by Janice Pariat
As Shobha De so succinctly put it in a recent article in the Bombay Times, “Symbols are not instant coffee.” While this glam queen was referring to the new – and improved? – Indian Rupee symbol, we can safely say that in general, symbols take time to evolve, whether nationally or cross-culturally. Sreshta Rit Premnath ‘s show titled “LEO” explores and at the same time deconstructs the symbol of the lion – that grand old animal that forever lives (and falsely so) in our imagination as the king of the jungle.
Through photographs, video installations and paintings, Premnath proposes that the repetition of a symbol, in various media, opens the contradictory possibilities of fortifying its power and of exhausting and devaluing its representational potential. As he points out in his artist note, “The lion is especially useful as a specimen for this investigation as a creature that has historically symbolized power and through whose subjugation (through hunting, taming and training) people have articulated their own positions of power.”
This idea is well-illustrated in “Hide”, a series of two photographic triptychs – in each a single photo has been torn in two and placed apart. The first shows a lion, stepping, almost posing, on wooden boxes placed on a bed of sand, and the other half of this image is of cameramen and their equipment attempting to film the creature. The second panel captures a lion outdoors in the wild, and the other half shows two gamekeepers in a cage aiming their rifles at the animal. In both instances, humans are attempting to “shoot” the lion – to tame, to subjugate. Interestingly, though, there is still a sense of fear and awe on their faces.
Also capturing the stripping away of a symbol’s power is “Mask,” a video loop extracted from the opening of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s first film, in which Leo the lion does not roar. The creature, otherwise famous for the film company’s majestic opening sequence, soundlessly and helplessly looks about itself. The title of the piece could also be a play on ‘death mask’ since Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer recently filed for bankruptcy.
“MGM RIP”, also a video, documents the myth and legend surrounding a certain symbol – in this case Leo, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s famed lion. Premnath and a friend drive to a small rural town in New Jersey, searching for the animal’s unmarked grave. The piece questions notions on “non-sites” – places that may not exist except in stories – and how they help to keep certain myths alive. It is loosely constructed through a series of long, silent, atmospheric shots. Also interesting is the video “Dept. of Lions”, which photographically documents buildings from across the globe with lions guarding or flanking their entrance. These gateways allow entry into institutions of power – economic, cultural, political – such as the Temple of Isis in Philae, the Jagannath Temple in Puri, the Louvre in Paris, the New York Public Library and the HSBC world headquarters in Hong Kong. The lions occupy a unique “non-site”, being part of yet not completely incorporated into the architecture of the building.
Also a video, but slightly different in subject matter, is “Apology”, an extract from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s first release He Who Gets Slapped. In this extremely bizarre and disturbing loop, we see three clowns standing side by side with the one in the middle standing forward and exclaiming (silently) to the audience. He is then slapped and knocked down by one of the clowns. This continues relentlessly – the clown in the middle could either be apologizing or shouting with even more fervour – this is left to our own imagination. The power the two clowns exercise over him could either increase or diminish depending on this. While the other artworks in the show aren’t as intriguing as these, LEO is well worth a visit for how it creatively questions symbology.