Artist Gigi Scaria. Photo: Prerna Sharma
Gigi Scaria’s conceptually strong art practice has always been concerned with distancing, absence and presence. The artist, however, says we need to go out in order to be in. In lockdown, holding up at his home in Greater Noida, Scaria is stepping out — through TikTok — to be brought back in
Artist Gigi Scaria is one of life’s thinkers. Conceptually strong, his practice reflects this. His work has always been concerned with distancing, absence and presence. Who better then to discuss how artists are approaching the lockdown than him? “I am not being very creative at the moment,” he tells me over the phone. I can feel his wry smile from the other side of the world.
A key moment in Scaria’s career was his 2007 solo exhibition at Palette Art Gallery in Delhi1 . A multidisciplinary artist, Scaria employs painting, photography and video. With a unifying theme, his exhibition, Absence of an Architect, presented ideas of perspective, cityscapes and what would, at first glance, appear to be un-peopled pictures. Images of empty Delhi streets in lockdown and Insta clicks from high-rise balconies immediately spring to mind. It would be too easy to declare Scaria an art prophet. But he is quick to dispel this line of enquiry. Site Under Construction2, an early video-work, offers us a dialogue that could be straight from April 2020 Facebook feeds. The artwork is powerful and the realisation dawns that Scaria is playing around with ideas of perspec-tive/distancing. The people are there. We just don’t see them. He suggests this position, particularly in the Indian context, has not changed. In enforcing lockdown, in the current crisis, the government only addressed the elite and the middle-class. They did not consider migrant workers. These people are still vanished.
Gigi Scaria, Options of an Alternate Master-plan/Residential
From the same exhibition, Scaria’s painting, Options of an Alternate Master-plan/Residential3, plays with our currently fuddled brains. We enter Scaria’s paired-down, Esher-like image. This is mind trickery at its best. In 2007, this image was challenging. Scaria brings it to the present day. “You could connect what you have always observed; (social) distancing has always been a measure in India.” He explains that all kinds of divisions have always been there, class and caste. For Scaria, a worrying sign is the reappearing of these kinds of separation devices. India has been fighting against these divides for centuries. He sees the virus as endorsing the notion of social-distancing at the highest levels. A life-saving measure that can be manipulated by the far-right.
I wonder if Scaria is staying totally focused and beavering away at his home in Noida. He shoots me down with a single laugh. “This is the right time to get on, but none of us are able to.” I can see that whilst his brushes may be idle, his mind is on overdrive. He courteously explains that isolation is nothing new for him. Most artists have serious quarantine practice. But something is missing. This is obviously a question he has been toying with. “Why are we not able to get on? Why are we not able to create?” For Scaria, the tragedy lies in the fact that the whole world is in lockdown.
“On the positive side, it is not just you. As an artist, you can relax, the urgency to ‘act’ is not there, not just for me, but for everyone. This allows a breathing space. Watch a film, read a book, relax. But how many times have I started something, picked it up, put it down. We have no clue how many times we make journeys. How many times we go out.” The answer for Scaria lies in this insight. He says it is always the outside interactions that make us come back. We need to go out in order to be in. Whilst this exchange is not taking place, Scaria is stuck, he cannot react.
Scaria may suggest he is stuck. As we continue, our conversation veers off to memory and being true to form, instead of taking a backward step, Scaria throws the word TikTok into the interview. He smiles, in fact, grins. I admit I have barely heard of it.
Gigi Scaria, Ringa Ringa Rose
As we continue our discussion, my phone pings. A message from my group, women friends, my support system. The group name is Toughies. It seems entirely apt that this is the interruption. An image of Scaria’s artwork from his 2019 solo at Vadehra Art Gallery flashes up. Ringa Ringa Roses4, an imposing bronze sculpture depicts a group of woman, in a circle, holding hands. The resonance is there. It is very real. The simplicity of Scaria’s image sings. The title references the children’s rhyme about The Plague, its speaks of the plight of Indian women, in fact, all women. The sculpture’s minimalism emphasises the strength of the simple act of holding hands.
We return to TikTok. A U-turn from the artist’s position where he states, quite emphatically, that lockdown would have been better without the phone. That this small screen has taken over our lives. We are all addicted. We try and walk away but two minutes later we are back.
So embrace it Scaria does. Enthralled by a healthy daily dose of less-than-one-minute videos, produced on TikTok, primarily by those under 30. Scaria, it appears, is in awe. Adept at working with video, content on TikTok appears to amaze. Together with being entertained, Scaria is also keenly observing. “Local languages are there. I am quite excited by it.” He also points to the innate ability of these youngsters, “the camera angle is always so skillfully managed.” An avid Andrei Tarkovsky fan, Scaria discusses the output on this app as he may a serious film classic. However, it is not the silence or the darkness that has caught the artist eye. Scaria is impressed with the humour which for him addresses the many insecurities we all have. “They are put out there and people respond immediately.”
Multiple-interaction format has been around for many years. Forty years ago, we stood outside the shop window, looking at twenty different TV screens. Some showed different channels, others offered the same image so we could compare quality. Scaria’s video work has always employed split-screen technology. A visit to his website confirms this application of thinking5. I should not be surprised that he is so engaged with the new phone apps.
As we begin to wrap up the interview, I promise to download TikTok and prepare to be amazed. I get a nod of approval. “Once you start watching, it’s difficult to stop. Very common people use it; it’s a very collective effort by so many people.” And there we have it. Social un-distancing at every level. Through TikTok, Scaria is stepping out to be brought back in. This may just be the start of his first artwork by app.
1. Absence of an Architect | Gigi Scaria | solo exhibition | Palette Art Gallery | New Delhi | 2007
2. Site Under Construction | 2006 | video projection with sound | duration 7 minutes
3. Options of an Alternate Masterplan/Residential | acrylic on canvas | 72 x 72” | 2006
4. Ringa Ringa Roses | bronze sculpture | 90” x 38” | 2019 | Exhibited Vadehra Art Gallery, Ecce Homo, 2019
This interview is a part of our special issue on Art in the time of Pandemic, curated by critic, author and one of our contributing editors, Ina Puri
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