A Cycle of Scream as Posthuman Contingency Measure

Mustafa Zaman

Artist and writer, and editor of Depart

It was the psychic disquiet of a gifted man made worse by Nordic natural gloom and the modern-day alienation which once set the stage for a gesticulating/screaming new subjectivity to make its appearance, that too in the world of art. Its exact articulation was the handiwork of none other than Edvard Munch. The work in question, known as ‘The Scream’, an infl uential angst-ridden piece done in 1895, still freights a sense of loss into the public domain, although, in the last twenty or so years our senses have been made overly numbed in the face of various kinds of terror as part and parcel of, and as backlash to, an imperial makeover of the world in the form of the fi nancialcultural globalization. It is in relation to the cry that invokes the primordial, impassionedly depicted in ‘The Scream’ by an alienated Norwegian, and the endangered present and future under the circuitous matrix of the late capital age, that one should survey the works of Anisuzzaman Sohel to elicit a pertinent reading.

>The world in its multiplicity of known and unknown dispensations, where the dominant order keeps forcing its Other(s) into subjugation, is the locus from where Sohel operates and carefully chooses and assembles his pictorial fragments. His depiction of the affl icted body usually veers into the region of confl ict between the ‘civilizing force’ and the self/body that wants to reclaim itself from within its own locale of existence to assume an identity. His contemplation on weaponries, or machineries used in modern-day construction, those that stand for contemporary excesses, alongside his focus on the body/self subjected to the developmental schemes that utilize these inventions, makes him a critic of the given sociopolitical matrix. He is an artist who issues forth, in one form or another, an array of rebuttals to the current social order.

>If in the series “Bound to Enjoy” the body is made to confront a series of abject, if not absurd, situations, in “Hide and Seek” Sohel simply alludes to the disappearing self – one that is literally in the process of evaporation as if to prove its ‘lightness’ which Milan Kundera once famously underlined as ‘unbearable’. It is the existential crises of the modern subjectivity that the artist brings into view carefully plotting his imagery to raise questions and to release metal agony. Informed by a dual tendency of acknowledging the real and critiquing its current state of being, Sohel’s often concentric images develop into a counternarrative. In each work of art, which often forms a part of a series, the artist attempts to bring into view the psychological torsions that weigh down the being – sometimes to show the ‘Show’ that is modern-day existence, and, at others, to elucidate the contemporary condition in which the subject is overwhelmed by false consciousness, often confusing pain with pleasure. The desire to self-annihilate, thus, also fi nds an embodiment in his work when the artist zeroes in on the body that stands close to fetishized utensils such as knives and razor blades. It is in these works that the being is made to look psychologically wounded vis-àvis an uncertain destiny.

>The ‘scopic regime’, under which the contemporary society thrives and relentlessly demands a continuum of media-ready images and texts, also infl ects the works of this 30-plus artist. He fi nds his personal voice employing the process of détournement, to use a trope of the Lettrist International. Détournement is a way for the artist to use the techné of the capital order against itself. The graphic quality of his work thus is a mask -- beneath which a naysayer lurks, one who is positioned to stabilize the meaning behind his own existence as well as the artistic strategy he utilizes. The continued narcissistic reference to his own self in many of his images, thus, is a way for him to elide his world into the worlds of the Other. By way of examining and narrating the self the artist projects the problematics of the current civilization onto his picture plain.

>This is the core element that eff ectuates the tenor of expressivity in Sohel’s numerous oeuvres. As he places himself at the center of his narrative(s) which posits not so complex a moral position, he identifi es himself with the disconcerted subjects of the ‘majority world’, to borrow Shahidul Alam’s phrase that seeks to overturn the notion of the Third World. Disinclined to renounce hope for the future, Sohel’s form of practice apparently hinges on the hope of a revival of the ‘moral being’, who appears perhaps with his spirit frayed, but never totally at a loss as to what he should reject to renew his concept of the civilization and its destiny. Sohel succeeds in indentifying this posthuman conscious being, who, following the fall from his erstwhile high perches still retains the capacity to navigate the worldly world to voice his discontentment, if not through a cohesive narrative, at least by way of another cycle of scream.

