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Austere aesthetic

Alwar Balasubramaniam's works, which are on display at the British Council Living Wall and the Apparao Galleries, leave one with the impression that "site-specific" art has finally arrived in Chennai.

THE SCULPTURES, multiples, prints and paintings by A. Balasubramaniam that are currently being shown at the BCL Living Wall and at the Apparao Galleries are bare, stark and minimal and purvey an aesthetic that is austere. There are no expressive excesses. No mark is made if it does not have any precise function in their framework; Balasubramaniam's art stands somewhere between minimalism and conceptual art. In all these works on display, the overriding concern is to question, in formal terms, the boundaries that separate things.

Balasubramaniam drains away certain "inherent'' qualities of objects and merges them with their "other'' bringing disorientation in the minds of the viewer, sometimes. In one of his previous works he had projected a soft halo onto the wall and in the middle had drawn a circular mark with a pencil that mimicked a shadow. So illusionary was it that viewers' simply walked past it thinking all was well. The shadow had been caused not by some absence but by a material presence.

At the British Council, finally somebody had engaged with the context — a cause for celebration as "site specific'' art finally arrives in Chennai. Balasubramaniam's apprehension about the remoteness of that exhibition space made him produce a surreal situation. As visitors walked in out of the library they may have noticed a plaster cast man sitting on a chair appearing to disappear into the wall. If the visitor were to investigate it further, he would have found that indeed there was a show of art works happening inside and that this was the last of the living wall series and that he had missed all the previous exhibits. Once inside another surprise awaits, the man in the chair has passed straight through the wall onto the inside. Acting as a chaperon he introduces us to other visual paradoxes such as the painting made with a paint that reveals an image as the temperature on its surface rises.

Although Balasubramaniam's international "look'' has been a cause for concern, for many, it is not really as if it lacks all local attributes. In the context of Indian art, the antecedents of such visual precision and the rejection of overflowing artist emotion are many. Nasreen Mohhamedi may be one and closer to home there is Rm. Palaniappan. With the latter he shares much more than generally assumed. The kind of paradox that Balasubramaniam repetitively engages with in his work relates him to Palaniappan. The latter, for instance, collapses the distinction between positive and negative space. He will also bypass relating it to any contingent event or phenomenon in "real life'' outside of the frame of the work of art. Balasubramaniam's work also retains this formalism — if it relates to anything else it will be in a highly rarefied space. It is this aspect more than anything else that anchors his work in the context of Madras art.

SHANKAR NATARAJAN

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