The Magus

– When you need a change, you should change to the opposite, from light to dark, from black to white, says Goutam Ghosh, who has his first show at Standard (Oslo).

Goutam Ghosh. Foto: Kristian Skylstad og Jason Havneraas.
Goutam Ghosh. Photo: Kristian Skylstad and Jason Havneraas.

When you hear the name Goutam Ghosh, you might imagine an orphan outcaste separated from his twin sister at birth. A Brahmin family plucks her out of the orphanage because of her extraordinary green eyes, and she grows up in something like a castle. Goutam, on the other hand, had to struggle through sewers and rejection and poverty and starvation and pain, always feeling that something was missing. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, he gets discovered drawing on a sheet of paper in the slums of Delhi. At the exact right moment a major art professional walks idly by; he takes care of Goutam, encourages his talent, sponsors him and pushes him through a Western art education. But not only that: he also reunites Goutam with his twin sister, and the young artist dedicates his life to drawing and painting what could have been had they stayed together. That story would have fit into the preconceived idea we have of India through literature and Hollywood. The magic place, the tragic place, where absolutely anything can happen to anyone and there is either sunset or sunrise all the time. But no, Goutam Ghosh’s story is nothing out of the ordinary. He decided to study at the art academy in Oslo and Eivind Furnesvik saw his work, decided it was magic and gave him a show at gallery Standard (Oslo). We decided to interview Goutam Ghosh because not many artists from the East fit into the peephole called Scandinavia, so why him?

You came, you saw, you conquered. You have started to collaborate with one of the most interesting galleries in the Western world, almost immediately after coming to Norway?

Well, actually I came to take my master’s degree at the Academy of Fine Art here in Oslo. It took two years to finish and then I extended my stay for another six months, leaving one year ago.

And since then you have been living in Kolkata and preparing for the show you have at Standard?

No, in Prantik (Santiniketan), which is three hours from Kolkata in west Bengal. My parents live three hours in the other direction, in Nabadwip; due to my obligations to them I need to be close. We have a different society to yours and we have to attend to our parents as they get old.

Goutam Ghosh, Double Pigeon, Rabbit, Goat, etc, 2015. Photo: Vegard Kleven.
Goutam Ghosh, Double Pigeon, Rabbit, Goat, etc, 2015. Photo: Vegard Kleven.

Do you find it more beneficial for your practice to be isolated from other artists and the art world rather than surrounded by them and it?

Yes, definitely. I realise that when practicing art that it is good to have some kind of detachment. When I first moved back to India I moved in with my parents, but after a couple of months I realised that my initial idea to live and work at home would not function, neither for me nor for my parents. We have a different kind of schedule you know, when we sleep and eat for example.

Staying up all night like Norwegian artists? What changed for you in Norway, a country that is culturally and environmentally almost the polar opposite to India?

When you need a change, you should change to the opposite, not to a middle point. From light to dark, from black to white, when one part of the world is sleeping, the other is awake and alive. Norway is an opposite in that sense, but also with extra phenomena such as the extreme cold and darkness. The world is divided into two, East and West; but that is a general statement and it is more complicated than that. It is not only a horizontal division but vertical as well. If we take those two lines and try to calculate a mid point, we find it very difficult because there are so many other factors and phenomena that contribute. Before tectonic movements formed the world as it is now, it had a very different, more unified design that has broken up and joined in new ways. When I arrived in Norway I found it different from other European countries; maybe you do not get that feeling as you have travelled so much more, but when I came, I got an immediate sense of the folklore here and how it has been protected.

I used to dream of being in a landscape covered in snow and wearing a leather coat as I stood in it. I went to a shop after I arrived and saw that coat and bought it so that my dream and my reality could match – and in that respect I spent an enormously fruitful two years here. What I really wanted to pursue was a certain kind of belief, and Norway has a potential as a place to give protection to thought and not just culture. This kind of society produces a security that can allow a creative entity to grow differently. I don’t know exactly what I mean by “differently” as it is still not really clear to me what I was pursuing; simply that there are many things that I collected and internalised by being here.

You mentioned that the folklore here in Norway is protected; would you say that the folklore in India has been corrupted by colonialism and so on?

Yes, there have been many interventions and interactions from the beginning of our history, because our sacred places have been exposed to many influences from north and south, east and west. Colonialism played a part, but there is much more than that.

You have written about how religion, science and magic were once a unified field of knowledge that has subsequently been divided into separate entities. In your work you seem to be pulling those areas of knowledge back together into one?

No, I can’t pull them together, that is not a capacity I have. But there must be a certain culture that I am looking for, maybe that is what I have presented; not necessarily connecting things, but there are definitely some links there among mythology, technology, politics and so on. I think that the world can be something else, as I am sceptical about the scenario I have and I am trying to find my way within it. Mass knowledge was divided into religion, science and magic, but why only three categories? That is always the danger with categorisations: when you give something a label it sticks forever. We should remember that if we are going to categorise things we should do so in that moment and for the purpose for which they exist. As soon as they have served their purpose, we should wipe categories and terminologies clean so that when the next person comes across whatever it was we categorised, they can look at it without prejudice. Everybody should have the freedom to see things in their own way and forge their own path, which is difficult when we have such a burden of history concerning those categories.

