When unchanging ideas of empire are veiled in the rhetoric of changing climate, it is up to the reflective artist to puncture the myth.
In one of his latest cartoons in the International New York Times, Patrick Chappatte makes a telling comment on the ongoing Paris climate change negotiations (COP21) with great finesse: A corpulent American holding an oil can like a beverage complete with straw faces a slim Chinese man and says, ‘To save the planet you should give up my way of life’. Behind them are mirror images of ‘development’ that threaten to overwhelm the planet – skyscrapers and industries belching dark and opaque curls of sooty smoke. The pattern of smoke curls brings to mind Van Gogh’s strokes of beautiful starry skies and along with it a realisation that the firmament is gradually turning into a polluted, man-made shroud.
In the space of a few square inches the artist cuts through sediments of historical, political sophistry to lay bare the truth that ideas of empire and hegemony rarely go out of fashion, even if they start to weigh heavily on the well-being of our world and planet. The American’s truculent expression communicates the sentiment that having spread the benefits of the American lifestyle as the destiny of the planet, it is now time to seek exclusive rights on the idea of gluttonous appetite as a civilisational leap, for the simple reason that the earth cannot withstand the accelerating ambitions of populous nations such as China (and India).
The straight-backed stance of the Chinese, arms crossed, indicates that he is in no mood to cede ground; that craving a larger footprint of the universal American dream is all about having a rightful place in the sun, even if the sun is obscured in a haze of pollution caused by carbon emissions most days in a year. The world seems to be stuck between the twin poles of the lure of acceleration and the need for deceleration.
In that instant the reader/viewer starts perceiving the climate change negotiations with different eyes, wondering like Indian cartoonist Gokul Gopalakrishnan if this COP will also be somewhat of a cop-out for humanity. For, it is clear that the Earth cannot sustain the picket fences of realpolitik that the world political map superimposes on it.
We live in times when the violence of appropriation that underlines the unequal relations between nations and within nations is masked by a homogenised notion of development as ceaseless consumption. If anyone can puncture this myth, it is the artist who is not afraid to be reflective in an age of speeding time and transient experience, and the never ending distractions of unalloyed entertainment.
Which is why Chappatte’s striking cartoon brought to mind another powerful articulation on this very theme in the ceramic medium by well-known Pondicherry-based artist, architect and teacher Ray Meeker in his 2008 Delhi show, All the King’s Horses…
Inside the Nature Morte gallery, right in the centre of the room was a black, globe-jar of regal proportions, shimmering with grace. It bore the title ‘Funerary Urn’. The lidded jars, made in glazed stoneware, were modelled on early funerary urns from Tamil Nadu (500 B.C. to 500 AD) described as ‘large pots for the old’, and on Etruscan urns bearing portrait heads of the deceased – in this instance, an earthen coloured map of the Earth’s continents running around the jar’s surface.
The black globe-jar was accompanied by three companion jars inscribed with an identical inscription, ‘The American Lifestyle is not up for negotiation,’ across their lids – in Chinese translation on two jars and in Hindi on one. The inscription was a direct reference to the famous or infamous statement made by US president George Bush at the first Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The jars with the Chinese and Hindi translations were a pointer to the two Asian nations’ frightening resolve to follow the leader and ‘translate’ the American dream faithfully. The message was not lost on the viewer.
The colours of the globe-jars, reminiscent of different soils, reminded one of medieval Western maps (It was in Martin Waldseemüller’s world map of 1507, following the discovery of the New World that the name America first appeared). Meeker’s funerary urns signifying Earth were like artefacts with a clear lineage but unsure of a full-bodied future.
While the artist’s message was somewhat negative, the jars he had fashioned were undoubtedly luminous. He was making a deeper point that development is a beautiful, alluring proposition but overdone, it implodes. Ironically, like the US and like many a US clone, nature too does not like to negotiate its existence.
Some distance from the funerary urns was a seemingly ancient structure of uncluttered, magnificent proportions. Bald, undulating surfaces like vast sand dune deserts, dark grooves and ridges lent the work a geological feel. In this desolate home called Earth the continents were spiralling aimlessly, adrift and detached; their once spherical abode now a circular void in the centre of the piece. Titled ‘Double Helix’, the work seemed to be asking whether the urge for an unbridled extraction of natural resources was present in the very DNA of the human race. Are we doomed to watch the political economy of nations play itself out in a way that it unleashes the wrath of natural economy, or do we have it in us to exercise the political will to support the idea of sustainable development, equity and co-existence?
The striking aspect about Meeker’s large sculptural works was the attention Meeker had paid to the smallest of details in the largest of pieces. A small nut here, a bolt there, and every small serration on the surface of a work was the artist’s way of articulating that the smallest of human, industrial activity registers itself on the body of the Earth and accumulatively, has the power to change its very structure.
All the powerful articulations seemed to coalesce in two untitled works – pyramidal structures with a keyhole in the centre. The keyhole idea came from a newspaper image of an early Tamil rice mill which had a keyhole slot for the lever right in the middle. On the one hand the keyhole alluded to the lever which, to the artist, signified the emergence of mechanical advantage that humans as tool makers developed. Equally, the keyhole was a reminder of how human beings as ‘doers’ have honed this mechanical advantage to such an extent that it has become a destructive, and self-destructive, curse.
The artist’s more recent monumental works echo the same theme on a more sombre note. The ceramic structures are invariably created like gateways straddling the past and the future, their undulating surfaces bearing the familiar scarred indentations of modernity. Except, over the years the passageway has been getting narrower and narrower; one such work is titled ‘The eye of the needle’, an obvious reference to humanity running out of time. The artist, in an interview, remarked that while death symbolised for the ancients a passage from life to a form of life after life, the narrowing passage in the work represented a full stop with no possibilities of regeneration of nature.
What the work of grounded artists, be it Meeker or Chappatte, achieves is that it enables the viewer to ask simple questions, such as this: When we talk about our planet in peril, do we really mean the planet or a lifestyle endemic to the US but franchised globally? When we speak of saving the planet, are we talking about finding ‘alternate’ ways to fund excessive lifestyles? Or are we talking about a change of perspective that necessitates a radical re-ordering of our lifestyles to be more in tune with the idea of ecology of life and an ecosystem in balance – politically, economically and geologically? Dare we utter the mantra ‘de-consume’ and ‘decelerate’ to envision an equitable scale of development that does not demand such high costs?
Artists are not in the business of writing prescriptions. Nevertheless, what they can achieve is to create a moment of grace in which, through their re-imaging and re-imagining of the world, the viewer is able to ‘see’ truths that are usually veiled in rhetoric. And, in that moment of delicate equipoise, of vision and re-vision, starts a journey of introspection where the artist and viewer become part of a community that may be able to gather the critical mass to say that there is more to COP than playing the tired old routine of global good and bad cop.