Quintessential

by Deepika Sorabjee

How enticing is it for an artist trained in museology to be invited to introduce his contemporary practice into a museum space that is hardly contemporary in its display or architecture? L.N. Tallur, who studied museology at M.S.U. Baroda, in his ‘Quintessential’ at the Dr Bhau Daji Lad City Museum, makes quintessential, question.

Installation view of Quintessential Elephant. Image courtesy: Deepika Sorabjee.

Bangalore-born Tallur divides his time between Korea and Karnataka. He is influenced by both East Asian contemporary culture and southern Indian tradition, and combines both in his art. Incorporating readymade objects, traditional Indian woodcarvings, antiquated machines, and spiritual beliefs, he melds them with a contemporary sentience, evolving science, and wry comments. These approaches have been a running thematic in his practice; his movement between countries keeping his perspective slightly absurd; that ‘standing back’ while viewing a culture from a slight distance brings. Using mechanical and familiar objects, he alleviates an atmosphere of ‘do not touch’ with engagement – his pieces are all about interaction.

Two pieces use wheels to mark change. In one, LED, 2011, the vague trace of Arjuna’s chariot can be made out, the myth all but obscured. Enclosed in a vitrine on a stand that seemingly rocks but doesn’t, it leaves the sand covered object undisturbed, just the top finials and front wheels of the chariot are mysteriously exposed. From this scale model, a few feet away, is an installation, Enlightment Machine (0.1, beta version) enclosed within gigantic wooden wheels befitting a rath of Arjuna’s chariot and larger than life myth. Yet these, sawn off and rendered useless wheels encase a now disappearing machine reminiscent of the roadside knife polishers. Mass produced brass statues kept alongside invite the audience to partake in defilement. A beta version of a machine testing erasure of old practices and testing new beliefs?

In ATM (anger therapy machine), Tallur mixes the current with the colonial. ATM, connotes a self service money telling machine to today’s customer; Tallur’s ATM visually, and in practice takes you back to a past and invites you and a fellow bothered viewer, to cool off a contemporary temper. In two stately chairs facing each other, a brocade punkah is pulled by the viewer and not a hidden menial. Suspended between two carved wooden pillars, he stops time absurdly, between contrasting styles. Fittingly in the centre space of a crowded museum, pause, he says, don’t rush through, examine the craft.

In several works Tallur responds directly to existing museum displays and the notion of the museum itself. A wooden elephant replica dismembered in a room inside the museum has a Daniell print, a book and video displays of the stone elephant transported from Elephanta Island off Bombay, which now lives in the museum’s gardens. Whether this 6th century monolithic sculpture was damaged in the ‘target practice’ the Portuguese used the rock cut Shaivite caves for, or got broken into pieces when the British transported it, is re-opened for examination. As the history of a museum piece is thus re-examined, Tallur explores the notion of the object in a museum as well, it’s displacement from the original site, it’s restoration for a different viewership, and the prolonging of the life of the object itself.

“If an object of art is ‘museumized’ that creates a fifth dimension; which is a further addition to Einstein’s 4 dimensions (time-space)” says the artist statement. Is the fifth dimension the institutionalization of the object or the intangible that a scientific formula cannot capture? ‘Graft’ is a wood piece, a cross-section of a tree’s bark, showing a tree’s age in the rings that form outwards, that uses the inlay technique to bring nature’s rings of life into the museum as an object. Tallur continuously questions the museum’s role of eternalizing the life of objects.

Installation view of ATM. Image courtesy: Deepika Sorabjee.

From a monolithic museum object Tallur moves on to Hatha Yoga, using a smaller object for inspiration. A small reclining figure of a sadhu on a bed of nails from the museums repository of objects, is literally deconstructed into an entire room of objects – a nail making machine, a figure holding huge nails covered with paint that over time will crack, an angel embedded with nails; whimsical links that test yoga’s claims of a prolonged healthy life.

In Temporarily Removed for Restoration Tallur removes the museum object entirely and in the vitrine, he places a stone, ordinary, yet now imbued with reverence behind glass. In this simple gesture, Tallur highlights a museum’s continuing practice of preserving objects. The slight shift in the placement of the stone, show dust lines, that ubiquitous mantle that settles on everything in a museum. This is echoed in Thatwamasi (that thou art), a cheeky display of a vacuum cleaner spewing dust into a glass vitrine.

In Pedestal on Pedestal, the pedestal of pillar is placed on a museum cube pedestal. In the 60s, British sculptor Anthony Caro removed the plinth from his sculptures and placed them directly on the floor of the gallery space to demystify the object. Here, Tallur, doubles the irony.

0+0=0-0 is as enigmatic as its title. A larger than life goddess stands serene. Well, not quite. Whirring above her head is a metal circular blade like plate. Are you about to see a decapitation or obliteration, or a hidden face revealed? Much like in Eraser Pro where a discernible but still decipherable sculpture of Gandhi stands eroded. Even as in a digital world files are not entirely deleted till overwritten, will the museum be the last place in contemporary society to preserve goddesses and Gandhis?

What is quintessential about Tallur’s oeuvre? If there is any ‘typical quality’ it is precisely that there is no precise quality that Tallur ever states; taking something quintessential of a time or practice or place he renders it untypical of that time and place and practice. And here, at the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad City Museum, Tallur, tongue firmly in cheek, uses the museum as the vehicle for making his art quintessential.

‘Quintessential,’ L.N. Tallur, 18 December – 4 February, Dr. Bhau Daji Lad City Museum, Mumbai.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Deepika Sorabjee obtained her MBBS degree from the Grant Medical College (Bom Univ) and the Sir J.J. Group of Hospitals, and a diploma in Indian Aesthetics from Jnanapravaha, Mumbai. She is a writer based in Mumbai and is training to be an art conservator.

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