Vivek Vilasini, Between One Shore and Several Others, 2005, wood, acrylic lettering, seven ink-jet prints, each 40 x 30".

Vivek Vilasini, Between One Shore and Several Others, 2005, wood, acrylic lettering, seven ink-jet prints, each 40 x 30".

Vivek Vilasini

1X1 Art Gallery

Vivek Vilasini, Between One Shore and Several Others, 2005, wood, acrylic lettering, seven ink-jet prints, each 40 x 30".

For a few years in the 1990s, Kochi, India–based Vivek Vilasini was part of the small group of artists gathered around the pioneering Emirati Conceptualist Hassan Sharif. “Between One Shore and Several Others” at 1X1 Art Gallery—which brought together various bodies of mostly photographic work produced since the early 2000s, when Vilasini first picked up a camera—marked his long-overdue return to Dubai. The exhibition’s title, which Vilasini has used for both individual works and solo exhibitions in recent years, reveals his abiding interest in how knowledge, culture, ideas and ideologies disseminate beyond their origins and across borders, and in the idiosyncratic ways they assimilate into new local contexts through conscious and unconscious acts of translation. Vilasini employs various Conceptual strategies to subvert the camera’s anthropological gaze; while his use of seriality and grids to present typologies owes a debt to Bernd and Hilla Becher, he also attributes his use of repetition to Sharif’s enduring influence.

The Indian state of Kerala has long been one of the strongholds of Communism in an otherwise liberal democracy. The earliest work on view (from 2005), which shared the show’s title, consisted of seven framed portraits of Keralans of different ages and genders, installed in a neat row. Plates below each image identified the person: Lenin, Stalin, Ho Chi Minh, Marx, Che Guevara, Gramsci, and the ever-so-quaint Soviet Breeze, the sole female. Each unassuming image was tilted forward from its bottom edge, mimicking the way portraits of politicians often hang in government offices, rendering their subjects’ downward gaze both domineering and benevolent. While the work reveals how deeply discourses of Marxism and Communism have pervaded local culture, it also disentangles political ideals from personality cults by elevating its proletarian subjects to the status of leaders and ideologues, linking their wisdom to the constitution of his vision. Portraits of some of these Communist luminaries—alongside those of nationalist leaders such as Gandhi and B. R. Ambedkar and international figures such as Malcolm X and Allen Ginsberg—appeared in Ways of Seeing, 2011, their faces projected onto and blending with that of the artist. Across Vilasini’s oeuvre, influence is a source not of anxiety but of celebration, a reminder that ideas and knowledge remain unfettered by territorial, linguistic, and cultural borders.

Housing Dreams (Walls), 2015, was composed of thirty photographs of garishly colored compound walls, arranged in a neat grid. Shot frontally so that the wall appears parallel to the picture plane, and from a close distance so that the structures fill the frame, the images look like lurid geometric abstractions, examples of kitsch vernacular aesthetics or gauche projections of newly acquired wealth. However, Vilasini’s objective approach defers judgment, presenting them instead as a celebration of unapologetic chromophilia. In the related Housing Dreams (3rd Investigation), 2015, Vilasini documented rural houses with similarly eye-catching exteriors, which also feature handpainted advertisements for products ranging from engine oil to underwear, to show how capitalist logic overtakes even the domestic sphere. A large central image captures a mountainside village, half its houses painted yellow and emblazoned with “!DEA,” the logo of a wireless telecommunications company. Amplified through repetition, the advertisement seems to infect the landscape, functioning as a metaphorical and literal blight on the surrounding vegetation.

A large, grainy nighttime shot of a train standing at a platform, Too Many Fables on the Rails—The Cancer Express, 2018, evoked a familiar device from Indian popular cinema, in which the railway journey marks the transition from the rural to the urban and into the space of modernity. However, its full title suggests a darker subtext: This particular train shuttles patients from Punjab, the state with the highest incidence of cancer but limited options for affordable care, to a hospital in neighboring Rajasthan—this while India is quickly becoming a premier destination for medical tourism. Though the fare is subsidized, the situation testifies to the many failures of the postcolonial state, from its program of unbridled agricultural and industrial development, which irreversibly depleted and contaminated both the land and the water table in Punjab, to its inability to adequately safeguard the health and welfare of its poorest citizens. The image is a quiet indictment of contemporary India, where neoliberal capitalism spreads unchecked despite the country’s historical commitment to the egalitarian ideals of socialism and communism.

Murtaza Vali