We had long heard tales of whole worlds that had vanished, of empires sunk without a trace, gone down with all their men and all their machines into the unexplorable depths of the centuries, with their gods and their laws, their academies and their sciences pure and applied, their grammars and their dictionaries, their Classics, their Romantics, and their Symbolists, their critics and the critics of their critics… We were aware that the visible earth is made of ashes, and that ashes signify something. Through the obscure depths of history we could make out the phantoms of great ships laden with riches and intellect; we could not count them. But the disasters that had sent them down were, after all, none of our affair.
‘The Crisis of the Mind’
In the techniques of seeing, there may be contradictory and irreconcilable ways of arriving at the truth of images depending on the stages of life – infancy, middle of life, and late age. Confronted with an image, a child would always point fingers at the facts of what he sees in these photographs: a boat, an old man, a child, a river flowing in the distance, weeds, bamboos, ropes.
he child’s immediacy still connected to the memory of breastfeeding and the limited and damaged understanding of language does not allow him to interpret images in the sense of history, worldliness, science of techniques, authorship and so on. All these we may consider as amateurish and infantile. Yet in its infancy, the child’s seeing of the image is a beginning point of understanding the phenomenon of light, texture, darkness, and the visible aspects of the story that is not yet there. Tired at looking at the image, the child may wish to deviate from the image, call her mother and say, ‘this is a boat,’ ‘that is an old man’, ‘old man’s hair is white,’ ‘this is a child and the father,’ ‘this is a chair,’ etcetera, etcetera. What the child in reality points at is the pure sensitivity of the objects, places, faces, colour, which in the course of attaining a mastery over language fades into abstractions and jargons. In all of this, particularly, in the ways of seeing like this, each object in the photographs yields and appears to the child in all its fullness. There is the innocence of looking at the world unbeknownst of all the conflicts of faculties.
Passing the stage of the childhood from adolescence to the middle of life, a period of transformations and immense conflicts of opinions, ideas, ideology and thought, the ways of seeing is characterised by what is ‘dictated’ to him from the available industry of language, politics, and signs – facades of culture and civilisation against the very nature of childhood. In abandoning the child in him/her, the middle aged individual while departing from the pleasurable attachment with the mother, seeks confidence in the world, it’s ideas and ideals, and tries a hand in the interpretation of images, signs, photos, words, and other phenomenon with a scalpel like precision of a surgeon in the operation theatre – all in vain. It’s in this age that the scars of the world represented in photographs and other ways of seeing, begins to appear. The structure of damaged life is never visible as it is in the middle of life. Seeing the work of Shibu Arakkal, I am overwhelmed by the way in which his technique of making the shades of scars visible, that of history of an abandoned community as it is passing into oblivion before our very eyes. From a purely cultural point of view, that is the world of public opinion, ideas, and ideologies, these images may become a part of the archive of the forgotten world, but from the natural point of view, that is from the point of view of nature: decay and disintegration of old world and civilisation, we are actually saddened to see that an age which was so much engraved in water, wood, hyacinths, and crafts of hands has reached the verge of death, which is precisely the way of seeing as one is growing old, when the blackness of hair, stiffening of skin and muscles gives way to its natural habitat – death pointing towards the grave. Shibu Arakkal’s image may be seen from all of these registers of age as one traverses from infancy to maturity, by way of death and beyond.
Coming back to the way of seeing as a child, one also witnesses a drift akin to stubbornness and refusal to obey the norms of governmentality. The child would point fingers towards the unknown direction. The child drifts away from the prevalent norms, signs and behavioural codes of parenting. In a general sense, historical and cultural phenomenon may also be seen and worked through from the point of view of a certain drift in the ways of being and seeing. Shibu Arakkal’s works as I see it, is a drift from the popular ideas of consumption and cultural codes. As a subject matter, his choice of working with the Mallahs of Gangetic geography and landscape suggests to us that the acts of seeing, witnessing, photographing and documenting lives can also be done through a fourth eye. As a photographer, he does not allow for ready consumption of his work, but poses serious questions by way of his technique, that is making the subjects disappear from sight, making them appear in the psychic space of mind, posing questions before the viewer – how do the dominant ideas of ‘national culture’ exclude and push people into a landscape of existential and social crises. The idea of photography like this seems to me closer to the idea of painting where reality is presented before us in a diffracted way. I am very pleased to partake in his endeavours of technique, labour, craft and a way of seeing which reminds us of the limits of reason, culture, thought, and contemporary politics, as we see from the point of view of mortality of bodies and languages, as Paul Valery, a prominent critic observes in his essay, Crisis of the Mind – “We later civilisations… we too know that we are mortal.” Valery’s line as dipped in poignancy reminds us of the limits of our cultural logic as we too who pride ourselves in walking over the earth, mutilating it, will pass into oblivion like the past cultures and civilisations, leaving nothing but the faint memory of bones feeding a termite and a jasmine plant.
Artist | Curator | Kochi Biennale Co-FounderKochi, August 2019