Technician of Perception

Technician of Perception

Jasmine Shah Varma

Baiju Parthan had a solo showing of large paintings on canvas after a gap of four years at Mumbai’s Museum Gallery and later at Art Musings through September and October. ‘Source Code’ shows the continuation of Parthan’s preoccupation with spheres of physics, botany, history and mythology.

Parthan has a degree in Painting, BFA, a degree in Botany B Sc and a Post Diploma in Comparative Mythology. He has worked as illustrator in a daily. He has been integrating these and other disciplines to create a visual language in order to examine contemporary issues and experiences.

In this interview he discusses his thoughts and processes behind his chosen subjects, motifs and overall work.


Working on these 6 ft x 16 ft and 6 ft x 12 ft canvases had to be pre-envisaged. Why such large canvases?

What happens is that with small works we have an intimate relationship with the works. One gets into the works visually. An artist has a very different relationship with large works. The work itself is larger than you physically. Which means that you cannot see the whole canvas at the point of painting. So you keep going back and forth and that for me is very important. One literally detaches from the work and gets connected again. That sometimes allows you to invent and discover pictorial devices. It does not happen with small works. That does not mean there is a qualitative difference between the two. For an artist it’s rewarding as you learn little more in the process.

Of what value are the icons portrayed, whether it’s the image of the Pope in ‘Source Code – Benedict’ or Buddha in ‘Source Code – Melt’, to the central idea of this collection? Why these particular icons?

Basically the theme of the show is source code, which is a technical term used in software industry to refer to computer coding. What attracted me is the quality of the source and code, which has a tremendous metaphysical ring to it. On the other hand it refers to a world that we are moving to – an information-based reality and information-based economy. Relationships are defined through technology. People are debating on whether you can process Talaq telephonically. What I mean is the degree of involvement of technology in our day-to-day life. Whether you like it or not it’s there, it’s a part of the becoming and one cannot escape it.

Most of the times I have taken specific references like the Pope and the Buddha as monolithic institutions that have a history. Belonging to medieval to BC, these monolithic structures have travelled through history. Once you look at them as reference points you can see how perception changes with time. Earlier, when Velasquez or Titian painted the Pope the purpose was portraying a regal figure seated on a throne almost like an emperor. Then when you come to Francis Bacon, the Pope is portrayed as the anti-hero. In between there was Goya who had Pope on a tight rope, which was a critical statement. So these are the transitions and these icons reflect the changes in our perceptions.

What I have done is taken these images and run them through a hex editor that is used by hackers usually to interfere with the code. I have painted the codes along side the portrait of the icon. So in a way I have hacked into the code. But that’s not the issue. The issue is the vulnerability of the institutions, anything that becomes solid, permanent and going-to-there. All that has become so vulnerable today.

Hasn’t it always been so?

May be they were always in a flux, but it has become more apparent now. There’s a kind of an ontological collapse. Everything that has been cherished as humane, great and ideal has crumbled. One is left with a situation where there is ambiguity. What one calls terrorism may be seen differently from the other end of the story. The boundaries are so vague. All those things I am trying to suggest. At the same time one is speaking of a world today that is aware of viruses and hacking, phishing, which indirectly affects our lives. So I am indirectly referring to all these things in a visual manner.

The actual display of paintings and the catalogue have accompanying notes explaining your thoughts behind almost each painting. How important is it for the viewer to know your thought process behind the coding of a painted image?

Because the nature of painting as an art form is not very linear one cannot see it with that sort of clarity. Most of the time a painter tries to create as many loose ends as possible, so that there are as many interpretations and entry points. I would prefer if there were more and more readings, more interpretations or misinterpretations.

In the past you have said that you like to use certain icons as eye-candy - as a device to provide entry-points to viewers...

I did not mean that the motifs itself were eye-candy but the rendering, the application would be. I need not make them so seductive. I could make a quick line drawing and the form would still be there, but that wouldn’t work. We live in a culture that is so saturated with visual material that it becomes necessary to entrap the viewer. May be it’s a cue that I picked up while working as an illustrator for many years. There you have only three seconds to capture the viewer’s attention. So how do you that? Flourish of the line or subtlety is not enough. You have to be overtly out there and grab. In the art scene it has become much more relevant for me. The influx of the media, and the scope of visual material have increased. So that’s why the eye-candy factor. I really mould the images into light and colour intentionally so that they are visually interesting. Otherwise it becomes only for the informed and the learned that can appreciate the minimal.

