Paradox Paradise

Would you still call it nonsense, if sense exchanges its meaning with nonsense?

Friday, June 15, 2007

State of the art

Exactly at 12:58 p.m, on October 25, 1999, Yuan Chai and Jian Jun Xi had the greatest performance of their life. They had named the performance Two Naked Men Jump into Tracy’s Bed. It took fifteen minutes for the artless guards at the art gallery to realise that the performance is not part of the installation, while the enlightened crowd was applauding to their highly artistic minds’ content, who realised the fact only when they read the next day’s newspaper. Much to the disappointment of the audience, the guards had to withdraw the unfortunate men from the scene before they reached the climax of their performance. It was not moral policing, but only coitus interruptus, in the most profound, artistic, figurative sense.

The act was performed at the occasion of that year’s Turner Prize, United Kingdom’s most publicised art award that amounts to £25,000, which is organised by, and at, the Tate Gallery, London. And the installation, which these performers had volunteered to improve by their ingenuous concept, was the famous, and/or infamous, My Bed by Tracy Emin. This artistic piece is the artist’s own double bed, unmade, with soiled clothes and assorted objects lying around. Once it was almost destroyed by a gallery keeper, who tried to clean up the mess. It failed to win the Turner Prize that year. Turner Prize, after all, is not an easy catch. It’s named after J. M. W. Turner, said to be the first of Impressionist painters, and is awarded annually to a British visual artist under the age of 50. One of the earlier winners was a film called 60 Minutes of Silence, which is an hour long shot of a group of people in police uniforms standing still. Every single winner has the art quality that has outdone this particular one, in some conceptual way or other. The 2001 award was given to a work, which was an empty room with its lights going off and on. Presenting the award to the winner that year, Madonna said, “At a time when political correctness is valued over honesty I would also like to say right on motherfuckers!” A statement that would provoke anyone to doubt whether her breasts are real!

My Bed has almost a milestone-ish importance in my own meagre art knowledge; it was the first ever installation art piece I came to know about, though later I read that the first piece of its kind was Fountain, a urinal turned 90 degrees from its normal position with the name R. Mutt written on it, which Marcel Duchamp installed in 1917. The genre became one of the most important expressions of art as concept art started gaining popularity in the 60s. When Charles Saatchi, impressed by the work of a group of artists, and opened a show with their work in 1992, and called it Young British Artists (YBAs), it was a new beginning. A beginning of the end of old means of art.

Saatchi bought Emin’s My Bed for £1,50,000, which provoked one of her former boyfriends to offer another bed of hers, which he owned, for just £20,000. He was not very serious, but Saatchi was. Tracy Emin was one of the founding members of the Stuckist movement along with this former boyfriend, Billy Childish, and few others. And the Stuckists’ fame is all about demonstrating against Charles Saatchi, YBAs, Tate Gallery, and the Turner Prize. Another of her boyfriends was an art curator who had worked with Damien Hirst, the most prominent of concept artists alive today. Soon after meeting him Emin shot to fame with her definitive work titled Everyone I Have Slept With 1963-1995, a blue tent with many names on the inside of its flaps. And that was how one of the founder Stuckists became one of the prominent YBAs.

Of all the YBAs, no one has got the fame that matches Damien Hirst. In 1991 Saatchi offered Damien whatever amount he requires to create a new work. Damien ordered a 14-feet tiger shark from Australia, and put it in a glass tank filled with formaldehyde. Damien called it The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, and billed Saatchi £50,000. Twelve years later Saatchi sold this invaluable piece of art, which by the time had turned into a rotten piece of shark meat in murky formaldehyde solution, for £6.25 million to an American art enthusiast. Generous Damien Hirst offered help to the new buyer, by allowing a replacement of the rotten shark with another. The cost of restoration is undisclosed, but the formaldehyde injection procedure, which ensures that it will last for another 200 years, alone had cost a million USD. In 1995 Hirst had won the Turner Prize, and the award winning piece, Two Fucking and Two Watching, featuring a rotting cow and bull, was banned by public health officials from exhibiting in New York for the fears of ‘vomiting among the visitors’. Possibly, the reason that inspired Hirst to offer the help to restore his rotting shark.

