REaDINGs

Solo Exhibition By Kumari Nahappan

14 - 30 June 2013

With this body of work, acclaimed Singaporean artist Kumari Nahappan goes back to her roots, revisiting her cultural and ancestral histories.

The exhibition represents a pivotal moment in her career, containing a shift in focus to a more introspective and spiritual artistic vision. Working again in bronze, her affinity for and expertise in the medium are realised in abstracted forms, a development from her popular "Chilli" series. Additional 2D mixed media works composed of fabric and papyrus palm and composed in vibrant colour, appeal to the sense of touch as much as sight.

Ethereal in mood, this multi-scensory experience from Nahappan affirms her position as one of the most important artists working in Singapore today. Later this year she will participate in the Singapore Biennale 2013: If The World Changed.

SEEING-TOUCHING-KNOWING: KUMARI NAHAPPAN’S ABSTRACTION

By Louis Ho

“I see you, who are hard to see...”

— The Bhagavad Gita, verse 11.17

“One sees the springiness of steel, the ductility of red-hot steel, the hardness of a plane blade, the softness of shavings.”

— Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception

In the theophanic climax of the Hindu hymnal, the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna reveals his viśvarūpa, his universal form that dazzles with the brilliance of a “thousand suns”, to a dispirited Arjuna. Being but a mere mortal, the latter is granted the gift of the divine eye with which to behold the god’s sublimity; his new-found vision inspires awed euphoria: “I see you everywhere... form without end... I see you, who are hard to see... With the light of a sun whose fire is blazing...”[i] The point here, of course, is the equivalence between sight and knowledge: Arjuna’s ocular boon, his privileged sight of Krishna’s cosmic body, signifies the deity’s bestowment of dharmic insight and spiritual wisdom – seeing is knowing.

Kumari Nahappan’s latest series of works is likewise premised on a correspondence between the optical and cognitive faculties. Referencing I, II and III are large, abstract compositions. Each measuring almost 2 meters long and 1.3 meters across, they certainly reference, for one, the visual language of color field painting.[ii] Swathes of flaxen gold, fringed by viridescent haloes, seem to float, and undulate, and drift across inky backdrops that recall the wine-dark flush of ripe mangosteens. These indistinct shapes, of almost unalloyed pigment, resemble astrophotographic images: they evoke Hubble snapshots of jewel-hued nebulae, billowing in the silent, dark void of interstellar space. (Think of the famous Pillars of Creation photograph.)

Despite their ethereal mood, however, they demand attention. These chromatic clouds do not so much leap as hover off the wall towards the viewer, spectral entities shifting and flickering in a chimerical dance upon the retina. Closer inspection – one is compelled, irresistibly, towards them – betrays further dimensions to Nahappan’s work. Canvas is not the medium here, but rather a creased, crinkled material composed of fabric and papyrus palm, laid over an armature of metal wire mesh. The resultant texture is a landscape of lines, furrows, ridges, knolls; these surfaces emerge with a surprisingly vigorous, material force from beneath the abstract, smoke-like silhouettes. Not unlike Krishna’s self-revelation, then, his repudiation of the world of mundane appearances, the paintings insist on their own presence as three-dimensional objects in space, their visual façades yielding to a realm of intensely tactile existence.

Nahappan refers to her works as “offerings”, making clear the religious aspect of her practice. In Hindu rituals, offerings to the gods are not merely constituted by oil lamps, flowers and foodstuffs, libations of water and milk; the devotee, when s/he enters a temple, is there for darśan. Darśan, to put it quite simply, is the gesture of seeing, and being seen: “The central act of Hindu worship, from the point of view of the lay person, is to stand in the presence of the deity and to behold the image with one’s own eyes, to see and be seen by the deity... the deity presents itself to be seen in its image... And the people “receive” their darśan.”[iii] Offerings to the divine, then, consist of a reciprocal gaze. The Hindu ethos, though, is both ocularcentric and tactile, i.e. it privileges not just the sense of sight, but that of touch as well. The gaze becomes a synesthetic phenomenon: “Seeing, according to Indian notions, is a going forth of the sight towards the object... While the eye touches the object, the vitality that pulsates in it is communicated...”[iv] What this means, of course, is the difficulty of isolating the operations of each sense modality in practice. Like Merleau-Ponty’s “springiness of steel” and “softness of shavings”, the sensuous, tangible existence of things is encoded in the optical register: the process of an intimate scrutiny of textural complexity, akin to the experience of running one’s hand over a surface, distinguishing every bump and indentation, is central to the idea of darśan, to touch with one’s eye.

Finally, the multisensory gaze (seeing-touching) bears epistemological implications (knowing). The history of Western thought, for one, is rife with a persistent intertwining of vision and knowledge.[v] Hinduism, as exemplified by the myth of Krishna’s manifestation to Arjuna, is no less susceptible to the enmeshing of the eye, hand and mind.

Not only is seeing a form of “touching,” it is a form of knowing. According to the Brāhmaṇas, “The eye is the truth (satyam)... In their hymns, collected in the Ṛg Veda, “to see” often means a “mystical, supranatural beholding” or “visionary experiencing.” Later on, the term darśana was used to describe the systems of philosophy which developed in the Indian tradition.[vi]

The darśan of the paintings, then, is a polyvalent experience. The works, floating fogs of aureate luminosity glowing in a dusky blankness, is possessed of an almost numinous aura; to gaze upon them seems akin to the act of gazing upon the image of the divine, presented to us as non-figural fields of pure color suspended in space. Beyond the immediate sense of the otherworldly, however, the viewer is drawn into scrutinizing the surface of the works: they reveal themselves to be obdurately material, tactile objects, emerging from behind the veil of opticality into the sphere of the physical, the corporeal, the concrete. Therein lies the nub of the knowledge offered by Nahappan’s work. They do not hold out the promise of spiritual transcendence, or of the essential, immanent truths of the universe. Their aims are far more modest: what they proffer the viewer is, instead, a simple reorientation of one’s vision, a focus on the humble, neglected surfaces that elide everyday attention, the secret lives of otherwise disregarded entities that lurk beneath the lofty forms of our mental and moral creeds.

[i] Verses 11.16 and 11.17 of The Bhagavad Gita, trans. Laurie L. Patton (London: Penguin Books, 2008).

[ii] The Referencing series also brings to mind Mark Rothko’s shimmering blocks of color, as well as the work of Indian-American artist Natvar Bhavsar.

{C}[iii]{C} Diana Eck, Darśan: Seeing the Divine Image in India (Chambersburg, Pennsylvania: Anima Books, 1981), pp. 3 – 5.

[iv] According to the famed Indologist and art historian Stella Kramrisch. Qtd. in Eck, p. 6.

[v] Plato, for one, opined that “truth was embodied in the Eidos or Idea... The human eye, he contended, is able to perceive light because it shares a like quality with the source of light, the sun... a similar analogy holds between the intellect, which he called “the eye of the mind”, and the highest form, the Good.” Martin Jay, Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought (Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 1994), p. 26.

[vi] Eck, p. 7.

Artist:  

  • Kumari Nahappan