December Issue 2008
The Art of Dialogue
A midget, a chimp, the Garden of Eden, an ass and a dog — Irfan Hasan’s Coded reminds one of a Shakespearean comedy in which the bizarre and the absurd are satirical personifications of contemporary figures in power. Whereas Shakespeare’s critique was external to himself, looking to society for his characters, Hasan insists his work is personal, hence acknowledging himself as part of the society he mocks. With Hasan, society on the one hand pervades each individual member’s psyche and on the other, extends beyond political and cultural boundaries to the greater humanity. Coded thus becomes part-social commentary and part-existential inquiry.
The works in the show are replete with themes that hark back to Biblical morality, such as the original sin and lust, the fall and yearning for a return to Eden, the fruit of knowledge and constant reproach on the bestiality of man. For instance, in one composition one finds an Eve-like figure apparently appropriated from Van der Eyck’s 16th century altarpiece, plucking fruit from a tree. Standing across from her is a ghostly figure enclosing a pixelated, modern rendition of a man. The ghostly figure reaches for the fruit in the tree with one hand and covers its genitalia in Northern Renaissance fashion with the other, but the figure within him stands looking down. Ironically, the man within him may be looking down ashamed of himself but could also be interpreted as the modern man being engaged in autoerotic activity as a result of his former self having partaken of the fruit of knowledge. The erotic tension is further heightened by the dog sitting next to Eve, whose gaze is leveled at the pudenda of both bodies.
Equally provocative are depictions of repressed desire in the diptych, Ishq ka Bunder. In one, a three-quarters view of a man’s head is superimposed with laterally inverted Urdu text. The words of the text are also jumbled so that the viewer is compelled to reverse them and string them into coherent sentences. One possible permutation of the text reads, “Bunder ka tujhey salam” or the monkey greets you and later, “terey ishq ka aisa bunder ho gaya hoon, aisey jaisey us din … ” or “I’m such a monkey for your love that the other day (and the text trails off) …” The man’s forehead is imbued with a third eye to reinforce the idea of the abnormal obsession with seeing the object of affection. In the sister painting of this piece, a pixelated monkey’s head appears in a similar three-quarter view with thought bubbles emanating from his head. One bubble carries an image of the man’s mouth pursed in anticipation and another of a female breast. Viewed together, ishq or love is reduced to a desire for sex which appears to be the central occupation of the human-monkey protagonist. In the creation of a linguistic puzzle that requires decoding and making the connection between the monkey in one image and the love-struck man in the other, the viewer is empowered as someone who has the ability to look beyond the scope of the monkey/man. The viewer is coaxed to transcend the bestiality of his/her own nature.
Compositions where an ass whispers into a midget’s ear, and then where men stand in line saluting a winged asinine apparition, seem to push the idea of man’s idiocy in complying unquestioningly with forces of power, political and cultural. What is particularly appealing about these is that there is no dividing line between the insider and outsider, villain and victim. Because they are interchangeably depicted as the ass and the human and the monkey, it is not the kind of polarised rhetoric that comes out of political articulations we encounter often in local media. Similarly eloquent is a composition featuring a man-donkey hybrid, wearing a gas mask and standing in an “I’m strong” pose. The other end of the gas mask tube leads to a laughing face of an Anglicised man. Here it seems that the villain has a face and hence an ethnicity but, again, he is not held solely to blame for the idiocy of the donkey/man who adheres to his whim.
Irfan Hasan’s work is a very refreshing break from the very predictable blockbuster shows that are increasingly taking over gallery spaces to keep pace with the demands of the market. Rich and engaging, veering close to audacious, the work begs for a cerebral dialogue rather than just an aesthetic appreciation of craftsmanship.