It was only a few of days back I read about the latest work by Damien Hirst called For the Love of God, prompting me to write this piece. His latest work is an 18th century human skull, in a platinum cast and studded with 8,601 diamonds, created at the cost of £8-10 million, and is priced for sale at £50 million, qualifying it to be the costliest piece of art ever been created. I am not attempting to be an art critique, for I believed to have a highly underdeveloped right brain that doesn’t allow me to appreciate anything modern than the surrealistic art. Nevertheless, I’m quite amused by some simple facts about the people I was talking about, especially Charles Saatchi and Damien Hirst.

The YBAs are children of the 60s, grown up in the turbulent Liberal revival era and influenced greatly by it. It was the powerful ‘Labour is not working’ campaign designed by Charles Saatchi’s advertising agency that brought Margaret Thatcher to the Downing Street office, and it was the oppressive measures of her junta that kept the rebellion alive among the artists in that country. I won’t blame the prevalent mediocrity for this state of affairs of art. Mediocrity, after all, is the sticky glue of civilisation that keeps societies from falling apart. And people like Saatchi or Hirst are the microbes inside the colon of the same society we constitute. And the moist pieces that come out of that colon are the product of the society, not the microbes. The microbes are well aware of it, and it’d be better, if we too are aware of the same fact.

Damien Hirst creates all his works with the help of his assistants, and was never hesitant to acknowledge that. In his opinion the real creative act is conception, not execution, and the progenitor is therefore the artist. Once, one of his assistances who was leaving asked for one of the pieces she had painted for him. Hirst told her to make one of her own and keep. As she insisted on having one the works she had done for him, he said, “ The only difference between one of mine and yours is money.”

I see Damien Hirst in his deathbed, with all sorts of tubes going in and out of his body, making one of the finest installations possible. And I see him conceiving his last work lying down there – A huge glass tank filled with formaldehyde, in which a larger than life human hand with all its fingers folded, except for the longest one, is kept suspended. That big finger will be made of inflated phalli of dead donkeys from Africa, and faces of major art collectors will be imprinted on each. This incredible piece will be named The Virtual Possibility of Life, in the Mind of Someone Dying.

Check out Damien Hirst's White Cube profile, and some of his works.
Read the Guardian blog, on his latest work For the Love of God.
You can also read extracts from an interview of Damien Hirst by writer Gordon Burn.

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Friday, June 01, 2007

The great bank robbery

“Hello! I’m Sweet Mouth, from Cut Throat Inc. Do you like to have a credit card, sir?”

“Of course! I would love to have one!”

“Sir, we have silver, gold, platinum…”

“Wait! I’ll tell you my requirements, and probably you can choose the best one for me.”

“Sure, sir.”

“I don’t have a job.”

“That’s absolutely fine, sir. All you need is three month’s bank statement.”

“I don’t have a bank account, either.”

“Don’t worry sir. You can open an account with us.”

“I don’t have any address proof, I stay in a small room that has no documents.”

“It’s ok sir. You can give me your telephone bill, that would be enough.”

“I use a pre-paid connection. You were lucky to get me, it will get expired by midnight”

“I’m sorry, sir… I don’t think…”

“Don’t say it. I need a credit card. Nobody would need a credit card as much as I do now!”

“But, sir…”

“I’m ok with a copper, or wood, or plastic or even a paper one”

“I’m sorry, sir. I can’t help you, sir. You don’t have a salary slip or bank statement…”

“That’s exactly why I need a credit card! If I have money in the bank, why would I want a credit card?

“You are right, sir. But…”

“Alright Sweet Mouth, please let me know if you come up with any plan that suits people like me.”

“Sure sir. Thank you for talking sir. Bye, and have a nice day!”

That particular kind of ‘nice day’ she wished me about four years back is yet to arrive. A nice day, with one or more credit card bills, a 3-year personal loan, a 5-year vehicle loan, and 20-year old housing loan to pay off. This sort of mortgaged life is one of the most desirable options one is left with these days. And it is pretty difficult to choose the easier way of living.

Today, one can’t live without banks. I still can keep my money stuffed inside my bed, and it will give almost the same amount of interest any bank would. But to do that, I’ll have to take the money out of the bank first, that’s the catch. No one pays in hard cash. Even bearer cheques are hard to get. That’s the second catch, or the catch on the catch – you can’t survive without a bank account.