Bending the rules of the game

By Ziaul Karim

A sword stained with blood is stabbed into the ground as it is done mostly after the battle is fought and won; a tiger sliced into half bleeds profusely; the perpetrator responsible for the death and destruction is seen buried himself upside down into the sand, his bare-feet oozes blood. These images, nightmarish, dystopian and man-made catastrophe, are from a digital painting of Anisuzzaman Sohel’s first major one-man show.

Sohel’s attempt to map how meanings are constructed and identities are formed is presented in a complex language and style that may at first appear difficult, and can be off-putting to viewers approaching his work for the first time. He challenges the common-sense assumption that clear, transparent language in the best way to represent and communicate reality. In fact, as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak suggests that the transparent systems of representation through which things are known and understood are also the systems which control and dominate people. Sohel through his disturbing and beguiling images points out that what representational images and language share is a reliance upon culturally determined codes which are learned.

To convey his own idioms and syntaxes, Sohel has invented his own language through a combination and mélange of digital print, computer graphics, acrylic, watercolour, and pigment pen.

Sohel rejects transparent and comfortable representation of the world. We know from Spivak how transparent representation of the world is bound up with the history of European imperial expansion from nineteenth-century British colonialism to twentieth-century US foreign policy-making, the development policies of the World Bank and the World Trade Organization. This dominant representation of the world is, Spivak writes, ‘the assumption that when the colonizers come to a world, they encounter it as uninscribed earth upon which they write their inscription.’

For Sohel one of the main problems with this transparent model of language of representation is that it has been variously used to represent and constitute the world as a stable object of western knowledge.

In ‘The Tragedy of the Self,’ he elaborates the themes of alienation, rootlessness, lack of identity, solitude, and social fragmentation. The alienated people of his canvass are living in an hallucination, an exhilarating blur, a reality evaporating into mere images, spectacles, strange new warps in time and space, fixated on commodities, on products, on collages of identical images—all sameness, all surface.

The shadowy figure in the painting is being stabbed not at the back but in the front by his inner self represented by another darker shadow. The headless figure has no clue that he has been stabbed.

The images of headless, gruesome figures of Sohel’s canvasses are basically photographs of himself doctored by computer graphics. He continues to subject himself of his paintings in translating agonies and excruciating pains of living in a consumerist and ‘hyperreal’ Baudrillardian world.

His ‘Agony with Ecstasy’ series on black model board paper is particularly arresting. The drawings of the fragmented human figures are done by a plotter machine. His experience in working for advertising agencies over a decade has come good in exploiting the impact of images. After drawing the image with the plotter, he used acrylic colour and pen to achieve chiaroscuro and convey a three-dimensional effect.

The second work of the series shows against the black model board paper white human figures in mental agony. The disjointed heads cry for help and with no assurance of help anywhere the helplessness only intensifies. Murderous knives are floating and appearing from a bad dream; an unknown bird sitting on the sliced off head of human body shrills its despair; images of a dog and a broken brunch of a tree—all these cast an eerie glow over the painting.

What disturbs Sohel most about our age is that it signals the end of a genuine awareness of history. He feels that an awareness of history is precisely what we now need to piece together our shattered language and selves, which like Humpty Dumpty, have become fragmented. It is what we need to unify the past-present-future of language to unify our psyches and our lives.

As soon as you have a language that has a past tense and a future tense you’re going to say, where did we come from, what happens next? The ability to remember the past helps us plan the future.

The production of knowledge and how it permeates our sense of reality has become suspect to Sohel. He offers an overtly challenge to the way we think about culture and representation of the real. In the series ‘Brain Facts’ we encounter realistic drawings of the gray matter of the brain with images of machine guns, tanks, shopping trolleys imprinted on it, much like the bar code as if are all designed to be scanned and read by computer as identification.

