01/18 Kamal Mansion, Floor 1, Arthur Bunder Road, Colaba, 400 005 Mumbai, Maharashtra , India
Kiran Subbaiah has oft in the past featured himself in his videos, as he does in his newest solo show, Narcissicon. Over time (and Narcissicon has taken fourteen years), his various avatars could not be contained – choosing a single channel video as a format, his newest work splits the other Subbaiahs – dreams, fantasies, playful stagings merging into a concatenation of droll events that explore the theme of narcissism, but ironically, the work never really takes itself too seriously.
There is no ‘starting point’ to the forty-minute video; I caught it as Subbaiah, who plays all the split avatars, stares into the mirror, like Narcissus gazing at his reflection. One brushing his teeth, the other helmet on, drinking his coffee gazes back. But playfulness creeps in, a Subbaiah reading a newspaper appears on the side awaiting his turn for the morning’s ablutions, while a towel clad self opens the restroom door and asks for the toilet paper to be passed. In a previous video work, Reality and the Mirror, Subbaiah says, 'the way we behave in front of the bathroom mirror is the truest form of our behavior … we are at the same time spectators and performers. Exposition and observation occur simultaneously.'
This splitting of the self, to introduce the ‘other’ here, and throughout the video, to introduce several others, is the heart of Narcissicon. This dealing with the many selves imagined by narcissists straddles psychoanalytic theory – the working out of various alteregos – but also, posed subtly, the artist’s dilemma: the working out of ideas as an artist does, as a work is in progress. Technically accomplished, a presentation of multiple situations, of multiple possible selves, are all told with the droll humour that one associates with Subbaiah’s work.
His 2006 work Suicide Note seems to be a forerunner to the narcissistic exploration in Narcissicon. 'And you’ll tell everybody you know, and they’ll tell everybody else they know, until all the people in the world will know, how to be Kiran Subbaiah.' It soon becomes apparent that Subbaiah’s obsessions with the self are daydreams/imaginary antics that he is indulging in, always deadpan and situational; they don’t subscribe to any politics or stance, but explore video art almost cinematically. Like early film comedy, Chaplinesque he takes on Magritte, 'is this a pipe?', as a missing door handle is examined with customary wit.
Trained as a sculptor, Subbaiah uses an inventory of objects, not as sculptural forms in his videos but liberated from set functionality; they take on personalities that explore his ideas and setups in a nonsensical way, leaving it constantly open for the element of surprise.
He sets up numerous mises-en-scene, laden with references he probably understands best; they flow into each other, not normally but in the Subbaiah way. A suitcase becomes a flying machine, a bucket and a chair become steps to the next staging, a window opens to allow in a character, a candle and an overturned bucket become a helium balloon and levitate a resurrected-from-the-dead Subbaiah, the dead is rolled up in a red blanket after a stabbing – is it a stabbing? – the red blanket then reappears on a bed, the man with the yellow helmet reappears on the red blanket. So, is it looped to the start? Not quite.
'Hey stop, stop, stop right there.'
'What’s the matter?'
'It’s lousy, you are imagining it all wrong, roll it back.'
Oh well, we are watching a narcissist. 'You imagine the movie yourself, I quit.'
'Where are you going?'
'Back to real life.'
But, there is no cinematic ‘The End'. Subbaiah plays with the idea that people come and go, the set-up starts wherever, the inordinate fascination of oneself is never ending, in narcissistic form the Subbaiah way is never megalomaniacal – the joke is on you.
(All images: Kiran Subbaiah, Narcissicon, film still, 43 min.; Courtesy of the artist and Chatterjee & Lal.)