Tuesday, November 27, 2012


Liverpool 800:The Changing Face of Liverpool
54.6 x 81.3cm (21.5 x 32in)
Poster colour and gouache on mount board
Artist: Amrit & Rabindra K.D. Kaur Singh
I started out as a symbolist, back in 1991 when symbolic content poured out of me after a period of intense dream interpretation. I have explained why I feel that symbolism is a relevant method of artistic expression here in this blog article (as well as on my website). I realize, however, that there are several ways in which one can be a symbolist artist. One can do very deep and complex work with more or less original elements that constitute a whole that says more than the sum of its parts. There are more shallow levels of symbolism, though. For instance, there is a form of literal symbolism that isn't really symbolism in the deepest sense. It's a form of expression where various physical elements that represent easily determined value systems are juxtaposed to create a fairly realistic scene. The art of the Symbolist movement is often like that. It's a visual language that is very easy to read. The problem with it is that it's easy to read with your rational mind while much intuition isn't required. It means that the whole isn't that much greater than the sum of its parts. Some people also create art they call symbolic when it has a few symbolic elements thrown in, but there isn't really a coherent whole that would explain the presence of these elements. Sometimes, however, the symbolic elements do contribute to the overall feel, in a good way. So I would say there are no strict rules for this kind of art.

I have been thinking about symbolism in a languid sort of way, wandering where to go from here. I feel that my own artistic expression is dying away, and I have absolutely no idea what could take its place. If anything at all! Of course, in this process I also have doubts about symbolism and how relevant it is for me from now on. My symbolic language has changed over the years, from being very explicit to being less coherent, but more expressive. Whether it's a weakness or a strength, I don't really know.

There are two London based twin sisters of Indian descent who took up the dying form of traditional Indian miniature painting. They were scoffed at at first, and told their contemporary interpretation of this traditional technique (which on top of everything wasn't European!) was not art. They persisted nonetheless, and have since made it in the art world. There is an interview with them here

Partners In Crime:Deception and Lies, 2004
Poster, gouache, gold dust on mountboard
57 x 78cm (22.5 x 30.7in)
Rabindra KD Kaur Singh
This piece features George Bush and Tony Blair. The Singh twins explain the symbolism:

"/.../ symbols of deceit and crime and the poison of words are signified here by the aconite (monkshood) and convolvulus flower respectively. In addition, Bush stands on a hyena, symbol of the two-faced person and inconsistency, thus pointing to the hypocrisy of the USA’s stance in condemning the Iraqi Dictator whom they once openly supported. Outwardly presenting themselves (through their use of religious rhetoric) as forces of good out to free the world from “evil doers”, both politicians wear the trappings of the preacher. However, their outward appearance is contrasted by other details which suggest the real motifs behind their occupation of Iraq – namely, the desire to spread Imperialistic western ideals and to control Iraqi oil. Hence, an imprint of the Stars and Stripes can be seen across the geographic region on which they stand whilst oil flows from an Iraqi oil rig into a pipeline to the west – an operation which is overseen by a monkey and squirrel, both symbolising greed. At the same time the “thieving magpie” flies away with a string of pearls which denotes wealth./.../"

Dressed To Kill (from the SPOrTLIGHT series)
23 x 38 cm (9 x 15in)
Poster colour and gouache on mountboard
Artist: Amrit K.D. Kaur Singh
About "Dressed to Kill":

/.../ Sports celebrities and specific sports are presented in symbolic images that take a light hearted and sometimes satirical look at how commercialisation and the mass media have transformed sport into a tool for product promotion and increasingly blurred the boundaries between the world of sport, fashion, media and celebrity. The series, which formed an exhibition in 2002, reinterprets 18th and 19th Century Indian miniatures paintings - the aim being "to create a platform for introducing wider audiences to this traditional art form through a subject that would have mass appeal as part of popular culture". In a broader context 'SPOrTLIGHT' projects the artists' ongoing aims to assert the value of traditional and non European aesthetics as a legitimate form of expression within Contemporary art practice./.../

I think the sisters' pursuits are admirable - bringing Indian traditions to people's attention as well as executing such fine paintings. Please view more of their art and explanations here on their website. I do ask myself, however, whether the themes and the symbolism isn't a tad simplistic. I personally feel that the traditional style creates some constraints that leave very little room for the symbols to breathe. They are pre ordained to co-exist in a traditional space that to me, appears a little claustrophobic and stifling. For instance, I find the figures a bit nondescript, as they mostly exist in a flat traditional Indian space that attempts to look as realistic as possible (seen from the level of the onlooker's eyes, with their feet on the ground below, and so on).  

The sisters claim that one of their endeavours is to create art that isn't individualistic.  Well, to me that defies the value of using traditional methods in the first place. I don't see that traditions are valuable unless they are tweaked to fit a point in the collective evolution of consciousness, and the point I'm talking about here is infused with an increasing sense of individualism. There is nothing wrong with individualism, on the contrary. I also think it adds a dimension to art that we yearn for as a collective, because it's something that preoccupies us a lot right now. The evolution of indivdualism is part and parcel of the progression of life's different shapes and forms towards ever-increasing complexity. I admire the twins' efforts but also see some problems with the approach. Ironically, the very literal expression of the challenging collective themes about greed and the disintegration of the sacredness of love the sisters have been wanting to express is in itself an expression of a rather shallow, conventional and flat understanding of symbolic art and what symbols can express at their very best - in fact, it's an academic approach, it uses a formula. This is conventional and unenterprising the way modern people usually understand these potentially spiritual systems of meaning. You could use this kind of approach in as a form of satire, using self-irony, kitsch and clichés in order to make a point about the superficial ways of the world, but I'm not detecting this kind of approach in this art.

I also wonder, if the quest for "non-European aesthetics as a legitimate form of expression within Contemporary art practice" easily becomes an end in itself. The modern themes seem to me the only way in which this art can claim to be contemporary, and I wonder if it's a somewhat poor one. I'm not even sure the themes are telling us anything we didn't already know - to death.  Contemporary art at its very best comes in a breath of fresh air, a new point of view... that's what I'd like to see also connected to symbolism. To award this Indian derived art can also easily be an act of political correctness... 

I certainly prefer this art to most art out there... but I don't see it as quite as progressive as I'd like to see it as.

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