Walsh Gallery, 118 N. Peoria St., 2nd floor, Chicago, IL 60607
What we must demand from the photographer is the ability to put such a caption beneath his picture as will rescue it from the ravages of modishness and confer upon it a revolutionary use value.
mmmmmmmmmm-- Understanding Brecht, Walter Benjamin
Walsh Gallery specializes in Asian art, but in May and June 2003, the gallery brilliantly juxtaposed the massive, colorful sculptural heads of Indian artist Ravinder Reddy (he teaches art at the Andhra University in South India) with the smaller scaled photo-text diptychs of Madison, Wisconsin photographer Lewis Koch. What possible connections were there between these two artists, artists opposed in their ethnic origins, place of production, and media of choice?
Dharamsala, H.P., India (young Buddhist monk's math practice made of tsampa [roasted barely flour and tea] in the temple at Tibetan Children's Village, one panel of a diptych, gelatin silver print, 16 x 20 in., 1999) Lewis Koch
Appayamma (painted polyester-resin fiberglass, 68 x 49 x 74 in., 2001) Ravinder Reddy
Reddy's work, writes critic Ashrafi S. Bhagat in The Hindu (2002), "is within the traditional mold; his sculptures are essentially large heads and single figures through which he inscribes his 'Indianness'." But not only "Indianness" is at stake here, an intra-India cultural rivalry pitting Northern with Southern areas, an agon that is not obvious to Western audiences. Since colonial times, dominant Northern India has taken precedence over that of the Southern States. It has held cultural hegemony over the South. But beginning in the early 1960s, the Madras Art Movement has increasing brought these once marginalized areas into more prominence. Thus, within the context of Indian art, Reddy's art is aligned with this challenge from the margins. In the West, this rivalry is largely overlooked and Reddy's work becomes expressive of a postmodernist attitude: multiculturalism, an opportunity to celebrate the cultural production of the under-appreciated non-Western, and hybridization, his work seen as a cultural thermometer of the interfacing of Western and traditional cultures.
An exchange of gazes at Walsh Gallery,
Ravinder Reddy / Lewis Koch Opening
Reddy's Brobdingnagian heads are iconic forms reminiscent of religious sculptures, of the popular visual culture of the urban bazaar. Their simple overall form is balanced by the attention to ornamental detail -- plastic bands, gold-plated earrings, ribbons and scarves that are akin to those sold in village festivals -- in such a way that these objects read paradoxically as both traditional and modern. They filled the large interior space with bright color that demanded one pay attention to them; they gratified immediately and invited touch. Although they appeared to be of carved wood, their actual materials are painted polyester-resin fiberglass. The heads, their lips pursed and wide-open eyes staring at the viewer, established an exchange of gazes crisscrossing the gallery space. They set a tone of colorful exoticism blending elite and popular forms in a way deliberately just bordering on the Kitsch.
In contradistinction, Koch's work only gradually emerged into one's notice. Their smaller size, the textual elements, and the monochromatic tonality invited one to eventually approach and demanded one spend time perusing each diptych (preferably while holding the list of works sheet for detailed information on the sources of the reproduced text in each photo-text couplet). The two bodies of work on view were formally distinct enough so as not to interfere with each other, and each provided a different perspective, but they were united by a common theme: India. Each artist's work strengthened the experience of the other's work. It is with Mr. Koch's work that I will focus on here.
