Baiju Parthan, known for his experiments with new technologies in art, is back in Mumbai with a solo exhibition, Necessary Illusions. The 60-year-old, soft-spoken maverick holds degrees in botany, civil engineering, and Fine Arts, diplomas in Comparative Mythology and Philosophy and a long-standing association with computers from his days as an illustrator with the Illustrated Weekly in the 1970’s. The barrage of computing symbols and mythological motifs, he uses, stem from these diverse learnings. In this exhibition of canvas and lenticular prints with animation and 3D depth, he taps the increasing dominance of virtual reality. His prints, like psychedelic GIFs, require the viewer to keep moving left to right to experience their full impact – Chorus has airplanes appearing and disappearing in axis mundi and spiral formations. His symmetrical paintings combine empirical data with evolution and history – Logos and Mythos correlates the worm-like Turing patterns on cheetahs and turtles to computing symbols.
It’s the title of linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky’s 1968 book on how authorities use propaganda to distract people from real issues. My show has nothing with this book but this phrase has a lot of relevance today. We live in a world not based on facts but a ‘post-fact’ world fabricated from online activities and social media feeds.
Is there an underlining theme to the works?
All of them suggest that the world also has a magical, mysterious side. Though we narrow down our options to reduce contingent factors to make the world more predictable. Like five-star hotels that offer the same service across, provide the comfort of the familiar, we also tend to seek that comfort of the familiar but end up bored.
The pear is a recurring leitmotif in your works.
Apple as fruit has a lot of baggage (literature) attached to it and mango is too ‘ethnicised’. Nobody wants the pear, it has no associations. So I could stake a claim to it! ‘My pear’ is a hybrid, an attempt at fabricating perfection. It is a take on consumerism, the perfectly shaped fruits you find only at the supermarket. In the Engineered Fruit painting in this show, the pear vanishes and there is only a mesh-work of nodes and data points resembling the fruit. In social media environments, you’re a node connected to other similar nodes through a network of nodes and data links. I also end up eating a lot of pears.
Tell us more about your lenticular prints
These prints are a combination of photography, which I shoot, and objects, which I create in 3D software. I make a virtual stage and setup up the event in 3D software and shoot the scene as series of frames spanning 20 degrees to combine the photographs and 3D graphics. These frames are converted into a 3D stereoscopic lenticular print. I only use open source software, such as Blender, and Gimp. Monuments and Chorus form part of a series where I take one representative landmark of Mumbai and enact a virtual event using 3D software which is then made into a lenticular print.
So when you visit this place in reality, you’ll recollect the event and wonder if this really happened.
Big Data transitions from computer codes to various objects as you move in front of the work. We live inside an electromagnetic ocean of cloud computing where along with data that holds your personal identity a whole range of things, good and bad are floating around all the time.
Your paintings appear as a code.
My work gets more and more complex every year because I live in a world of increasing complexity. Exactly opposite of what is expected of you as an artist – refinement and simplicity in your visual language. Each of my paintings is almost a research paper, hard to explain in one go. It takes me a month to think about the process, then two-three months to execute.
I start with a logical structure and then wing it. This point, when you give into the work, is very tricky. Signs of it usually happening is when major compositional problems arise and then one has to take a step back. Arrival of these insurmountable problems and resolving them is what as an artist I look for.
My symmetrical works are a compositional challenge. The art fraternity in general dislike symmetry in a composition, for that very reason I am attracted to it. I’m a closet rebel. In my work I tend to violate the norm. An art historian or art critic would say all this is trash.
Much of your curiosity has been quenched by voracious reading and life experiences.
I come from a middle-class, nuclear family in Kerala with leftist leanings and with both parents working. So I practically grew up alone and had to construct my own world. Art was a hobby, but also a refuge. I was also a nerd and would read technical stuff, encyclopaedias, books on aerodynamics, and science fiction. Art wasn’t considered a constructive activity so I had to leave home to pursue a BFA in painting in Goa. Kerala has tremendous amount of mutual scrutiny, that’s not imposed but willing accepted, Goa was exactly the opposite. I met the hippies, who were anti-establishment and seemed supremely happy. Through them I came across offbeat literature – Robert Anton Wilson, Carlos Castaneda and Eastern philosophies. When I got exposed to computers in the 70’s, I read a lot of books on computing and programming from roadside vendors at Flora Fountain.
Art-making is my excuse to do research.
Not many can understand your work.
I don’t expect to be understood instantly. It’s like a good piece of music, you first experience it, then resonate with it, then look for the lyrics to comprehend it, and go to yet another level. In my ideal world, my work is transformative and not be passive or decorative.
You never participate in biennales. Why?
I keep away from biennales because these are more of a curator’s space. I became an artist because the freedom it offers to do what I think is right. I do not socialise much and spend most of my time in the studio. I have this condition where I have to do everything myself because art making, for me, is not about the end product but my total involvement in the process of art making. I get so absorbed that I get disconnected from the passage of time. Sometimes I go to places I haven’t visited in a while. In my mind I haven’t been there for may be six months but then realise I’ve not been here for four or five years!
(On at Jehangir Art Gallery till September 20 and then at Art Musings till October 19)