Jean-François Lyotard questions in his most celebrated work The Postmodern Condition how are the lives and identities of people constructed by contemporary structures of knowing. He argues that knowledge has become a commodity that is bought and sold on the market and is also the basis of power in society. The global competition for power is now fought out as a battle for knowledge just as it used to be for resources like coal, gas and oil.

According to Lyotard the social bond is composed of language games. The very structure of society is made up of the statements made in it and the rules it develops to decide whether particular moves are legitimate or illegitimate. Just as different types of games have distinct sets of rules, different societies have diverse forms of politics, law and legitimation. As subjects, we exist within this series of language games, whose different sets of rules make up who we are. The organization of knowledge in society thereby determines the identity, the self-image, the ideas and aspirations of the people that make it up.

Sohel deliberately problematizes his languages to point out the fact that what we understand as transparent reality or simple truth are never simple and cannot be reduced to any structure.

Jacques Derrida demonstrated that language is a system of differences in which meaning is perpetually deferred and cannot be reduced to any structure. He further argued that language does not transparently reflect the social and historical world. As Derrida famously asserts in Of Grammatology, ‘there is nothing outside of the text.’

Sohel’s recently-done series ‘The Habit of Enjoying the Disagreeable’ is a scathing commentary on the latest phase of a capitalist world system, a phase that has erupted on the world scene with the unrestricted growth of multinational corporations. The acrylic on paper works show profile pictures of the artist with different expression of moods and emotions. The heads are void containing only images of bar code, shopping trolley, pistol, heavy crane and tractor.

In this new capitalism corporations are invading our unconscious mind by advertising. The cultural forms of our times reflect the dislocation and fragmentation of language communities each speaking, in the words of Fredric Jameson, ‘ a curious private language of its own, each profession developing its private code or dialect, and finally each individual coming to be a kind of linguistic island, separated from everyone else.’

A vibrant political culture requires community groups, libraries, public schools, cooperatives, public meeting places, voluntary associations, and trade unions to provide ways for citizens to meet, communicate, and interact with their fellow citizens. Neoliberal democracy produces consumers instead of citizens. Instead of communities, it produces shopping malls. The result: an atomized society of disengaged individuals who feel demoralized and socially powerless.

Karl Marx pointed out that capitalist economic system rely upon a single universal medium, that is money, by which to gauge and evaluate all that can be exchanged and sold. The use of a single medium of exchange subordinates every product, commodity and thing into one universal trading system. This represses the possibility of categorical differences between products, commodities or things. Both traders and consumers under capitalism often recognize the absurdity of tying every product, commodity and thing into one universal system of exchange governed by the index of money. The problem is that in their social activity itself, in what they are doing, individuals are acting as if money, in its material reality, is the embodiment of wealth as such.

Sohel’s take on money as a universal medium is being elaborated in the series ‘Monetize.’ He has take the intricate designs of banknotes and created a new currency with images of bullets, pistols and lethal weapons of modern day warfare.

For Sohel, the traditional disciplines of rational academic inquiry have restricted the way we think about texts and ideas in relation to the social, political and economic world. Before we can learn anything about the economic text of globalization or the debauchery and deceit of western hegemony, he insists that we must first unlearn the privileged systems of western knowledge that have indirectly served the interest of capitalism.

In a recent interview with the Harvard Business Review the Chinese multimedia artist Ai Weiwei said, ‘Creativity is part of human nature. It can only be untaught. Kids are put through a strong social-educational process that makes it impossible to develop unique thinking. The competition is like a tunnel from which there is no escape. That makes society simple and maybe even effective, but it’s not human.’ He was responding to a question whether creativity can be taught.

Sohel’s oeuvre speaks out for creative freedom and other human rights through bending the traditional language of representation.