One by one images flicker and roll over on the Macintosh screen in no particularly connected fashion. A tranquil seascape all of a sudden gives way to a series of marble images of Greek kuros, perfect in their athletic body, reveling in their nakedness. Suddenly the screen lights up with an image of a Venus pudica concealing her genetilia and her breasts with her languid arms. Across the computer screen on the wall of the small intimate studio, in a stark black and white photographic image, one sees a fragile naked male body echo the gesture of concealment, with deeply veined hands covered with hair; each sinewy blood vessel standing out in sharp contrast against the pale skin. It is an uncanny moment of reflective connection, for no mirror intervenes yet the two images are clearly interconnected. Why one may ask is the long tradition of the reluctant female nude being inverted here? What kind of questions is the artist Rameshwar Broota posing at us by turning his camera lens on himself and his immediate intimate circle? Why is there such a profuse use of reflective surfaces in his recent body of work, initiated by the camera lens yet completely restructured by the artists own interventions with image manipulation software, radically altering the imperatives of photography itself?
There are no easy answers to these questions for his images are deeply complex mediations on the idea of photography and the role it can play in representation, self representation as well as fictional creation. Initially, in this recent body of photographs, one is struck by the strands of continuity as well as discontinuity with an older tradition of looking, framing and recording with the lens and thereafter transforming the image through post production interventions. This though is no coincidence as, for over thirty years Broota has been engaged in a dual pursuit. A search for a perfect synthesis between human intervention and the all absorbing lens that records as well as a second inquiry that disrupts the art historical category of the “nude” as representing the uncovered female body. In fact the male body that too the self-image recorded through a camera has informed his paintings for years, with the human eye augmented by the lens being central to the way in which he engages with self introspection.
Photography is a combination of fact and fiction says Broota. Objects convey meaning beyond their physical appearance and photographic methods are a means to an end. A silver kettle with two spouts, blocked by a finger that does not allow for the steam to escape; making the bulging pot appear to bulge even more with its own contents; two fingers touching and stretching elastically in a mirror like formation, despite the fact that the two fingers are identical, or a man’s body affixed to a female skirt clad lower half, these fictitious meanderings of the mind are of course only a continuation of a process he initiated many years ago.
Stacked in his studio are envelopes filled with photographs made many years ago, cut into bits, pasted on to sheets of plastic; scaled down variations of the same image, with laboriously crafted tonal gradations achieved by scratching the emulsion surface. Transferring the image weaving process into the digital domain though, has not reduced the labor that goes into making of his works. Rather it has allowed him to achieve full control over a process of imaging that for many years was separated between the image taker with the camera and the image maker in the dark room who could only approximate what he was instructed to do by the conceiver of the image. For Broota who acquired a computer as soon as it became available to the public at large, the screen is an easel, the mouse a brush and the pursuit of a digitally perfected vision as solitary, lonely and emotionally involved a task as painting. It is a painterly engagement that draws him to the computer generated image and not the virtual world of the internet as a social/ public space to make art works for.
Accepted norms around photographic picture taking have generally privileged wearing the “cloak of invisibility” in order to turn the lens on others without stepping into the picture frame, so as to unmask the “truth.” This notion of photographic integrity, untouched by intervention of the human hand has often been signaled by a black thin out line; the frame of the photograph as a sign of its purity. Integral to the language of straight photography that repudiates the idea of cropping, the black box is claimed by Broota for an altogether different purpose. It appears as a deliberate marker of pictorial space, defining the field of visual engagement determined by the artist in no uncertain terms. Space as defined by creative agency rather than the film frame as a marker of non intervention by hand, is central to the way Broota engages with photographic constructs. Often left as an expanse of white or black against which a figure appears either cropped or floating freely; un-tethered by gravity, the space is not an indicator of absence but rather, a dense matrix that becomes an arena for the display of the body. Slicing, cropping, feathering edges to seamlessly blend disparate elements together and disrupting the dyadic yet uneasy relationship between surveillance and sousveillance by turning the camera on his own self, Broota disrupts the very basis of photography in more ways than one. Using the camera as a marker of an emotional state rather than a physical location, he faces the camera or turns the camera outwards to register his bodily connection to an emotional memory. It should come as no surprise therefore that his works remain untitled and he almost never remembers where he may have taken a photograph.
Consider for a moment his photograph of a couple, obviously basketball fans where a tattooed man wearing Michael Jordan’s No. 23 jersey, embraces his partner as they walk along a crowded street. The photograph taken from behind; a classic trope of “invisibility” of the camera eye and surveillance photography is disrupted by the upper register of the frame where Broota inserts himself, holding a camera in hand, making visible the act of photographing by registering it in a mirror. But all the visual indicators of a mirror; its inversing property, are erased away to create a blurry presence of a photographer at work. The rich saturated colors of the lower half are off-set by the monochromatic starkness of the self portrait above; the documentary photographer’s recognizable code of black and white applied to the self portrait, makes the photograph into a documentation of the documenter of the lower register.
I am watching you watching him, this rhetorical image of sousveillance in which Broota registers his presence from behind, appears in another interesting image where the indexical is mixed with a digitally fabricated image. Deep furrows left on a sandy beach by the tires of vehicles that wipe out all footprints in their wake, help us to register this even more strongly. A security guard, the signifier of surveillance, stands with his legs apart watching a young man catch his breath, as he steps out of the sea after a vigorous swim. Across the furrowed beach are two white chairs; inviting in their appearance. Their isolated presence on the beach can only symbolize a wait for an intimate encounter. The undercurrent of sexual frisson is therefore unmistakable. Broota’s eroticization of a seemingly simple image of a young man, beautiful in his physical perfection, by the addition of a figure of authority standing in an easily recognizable posture of dominance leading to a visual possession of the body gazed on, is a mysterious intervention that leaves us pondering over the nature of sexuality and desire itself.