Fifteen years back, when I opened my first bank account, all needed was two signatures from my father and three from me. And two passport size photographs and fifty rupees. With another fifty rupees I would have got a chequebook too! Opening a bank account was not that easy once I moved out of the little town where everyone in the bank from the peon to the manager knew not just me, but even my forefathers. But then, I had the sweet option to live without a bank account. Salaries were given in hard cash, or bearer cheques as you demand. And then came the new age banks. Banks with carpeted floors, flower vases with fresh flowers, and couches to sit and wait. And when I entered in one such bank for the first time, about six years back, I was offered a comfortable chair, coffee and a bank account. All they had asked for was three of four of my signatures. The sweet chap with a tasteless brown necktie didn’t even ask for my photographs; he shot me instead, with a Polaroid camera. And if you see that photograph, you won’t fail to notice the puzzled wonderment in my half-popped out eyes. And in three or four days, the magic card and its secret code reached me in separate mails. The world had really changed; I had no other option, but to believe.

The traditional banking used to be one of the simplest businesses on earth. With an easier logistics than a teashop. You take money from people giving them an interest, and then you give it to other people for a higher interest. But with this simple way of business it’s almost impossible for banks to have cozy couches and coffee for their customers. And just for the comfort and convenience of their customers, these poor new age banks are pushed to adopt dubious methods, departing from their simple business model.

For a person like me an offer like allowing zero balance was the most comforting of all thoughts. There were innumerable instances the thought of my-hundred rupees-that-I-can’t-have came tormenting, while coughing-up for the cheapest, yet precious, bottle of alcohol. The new banks only demanded an average quarterly balance of five thousand rupees, and I can withdraw to the last paise. It took exactly three months for me to figure out the new business model of these generous banks. Average quarterly balance means I have to keep at least five thousand rupees in the bank, just like a lifetime fixed deposit! Not exactly like a fixed deposit, because they wouldn’t be giving me the 16-20% interest on my deposit as the old, grumpy banks. And if I didn’t keep the balance they will charge 40% interest on the amount as a fine! Not at all fine with me. Still I can have zero balance, only if the amount is a multiple of hundred, because ATMs keep only hundred rupees notes. And if try to withdraw the amount less than hundred from their cash counter, they will charge hundred rupees as the service charge. That means, the banks can keep the change. When was the last time, you tipped like that while being sober?

It’s not just an almost interest free, lifetime fixed deposit, and free change I’m giving to the bank. Just for my added convenience of cozy couches and one time coffee. I’ll pay hundred rupees every year for my ATM card; and I’ll pay usage charges if I access the ATM more than thrice a day when I’m in town, or more than twice in a month when I’m outstation. If I use my card to make a purchase, I’ll pay a service charge for that convenience too. Cheques are more profitable, especially if they bounce. If a cheque is bounced, the bank doesn’t have to pay anyone. Not just that, they will charge fine from the one who issued the cheque, and from the one who presented it!

At this point, I’m more than tempted to tell an anecdote. One Mr. Nice Guy opened a bank account to help his MNC-bank-executive friend, who had a tough time with the necktie and the sales target around his neck. Mr. Nice Guy gave five thousand rupees, and three days later his ATM card and secret code came in different mails. A couple days later the code for telebanking came by another mail. And a few days later another mail came with the codes for Internet banking. Mr. Nice Guy didn’t bother to open any of these mails, because his only good intention was to help his friend to reach closer to his target, not to use the account. About two years later, Mr. Nice Guy went to the bank to close his account and collect his five thousand rupees and its nominal interest, and found his account has hardly two thousand rupees. A sweet bank employee explained it very sweetly to the furious Mr. Nice Guy. He was charged hundred rupees for his Internet banking facility, making his balance in the account to rupees four thousand and nine hundred only. And every quarter, he was paying the fine for not keeping his average quarterly balance of five thousand rupees, like a very comfortable customer.

Since I had learnt the secret behind the cozy couches and stories under the carpets the hardest way, I was not very surprised to read the news that in US alone banks make 40-50 billion USD through unexplained service charges. Service charges for giving you back your own hard earned money, which you had lent to the bank! And this figure is only for personal banking. I couldn’t find the corresponding figure for India, even after googling for hours for it. But, I’m sure, even if the amount they make in profits would be less in India, the percentage wouldn’t be much less. And I believe, even the ones who will explode with anger at a rickshaw driver for two extra rupees are more than comfortable with these glossy banks’ grand robbery. Now I understand what they exactly meant by zero balance.

“But – you see, a bank or a company can’t do that, because those creatures don’t breath air, don’t eat side-meat. They breathe profits; they eat interest on money. If they don’t get it, they die the way you die without air, without side-meat. It’s a bad thing, but it’s so. It’s just so.”

From The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck.

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