Kochi-based artist Basant Peringode creates paintings that confront us with our own predicament as a species

‘The colour and weight of the world were changing already, soon I would have to admit I was anxious.’Samuel Beckett, Molloy 

In the dark times,

Will there also be singing?

Yes, there will be singing.

About the dark times.

Bertolt Brecht, The Svendborg Poems

Brecht was talking about the dark and diabolic political atmosphere of the times, when dark, apocalyptic clouds hung over faith in human civilization and rationality. In the Anthropocene times we live in now, what Amitav Ghosh terms as ‘the age of derangement’, we are forced to ask this question all over again, ‘Will there be art in this age of derangement?’

This question is even more poignant and urgent in the case of visual art or paintings because its interface and engagement with nature have a long and enduring history. In this era when global warming, ozone depletion, glacial meltdown. climate catastrophes and pandemics present the clear and present danger of human extinction, what is the mission of art?

For instance, how can or should an artist paint a landscape today? When the human species is at the edge of extinction, how do we paint portraits? What abstractions can an artist draw from such concrete existential and planetary urgency? How does ethical vision of the biological beings that humans are, express and address themselves as geological beings? 

Basant Peringode

Articulating the doomsday 

A moment of recognition stares at art in general and paintings in particular today. As Ghosh puts it, “a moment of recognition occurs when a prior awareness flashes before us, effecting an instant change in our understanding of that  which is beheld. Yet this flash, cannot appear spontaneously; it cannot disclose itself except in the presence of its lost other. The knowledge that results from recognition, then, is not of the same kind as the discovery of something new: it arises rather from a renewed reckoning with a potentiality that lies within oneself” (The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable). 

The trajectories of the ‘potentiality’ that lies within oneself could be life-affirming or one that rushes blindly towards another phase of extinction of life on this planet. Today’s art trembles at these possibilities; it rages at the world and despairs at the blindness of human species about the impending doom that awaits it. Yet, despite the gloom and cynicism that inundates our life-world, art urges and forces us to confront the darkness, provoking the umpteen potentialities that lies within us. 

Art, even while it lives and abides in/with the world and time, also journeys across and beyond: it pines and also pains; it sees and also foresees; it depicts and also predicts. It reads signs and signals from afar and beyond; it warns and pleads. It ‘draws’ deep from the past, breathes in the present and dreams (or nightmares) the future. Art has the curse or blessing of premonition: we either listen to it or be doomed. 

Dark premonitions

Art in the age of Anthropocene is a wake-up call to the reality of doom, the urgent need to re-cognize ourselves as planetary beings (or as parasites sucking its own life sources dry). 

The paintings of Basant Peringode confront us with our own predicament as a species. Its horizons hang heavy with dark premonitions about  human existence. In this series of paintings, we see spirals of smoke and fire whirling up from huge chimneys. The smog that has gathered over the horizon seems to close in on Life, blinding our inner and outer vision.

These panoramic landscapes are painted with thick strokes of the colours of doom: the thickening mauve; the infernal ochre; the melancholic grey; the toxic blue; the rusty yellow; and the chemical browns. It is as if all the hopes and glimmers, lights and dreams about the World, Nature and Life are weighed down and darkened by mute pain and gloomy isolation.

The terrains are blurred and are only faintly visible through the thick smoke and haze gathering over everything. We can only see far away; the diabolic profiles of domes, tanks, towers, ladders, funnels and cylindrical structures emitting fire and fumes against a sick, dull, pale sky. 

Vast swathes of wastelands and barbed wire fences surround these structures, where tiny human figures move around like robots. It is in the portraits ‘Blurred Faces’ that human figures appear; and there, we see close up, the hollow, sunken faces staring from the same colour palette of despair and desolation. 

A forsaken world 

The colours — dull red, pale blue, darkening grey and feverish yellow bleed into each other in the paintings creating an eerie atmosphere of gloom. There are craters gaping from the ground as if the soul of the earth has been mined or scooped out. The skyscape itself is often covered with blobs of chemical waste dripping, and the grounds are crisscrossed by passing pipes running into and out of the toxic dumps. Fire spewed out by the machine-complex rain upon the desolate ruins of Life, while vultures hover, waiting for their turn.

This is a forsaken world, a toxic chaos devoid of the presence of any sign of life, flora or fauna. If at all there is any human presence, they are puny and insignificant, like ugly stains in the infernal atmosphere that engulfs everything; they too look like fossils of the present, another form of waste, or apparitions from nowhere. 

The composition of most paintings is tripartite — the earth that stretches in the foreground, the profiles of industrial structures in the midground and the darkening, chemical-dusk skyscapes in the background. All the three levels – the earth humans inhabit, the structures of human civilisation, and the heavenly vault above that is witness to all – all are drenched in the same sterile stupor, reflecting and replicating each other. 

Future tense

These dystopian portraits or paintings bring us face to face with Nature, forcing upon us that ‘moment of recognition’ to seek ways and means, sustenance and fulfilment as planetary beings, and to “think of humans as a form of life and look on human history as part of the history of life on this planet” (The Crises of Civilization, Dipesh Chakrabarty). 

One can ignore their forebodings only at the cost of Life on Earth; only by forgetting our existence as planetary beings caught in the web of life that pervades and permeates everything – material and immaterial, organic and inorganic, living, dead and undead, past, present and future, experience, dream and imagination.. 

The exhibition is open from February 6  to 12, 2022 at the Lalithakala Academy Hall in Kozhikode

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Venkity is a Consulting Editor with India Art Review. Critic, filmmaker and curator, he is the author of acclaimed works on cinema and social affairs. Writes in English and Malayalam.

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