July issue 2016
Art Review: Kiran Saleem
In 1936, the renowned German cultural theorist Walter Benjamin wrote a seminal essay titled The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. He highlighted how modern printing technology had allowed artwork to “escape” the museum where it had hitherto existed within a specific context of time and space. Even as the reproducibility of art allowed it to be viewed by a mass audience, who had only to lift a book in which the images had been printed, the authenticity of the original context was lost.
Eighty years after the publication of Benjamin’s essay, Sanat Gallery held an exhibition of work by Kiran Saleem titled, To see, or not to see. The show exhibits some of the “escapees” in a new and anachronistic context. Kiran’s choice and treatment of subject matter address the questions raised by Benjamin’s essay with near text-book precision. She has chosen iconic works from western art which she has only seen in reproduction. The original works have undergone two iterations. The first one by reproduction through print and visual media; the second iteration is as a Kiran “original” altered as they are by her idiosyncratic touches.
Her material is pulled from as far back as the fifteenth century. There is van Eyck, Raphael, Leonardo and Lucas Cranach the Elder. Rembrandt emerges from the seventeenth century, and Courbet, Monet and Kahlo inch us towards modernity. Except for a large digital print of Leonardo’s ‘Mona Lisa’ (in which La Gioconda’s face has been replaced by that of Kiran’s), the remaining works are all oil-on-canvas. Kiran’s ability to replicate the painters’ brush strokes would be the envy of any high quality art forger. She captures with virtuosity the changes from the smooth, linear painting technique of the fifteenth century to the more painterly style that develops in the seventeenth century.
So what, one may ask, is the original aspect of these works? In the nicely produced colour brochure which accompanies the exhibition, there is an artist’s statement in which she explains:
I take printed images of western paintings to reinforce the idea of what I see, interpret, and record the shift of perception which takes place upon discovery through a remote or second hand source, as I have never seen these paintings in real and the only format in which these paintings are experienced is either through web or printed paper.
So there we have it — the nature of verisimilitude in the age of mechanical reproduction. The high quality reproductions available today have replaced the sketches and travellers’ accounts of the past as source material for the artists’ imagination. Durer had produced an embellished drawing of a rhinoceros in 1515 which he copied from another artist’s sketch as he had himself never seen the creature in actuality.
Modern visual media, however, does not necessarily give a sense of original scale. Kiran Saleem recreates iconic images from as far back as the fifteenth century with her own idiosyncratic touches. Except for the Courbet, which replicates the size of the original work, and the Mona Lisa, which is larger than the original, the other images are reduced in scale. Some images such as Frida Kahlo’s self-portrait resemble little cut-outs. The Monet is an enlarged corner of a vignette from the original.
Kiran has used her masterly painting skill to create the displays as if they are stuck on with masking tape. The tape is so perfectly painted that it looks like 3-D from a distance. A whimsical touch in this show is the site-specific painting of masking tape along two vertical cracks in the plaster of the gallery wall. One is almost compelled to touch the wall to verify that the image is a painted illusion.
The innocuous masking tape becomes the common motif which links Kiran’s selection of grandiose subject matter through its range of 600 years. It underscores the ability of reproducible material to transcend time and space in order to yield hybrid chimeras. What we see has shifted from what we have known.