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Chellappan: Memories of a Forgetful Age

François Daireaux’s art has a remarkable consonance with the process of globalization. Not only was his first one man show held at Rabat in Morocco in 1991, around the same time the Marrakesh treaty was signed in that country, establishing the World Trade Organisation, but since then he has reflected his experience of the overwhelming and contradictory process we call globalization in a number of countries, ranging from France to Morocco, Algeria, Bulgaria, Turkya, China, India, Central Asia and Latin America, in his work over the years.

More than that, while the votaries of this phenomenon see only the profits that accrue from the unrestrained entry and flight of finance capital or the flourishing of the services sector, his eye lights on what is happening from the bottom up, among creative people like weavers, glass-blowers, craftsmen of different sorts and street-side trinket-sellers. In short, those whom the system has marginalised. But it is to his credit that he is not judgmental.

Still, he has a clear idea as to the way the process develops. From feet divesting themselves of shoes as they enter a sacred domain, he moves on to a rich and varied series concentrating on hands in the process of production. In these we can see the artist’s identity developing from being a global onlooker to a global producer. It is not merely his eye and experience we savour, but a myriad of experiences of others, which are not merely appropriated by the artist, but are presented as part and parcel of his constantly evolving persona.

This kind of art does not highlight only the seeing eye. It is a perception relying on the multiple presentations of relations, direct and indirect, that can only be described as suites. The universality is there in the presentation; but each particular snapshot, whether it is a photograph, a drawing or a sculpture, has its own independence as part of a suite as well. Each has its own attributes that his intervention as a human being brings together by breaking down the walls we build between the self and the other, or between different parts of the world, or time past, present and future.

Perhaps his most striking success has been his presentation, ‘Goodbye’, at the contemporary art center Abbey of Maubuisson, in 2008. Its central piece is the remarkable transformation of the image of a seventy seven year old model of the Trivandrum College of art, P. Chellappan, into an icon of the ordinary man in a globalised world. If Andy Warhol had made an icon of Marilyn Monroe, a celebrity of the screen, François Daireaux has done so with a man who was taken for granted, an old model of an art college who lay forgotten like so many of his sculpted images, in an overgrown garden, as if they were scrap on a rubbish heap. What is curious, however, is that those who get their “ten minutes of fame” get obsolescent almost as easily, and that oblivion drives them to end their lives, as both Monroe and Chellappan did.

In this presentation which was made two years before Chellappan died, François Daireaux has challenged globalization with its celebrity culture and obsolescence, by reasserting the richness of what is being condemned to destruction in market-controlled systems, the human being, who is merely an instrument of accumulation and is condemned to temporary bursts of creativity to fuel it. And it is no accident that this icon of marginalization is from India today with its high rate of growth and grinding poverty. But it is characteristic of the artist that he has done so without resorting to polemics.

He has allowed the sequences of the stream of life to tell their own tale. In the case of Chellappan, he has meticulously made plaster moulds of all the sculptures rather than appropriating ready-made works of others in an assemblage. The moulds allow him the possibility of retaining the qualities of the originals but also give him room to express himself. This is highlighted by a video of a motionless Chellappan on a stark white background, where the movement of time confronts what is apparently unchanging. The icon is not the reality. That reality confronts us with the twenty-eight busts of the model, each reflecting not only his changes of mood and over time, but also different states of repair of the original sculptures, not to speak of different ways of handling the subject each student has resorted to. So he challenges the concept of a single unchanging icon with iconic images that reflect the passage and buffets of time, bringing out their human essence. Here again he differs from Warhol whose Monroe is a one-time projection.

Another striking aspect of this project is that it is not a didactic intellectual exercise. It has had to be lived. And the first meeting of Francois Daireaux and Chellappan reflects this. During his stay at Trivandrum he came across the sculpture of a man under a laburnum tree in a disused plot of land which he got ready to photograph, when a face appeared before him in the camera and he recognized it as that of the sculpture. It was Chellappan, who then took him by the hand and led him to all the other sculptures lying around on the ground. And it was left to François Daireaux to raise them up again on pedestals in a French abbey thousands of miles from Trivandrum. The marginalized human being then became an indictment of the system that brought this phenomenon into existence. That is why, in the words of a senior lecturer at the college, “There are lots of models here but only he has become a metaphor”.

François Daireaux explains possibly why this happened: First, because of their strange meeting; and secondly, “because of his 38 years of experience and he still has not retired.” Indeed, this second element highlights the act of resistance to the negative features of globalization without losing sight of the positive ones. From this perspective the most relevant memorial to Chellappan is one that highlights his decades long perseverance like the biblical Job, in the context of which his suicide becomes even more of a spontaneous indictment of the conditions we live in today. He by his perseverance and the artist by his vision have given us a form of art that makes us understand the times we live in and calls to mind questions we ought to ask ourselves and others around us.

Suneet Chopra,
Art Critic, Writer
New Delhi, January 2011

This article was published for the solo show of François Daireaux Hommage à Chellappan, from january 28 to february 25 2011, Ecole des beaux-arts de Tours, France.