Berlin, Sept. 2010 - While most people believe that there is an artist within each of us, few of us succeed in unlocking our true creative potential. Critic and artist Sameer Reddy is a notable exception. As an Indian-American Berlin-based critic and artist, Sameer Reddy personifies a uniquely tangled set of connections between East and West. He has started to look within himself to combine his analytic and aesthetic talents as he expresses the notions of identity, divinity and creativity that are animating his art.
As a Special Correspondent for Newsweek, Reddy contributed the "Top Shelf" column devoted to luxury and the Tendencies survey of cultural trends. He also contributed features on fashion, lifestyle and luxury to publications including Departures, T, The Daily Beast and Vogue India. Reddy's sophisticated sensitive awareness of the politics and social ramifications inherent in beautiful objects informs his visually alluring and intellectually engaged art. He debuted as an artist with Dubai's XVA Gallery and has recently contributed work to Berlin's Nature Morte Gallery's summer show.
Sameer is also one of my best friends in Berlin (the best in ranking and quality as he often reminds me). Here, we discuss his work in his first interview as a promising new artist.
Sameer Reddy, It's The End Of The World As We Know It, And I Feel Fine, 2010, archival digital print; Courtesy of the artist
Ana Finel Honigman: How do you see your work in relation to Yasumasa Morimura or Cindy Sherman's identity-problematizing appropriations?
Sameer Reddy: The individuals and events I'm depicting exist outside of time and the physical plane, in a realm of pure imagination. I'm interested in excavating the mythologies and systems of belief that I grew up with and investigating their magical potential...and in the process, innovating new systems of iconography/belief. Instead of constructing these images from a more distanced perch, however, I've injected myself into them, bringing them 'down to Earth' in the sense that they collide with elements of physical reality - my body, race, gender, sexuality, costume - which collapses the distance from the viewer and lends a more vital animation to the imagery. So, in terms of this immediate physical reality intruding on a canon of representations, I see a connection to Morimura's and Sheman's appropriations, but I don't identify with Morimura's engagement with art history or representation of figures from the historical record, or with Sherman's meticulous, hyper-real recreations of identity. My 'characters' don't have a real-world referent beyond my self. They are pictorial manifestations of faith.
AFH: But arent you experiencing and referencing them through an art-historical tradition? Sherman is often appropriating religious iconography from Western Art History. Isn't this similar because you're not imagining new costumes or poses for your figures, rather relating to them through their artistic representation?
SR: In terms of process, art historical imagery didn't play a role for me - I was more inspired by the populist Hindu and Catholic imagery that I've encountered, the kind found on small posters taped up in taxi cabs or framed on shelves in stores or in a grandmother's home- the kind of pulpy, slightly garish images that provide the main point of religious exchange for most devotees. I don't see these images as part of the art historical record in the same way as the imagery that Sherman engages with. Even with examples of 'fine' religious art production in India, there's a distinction from the West. In Europe you had centuries of artists focusing on religious subjects, but their work was signed, and it was viewed as an example of an individual aesthetic mode. In India, you have amazing sculptures or paintings that are thousands of years old, without any individual artist recognized as the creator.
But regardless of how one labels that body of imagery, I think my intention is different than Sherman's or Morimura's. I'm trying to synthesize a new, functional iconography - in the sense that all religious idols are intended as a metaphysical access point, I want to create a hybridized group of avatars that accommodate the concerns most important to me, concerns which are largely suppressed by almost all religious traditions. I'm not saying that my goal is to have people worship these images, but I think that art can catalyze an epiphany and expand consciousness, and I'd like to create work that facilitates a greater engagement with these marginalized aspects of identity and existence.
Sameer Reddy, Not yet titled, 2010, archival digital print; Courtesy of the artist
AFH: How do Indian and non-Indian viewers relate differently to your imagery?
SR: It depends on the body of work. The first series depicts Hindu deities, as well as the Buddha, so Indians have a much greater familiarity and attachment to this iconography - their reactions have been stronger and more personal, while non-Indians sometimes seem at a loss for a way to engage as directly with the work in terms of its content. It raises complicated questions about the degree to which a Western audience (including, or perhaps especially, critics) can engage with non-Western work. The next series of images, however, inverts this gaze, conflating Hindu and Christian iconographic conventions onto the canvas of my self, so presumably these might be easier to access.
AFH: You say "non-Western" but isnt the point that the work is a mixture of cultural references?
