day 5 blogging at Khoj’s fashion residency

In Kallol Datta’s work I am struck at first by the sheer boldness of an aesthetic which challenges standard gnomes of how the body can be seen –  anti-body-form silhouettes create a sense of drama on their own, and effect us with a new way of looking at ‘beauty’ itself. More so, in an Indian context where retail allows for a certain kind-of product outreach which caters to more conventional markets. There is strong intentionality in his work which attempts at creating an anti-fashion idiom: A response to a ‘bling’ mainstream pushes him to work with textures and prints; one season – other designers quoting their work as avant garde without really understanding the word’s radical layer – prompts him to go back to ‘basics’ by working with simple patterns; An otherwise shy and introvert personal persona is disguised by a shock-creating provocative self-image?

Can one see him and his work ‘political’? And can such a perspective allow us to observe the very nature of dynamics between an individual artist – his work, in relation to the larger fashion industry?

He confesses that back home in Kolkata, he has a small circle of friends and rarely converses its streets. Negotiating the narrow gullis of chandni chowk in Delhi, he shares a familiar experience of ‘people’ phobia, where on being thrown in such a mass-space, he tends to retreat to a cocooned sense of it. His work has often been seen as belonging to a context of the culture and city he lives in, so I find a fascinating irony in it : Large sack-like tunics hide clever churidaars, a risqué interpretation of Indian silhouettes take on a punk-like street demenour, a dark sense of humour rejects an outer world but also effects it; all, reflect also a background informed deeply by a western education and living abroad.

It helps me arrive at whether it is relevant at all to observe and comment on ‘Indianess’, and does not the equally inherent conversation between various influences create a ‘contemporariness’?

And does this contemporariness essentially not reflect what is a ‘vernacular’?

Through his work I search intensely for the expression of an identity that cannot be typified in a general ‘local-global’ structure, where its individuality reflects diverse regional-national-international subjects but is also in some ways universal in its appeal.

I also wonder about our shifting sense of spaces and how it informs our work and what we do. If the body is seen as a space inhabited by itself without any space-time continuum, imagine the inner-outer dramas where what we wear creates all magic!

Creating for fashion and is time-ness, a certain timelessness.

THE IDEA OF FASHION, A residency on Fashion opens on 17th February, 2011 at Khoj Studios, S-17, Khirki Extension, New Delhi; at 6 pm. The works presented show diverse interactions with fashion by Photographer Anay Mann, Fashion designers Arjun Saluja and Kallol Datta, and visual artists Manisha Parekh and Mithu Sen.

The show will remain open till 21st February. For more details about Khoj and how to reach there, please see http://www.khojworkshop.org

Opening remarks are below:

THE IDEA OF FASHION

Anay Mann, Arjun Saluja, Kallol Datta,Manisha Parekh, Mithu Sen

Through this 2- week residency exploring Fashion; Khoj continues its enquiry into, and conversation with practices like Sound, Design, Architecture and Ecology. In creating a platform for a process by which art can converse with fashion, it allows for an expansion of its own understanding of an artistic practise and phenomena which, in Khoj Director Pooja Sood’s words ‘has always appeared as something happening to someone else, somewhere else’. It has also allowed fashion to understand and reflect on itself better, without restraints of its commercial viability.

On first glance, art and fashion may seem like separate worlds: Art, a pursuit which may be seen as an end in itself, created for contemplation, and for poetic consumption; and also one that takes itself seriously in its own role in society. Fashion may be seen on the one hand as a utilitarian ‘trivial,mundane’ matter of what people wear, and on the other, as an elitist exercise operating in the realm of superficial conversations and  expensive brands. Both function today as massive industries, with diverse players and varied impacts. Both can also be seen as important tools and instruments in society which shape contemporary culture; reflecting changing aspects of relationships, identity, communication, politics and the economy.

Three large, general directions became important guides through which processes for the participants played out. One, was to look at fashion as a construct and artefact where it is studied more anthropologically, and in how it provides us a mirror to understand the world and people around us. Here, questions related to the very need/role of art, design and fashion were explored. Second, was to look at the ‘making’ of fashion as a creative process informed by its own specific technology and concerns. And the third, was to explore how art and fashion can converse with each other through their similarities and differences.

