by Dhiraj Singh
When Cornelia Parker was made ‘Election Artist’ by the Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art in 2017 it came as a surprise to many ordinary Britons who didn’t know such a post actually existed. The British General Election that year itself was extraordinary because it was a snap poll called by Prime Minister Theresa May three years ahead of schedule. Parker’s choice was as bold as it was quirky—she is known as one of Britain’s most out-of-the-box artists who was part of the YBA (Young British Artists) gang that began showing in the mid-1990s. It was a group that included Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and Grayson Perry who famously appeared in drag to collect his Turner Prize in 2003. The YBAs were known for breaking out of the trappings of art history and creating their own unique mediums and ways of showing. Most famous among them was perhaps Hirst who exhibited a dead shark inside a glass tank of formaldehyde. But the others were equally sensational. Parker’s breakout work was called ‘Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View’ and it consisted of surviving remains of a garden shed that she had blown up using Army explosives. Parker’s choice as ‘Election Artist’ therefore was anything but disappointing. One of her works in her Election series was called ‘Left Right & Centre’. It was a video, shot with drones inside the House of Commons whose main table was stacked with newspapers.
On the left were placed Left-leaning papers and on the right were Right-leaning ones. While hovering the drone-blades created a down-draft that set the papers aflutter flying off in different directions, landing on different sides of the table until a glorious mess of newsprint was left all around in the hallowed hall of UK’s Parliament. This was Parker’s way of showing what happens during elections. A messy churn of headlines, hearts and minds all for a noble cause of electing a government.
As we navigate what could possibly be the most fiercely fought elections in living memory I thought why not look at the art of electioneering in India through its most digitally-enabled election ever. And to understand how art and aesthetics play a role in this game of persuasion. I was not interested merely in slogans or messaging but the surprise poetics of the process. As an artist am a strong believer in the visual poetry of an art work. So the idea was to take the whole election campaign as an exhibition and then pick works that stood out for their unparalleled power of persuasion.
Let me begin with the Narendra Modi biopic that has Vivek Oberoi in the lead. The film was supposed to release just before voting started but was stalled in the face of a huge public outrage. Good art often aims to subvert conventions and mores and in that the release of a film that was clearly meant to benefit a particular candidate was subverting the basic principle of a free and fair election. And here am not going into the merits of the film at all. Instead I am admiring its leap of imagination as a device for tipping the scales in one’s favour, almost like daylight robbery some would say… but I’d call it an audacious piece of theatre.
Indian elections have used merchandise for quite some time now but never before has it included sarees with the face of a candidate printed on them. Traditional aesthetic wisdom in India has often maintained that to wear a person’s face and body on your own would bestow you with the traits of that person. People have worn T shirts, caps, pendants of film stars and godmen before but this election showed that many, especially women, were willing to abandon long held taboos for a political leader, again indicating that the persuasion has worked.
Hashtag campaigns such as ‘Je Suis Charlie’ (I am Charlie) usually come from a place of persecution and injustice like the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo shooting. This election’s ‘Main Bhi Chowkidar’ (I too am a watchman) campaign similarly took on a slur ‘Chowkidar Chor Hai’ (The watchman is a thief) and gave it a defiant spin like ‘I am Charlie’ by turning an accusation into a badge of honour. Elections are like battle in which the word is the ammo. And this one showed that making a wall out of the stones hurled at you is not only good politics but also good art.
An image that left a strong visual impression was that of Priyanka Gandhi playing with snakes. In the video she is seen sitting with snake charmers and doing what is no sane onlooker ever does. In those few minutes Priyanka established herself as a great channeler of drama. What made the image even more potent was the kind of opposition her family faces from the incumbent government and the fact it was an absolutely impromptu moment. Am sure the image has been etched in the minds of people for a long time to come. The washing of feet that the PM literally pulled out of his hat was one of those rare instances when thousands of years of discrimination and bigotry melt away in a single gesture.
The moment beamed across TV screens was doubly symbolic as the feet the Prime Minister was washing were of Dalit sanitation workers. Another superb subversion that this election has thrown up is Namo TV. For those watching it, it is a river of information that keeps flowing and flowing endlessly. As a work of art the channel is like a long-looped video work that explores the idea of a continuous presence as an overcompensation for ineptitude.The beauty of this channel is that it is sponsored by the party in power without it realizing the subliminal damage it is doing to its cause.
The last in my list is an interview of the Prime Minister by actor Akshay Kumar. What really made the interview worthy of this list was the spectacle of normality that two thoroughly pedestalized individuals were seeking to portray. As an art project I think it sought to reverse a narrative of opulence, luxury and imported mushrooms by a deliberate recall of poverty, stolen mangoes and personal thrift. And I think it worked terrifically especially because it avoided the fatiguing questions of election season.
Dhiraj Singh is a well-known journalist, writer, TV personality and artist who has shown his abstract paintings and X-Ray works in India and abroad.