Encounter with the Reichstag
Rm. Palaniappan's works can be spoken in terms of a preoccupation with various kinds of representational sign systems, and their combining to achieve an exact `density' of expression depending on the kind of subject matter he was dealing with. SHANKAR NATARAJAN looks at the artist's work, `Berlin on process', currently on display at the Apparao Galleries in Chennai.
Part of the series called "Around Reichstag", Berlin, 1999.
Part of the series called "Around Reichstag", Berlin, 1999.WHAT
may be the reason for an Indian artist to circumnavigate for
hours on end, an edifice with a particularly difficult history,
far from home and in a European capital, for the purpose of
photographing its entirety with a reverence that could match a
devotee and a fixation that could put to shame even the most
diligent of tourists? Palaniappan went around the German
parliament building, burnt a dozen rolls of film and in the two
years that has elapsed after his return has produced a large and
unprecedented body of work on the subject. Titled "Berlin on
process", they are currently being shown at the Apparao galleries
in Chennai. Could it be that the Reichstag, of all the things in
the world, in some obscure way provides a new path to freedom
that Palaniappan has pursued so doggedly in his art?
Palaniappan had seen the Reichstag before but as moving image in
a war film in his youth. The allied siege of the building and the
scenes of their bombing of Berlin had left a singular impression
on the young 13-year- old. His whole visual repertoire of
cartography, war machinery, aerial views, military symbols and
code and above all his preoccupation with "movements in space"
were all in some way or other prefigured in his experience of
watching this and other war films. Seeing the real Reichstag must
have been euphoric as he was brought face to face with a memory
long forgotten. There it was, the real thing and enmeshed
inextricably with it, a past experience of its image. It is this
conjoining of what Palaniappan calls the "psychological" and the
"physical" in such an epiphanic moment that seems to be the
source of his continued fascination with the event.
The Berlin photographs, displayed after his return to India at
the Max Muller Bhavan were documents of his "real" encounter with
the Reichstag. Mimicking the soldier in the film who carried a
gun around the building, Palaniappan had cautiously
circumnavigated it as if in preparation for a siege but with a
camera for firepower. They revealed how instead of embracing his
object he had carefully applied the photographic gaze, a
strangely non-intrusive one on the building's surface to
illustrate the apparition that it was. It is clear that he was
not probing or analysing the "insides" of the building. There is
a concern with surface here that photography expresses all too
Even in his work at the beginning of his career we see that
Palaniappan had preferred to keep a respectful distance from his
objects, accepting the fact of mediation. Indeed, his works can
be spoken in terms of a preoccupation with various kinds of
representational sign systems, and their combining to achieve an
exact "density" of expression depending on the kind of subject
matter he was dealing with. Concurrently he had rejected early on
a form of expressionism, practiced by Munuswamy and others in
Madras at that time &151; that symbolically correlated the
artist's emotion and his biological body with the fluid paint.
Hardly surprising given his sustained commitment to printmaking
techniques through the years, but it is interesting to note his
ambivalence to the "autographic" image. These are images made by
the action and coordination of the eye and the hand, but without
mechanical or electronic intervention as in painting and drawing.
The graphic media hovers on the border between machine and body.
The hard zinc plate, the surgicality of the etching needle and
processes involving machines resist any illusion of a veridical
access to the world or one's own emotions. Yet, one look at his
works shows how important expressiveness of a traditional
gestural kind is for the artist. His mark making is a precise and
intuitive sort that appears to be divorced from the fluidity of
wayward emotions and the impulses of the flesh. As Nasreen
Mohhammedi had done long ago, Palaniappan conceives a variant of
the artist as the paradox of the "expressive machine."
The Photograph fulfils many of Palaniappan's mediumistic needs.
First, it rarefies the picture space &151; it is a medium that is
chemically and perceptually pure. Then there is the mechanical
intervention, in the production of the image as well as in the
body of the artist &151; the photographer is after all part
machine. The rejection of the biological body for a prosthetic
body is not new in Palaniappan's work, two decades earlier he had
conceived his part human machine, an android in the lithographic
series titled "flying man". Further, photography does not allow
the "presence" of its author; his inscriptional authenticity is
never really an issue as it can be in the graphic art mediums.
In the Berlin photographs, therefore the body is not so tangible
an entity. These serialised fragments of an experience of
movement are really repeated confirmations of his
phenomenological presence (and absence) around the static
reference point of the Reichstag building. And as the
photographer in photography leaves behind a trace of an
evaporated self, which holds no clue as to what that subject was,
the building itself is empty of signification. It refuses
meaning, of a certain kind. You will be searching in vain if you
are looking for any intentional comment here, political or
otherwise. What Palaniappan does is, he points his finger at it
and exclaims &151; "look! The Reichstag!" &151; That's all.
Sometimes, he turns his photographic gaze away from the building
too, pointing to his object through metonymy; shooting the cranes
and other industrial machinery that was there for renovating the
building. All roads lead to the opaque and unyielding Reichstag.
Assuming that there is a world "out there", the photograph is
profoundly alienated from its object but strangely capable of
evoking it like no other medium can. While the technical language
of topography, to cite one of Palaniappan's favoured symbolic
systems is autonomous from the reality that it points to although
based on resemblance, the photograph is stuck to its referent and
is dependent on a physical presence. The correlations between the
photographic image and reality, though only figurative appear to
us to be much more truer, and unlike painting it can never be
parallel to a reality. The photograph hangs somewhere between a
"natural" sign and an entirely conventional one.
Is it this dilemma of the photograph that makes me think that
Palaniappan's photographs express the literalness of the object
"in itself" and as aspiring to the ideal status of the pure image
&151; The photograph as "message without code"? Or is it simply
Palaniappan's own customary reticence that brings about this
effect? But then should I even separate these two things? In any
case, before I am completely ambushed by a theoretical quagmire,
it is possible that in this time of a cancerous proliferation of
visual signification, these images can be read as expressing that
depth desire to make objects themselves speak, in a majestic
Having said this, signification is inevitable and the photograph
does have its conventions. The meticulous formalism and the
reticence of these photographs transfer them into the discourse
of art history and aesthetics and into ideology. It is here one
is able to compare it with other like images &151; say Nasreen
Mohammedi's photographic work or Etienne Marie and Edward
Muybridge's work on 19th Century bodies in movement. Or ask what
may be the political implications of being silent. Or simply say
how breathtakingly perfect and aesthetically pleasing these
photographs really are.
The exhibition displays not these photographs but what has
emerged from them in the last two years; it should be seen for an
insight into how Palaniappan has developed his ideas further from
the Reichstag pictures. Photography had deprived him of a
traditional kind of mark making practice; the show then
represents his return to the repository of the lithographic stone
and the canvas. The portfolios containing 30 litho prints titled
"Berlin pages" are a "literal" approach to the phenomenon of
movement. In the serial photographs the self was a succession of
imagined points, here, from an aerial view, Palaniappan extends
and graphically connects them together to create a line.
On a watermark ground plan of the Reichstag the self is conceived
repeatedly as a pure fantasised line. In the oil on canvases,
which are his most recent work, his Phenomenological project
(described by the artist as a final collapsing of the "physical
and the "psychological") reaches its logical conclusion.
Bracketing out any reference whatsoever to the world and self,
line becomes the only reality. With the mind as the only
reference point, the viewer may see the universe in them or just
a pure non-referential painting.
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