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The atom bomb and the little boy
TV Santhosh's pristine white skeletal shrine evokes the haunting ghost of Hiroshima.
The title A Room to Pray brings to mind the puja room found in most Indian homes. Dêcor-conscious desis may have embraced modular kitchens and minimalist furniture but they still haven't done away with the mandir, even if the brass and clay idols have now been replaced by dainty Lladro figurines. But the prayer room that artist TV Santhosh creates is something altogether different. His is a three-walled chamber made of fiberglass bones and an LED monitor on which a Hiroshima survivor tells his horrific story.
This installation is one of the highlights of the biennial that opened in Cuba last week. The Bienal de la Habana, which started in 1984, has become one of the most important art events in Latin America. Santhosh, one of five guest artists this year, has invoked memories of Hiroshima in Havana with his bone-lined sanctum sanctorum that has in the middle a white table reminiscent of The Last Supper. "There are many churches in Rome and the Czech Republic decorated with bones, " says the taciturn 44-year-old artist. "To me, these bones signify the errors in history. They are symbolic of acts against humanity;and yet it is in this room that one prays for humanity. "
Art has always helped contextualise violence and its repercussions. Picasso's Guernica expressed his disgust with war and has become a potent anti-war symbol. Goya's famous series of horrifically violent etchings, Los Desastres de la Guerra, was inspired by the brutal French occupation of Spain. The events of 9/11 have strangely remained resistant to artistic treatment except for the terrorist plots that keep popping up in TV shows. But back home, the Babri Masjid and Gujarat communal riots inspired disturbing works by artists like Vivan Sundaram, Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh and Atul Dodiya. Santhosh too has used art to probe issues like terrorism and war. In an earlier work titled Tracing An Ancient Error, he showed Mumbai battling one of its darkest nights in July 2006 when seven bombs ripped through peak-hour suburban commuter trains and killed hundreds.
Santhosh, who was born in Kerala but has lived most of his life in Mumbai, says he was deeply affected by these events and his horror was reflected on canvas. In Error, he turned a photographic image of the event into its negative, eliminating specific details to allow the subject to appear on a grand scale. The technique, critics say, has been inspired by American artist Man Ray who created negative images of everyday objects, but though this may be true, Santhosh's concerns are rooted in India.
"Over the last decade, war and terror and its political implications have been a recurrent theme of my work, " says Santhosh. The reasons aren't hard to find. As a youth in Kerala, he was part of an activist group which demonstrated against events like the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy and the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident. "Artists are activists in their own way. They just use a visual language to express their thoughts and emotions, " he says.
A Room to Pray is a work about history and memory. A long LED screen is mounted on a dais surrounded by walls made of human bones. The bones are neatly stacked and pristine white, quite apt in an age of surgical air strikes. The autobiographical narrative of Yoshitaka Kawamoto, a 13-year-old who was in a classroom with her friends when Little Boy, the US atom bomb, was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, runs on the LED monitor. She describes what happened to a friend. "It is hard to tell, his skull was cracked open, his flesh was dangling out from his head. He had only one eye left, and it was looking right at me. First, he was mumbling something but I couldn't understand him. He started to bite off his finger nail. I took his finger out from his mouth. "
The table is placed on a raised floor made up of LED monitors that repeat the same narrative, almost like a river of blood.
The Bienal de la Habana is on till June 11, 2012.
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