Shine Shivan debuted about a year and a half ago with Sperm Weaver, which created quite a buzz. Literally. The piece de resistance of the show were two huge phallic towers made of cow dung that attracted every fly in the Colaba area to Gallery Maskara/Warehouse at Third Pasta. (I’m still confused about what to call that place.) Winged lovers of dung notwithstanding, Sperm Weaver was a show that made lots of people sit up. Not everyone loved it but I think it’s safe to say the works provoked reactions. They were unexpected, in terms of their concepts, materials and, in some cases, the techniques used. Shine Shivan, it seemed, was the next big thing in Indian art and one who was more than happy to wear the mantle of weirdness.
Approximately 15 months later, in March of this year, Shivan was back with Suck Spit. The show is made up of five installations. Not to get mathematical about art, but this means Shivan would have spent about 5 months thinking about and executing each piece. Of course it’s possible that he spent more on certain works but if he did, then there are others that took much less time. Five months isn’t much, particularly when the artist is putting together elaborate installations by himself (and not with the help of a small factory, the way the likes of Jitish Kallat and Subodh Gupta do). I’m not sure what the general reception has been to Shivan’s work but as far as I’m concerned, Suck Spit is hugely disappointing when you consider this is the second show by one of India’s most promising upcoming artists. Not because all the works are bad – they’re not; some are interesting, a few are good – but because Suck Spit makes Shivan look like an artist eager to churn out more of what got him acclaim the first time round, rather than spending time to work out his concepts so that they’re executed more intelligently and sure-handedly.
But before I go on with my rant, these are the works in the show, in the order of appearance. Enter the gallery and to your right is “Cock Dump”: a table, with a cascading quilt that has a large number of taxidermal cocks dumped on it. After “Cock Dump” on the left wall is “Sex Fumes”, a large panel made of deer feces. To the right is “Suck Spit”, a wall arrangement made up of tree branches and quail eggs. In the centre of the gallery is “The Passage”: a damaged boat, hanging as though it’s about to nosedive into the gallery floor; animal bones tumble from it and are arranged around the boat. Further inside the gallery, on the right wall, is “Nightfall”, which is made of dried branches, golden sand and chirchita seeds.
Maybe it’s because “Nightfall” is the only one that blessedly doesn’t try to shock the pants off me with its title, but I liked this curious little piece a lot. It looks like a treehouse that has been taken over by something, or an abandoned hive. There’s so much detailing in it and all of it is wonderfully organic but dried and withered. The sand and prickly chirchita seeds catch the light beautifully. There’s a beautiful delicacy to the seeds, which belies how sharp they are and how easily they can slice skin. Despite the pretty texture, the gaping black holes and shadows in it give the structure an eerie, malevolent feel. It’s as though the house/hive wants to draw you in there, but only to do bad evil things to you. It articulates perfectly the dark power that Shivan generally attributes to the strong feminine elements that he seems to hate because they emasculate the male. (Hive = Queen Bee and slavish male bee workers.)
Shivan’s take on male-female power relations are probably termed ‘post-feminist’. Less politically correctly, wouldn’t you know that an artist from Delhi’s environs would come up with works that say strong women are evil? Add to that the fact that Shivan’s family originates from matrilineal Kerala and I can see Freud doing a happy jig. Of course, there’s more to Shivan’s work than simply hating the female. He’s concerned with gender roles and the sense of transgression when a man is considered less masculine because he’s homosexual or transgendered. However, there’s no doubting that Shivan’s art isn’t likely to make women feel warm and fuzzy, unless they’re Sharon Stone’s character from “Basic Instinct”.
The post-feminist stance is most obvious in “Cock Dump”. The taxidermal birds are frozen in terrible contortions. Their necks and other body parts are broken painfully by soft quilt (apparently Shivan’s own), which is supposed to be the feminine element. The more I looked at it, the more uncomfortable I felt. Their glassy eyes look watery and glint in the light. There’s so much pain in their twisted bodies. In a weird way, the talons reminded me of a witch’s hand, clawing at the air, reaching for something. “Cock Dump” gleams with cruelty. Incidentally, it’s a good thing PETA didn’t find out that Shivan taught himself taxidermy and in the process made his way through god-knows-how-many roosters before finessing his skills to the point where he could create the contorted shapes in “Cock Dump”.
