DEFIANCE MAKES ONE INDEPENDENT

Review by By Parul
May 15, 2017

 

Trace
Curated by Sarojini Lewis
Eat the Apple: Interrogation
Performance by ManmeetDevgun
April 28, 2017
School of Arts and Aesthetic (SAA) Gallery,
JNU, New Delhi

“What remains of a photograph after a thought has been captured? What remains of the thought after a photograph has captured it? Is it a memory that can be retrospectively recuperated? How do we think of these remainders in terms of leaving a mark on time? There are engrams to account for memory-traces biochemichally and then there is caput mortuum, ‘worthless remain’, an epitome of death and decay, to account for an alchemical remainder. Perhaps, these traces are more than the sum of its past, present and future possibilities.”
(Excerpted from the curatorial note of the exhibition Trace curated by Sarojini Lewis and Jyothidas KV at School of Arts and Aesthetic (SAA) Gallery, JNU, New Delhi. (April 28, 2017-May 20, 2017)

The exhibition Trace, apart from various photographic artworks, audio and video installations was book ended by several performance artists presenting their work on the idea of trace that could “enable a potential of another visual reality beyond the first encounter towards multiple encounters”. One amongst these artists was ManmeetDevgun, who has been frequently engaging with her body as the site of her artistic medium to displace fixity of meanings and dominant narratives about key concerns like pleasure, behavior, language and relationships and how and where it situates us in our multiple subjectivities.

Her performance titled Eat the Apple: Interrogation (originally Defiance Makes One Independent) was an intense and absorbing piece that held the audience captive for 20 something minutes of its tightly knit duration. In a sparse cubical space, the audience circled around the performer, who stood behind a table with a bulb hanging low, highlighting her spare tools – a large bowl full of water and a single apple floating on its surface. Manmeet stared ahead and waited. Slowly an automated voice started reciting something from the audio player and as if on cue Manmeet folded her hands behind her, bent down towards the bowl and started to reach for a bite of the apple. It might remind one of the apple bobbing game where the players try and catch floating apples and transfer it to another bowl without using their hands. Only, the situation here was very different.

The automated voice in the background recited wikipedia entries on family honor, kidnapping, interrogation and orgy. At the end of each entry the voice read: Eat the apple. Can I eat the apple. Do I want to eat the apple. Will you serve me the apple. I shall claim the apple. I don’t want the apple. I love eating apple. When they kidnap you and serve you apple-it does not taste like apple. Am I old enough to decide for the apple. Am I educated enough to eat the apple. Am I independent to chose an apple.  What makes you independent. What makes me independent. Defiance is what makes one independent. Not your education. Not your job. Not your salary. Defiance.

For the next 20 minutes, the automated voice regurgitated these definitions always ending it with the refrain “Eat the apple…Not your salary. Defiance”. For the next 20 minutes, Manmeet stoically repeated the act of trying to bite the apple. Her exhaustion was palpable, her gaze fixed on the task at hand. The audience shifted on their feet, silent. These 20 minutes that Manmeet spent on her performance, the audience spent with her; feeling her exhaustion, her defiance, her place under the brightly lit bulb, her vulnerability and her burden.

After the performance came to an end, I remember someone asking me if the artist was trying to eat the apple given the context of her performance. I think I said  she was trying not to. Which brings me to the interpretation of the act. For Manmeet, the act was conceived not at a given moment or as a response to a specific curatorial directive but something that has stayed as a memory-trace while thinking about the notions of kinship and familial duty. Family honor has been a recurring theme for Manmeet. Growing up with stories of honor killings in Punjab and their pronounced visibility in the media now, are different triggers that led to this stage.  The distillation of this particular theme into a potent performance piece was an act remarkable in itself. The litany of the automated voice summed up the normative criterion for evaluating familial duty, reponsibilty and its dead weight that one carries around in the name of a certain sense of ‘good’ sacrifice. The artist’s act of bobbing itself underwent a transformation towards the end of the performance. What in the beginning seemed like an act of acquiescence, became an act of defiance in the end.