1024 Names
Avinash Veeraraghavan

An allegory about a man who was devoured by ogres first appears in an ancient Indian Buddhist text of the Madhyamika (the middle-way) tradition. It dates from sometime between 150 and 250 CE and is a somewhat gruesome illustration of the Buddhist notion of the true nature of the self.

A man on a long journey to a distant land finds a deserted house and decides to rest for the night. At midnight, an ogre turns up carrying a corpse. He sets the corpse down next to the man. Soon, another ogre in pursuit of the first arrives at the deserted house. The two ogres begin bickering over the corpse. Each claims to have brought the dead man to the house and wants ownership of it. Unable to resolve their dispute, they turn to the man who saw them come in, and ask him to adjudicate. They want an answer. Who brought the corpse to the house?

The man, realizing the futility of lying to the ogres—for if one won’t kill him, the other one will—tells the truth: the first ogre came with the corpse, he says. The angry second ogre retaliates by ripping off the man’s arm. What ensues gives the allegory its macabre twist. The first ogre immediately detaches an arm from the corpse and attaches it to the man. And so it goes: the second ogre rips a body part off the man; the first ogre replaces it by taking the same body part from the corpse and attaching it to the man. They end up swapping everything—arms, legs, the torso, and even the head. Finally, the two ogres make a meal of the corpse, wipe their mouths clean, and leave.

The man, whom the ogres have left behind, is extremely disturbed. He is left pondering what he has witnessed. The body that he was born in has been eaten by the ogres. His body now is made up of body parts of someone else entirely. Does he now have a body or doesn’t he? If the answer is yes, is it his body or someone else’s? If the answer is no, then what is he to make of the body that he can see?

The next morning, the man sets off on the road, in a state of utter confusion. He finally meets a group of Buddhist monks. He has a burning question for them: does he exist or does he not? The monks throw the question back at him: who are you? The man is not sure how to answer the question. He’s not sure he’s even a person, he says—and tells the monks of his harrowing encounter with the ogres.

From Anil Ananthaswamy “The Man Who Wasn’t There”, Chapter 1.

Macabre as this story is, it is a useful anchor for understanding Avinash Veeraraghavan’s art-as-process. For decades, he has earnestly and unsparingly examined the radically incomplete and impermanent sense of self. From his earliest work to his latest, though, there has been a repeated refrain. Each time in his art, he has relentlessly and literally torn apart and reconstituted fragments of myriad meaning that may have been obsessions; asking, again and again in different ways, the same questions: what is left of the self and of consciousness when those meanings that sustain it are torn at their roots? How is there a sense of unitary wholeness that remains, even as a psychic shadow? If the meanings that constitute the everyday of our life are obsessively multiplied or divided from their original supports, does their emotional and psychological hold over us diminish?

“1024 Names” is the latest leg of this long-standing journey. But, as with his immediately previous body of work (“We do not see things the way they are, we see things the way we are”), this show finds him in a mature, quiet contemplative mood. In a host of ways it speaks to his recognition that life and personal history can bear multiple overlapping meanings that we impose on them, without any promise of coherence. “1024 Names” most directly engages with Avinash’s twin constant fascinations-the nature of the religious and the extraordinary fecund and dynamic digital world that forms the core of his visual practice. In his rendering, these fascinations meet and converse; images replete with religious, personal or universal significance are repeated, torn apart, multiplied, layered, erased and melded using different materials. His gaze is omnivorous, but also disciplined and guided by the logic and girding of the digital world and the religious world that he seeks to combine. In particular, the work seeks to destabilize the familiar patterns of consciousness of the self and to describe the push towards a more expansive and multidimensional interpretation of selfhood, its constitution and its utter loneliness.

The exhibition begins with Leela, a celebratory installation that provides an entry into the vast multiplicative interiority the artist wishes to explore. The eclectic and utterly joyful lights often used during pujas and festivals are reproduced as if roots of a Banyan tree, are enlarged and refracted back to the viewer along with her own image through a series of densely placed mirrors. A theme that will repeat through the show.

