Abirpothi

India’s only daily art newspaper

Digital art is an amateur love affair: Christopher Charles Benninger, master architect (Part 4)

Nidheesh Tyagi: Christopher is also a writer of a book called Letter to a Young Architect. But, I was just wondering if both of you can tell us what will your letter be for a young artist who is right now in a place like Khairagarh or Orissa, or outside Kolkata in Bengal. What would you want to tell them?

Christopher Charles Benninger: Look at your own experience. Look at your own self and through your paintings, you are actually creating an identity, you are creating a new personality. So enjoy that process. Develop your own personality, reflect on your own context, and celebrate that context instead of celebrating things you see on digital media or things you see in films. When you start celebrating that context like Bhupen Khakhar, he used to paint the shopkeepers seriously, Krishna Hotel was just a small cafe, it used to be a coffee shop, and why Bhupen Khakhar became famous is because he only painted things from his daily life – his tailor shop, his tea stall and that was unusual at the time because most of the painters at the time were trying to copy or by influenced by  Western geometry, western colour systems, and here was a guy whose paintings were very simple, very humble environment, which was his environment and he was just actually documenting his own world. 

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I think if young artists today, they look at the environment, things around them, if they go to vegetable market in their town and paint scenes from the vegetable market, or to the railway station, or to the ST bus station, just on the street where they live – they will find so much material in human nature and I think artists have a role of self-projecting what is human nature, what is humanity, what are the emotions of people. In some of the paintings of Bhupen Kakar, you can look at the faces of people at Krishna Hotel and you can tell whether they are worried, or happy, or interested – their eyes are going across the cafe to another table – and he can express human emotions or humanity in his paintings. So, I would write something to the young artist like this: a) Use any simple media that you can, don’t get carried away by acrylics, and digital and social media. b) Paint things which are near to you, which you know. 

We know of an artist in Poona who paints pictures of people in piers in the last 19th century, all of her paintings were like that. That’s all she paints. Nothing to do with Poona, nothing to do with her life, nothing to do with this century. I think there are so many interesting things that people experience and environments that are very exciting. So they celebrate their lives and they start having an identity. 

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Ramprasad Akkisetti: I would say that if you decided to become an artist and you are young, I think you should invest a huge amount of time in something which is as basic as observation. I think our observation of our surroundings, as Christopher said, you visit to a vegetable market should be an experience where you observe and you start by freezing frame by frame as if you are experiencing the vegetable market as frames of painting and each of those you can convert them into painting because these memories are what create original art. Nowadays I see a lot of people go to galleries, especially in Europe, they see those, take photographs, come back to India, and they tweak the painting and they call it original art! It’s not. What is important is that we are blessed with a country like India with so much variety, so much regional variation in everything. Our stories, right from mythological stories to folklore, they all supply an enormous palette to choose from.

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CCB: Let me comment on that. If you look at our architecture, actually every building that’s different, we don\’t have a brand, people look at the building and they say it\’s interesting and get surprised that we designed the building, but when you come to India House, there is something I call choreography – not the physical form – it’s not the image it is the experience from when you enter the first step, walk down the promenade, and you go through an experience that expands. Now when I go to Rajasthan and go out to villages in the desert, at night there was no television, no cinema halls, but they would hang up a long, may be 20-foot long painting, and a guy would play a sarangi, a local instrument, and he would sing a song and his son or his wife would hold a lantern and they would show that scene and move on to another scene and sing that song. So the art became like a cinema, it became motion, it became choreography, with the beginning and the end of a story. I think good art often has stories in it. Guernica, the Picasso painting, was a criticism of fascism, and the bombing of religions in Spain by the fascists; it was a story that became very important to people in their lives in Europe and American because they realized the catastrophe of war. So I think there can be messages in paintings and those messages can come from villages, small towns, and neighbourhoods, not from art galleries and  social media. 

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RA: So if I have to kind of sum it up, a good painting is a combination of great technique and a wonderful story. So if young artists can focus on what’s the story of my painting, is it connecting with the people when they see it? Technique is something they can learn from their schools or college or from their teachers; stories have to be experienced. And those experiences have to come from your life, from your travels, and from your conversations.

