an abnormal outgrowth; abnormal growth or increase; a normal outgrowth, as hair or horns; any disfiguring addition.
"A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside of it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably." –Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations
The Guild is pleased to present EXCRESCENCE, an exhibition curated by Beijing and Delhi-based critic and curator, Maya Kóvskaya, PhD, featuring a multidisciplinary array of works by Indian and Chinese artists previewing April 29, 2011. Featuring a multidisciplinary array of works by artists from India and China—Ashutosh Bhardwaj (painting), Sheba Chhachhi (interactive video installation), HAN Bing (photography), Tushar Joag (drawing and installation), Prajakta Potnis (photography and site-specific installation) and WU Gaozhong (photography), the exhibition explores the concept of “excrescence” as an umbrella metaphor for the seemingly out-of-control processes of growth, change, disorder and degeneration that seem to pervade our contemporary world.
The rhetoric of our times is permeated by thinking that invokes what are sometimes called "hand-of-God" variables (such as the "invisible hand of the market," or the idea that new processes take off and then "go viral,” morphing and spreading beyond our control). These hegemonic tropes invisibly frame our understandings of our changing world. Notions about these seemingly autonomous processes have proliferated in the popular consciousness and vocabularies of our times and are often framed with metaphors of viral growth and infectious transmission, genetic mutation, metastasis and cancer, endemic toxicity, as well as inexorable, entropic disorder, degeneration and decay. It is towards this constellation of powerful, pervasive metaphors that the Excrescence exhibition directs its gaze and invites our attention.
The power of metaphor has been richly explored across the disciplines of the human sciences a glance across the breadth of this discourse will help contextualize the visual and conceptual explorations in the artworks shown in Excrescence. From the work of structuralist semiotician and literary theorist Roland Barthes, who analyzed the de-politicizing function of myth as metaphor for understanding both past and present; to path-breaking studies of the “metaphors we live by” pioneered by cognitive scientist and linguist George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, who demonstrated that much of our thinking is unconsciously structured by metaphors that encode implicit sets of values and are so common and widely shared (such as metaphors of direction, e.g. “up is good, down is bad,” “forward is good, backward is bad” in English) that their workings often become invisible to us; from social critic Susan Sontag’s illuminating discussion of the ways in which two “modern” ailments function as dominant social metaphors for the disorder and decay of our times, shaping our conceptions—we have seen the way in which our metaphorical discourses surrounding various phenomena serve as optics through which we make sense of larger social, political and economic processes we perceive as afflicting our contemporary world, with far-reaching ramifications.
One such profound and disturbing ramification is the way in which such metaphors of excrescence perform a kind of conceptual sleight of hand that both explains, amplifies and augments the widespread feeling of being without agency. In such a light, our world appears to be largely "out of control," like cancerous mutations or viral transmissions, or entropy and inexorable degeneration. As such, the world often seems to be governed by huge, vast processes that are far more powerful than human design, or beyond the scope of human action. Philosopher Hannah Arendt discusses this problem extensively, for she believed that the widespread sense of alienation from our own agency comes in part from the consequences of thinking of the world as shaped by such putatively autonomous processes that are governed by an irresistible internal logic (such as capitalism) that seems to sweep away our ability to exert control over our world, our lives, and at times, even our minds. She refers to this conceptual trap in terms such as "autonomy of the process," and she rightly identifies it as a fiction. It is a powerful fiction, however, that has become (and has been for quite some time) a core strand woven into the dominant narratives of contemporary political, economic, cultural and social life of our time--the idea that there are "forces out there" that push and pull us this way and that and are essentially are beyond our control.
In Excrescence, the works shown come at this set of issues from a variety of angles, either meditating on, or reflecting; instantiating, or performatively embodying; either critiquing or deconstructing some of the metaphorical leitmotifs of this mode of thinking and the coded cultural memes and signifiers of these kinds of anxieties—viral spread, cancerous metastasis, uncontrollable (unpredictable) mutation, invasive toxicity, entropic degeneration and decay (a sort of excrescent anti-growth, if you will), and so forth, asking us to consider the way these metaphors shape our own gazes and transform the ways we see ourselves and the workings of the world we actually participate in making through our speech, actions and practices of everyday life.
Unlike the conventional circulation of such metaphors in the mass media and our popular culture, however, their invocation in these works of art prods us to examine the underlying anxieties and processes—from which we often feel alienated or by which we may feel acted upon—from a critical distance offered in the space of the artworks themselves. And in this space of critical distance, perhaps, by deconstructing the workings of such metaphors we may reconnect with our own agency and see these processes not in terms of overwhelming “hand of God” variables, but as products of the arrangements we humanly create, perpetuate and reproduce through our speech and action, practices and institutions.