In spite of your multiple entry points or the ‘eye-candy’ approach these are not narrative paintings and not that accessible for a layman to decode… One needs references to understand the context of the paintings.

The narrative has to come from the viewer. There are implied narratives but ultimately the untangling of the complexity has to come from the viewer.

Lets talk about ‘Yield 2 - Outsourced’ made from nine small and one big canvas. There’s an optical illusion in the portrayal of the fruit.

It’s a new version of the Engineered Fruit that I have painted often in the past. Now I am presenting it as the outsourced fruit, just for once. When I say ‘outsourced’ I mean the various shifts in perception. Things need not be generated from one single point; the sources can be in many places. And things can come together from various places and combine into one entity.

I am also speaking of the current new Indian economy that is thriving on wealth through ‘outsourcing’. Also, our companies are becoming like MNCs that go out and buy companies elsewhere in the world. So this is a shift in the roles that we had earlier. What interests me is that when we became independent, India was seen as a country of farmers, very much rooted to the earth, trying to attain a sustainable economy through agriculture. From there we have a very urban culture that takes pride in conspicuous consumption. It runs on this wealth generated by ‘outsourcing’ jobs. I am trying to play with these two positions where you have this ideal and then everyday you open the newspaper and read about farmers committing suicides.

This thing of bringing these two points together of is a technique I borrowed from David Hockney. He had done a photographic study where he was trying to emulate Cubism in photography. He used to shoot things from different angles and bring them together. So one gets an exploded view of objects that are strange and uneasy looking in space. I found the device very useful and I appropriated it.

The way the fruit is painted, fragmented across the nine canvases it appears as if it’s attainable and yet unattainable.

Yeah. It’s there yet it is not there. There’s a semblance of its presence but still it’s not there, it appears as if it’s still coming together or going apart. One could make an association of this physical reality to our current economic situation. The shiny fruit on one side and the farmer on the field in the other half of the painting…
We have this very visible presence of affluence on our roads and clubs, and malls. It’s disturbing and one doesn’t know what is actually happening. All this wealth is apparently there and yet the farmers are dying. These two things are co-existing in the same space.

A lot of artists or people in the world of art lament about liberalisation, new developments or ways of production or in general the emerging upgraded lifestyle. Ironically we have seen the art boom mainly after liberalisation. You had the ‘Engineered Fruit’ series where you talked about genetically engineered products. What’s your position there and what is your opinion on this ironic situation we are in?

I have absolutely no complaint about liberalisation or globalisation. At the same one is aware of the underbelly of it. With Engineered Fruit what I was trying to say was that, may be it’s because I come from a generation that attained a kind of ideological maturity in the late 70s, we always had a naive notion of a very ideal world which was milked on natural movements and natural situation rather than on the artificial.

The artificial is always a problem for me. It’s necessary at the same time I feel it’s a lie. For me the hybridised, engineered perfect fruit is a lie. It’s far removed from nature. It directly says that perfection is always barcoded. It has a price to pay. It also says that it’s naturally imperfect. You are born with a face and then you want to do plastic surgery to make it perfect. And it’s a given to just correct it, shift, nip it, tuck it. It’s an ontological journey how we define ourselves.

At the same time I am in no position to so say that it is bad. From my position it appears strange. There was a time when we believed the natural was perfect and now we live in a time when the artificial is perfect. The distance we have travelled amazes me. When it comes to globalisation the wonderful thing is that there’s a level playground as an artist. Earlier we always had an uneasy hierarchy of the West being out there and we were always trying to catch up to their greatness. That it has vanished is fantastic. At the same time when I look at it as a person who lives in a metropolis, in Mumbai, then when I travel out to other places say New York or London or Tokyo, I know after living there for two days that there is no difference between my life in Mumbai and in New York. There is a leveling out of experiences that globalisation has brought because the items I consume here and those there are the same. Ultimately your experience in an unknown city is defined entirely by your patterns of consumption. When these two things are tallying the differences vanish. So as an artist it’s a bothersome thing for me. If experiences level out we are in a terrible situation. One’s identity is finished. In 2002-03 I spent time in the USA where I made a work. A few American art students saw it and they could connect with it, which was a problem for me because there was no difference between the work they were doing and what I was doing. We are all thinking in the same way that was initially fun, but then it became a problem. From then on as an artist I thought I should read and discover what is local, not in a sentimental way of portraying Rajasthani artifacts. But in a way of finding out what constitutes an Indian or Eastern person. That became an important issue.

