Monday, December 12, 2005

Untitled?


A few weeks ago I found myself sitting among a small group of painters at Ahmedabad's Kanoria Center for the Arts. The Kanoria Center is a prestigious training ground for talented young artists, who gain access to its facilities through a special six-month fellowship. I had been invited there by Sitanshu Yashachandra, the renowned Gujarati poet (whom I was introduced to by Vikram Uncle in the hopes that I might gain some perspective for my own budding poetic aspirations). Sitanshu Uncle, softspoken and whitebearded, balanced an aura of eastern yogic wisdom with a vocabulary of western intellectualism astonishingly well. He sprinkled poetic insight about him with ease, and the young herd of painters trotted around him like a group of panting puppies waiting to lap up some inspiration. I soon became one of them.

We sat in a small wooden room, canvasses of unfinished paintings (like half-spoken sentences) leaning on the walls. After introductions, Sitanshu Uncle settled his eyes' spotlight on me and said, "Rishi is a poet as well - he writes about the medical experience. Do you happen to remember any of your poems? Please, let us hear them."

In this way I came to be the evening's entertainment program. As I recited my poetry, words (and shirt) dripping with nervousness, I was faced with a dilemma. The poems I chose were all medically oriented, to give justice to Sitanshu Uncle's introduction, yet I was for the first time performing them in front of a non-medical audience from a non-western culture. Would they understand me? Should I explain to them the meanings behind the poems, tell them the stories of the patients who inspired me before spewing forth encrypted rhyme? How could I create a context for what I was about to say?

This is part of a larger dilemma for artists in general. Art is individual expression; yet, those artists who display their works would not do so unless they felt some inner need to connect those expressions with another person. It might be argued that all expression is a manifestation of a desire for connectedness (but that's a whole 'nother blog). However, the only real context an artist is able to give his or her creation is in the form of a Title. How else can a 16th century painter explain his motivations to a 21st century museum patron? That little card beside the canvas, that boldfaced type before the poem, lies in a unique realm of dialogue partly inside and partly outside the domain of the art itself. It's a place for hints, for intimations, and for leading questions. It's a place we go for advice when the connection with the artist eludes us.

I always used to be disappointed, and I suppose even a little peeved, when an artist chose to title his work "Untitled." It seemed to me a cop-out. As if the artist himself couldn't come to terms with the creation, and wouldn't deign to give it a name. A Title is a rich medium of communication - how could someone let go of the opportunity to use it to further the artistic effect? I feel that the best titles are ones that add another dimension to the work, that could live in their own right, and that lead you in new directions of thought. For example, "Nude Descending a Staircase" doesn't do much for me...I could have figured that out on my own, looking at the painting. However, "Bullet With Butterly Wings" (one of my all time favorite song titles) gives new depth to the Smashing Pumpkins track to which it refers. Nowhere in the song will you find the title phrase, and if you were to hear the song without knowing its title, you might come up with a different interpretation of its meaning entirely. The title, therefore, becomes as important as the rest of the work. It is the artist nudging you in the shoulder and saying, "here's a view into my thoughts."

At the Kanoria Center, I got a unique opportunity to initiate this discussion with a captive group of live artists. As they toured us around the complex and showed us their artistic efforts, I asked them what goes into the decision to title a painting "Untitled." One of them gave me a very good explanation - he said that he uses such a non-title when he feels that any additional hints would contaminate the viewer's experience of the piece. An Untitled painting is one that should speak for itself, without the artist complicating brushstrokes with letters. This can be expanded to mean that sometimes context is unnecessary, and perhaps even harmful. Art itself is the way that someone from one culture and period of time can communicate with someone in another. By letting the art speak for itself, you allow the viewer/listener/reader to form their own interpretation of the piece, and in so doing partially relinquish your ownership of it. When you do not seek to sway the direction in which your art leads other people, you let them recreate your work in their own design, using their own imaginations. You let the art provide its own context, and let others provide their own titles. This requires generosity of a very different nature. It's like letting your children go forth into the world and become what they wish to be, instead of seeking to turn them into something you expect.

The pinnacle of human creation is the birth of a child. This is art on a fantastically different level. The creation lives, breathes, becomes. Unlike any painting or poem, it interprets itself and comes up with new meanings that the artists may never expect. And yet, at every birth, parents are put into the strange position of putting a Title such a self-evolving work of art. We give each child a context before the process of self-interpretation begins. We explain the child to the world, give an intimation as to his or her personality before knowing it.

Shakespeare wrote, "What's in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet." Others disagree. There is a group known as the Kabalarians who insist that there are mathematical properties to our names that help determine our natures and futures in a world where Chaos reigns. Do our names become self-fulfilling prophecies? I'm not quite sure, but I do know that my experience in this world would probably have been different had I been named Yudishvramachandra Shri Popatlal the Seventh. For one thing, schoolkids might have made more fun of me (or, the disturbing thought comes, maybe less!)

Interestingly, cultures each have different ways of naming their newborns. Gujaratis often use the father's name as a child's middle name. Some South Indians use the father's name as the child's last name (I could be wrong about this...many South Indians have explained to me their method of naming, but I must confess continuing ignorance...suffice to say, it's something different). My newest niece has been given the unique name Ice - but since her mother is Gujarati and her father South Indian, no one has yet resolved the dilemma of what the rest of her name should be! Perhaps, she should remain Untitled until she herself can decide.

This, again, is part of a larger discussion. As human works of art, we live, we breathe, we become. We label, and we become comfortable with classifications. We become bound by images of the self. There are many sides of my personality that are withheld from expression due to an image I have come to identify with...the image of the person I expect myself to be...my classification, my self-given Title, which may or may not have something to do with the title given me by my parents. The past few weeks, these thoughts have flung recurring questions at my flickering self-image.

Every experience I have with the arts adds a new aspect to the question. A week ago, I went back to the Kanoria Center and met a sculptor who was kind enough to explain to me the process he undergoes when carving a slab of rock into a human figure. It is a process of transformation, much like the process we go through during our own maturation. Two nights ago, I attended a concert for the winners of Fame Gurukul (an Indian version of American Idol), where crazed fans pushed each other to get closer to their favorite singers. After the concert, I hitched a ride on a scooter to get back to Ahmedabad, ended up making friends with the guy on the scooter, and accepted his invitation to go to a birthday party for one of his friends that night. At the party, I found out that he and his friends are all members of a traveling folk dance group...individual dancers with a group identity. When inside the group, they call each other by nicknames, possibly to preserve the sense that their identities depend upon one another. Outside the group, they are simply different people. Our identities and our labels dance with each other, spin each other round, and teach each other the steps as they go.

So I ask you - how is your self-image affected by the titles you carry? What has your experience been with your name - do you like it, does it ever constrain you, do you ever dissociate from it? If you are an artist, what goes into the process of naming your work? I would really love to hear your answers to any of these questions. It will help me answer the question now flinging itself at my mind - can we ever silence our own labels, and allow ourselves artistic freedom with our continuing self-creation?

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