PRINT March 1994


The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
—William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, 1790–93

WHERE EACH IS BOTH is Izhar Patkin’s Josephine Baker, and also his Carmen Miranda—and most of all his Siva, the Hindu divinity whose disconcerting and sublime contradictions and convergences suggest a reality beyond the norms and incompatible oppositions of experience. A god of magical multiplicity and ambiguity, Siva is Patkin’s muse, his dance partner on the elusive edge of transcendence and transgression. Patkin has always traveled freely through the nominal differentiations of race and place in the multicultural esthetic diaspora, distilling history and geography into radical hybrids in which opposites not only attract, they bond in ecstatic embraces that blur their differences while accentuating their individualities. In Siva he has located the ultimate manifestation of that mortal yet eternal illusion in which the one appears as the many, yet remains intrinsically one—solitary in the mysterious symmetry of its self.

In a critical climate in which art is deciphered as a virtual media object, subject to all the cynical scrutiny of contemporary skepticism, Patkin’s Siva shows him creating the creator—reaffirming the creative process, and asserting the reality of illusion and the illusion of reality. This is Siva of brilliantly colored, baroquely curlicued glass with a steel armature, both robust and excruciatingly fragile. Combining genders, he wears Josephine Baker’s banana skirt and Carmen Miranda’s pineapple hat. And he stands on the back of a rooster, an Indian deity honoring a Jewish proverb: “The world rests on chicken wings.” The world’s immensity is all held up by feathers; the order of things is strong as steel, brittle as glass. Seeming almost rendered in light, this sculptural image is as airy, playfully erotic, and atmospheric as a Fragonard or a Boucher. At the same time, the cartoonish simplification and exaggeration that enliven it recall Kalighat painting, the popular art of colonial India.

For Patkin, Where Each Is Both has a second subtextual rallying cry: “If you must be exiled from the Garden, step into the ballroom.” Humanity’s expulsion from Paradise, our separation from the ideal, may have engendered a puritanical pathology of denial, a schizophrenic separation of body and soul, but the twain still meet on the dance floor. This is the site not only of literal cultural revolution—music, after all, has been a crucial 20th-century agent of social change and exchange, even being credited with the collapse of the Iron Curtain—but of spiritual transmigration, of the simultaneous loss and reinvention of self that takes place in the dance of life. Patkin’s ballroom is the Garden regained, the utopian Paradise on Earth, an alternative dimension. Dissolving physical bounds, dance is the metashamanic path of excess by which we may attain the ephemeral grace of being literally beside ourselves.

Where Each Is Both, then, is a Nataraja, or dancing Siva, and has dancing alter egos. Like Patkin, Carmen Miranda and Josephine Baker are Brahmanic expatriates, lone troubadours divested of the physical parameters of their respective cultural identities, fluidly traversing the difficult topography of societal time and place. Like Siva, they are both destroyer and creator, end and beginning, inhabitants of the distant limits of “acceptable” behavior, outsiders who are somehow central. Like Siva, they combine opposites; like Siva, they are dancers.

Conjunctions like these are the hooks on which Patkin hangs his hybrids, his prophetic absurdities, his plays among the poetics of paradox and of the lowbrow pun. His apt title for his strategy of multiple iconographies, Where Each Is Both, is itself an aphorism on collaboration, for the piece developed out of his work with the Argentinian writer Pedro Cuperman, whose understanding of both Patkin’s art and Siva are integral in the work. Cuperman’s own voice emerges clearly in the short novel he wrote to be exhibited alongside the sculpture, in a group of booklets. The juxtaposition of Patkin and Cuperman, each with his own kindred yet divergent reading, is, of course, one more site upon which Patkin builds his baroque architecture of intuitive symmetry.

Siva is unpredictable, illusory, androgynous, various, constantly inventing new faces for experimental reality. He makes us believe through the sheer seductive power of the dance. As such, he is the supreme model for creativity, a holistic alternative to the Judeo-Christian God (whom Patkin evokes in a suite of paintings accompanying his glass Siva, one of them showing two hands almost touching, as in Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel God and Adam—and also as in two of the glass arms of Where Each Is Both). In Hinduism, Siva isn't the creator of the world— he's the creator of the image of the world, an image that we believe. He has woven a potent fiction. To accept this principle is a testament of faith, as is art itself. And Patkin's inspired act of acceptance makes his work not a statue of Siva, not a representation, but Siva itself.

Siva is so accessible to Patkin’s free-associative reading, so capable of mutant allusions, because he himself was born of convoluted beginnings in a number of different cults. Behind Where Each Is Both lies not just Nataraja but a whole lexicon of Sivas—Mahadeva, Sundaramurti, Mahakala, and also the lingam, the Hindu phallic pillar, a fertility symbol evoking not so much biological reproduction as a redirection of sexual energy toward transcendence. It is the connection between such states and the invisible powers of music that drives today’s rave dance culture. Transcendence there is usually of the chemically induced variety, but before dismissing it, remember that Siva is intimately associated with the psychedelic datura plant, and that his favorite drink is bhang, a hallucinogenic brew made from cannabis.

Nataraja is simultaneously the wise teacher and the itinerant mendicant, the archetypal social outcast, performing the tango of anarchy that those outside the confines of acceptable behavior inevitably shadow-dance. For all his benevolence, this is a moody and volatile god, at times ferociously angry. With one hand he is capable of vast destruction with the deadly element of fire. Yet he creates with another hand, raises a third hand to tell us not to fear, and points us safely to a fourth. Patkin has orchestrated this symphony of gestures somewhat differently (his figure actually has six hands), throwing in Carmen, Josephine, and even Michelangelo, but this is still eminently Siva: the enigmatic smile, the frozen, gravity-defying step, the still pose of perpetual animation, the yogic gaze into the beyond where day-to-day existence melts into a meditation on the irreality of everything real, the burlesque swoon of pure passion and pleasure that seduces us into the magical illusion of the creation itself.

Carlo McCormick is associate editor of Paper magazine, New York, and writes about art, music, and other cultural matters for a number of publications.