Monthly Archives: April 2017

‘Essaying’ to ‘poetics’? Thoughts on Gulammohammed Sheikh and Octavio Paz.

A little while back I reached a difficult point in my relationship to deep mapping. I had either to abandon it as a practice based on  ‘essaying’ (see my “The Southdown Projectessaying site as memory work, 2012) or rethink it from the ground up. Deep mapping belongs to a field of action and possibility I can no longer properly engage with because of an inexorable shift in my own situation – a shift bound up with the increased complexities of my family life and (once again) with my own uncertain health. However, while these circumstances effectively prevent me engaging with deep mapping as essaying, they don’t preclude maintaining certain orientations and attitudes of mind related to it. Nor from refiguring these in the context of a return to a small-scale studio practice. Return is actually the wrong word I’ve never entirely left the world of small-scale making I entered as an art student. Rather, until recently I saw this making work as located on the periphery of the larger conversational or relational field of my work as a constellated self that included teaching, researcher, and various kinds of making. That perception has had to change.

My intuitive response to what was something of a personal crisis was simply to go back into my studio and make something, working from memory and whatever reading my concerns pointed me to at the time. (I described some aspects of this process in my last post). But of course intuition, no matter how helpful in the short term, needs feeding, reflection and consolidation if the work it starts to animate is to flourish. It’s something of this process that I want to reflect on here.

Since I wrote that last post, I’ve begun to look for a basis for a new praxis that, while still aligned with certain central aspects of deep mapping as I understand it, moves from the inclusive process of ‘essaying’ and towards the more contained process of a ‘poetics’. I’m finding the work of two men helpful in this; the painter, poet, educationalist, and art critic Gulammohammed Sheikh (b. 1937) and of the poet, diplomat, writer and publisher Octavio Paz (1914-1998). Although my turning to these two men’s work was serendipitous and based on vague recollection of their work, there are relevant historical links between them. One is that Gulammohammed Sheikh was a member of Group 1890, a short-lived but influential collective of Indian artists formed in 1962. Paz, at that time the Mexican ambassador to India, wrote a catalogue essay: Surrounded by Infinity, for their first and last show in 1963 in New Delhi. My intuition, and at this stage its no more than that, is that they share an underlying poetics. On the basis of my reading of Paz and Karin Zitzewitz’s detailed discussion of Sheikh’s 2011 exhibition City, Kaavad and Other Works, I am hoping that going deeper into these two men’s work may open up a way for me to rethink my approach to deep mapping. (I won’t attempt to paraphrase Zitzewitz’s article, which also contains excellent reproductions. Anyone interested should read it in full).  I will, however, quote her concluding paragraph as indicative of why I take Sheikh’s work exhibited in 2011 as being so relevant to deep mapping. She writes:

“Sheikh’s vision of cultural multiplicity contains a reconfirmed commitment to complexity, defined in art historical, cultural, religious and temporal terms. In his work, complexity has an absolute aesthetic value, but I would like to suggest that complexity can also be seen as Sheikh’s principal political strategy. Or, perhaps it is clearer to say that complexity is the strategic mode by which Sheikh questions the discursive basis for political speech. For Sheikh’s main claim is that the cultural flexibility found in a pre-secular historical moment can provide a counterpoint to the fixed identities mobilized by modern politics”. (Zitzewitz, Karin. “Past Futures of Old Media: Gulammohammed Sheikh’s Kaavad: Traveling Shrine: Home.” CSSAAME Borderlines, 11 March 2016. p. 17).

The second link between Sheik and Paz is something they share with deep mapping, an intuition also central to Surrealism. Michael Shanks has claimed that deep mapping is about creating a “forced juxtaposition of evidences that have no intrinsic connection” – a process of “metamorphosis or decomposition”. For anyone with some knowledge of Surrealism, this notion of ‘forced juxtaposition’ evokes the image of “the chance meeting on a dissecting table of an umbrella and a sewing machine”. It’s easy to misunderstand the point of this image, to see it simply as an invitation to novel fantasies rather than as a purposeful metamorphosis or decomposition of the dominant epistemological frameworks that prevent us from thinking and feeling otherwise. Charles Tomlinson introduces the Selected Poems (Penguin 1979) by reminding us of Paz’s version of this need to think and feel otherwise.  Namely that: “Poetry is the other voice”. It is: “Not the voice of history or of anti-history, but the voice which, in history, is always saying something different”. This is, of course, also the voice of the unconscious as it percolates through testimonial imagination.

It’s clear from his later writing that Paz’s deep engagement with India was transformative. Returning to his engagement has taken me back to my own fascination with Indian art, something that really first developed when I studied with Philip Rawson at the Royal College of Art. (Rawson, an authority on Tantric art, encouraged me to read the aesthetics of the Kashmiri Tantric philosopher and mystic Abhinavagupta (c. 950 – 1016 AD) and, significantly, it was Paz who was responsible for the first exhibition of Tantric art in Europe, held at the Le Point Cardinal gallery in Paris in 1970). My fascination with Indian miniature painting, Tantric art and with the work of the 1890 Group artists later came to intersect with my interest in place and land. The reasons for this are difficult to explain, at least in the space of a short blog. Something of what lies behind them is indicated by something Greta Kapur writes, providing this is read from an agnostic position where the term ‘God’ evokes a sense of incomprehensible complexity recognised and honoured as that which, if we attend to it, allows us to question the dominant discursive basis of historical power. Kaput writes:

“For nature in Indian painting is not remotely majestic, as it is often in European or even Chinese painting; it is expressly sympathetic to human feeling: nature often serves as a composite metaphor for human emotion, especially the erotic emotion. Landscapes in the miniatures are, moreover, in the best sense ornamental – for to perceive the earth as so richly adorned is to give praise to God”. (‘Modern Painting Since 1935’ in The Arts of India Phaidon 1981 p. 209)

As Kapur points out in the same essay, there is a profound empathy between attitudes in Indian culture regarding the unconscious and Surrealism (with which Paz was closely associated through his friendship with André Breton). So it’s in the particular, agnostic context of late Surrealism that I read Kapur’s statement above. While she suggests the playful Surrealism of Paul Klee as closest to the spirit of the Indian Group 1890, my own current thinking is that my own way into this potent convergence requires attending to Surrealists like Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo. Not because I think I can learn anything particularly helpful from their art work, in which I have only an uneasy and rather queasy interest, but because of what ultimately grounds that work – their highly unorthodox understanding of the nature of the self, of our relationship to the animal, to ‘magical thinking’, and so to reality itself. Which, of course, takes me back to my last post and to Eduardo Kohn’s How Forests Think.

So I now find myself trying to adsorb something of Paz’s understanding of the role of the poet. At present I am particularly attracted to the conclusion his poem Sunday on Elefanta and, in turn, am trying to evoke something of this in my own work. In that poem, he writes:

Y yo,

Nada les pedimos, nada

Que sea del otro mundo:


La luz sobre el mar,

La luz descalza sobre el mar y la tierra dormidos.


(Which Michael Edwards translates as:

And I,

Ask you nothing, nothing

From the other world:


Light on the sea,

Light barefoot on the sea and the land asleep.)