The chaps at the Central Board of Excise and Customs’ office in Mumbai are a weird bunch. According to hearsay – best news source in the city; if it’s unreliable, it’s in the newspapers and if it’s reliable then you overheard it while standing next to arty socialite types and waiting for the stuffed mushrooms to reach you – they held back Praneet Soi‘s works for a good week (or thereabouts) without any explanation whatsoever. The piece that had our boys worried was not the naked corpse of a boy, sculpted in fibreglass (I think) and painted a sickly grey, with its little penis rather pointedly prominent. It was the huge replica of Zam-Zammah, the old canon which was supposed to have been the mightiest in this neck of the woods around the eighteenth century. It’s shiny, white and pretty darn imposing but what I can’t figure out is what bugged the customs officials. What on earth is so contentious about the replica of a gun that today lies derelict in Lahore? Did they think that the thing would actually fire? Or that people would see it and want to make one that would? Or maybe they thought it was a Trojan Horse for weed (Soi’s stuff was coming from Amsterdam, after all).
There isn’t much trippy about Soi’s show, Juggernaut. It’s so deadeningly sober that most might actually want a joint after seeing it. The industrial chic of Project 88’s architecture is the perfect setting for Soi’s spare and minimalist show. You walk into the whiteness and it feels almost peaceful after the vibgyor clutter of the city outside. Spend a little time with the works – the miniatures, the grey corpse-like sculptures – and the emptiness starts feeling really eerie. The Zam-zammah that the customs don’t like is so smooth and shiny that you want to touch it (I didn’t simply because I was certain I’d leave a grubby fingerprint and they’d hunt me down CSI-style by scanning that print and make me buy the damn thing which would mean, keeping in mind art prices these days, I’d have a fake gun and no roof over my head). The one spot of colour in the show is the bloody red torso of Soi’s Angelus Novus. My favourite piece was the grey duo of a guy sitting with a little kid, in ragged clothes and a dunce cap, next to him. The only grouse I have was that the show seemed to lack variety. The idea of war and the violence that comes from it is central to the show and Soi repeats symbols – like the Angelus Novelus – to bring that point home. Which is fine at a conceptual level but as a viewer I’m wondering if these smooth-skinned figures and grey tones is all he can do.
I’m no expert so I don’t know if Soi has ripped these ideas of someone else’s work but this show was a darn sight better viewing than the highly original and completely crazy scrawls of Jonathan Meese. Mind you, there’s far cooler stuff by Meese online at his gallery and the Saatchi website, especially. Makes me wonder whether the guy wasn’t simply being lazy and bringing his so-so stuff to India at a time when he’s past his prime and not feeling as much love at home. Of course, no one will say that because Meese is white and bizarre and supposedly loved by a batch of critics in Europe and Soi, for all his Amsterdam connections, is as brown as me.