Los Angeles

View of “Tejpal Ajji,” 2012. From left: Hindi, 2009–11; Piano, 2010.

View of “Tejpal Ajji,” 2012. From left: Hindi, 2009–11; Piano, 2010.

Tejpal Ajji

View of “Tejpal Ajji,” 2012. From left: Hindi, 2009–11; Piano, 2010.

Remember Don Music, the Sesame Street character who would bang his head on the piano in frustration? As spontaneous musical actions go, there seems to be an appeal, at least among pint-size viewers, in using one’s head as a blunt instrument. In Tejpal Ajji’s video Piano, 2010, we see a grown-up version of that compulsion, except the impromptu action is replaced by a deliberately paced performance. The work begins with the camera focused on a grand piano in a dance studio. A muffled off-screen voice can be heard, and then Ajji comes into view, carried planklike by two men and a woman. Arriving at the piano, the three lift and lower the artist so that his forehead makes contact with the keys. The action is repeated seventeen times, the players shuffling back and forth along the length of the keyboard before retreating again, artist in tow, out of the frame.

With a running time of just over one minute, Piano, one of three works in Ajji’s recent exhibition “Direction Pieces” at LAXART, is an idea carried out as action. Especially in the context of the ongoing Fluxus resurgence (bolstered by the centennial, last year, of John Cage’s birth), Piano seems more an exercise than an original statement. By contrast, Ajji’s video Hindi, 2009–11, has an entirely opposite effect. Transforming an act of mundane practice into an impressive performance, this ten-minute piece presents us with a chart of the Devanagari alphabet (the script used to write Hindi) hand-printed in black on a white ground. With the letters arranged according to their order of articulation—i.e., the places in the mouth that the tongue touches to produce each sound—Ajji “plays” the letters like keys on a keyboard, voicing aloud each “note” as it corresponds to the tapping of his finger.

As anyone who has learned a second language as an adult can attest, our tongues can be stubborn muscles, tending to resist efforts to move and bend in ways to which they are unaccustomed. At first, Ajji’s soundings resemble the type of rote repetition one does to hardwire a new connection between the tongue and the brain—to establish the nuances, for instance, that distinguish ka from kha, cha from jha. Very quickly, however, Ajji’s finger-and-voice play escalates into a more complex improvisation, increasing in pace and volume as he taps and sounds out longer and longer combinations. By the end of the piece, Ajji’s “playing” of Hindi is akin to that of a pianist pounding out a virtuoso performance, replete with staccato “notes” and crescendos.

Present in both Piano and Hindi is the experimental impulse that harks back to how we learn as children: through a continuous process of testing and repetition. Hindi, however, also speaks to a type of knowledge we acquire only as we grow older—an awareness of the distinction between that which is foreign and that which is familiar, and the boundaries (such as language) that can mark a divide between ignorance and comprehension. Yet by treating the letters in Hindi as notes independent of signification, Ajji encourages an appreciation of the sound element common to all language.

Ajji claims the issue of cultural difference as one of his overarching concerns. But his formalist practice of “making strange” can have a counterintuitive effect, eroding our previously ingrained notions of what “foreign” is in the first place. This was true of the exhibition’s closing event, a performance titled Harmonium, Tabla, Chimta, 2012. As in Piano, Ajji performed this work with the assistance of others, who carried, swung, turned, and manipulated his body. On one hand, the Indian and Pakistani instruments it featured were no doubt unfamiliar to most of the audience. But in the end, the foreignness of these objects was superseded by the universal truth underlying Ajji’s gesture: Making one’s way in the world requires a little head-banging.

Jennifer King