Continuing our coverage of students who feature in the 2020 UAL Graduate Showcase, we speak to John Antony Thadicaran, who has just completed an MA in Contemporary Photography; Practices and Philosophies at Central Saint Martins (CSM).
Thadicaran is a photographer and film-maker who describes his practice as examining, “man’s inability to see through illusions stemming from trauma and isolation.” Previously focused on documentary making, Thadicaran’s work has evolved during his time at CSM to incorporate other mediums and art forms.
The Net Gallery: It sounds like your approach to photography and film-making has developed significantly in recent months. Can you explain a bit about how you’ve been exploring things such as installation, performance, sound, and video installation as mediums to incorporate into your work?
John Antony Thadicaran: Things have been sinking. Photography has become a more inward practice now. My practice examines man’s inability to see through illusions stemming from trauma and isolation. My final work is an ode to migrant workers in India and their (and my) circumstantial nomadic existence, which has been completely challenged during these strange times.
I started my journey as an artist with docu-fiction. I used to document skilled labour in Bandra, Mumbai, India. Nelson’s Vandre is my first feature film, which took five years to complete. I have shorter timespans now. This graduate showcase has taken two years to build up. I had to fundamentally change my research in the last couple of months through the careful study of works by Saul Leiter, Jeff Wall, Steve McQueen and Wolfgang Tillmans. A conflict began to emerge between the mediums of Film and Photography. This made me question my praxis towards documenting present-day scenarios through the lens of photography and has meant bringing in a multidisciplinary approach towards photography through the mediums of installation, performance, sound, and video installation.
Wind Sounds, one of my works, is a part of the ‘Sound of Measure’ series. It is the last work in the Graduate Showcase, but it was done a year ago. During this sound work, I pull out the wire of the recorder to disconnect from this journey. A journey that was quite disorienting at that time for me, as it brought with it a lot of memories of the time I spent with my dad who lives in Bahrain – a time of suppressed freedom encased in parental authority. The idea of borrowed time always crept into my head during the course of the photographic journey, so it was essential to disconnect.
I saw the graduate showcase as different rooms to play with. The internet has changed a lot of the things in my practice. In the last couple of months, I have been researching images, scrolling through TikTok to reading Philosophical Investigations by Wittgenstein. I wanted to create work which approaches that attention. Photography was the best answer to what mediums have to offer. Disruptive attention spans can be draining when you work with several methodologies: sound, video art, performance and installation. I wanted to install my work in a physical space, but nature had other plans for mankind. This is not how I used to work.
TNG: I imagine lockdown has been quite disruptive to your experience of the MA course, and particularly in terms of working towards the final degree show. You mention in your Graduate Showcase statement, though, about the severe affect lockdown has had on certain groups of people, such as migrant workers in India. Does that wider perspective change the way you view your own personal experience of lockdown?
JA: The recent events of Covid-19 have made a lot of changes to our lifestyle. The move to stay at home has become a part of us. These lockdown measures have taken a severe toll in countries with larger migrant worker populations like India. Their issues and problems haven’t been taken into account by ruling governments.
We are constantly being told to avoid reason when it comes to electing our officials. The democracy we are seeing now is no longer a Platonic one. Plato wanted the republic to be formed by people who stood the test of reason of why we choose a certain leader.
Rhetoric has now become a part of our language. It has led to people reading through multiple sources of misinformation. Film has taken a back seat in our current society. It is the world of social media, especially WhatsApp, which acts as a knowledge-balm for anxious citizens. Apps have been used to mobilise votes.
WhatsApp is the simulacrum of our times that has left films behind. A simulacrum doesn’t have any claimants to reason. It just wants to be by itself. Simulacrum have been used to distort and misinform the people. This has made it increasingly difficult to work out where the difference lies between the image and reality.
I needed to change my approach to images after these movements in society, towards a shared simulation of information.
#GoBackHome2020, my new work, became a part of this discursive approach. The title is confrontational in nature. Though the words are harmless by themselves, when put together and targeted at a migrant, it becomes a slur on the migrant’s very existence. In this work, multiple mirroring of the same image reflects isolation and trauma. The shoes in the work are a motif of movement and suffering. In India, tens of thousands of migrant workers have walked over 2000 kilometres in the boiling heat during the Covid-19 lockdown, many of them without shoes, as they had neither the money nor the resources to buy them or stay back in the city.They had to go back home.
The shoes that I use in my install are also a subtle and perhaps vulnerable representation of walking away from something towards something else – much like this artwork. The work became an exercise in understanding what I wanted to contribute to photography. It felt more like a footprint of the time and place in which I began to move around in. It required extended hours of visual alertness to be able to capture the images. Sometimes, it was almost impossible to sustain this alertness. Trauma and isolation are two key factors that affect this alertness and brings about a state of illusion.
TNG: You also mention in your statement that you yourself have moved seven times in the last four years and that, “I will probably be moving on again after this course ends.” Have you got plans for where you would now like to take your artistic practice?
JA: My artwork is called #GoBackHome2020. I’m really not sure how 2020 is going to end and what will become home for us. How many of us will still be around? It is a time when philosophers hurt. Sometimes, I feel I have no home, and at other points I feel anywhere can be home. I am carrying in me a constant displacement. Home is where the idea and material originates from. Since isolation, time has become home. I have begun to experiment more with digital video. Analog is dead for me. I see my art practice moving towards technologies that can cause an encounter. Maybe I would like to make England home. Maybe, I can’t go back home.