The significance of Koch's superbly printed images lie in precisely not reproducing the tourist mentality toward that over-exoticized land, India, as found in much color photography by both Indian and Outsider alike. Dayanita Singh, a prominent Indian photographer, has bemoaned the fact that some of her own work caters to Western eyes. And reviewers have pointed out that Robert Arnett's recent book India Unveiled still treats us (in his text) with the Eurocentric myth of the Aryan invasion of India in 2500 B.C. and (in his photographs) with hot, vivid color we Westerners usually associate with India. But Koch's self-conscious personal documentary aesthetic eschews color; shot in black and white, they ignore the stereotypical exotic National Geographic subjects. Instead, this photographer, working within the "snapshot aesthetic" of street photography (whose purity he "ruins" with his textual asides), frames the seemingly banal, the lucky finds, the neglected, and the accidental occurrence. It is almost as if we are seeing India through an Indian flaneur's eyes. This is hard to do given the daunting accretion of texts and documents, fantasies, legends, jokes by indigenous and foreign peoples concerning that vast land. Koch reminds us of this by pairing some of those diverse textual fragments with his images. Like Walter Benjamin's insight that history should become a counter-history and that as such past and present overlay each other as a palimpsest revealed via startling juxtapositions of fragmentary elements (a method akin to Surrealism), Koch's image-text configurations probe India-past / India-now, producing perturbations and shocks that the imagery or text alone could not accomplish. Koch's photographs transform his experience into a document; conversely, the textual documents he pairs with them makes those documents a place for new experience.
Walter Benjamin said that given the meltdown of traditional art forms due to the impact of new technologies of reproduction, picture and text, photographer and writer, were becoming inseparable. He urged captioning photographs -- juxtaposing text and image -- as a way of taking the authority of naming away from the control of the dominant class and politicizing the cultural product. This, of course, was at odds with photographic Purism's firm separation of these two modes of expression with its consequent devaluing of language in favor of the supposedly superior visual image. Liberated from their original contexts, the subject matter in Koch's photographs and the textual fragments he pulls together are recontextualized so as to stress the fact that seeing the Other -- especially a foreign culture -- is a complex construction, an intertextuality that can be traced ad infinitum.
Koch balances his idiosyncratic visual statements with these text fragments appropriated from indigenous sources and outsider commentary: from theoretical texts to government documents to poems to religious tracts. On one level a kind Surrealist juxtapositioning of visual and verbal fragments occurs, on another, a postmodernist concern with representation. In one pairing, Koch juxtaposes a very picturesque view of the Taj Mahal as barely glimpsed through haze or fog as seen from across the Yamuna with a textual fragment from Tim Edensor's postmodernist deconstruction of tourist imagery, Tourist at the Taj: Performance and Meaning at a Symbolic Site (London, 1988). This self-conscious postmodernist strategy of Koch's aims at revealing the "violence of representation" in all such photography of the Other; it pulls Koch's project -- he spent nearly a year in northern India making periodic forays south from Dharamsala -- away from the heroics of traditional documentary of the exotic into problematizing the very act of image-making he practices. This is photography to the second power, a photography about photography itself, in which the creating mind deals with its own thought processes just as much as with the material it aesthetically works on.
Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India (Taj Mahal seen from across the Yamuna,
midday, New Year's Eve, 1995, 16 x 33 in., gelatin silver print diptych) Lewis Koch
Looking for the quirky detail Koch often frames his subjects in ways that "disclarifies" them. He even (unwittingly?) mimics a compositional trait found in many nineteenth-century Indian photographs made by indigenous photographers where a large foreground feature often looms to block the visual path between viewer and subject so the eye is never gracefully led through the composition. "Indian photographs," writes Judith Mara Gutman in "Through Indian Eyes" (1982), "generally do not have vanishing points, and, even if there is a perspectival dip or an exaggerated perspective, it is usually linked to a second plane of flatness . . . as if he [the photographer] were roaming over a range of "vantage points" outside the picture, which resulted in a multifocused picture." Likewise, in Koch's Iron Pillar at Qutab Minar (1995), a large pole intervenes between foreground and background. Paired with this image is a photograph of a page from Caleb Wright's Eurocentric commentary on India, Curiosities and Remarkable Customs in Pagan and Mahammedan Countries: Costumes and Remarkable Personages in India (Boston, 1849).
