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Sutapa Biswas - Profile

By Jean Wainwright

1. Introduction

'The owl and the pussycat went to sea
In a beautiful pea green boat
They sailed away for a year and a day
To the land where the bong tree grows'
Edward Lear

Sutapa Biswas' artistic practice maps an intellectual landscape of feminism, diaspora, cultural identity and playfulness onto powerfully visual images. The viewer is invariably nudged into participation by the frisson that underpins her multimedia approach. The embedded dialogues between temporality and imagination, rites of passage, anxiety, loss, love and motherhood, act as powerful triggers.

In 1966 aged three and a half Sutapa Biswas left India with her mother and four siblings by ship, to join her father who for political reasons had to emigrate to England a year earlier. The light from the porthole and the blue of the sea, within the restricted confines of a cabin, during a long voyage, became both a portal and a retinal image later recontexualised in a number of works.

Biswas' practice emerged in the 1980's when issues of race , sex and gender were being articulated by artists and critics such as Keith Piper, Isaac Julien, Griselda Pollock and Mary Kelly. The influence of her academic Marxist father who believed in possibility and empowerment, combined with her degree course at Leeds University culminated in a questioning attitude. Griselda Pollock, her tutor, stated that Sutapa Biswas named the 'Imperialism that still structured analysis and spoke in undifferentiated terms of class and gender never acknowledging issues of race and colonialism' thereby identifying an 'absence'.

Biswas' inquiry resulted in a performance where her 'examiner' was subtly interrogated, hooded and placed in the centre of a circle while Biswas performed enacted 'resistance'. This 'act' gave voice to her abiding concern that her work 'explored the intersection where landscape gender and identity meet with art history'. Her final degree show in 1985 included Housewives with Steak-Knives a large mixed media work - designed to sit forward from the wall -which explored her Asian heritage, imperialism, anger and love. The visual metaphor of Kali, the destroyer of evil, is portrayed as an Asian woman set against a white background. Her four outstretched arms sport hands covered in red, one, uplifted in a sign for peace, becomes an arresting aggressive gesture. Loaded motifs such as a flower, a flag and a necklace of political 'villains' are coupled with the menacing knife of the title being brandished aloft. An art historical reference to Judith Beheading Holofernes c.1620 by Artemisia Gentileschi invites a traumatic feminist allusion. This further activates the liberating power of the image whose duality was meant to ' humour and terrify' the viewer'. This work predicates the complexity of signs and referents that continue to characterise Biswas' artistic career reaching back over the last nineteen years.

2. Synapses and Spaces

When Biswas was twenty one she travelled back to India and revisited the spaces and light of her remembered childhood.

This and other journeys later culminated in a series of photographic work that examined the fetishising of spectatorship typical in Western art. Synapse (1992) a series of large black and white medium format images, not only freeze time forever past - yet resolutely present, but reanimates the historical.

Shot in an infinity space these self-portraits expose a naked Biswas cradled in and imprinted by, projected images from India, erotic statues, monuments, and parts of landscape. The stretch and flow of the image on the skin becomes a multilayered 'Synapses' of cultural references. Her own body in relation to a historical trajectory is further imprinted when the viewer's gaze is reflected in the protective glass. This is not the first time that Biswas has manipulated the viewer in such a way. In her 1990 Sacred Space series an installation in the Slade School of art, the room itself acted as a painting with its brilliant white walls and pastel drawings on large white backgrounds. The active space was in part informed by Robert Rauschenberg's 1951 white paintings whose surfaces respond and change to ambient conditions. Gilane Tawadros has suggested that ' the 'cultural expression of the margins and the periphery represents an aesthetic and political project' explicit in Biswas work.

The implicit resonance of Edward Said's writing on Orientalism, Biswas cultural experiences of being an Indian woman and early memories of seeing films with the beam of the projector creating a dual space - are traces that reside in her fluid and sometimes unsettling Synapses. There is in this work an insistence on a lack of fixidity, explicit in the series title. This allows an oscillation between viewers and viewed, a journey perceived as a knowing metaphor, characteristic of so much of Biswas' practice.

3. Birdsong

Sutapa Biswas artistic career has been propelled by her personal history. The birth of her son Enzo and the death of her father both symbolically inhabit her recent films.

Her son's first articulated statement that 'he wanted to have a horse in the living room' of his parents London flat, began a period of obsessive artistic gestation that resulted in Biswas duel screen 7min.16mm film Birdsong (2004).

The fusion of her child's imagination palpitating with absurd possibility, aligned with visual references to art history, heritage, and her working methodology with its meticulous planning and production values. A Canadian filmmakers gift to her of one hundred origami birds expressing rituals of leaving and farewells, impressed Biswas with their fragile and symbolic simplicity, a ploy she decided to use in Birdsong.

The opening shot is of an origami winged horse seen on two screens (with an eight second time lapse between them) gently spinning on a string and catching the light from a window. In the next doubled shot we see a small boy (Enzo) filmed in close up gazing intently at something out of frame. His silent concentration in this resolutely silent film was stylistically informed by two paintings, Petrus Christus 1460 Portrait of a Young Girl and George Stubbs 1759 image of Lord Holland and Lord Albermarle Shooting at Goodwood.

