Kiran Subbaiah wanted to kill himself in Suicide Note (2006) because that’s the way truly famous people rolled, according to him. While viewing Narcissicon (2012), it seemed that he had made a miserable botch of a suicide. Because this time, his selves have multiplied, taken up residence together and freely borrow clothes from each other, get into scuffles, stabbings and passive-aggressive arguments.
Kiran Subbaiah, a contemporary artist based in Bengaluru has been delighting and provoking us with his conceptual sculptures (he has studied sculpture for thirteen years, first at Shantiniketan, then at Baroda and finally at Royal College of Art, London) and videos for quite some time now. While he was supposedly deep into studying sculpture, he had found release and joy in ‘nasty’ (his word) cyber-art like pseudo computer virus and robots. What makes him stand apart from the pack is his characteristic dark humour (a rarity and a taboo in contemporary art, especially in India) and his accomplishment with the medium of video. As Girish Shahane wrote with much relief, on viewing Suicide Note,“Here, finally is someone who can use creatively both the language of video and the language he speaks. ” Kiran Subbaiah’s characteristic refusal to engage in any issue other than aesthetics, especially relating to consciousness and art-making, has not won him many friends either. These two factors perhaps have kept his works quite underappreciated for a long time. But they have made his frequent play-acting of ‘famous, rich artist’ just that much more delicious with irony.
In Narcissicon, a 43 minute video, on display for the first time at Chatterjee & Lal (along with selected stills from the video, because the artist was very doubtful about viewers having the required patience) has been 14 years in the making. But don’t put it on the pedestal as his magnum opus yet (because that would make Kiran Subbaiah either very angry or laugh hysterically, depending on his mood) because it’s more of a work in progress, and a very accomplished one at that. It borrows from his previous Flight Rehearsals (2003) among many others, quotes one of his road signs on a toilet door and brings to a boil many of his old questions. The answers that he attempts (and evades) are regarding the process of art-making, meaning-making and what those do to the identity(ies) of the artist. But he does it with less of a ponder and more of poise and panache. The video takes you in and out of closed spaces (only rarely, a few of the Kirans get to fly) with the several selves talking to themselves and switching places in the mirrors, trying (and succeeding) to kill each other, merging (and re-emerging), shooting the breeze and playing catch. The selves change their clothes and hierarchies like chameleons, with Kiran Subbaiah’s precise, droll voice over and singsongs. The only constant in this video is an ubiquitous digitally rendered black moth.
It’s both troubling and exciting to deconstruct Kiran Subbaiah’s work, because as a hyper-intelligent artist, he is only too aware of the whole meaning-making industry and as a result all his works both invite and resist that process (“Art was always the easy part. Dealing with the mess left around art was another story altogether.”). His work throws random art-historical bones to keep the reviewers busy (much bantering on Banana and Pipe in Narcissicon), his tongue-in-cheek interviews turn the tables on the interviewer, and his talks disguise themselves as works of performance art. The influences in his ‘gypsy art’ range from ‘French Philosophy’ (“I am a French Philosopher...My philosophy is definitely very French.”) to Bauhaus ( “Anything designed to do its job well is bound to look beautiful”) to Tristan Tzara (“Life is more interesting than Art”) to Mark Mander’s anti-art establishment banter to all other kinds of technology-heavy outsider art. But he masterfully renders all the seams in this pastiche invisible, making the scalpel slip and miss. “ Thank you so much for letting me waste your time.” his voice cocks a snook at the meaning-maker, about to bask in the afterglow of analysis.
In spite of that, if one dares to analyze Narcissicon, there’s enough to go around. As his selves have multiplied manifold since his previous video works, he has also given up any hope of keeping them in line. In Reality and The Mirror (1998) , he was sure enough to use singular number (reality) and superlatives (truest), ( “the way we behave in front of the bathroom mirror is the truest form of our behaviour … we are at the same time spectators and performers. Exposition and observation occur simultaneously.”) but in Narcissicon, we are not in Kansas (or Koramangala) anymore, where bathroom mirrors lie as copiously as doors, windows and faces. But though he has lost control of his selves, he has gained courage. The selves don’t avoid meeting or calling each other as in Suicide Note, but tackle each other head on, and look clearly into each other’s eyes when chatting, stabbing or serving drinks. As his multiple selves play to the gallery for (occasional) laughs and dark monologues, what comes to the fore is the portrait of an artist as a victim of his art-making, (“...this is unfortunately no travelling circus. I am training for Kamikaze.”). The painful, solitary, reflexive and pointless exercise which, like life, brings too few joys and makes one wonder whether it is worth it at all. But he refuses to play for pity (“And let me remind you, this is just a confession. I am not apologising.”) because he can’t help but keep at it. ( “I always have this longing deep down in my soul to do something terribly wrong. I can not be held responsible for that longing. I was born with it.”)
At the end of the video, his director-self admonishes his video-editor self for ‘spilling the beans’ and takes charge to re-edit the whole thing as something more ‘artistic’. The end loops back to the beginning and at the same instant, bathos turns into pathos.