Instead of bringing them together, you are abstracting them?

Yes, I am shuffling them so that they can oscillate from one to another. I do not mean that just because the unified field has been split into three, it should be brought back together as one. It could be some other form as well, but I cannot propose what that might be. I abstract the terms because their relationship to each other is so dynamic and there are so many links among them, so much noise and chaos that I think it will take a long time to sort them out. Wise men speak one or few words, and I am not wise, so I generally talk much more. It is the same with drawing, whether you make a single line or multiple lines. I don’t think I have the ability to make things exact enough to comprehend them immediately; there are not so many solutions in what I do, but the results are very much human and thus contain faults. If I managed to sum up every equation today, I would have no idea what to do tomorrow; there would be nothing left if I had realised everything and that makes me very scared.

Goutam Ghosh, Scoop (Tool), 2014. Photo: Vegard Kleven.
Goutam Ghosh, Scoop (Tool), 2014. Photo: Vegard Kleven.

So you are not interested in entropy, it’s not alchemy? It’s not magic?

Well, the body of work I am showing at Standard can be divided into three parts that are in dialogue with each other: first, in my paintings I am trying get away from the form, focussing purely on its quantum of surface and pure colour. Secondly, there are drawings referencing formal mathematics or diagrams to do with calculation and logic, like how to inhale or exhale, how energy goes in and out, calculations of mass and energy and so on; but all of this is made without any outside references, just from my experience of things. Thirdly, I have made some drawings with minimal lines. All three groups of works were made in parallel during the same time period, so they are in fact all the same as a self-mechanism, oscillating from one to another. When I see them together, I sometimes get a sense of comprehension and sometimes not. I cannot think of everything as “one unified whole” until I go through its complexity, but that has a lot to do with how I live my material life as well. The most meaningful idea is to reduce the amount of material; it can be a desert or something else that you can draw with one simple line.

Duchamp talks about that; instead of aspiring to a four-dimensional world as we already have a three-dimensional world, he says he’s more interested in a one-dimensional world.

Is that like a Disney world?

Talking about Duchamp I also think about titles – and looking at your work, I saw that your titles change the images significantly; they are transformed because the titles are describing what is in them. The motif is not always obvious but when you read what it is you have a moment of realisation and it becomes obvious.

Yes, it gives me another option or layer to add to my works, and I like to play with that rather than leaving them untitled, which would only be killing a potential facet. Some people use “untitled” as it leaves work open to interpretation, but I don’t like to go in that direction and prefer to maintain some control of the meaning. It is like naming your children.

Can you define magic?

There are two kinds of magic, black and white. Mathematics and physics become important in magic because somehow through them we got to know how to manipulate gravity. To discover a cosmic truth is an enormously pleasurable, you might say magical thing, but when we learn to reproduce that pleasure for our own material benefit, to fix the experience into a category, then we are looking at black magic.

Can magic exist in a materialistic world?

No, but today we have this smartphone, for example, and of course that is magic, all these apps and so on, they are magic.

Goutam Ghosh, 2014.
Goutam Ghosh, 2014.

Black magic?

Magic usually has its own mechanisms and equations that it works through. These new tools and technologies represent our inability to communicate with each other, and that is why we have to buy these things. Somehow our ability to communicate is handicapped by these technologies; it is as if we cannot find an efficient way to communicate that does not need electricity or exploit our resources.

Is the concept as important in Indian art as it is in Western art?

The concept is always there, you couldn’t show me a work that does not have a concept; the idea of conceptual art is politicised and part of a power structure.

You are now exhibiting in the most conceptual commercial gallery in Scandinavia, maybe the most powerful too. How does it feel to be contextualised with all the Standard artists?

I don’t know them personally, but I have seen some of their work. I was quite surprised and scared when Eivind took me on. The gallery looks so neat and clean and super professional. I doubted my ability to reach those heights.

That is interesting, as I notice that several of your contemporaries from the art academy are making work that one could easily imagine looking good in Standard. I won’t make a judgement as to whether that is cynical speculation or simply the natural order of our times, but what is interesting is that you are not doing that and you got in.

Yes, I was a little suspicious as to why I was chosen.

I think your work communicates with Kim Hiorthøy’s and has some of the same naïvety. What role does naïvety play in your work?

Naïvety is a political word, but for me it can be seen as the maximum limit of a work through which I can collapse it, and then re-collect myself from there. To be naïve is to allow yourself to go onward, so the work is no longer about right and wrong. If there were no naïvety and I drew a straight line then that would be correct and if I drew a curved line that would be wrong.

You kind of just summed up the content of The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño…

I say this because governments want you to behave in a certain way, any society gives you a certain amount of freedom, but that is always restricted and you may feel you have limited space to grow. Most of the time if you follow those rules and regulations you will spend your whole life drawing straight lines. Naïvety within your private space is a very good idea; my curved line on my paper or canvas is not harming anybody. That allows you to express yourself and live exactly the way you want to; your entire system is cleared and that is very refreshing. I can empty myself of all the influences I get from different sources and that is why this act of naïvety is so important and political.

