Baiju Parthan, whose art is not only driven by creativity and passion but also digital curiosity and programming! The artist, who in search of purpose and meaning, found art.
Parthan, born in 1956 in Kerala has earned degrees in various fields, such as; philosophy, botany, fine arts and mythology. He has taken part in many solo and group shows in India and abroad. His works are in a part of many private collections, but is also on view for the public at the National Gallery of Modern Art- Mumbai (NGMA- Mumbai).
As a contemporary artist, Baiju has questioned various subjects from existential crises, genetically modified organisms (GMO), metaphysics, bilateral symmetry and more. In this article, we shall take up a few and get his insight on the same.
AA: How has your journey in art career been? Your first graduation was in engineering. What was your sudden inspiration?
BP: Actually, I left engineering studies after a year without completing the course. Quite some time ago, during a press interview, I said I set out to be an engineer and ended up as an artist. That statement created the misconception that I am an engineering graduate. Of course, the basics of engineering drawing I picked up during that time became a great help when I got into 3D graphics modelling later on, so it was not a waste of time. What inspired me to leave it and go for studies in art was my stumbling upon a book on western contemporary art by Harold Rosenberg ‘The Anxious Object: Art Today and its Audience’. It completely changed my perception of what art could be. From then on I saw art as a demanding intellectual discipline with its history of discoveries and inventions, and contemporary/modern artists as individuals engaged in a lifelong quest of discovering ways and means of understanding the world we live in. It was an intoxicating shift in perception from the notion that I held up to that moment that art is something that you do in your spare time for personal enjoyment. From then on nothing was holding me back, I had to be an artist. So that was the inspiration. And I dropped everything else and went on to study art.
AA: Please share your experience interacting with the western hippies in Goa during your education...how did that affect your way of thinking? (Age of reason) ("soft drug culture"- Metaflora)
BP: Encountering western hippies in Goa had a major impact on my thinking, mainly because I got exposed to books/literature that was not mainstream but was popular and essential reading for the dropouts. I got exposed to the works of Robert Anton Wilson, John Lily, Carlos Castaneda, Richard Alpert ( Ramdas), Terence Mackenna, and so on. That exposure kindled my interest in philosophy and Cultural anthropology. The curiosity about how and why cultural differences come into being and the role worldviews play in defining cultural identity etc. later on led to the interest in all kinds of fringe disciplines. I came of age in that environment, and it influenced the rest of my life.
Speaking of ‘The Age of Reason’ and Jean-Paul Sartre, I came across existentialism while in Kerala during the early ‘70s as a trend among the ‘intellectuals’. Existential despair was considered to be the sign that one has arrived at a particular intellectual threshold. So we twenty-something college students wore it as a badge of distinction and carried ourselves enveloped in a haze of existential despair without any comprehension of the damage it would cause. To be frank, my decision to pursue art as a lifelong endeavour and exposure to eastern schools of philosophy, fortunately, halted my trip down that ever slippery slope. Incidentally, I happened to mention Sartre and ‘The Age of Reason’ during an interview sometime in 2002 and it got highlighted as an important influence, which is not the entire truth.
AA: Your artworks depict diverse icons (signature motif- pears), symbols, visuals apart from the abstract pool. It seems you are on an unending quest. Your colour palette has always been vibrant. Please share your work process or if you will use your modus operandi/various (unique) mediums that you are known to use...
“My use of various symbols and signs is a fallout from my interest in anthropology and world views.”
Humankind defined as ‘Homo Symbolicus’, the animal or creature whose distinctive character is the creation and manipulation of signs and symbols which eventually led to the evolution of language, culture, the arts, and so on seem so obvious and fundamental that I tend to ignore academic and art historical conventions of art-making and go full swing fabricating symbols, metaphors, and icons and pit them against each other to generate tension and cohesion.
My method of working is closer to doing a research project, accompanied by a lot of reading up and exploring parallel streams of knowledge and information about symbols and archetypes, though the final result is a painting or 3D work instead of a research paper.
AA: You name your works very uniquely/ intensely- how do you come up with these names? (e.g. Aqua regia)
“The titles add yet another layer of complexity to the artwork.”
Because I tended to get acquainted with subjects and fields ( Ethnobotany, Alchemy, software programming, etc) that have nothing to do with art, I end up fabricating titles that are interesting combinations of concepts and references.
AA: You have also been significant in working with technology. How limiting or accepting or revitalising it has been in terms of tradition to modern to contemporary practices?