So why the Pope? Is it to address the global audience?

That is not something I can escape in a globalised economy or globalised cultural space. I have a global audience. Any artist today, his work travels through the internet or through publications or gallery. I did not think so much about the Pope’s origins, but took this icon as an institution. I was more interested in a very recognisable iconic figure. And the Pope represents a wide religious majority. And Buddha is also equally representing. A German TV crew came in and the interviewer asked me why I did not paint the Ganesha. In a way he was asking me what was preventing me from portraying the Ganesha? I had thought of portraying the Ganesha but I decided against it. Because of two reasons… even Buddha I had to think twice before doing it, because unfortunately Buddha has become a cliché. So I had to really take tremendous courage to paint Buddha. For the same reason I did not paint Ganesha. If I paint Ganesha in a Bombay exhibition, it’s a cliché. It’s more of a cliché and that’s the sad truth. Also, to tell the truth I did not want to get into trouble. My work is too open-ended and if I use the term hacker alongside then I have to be ready to face the consequences. The main issue however is that how a potent image or motif becomes a cliché.

Lets talk about your involvement with Science and its presence in your paintings.

At one point my involvement with science came back into my artistic career. That was a problem for me. I have spent hours and hours making diagrams and charts and engineering drawings that demand absolute precision. They are empirical, didactic devices. When you come to art it is completely the other way. So it’s two different visual syntax one uses. At one point they got mixed together in my work. Lot of references to science and engineering diagram started to come in my work that I never intentionally tried to start but at one point I started accepting as a positive trait.

On one hand you use computer language, elements of physics and technical terms, and on the other hand there’s the use of mythology. How do you build a connection between the two to address issues of the present?

When you look at any particular culture or civilisation there is something called a cosmology. The worldview—description of the world that is believed in, that actually animates the daily life of a person. If I am a believing Christian, my world is constructed through the Created Universe in which I am the Creation of God then there is a Judgement Day where I will be judged and I have to go to either heaven or hell. Without these basic fundamental stones my world wouldn’t work. Then my actions are defined within these fundamental principles. If I am a Hindu my worldview is made of yugas and kalpas and I will be reborn. So my acts are defined through that. Many times to understand or define a worldview one has to begin to make some mythological motifs. When you come to Science it is yet another worldview. It’s as complete or incomplete as the religious or mystical worldviews. The difference is that Science is an evolving worldview. Religious and the metaphysical worldviews see no shifts or evolution. My interest is because of the connection between myths and worldviews. When you speak of Science the items that I use of Science represent a worldview. When I say that there is an x y z-axis that defines space it’s almost a mythic motif. One cannot see it; it’s taken as an apriori thing that you accept without questioning.

How do you integrate the mythology, past, present and future?

The present is forever under the influence of the past and the future is always a result of these two interactions. However perceptions are defined through our knowledge of what we already have or didn’t have, the prior knowledge shaping our perception. There is a saying that—yes there is an absolute truth but it’s only for me for another person its something else. As an artist one deals with the bafflement of being in the world which cannot be defined in absolute terms and that is what I do most of the time. At some time this understanding or misunderstanding that nothing can be absolute, one tries to deal with this dilemma. At the same time one is also looking at the magic of art making that can elevate you and transform you, an art work can create a an experience which can lift you up. That way I justify my social function. I always define artists as people who are technicians of perception. They arrange and rearrange the view so that you can experience the world in the ever-fresh manner. Without them the world would be a boring place.

This interview appeared in ‘Art & Deal’, 2006