SR: Yes, I misspoke....I should have said 'can engage with work that includes non-Western points of reference'. I just mean that it can be difficult to decode or to speak with an authoritative, critical voice about systems one isn't familiar with. I'm definitely trying to mix reference points, but after creating the first set of images I began to shift the balance of references to more familiar ground (meaning from a Western tradition), because this is where I'm working and engaging with people for the most part, and it's also where I'm from and what I know most intimately. This doesn't mean that I'm seeking to erase my interest in and connection to India, but that I'm trying to achieve a balance that reflects my background and experience more accurately.
AFH: Are you concerned about being accused of sacrilege in your appropriation of some symbols or references?
SR: The definition of sacrilege is 'violation or misuse of what is regarded as sacred', but who gets to decide what is a violation or misuse? The Pope? Maybe he should worry about what's in his own backyard. The Shiv Sena (a far-right Hindu nationalist party)? The Ayatollah? I'm not going to surrender my freedom of expression to people who I consider criminal. Whether a viewer believes me or not, I'm approaching the work from a place of sincerity, and in fact, I'm deeply religious. My beliefs might be different from a traditional devotee, but that doesn't make them any less valid or entitled to be expressed.
AFH: Maybe, I'm just asking whether you're concerned about offending some people or being insensitive to their protective feelings towards these images?
SR: My intention with this series is to problematize symbols that are essential to our understanding of ourselves, which of course means that people have very intimate attachments to them. I don't want to necessarily offend people during the course of that process, but I don't think that religious imagery gets a pass from critical inquiry just because people are heavily invested in it. If anything, that seems like an area that should get the most critical attention.
AFH: Were you raised religious?
SR: No, my father is an agnostic and my mother became more religious in her 40's.
AFH: Do you see yourself becoming more interested or emotionally invested in faith as you grow older?
SR: I'm already very invested in my faith - but I arrived at it on my own... I wasn't raised to believe in a particular system. I never know how to describe it... religious suggests a subscription to a more traditional faith, but spiritual sounds too fluffy to me. I'd characterize my faith as a mix of Hindu, Marian and Buddhist beliefs. It's the foundation of my life, and as a subset of that, my process of artistic production. I don't mean in a "I speak to Jesus all the time" kind of way.. just that I'm trying to align my actions with my beliefs.
AFH: Why use yourself as the main model?
SR: As artifacts, my hope is that they communicate some of my truth to the world, and since these images reflect ideas and emotions that are highly subjective, it would feel dishonest to me to manipulate other subjects into acting them out. On a more personal level it's a way to engineer a catharsis. Their production catalyzes a process of self-realization that is meaningful to me.
AFH: That is very beautifully said, Sameer. What are your thoughts or feelings stimulated by the experience of producing these works?
SR: Looking back at it, I can see that I'm trying to define a symbolic space that accommodates my identity and concerns...and also to express how it feels to exist in that space. Making the first set of images, I felt more guarded, but as things have progressed I've allowed myself to be more expressive, and I think this shows in the imagery. Making this work has felt liberating...it's allowed me to be more honest with myself.
Sameer Reddy, Let It Be, 2010, archival digital print; Courtesy of the artist
AFH: Do you consider your work satire?
SR: There's a definite element of satire in play in the first series, with the second I think it becomes more about caricature, and with the third (which I'm currently working on) it's more vulnerable and much of the artifice is stripped away.
AFH: What are your thoughts on sexuality in relation to the work?
SR: In much of the imagery I'm working with, representation of the body is toyed with to create ambiguity around the differences that are central to maintaining institutional religious power: the distinctions between masculine and feminine are blurred, and between the human and the divine (as well as other oppositions such as East/West and gay/straight). I'm attempting to clarify that these oppositions, which we take for granted, are maintained by a participant's agreement to suspend disbelief, and that there are consequences to surrendering our power of self-definition. And in the process of collapsing these distinctions, I'm trying to engineer an experience of the nondual, which is, in my opinion, the truth.
AFH: Does your work as a journalist, especially your relationship with Vogue India, relate to your art or aesthetic?
SR: No, at least in terms of Vogue India, but my work as a creative director and experience with costume and fashion definitely shaped my eye. I see a connection between the pursuit of imaginary perfection that consume the fashion and beauty worlds, and the highly aestheticized contexts which my 'characters' are situated in. But only with questions of form...I don't feel any connection in terms of content.
AFH: What are your views on the increasing cross-pollination of art and fashion?
SR: I've always had an ambivalent relationship with fashion. On the one hand I think it's a source of incredible beauty, but on the other I often feel like that beauty lacks meaningful context. A kind of Luciferian energy animates much of the industry - extreme, hedonistic, excessive, full of desire, almost unbearably beautiful...but with a void at the center. The idea of being able to channel that power into a more articulate direction of personal or social significance, however, is is very appealing to me.
ArtSlant would like to thank Sameer Reddy for his assistance in making this interview possible.
--Ana Finel Honigman