilitation camps set up for victims of violence in the aftermath of the 2002 Godhra riots. In other works, too, his images have constantly displayed vignettes of man-made conflicts, wars, rebellions; and the collateral damage inflicted by them on innocent citizenry. Captured terrorists, gun-toting soldiers, lathi-wielding security guards, riot victims, menacing sniffer dogs, barbed wire fences, and blazing vehicles  — have all featured recurrently in Santhosh’s works.

Clearly the theme of violence occupies the central position in Santhosh’s thought and art. He is not only concerned about the history of violence in wars that have already been fought, but also different forms of aggression that take place in the modern world. “Every morning, when you look at the newspaper, there is news about a bomb blast or some such act killing people somewhere,” says the soft-spoken, well-read and deeply introspective artist. “It is the touch and smell of the ‘present’ that I try to deal with in my works. Even when I depict something that happened in history, I connect it to what is happening now.”

Manipulated space

Santhosh’s work reveals how the world we inhabit has become a torturous, convoluted and dreadfully manipulated place; where one man’s hero is another’s enemy, and where the act of ‘terror’ can be ascribed to both the perpetrators of violence and those who seem to resist it. “Most of my works deal with the question: Who is the enemy?” says Santhosh (Born 1968/Kerala). “The question can be philosophical, political, as well as ethical.”

Santhosh’s work also critically scrutinises how reality tends to get projected by the media. “Whether manipulated or true, the nature of our connection to the outside world is essentially through news media that unroll stories of the massacre of innocents, spectacular explosions, and a flux of faces of people; they often carry the words of hate and propaganda that struggle to hide and reveal the truth. These news reports are almost like our extended vision.”

In almost all his celebrated paintings, Santhosh adopts a unique technique of turning a positive photographic image into its negative; and exposing a hauntingly surreal universe where history and fiction, reality and metaphor, get fused into an indistinguishable entity. “My intention is to make my images look like a photograph, yet they are not photographs,” says the artist. “Because in a photograph, one captures a moment in history. Here, it is a reconstruction of history through investigation, appropriation and reinterpretation.”

Santhosh insists that as an artist he is basically trying to look at the complexity of life, and not trying to resolve issues through his work. “My work is more of a critique of what is happening all around. More than making a political statement, it is about ethical and philosophical interrogation.”

An occasional poet, Santhosh can convey his views on the human condition rather chillingly. In Blood and Spit (2009), he writes:  

Spitting at the face of the enemy is the poor man’s war.

One day you realize with a sinking heart, the land you are born is someone else’s motherland.
Those desolate homes still smell treachery.
Treachery of blood stained propaganda.
Smell of blood makes you forget who your brother is.
You build a relationship on never ending cycles of revenge.
Sometimes even the history is an excuse.
For some, nostalgia is pain.
For others, hatred the barometer of patriotism...

Critical appreciation

Regarded highly among the leading lights of contemporary Indian art, Santhosh has garnered considerable critical attention and popular acclaim. “His works are a result of his silent, mannered and coherent reflection on the disappearance of values and responsibilities,” observes critic and curator Shahin Meerali. “Although his paintings and sculptures are conscious of violence, of lurking danger, his renditions remain unapologetic in looking at the open wounds in our failing world.” Claude Simard of Jack Shainman Gallery, London, acknowledges that when one faces Santhosh’s work, “it is like entering into a post-apocalyptic world.”

Santhosh’s works are regularly featured in local and global auctions. In September 2008, his oil painting When Your Target Cries for Mercy (2007) —  a stunning diptych showing a soldier’s anxious face —fetched Rs 2.80 crore at Saffronart’s auction of contemporary Indian art.

Santhosh, however, remains self-effacing and rather philosophical about his artistic achievements and market success. Mindful of modest beginnings, he also recalls how in his student days in Thrissur he was drawn simultaneously to leftist ideology and spiritual literature like Upanishads. His later creative journey led him first to Santiniketan (for a degree in sculpting/1994) and then to Vadodara (masters at the M S University/1997). But even with considerable academic credentials, when he moved to Mumbai, he faced immense financial hardship. “I went from gallery to gallery with my portfolio, but I did not know how to even make a proper conversation, leave alone successfully market my works.”

Things started looking up after his solo show One Hand Clapping/Siren (presented by The Guild Art Gallery/Mumbai/2003). With Unresolved Stories (2004) and False Promises (Grosvenor Gallery, London/2005) he was already making it to the big league. Today, his works are much sought after by curators and collectors, and feature in important gallery/museum shows across the world.

Currently, the prestigious Venice Biennale (May 9 - November 22, 2015) features one of his significant works. The ominous sculptural installation titled Effigies of Turbulent Yesterdays shows a headless rider in military fatigue mounted on a life-size horse, a fountain of blood spurting from the rider’s yawning neck.

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