Transcendence and Art

— By Raghava KK, Co-Curator, 64/1¹

The last two years I have been working on a painting series called sublime machines. It was a series where I felt compelled to infuse human intent to algorithms and geometries, trying to evoke new types of transcendent experiences that are more relevant for our present time. For people like me, who seek a higher truth, but for who God or Science just doesn’t cut it.

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Sublime Machines VIII (2016), Acrylic on Canvas, 72 x 36 inches (left) and Sublime Machines X (2016), Acrylic on Canvas, 72 x 36 inches (right), Raghava KK

While I was working on these, my brother Karthik and I were having conversations about these paintings and also about an idea that moved us personally: the idea that we can be more than ourselves, or at least try to be, in other words, transcendence again. We were interested less is theories (religious or psychological) that explained transcendence but in the quality of the experience itself and the power it can have to alter one’s life path. We learnt that there were three key aspects of any transcendent experience: We borrowed from a religious theorist Rudolf Otto’s definition of the
numinous as mysterium tremendum et fascinans: an attractive yet awe-inspiring mystery.

So in other words, there were three elements to such a experience :

A feeling of liberation — from the past, from ourselves, from all sorts of constraints, — this of course was also a feeling of loss of identity — which can induce tremendous fear and loss of a sense of control over one’s life- and finally being comfortable with the confusing feeling of mystery of what is to come

“Art is never the solution to a mystery but is the mystery itself, and can never be reduced to pure idea, it has the power to keep us feeling unsettled.”

We agreed that the encounter with transcendent art is something that both draws you in and unsettles you. Moreover because such art is never the solution to a mystery but is the mystery itself, and can never be reduced to pure idea, it has the power to keep us feeling unsettled. What we were exploring in a sense, was the value of us thinking of ourselves as an (art)work in process, rather than as a finished settled identity. My brother and I started 64/1, an art collective to explore this idea further, and published a thesis on Transcendence for the Siri-ocene in Critical Collective.

While I was right in the middle of working on this series on transcendence, like a cruel ironic joke, my wife (after 17 years of being together — and having no doubt about the stability of my relationship) suddenly questioned the entire basis of our relationship. It broke my heart and I could feel the ground beneath my feet crumble.

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Raghava KK and Netra Srikanth

Suddenly, transcendence was not some theoretical exercise anymore. I was going through it. Everything that I had taken to be absolute and true, taken to be the unquestioned truth on which I had built my sense of life and its purpose, just fell apart. I was angry. I felt dead. I felt desperate and alone.

I called my friend and shared my state with her. She asked me “Do you love Netra the person or Netra the role — the wife/mother?” Only then did it occur to me that these were two different distinct things and I might be confusing the two and if I was to remain true to my sense of the transcendent, I needed to face this confusion head on.

We are not just the roles that the world imposes on us. We are capable of being other than what the world, or the part of society that we internalize, tells us we are. A large part of our life is indeed determined by our roles, our position in society, in history, but there was a crucial remainder that lived in change and for the future! Without this remainder where’s the reason for hope, for change, for action?

I knew all this but why was it is so difficult for me to let go of my idea of my role?

It was like falling off a cliff. But you know, strangely, it was also liberating because suddenly my life was not scripted anymore, it felt open to improvisation, to possibility. Moreover it was mysterious because I had no clue what was to come and I had to learn to be comfortable with that.

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I See You See Me (2015), Acrylic on Canvas, 72 x 48 inches, Raghava KK

How often do we stop to ask ourselves what is our true self?
I believe that my true self is quite different from my everyday self which is caught up in beliefs and desires — things that make me feel needy and addicted to people, things and places. And here is something I started to realize: perhaps all of life was change and motion to give our hidden true selves, our spirit a chance to manifest — a chance for us to discover and experience the self hidden within us?

Then another friend of mine asked me something that made me stop and rethink. They said — Have you taken the time to ask yourself “What does this Raghava want? instead of telling me that Netra and I had promised ourselves all these things when we were 18 and 20 — can you accept that you both are new people?”