For me, there are basically two problems to this show. One is the need to be sensational. This is the driving impulse behind the title of the show, the names of the works and, I suspect, a lot of the materials chosen for the works. Even without the crudeness of the phrase “Cock Dump”, I think a viewer can formulate the connection between penises and roosters, sorry, cocks. How would the show have suffered if it had been named after one of the works that don’t have a phallic angle to their name? After a point, poking a viewer in the eye with sexual references at every turn is not shocking or provocative; it’s tiresome. In case of Shivan, he’s succeeded in making himself boring and maybe even predictable. By following the same path that he stomped upon with Sperm Weaver with this show, he’s shown that he’s running circles around the same concepts that had inspired his first show. There’s no additional insight or development in his ideas. It’s like a rant that just keeps going on and on.
This love for sensationalism has also, I suspect, led to Shivan collecting a few tonnes of deer feces, bags of ox bones and apparently sucking out the contents of quail eggs and spitting them out (hence the title “Suck Spit”). I sort of understand the need to use eggs in “Suck Spit” (it’s articulating the same “Women are evil” concept with those little eggs are arranged in nests of thorns. There’s also a curious twist when you consider that not only are these eggs are not fertile, but they have been rendered infertile by a man. In traditional and conservative terms, a woman’s greatest strength is her fertility; in effect, Shivan has rendered the feminine powerless. I can only imagine the head rush he must have felt as he sucked and spat). However, why deer feces? What enormous difference would have been made if instead of deer feces, he’d used dried black grapes? Or any other material that looks like deer feces? Yes, I know that the sex of a deer can supposedly be told from their feces but a) humans can’t sniff such details out, especially from dried and treated deer droppings, and b) how has that idea been used in the thoroughly abstract “Sex Fumes”? According to the handout, if I stare at “Sex Fumes”, then I would realise that “far from being a barrier, the uncompromising presence of excrement is a means of communication”. I promise you I’ve stared. I’ve been to the show twice. Them deer droppings communicated absolutely nothing. In “The Passage”, ox bones tumble out of a hanging boat that must have reminded at least a few people of a vagina. I get Shivan wants ox (i.e. male) bones to be spat out like remains from a structure reminscent of a vagina but explain to me what would have been lost if he’d used fake bones, like the kind that Jitish Kallat has used repeatedly in his works. As it turned out, the stench from the bones was so strong that within a few days (or was it weeks?), the artist and gallerist decided they would show “The Passage” without the bones. Viewers couldn’t concentrate on the show with the overwhelming stink. This is, apparently, the viewer’s failing. God forbid the artist spend a little time actually working out the practicalities of his installation.
There’s also a certain uniformity that has cropped up in Gallery Maskara shows that I find a touch disturbing (click on Artists and then Images to see pictures of their works). A number of them use bodily fluids in their work: Tatheer Daryani used blood as did Prashant Pandey; Pandey also used piss; Shine Shivan used his mother’s hair. The foetus appeared in Narendra Yadav and Pandey’s works. The collages of Felipe Cama reminded me of T. Venkanna’s collages (both of them reminded me of the photo-paintings of Rashid Rana, but that’s another matter entirely). Not only do many of the artists in the gallery’s roster display post-feminist leanings, there’s a distinct visual resemblance in the works being displayed. Shivan’s “Suck Spit” is distinctly reminiscent of the lovely Priyanka Choudhary work that had a dried branch protruding from a white canvas. Conceptually, “Cock Dump” reminded me of T. Venkanna’s version of “Origin of the World” (titled “Surviving”), which had a rubber rooster inserted into the canvas at a strategic point, and of course Ruben Bellinx’s fantastic “The Trophy”, which took a live stag and made it look like it was a wall hanging. Take Photoink in New Delhi in contrast. The gallery only shows photographs but the exhibitions are all distinct and independent from one another. Not so in case of Gallery Maskara. It’s strange for a group of artists to have so many meeting points in their works, thematically, conceptually and visually. Or Experimenter in Calcutta, which like Gallery Maskara, has decided to show only “cutting edge” contemporary art. I’ve seen a number of their shows and not one has, so far, felt like it’s responding to an earlier exhibition. Here, it’s always a Gallery Maskara show. The gallery takes over the artist, instead of the artist taking over the gallery. Not that this takes away from the admirable “We Shall Overcome” spirit with which it is run, but I definitely spy a pattern.