Looking is not Seeing
  September  9 - October 3 ,  2011


“Looking is not Seeing” – a critical note

Responding to the socio-political and cultural realities of the time is one of the modes in which artists engage thematically through work. Within this engagement there are several trajectories of expressions that had emerged corroborating the subjective experiences of the artist in relation to the objective existence in society. Balaji’s pictorial expressions and the kind of rhetoric that he constructs on the surface of the picture is one of these responses but the language through which this response is articulated involves certain syntactic complexity. At the same time these responses are not some politically neutral and visually “interesting” objects of aesthetic desire but implied with a sharp political consciousness that is critical to the established cultural and social imaginations/ambiguities in the society.

Balaji’s works comprise a crucial relation between the painted text-phrases and the images. In fact this text, composed in two phrases, frames the meanings and the subtext of the visual images. Written in a simple typography, this text does not intervene in the picture format but stays on the surface, by virtue of its flat, two-dimensional nature. In one sense this text is equal to the status of parergon, as theorised by Derrida – Parergon is “neither work (ergon) nor outside the work, neither inside or outside, neither above nor below, it disconcerts any opposition but does not remain indeterminate and it gives rise to the work” (Truth in Painting, 1978). The textual phrase belongs to the work (painting) as well as stays unrelated pictorially to the painting. When a viewer approaches these paintings, the sight is drawn towards deftly manoeuvred images, but quickly, the verbal text catches the eye, as if intervening between the pictorial image and the sight of the onlooker. This moment of rupture is also the moment of introduction of specific meanings to the work. The phenomenological and aesthetic experience of the viewer, in this context, is guided by the text-phrase, written in English. And in this moment of quick shifts between the textual phrase and the image, signification gets complicated and acquires a double signification which correlates each other – the text and the image. At one level the text-phrase puts forward a literal or direct meaning of it. When the signified or the meaning interacts with the image, this signified becomes empty and acquires a second level signification, whose signified belongs to the social and political realms.

One can say that two tendencies of pictorial representations – modern and postmodern – interweave into a syntactic network that produces an easy communication of the meaning of the work at the first level. But at another level this communicated meaning gets re-projected onto the image that is developed by rendering certain pictorial density which engages the experiential realms of the viewer by virtue of its deferment of the signification. So the interesting dimension to the structure and the process of Balaji’s work is this apparent oscillation of the meaning/signification between its straightforward communication through text/words, and its deferment through pictorial rendering. The pictorial surface of these works follows the procedure of image making and abstraction of the form that develops the visual density and opens a space for aesthetic engagement in time at length, which works with the logic of deferment. Most of the times, Balaji’s image sources and references belong to the mundane and popular categories like posters, photographs – old and new, illustrations, popular prints etc. And he consciously maintains their discursive/visual character as if quoting from the popular visual culture and juxtaposes these, with an arbitrarily rendered picture surface. These visual quotes become pronounced through their easy recognisability and draw the eye of the viewer to navigate the entire surface of the painting that correlates and rearticulates the idea represented. Balaji formulates his own phrases sometimes; or he picks up some popular phrases that are re-structured in a sarcastic form or in an incomplete form. These text-phrases introduce a chiastic reversal of their primary or first level meaning when they interact with the painted image. For example “the favourite drink of our farmers” when the viewer relates with the image, and the history of farmers committing suicides in the recent past in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, India, the primary meaning of the phrase gets reversed and certain moral contradictions get interjected.  Sometimes Balaji uses double or two parallel phrases that involve this chiastic relation in between them as well as with the image.   

Apart from painting Balaji also experiments with sculptural language. The choice of material and the corresponding form that he evolves through, follows the same tendency of chiastic relation between the form and material that is popularly used and, the idea that is represented. For example in the work “New designs for our country’s pavements” he modelled the upper surface of the tiles used for pavements with human figures. These figures are represented in sleeping gestures and postures along with a bag or a small property, a site that we witness on the pavements in Indian cities; migrant people, labourers or the citizens of the “unplanned city” dwell on these pavements. Balaji chose the tiles that are presently used at large for the pavements and sculpted these figures in relief on them. Suggesting that these tiles to be used for pavements involve a parody, he in fact pointed out a double reality about the status of Indian pavements – as elements of modern city plan as well as its haunting underside that is attached so close to it, the alienated and unaccounted poor at the heart of the city. In another work “...is weaver weaving for himself” Balaji reflects at the contemporary reality attached with the weavers in rural India. Here too the irony is framed sharply by using the real looking loom that weaves a hanging rope, a signifier immediately invokes suicide. It is this reversal of the logic and purpose of the form articulates the contradictions that exist prominently and sometimes inherently in the society.

His works at the outset look simple and straightforward comments on the contemporary events and realities that are popularly known and are circulated through various means of media in general. They display the irony that persists within the forms of human relations and conditions of socio-economic existence. For example, those works that deal with the images of construction labour, farmer suicides, and certain established notions and expressions of patriotism etc. There is nothing pedagogical and serious about the way Balaji constructs the narrative of these acute political expressions. In fact, as the artist himself believes that the humoristic mode of expression develops a sharp impact, a shock to the viewer that shakes and destabilises the metaphysics of moral and ethical codes. But in retrospect Balaji’s works do not involve an effort to subvert those moral and ethical codes; rather they are in consonance with certain popular consciousness and the relative subtexts that are specific to the artist’s observations. Now, when Balaji says “looking is not Seeing” the emphasis is not just on what is seen through eyes but to engage at different discursive levels with the social, political, cultural and economic  issues of the present time. 

Santhosh Kumar Sakhinala, 2011 

Santhosh Kumar Sakhinala is an art historian, critic based in Hyderabad, India. He is presently associated with department of Fine Arts, Sarojini Naidu School of Arts and Communication, University of Hyderabad, as a guest faculty. Sakhinala completed M Phil from EFL University, Hyderabad; MVA from Fine Arts Faculty, MSU Baroda; BFA from Kala Bhavana, Santiniketan. Apart from the mainstream Art, his interests include popular visual culture. His M Phil thesis is related to the public statues and the politics of representation.


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