Emerging out of a photographer, visual artists and fashion designers with strong practises; the works presented here reflect a conversation with each other in layered ways. Each’s work is an interpretation of how their work relates to fashion, and these diverse meanderings make use of its ingredients and inherent intentions. But perhaps the most important shifts took place for all of them, when they started to see ‘fashion’ as not merely synonyms with ‘clothes’ : In whatever way it is experienced or understood, fashion is essentially a product of time. Its ability to reveal aspects of human motivation and inspiration, suggests itself as an important mark of civilisation. In its poetry, it can tragically show us our frailties and failures.

The triumph of this journey ultimately though; is how this pause and interaction with a seeming ‘other’ has allowed each one of us to reflect on our own practise, and to understand what remains the same while observing its ever-changing nature.

Mayank Mansingh Kaul

Co-curator & Critic-in-Residence

17 February, 2011
New Delhi

 

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Day 4 blogging at Khoj’s residency on fashion

Anay Mann – through photography – tries to understand himself and issues that concern him, and has left behind a past that tried to capture ‘other’ people and their moments. He has, for the past few years, been involved in a journey that can transform photography into an art form, from being an instrument of observing realities around and its documentary idiom. In this very distinct shift he made; I find an exploration of the very role and purpose of art for its maker : to reflect on oneself, to enquire into our motivations, to discuss our desires, to reveal our core. And through such self-reflection, to observe our own shifting identities. These self-potraitures provoke a rather direct, sudden response at first. This provocation however leads to a deeper engagement with the work, which draws one further to the complex emotions at play in them, as well as multiple layers of meanings-questions.

A very necessary part of how fashion gets created at any given point of time is how photography conveys its products, how models carry these products and converse with a viewer, and the kind of platforms such photography gets shown in. If fashion be seen as a way of creating an image that builds or breaks the notions of such a time – then photography allows for both a creative as well as activist role – in that it can suggest its poetry, politics and propaganda. In a consumerist culture it plays an important role in creating aspiration – a quest for something/someone one does not have, and exists in a necessarily never-achievable space – to sustain a mode of production which requires its products to remain constantly in demand.

It drives an obsolescence which can be driven primarily by a shifting idea of oneself, where the paraphernalia which constructs such self-hood – clothes, verbal language, the use of digital technology and so on – acquires an identity by its ‘date-hood’. Since its invention, the camera allowed for different parts of the world to share different realities with one another. In today’s world, it can be used to further a commonality that is often associated with ‘universal values’, which further promotes the idea of a shared-humanity where people across countries may have more in common, than their neighbours in their own cities.

However, photography also captures – beyond a visible sameness in the way people look around the world – their unique stances; the confidences-doubts of their assertive-apologetic shoulders, of their upheld-bent spines, their stimulated-tired eyes. It can capture aspects of human temperament that reveals its constructed performances and natural manifestations.

My questions about Anay’s journey through this residency become about how he may play with overt/inert suggestions to human nature? Can the move of photography to an art form play with seemingly unobvious motivations to emerge obvious truths? Can the obviousness in the way we look ‘externally’, hide the intentions behind? And in this sense, can fashion ever – if seen as a way of potentially providing the ability to ‘change’ our identities – allow one ‘in reality’ to erase a past sense of self?

Is it really then all that important?

Can its superficiality, allow us to see an aspect of human psyche which may further our understanding of it?

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day 3 blogging at khoj’s residency on fashion

For both Manisha Parekh and Mithu Sen, fashion presents itself as a new world. In allowing themselves to immerse in such a journey to learn something ‘new’, they constantly relate their own artistic practises with this; allowing a wider opportunity for art itself to converse with a seeming ‘other’.

While I have been more familiar with Mithu’s work, I remember a show that Manisha had done at Gallery Nature Morte in 2009, where – upon seeing her work – I was struck by its ability to evoke a journey of endless inner possibilities. Invoking a tactile world so primal in its ability to suggest a universal sameness and humanity, it also provoked the question of how such apparent sameness contains – intrinsically – possibilities of its own individualities.