Biswas had been touched by Christus' young girls intense gaze which evokes the particular magic of a child's 'minds eye '. She had also been for some time both intrigued and moved by the image of the black servant in the foreground of Stubbs painting, whose self-contained gaze has swept his imagination to some 'other' horizon. The colours of the scene with its gold's, reds, whites, greens and browns working in tonal harmony, was mirrored in the gathering of the myriad and carefully chosen objects which furnish the room, set in the location of a derelict 1930's house used for the film. The 18th and 19th century furniture, a bell jar with a stuffed bird, a writing desk, a mirror, drapes and books co-exist with a plastic pirate ship from Peter Pan the territory of family heritage and contemporary play.

Franz Fanons 'Black Skin/ White Masks ' with its notions of desire and projection and Proust's 'Swanns Way' with its poetic concentration on the ebb and flow of time measured by light and memory, are for Biswas also implicit traces in the film. The nuances of Enzo's gaze is caught in close up where we literally 'see' him thinking as he looks down at the hooves of the huge horse (out of frame) and then moves his gaze up, taking in its full height. This shot perfectly illustrates the move from the imagined horse contained in the minds eye of the child, the world of play and make-believe and the looming reality of a large unnaturally still 'beast'. Enzo's slight wince as the tail of the horse momentarily flicks and it moves out of focus and slightly in front of the frame provides a moment of tension, the enthrallment and stillness ruptured for a moment. The child in close proximity to the animal with the power to hurt or possibly kill is transported from the expectancy of imagined desire to the reality of actual presence.

The complex temporality of film when subjected to slightly unsynch doubling, is both expressed as Newtonian time that passes at a measured rate and psychological time that is fluid and variable. The luminous quality of 16mm shot between 11 and 12 o'clock when for Biswas ' time stands still' animates the relationship with temporality that the film so clearly holds within it. Gestation and shooting time, viewing time, time lapse, time passing, and the existence of playtime in the child's imagination, activate our relationship to our own mortality and in Cocteau's words the possibility of 'once upon a time'.

In the third film sequence the room is revealed, as is the horse, the image lingers like a still painting as the child sits motionless on the sofa. The scene disappears and is replaced with the two screens once again animated with the winged horse slowly spinning 'both announcing and completing the story'. Biswas hopes to leave us with that catch between love, fear, play and abandonment and the magnification that those feelings beget.

4. Magnesium Birds

'Seeing, remembering and translating are all acts of alchemy. Through time the act of alchemy becomes apparent and revealed'. Sutapa Biswas.

Birds can be signifiers for many things, but for Sutapa Biswas they have a poetic reverberation. She describes her father, as migratory and birdlike, birdsong was significantly the first thing she heard after her father died, she has drawn and painted birds.

The surreal presence of nursery rhyme birds, Hitchcock's film, their presence in Biswas dream where the rapier like claws of a bird failed to hurt and Edward Lear's drawings -were in part her starting point for the 2004 film Magnesium Bird. Its intense working process is grounded in 'instinct' and steeped in historical understanding and critical readings. Magnesium Bird was shot on 16mm film with sound, at Harewood House, in a walled Victorian garden designed by Capability Brown, a site redolent with history.

The Magnesium Bird of the title are filmed, each one different and made from magnesium wire, flaring brilliantly as the camera tracks their ' performance' against the backdrop of blustery thundery weather. As the carefully crafted burning birds, start to smoke they are sites of memory including a funeral pyre Biswas witnessed on the River Ganges in India. The flaring of light - that essential element for the film image to exist, is for Biswas primal and universal.

The enigmatic sound of absent children playing on the film affects the viewer's spatial orientation. It deliberately comes from behind when installed and lasts longer than the looped panned image, giving the impression that there are different shots of the same scene. The take that Biswas used was explosive and travelled 'quite quickly' with a 'sense of awkwardness' the gusting winds can be clearly heard and add to the sense of place. The artist posits that it makes the viewer feel they are going to 'dive into the liminal space' the sounds similar to those heard from perhaps a nearby playground though an open window, 'mesmerising familiar' and often 'anxious'. Citing a remark by Robert Louis Stephenson that 'words are to man what play is to a child' Biswas states that 'this is something that captures me every time' Play, the enacting and performing in often imagined spaces by children happens in both real and imagined time. These distilled moments of childhood can be accessed through her films as one loses oneself in the darkened viewing space.

In all her films including Birdsong, Magnesium Bird and The Trials and Tribulations of Mickey Baker Biswas states that there is no distinction between her relationship to paint and celluloid. She is attracted to their surface qualities and materiality. The saturation of colour in celluloid can be 'so painterly - that film flicker has an aura and presence'. When drawing, Biswas loves the idea of literally marking time. 'As an artist I don't separate film and painting and drawing, strange as that sounds … you have a kind of inflection with the surface'. The light that penetrates her images are references to her Indian heritage and the paintings of artists such as Edward Hopper and Vermeer. Both of these artists provoked video works in particular Untitled (Women in Blue Weeping) 1996 and The Trials and Tribulations of Mickey Baker 1997.

Ultimately Biswas' practice is about a passionate engagement with past and present 'the magical moment of the first encounter'. It is this, her Indian heritage and feminity that lend her works such resonant poignancy. She enjoys taking her viewer and herself as maker, to the edge, exploring her moments of 'epiphany'. Her statement that ' my work is intended to be contemplative. Often ephemeral, it is like a garden in which we hear both ambient sounds and nothing' is perhaps a fitting beginning.

Jean Wainwright

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