Dovzhenko’s Mammoth Sunflowers

In Alexander Dovzhenko’s last silent film, his masterwork titled Earth (Zelmya) 1930, a tragic and violent narrative of the Soviet collectivization is set within a lyrical rural mise-en-scène and realized in profoundly poetic cinematography. In one of its many shots extolling the Ukrainian landscape, is featured the Mammoth (Russian) Sunflower. Apparently this glorious, or perhaps even monstrous, anomaly was cultivated in Russia and was brought into North America in 1880. It produces a single golden flower that grows up to 10″ across and is filled with edible seeds.

The Mammoth Sunflower is no innocent incident of nature. Being ‘man-made,’ it occupies the space between nature and culture. Despite its beauty, however, it is no mere vanity, it is a food crop. I suggest that, in Dovzhenko’s Earth, it is the perfect or complete symbol. It represents, the ethos of the narrative, at the same time, standing for nature per se as well as for its cultivation, its industrialization and even its collectivization, in the course of human civilization.

Incidentally, Dovzhenko is the only early Soviet era director whom the great Andrei Tarkovsky cites as a predecessor, “If one absolutely needs to compare me to someone (in Soviet cinema), it should be Dovzhenko. He was the first director for whom the problem of atmosphere was particularly important.” It must be said, in the context of this notion of ‘atmosphere’, that Tarkovsky himself eschewed the ‘symbol’ in cinema, and spoke instead of a more open and less intentional cinematic ‘image’ which he defined in terms of the notion of the metaphor, “A symbol contains within itself a definite meaning, certain intellectual formula, while metaphor is an image. An image possessing the same distinguishing features as the world it represents. An image — as opposed to a symbol — is indefinite in meaning. One cannot speak of the infinite world by applying tools that are definite and finite.’ (Interview Le noir coloris de la nostalgie with Hervé Guibert in “Le Monde”, 12 May 1983 )

In my own view, symbols are as malleable and as variable as the mind and worldview of a given viewer or community of viewers. As such Tarkovsky’s dichotomy, essential though it is to our understanding of art, is not an inevitable duality. An image must, in my understanding, contain many symbols that come forth as the viewer, or artist, determines, or designs. If, like Tarkovsky, the viewer finds that the ‘image’ satisfies in its latency, then it will be left unread and no symbol will arise. However, perhaps as a result of having more of an intellectual than a poetic inclination, I see symbols in all images. I see them even as I relish the ‘atmosphere’ of Tarkovsky’s own indefinite images! I suggest that, in art, the question – ‘image or symbol,’ is less about the essential quality or nature of the work and more about the perspective of the viewer or the approach of the artist.

This Sunflower was grown by Jane Frankish on our allotment in the plot shared by members of the Jonathan Rogers gardening collective in Mount Pleasant Vancouver, Summer 2021.

RIP Jeganathan Ramachandran 2

In reflecting on my engagement with the art of Jeganathan Ramachandran, I clearly recall including his paintings in the exhibition I curated for the Balai Seni Lukis Negara in 2002 titled Bara Hati Bahang Jiwa. The exhibition was premised on the need to reconsider the established narrative on Expressionism in Malaysian art from the perspective of a post-colonial recovery. Skirting the pitfalls of essentialism and nationalism, I pitched the reconfiguration in terms of ethnic, ethnographic, regional and national considerations. I identified the underpinnings of a Malay approach to ‘expressionism’ and presented the representative artists this within a boarder national overview, placing the dominant Malay idiom within the wider pool of contemporary Malaysian expressions.

While my thesis was couched in the aesthetic and emotional proclivities of the Malays, I included Chinese and Indians artists even though they disrupted my neat Nusantara schematization which emphasized indigenous psychology and culture (amok, latah, adat and adab). I decided that I would try negotiate the essentially Malay aesthetics of my curatorial theme with the overarching multiethnic realities of the nation. The Indian and Chinese artists did not fit in neatly within my theme and, In this regard, I must acknowledge that, as a whole, Bara Hati Bahang Jiwa was somewhat unresolved, perhaps it was unresolvable by definition … as unresolvable as the idea of the Malaysian nation itself!

Given that I was going to include an Indian artist in the mix, regardless of the goodness of fit, I needed to identify an artist whose work exemplified and encapsulated contemporary Malaysian Indian expression on its own terms … Who would it be? ….. Jeganathan Ramachandran had been making his presence felt in the contemporary scene since the mid 1990’s, with his powerful figurative paintings. Having studied sculpture, woodcarving and painting from a traditional perspective, Jeganathan had been developing a direct and personal mode of expression that was nevertheless steeped in traditional Indian philosophy, psychology and science. I saw in his work the complete Malaysian Indian expression – religious, spiritual, mythical, metaphysical and, most importantly, social.

In a note sent to me in the course of our communication after the ASEAN Art Awards 1996 Jega had said, “I have always believed that art is not just a decorative medium but a powerful tool of expression and the deeper I looked within the Indian art context I saw the vast symbolic expressions that exist within the ‘rigid style’… Then I started painting in a narrative form much like the old times. Nearly every painting of mine had a story and every symbol I applied, new and old, further enhanced the story. During this time my involvement in spiritualism introduced me to many wondrous expressions and their visual impressions upon my mind took on new shapes and I started depicting them in my paintings.” Just as the Malay artists I had selected seemed to carry their particular traditions and psyche into the contemporary idiom of ‘Expressionism, Jega brought forth a deeply Indian expressiveness.

I included 4 of Jega’s works in Bara Hati Bahang Jiwa – ‘Invocation’ (2001) and ‘1 Tree = 40 Life Forms’ (2001) reflect this quest for a spiritual expression, with different degrees of reference to aspects of lived experience. ‘The House Slave’ (2001) is a response to the suffering of a friend in an abusive situation and a reflection on the plight of women caught within Indian social norms. Pictured above is the most expansive of the 4 works, both in scale and in thematic. It is titled ‘Fallout in the Garden of Life’ (1998). The artist has said “Kali is nature and she is fighting everything unnatural which has created imbalance on earth and all the people in the boat- like thing, that Noah’s Ark (my version). My belief is that nature will always protect those who are natural and the five hands represent the five elements (pancha butham). And notice the tree, that’s where it all starts.”

Rest in Peace Jega – Kali Kali Mahakali!

The above is a modified extract from my essay ‘Expression and Expressionism in Contemporary Malaysian Art’ published in 2002.

Rajah, Bara Hati Bahang Jiwa: Expression and Expressionism in Contemporary Malaysian Art, Kuala Lumpur: Balai Seni Lukis Negara, 2002.