NT: So the last question would be about this whole digital thing because how our last two years especially everything has moved so fast-forward. Like we are sitting at three different places for a recording which can also go live if we want to. 

CCB: You see you can watch a love affair on a screen serial but you cannot have a love affair. You can definitely make art, which is digital, but it’s not the real thing. I think reality is very important where people can touch or feel; humans have basic senses – sight, smell, and hearing and you have got to use those senses to express art. If you want to do something digital, go ahead and do it. I have nothing against it but I don\’t think it’s a real love affair; it’s just an amateur love affair. 

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RA: I see the difference between real and digital is that both of them are media, are platforms. Digital is a platform from which you can introduce one to something which you have not experienced, at your comfort level or at your convenience. It’s permanent, once it is digital it is there forever.  So that gives you a greater idea to understand what’s happening in the world around you which was not possible in the past. So in a way, I would say it is a good leap forward. It is a good instrument to engage with the art world in a very short period. But, the experience of seeing real art, you can never replicate it with a screen that you have in front of you. So, to me, it is a necessary evil but it is not something that ultimately gives you experience. It’s like seeing the food on the screen, but eating gives you the extra oomph. 

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NT: At the same time, say if someone is sitting in a small city and is applying for some kind of a show in Jehangir or Lalit Kala in Delhi and he or she might be waiting for long. But through digital, it might not be as good as a physical experience but that art can actually reach out to people. Like Google Arts and Culture, there is an App and I can probably sitting here look at what is happening in St. Petersburg and I don’t know if I will ever go there but then I can look at the whole Hermitage sitting from here. So I was talking about how small, village kind of a world we are becoming through digital and will that also help in criss-crossing ideas in journeys in art. 

RA: It’s a double-edged sword. At one level you have this experience of seeing in the comfort of your bedroom or your office what’s happening in the rest of the world, what’s happening in the Louvre Museum in Abu Dhabi, Paris, or Metropolitan Museum in New York, or in Delhi in Lalit Kala or Hermitage in St. Petersburg, but at the same time it also destroying your originality because you are getting influenced. 

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CCB: Let me add to that. One of the favourite things I do; we have people applying for work here and there are a lot of youngsters coming in. I ask them a simple question: Can you name the countries that border India and you would be surprised that eight out of ten cannot answer correctly. The reason being that when we were young we actually drew maps with our hands, we had a physical map which was now on our minds and these kids have no map, they have no memory, they say why should I know what the map looks like, just open Google and India map! Therefore the result of all this is that they actually don’t have any knowledge of their home. They become blank minds. 

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RA: It’s a clear shift because no longer memory plays an important role. People feel that if there is knowledge, let’s say in Google or in Cloud or some server, I can access it whenever I want it. But, understand, you can never build your building blocks of knowledge without having memory. Memory is important and that memory is not actually being created when you go through the digital works because you see it in a fleeting second and you forget it the minute it is removed and a day later if you ask, can you tell me the four paintings you have seen, they have no memory. If you do not have memory, you cannot build anything, that’s clear. So as I said, it is a double-edged sword because you need the digital world but you cannot be a slave to it. 

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CCB: I would say there is a difference between casual pleasures like Bloody Mary or whiskey and soda and pleasures which last you a lifetime. And I think digital media is a casual pleasure. It’s an amusement, not entertainment. Entertainment teaches you, it makes you think, it challenges your mind. Amusement is just pass time. In a circus, if you see someone jump upside down from one swing to the other, that’s amusement. Watch a film, like Ingmar Bergman, it challenges your mind, they ask you questions, they make you think, they might even look bad. But, I think we need more entertainment and less amusement. 

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NT: Thank you so much, we talked for almost an hour, it was a wonderful discussion. I think it is so helpful to young artists in this country to get some kind of leads, understanding and perspectives from you because both of you are so invested in this whole idea of art and aesthetic besides of course architecture. Thanks once again from Abir Pothi.

The video interview can be accessed here.