Of Sign And Metaphor – Essay by Vijayakumar Menon

(Written by Vijayakumar Menon, Art hisorian, for the book ‘EVOLUTION: Catalogue of Photography 1999 – 2009′ by Unni Krishnan Pulikkal

Curiosity to know and delight in understanding the essence of what is seen in the world have been forcing human beings from time immemorial to represent it in terms of visual language structured by humankind. The varied ways of communicating the sight and feel created new patterns of expression in every culture, and visual arts could authenticate the world around in terms of pictures and sculptures in the beginning. As the reflected world in the mind and brain translated into line, colour and volume created history, human life increasingly became complex as the patterns of expression started moulding the architecture of life. Painting and sculpture were the ‘reality’ of the real world around as they captured not just the likeness only but also the probability of it being transformed. The objectivity of what was seen and the subjectivity of presenting it created a kind of tension that was recognized as creation. Creation of the world by God and creation of art forms by human beings spawned a wrenching emotion among people who in many cultures attributed a kind of divinity to artists. Art was science, mechanical and creative in the beginning and the man behind the art was a person as revered as the skilful hunter or the shaman leader of the tribe. From prehistoric period onwards the process of imaging has been a wonder and it has become more complex after the advent of camera, which is the truest and faithful witness that can capture everything objectively and without prejudice. But the person behind the ‘machine camera’ is prejudiced, spontaneous, subjective, curious, creative and articulate.

The phenomenal reality of photography can be articulated to make it an image of ideas that is abstract but latent in any object or situation a photographer can confront at any time anywhere. The technical mastery and creative acumen cultivating an individualized way of seeing, thinking and imaging make the photographic prints forms of art. The roaming eye of the photographer once fixed to focus on an object to create an idea is the force behind the apparent reality of the visual statement. As photography moved from the authenticity of documentation to the realms of intellectual activities where culture montage became necessary, obviously the public too were fascinated to read the photomontages as visual texts, narratives, metaphors, cultural codes and statements of aesthetic creation. These constituent components of contemporary art photography made the process of “falsification of truth” very significant where interpretations and disagreements became more relevant than passive acceptance of the image. The supremacy of individual image was also challenged as the language of collage and montage being made inevitable in framing a situation cropping from a generalized space of events. The photographic space as being converted into space of events by articulation of visuals, composition and other props the machine art became more cerebral and aesthetic. The monumentalized angle of vision contrasting with acute angles of observation can be epic in nature as far as communication and narration are concerned.

After the success of the language of photography nothing could stay as it was, as the new ways of seeing through the peep hole of camera gave a new vision that was more mechanical and virtual. The so-called organic creation in painting got a new dimension in photography as the eye and brush of the artist extended to a virtual world of new sensibility by the new schema of photographic idioms of expression. Viewed in terms of composition, perspective, figuration and non-figuration the photographic process and its result naturally became more painterly and art filled. Conventional division of painting and photography merged into a new species of photography where painting and photography exchanged a lot of possibilities of creation that subsequently paved way for yet another division such as “photographic photography” and “art/painterly photography”. The photographic language on its own created new aesthetics suggesting its own terms of expressive potentialities. The reality in photography became more virtual as the process became more scientific, mechanical, spontaneous, intuitive, suggestive and philosophical. As the process of photography progressed exponentially the world was seen and also shown with totally different eyes. Natural eye sight became more visionary in nature and all the complexities latent in machine art made the reality truer as well as tricky at the same time. Truth and falsehood faced each other to produce a phenomenal virtuality that made the appearance look more actual than real.

