Two in one: firstly Rajkamal Kahlon introduces her project, Did You Kiss the Dead Body?, then as previously appeared in Kahlon’s book Double Vision, Lalitha Gopalan offers an in depth and visceral essay describing her encounters with the work, entitled Blow me a Kiss, Rajkamal Kahlon!
On September 11, 2012, I began serving as the Artist-In-Residence at the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project, NSP, in New York. The NSP has legally challenged abuses of power by the Bush and Obama administrations’ uses of torture, unlawful detention, targeted killings with drones, CIA kidnapping and rendition and the arbitrary nature of no-fly lists. The NSP was also responsible for the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request and subsequent litigation that led to the release of over 100,000 pages of documents that came to be known as the Torture FOIA. Among this vast archive of documents are a set of U.S. Military death certificates and autopsy reports of Iraqi and Afghan men who have been killed while in American detention centres I have been working with those documents in a project called Did You Kiss the Dead Body?
A recent public conversation between myself and ACLU attorney, Alexander Abdo, held at the Lambent Foundation in conjunction with Aesthetic Justice, an exhibition curated by Niels Van Tomme, raised a number of important questions surrounding different legal, medical and the cultural frameworks needed to understand the material history and identity of individuals who have died in U.S. Custody since September 11th. How do the lives of the men in these documents come to be remembered and brought into our shared history? As an artist, part of my logic is that the documents perform a second stage of violence to the body that has already experienced incarceration and death, further subjected to dismemberment and scrutiny. The documents are contained within an archive, which serves a secular memorial function, erasing rather than helping us to remember these excesses of power. I am interested in augmenting the secular archive with alternate forms of remembrance and mourning in order to make the fact of these incarcerations and deaths gain greater significance in our cultural memory. From a legal standpoint, the documents serve as proof of the excesses of power, providing the possibility to hold those in power accountable for their acts. Their existence is viewed as beneficial and there is a belief in the underlying functional rationality of the document and the archive. The residency was a way to explore the philosophical gap between my view as an artist engaged with ideas of empathy and remembrance and the legal perspective of these documents as rational instruments serving justice.
During the residency I had multiple conversations about empathy, intimacy, trauma, the law, torture and death with lawyers in the National Security and Human Rights Project. Many of the lawyers I spoke with brought the first legal challenges to the Bush administration’s illegal conduct in cases like Ali v. Rumsfeld, which sought to prosecute Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and senior military officials for their roles in the arrest, detention and torture of innocent men in Afghanistan and Iraq and Mohamed v. Jeppesen Dataplan which filed suit on behalf of five extraordinary rendition victims and targeted a subsidiary of Boeing which was responsible for flights and logistical support in the transportation of rendition victims to CIA black sights in countries known to use torture. An interview I did with Jameel Jaffer, the Director of the ACLU’s Center for Democracy, about last week’s Supreme Court oral argument, Clapper v. Amnesty, which challenges the U.S. government’s warrantless electronic surveillance of Americans’ correspondence with foreign individuals, can be found at Creative Time Reports.
Organizations like the ACLU, through litigated declassified sources, and Wikileaks through leaked classified ones, have made available to the public huge amounts of information confirming egregious abuses by the U.S. Government domestically and internationally. The problem with releasing such vast archives of information is that they remain largely opaque to the general public who has no clear way to enter and make sense of what is contained within.
The ACLU did the work of making the documents available but then there exists a another stage of work to be performed, which is to provide a larger cultural meaning and value to the documents. This is where artists, poets, historians, theorists and writers enter. Our knowledge of communication, analysis and creative intervention is fundamental to the documents having a life beyond a physical or digital archive. Our role is at the heart of shaping cultural memory and public debate. I believe in the transformative and liberatory potential of art. The act of creation is one that cannot be quantified, or harnessed towards productive and concrete ends, but nonetheless it effects social change. It throws the realities of unquestionable power into doubt, not by mimicking it, but rather by subverting it, through another poetic logic that renders conventional power mute and offers another register of truth.