In the next piece, Spectrum, we are face to face with a series of crushed cloth that fit into a frame in a seemingly haphazard but taut manner. Yet the palette of colors on display are anything but random, reflecting a carefully chosen set of colors from the Web that provide a range of ‘mood’ colors that are commonly used in multiple contexts, found though keyword searches in a cloud sourced public library. The tight juxtaposition of colors in the confined frame suggests a forced unity that is composed of many overlapping meanings, each valid, each coherent, and in their totality, slightly different, but fundamentally the same. In Labyrinth the same method and materials are used but in a very different manner with striking printed images of different interiors, again drawn from the internet, densely and closely held together by a frame in which they give the sense of being forced into. Here again the seeming haphazard collocation is anything but, with each fragment of cloth acting as an echo of a once coherent vision of a psychic state, now forced to ‘live’ with others in an alien formation. Finally, the third in the series, Monolith collocates patterns from disparate cultures and times each in an organic but implacable mash-up. Thus we have Japanese kimono prints forcibly interwoven with Art Deco wallpaper, Indian floral and Islamic abstractions, each evoking a sense of a complete history and logic but that lose their singularity when confronted with the others.

In Homeland, we find Avinash in a more familiar space. A tent, reminiscent of his early obsessions with ‘weak architecture’ is densely rendered and overlaid with a series of intimate images and personal obsessions. Esoteric Buddhist images, Poster Art, intricate floral paintings and por nography collide and overlap in an achingly vulnerable image of fragility that almost cannot bear the richness that is heaped on it. A palette that is buzzing, but that cannot at the end make up for the impermanence of the structure on which it is placed.

By contrast in Daybreak we are confronted with another interior image of a dressing room, again dizzyingly over-rendered with images and prints, but this time leached of color. As a laser cut, the image is also directly digging into a receding interior, naturally layered but thin and fragile. The affect is overwhelmingly one of loneliness and the insurmountable fact that the interior life is full of meaning and yet inaccessible. It is recognizable, but the multicolored grip which it has on the self is impossible to portray externally— all that is left is a bleached shadow. Surrounding the laser cut, further are a series of images, each drawn from years of collecting that have deep personal value and consequence. In keeping with the spiritual overlay, they act as a set of quasi-religious images, certainly to the artist, surrounding the interior garbagriha into which no one but he can really enter.

In Stardust we are faced with perhaps the most direct representation of the breaking and remaking of meaning. An image of a mature tree with roots and branches that have grown through the seasons is presented as a shattered mirror. The branch fragments do not completely align any more, they are torn apart and held together only by the recognition that this was previously once a whole living thing that existed through time. The compelling metaphor is one of a fragile unity that is in reality a memory that can never be reconstituted. And yet, the brain and the mind cannot but try. The reflexive recreation of unity does not reflect the reality, but it is too strongly ingrained in us to not try. This work is laid on top of a separate one, Infinite Disposition, that is a wallpaper composed entirely out of unique scans of graph paper. Each image, once the epitome of reason and rationality, gridded and perfect are crumpled into a soft form and embedded next to each other; a multiplicity of fading reason and logical expression.

Taken as a whole “1024 Names,” is the most mature expression yet of Avinash’s engagement with a set of truly ancient concerns. For two decades now, he has documented his explorations of self and meaning in his own life. His artwork has allowed him to be earnest and unsparing, but has also been the via media for some of his mad experiments. At this juncture, we find the exploration at a stage of fluidity and openness. Gone is the desolation and hopelessness of earlier works. Instead, we are faced with the steadfast gaze at the process of the creation of meaning. And perhaps a little more too. Perhaps there is also a sense that our personal lives are simply a cosmic absurdity. That they can take multiple meanings which seem overwhelmingly important but are ultimately fleeting and impermanent from their very first instantiation. Yet they control our interior lives. And in this discovery, perhaps there less despair and the developing of a gentle humour that comes unbidden.

In his art therefore, Avinash is both the ogre and the man, both of whom are needed to really understand the sublime ridiculousness at the heart of life.

Arjun Jayadev
October 2016