Iron Pillar at Qutab Minar (16 x 33 in., gelatin silver print diptych, 1995) Lewis Koch
Formally, this image is divided into thirds, the central third is filled with a close-up of a large pillar; a person stands with his back to the pillar, his arms in white sleeves awkwardly wrapped around it so his elongated finger with nails that seem almost to glow caress the pillar. One feels the tension in the arms, so awkward is this reverse embrace. In between those groping fingers one spies an imperfection in the pillar which looks remarkably like the outline of the India subcontinent itself. Just above that and to the right is an indentation that looks like a brutal knife slash. On each side of this central third, the background (what looks like a poor, small village square) is visible, but slightly out of focus. Three people, two adults and a child, are barely glimpsed in the left section. This checkmates the voyeurism of traditional tourist photography. The image raises more questions than it answers; although something of the agony of impovershment and India's violent past and troubled present is suggested. The lighting is soft and subtle, so it adds no visual dramatics to the scene. Meanwhile, the Eurocentric textual accompaniment is a word-quake destabilizing the edifice of Westernized interpretation, reminding us of the inherent bias in representing a culture from within the conventions of another culture.
Koch does not engage in what anthropologists term "intersubjective time," a reciprocal, empathic engagement with his subjects as seen in Dayanita Singh's recent photographic studies of contemporary Indian families, or in the late Northern California photographer Morrie Camhi's studied, sympathetic images of the Jews of Greece. He cultivates an attitude of respectful, distant affection rather than intimate connection with his subjects. But neither does Koch isolate the exotic in another time, an eternal Past-in-the-Present. Not infrequently, he will juxtapose the ancient, the traditional with the contemporary, new Western influences both within an image and between image and text, creating that palimpsest of past / present mentioned above. For instance, in Udaipur, Rajasthan one sees a wedding parade cart equipped with a electrical generator (yet another image shows the hand-held electric lamps this generator powers); the former image is paired with a 1951 text by Indian author Sudhim N. Ghose that raises questions about how artifical light impacts the nocturnal experiences of the Indian populace.
The thirty-one diptych installation ends with a shot of wedding party pyrotechnics, a man holding flaring fireworks, paired with the Acknowledgement page from Shiva's Pigeons: An Experience of India (1972) by Jon and Rumer Godden, photographs by Stella Snead.
The photographer neither romanticizes nor claims to master his subject. Modest, he makes us realize that, ultimately, he is an Outsider here and can't probe this society like an Insider might; yet there are things he reveals which Insiders may not see for being too immersed in it. Like Robert Frank, who in his photobook The Americans penetrated deeper into the 1950s United States's malaise by the very fact he was an immigrant seeing with fresh eyes, Koch finds curious items for our inspection; for instance, the young Buddhist monk's math practice (depicted above) made of rolled tsampa (roasted barely flour and tea) discovered in the temple at the Tibetan Children's Village in Dharamsala. Or the visual complexity of a soda advertisement in situ in Udaipur, Rajasthan (see below).
Udaipur, Rajasthan (soda advertisement, 16 x 20 in.gelatin
silver print, one panel of a diptych, 1995) Lewis Koch
In sum, although these images are taken by a Westerner, there is no colonial lens at work here. Koch is no Samuel Bourne (1834 - 1912), the noted British photographer who confidently photographed the expanses of India during the 1860s, patting himself on the back in his journal for symbolically conquering the newly acquired British colony for Western eyes, while periodically trouncing his equipment-carrying "coolies" with a stout stick for their recalcitrance and bemoaning their inferiority, e.g., "On every hand you are reminded of the religious zeal of this deluded people" (July 1, 1863). In fact, my only criticism of Koch's installation is that it would have been most interesting if Koch had juxtaposed some of his imagery with textual citations from Bourne's journals (for such excerpts, see Samuel Bourne: Images of India by Arthur Ollman, Untitled 33, The Friends of Photography, 1983).
-- Copyright 2003 by James R. Hugunin, Chicago, IL --
Koch's images reviewed here are now available in a catalogue:
Notes from the Stone-Paved Path: Meditations on North India (University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries, Parallel Press, 2003).
For more information, or to order this text, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Catalogue cover and Installation views from Koch's exhibition at
the University of Wisconsin-Madison University Library