Forms that appear similar, buzz with their own independent desires to become something else. Textures – that ostensibly emerge from grid-like patterns – whisper anarchic intentions. Her work defies definition and yet exudes a feminine knowingness of elemental affirmations in human nature : In her use of materials it suggest to me ‘woman’s work’ – an insistent passivity – hearing paper, ropes, ink, fabric; which allow them to converse with her, making the maker somewhat  a medium of an expression much larger than herself?

It is therefore not surprising that upon seeing a range of international and Indian fashion work, she is drawn to Japanese sensibilities.

In the 1980s, a number of radical Japanese designers almost stormed the Parisian fashion scene with their avant garde designs for the female form, which challenged its ‘hour glass’ notions. New in the western traditions, they however drew from ancient traditional eastern ones where a certain androgyny – an amorphous play between what are seen as ‘male’ and ‘female’ energies – allowed a modern questioning on the very role of clothing and adornment to engage ‘genders’. Aggressive ideals of dress to ‘establish’ and elicit reactions, were countered by more receptive ways to ‘assert’ and intuitively respond. The more technology pushed the emergence of radical materials that did never-before-seen things, it furthered an enquiry into the past and its affordances for a contemporary definition of what it meant to be ‘Japanese’ in both a local and global way.

In how it required its success in Paris to enter the imagination of an international audience, is the story of how the process of fashion at all level creates centralizing tendencies. However the success of such Japanese experiments during those times were also informed with the need to address its own country, creating the foundation for what has become one of the most original cultures in the world.

In exploring a contemporary materiality, it was also not surprising that her first questions in the residency were related to how she could explore the ‘making’ of fashion in her own way. She was drawn therefore at first to work with draping and pattern-making on body-forms, basic processes which go into making garments.

One of my main questions at the start of the residency was to look at fashion as not only synonyms with clothes and an artifact with an end in itself; but also as a broad way of understanding, engaging- with or thinking of anything. When we talk of a certain way of eating, living, talking and so on as being ‘fashionable’; we are also referring to something that is more of a human phenomena – something that is amorphously dynamic in its ability to converge many factors – imbued, with a certain perception of time.

Manisha and Mithu’s shifts took place when they enquired into fashion as an idea or concept: Manisha began to see that much like art – where an artist attempts to create his/her own mark on/with a material – fashion too, represents a very basic human nature to personalize anything/everything. Mithu, enclosed within the vaccum (and limitless possibilities) of an empty room, began to see how the constant creation/ re-creation of identity through clothing also represents a basic human nature to enquire beyond visible exteriors towards a core. Here, the peeling/shedding of each layer to reveal the next explains the motivations of exploring life as a continuous process of showing us something new.

This newness often also reveals itself to be a product of a past, so can we see fashion as something therefore that provides us the connect between a real/imagined history-future, creating a memory-anxiety as a reflection of a constantly shifting now?

Does it not, then, become a way of capturing a moment understood and experienced only by its very true essence?

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day 2 – fashion residency at khoj

To place into a studied process like a residency, an enquiry into what might be considered a rather mundane subject of what people/we wear; may require us to examine the larger idea of what this means in the society and culture we function in on the one hand, and on the other the personal-creative-artistic process which goes into creating this ‘fashion’ for the maker. Much like we study, understand and engage with art; we could look at the role such a creative process lends itself to – as creating some kind of conversation and impact in society – as well as enabling a certain transformational process for the maker to go through, intentionally or otherwise. My first enquiry into the residency therefore began with the exploration of how these threads play out, where for instance, a maker could engage with the process of creating something for the sheer experience of itself but is informed ultimately with or impacts at the end a certain audience/ receiver /society /people. And the other way round.

For Arjun Saluja, the residency started out as an opportunity to connect with a number of other individuals and to know them through who they are as people, and their process of work. Arjun’s work reflects an important qualitative aspect of India’s fashion-design scene and business, while representing a small minority : Termed ‘conceptual’ as different from ‘commercial’ – to use more common use of the fashion-industry language – it explores different ways in which the body is presented through garments. It moves from being anti-‘fit’, to enhancing body features that are otherwise more commonly attempted to be made ‘lean’(the hip for instance), towards androgyny.

