We are discussing an octopus. It was taken off the internet and superimposed over a photograph of a scene in Pettah. It is now being exhibited at the Saskia Fernando Gallery. Poornima Jayasinghe is an artist. Poornima Jayasinghe is For Sale. For Sale is the title of the exhibition that is ongoing at the time of conducting this interview. It is a question of value(s).
“I had an interesting conversation with the artist. He asked how I got hold of his work. I responded with my concept of ‘For Sale’ and asked him whether it is not what is happening in the contemporary art market. I told him I would print our conversation and place it on the back of the artwork, so that the consumer can engage with it, as it is still an open dialogue that has not come to a conclusion,” Poornima explains.
The octopus we are discussing is valued by its original artist at 40 cents (USD) a piece. It does not have any story behind it. Instead of purchasing it at a nominal price-point, Poornima has chosen to steal it and give it more purpose by bringing a story and an idea to it.
“By plagiarising, you can bring new value to old work. When doing this, an artist should ask themselves: what am I doing? What message do I want to convey? What do I want to achieve? Sometimes artists just cut and paste, without any idea or concept in their mind, but, simply, to create a visual impact out of randomness.”
I ask, then, of the ethics involved in plagiarising, or, as Kenneth Goldsmith would call it, repurposing copyrighted content.
“I think it’s okay to take a piece of an artwork and place it on the opposite end of an argument, to speak for the opposite message.”
In Le Nouvel Esprit du capitalisme, Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello suggest that the new spirit of capitalism has put to good use the artistic critique that is intended to destroy it. Given that this exhibition aims to question the value placing processes involved in the contemporary art market, from the artist to the consumer, does it put itself in danger of the famed power of capitalism to recycle everything that attempts to criticise it?
“I have actually weighed the artwork, literally, and priced them, accordingly. So, that is more reason for the consumer to question how the value has been placed,” Poornima adds, as a rucksack hangs off a rusted old scale in a corner of the exhibition space where field recordings of the sounds of Pettah fill the room.
Buy in bulk
As in Pettah, the consumer, here, buys in bulk. Nine prints of the consumer’s choice can be purchased at a nett weight of 4KG. The print titled Package 51 is priced under the same criteria, even though it is pitch black. “One might ask for a discount because of this. Then, I can argue that it is of the same weight. This bargaining process resonates with what occurs in Pettah, every day.”
What’s important to note, here, is that this exhibition is not ‘on Pettah’, it works around Pettah, as a concept, a source of inspiration, an extended metaphor to tackle the investigation of the processes involved in placing commercial value on an object, be it art or household appliance.
“Here, I am using Pettah as a symbol in the conversation of the contemporary art market. There is a specific audience being addressed. I want that audience to question the way they place value on art. Just as they buy a good at Pettah, in the contemporary art market, too, there is the ‘Chinese brand’ and the ‘fake brand’. Their purchases are made based on realistic needs and how they feel about the product.”
Investigating a process
Here, Poornima is not trying to tell a story. She is investigating a process. The process includes engaging the audience while creating an aesthetic and articulating situations in the artwork. On entering the exhibition space, the consumers visually read the work and connect to it, as with any visual artwork. Then, the title throws a question at them.
There is an irony involved. Whether or not they engage with the question and the concept of the exhibition is their choice to make. If they choose to make a purchase, they can customise their package to their subjective taste. On making a purchase, the consumer is stamped ‘For Sale’, begging the question, again, of just what is being sold here.
“I’ve had interesting questions thrown at me,” Poornima reflects on the preview of the exhibition, “The audience is interested in the nature of medium of digital media. They want to know why some parts are missing, and who owns the original work, in the same way that they inquire about fake products in Pettah.”
I throw what I think makes for an interesting question, asking what would happen if the community of Pettah visited this exhibition.
“The structure of this building would intimidate them. I know for a fact that they would like to engage with the work, but, there is an invisible barrier. This structure is alien to them.”
In 2012, a public art space project, Pettah Exposè, immersed Poornima into Pettah as a source of inspiration.
“The community of Pettah are not the people who attend gallery exhibitions. We wanted to take our art to the public. This was just the process. It was the interaction that became the real work of art. I was surprised and impressed by the questions they had. They didn’t want explanations. They were reading into the visual language, picking up on symbols, investing their own meaning into the work.”
Poornima then began questioning her attraction to the struggle of this community.
“You watch a movie. You say ‘it’s a great movie with a lovely story’ though it might be a representation of a depressive reality of the world. We are attracted to its emotional effect on us.”
Poornima would visit Pettah, every weekend, to engage with a character known as Blade Raja. He appears as a motif throughout the For Sale exhibition.
Once a thug, now a shoemaker, Blade Raja adds a witty quote to this shoebox, every morning. When he was young, there were many ‘rajas’ in Pettah. He got his name from his practice of cutting those who crossed him.
He lived through the 1983 riots. He is a Muslim, married to a Tamil, and his children attend a Christian school. His back is covered in tattoos with the names of the people he is attached to, whom he calls his strength. His wife is jealous of the tattoo of his ex-wife’s name. His wife has a tattoo that reads ‘Blade Raja’, done by a tattoo artist in Pettah with glass paint.
Is Blade Raja, too, for sale?
Poornima started speaking to him, back in 2012, when his community were not able to attend a music and visual arts festival held in Pettah. Included in this exhibition, ‘Your sadness is my happiness’ is a piece that reflects on his point of view on the artwork surrounding Pettah.
“I cannot measure and tell you how much of my integrity is lost by placing a price tag on ‘Blade Raja’. I am still asking myself: why am I attracted to this? What am I doing here, as a human being?”
An answer can only come through the audience, Poornima insists; it is still in the process of being answered.
How do we measure integrity?
Our conversation finds its way back to 1983. We agree that those who directly experienced the events of 1983 feel more invested in it and, as a result, their work. The younger generation, represented in this conversation by this writer, cannot feel the same way.
“At presentations, these youth will start by saying ‘these amazing stories’ but, I question what they find so amazing. At the time of the riots, I didn’t have to go to school because of the curfew. It was a lovely bubble that I was in. I would hear the stories, as my family discussed them in the living room, but, I didn’t understand the violence or the weight of it. I enjoyed that period of my life.”
By Imaad Majeed Published : 12:05 am December 20, 2014
1.Poornima Jayasinghe, 2014, Blade Raja, mixed media on paper, 30x21cm.
2.Poornima Jayasinghe, 2014, Package 68, mixed media on paper, 21×14.5cm.
3.Poornima Jayasinghe, 2014, Your sadness is my happiness [obey duka mage sapathi] IV, mixed media on paper, 42x60cm.