Art and photography

The realism of photography or its directness, though created a new seeing, met with the aesthetic ambitions of the professional photographer who diversified the art, science and technology of photography to sum up the possibilities of machine art with an overview of formal order of space and form. The aspects of expressionism latent in the forms captured through the lens can be the essence of realism of photography. Perhaps the challenge of fusing formalism with expressionism is the force of invention and creativity especially with conditions hitherto unfamiliar to the conformist world views. The different angles chosen by the artist-photographer to create ever new visions were actually the extension of the “Renaissance eye” of the painters who experimented with perspective. The horizontal, vertical, diagonal, circular and square “visions of the mind” are motifs for the artist-photographer to look at the world through the lens to make a formal statement of what he/she has seen in thought and imagination. Nevertheless the relative correspondence between the inner eye of the photographer and his extended eye the lens, is the deciding factor in creation. The authenticity of the image captured by the lens is more questionable nowadays as the language of photography has moved to imaginative world of visuals to expose the “seeing vision”. Authenticity of juxtaposition is the art factor with which the art-photographer doctors/engineers the visuals to make them visions. Training one’s sight to give a new meaning and dimension one creates the unexpected from the expected/casual/accidental visuals. Being aware of the potentiality of capturing any visual at any time, one can have a quick recognition of the possibility of adding on more meanings to anything that is seen. Sense, sensibility and intuition being the three factors of expression/execution the art-photography, photographic photography, information photography, scientific photography etc make the real world virtual as well as the secret world open. Naturally photography can move between two domains of free and applied art, and this freedom is the force that can transform any real visual into surreal and fantastic. The meaningful correspondence between the real and surreal is the social factor that is latent in the artist-photographer’s mind and brain. The ‘media society’ gives more chances, with questions of aesthetics and ethics, to stage-managed realism and symbolism.

From mimetic structure to visual semiotics

The chronological evolution of the style and aesthetic processing of the photographic visuals of Unni Krishnan Pulikkal showcase his voyage to the cultural contexts, intellectual curiosities and scientific articulation. The paradoxical and dichotomous relation between objects is a potential repertoire of Unni Pulikkal’s thought and photographic sensibility. The range of themes and also the language that moves between black & white and colour photography, high-contrast and diverse tonal gradations show a systematic approach to subject matter and form. Mimetic to non-mimetic, figuration to non-figuration and also to abstraction he moves very often to make each element in the composition speak a story or event or sometimes to keep a formal pattern. The context of contemplation in any form of art is the force of production and photography, the most powerful language of articulation of modern period, makes use of all the nuances of fine arts. Depositing meanings or making anything a sign of a context one can narrate even an abstract concept in space and time by articulating the angles of camera to angles of vision. Minimizing the contrast that was sharply hitting the eye he makes use of expressionist language of subdueing the warm tones creating a misty impression of controlled shades and tones. Such photographs are more painterly, perhaps more impressionistic than expressionist, more poetic than prosaic mimetic presentation. This is more obvious in the case of portraiture where the “close up” faces get merged into some contexts/situations to become more “wide angled” to create an environmental biography of the person in relation to nature or circumstance. The environmental portraiture is a very adaptable genre that can make statement of varying degrees having microscopic and telescopic details at the same time. In the environmental portraiture the cute, frail and marginalized occupants of the composition complete the visual narration as in the case of ‘The Girl Making Bubbles’. The environment and atmosphere, especially mist, create some moods in his compositions. Human beings, plants and animals are silhouetted and made lonely or isolated as in the case of ‘Dog in the Mist’ which somehow reminds us the famous painting of Turner’s ‘Dawn after the Wreck’ where the drama of the episode is focused on a dog left alone in the ‘steamy’ background of the sea. It is the monochrome tonality that gives the impressionistic atmosphere to the environment. The subject matter and form are felt more amalgamated when the language becomes surrealistic which is not just fantasy but an episode in itself in the stretched out narration, the full length of which is kept presumptive in character for the onlookers to think over. Here the unseen is seen/shown, a phenomenon that can be felt in the objects when it is obliquely looked at.

The cast shadows are actually oblique in spirit, form and nature that can indicate the reality beyond and behind the obvious. End of a Journey is a reality in space and time for natural events and is a phenomenon generating philosophical brooding for human beings. The Parallels are mere forms having no organic existence but they become encoded signs of contexts if they are composed with a philosophical angle of vision. The existential phenomenon of shadow which can either be parallel or oblique, is more powerful than the object that casts it. The elongation, distortion and the darkness of the hollow and flat shadow is a metaphor that encodes the concept of shallowness especially when the object is a lonely human being in front of, or by the by the side of an inorganic substance. The Divine Geometry of the temple walls, the rustic geometry of the parallel rail tracks, the environmental geometry of the green growth in plantations, the random musical spread of water drops on leaves and other objects are casual potentials having rich possibilities of interpretations. They, almost like the horizontals-verticals of Piet Mondrian, create a geometric rhythm.

