Karl Sharro







Not so safe distance

THE NEIGHBOUR, by Ashok Sukumaran, P3, London  


Ashok Sukumaran’s work so far has been overtly public in nature. Aside from being staged in public spaces, it has required the involvement of the public and various agencies to be realised. In his best known installation so far, Glow Positioning System, he staged a spectacular light installation on a public square in his native Bombay, operated by a simple hand-crank. When a user turned the crank, the lights traced the contours of the buildings around responding to the speed and movement of the operator. This was a public spectacle indeed, but not one designed to overwhelm. Instead, it offered viewers the chance to discover the city in a fresh way. In order to know the city, we must dislocate ourselves. Sukumaran produced an intimate topography that is at once alien and familiar.

In his solo European debut, The Neighbour, currently on show at P3 in London, Sukumaran shifts his attention from the manifest to the latent aspects of the city. No doubt the choice of venue itself was influential in this respect; P3 lies in the deep bowls of the University of Westminster, well away from street activity. However, the theme of latency resurfaces in many aspects of The Neighbour, a site-specific work commissioned by the Arts Catalyst, who certainly could not have anticipated Sukumaran’s response to this invitation.

Once you descend into P3, you are met by the sight of two mobile homes positioned within the large cavernous space. The smaller of the two, a modified version of the VW van so popular in the 1960s and 1970s, with its roof lifted up at a sharp angle, sits fixed in the space. The larger mobile home, the largest you can find on the market I am assured, constantly travels back and forth across the space, coming dangerously close to its smaller neighbour then moving away, only to retrace its steps once it reaches the limits of the space. Sukumaran described the two vehicles as ‘stalking’ each other, and there is certainly an element of staged confrontation between the two. This is Sukumaran’s attempt to re-enact the relationship with the neighbour, Sukumaran is careful never to say the ‘other’, which troubles contemporary city dwellers.

Photo: Kristian Buus

For Sukumaran, the neighbour is ‘neither friend nor enemy, is the one who may not be in your “network”, but is nevertheless in your world’. The modernist grid had insisted on integrating everyone, even if they didn’t wish to be included, hence the figure of the gypsy or the traveller, the contemporary ‘network’ in contrast is based on precisely on such acts of exclusion. There’s no more space for the universalist aspirations of Modernism, we are constantly told that there is simply not enough for everyone, and our wildest ideas about transforming the city, Ron Herron’s Walking City or mobile homes themselves, have been tamed and restrained. Sukumaran’s laments this loss of mobility with an apt statistic, most of the ‘mobile homes’  produced today never leave the site on which they are placed.

In Bombay, Sukumaran lovingly traced the contours of the visible city, both literally and metaphorically. In London, such operations have to compete with the city’s established preoccupation with its surface. Ultimately, all such gestures in London are quickly appropriated and lose their meaning. Instead, he opts for exploring the city through what it conceals, and more importantly through that persistent desire to escape it that has for long characterised London and English cities in general. It was that desire that resulted in the great expanse of suburbia that now gently encircles London, but also the desire to discover the countryside, even if briefly, in mobile homes. Sukumaran says, ‘This is an allegory of neighbourhood, a result of our inability to fully escape each other’. That escape was never intended to be a permanent one, either in the suburbs that remained firmly within London’s orbit or in the mobile homes that became a feature of urban life and drew their attraction from it.

But Sukumaran is alluding to something much more problematic at play today, an aspect of his work that draws on Slavoj Žižek’s critique of the ideology of tolerance, but reinterprets that strictly within the realm of visual, or to be more specific spatial, art. The embellishment of the mobile vehicles on display, when I arrive someone is desperately trying to find a toothbrush to place in one of the homes, is a diversionary tactic. It’s not in the homes themselves that one should look for the true meaning of the work, but in the relationship of the two homes to each other. When that dynamic is exhausted, the possibility of something else presents itself, Sukumaran leaves the door ajar to a further interaction that is not staged but purely imagined. It could be a violent act, or another dislocation, but it clearly suggests that there are limits to this world we have created in which a ‘safe distance’ from the other regulates our interaction, often under the guise of politeness and tolerance.

Sukumaran’s mechanical pas de deux is a mesmerising work that invites a lot of thought and reminds us of so many open-ended questions that have been left in the wake of Modernism’s failure. The dystopian scene that he creates invites us to think about the fate of all utopias, as well as questions about how we inhabit cities and how we deal with other in them. Equally, he draws on the experiment that began in the 1960s, when art left the canvas and sculptures and put on boots, to create a cleverly choreographed piece that reminds us that installation is first and foremost about space, the space that could not be contained within the canvas anymore. The Neighbour contains elements of nostalgia, but it also leaves the door to the future open wide.

Till 9 April 2009


Karl Sharro 2009


First published at Culture Wars.