Text by James Schofield
The chosen theme of the Asia Triennial Manchester 2014 was revealed what feels an age ago in May of this year as ‘Conflict and Compassion’.
Although somewhat broad it serves as a timely and ideal departure point for the third iteration of the festival and has enabled the participating venues and organisations to create a programme of events that challenge perceptions and provoke discourse on Asian culture.
For its contribution to the Triennial, Castlefield Gallery has worked with Hardeep Pandhal to realise the artist’s highest profile solo exhibition to date, ‘A Joyous Thing With Maggots At the Centre’.
Following on from projects at Grand Union (Birmingham) and the Glasgow International Festival earlier in the year, the exhibition continues Pandhal’s exploration into the construction of identity through the clash and combination of cultures, whilst dealing with past traumas inflicted by colonial subjugation.
Drawing upon the Sikh heritage of his family and his modern British upbringing, Pandhal deftly integrates modern and historic Eastern and Western cultural icons and traditions, along with references to subjects such as anthropology and psychoanalysis and imbues them with his trademark sense of biting satire.
This isn’t to say his work is overtly comedic, but rather that when dealing with traumatic and visceral cultural subject matters there are often punctuations of humour and self-denouncement that bring back into question the fixity of the artist’s identity and practice that has been shaped through the two historically inharmonious societies.
Spanning both the upper and lower gallery spaces, over half of the works displayed take the form of mixed media pieces influenced by graffiti that contain the artist’s now synonymous palette of lurid yet harmonious colours, and graphically sexual and violent hand drawn imagery and cryptic statements. Enacted amongst others by caricatured versions of a Sikh soldier and Gordon Highlander which were originally created as part of Jojoboys (2014) Pandhal’s commission for the Glasgow International in response to the Camp Coffee brand’s historical advertising, the acts forced upon each other are a bacchanal of violence and fetishised sexual desires. The desires propagated by the characters use colonial subjugation between the soldier and Highlander as the locus for exploring how modern culture and collective consciousness have developed to both popularise and demonise the acts themselves, yet offer no fixed view on the subject.
This sense of fixity as a topic also recurs as a theme throughout the exhibition, such as with the fixity of identity, culture, and morality hinted at within the narratives of the various pieces. The fixity of the works themselves are also questioned, most overtly in Profane Illuminations (2014), a two channel video work commissioned by Castlefield Gallery and Full circle Arts that launched simultaneously at the exhibition and online.
The work projects an erratically filmed view of a visit to the Golden Temple at Amritsar where the camera pans in and out of focus with no centered point of reference, opposite a recording of the artist sat on his bed discussing the initiation ceremonies of an unknown tribal culture that again features camera panning similar to the temple visit. Through his monologue and attempted evocation of an ancient world, Pandhal is able to draw upon the work of Michael Taussig (alongside naming the exhibition after the chapter title from one of his books) in order to explore the tensions produced between people integrated into a culture, and those who pretend to be, but who in reality are ignorant to the privately known and collectively denied knowledge the other group posses.
The shots of Pandhal within the video seem ad hoc and incomplete, and along with his mention of the unfinished nature of the work within the video itself blurs the vague boundaries between finished and unfinished. This is repeated throughout the work in the rest of the exhibition in both narrative theme and physical appearance so as to reinforce the lucid nature of collective conscious experience, lending further weight to the duality of cultures that the artist gleefully exploits.
Through exploring the duality of cultures in the formation of British Asian identity in modern society through a wide variety of works, Pandhal embodies the triennial theme of ‘Conflict and Compassion’, and provides a timely reminder that constant re-evaluation of our relations with Asia and other cultures is needed, particularly at a time when social attitudes are more fluid than ever.
James Schofield is an artist and curator based in Leeds and Liverpool.
Images courtesy if the artist and Castlefield Gallery.