August 25th, 2010 | Published in Sikh Arts & Heritage
In 1968, after attending a lecture by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Beatles decided to immerse themselves in Eastern spirituality by becoming his disciples. This lead to a dramatic shift in their music culminating in the White Album. It also increased popular interest in the complex and, from a Western perspective, largely unfamiliar spirituality of India. For many young Americans and Europeans during the 1960s and 70s, traveling east to study mysticism was part of a larger social phenomenon that sought new experiences, beliefs and values for those disillusion with conventional Western values.
One of the most striking things about the Beatles’ White Album was its minimalist appearance and the conceptual essentialism of its title. Gone was the visual exuberance and cultural eclecticism of Dr. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band with its elaborate cast of costumed characters. It would appear that, for the Beatles, Eastern philosophy and Modernist minimalism had colluded to dispense with Western materialism and historicism in favour of a pure universal essentialism.
Looking east in search of truth is really nothing new. In literature, Joseph Conrad, E.M. Forester and Herman Hesse are but few of the writers who incorporated in their work concepts of Eastern culture as a source of both spiritual enlightenment and, in contrast, dark and mysterious cosmic forces. And it is at this unique historical juncture of Modernism and mysticism characterized by the contrast of light and dark that we can locate the remarkable work of Jeet Aulakh.
In the secular West, modern abstract art has made its own claim to encapsulate universal truths both dark and mysterious and luminous and revelatory. Non-representational art as a blank canvas, as it were, had enormous potential to represent many things, not least of which, during the Cold War, were a generic universalism on one hand and the primacy of individual expression on the other. American Abstract Expressionism, despite populist hostility at home, was the ideal tabula rasa to promote core values of modern western democracy in contrast to the stogy realism favoured by the Soviets and other totalitarian states. Even the CIA exploited the potential of abstract art to indoctrinate weary nations through a variety of art publications, traveling exhibitions and events that collectively promoted a culture of absolute truths about individual expression and democracy supposedly free of nationalistic attributes and open to universal participation to those that believed in its enlightened internationalism.1
But not all were believers, including many in the West, who felt abstraction to be elitist. Nor could the West realistically presume to be the sole purveyors of abstract art. Civilizations throughout history had long-established traditions of non-representational visual culture. Indeed, iconoclastic cultures have promoted abstract art as a demonstration of spiritual devotion in the face of strict restrictions on representation. In still other cultures, abstraction was simply preferred for aesthetic reasons.
All of this may seem a bit old hat given the general shift away from abstraction in contemporary art over the past fifty years. And with postmodernism’s emphasis on multiplicity, diversity, and diffused structures of legitimation, it is difficult to imagine that any visual art practice could dominate discourse in the way that abstraction did in the mid-20th century. But if modernist abstraction’s claims to international authority have been widely challenged since the 1970s, the contemporary art that followed it also had problems in this regard. The notion that contemporary art is itself, despite its multi-disciplinary eclecticism, a western concept reliant on a codified set of values in its production, display and dissemination gained considerable attention with the 1997 international exhibition Documenta X in Kassel, Germany, curated by Catherine David. In its attempt to survey the political history of contemporary art since 1945, the project was widely criticized for its overt eurocentrism and lack of diversity.
So where to situate the abstraction of Jeet Aulakh in relation to these broader issues of surrounding non-representational art and representation? Where is the space for his unique synthesis of traditional art, spirituality and abstraction within the, at times, complex and divisive discourses surrounding contemporary art? How does one avoid a reductive reading of these works framed by the conventions of interpretation available to us today? The challenge is all the more pronounced by a pervasive lack of understanding of Eastern philosophies, art and religion in the West. Nevertheless, there are artists who have in the past managed to transcend these limitations and speak to us from outside the parameters of a secular society that favours individual expression and experience over collective consciousness.
The spiritual impulse in abstract art is, for example, evident in the work of the late American artist Mark Rothko. British art historian Simon Schama describes his first experience of Rothko’s paintings at the Tate Gallery in 1970 as one in which the mysteries of life itself emanated through colour and light out of the surrounding darkness. As he puts it:
Rothko had insisted that the lighting be kept almost pretentiously low. It was like going into the cinema, expectation in the dimness. Something in there was throbbing steadily, pulsing like the inside of a body part, all crimson and purple. I felt I was being pulled through those black lines to some mysterious place in the universe.
Rothko said his paintings begin an unknown adventure into an unknown space…. A space that might be where we came from or where we will end up. They’re not meant to keep us out, but to embrace us; from an artist whose highest compliment was to call you a human being.2
Born in Punjab, Canadian artist Jeet Aulakh participates in a rich and varied cultural and social history in which notions of humanity are indivisible into secular and spiritual realms. A central theme in Indian philosophy is the ultimate release from the subservience of life and all its contingent aspects: to be detached from life by the realization of the “absolute supreme principal”, which is itself beyond definition. The goal is to achieve, through inner realization, a reintegration into this indefinable absolute realm. According to art critic Sandu Sindile, Aulakh “is deeply rooted in his spiritual heritage, where meditation plays a crucial role, and his body of work reflects that…tranquility, and isolation but also a way of communication.3
Aulakh ably depicts this other abstract realm through the use of floating circles of saturated colour seemingly floating in the dark to evoke cosmic cycles in which human history and individual identity is peripheral. The radiant world of the enraptured, disembodied soul is undiminished by this enveloping cosmic darkness. His images suggest a cosmic egg from which the manifest world is born. Similar compositional strategies are found throughout the history of Indian art including a remarkable 19th century painting in the Ajit Mookerji collection, Calcutta, of Bindu, the “cosmic seed” that shows the cosmos emerging through an image of three circles, each containing more concentric circles and dots resonating like sound waves from the centre.