The residency at the ACLU set in motion fundamental changes to my understanding of what my role as an artist is and the context within which my work is made. The residency provoked a rethinking of the traditional spaces and conditions for how artistic research is done. The concept of audience was replaced by a new and provisional sense of community where my research was performed not in isolation but through shared conversation and debate across disciplinary boundaries – a reciprocal expansion of the understanding of one’s work and the understanding of its spreading sphere of influence.
Did You Kiss the Dead Body? was part of the 2012 Taipei Biennial: Modern Monsters / Death and Life of Fiction, September 29 – January 13, 2013.
Blow me a Kiss, Rajkamal Kahlon! By Lalitha Gopalan.
It’s a little quiet in Rajkamal Kahlon’s series Did You Kiss the Dead Body? A series of marbled images hang on the gallery wall, and one side stands a table atop with a set of surgical instruments neatly laid out, ready for use. As viewers we enter the gallery space that doubles as an operating theatre or as Kahlon intends, the autopsy table is the space of reckoning in this series. Approaching and standing up close to ‘Untitled’ image, I am struck by the smooth veneer of its life size rendition of a renaissance style cadaver with a thoracic region held open in one hand, a gesture that beckons me to come even closer; ribs, veins, muscles, flesh, and bones are drawn to a precision found in a medical textbook. The incision in the body allows us to look straight into its interiors, it’s a dead body, a cadaver, but in that welcoming gesture of the open flap, the viewer is not burdened by the body’s relationship to pain, which surely it could not tolerate if alive or not anesthetized. In the framework of the gallery, we are anaesthetized from such questions of the body’s a priori relationship to life and death but, I am jolted from my somnambulism that the still gallery space had lulled me into when I start looking at the other details on the surface of the drawing, they are words that I read sentence by sentence moved forward by their cool precision: an autopsy report of a dead Iraqi civilian conducted by the US Department of Defense. I find out from the catalogue that these reports have been downloaded from the ACLU’s website, an attempt at public scrutiny in the bureaucracy of war. In Did You Kiss the Dead Body? the autopsy report intersperses the renaissance style inspired drawing of the gaping thoracic and flattens the difference between background and foreground, an effect that is accentuated by Kahlon’s process from its very inception: hand drawings transferred on to marbled replicas of autopsy reports, occasionally increasing the scale of the 8 1/2 X 11 page, a ratio regularized by the army and photocopying devices. At each step of Kahon’s process– first converting found objects and drawings to marbling and subsequently amplifying them― she effaces the layering effect of collage so as to render imperceptible the difference between background and foreground, between anterior images beholden to renaissance axioms of scale, and military precision of accounting embraced by the US military establishment. These two images are not juxtaposed against each other, they do not offer us a palimpsestuous reading rather, both images are coterminous, bound by their investment in the corporeal, despite their varied genealogies: renaissance drawing of a pried open thoracic intertwines with renditions of autopsy procedure. With traces of the cool surface of marbling, the ink drawings evoke a chilling effect of these collapsed genealogies that can no longer remember the writhing of the dying body; no kiss can arouse it from the dead.
If the silence of the mausoleum descends into the gallery of Did You Kiss the Dead Body? an acoustics of carving and tearing reverberates through the chambers of Provisions Library in Washington DC where Kahlon’s series titled Cassell’s Illustrated History of India is installed, Spring 2006. This was my first encounter with Kahlon’s world; I recall my visceral reactions to the images of various sizes. I feared if I gaped too long at one of her pieces, the pink protuberant lips would suck me in; if I passed too quickly by another, the long bandages would wind me up and tie me down; or if I cast a glance sideways at yet another, gargantuan blue eyes would stare me down as phantoms emerged from illustrations. I was transfixed by them and in subsequent viewings these images continue to have an outsized place in my memory, my primal moment with Kahlon’s work. In a deliberate reckoning of the scene, I want to begin with the objects themselves. Recalling the long history of trading that has functioned as an advance for British colonialism, Kahlon purchases Cassell’s Illustrated History of India, ca. 1875 from Sotheby’s. com for $400, an amount that far exceeds the original price of this middle brow volume. Once in acquisition of this rare book Kahlon rips apart its pristine condition with a scalpel, the illustrated pages are the ones she culls out to paint, rearrange, and rename. There is a partner in this crime of defacement, Elia Alba, whose video recording of the original carving accompanies the show at Slingshot Gallery, New York.