Parodying the figure of authority even further in another image, he stretches and pulls at the corners of an image of a security officer distorting it; turning it into an expansive image of immoderation. Spliced with the upper half of the figure is a slice of a liquor cabinet, weighing down the head with the choicest of alcoholic beverages. Wearing a wafer thin moustache, a marker of his masculinity and a badge of honor emblematic of his authoritarian role, the figure is made to crumble symbolically under the weight of excesses.
This questioning of masculinity continues in his mechanomorphic images of men blending with machines. In an earlier video work in which Broota juxtaposes an image of a horse being broken in with footage of himself running around in circles merging with the thundering hoofs of the horse, one sees him positioning the notion of masculinity as a form of institutional inscription through which men are contained to fit into ascribed roles. This troublesome conforming device also pressurizes men to aspire towards hegemonic positions within society as sanctioned by dominant models of masculinity. The anxieties that result from an inability to conform to behavioural conditioning of gender, informs Broota’s work in more ways than one. Mean machines and men, warfare and masculinity have often been conflated throughout history, despite the fact that there is no “innate” male proclivity for violence. Often enough one witnesses women raise sons to be warriors and spouses shame men into entering conflict or extend themselves as the “main bread winners”. Thrust into roles they may despise, men often turn into mechanical performers or extensions of emotionless machines. Crouching on the floor as if poised for a rat race, weighed down by a steel girder, Broota enacts the role of a man turned into a metallic conduit of hollowness.
This transformation takes on an even more sinister appearance in a photograph where he blends the image of a rifle toting soldier into a machine with a thrusting, phallic looking extension. The image brings to ones mind Stanley Kubrick classic critique of army combat and training in his film Full metal jacket with its ironic, versified conflation of sexual indestructibility and the creation of invincible men ready for war. The film’s army drill litany This is my rifle (with soldiers grabbing their crotches.) This is my gun.(grabbing their rifle) This is for fighting, and this is for fun, is turned into an encounter between the rifle and metal phallus in Broota photographic juxtapositions, drawing attention to the alleged relationship between “sexual conquests” and armed combat.
Memory has a strange way of penetrating into ones day to day existence. Photographs are a way of preserving these reminiscences, fixing them within a specific time and place. But unless one carries a camera which remains on all the time; approximating the condition of vision, moments are missed and these find their essence in the condensed single shot. The condition of photography means that the next frame will always differ from the first however slight the change may be. Broota realizes that the essence can only be extracted by the staging of an image. In one image for example, Vasundhara his partner, wearing a bright red jacket is induced by him to walk past a shop window selling sports garments where several clothes dummies are staged as though lining up for the commencement of an athletic race. The shiny reflective windows of the shop front create a perceptual blinder, for the images they reflect are images of the street cut off from the frame of the photograph by the exclusory nature of the medium. Foreground is thus fused with the background and even as Vasundhara locks her gaze with the camera, she blinds it with her dark glasses. This interplay of visual exchange and its blinding reminds one of the camera shutter that records… then cuts and frames; enclosing in its box a fragment of a moment. But memories have a way of registering sensations that a camera can only approximate, calling for an intervention to draw in that invisible yet crucial element that makes something as commonplace as a walk along a street, a memory to remember. The intensity of the reds enhanced through a graphic programme then brings alive a fleeting memory of a chromatic collision on a chilly grey city street.
These little shifts and displacements are what set Rameshwar Broota’s images apart from photography and draw them into the realm of imaginings. That there is no place for an objective truth in his photographs. Laying claim to a fragmented view of the world in which the spectator is hurled from one temporal space to another, he takes up an object in a museum as an object to query in his images of Trotsky’s books as they lie in the study where he was assassinated in 1940. The Trotsky museum in Mexico City, a bullet riddled building devastated in an earlier assassination bid, houses the personal effects of the Marxist leader and thinker, expelled from the Soviet Union for his opposition to the Stalinist regime. Broota photographs his books, with worn out burnt edges and the wire rimmed spectacles he wore, as they lie on a low table in the study where he was assassinated. The full import of the image is radically transformed by multiplying the books digitally and adding a gleam of light to make them appear as if displayed in a glass showcase. This seamless multiplication of the books on display, their encasement in glass through digital means; enhancing their museamization, pushes the photograph from one time zone into another. From the present moment that preserves the books as they lay scattered at the very moment when he was assassinated (time stopped still) to a future when fiction may replace fact (through “photographic evidence”) just the way Trotsky was airbrushed out of every frame in the Soviet official archives once he was discredited by the Stalinist regime.
A farewell to photography was written into its invention itself. Could a photograph ever approximate reality especially an emotional state of being in its entirety? Certainly there are peculiar imperatives of photography that could never be a part of any other domain. But painting with light through the digitalized brush, over a photographically recorded image has its own possibilities that have allowed artists like Broota to collapse two differing positions into one. To intensify a subjective position, to speak of emotions that lie beyond the searching eye of the camera lens then becomes his own personal imperative to turn to the painterly photograph.
– Shukla Savant