BP: When I look back at my formative years I recognize that I must have been very nerdy, though I was not aware of it.
“During my adolescent years, my chief reading materials were encyclopedias of science, tons of science fiction, and American detective novels.”
This not so healthy mix probably has something to do with my sense of comfort with technology and using it for making art.
There are ideas and concepts especially about the historical present that gets articulated better through art made using digital technology. The digital medium reflects the times we live in. Then there are other ideas that are very subjective and personal and at times metaphysical that express better with conventional canvas and paint. So I use both these streams, new-media as well as old-media in my work. Each has its strong points and weaknesses.
AA: Could you share what all digital technology have you utilised in creating artworks? Which has been most rewarding in a sense of satisfaction to you personally? (animated 3D prints, lenticular prints)
BP: My early works using digital technology are real-time interactive works made using my ( very rudimentary) computer coding skills. This was from 2000, till 2005. By that time I had reached the limits of what I could do with the programming skills I had. To go to the next level either I had to take help from others, or I had to invest time away from art to learn advanced programming skills. As I had no intention to employ assistants etc, I took a break and focused on paintings for a while and that coincided with the Indian contemporary art boom, so I cannot complain.
Also, I didn't think I had the temperament or aptitude to become a skilled programmer. So I focused my attention on 3D software where I could gain some degree of proficiency and it was less intimidating as I already had some experience in engineering drawing. So when I returned to new-media art around 2010, I chose lenticular prints as my medium as I could model/sculpt virtual objects using 3D software and present them as stereoscopic lenticular prints that provide the illusion of 3D virtual space.
AA: Because you have also worked on mythology, which myth or myths according to you has been the most recurring in your artworks and why?
BP: Not any single myth in particular. I am drawn to the idea of transformation and transcendence. Anything that suggests these elements or ideas I could include in my art. A solitary individual after a long and arduous quest consisting of various trials and sufferings finally attains the knowledge to transcend the limitations of physical reality is the theme that is reflected in hero and heroine myths across time, from Inanna of Sumer to Gilgamesh of Babylonia to Neo of Matrix. Interestingly this idea is the core concept of Shamanism. My slant is thus more towards the core idea of shamanism rather than towards any particular myth.
AA: You have a variety of interests since the start of your art career. What is the present attraction that your work and present thoughts are focussed upon?
BP: The idea or theme I am involved with for quite some time is, how we humans have unknowingly become hybrid entities with our existence strung or stretched across and between the virtual and the real. How our increasing engagement with the virtual is making the real less tactile and tangible. How fact and fiction are constantly morphing into one or the other and has now become interchangeable, and so on.
AA: Let's briefly discuss GMO...
BP: Dangerous, but inevitable.
“Given the fact that the human lifespan keeps expanding, and global populations are exploding we are heading towards a food and water crisis.”
High yield GM crops are going to be the solution and with industrial animal farms on the way out and with hydroponic and vertical farming gaining hold, we will be forced to accept GMO as a fact of life. Now what it is going to do to us after a few generations is something we will have to wait and see. Also, the full scope and impact of AI on genetic engineering and its application on human physiology and intellect and the whole move towards post-human existence is something we cannot foresee at this moment.
AA: What is your take on "soul"...
BP: Individual Consciousness, Yes of course. Does it survive the physical self? Probably for some time depending on the level and quality of individual consciousness before it merges with the source, the infinite.
Eternal Soul, I am not sure, mainly because without subscribing to a horde of other metaphysical constructs one cannot accommodate or resolve it. Then there is the problem of souls being exclusive to humans and not to other living organisms.
AA: What does symmetry in artwork mean to you?
“Bilateral symmetry for me is the expression of equilibrium, Of conflicts resolved and settled, A state of resolution or a closed perpetual dynamic loop.”
Opposing or complementary energies meeting face to face and resolving....
AA: What type of thoughts are you wanting your art to provoke? (India vs globally)
BP: I would say complexity or the maximalist aesthetic is patently Eastern while the minimalist aesthetic sensibility is very European and Western. My art is all about complexity, multivalency, transformation, and transcendence.
AA: Due to COVID now, everything has become even more virtual, what is your take on that?
BP: Frankly speaking, there is no going back. From a larger perspective, this shift was bound to happen sooner or later. The pandemic turned out to be the trigger that hastened the shift.
Keeping it very pragmatic, yet exploratory, Baiju has learned to intertwine his creations with the fast-paced tech era. With the digital art world only booming, I am excited to see what the artist will experiment with next! Stay tuned to learn more...