Artist as thinker: Surendran Nair’s lively palette of ideas

Artist as thinker: Surendran Nair’s lively palette of ideas

By VINEET GILL | | 1 August, 2015
Self Portrait With Dragonflies, 1985, by Surendran Nair. | Photo: Kiran Nadar Museum of Art
In the world of contemporary art, Surendran Nair has many epigones but few equals. He speaks to Vineet Gill about the influence of ideas on his work and the unexplored link between images and words.

We are still feeling the after-effects of the modern backlash against all philosophical and conceptual art. The general notion, yet prevailing, is that ideas belong to a realm of their own and that great art always strives to break free of that realm. This stereotype — of an impulse-driven artist, innocent of all theoretical baggage — rules the sphere of contemporary art. And for an artist to resist it is not an easy task by any means. Having first resisted and then shattered that stereotype is only one of Surendran Nair's many achievements as an artist.

Nair works as much with form and colour as with ideas. Western thought and philosophy finds expression in his paintings as often as the traditional themes of Indian mythology do. Sometimes, both the aspects are placed surrealistically at odds with each other. But Nair, as he told me, doesn't want his work to be classified under the surrealist tag. He said that in his paintings — as opposed to the classic works of surrealism — the unconscious doesn't make itself manifest. Rather, in Nair's sketches, watercolours and lithographs, we see the artist consciously engaging with the world around — by fusing words and images, reality and fantasy and, most importantly, impulse and idea.

Q. The many portraits you did in the 1980s feature your friends and fellow artists like NN Rimzon, KV Sasikumar and KM Madhusoodhan. Did you all attend the same college?

A. Yes, we all joined the fine arts college in Trivandrum, which started in 1975. It was a new college, and we were the first batch. When they started, they did not have any teaching staff. Only the head of the institution was there. The college was making a beginning, just like us, with no history or legacy as such. When you don't have teachers, you look up to your seniors. But we didn't have any seniors either. We were the first and the senior-most batch. So we all had to depend upon each other's ability to understand art, and the ability to articulate what was understood. We weren't really self-taught, though. We had to teach each other. There was a good library, with many internatitional journals of art, that we often visited. So we we looked at both contemporary and traditional art, we argued among each other, we tried to understand by ourselves what things were like.

Actually, I wouldn’t call my work surrealist. Surrealism has a lot to do with exploring the unconscious. And I think my work has hardly concerns itself with the unconscious. can say, I might be using surrealist techniques. But I’ve reduce surrealism a technology, rather than a philosophy. 

Q. The word surrealism is often used in connection with your art. At least the paintings from your later phase do have a recurrent surrealist strain. How do you respond to being classified as a surrealist?

A. Actually, I wouldn't call my work surrealist. When we talk about surrealism — as a movement in art history — we are talking of art's relation to the unconscious. Surrealism has a lot to do with exploring the unconscious. And I think my work has hardly any concerns with the unconscious. None at all. If you're just thinking of those elements in my art that are inexplicable, then, I think, such a quality is present in all art the world over. The inexplicable doesn't necessarily qualify as surrealism. In all art, modern or traditional, the inexplicable is present as an element. But at the same time, I cannot deny the fact that I am aware of the surrealist movement. I am aware of certain strategies that surrealists employed. In that sense, one can say, I might be using surrealist techniques. But what I've done is reduce surrealism into a technology, rather than a philosophy.

Q. How did your exceptional series of paintings 'Labyrinth of Eternal Delight' come about?

A. It began with the question, "what does it mean". What is meaning? How are meanings produced? When you reflect upon these kinds of aspects, you inevitably are going to reflect on the properties of language itself. And thinking about language was where the whole thing, this series of paintings, started for me. I was also looking to create a language with a vocabulary that allows you greater freedom. This was one of my explorations regarding the making of art that had also to do with the aspect of language. There's a lot of play with words and images in these paintings. There's also an element of humour in them. People used to say that a work of art should speak for itself. But I am not that kind of an artist. I believe the visual doesn't necessarily always prevent the possibility of the verbal. If you use both together, you might be able to create a different kind of art. You let the word intervene the image, and the image might start saying something completely different. This interested me immensely.

Q. You've played around with the medium a lot throughout your career. You've made sketches on tissue papers and on "Charminar Cigarette Packets". What are your views on new media art?

A. That's the cigarette I used to smoke in those days, by the way. My idea was to make use of whatever was available. As for new media: I am open to it, but I haven't done much with it myself. You have to put a lot of energy into this kind of thing once you get into it. I have attempted a few things in this field, using other people's help, but I haven't done anything yet on my own.

Q. You've got another series of paintings called "Cuckoonebulopolis", to which you continue to add new pieces. Where does this name come from and what's your theme?

A. I have been working on this series for around 15 years now. This word, Cuckoonebulopolis, comes from a play by the ancient Greek playwright, Aristophanes. There's a play by him called The Birds. In this play, the birds of Athens are finding life quite cumbersome, and they decide to build a new city between heaven and Earth, so that they can control the transaction between human beings and the gods. The city was named Cuckoonebulopolis. It is also a kind of utopia. I should, though, say that personally I don't hanker after utopias. In fact, I have a problem with utopias, for they invariably end up in disasters. Utopia's relationship with the future is problematic, because it then becomes a kind of proposition. But it also says that what exists today is faulty, and so in this sense a utopia is a critique of the present. It has a critical element in relation to the present, and I am interested in this — I am interested in that primary impulse that makes us want to imagine something other than what already exists. Which is what I explore in these paintings.

Q. Would you say that you have a very conceptual approach to art, which is quite unlike a lot of other artists who protect their work from theoretical or interpretive incursions?

A. The idea is the backdrop of my paintings. It contextualises what is at play before the viewer. This is the way I make use of an idea, rather than arguing for or against it. That's just the way I operate. My approach to things in general is like that. For me, meaning is important. And so is meaninglessness. I suppose, then, that you can say my approach to art is more or less conceptual.

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