It was such a shock. I used to take such pride in thinking we both knew each other so well. The very thing I was proud of was the cause of our stagnation. The idea that I could ‘know’ her, she could ‘know’ me. This idea of a settled knowledge, the idea of us as Homo Sapiens. The apes who “know”. Know what we are, know our place in society, or to use a common critical cliché, our ‘situatedness’

Right in the middle of a heated discussion, when Netra was questioning the fundamentals of our relationship. We were driving each other mad and bringing out the worst in each other. We were not able to use words to communicate. Everything about her seemed different, the way she dressed the way she acted, everything. So I asked her if i could take pictures in the cold water of our pond. To express and acknowledge that my Netra is dead, and a new Netra is reborn. I walked into the freezing water fully clothed until I was nearly submerged, both of us were in extreme discomfort both physically and emotionally as she obliged to be my muse for the last time.

Each picture — each reworking is unique, this represents how she can be anything moving forward. Some of them are haunting some of the are beautiful, some of the are ugly, some of them are ghostly.

I was feeling all of the different stages of transcendence: anger, frustration, despair, love, beauty, rebirth.

The marks in these works are done by a print head that I manipulate. They make me feel that there’s a relationship between the digital and the real. Every time you recall a memory, you’re altering it. Every pixel stored in the computer is a memory and every time I recreate that work, I am recalling it and changing it. This represents that I don’t know how to remember Netra, every time I recall her I’m rewriting how I feel about her.

This is a ritual of letting go, as the series continues It gets more and more abstracted until finally Netra dissolves.

This has forced me to ask myself what do I want. I did not know how to enjoy a chocolate without thinking of her. It’s forcing me to enjoy things on my own and to be my own person. To take care of the spirit within me. I realized that we all die when we don’t take care of our spirits. I felt that I was being an escapist.

I have always been against being put in a box. For example, I really don’t know what ‘being male’ means. It makes no sense at all to me. I have learnt over a period of time what others expect of my being male. But I am sick of confusing social expectations with my sense of self and the identity politics that come with it.

People usually explain my existence in two ways
Nature — Male, Heterosexual, Indian, Genetics
Nurture — Upbringing, Exposure, Schooling etc.

But there is a third one that is much more important for me

Imagination — It is who I want to become.

So in effect what I was learning was to live FOR the future rather than live IN the past. I am learning that any change is palatable if you are anchored in one unchanging truth. And for me it is the complete active engagement with my future — which happens to be connected to yours and everyone else’s. That is what connects all of us. It doesn’t divide like identity does, it confuses, it inter-meshes, it weaves us together. Walt Whitman’s line comes to mind: “every atom belonging to me, as good belongs to you”

So if I am creating art for the future it has to take into account that the future is connected and distributed.

This is what I see when I see people focused on the past — imminent figures stuck to the past. You know, this feels like broken people walking backwards. We should be facing the future and preparing ourselves to transcend our current selves and move to embrace our future selves. This should be true of us as individuals and you know what, this is true of us as a society too!

We are not homo sapiens but homo mutans. We are the apes who change, who *can* change. The world we will inherit will be dreamt up by all of us. And we need to begin that dreaming now!

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Acrylic on canvas (2014), Raghava KK

Currently Karthik and I believe that there are two big Elephants in the room that are threatening to tell me what my future is going to look like. Artificial Intelligence and Climate change.

AI is replacing all forms of labor. Can it replace me? Never, but will it be instrumental in shaping who I become. Without a doubt. If that is the case, then I have to and will engage with it now. I will accept that we are all Cyborgs. But then I will also have to craft what this relationship does to me, rather than be swept along like flotsam on a tide. And this is true of us as a society too!

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The Midnight Tryst (2013), Acrylic on Canvas, 180 x 84 inches, Raghava KK

This has dared me to dream up the world alongside governments, scientists, engineers and priests. I can only do this if I stop looking backwards and start facing the future. I have a lot of imagining to do and a lot of creating ahead.

It is a call to re-imagine through art life. To re-imagine the social systems I remain trapped in, the political systems I take for granted, the very pattern of our reactions to life events which I think are natural. And artists can do this. They after all are the creators of new sensibilities!

Transcendence is not easy — but necessary!

References

[1] A curatorial collective founded in early 2018 by artist Raghava KK and former econometrician Karthik Kalyanaraman to think through and promote art engaged with issues of the future.

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