In what may be defined as a high-end fashion market in India represented by the few stores that carry such designer-wear, clothes reflect more a wearers ability to spend (through the amount of embellishment used and the name of the designer-brand). It is not surprising that he therefore functions in an-almost private space, finding comfort in a small – even if increasing – number of like-minded designers and creatives. He belongs to a group of designers who may also derive their legitimacy by being in a ‘different’ minority.

A fine line borders the individualistic aspects of his work and a creative process which may be seen as indulgent in that it serves its own purpose. I wonder how to see however the angst and dogged determination of him to consistently expand the market for this products both within the country and abroad? Has he never been tempted to ‘compromise’ and push such work towards an almost couture-like, one-of-a-kind product while making money out of more ‘commercial’ work? Is it innaetely possible for him to do so?And considering that continuing to be in the Indian market, rather optimistically, means also educating-cultivating-creating a market that does not exist at the moment, but also addressing a crowd that may have more in common with each other across countries rather than in one’s own?

Will Arjun see this residency as a pause to reflect on his own work as an artist and designer functioning in a certain context of a fashion-industry? Will he use it to further his conviction in the kind of work he does? Can the existing work he does find relevance in an art-gallery space or can such work command prices that art does? Or be seen as art?

And if in some ways his work can be seen as ‘futuristic’ in that it presents a take on fashion which may become more popular tomorrow(and is not today!), then what might it mean for him to explore ‘going into the past’ or ‘regress’ in his work?

 

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fashion residency begins at khoj – day 1

On one of my visits to Khoj studios last year, I passed by three twelve-thirteen year-olds sitting on a motorcycle shouting out at a black-burqa-wearing, elderly woman passing by : Their accusing screams – ‘Iraqi! Iraqi! Oye Iraqi…’ – were followed by a spontaneous, almost-fun session of improvised music-making; the motorcycle seats became a tabla for percussion, the metal of the motor a ground for their teenage palms, as they played to a Bollywood beat.

It was odd, to be faced with such sudden ridicule turning into merry-making, the woman walking on seemingly unfazed by the commotion.

An everyday occurrence, I wondered?

A little ahead, I see a young man – distinguished in his effeminate walk – with decorative lilts in every step, and a colourful mizhaj that shone through his otherwise rather drab-pale clothes.

The inner landscapes can represent a self, often not disguised by clothes?

The scene changes with my every trip to Khoj. Sometimes, one passes groups of giggling college girls – odd only in their African clothes which stand out amidst the general sartorial codes of Khirki village’s narrow gullis – but which often seem only natural to a place changing constantly, so dynamic in its diversity, and yet so endearing in its sameness. Sometimes, I find a crowd of men around the local dhobi’s daughter who holds court in her little shop – often with brightly painted lips and a suggestive button open on her blouse – she plays, flirts, and leaves them hanging for more as she returns to her mundane, everyday chores of creasing out lines from freshly dried clothes.

What are her aspirations I wonder? What does she want to be?

Through my years at design school, I often struggle to explain to more ‘enlightened’ colleagues from graphic and product design disciplines on the importance of fashion and how it has shaped much of who and what we are today. So, when Pooja Sood asks me if I would be interested in doing something on fashion with Khoj, I jump at once with an instant ‘Yes!’: I cannot think of a more powerful force in culture today than fashion – something that is second skin, communicates so immediately, leads a consumerism that makes or breaks nations, and yet is always seen as ‘only something about the clothes that we wear’.

Perhaps we would think differently if the burqa that becomes mandatory on us, did merely represent a symbolic notion of our religion and identity. Perhaps we would think differently if the same financial aspirations that forced us to go to ‘Rapidex English Speaking Courses’ in jeans – to get ‘better’ at our job – also addressed the realities of our panchayats back home that bans us from wearing jeans. Perhaps we would think differently if Hijras wore shirts and trousers and went to work in offices like yours and mine, IF they got work in offices like yours and mine.

In the drama of our universes; where identities get created rigidly and change amorphously, where the clash of differences often lead to the utterance of a never-before-seen other, where white money’s khadi kurtas hide black money’s American underwears; fashion – this phenomena of change – deserves a moment’s pause for reflection.

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