The hybridiser needs history as a pantry of costumes, wrote Nietzsche, that hymnographer of the Will. What is artist Hardeep Pandhal cooking up for us at The Tramway?
If arch-imperialist Rudyard Kipling’s work shows us anything it is that there are many methods in the madness that is colonialism. And nor are we out of it yet. We can’t, that is to say, be post-colonial because we haven’t even started to decolonise yet. The ‘great game’ in Kipling’s novel Kim is a form of cultural shadow boxing where the ‘powers’ don masks and mimicries of the abo’s and go ‘native’ only with the aim of undermining one another in the struggle for world domination. Kipling’s humanity in that novel consists in the fact that he casts the central and most intelligent character as a child –and an Irish catholic one at that.
That mimicry, the stereotype and the cliché are brought immediately to mind when we step into the lively and pluriform arena of Hardeep Pandhal’s exhibition Confessions of a Thug: Pakiveli at The Tramway. The Thug of the title – a loan word into English as an aggressive and violent person -originally referred in its Hindi version to bands of robbers, thieves and murderers devoted to Kali the dark goddess of both evil and motherly love. That’s an appropriately violent and ambiguous classification of identity with which to broach discussion of the work seen here. Pandhal’s exhibition consists in textiles, 3D and glasswork, drawings and videos, and the variety of forms might draw us first to ask questions about its coherence –is coherence even an aim here, and if the exhibition works as an ensemble, how does it work?
Homi Bhabha wrote about the strategy of hybridisation as used by the suppressed in the struggle against the suppresser. The hybridisation of cultures, that is the ongoing, living disruptions, transformations, re-readings, re-enactments and re-compositions of cultural signs and symbols is adopted to undermine that mimicry of the dominant culture that seeks to keep the colonised in stasis in their allotted temporal and spatial corner. In this scheme of things, Hardeep Pandhal is a headless English Sikh horseman hybridising his heart into a future of many pasts. For him coherence is apparently not an aim and his techniques –at once both conceptual and performative – of re-embroidery, knitting together and sketching –up are used to structure some precarious assemblages which blast any notion of unity or progress or the ‘great game’.
Pandhal, as noted above, works with various media, and despite that precariety and the ostensible anarchy of the forms he uses, definite themes are detectable.
His drawing style, seen in the sketches and on the video work, seems much influenced by the dystopian psychedelia of such comics as God the Dyslexic Dog, or even Glasgow’s own Electric Soup, although as an English midlands raised lad, that last putative link may be a conjecture too far… At any rate, in the rough and ready nightmarishly overbusy quality of these garishly coloured drawings with their theme of a sub-continental colonial soldier on a journey to hell, we are reminded of the Dantean quality of the stories by another great explorer of the colonial heritage, Caribbean writer Kamau Brathwaite, who died in the week of my writing this review. As with Brathwaite’s work, Pandhal’s lonely oppressive journeys bring us to ponder on the limits of the subjective view and if, ultimately, it always means being subjected to something? Must liberation, we are led to ask, necessarily be a nightmarish process without end?
When it comes to the textiles, Pandhal’s work shows a remarkable and unexpected consistency with the style of the drawing work. Discussion of Padhal’s textiles is always prefaced – at least, in his exhibition texts – with reference to the fact that his mother produces traditional textiles and always considers his artist’s work as a type of ‘defacement’. As with Kipling and the thugs then, the question of childhood, or, more profoundly, of the relations of filiation, is always in the background of this violent exploration of identity. The textile works consist in some traditional/conventional style garments – a cricket jersey, for example, highly symbolic of course, in the Indian and colonial context. Pandhal re-embroiders or knits over these traditional garments with blocks or patches of highly coloured yarn or material, in loose –sometimes crazy eyed – style reminiscent of his drawing style. As per his work in general, the effect leaves itself open to endless interpretations. One possibility is the apotropaic – these mad patches are stitched over the traditional works to ward off and avert the suffocating power of the generations to hand down the conventional and traditional ways that condemn us to certain roles in a suppressed economy of being. Or could it treat of some type of miscegenation and notions of interracial relations and segregation with himself presented as monoglot English British Asian in dilution and compromise of the pure Punjabi culture of his mother? Can it be seen as a stain, a growth, a bubo, a parasite on the old ways to which he has been unable to conform? Or perhaps again, a budding, a rebirth, a drawing on new influences and resources which will energise, change and complicate the old? The performative pun of the loose threads in these works is not lost on us. The matter cannot, will not be resolved, tied up. The work is somehow about all these issues and more, about some of them sometimes, and only about none of them all at the same time.
Perhaps the most ironic hybridisation of the show consists in the series of beautiful water-filled glass jar sculptures known as Passion Bottles which contain bobbing and sinking votive figures which are known as Cartesian Devils. How appropriate to have the tricky demons of western intellectualism exposed in this game of thugs to an open aired drowning side by side with the drawings of the headless avengers of the colonised… In such unexpected transparencies this exhibition seems to conjure up extra visual powers – speculators, visionaries, seers and voyeurs are all possible here – but who is given this power, the visitors or the artist? Neither? Or both? In visiting this work we typically take one step and move from the sublime to sink down again in shittiness. Is that a true birthing experience? If it makes you feel uncomfortable that’s probably a good thing, if you get the idea that things are changing, then that’s correct. For Pandhal isn’t merely shadow boxing.
Confessions of a Thug: Pakiveli is open at Tramway until Saturday 22nd March.