Its best to move through this show by browsing with a library copy or a facsimile of Cassell’s to grasp the extent of Kahlon’s labour Let us turn to page 204 where we see an illustration of two women standing side by side and the caption reads ‘Low Caste women of Bombay.’ It is a familiar iconic image bearing the markings of cataloguing and classification that shadowed colonial fascination with India. Framing the illustration is a rip roaring written account of a military combat led by Colonel Browne against the Marathas in the Ghauts and Bombay. The gap between the stillness of the ethnographic image and movement of the adventure narrative is wide enough for Kahlon to plunge her scalpel at the seams of the page and flash her brush, tried conceptual strategies with picture books that undergo a profound renewal here. The raucous adventures of Colonel Browne’s skirmishes are at odds with the illustration, it’s an arbitrary relationship that Cassell’s naturalizes and Kahlon slices. The colonial enlightenment predilection for cataloguing and classifying of peoples recurs in Cassell’s illustrations, which Kahlon reminds us in other pieces, are also beholden to Quattrocentro perspective as is evident in the pageantry of battle scene drawings where as omniscient narrators we look upon cavalry advance from a bird’s eye point of view or from afar, the rituals of surrender. In this particular image, twin projects surface on the same page: Colonel Browne’s skirmishes occur before the apparatus of classifying is unleashed upon the subjugated population. Standing side-by-side the two ‘Low Caste Women of Bombay’ cover up the violence of both undertakings, but not for long. By drawing phantom figures crawling out of the folds of their saris and unspeakably large pink lips Kahlon exorcises the silence structuring this image; blue eyes envelope the women’s heads to suggest that sight and knowledge also bear the burden of witnessing. These parts of the body, these ungainly orifices, are not drawn to scale and their blue and pink colors do not wash over the black and white illustration, but bulge out in grotesque ways. Kahlon paints the implicit collusion between the text and image on page 204 grotesque.
Strangers in the Night nominates the estrangement between words and illustrations, between colonizers and colonized, and between size and scale that Cassell and its kin have long trafficked in. Many of the other images in Kahlon’s series remain ‘Untitled,’ their nomination postponed. By augmenting bandaged penises and heads, enlarged breasts and lips, over illustrations and words, Kahlon arouses the uncanny in colonial enlightenment, which the two women can no longer conceal in the folds of their saris. A rib-tickling laugh echoes through the show as grotesquerie spills out of the pages of Cassell’s.
As the large life size images of Double Take (2010) stand up, déjà vu floods me. Their size summons comparisons to Did You Kiss the Dead Body? and their painterly form calls on illustrations we find in library copies of colonial era history books, before being worked over by Kahlon. Stripped from words on pages and enlarged beyond the size of books, Double Take lines up meticulously painted watercolours the preferred genre for colonial era painters who inspired the lithographic illustrations of Cassell’s series and now imitated by Kahlon for a totally different effect. Lest we think that Kahlon’s avowed maximalist aesthetics have muted, we would be sorely mistaken; Double Take refers to earlier work as much as previous iterations prefigure later style. Through conceptual detours and passage of time, the flat blown up images in this series offer us an opening into this body of prodigious work even as we lose ourselves in this loop of endlessly doubling and folding referents that Rajkamal Kahlon’s commands into our presence.
For more Did You Kiss the Dead Body? images visit here.
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