The constructed imageries framed in a meticulously articulated system of meaningful signs are widgets of communication. Leaves, water drops, butterflies, mist and the persons who did not know they are being photographed are his dramatis personae to narrate not only a situation but also to show the quality of candid photography. Nature with all its manifestations and landscape with all its emotions and moods are as naive as the candid photographs are vibrant with life in bazaars, around temples or in the modest interiors of the villages. One is amazed to see along with these genre items the artificially composed pictures showing a kind of animated thought in diptychs and triptychs having a narrative sequence studded with philosophical insights. The space-time relation of two or more contexts becomes conspicuous as different locations/situations are sequentially arranged on the basis of well meditated concepts. Each point of space-time enigma is a spot of event which is capable of holding any visionary thought of the artist-photographer whose perspective is not only perceptual but conceptual also. The solid sound and the dead silence are not contradictory once the polarities are taken as natural dichotomies. For a conceptual artist light and shade, sound and silence, warmth and coolness interact relatively with any circumstance giving a philosophical dimension for pictorial diptych, which automatically becomes allegorical.

Anything that is out of use/time/allocated space has to go back to its own habitat is a natural law for beings and non- beings, even if they, once upon a time were ‘majesty enthroned’. Seat of history is an unenvied throne. The collage of events and things/installation is surrealistically real, where the famous umbrella/chair in the early definition of surrealism is made a container/throne for the (artificial) flowers to get displayed in the wayside market, a scene quite often seen in many cities and towns in India. These sellers are children of lesser gods in Kerala too which is “God’s own country” for the authorities to woo the tourists. The mute bells and human beings are allegorically conversing one another when one is to accept the reality that life can be open, hidden, forward, backward and stagnant.

An artist-philosopher who takes the self-imposed assignments as aesthetically charged mission to see the world in its multifarious moods is quite natural to be solitary at times as a Zen philosopher. Reflection/ image is a phenomenon, perhaps more real than the object itself though the world is obsessed with concrete forms of identifiable marks. Photographic images, more authentic, sometimes, than the objects photographed, are made visual parables impregnated with subtle existential insights. Encoding the concepts with quanta of light that manifest as the micro and macro aspects of the existence of the universe even, can make signs suggesting the subtle dimensions of physical and metaphysical levels. Mobility and stagnancy too are encoded concepts having both ethereal and earthly attributes. Existence, a photomontage of events apparently contradicting one another on the surface, declares the symphony of parallels rather than opposites. Moss patterns on rock, horizontal/vertical stripes on leaves, patterns of Floater installation, criss-cross of electric lines, patterns of waves, curvaceous volumes of hills, moody mornings, lonely birds, corrugated reflections on water, flights of steps illuminated with patches of light are events in nature which are visually philosophical amounting to ‘visual speech’. Elements of nature are in conversation mode always irrespective of their joyous or wounded conditions.

The contemplation of the Zen leaf and the solitude of each drop and butterfly are image and also imagery in the works of Unni Pulikkal whose photographic dissemination is painterly as well as philosophical, suggesting the latent power of visual language of signs and metaphors directing the onlooker’s sensibility to move around in imagination and thought. As each work is projected as a visual text having multiple possibilities of becoming more than what it is, the title extends its being as another text of reference. The “straight photography” and “fine photography” used in documentation and portraiture are more realistic in representational aspects, but the expressionist nuances of creative photography invariably become more suggestive and allegorical. Here both “straight” and “fine” photography narrow down their differences to show the mechanics and aesthetics of machine art. The Pictorialism of “fine photography” and “photographic photography” is conceptualism displaying the individual traits of the artist. The “photo-art-product” is the imprint of the sensibility of Unni Pulikkal who encodes programmed signs and metaphors to make them look like visual essays/poems. The whole body of selected photographs composed during the first decade of the 21st Century become a montage of composite visuals having significant marks of vision. The techno-aesthetic relation is a product of socio-scientific-individual fusion that echoes the contemporary milieu in every sense and photography becomes art-social-activism with visual texts moulded out of contemporary experience every time.

Vijayakumar Menon
(Art Historian)