TNG: Ideas around community seem relevant to your work, both physical communities – like migrant worker populations – and online, digital communities (which can perhaps be both positive and negative in the form of ‘community’ they represent). Have you felt part of one or more communities during your time in London and the UK?
JA: I never thought about race till I came to the United Kingdom. From belonging to a race of 1.1 billion people, I suddenly became a minority and a person of colour. Words which have never entered my vocabulary until now.
The levels of resistance and seeds of false informations artists need to go through to feel grounded in institutions and the outside world is always becoming and in between. For me, it started with a chance encounter with an uber driver Afzal Malik. He talked about the nineteen years he has lived in England. He came from Pakistan and spoke about how the levels of violence have increased in the past decade. He shared a video with me of a recent knifing incident at Catherine Street in Covent Garden, in London. He also showed me a WhatsApp video of the incident. He told me to use it since I was an artist.
I was left with the responsibility of installing this and keeping my intentions in check. Two men were killed through the course of the video, which became the basis for my work, Metallic Screen. This did not deter me from finding the artifice of the install. I wanted to put a certain pressure on the happenings in the video. A pressure that I have read through the works of Ritwik Ghatak (1925-1976) and Tarkovsky (1932-1986). The only option I had was to go back to statistical information.
Digital Photography leaves us with several pathways to work from though statistical information. So unlike analog photography: the randomness associated with the data at hand with digital photography helps us to look at data without giving a glance at the image. Data interprets the movement, the tone and feeling or sensation you would like to impart. The randomness of data gives us more room to play.
Through statistics, I leveraged the knowledge I had acquired through my engineering days and my understanding of abuse and violence. I started by reading the processing signals that would be created by Hue, Saturation and Luminance. This was coupled with my readings of Flusser’ s (1920-1991) seminal book Towards a Philosophy of Photography. In the book Flusser asks us as artists to ‘exist’, which meant to work outside your being. This entails us all to be functionaries of our artworks, not the authors. This made me realise that the only way was to push this content was through the readings of the data: I became a functionary of the data itself.
There was a moment in Metallic Screen when the bus driver – who witnesses the killing of the two – is asked by a bystander if he is recording the incident. He screams, “Catherine Street, I have everything on the video recording here. I’m still recording it. I still record it. The bus has 24 cameras. The bus saw everything.” For a long time after that, my filter for truth was ‘the bus saw everything.’
I used to work in privacy for cinema technologies around the world for eight years. The digital community is the new normal for some and not for all. Art in this new normal is the best communicator. In my case, photography is having a resurgence. It has brought me close to understanding communities as an outsider. It is also autobiographical in some ways. The objects and people you choose to portray become part of collective history of the world and you. This needs to get attention.
Personally, as a second generation migrant in the Middle East, I have grown-up as an outsider. I live now as an outsider. I or my camera, identifies with everybody. And identifies with nobody.
TNG: Thinking about messages – how they are constructed, intended and interpreted – also feels relevant, as well the notion of an audience. Have you got a sense of who you want your audience to be, or who you would like your work to speak to?
JA: I do think about an audience, but I do trust a really small number people when it comes to my work. I trust their perceptions and sensibility.
I also understand their opinions, though I might not agree with them all the time. I respect them as friends. So if one of my friends were to see my show and like it I would know it will be good enough for the audience that visits my page and takes a look at my work. I also went to several private views in the last year. It made me understand the audience perceptions of work and what they react to. Some examples of the exhibitions that I studied the last two years in London – the experience kept changing and lingering every time I visited these shows:
Hauser and Wirth Toast by Martin Creed. 2019
Harun Farocki and Hito Steryl Gallery Thaddeus Ropac 2020
Chisenhale gallery the destructors Imran Perrata 2019
Works curated by Cedric Fauq at the Nottingham Contemporary 2019 and his curatorial work at Palais du Tokyo
Abbas Zahedi How To Make A How From A Why? at South London Gallery. 2020
Wolfgang Tillmans at Maureen Paley 2019
Pierre Huyghe UUmwelt Serpentine Gallery 2018
Also, the magazine American Suburban X the works edited by Sunil Shah.
The kind of audience that visits these galleries and magazine are people who have probably taken the trouble to follow the artists work from the beginning. A discerning viewer is all I expect from an audience.
It is people who decide, not nature. So whatever you see, whatever man-made shapes you see, I like to encourage you to ask, “Why am I supposed to like this? Why does it look this way? Do I agree with this development?” (Tillmans, Wolfgang. Wolfgang Tillmans – DZHK Book 2018. NY, NY: David Zwirner Books, 2018.)
Tillmans’s philosophy began to question all my early work that was very intentional and connected to film and larger narratives. It questioned my relation to the world I live in, my place and my being. It also shifted my thoughts on art being used as a weapon for society. Such is this minor reading of works that it becomes increasingly difficult for audiences to fully grasp the work. Nobody really needs to completely understand a work. It is not the point of the artwork anyway. Artworks don’t need to be read through one singular gaze. They could be read as a pathway of several meanings like a memory or a sensation. If I or an audience could read even a fleeting layer of that meaning, the work would be considered a good artwork.
Interview by Richard Unwin
John Antony’s online presentation as part of the UAL Graduate Showcase can be found here.
You can view examples of his work on Vimeo, here.
You can also follow him on Instagram, here.
All images courtesy of the artist, John Antony Thadicaran.
The image shown at the top of the page is: John Antony Thadicaran – ‘Rain’, Inkjet Print. Dimensions: 84.1 x 118.9 cm. 2020.