Of Human Endeavor:
The Super Exposed City and the New Possibilities of Space
An essay on the corporeal experience of the contemporary metropolis in Pooja Iranna’s art
Like Pooja Iranna, I belong to the city of New Delhi, a city that has transformed so rapidly in the last few years that we the residents are left bemused at its expanding scale and baffled at the implications of this rapid urban metamorphosis – from a post-Independent refugee Capital city defining and shaping the modern nation to becoming one of the key stations in the Post-global economic and political network. It is in this context that I feel compelled to read Pooja’s work, and it is to this nexus that I feel she contributes most as an urban artist.
Pooja’s art has made slight visual shifts every few years since she began working after graduating from the College of Art, New Delhi in 1995 but she has remained true to her inspirational precedents – built urban structures, how they order and articulate space and the response of the human body and the human psyche to these spaces.
The particular brand of her visual language has existed in the blurred boundaries between painting, photography, mixed media collages and sculptures and between architecture, urban spatiality and abstraction. But it is my belief that it is this very interstitial nature of her work that opens up a set of dialogues on contemporary habitats rarely embarked upon, except in terms of ecological activism. There in nothing in Pooja’s work that discusses the ‘peri-urban’ phenomenon, the place where the city and the countryside meet, where the natural and the manmade clash. Nor does it talk of architecture as dwelling, thus referring to the built structures as habitats. If at all, it is the very opposite of this particular dialectic of space as ‘lived’ that helps us initiate a conversation about how we can think about our lives lived in bounding metropolises and among towering and omnipresent buildings.
Of particular reference are the photographic works (Reflective Energies I & II, Converging/Segregating I, II & III, all 2008) from Pooja’s oeuvre, digitally manipulated, often mirror images of photographs of buildings and other built structures, like bridges, taken by the artist. Rather then carrying the burden of too close a cultural or geographic reference, these images identify a certain characteristic of contemporary structures: to fulfill a potent symbolic function reflecting the ideology of ‘newness’, or if you like, radical and forward-looking development.
When looking at the photographic works we are aware firstly of the soaring access, of spatiality articulated as a spectacle. This free movement is aided but also ordered by the architectural elements, creating frames which are patterned by grids, reducing the magnificence to the manageable. What they are are present day high-rises, headquarters of Multinational Corporations, Banks or World Agencies, shiny glass clad buildings that belong to no-place and can be seen in every-place. But what they have become in Pooja’s work are radical architecture, emptying space of time and event thus creating a shock of absolute fragmentation and dislocation.
A striking feature of Pooja’s work is the lack of human presence. It begs the question, what are the social and cultural implications when the act of building monuments overpowers the actors themselves, when these structures are devoid of utility and take on an existence much larger, much more monumental then the humble-ness of the lived or occupied space? They surpass even the discourse of design and become monstrous in their ability to pass over the one aspect of architecture that makes it relatable, its absolute necessary relationship with the human body. Our occupation of space is not quantifiable or abstract but very material and culturally specific: gestures, habits, performances, residue-leaving practices, poetic/political discourse/collective imagination, commemoration, everyday practices, spectacles, ceremonies, and the like... can Pooja help us come up with an understanding of spatial(izing) art and lived practices?
How do we then respond to this deflection of relatability if not attempt to fill the space with emotions, thoughts and desires, when our body is too limited, too small for the challenge? Her work flies in the face of the dictum that ‘all really inhabited space bears the essence of the notion of home’ (Bachelard, Poetics of Space). And yet her art is an articulation of the essence of the phenomenological experience. It brings to mind Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin's concept of the flaneur, a city-wanderer who experiences the city through walking without being recognized, with a freedom one would not find in rural settlements. For urban living is very intimate (spatial proximities of modern housing and work areas) and very distant (social distance of anonymous existences) at the same time.
Pooja’s art is preoccupied with the urban environment as the location for this experience. She experiences space through her senses, thus we get, in Henri Lefebvre’s words, “not texts but texture”. While we can still identify the physical precedents of the photographic works it is in her paintings Apex/ Base I & II that we experience the ultimate sense of nothingness, a space then filled with immense possibilities. There is still the articulation of three dimensionality but it is a visualization of intangible ideas, of emotions and of individual experiences. It is in this aspect that one sees the poetry in the austerity of Pooja’s visual language, her limited palette and the spaces she creates, spaces which are alien and isolating and also, in a weird way, inviting, encouraging your thoughts to soar high, glide along the smooth planes or settle in the nooks and crannies. We not only create and transform architectural spaces, but we also produce stories, myths, imaginations about them. These spatial imaginations can not be dissociated from the material corpus of the city.
It is not so implausible to consider poetry, architecture and art together, for their interest with form, their use of meter or structure, and their stance toward their environments. They involve our perception and how that perception is translated into a created, or built, environment. Pooja inserts into this triangulation us human beings, the creators and receptors of such activities. The human presence is not the central visual character of her work but present more in essence, a viewer whose awareness of self is heightened by the lack of others. I may not be present in Pooja’s art but it has been made with the knowledge of me.
Miniscule Monumentality: Pooja’s New Sculptural Exploration
The fascinating new development in the current body of work are the intricate sculptures made by the artist using staples. Resembling building models they cleverly replicate many of the ideas in the digital works and paintings but also the formal aspects of composition, colour and form. The vast expanse of Confluence I, the complex geography of the pyramid in Convergence/ Segregating I and the lyricism and precision of Confluence II are astounding. They give some indication of the unique vision with which Pooja sees the world, as a collection of abstractions that fit together, as a digital design but also as a ‘new nature’ that is defined by us and in return defines us.
Her play with scale from the vast to the miniscule, an aspect that has been a part of her creative process from the start, is worked to perfection in these sculptures. Though this is not the first time Pooja has made sculptures, in 2006 she made Standing Strong where she laminated digital prints onto boxes and stacked them as towers and To My Kids With Love where similar boxes formed a grid wall it is with this work that we see the maturing of Pooja’s style. There is none of the ad-hoc or the vainly constructed in these staple sculptures. Their strength lies in how they belie the fragility of their size and material and take on the persona of a much more powerful thing, like modern architecture - shiny, metallic and ordered. As Pooja puts it, ‘They look delicate and yet they are strong. Any strand left loose or a frail part ignored can make the whole structure crumble and fall apart never to be built to the same strength.’ But it is this very aspect that the sculptures celebrate, the ‘human endeavor’ that urges us on to better what exists and to push the limits of imagination and possibility.
the public space appears as an architectural and identity space, one fully open to small narratives. So then do we begin to consider this over-equipped city around us as a new landscape, even with the aesthetic connotations attached to this term? The city is an environment consisting of the work of man, and this work carries the mark of visual considerations. In fact, nothing could be more false than to assert, as one often does, that today’s city testifies to a total indifference with regard to form and ambiance. On the contrary, from building fronts to billboards, almost everything is designed and seeks to attract and seduce the eye. The chaotic character of the large, contemporary cityscape originates, as witnessed in Pooja’s art, more from an over-abundance of aesthetic intentions than from their radical absence. The artist takes pleasure in multiplying architectural perspectives in order to mislead the spectator. This architecture may cause anxiety due to its potentially limitless character, yet it is the limitlessness of the constructed that also frees it, and us, from the shackles of confinement and thus urban imprisonment. The ever-expanding boundaries of the built space become our new frontiers, our anxious landscapes.