Using artwork to voice dissent

TV Santhosh represents a breed of artists that is not afraid to mix art with activism

Firstpost print Edition

Even the biggest optimists among us will agree that we live in unsettling, if not downright dangerous, times. The world is rent in halves by ideological polarities and little else seems to be on offer except shouting matches on television. In the din of majoritarian chest-thumping, real issues such as race and hate crimes, violence against women, climate change, hunger and poverty get lost and sometimes, even forgotten. With popular media often pandering to the gallery, it falls upon artists to be the gatekeepers of truth and culture.

Discontent breeds art
If freedom of expression hadn’t become the murky territory it has been allowed to be, dissenters, whistle-blowers, activists and protest artists would have looked like a pack of menacing guard dogs to those who abuse power.

Perhaps that was the inspiration behind Hounding Down — a powerful piece of installation art by artist TV Santhosh. For those clued in to contemporary Indian art, his is a familiar, evocative name. In what seems to be an inversion of its meaning, Santhosh is not content. There is conflict all around, and his art is his response.

“Through almost all my works… I try to address the idea of conflict from a larger humanist point of view. (Be it) the conflict between nations, between the poor and rich, or between religions. Sometimes, (it is a response to) listening to the cry of an innocent victim, or going through heart-wrenching testimonies of survivors (of tragedies), and asking questions like ‘who is the real enemy?’ ” he says in an email interview with Firstpost.

Born in Kerala in 1968, Santhosh earned his stripes from Shantiniketan and MS University, Baroda, and now lives in Mumbai. But his work is known far beyond India, with dozens of national and international exhibitions under his belt.

Hounding the conscience
An installation of 30 metallic dogs with LED panels strapped to their backs, Hounding Down received much acclaim when it became part of the prestigious Frank Cohen collection.

Santhosh explains the symbolism of the elements in his installation. “The LED timer devices, attached on to the back of the dogs with a sense of angst in their eyes, are set in a counting down mode. The timers, on the one hand, represent the time bomb itself, and on the other hand, are prophetic in nature. It tells us our days on this earth are numbered and that humanity is slowly inching towards a final doom. On the floor panels are historical references of ruthless and unforgivable deeds men committed in the past and relentless angst about the thoughts of future…”

He also mentions how dogs were trained to be suicide bombers during the Second World War. The installation, therefore, is also a metaphor for betrayal. It serves to remind us how the weak and the vulnerable become the prey in the game for power and how compassion is lacking in modern life.

Reflections on our hopes and our fears
In addition to installations, Santhosh also dabbles in sculptures and works with mediums such as watercolours. However, his most striking paintings are those that are made in solarised and negative colours. He uses striking, often disturbing, photojournalistic images as templates and works on them to create what can be called dystopian reflections. These bright and intensely inverted colours come across as a burning gaze at the many crises that plague us.

News media is his choice of inspiration because “to a large extent, it defines the nature of our relationship with the outside world. News reports act as our extended visions that eventually become part of our everyday experiences”, he says. But, he adds, “My work is not intentionally political. It is probably resulted out of an inquiry into the angst and the despair that continues to persist in this world both at the social and personal level”.

His work is not all despair, dark. Just as on the pages of a newspaper, where one bit of good news fights bravely against 99 pieces of bad ones, the promise of humanity’s innate goodness shines through his works. In the painting Advent of the New Saviour, the underlying image is from a news report on Afghanistan. In the image of a pregnant woman getting sonography done in her war-torn precincts, Santhosh sees something of the Virgin Mary, and thereby a lingering hope for redemption.

(Urmi Chanda-Vaz — a psychologist by training — dabbles in Indian history and culture)

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