Bleak visions and serious times as Riyas Komu brings his latest exhibition to the 1x1 contemporary gallery.
Riyas Komu was watching a National Geographic documentary about Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Afghani engineer turned military leader credited with driving the Soviets from Afghanistan in the ’80s. He froze the documentary just as a young boy turned, eyes downcast, from the camera. The head blurred, the boy’s eyes and lips stretched in the stuck motion of the film.
Komu set about painting this freeze-frame, a terrifying moment of flux that, when stiffened, becomes simultaneously grotesque and vulnerable. He titled the series Horizontal Realities and, when Time Out spoke to the Indian artist from his Keralan studio, he explained that these paintings move towards an understanding lost in the bombardment of media. ‘Painting was the first way you could recreate an image. Then a photographer took that up, after that if you wanted to reach a message to people you had to make it move. We’ve reached a point now where media moves so fast that we don’t tend to notice things. It’s kind of a widescreen reality that you enjoy nowadays in your drawing rooms. Painting these sections of film is almost reversing that process.’
He says that it’s a horizontal reality that has been lost. ‘Take the Middle East. It’s constructed on vertical realities – how big and tall can you go. But to see the people I’m interested in, to think about the civilians, you have to think horizontally.’ A vision, he says, that is reflected in these distorted static moments.
Komu is a fiercely political artist. Our talk rolls from international crisis to tragedy to injustice. He has said in the past that he could see 9/11 coming, and asks now, as we speak, ‘Why didn’t Europe react to Russia’s movement into Georgia?’ It’s tempting, in the face of the distinctly Soviet-like star that figures prominently throughout his body of work, to assume that the intense political consciousness of Communist Kerala has fed into the artist’s practice, but he’s quick to dismiss the idea. ‘The star is the biggest symbol, for me, of a witness. When you take a very minimalist symbolism into your work like this, it travels and depends entirely on its context. That’s why it’s a witness. At one time it may have represented the comradeship of Kerala, and then in another context it might mean Western supremacy, or American imperialism. In that way it’s also a victim.’
It’s this preoccupation with the individual at the whim of external factors that ignites Komu’s work. The civilian, he seems to suggest, is the star. It is the symbol of a mass of people under the sway of superpower, an ideology or a belief system. As malleable as the meaning of a star, the masses are at the whim of any gathering force of aspiration. The star is and always has been the bright future – from Jesus to Lenin.
As we talk about the aspiration impulse that Komu identifies, the artist suddenly turns the conversation to football. He worked closely with portraits of the Iraqi football team earlier this year, while the sculpture currently on show at 1x1 depicts a footballer’s leg, carved from wood and encased in chunks of iron-riddled concrete. The sculpture itself is quite a queasy sight. Not only does it have a washed out, greying look, but the exposed muscle structure of the leg is scarred with subtle burns.
‘With the portraits of the Iraq team, I tried to find the most beautiful image of happiness of a civilian and I felt that football did that in Iraq. The statement which the captain made after they won the Asian Cup was so crucial and nobody used that in an art context.’ He’s posing the question: how and why do symbols of mass hope sustain the civilian, be it a Soviet star or the boot of a footballer?
‘That’s why I titled this piece ‘Civilian Pain – Jesus In My Studio’, it’s as if I’m inviting him and what he represents into my studio.’ Komu goes on to explain that it’s a spirit of youth that fascinates him, a spirit which looks to ‘the bright future’ on a civilian (or horizontal) level.
But then how then do we understand the cement breakers that emerge from the leg? The cement itself doesn’t appear to be attached but rather blooms dismally from the muscles and acts as a weight on the leg. It might be an expression of the distinctly Keralan cynicism that he cites. ‘There’s always a belief in a saviour,’ says Komu, seeming to suggest that the saviour might be a religious idea, an ideology or even materialism itself. ‘Some people in this world want to make the new Andalus, on the other extreme some want to bring the Roman Empire back. There is conflict in the air. You can see it in those people and in the supreme mind of a businessman – how they hold onto power through resources. It’s not a good growth we’re seeing, it’s inorganic. It’s mechanisation.’