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It’s backlog clearing day because if I don’t get through this round soon, it’s going to be more of a backforest than a backlog. So.

Empty Studio and Other Works! by Shreyas Karle

July-August, 2012 (I forget the exact dates. Sigh.)

There are some artists in the world of Indian art who I think have a career almost entirely because they have a sense of humour and don’t demand audiences treat their work with reverence. This is not necessarily a bad thing if the art they create is inventive or insightful in addition to being witty. Shreyas Karle is one of those artists whose work is almost always fun. While you may not be struck dumb by his spectacular brilliance, you are very likely to giggle appreciatively and that — evidence of actually enjoying yourself when inside a gallery, rather than struggling to figure out what the hell is going on — is a rare phenomena. At least for me it is.

Karle’s last appearance in Mumbai was as part of a massive exhibition titled Cinema City that was held in NGMA (around June, I think). Like most exhibitions made up of hundreds of little bits, Cinema City was a mixed bag but one of the more memorable parts of the exhibition was Karle’s “Museum of Fetish Objects”. Using sculptures, drawings and found objects, Karle presented an exhibition in miniature that looked at the stereotypes and concepts that Bollywood cemented in society and highlighted their absurdity. It was wicked, funny and managed to be vicious and cute simultaneously.

After a superb showing like that, I suppose my expectations from Karle’s solo show, Empty Studio, were on the higher side. The absurdity that Karle latched on to in Empty Studio is the expectation made of an artist during a residency. If an artist is supposed to be something of a bard and/or offer insights through their work, how can anyone expect the artist, who spends a few weeks in an unfamiliar place, to come up with something insightful? And as an artist in that situation, how do you create something that will seem poignant/relevant/unfrivolous?

The answer to question number two is: an empty studio. Which, in turn, means an emptyish gallery. Because emptiness is deep stuff and people read all sorts of poncy philosophy into it. With a title like Empty Studio, it’s like the artist has admitted defeat even before entering the studio and that, aside from being funny, prepares you for a pretty much empty gallery.

The works in this show were from Karle’s three-month long residency in Zurich. The tiny drawings  and prints hung almost shamefacedly on the massive expanse of the walls. In the centre of the gallery, a room was constructed to make room for a streaming projection that involved a computer and a little fan. In another part of the gallery, a projection had this message for the viewer: “This projector doesn’t work.” (Obviously, a statement that’s up for debate.) At the back of the gallery were a few installations, one of which showed pages from the notebooks jotted stuff down in during his stay at the residency.

Empty Studio, like much of Karle’s art, was amusing. The drawings were probably my favourite bits. The “post-cubic circle”, for instance, was delightful as was the one that established the correlation between rain and tea. I didn’t take photos, unfortunately, so I don’t have physical evidence of their cuteness. Considering how dim the lighting was, I probably wouldn’t have got very far with the camera anyway. However, as fun as these pieces were, very little of the show was memorable or particularly inventive. Almost nothing demanded a second look, which is a shame and the complete opposite of “Museum of Fetish Objects”. You could go back to see that one again and again, and it felt as much fun as the first time.  Empty Studio needed, in fashion-speak, a showstopper. It felt like a show without a nucleus.

That nucleus could have been the bit where Karle displayed his notebook, but that was probably the most frustrating and disappointing part of Empty Studio. They could have been so much fun and I’m sure it would have been possible to draw some wonderful stories and ideas out of Karle’s experiences. Unfortunately, the jottings were strictly mundane and there wasn’t even a tinge of creativity. I remember peering at a few of the pages to see what was written on them, but it left absolutely no impact. Compare Karle’s notebook to what Joshua Landsman did in his Moleskines, and Karle’s art looks decidedly lazy, unimaginative, insubstantial and far less artistic. Karle had simply scribbled; Landsman, on the other hand, did this:

(I’m really wishing I had photos of Karle’s notebook. Anyway.)

This is what Landsman had to say about his project:

I’m not sure exactly when it turned into a “project”—a whole sketchbook based on writers and books that have been important to me for different reasons at different times in my life—but I’ve ended up with what I think is a pretty accurate record of my life as a reader, or at least a record of the highlights, the stuff that has stayed with me. It’s been very satisfying for me to revisit these books and writers. I really do love them—I feel like they’re friends of mine who have had a tremendous influence on who I am and how I think. I’ve tried to make the pages personal, too—to tell a little story about my relationship with the writer or book. But sometimes it’s just my thoughts about them. Yes, I was an English Major . . .

Read more: Joshua Landsman’s Visual Reading Diary
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If I hadn’t seen Landsman’s diary, I would have probably only been disappointed by what Karle did. But Landsman’s doodled pages are unforgettable and I’d seen them a few days (or maybe weeks) before visiting Empty Studio, which made Karle’s notebook a downright disappointment.

Landsman’s tumblr, on the other hand, is gorgeous. My Moleskine book journal looks so … boring in comparison.

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