Striving to reveal through geometric abstraction what remains incomprehensible, Aulakh, through his use of glowing circles of colour, gives form to what is formless and cohesive totality to individual consciousness. The universe — unperceived, unattainable by reasoning, unknowable — is revealed through our relationship to cosmic forces which appear in the Laws of Manu with irresistible creative power to displace the darkness.4 Aulakh’s celestial circles are irreducible: they are void of narrative or symbolic content. They suggest the way in which the distinctions between varying avenues to spiritual enlightenment are illusory despite separate names and forms. His is a minimalist and conceptual approach to spirituality informed by the rich history of Indian culture in which one finds countless references to cosmic consciousness such as:
I am the luster of the sun, moon, and stars; I am the music of the spheres. Earth, air, ether, water, fire, the ego, cosmic intelligence… I am all of these… I am knowledge and realization. Nothing whatsoever exists without me or beyond me.5
In Aulakh’s work, mysticism leads towards the path of silent, solitary contemplation. There is endless meditation available through his non-objective subject matter. And this is evident in his reference to Anahada Nada, the Sanskrit word for a non-reverberating sound not made by the striking of two objects. It is this primordial sound (or nada) that is experienced by advanced Yogis in deep meditative states. It is unlike and removed from the sounds of the material world created by striking objects.
Psychological and analytical in nature, what Aulakh’s work reveals are some of the hidden aspects of life that are beyond immediate experience and introspection. It is work that emerges from deep contemplation and connection with the cosmos.
In this regard, Aulakh’s work is not unlike that of British artist Anish Kapoor. Famous for its tactility and intense engagement with the materials of which it is composed. Kapoor’s work, like Aulakh’s, uses the perceptual experience of colour to achieve metaphysical significance to elicit the sense of another dimension. Both artists share an extraordinary need to maintain a tension between the material and the spiritual, the seen and the unseen. And despite the very obvious differences in their work and the materials used, both artists’ practices are predicated on the idea of the work of art as an intermediate space, as a point of transition between two worlds, as a passageway to an alternative state of being.
For Aulakh, like Kapoor, the use of intense colours accentuates sensuous immediacy, giving his work a certain purity, an essential quality that is, at once, archetypal and ephemeral, a fleeting retinal experience as old as the hills and as fleeting as daylight. This provides a contemplative space for the viewer to experience something we identify as spiritual. Nevertheless Aulakh is concerned with the community that art can generate beyond individual retrospection and personal spiritual enlightenment. Through his work, Aulakh engages with a broader community through the shared experience of art by providing a threshold between what we collectively know and what we do not: to be something that is reaching to a deeper part of our collective human presence.
Without personal narrative, a sense of scale or any specific reference point, Aulakh’s work opens up a space for contemplation to discover that which is outside of language and culture. But with its demonstrated connections to both traditional spirituality and Western secularism through abstraction, it raises an important question: what is the context for the production and reception of Aulakh’s work? We know that visual images dominate contemporary culture and that we are surrounded by myriad beliefs and ideas jostling for our attention. How, then, do we engage with such traditional forms of spirituality? Shaken by change and with loosened cultural loyalties, how do we locate Aulakh’s practice within the context of contemporary art? As the artist puts it: “When I happen to paint, mysterious things happen. What starts with a void ends with a dialogue.” 6
Part of this dialogue might be understood in relation to Homi K. Bhabha’s landmark text on the way in which non-dominate cultures have the power to transcend imperial belief systems and oppressive representational regimes. In The Location of Culture, Bhabha questions the effects of power and, specifically, “the inscription of strategies of individuation and domination in those ‘dividing practices’ which construct the colonial space.” 7 If we understand Aulakh work to be moving, as he puts it, from a “void” to “a dialogue” it is one that recuperates both traditional Eastern and contemporary Western values into one discourse that provides agency for both artist and audience to address and overcome such “dividing practices”. Perhaps it is simply that Aulakh’s synthesis of modernist abstraction and traditional spirituality attempts to bridge the schism created by Western colonial domination “that denies the chaos of its intervention… in order to preserve the authority of its identity in the teleological narratives of historical and political evolutionism.” 8 Whether it is the chaos of colonialism or that of everyday modern life, there can be no doubt that Aulakh’s work either transcends or ignores (depending on one’s point of view) the progressive narratives that dominate contemporary culture.
James Patten Director / Chief Curator McIntosh Gallery (University of Western Ontario)
- Frances Stonor Saunders. The Cultural Cold War (New York: The New Press, 1999), pgs. 252–278.
- Simon Schama. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/powerofart/rothko.shtml)
- Sandu Sindile (Ajapa Jaapa: Jeet Aulakh, 2009)
- Sir William Jones, Manava-Dharma-Shastra or the Institutes of Manu (ed. G.C. Haughton, London, 1825), Vol II, pgs. 2–10.
- Shri Krishna. From Shrimad Bhagavatam: the Wisdom of God, trans. by Swami Prabhavananda,1947 (Capricorn Edition, 1968), pg. 2.
- Jeet Aulakh, 1994
- Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge), pg. 108.
- Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge), pg. 111.