But can you decide to be naïve? Isn’t that something you just are?

Well, I have to allow myself to be what I am; if I am naïve it becomes a question of ethics that is easily misunderstood; but is naïvety being stupid? I don’t think so.

When writing about Eichmann, Hannah Arendt proves that evil is another form of stupidity; can we say the same when it comes to aesthetics? Do you think you can use naïvety to be political? That is very hard for me to understand; are you making your work more naïve than you necessarily are as a person?

Goutam Ghosh, Lime Stone, 2014. Photo: Vegard Kleven.
Goutam Ghosh, Lime Stone, 2014. Photo: Vegard Kleven.

If we see naïvety as chaos, we have to remember that chaos also has its own rules and activations. I guess people think being naïve is irresponsible, but there are many poles that cannot be clearly defined and there is a societal urge not to be naïve. If I buy a plane ticket I have to go in a straight line to the airport or I will miss my flight, so naïvety will not work in that situation. But in my work, whenever I try not to be naïve I always end up in a mess, so it is better to try and understand the relationship between the straight and curved lines and make harmony between them. In some of my work you can see that I have used a graph structure that I see as being geo-political; I then mess around within it and it creates an amount of harmony, which means it can be both naïve and take an active role in society. I don’t want to disappear completely into the forest; I want to keep the friction between the two sides.

How does one of your works begin: with a naïve impulse or a complex idea?

It is a collective impulse that leads me towards the work; and you may say collective in terms of a combination of information, consciousness, morality, expression and so on. We all have the ability to interpret the starting point in our own way and it is not fixed. I cannot put my finger on where a particular impulse started, I think it was designed during the big bang and was finally realised in the naïveties you see now, and it was meant to be.

When we go to a new place we don’t see problems, we look for magic and eureka moments. I think what you are saying has an equivalence there. You came here and found a natural space that is connected to the place you come from?

Exactly. But these points will not come into the brochures that nations produce; there is so much propaganda, colour, race and flags. What I am proposing is so much more abstract and cannot be absorbed by the state because it’s a dream. For example if I were to travel to Norway by ship, it would take two months and be a massively different perceptive experience to that of getting on a plane and taking a few hours. Your body is not ready for the transition and it takes several days to adjust and feel normalised. I don’t know if I am saying that we need to slow down and take more time travelling so as to fight against the fact that the world has become too fast. I think there is just need for coherence when it comes to dealing with space and body politics and that that needs to be taken into account.

So you need more time?

I guess so; I am not so sharp and fast.

Goutam Ghosh, Conductive, 2014.
Goutam Ghosh, Conductive, 2014.

From Norway, India looks like a very traditional society. I was wondering how that society reacts to what you are bringing back to it from here; in terms of what you gained or lost through your Western education?

When I got back to India the reaction of people I know was: “you have not changed, usually when people go away for a long time they change.” That made me sad and it made me think about what kind of change they wanted to see, in my appearance or something else?

Like Star Trek, latex clothes and so on, you came back from the future? It’s like Norwegians going to India to spend two years finding themselves. Meditation camp, climbing a mountain and getting food poisoning and clichés like that. Then they come home with dreadlocks, jungle pants, a nice tan, dark rings under their eyes and are 20 kilos lighter. But you, coming from the other direction, didn’t change?

Of course in the seven hundred and something days (the sum total days I stayed in Norway), a general evolution of human life took place, but whether that is visible is not my problem. I feel happy when I think in terms of my personal evolution, of meeting my aspirations and dreams. Maybe change is not the right word as I think change must be good or bad; if you look at it neutrally, it is more to say that I have moved on and evolved. I have made some very good inspiring friends like Tiago Silva, Susanne Winterling and Endre Tveitan; meeting with them in this cosmopolitan environment seemed like a cosmic meeting of souls that would not have been possible if I had restricted myself by staying in India. It was getting very hard there as the field of knowledge is often based on quite literal interpretations of quantifiable information. I really felt ignorant and suffocated by the intellectual race in India and here I must admit my naïvety once again. Everybody there is so extremely well-read and has such concrete text-based answers to questions that I am often lost and unable to compete. That kind of knowledge is not important to me, I become nervous and afraid to talk to people about my work because I don’t know much in the terms they expect. If I am ever asked to give a presentation in India I would be paranoid about not knowing any answers and making a fool of myself. “Do you know this artist’s work?” they will ask, “No, I do not,” I will answer, “Well go away and read and come back when you know.”

Have you ever presented your work in India?

There was one occasion in Sarai in New Delhi where I had a presentation of my work and the experience was a total mess that I don’t want to remember. My life in India was saved by Jeebesh Bagchi, who is a member of RAQS Media Collective. I knew nothing about them, but he gave me a breakthrough and taught me that I could move away from my understanding of representational politics. He gave me a book about Francis Bacon, but I forget the author’s name. That little push that Jeebesh gave me changed my view on things so I could move on, get out of India and find my own way.

We all need someone like that in our lives.

Yes, he was like the hermit who saved me, gave me the push, for which I am eternally grateful.

Goutam Ghosh, Carbon Monoxide, 2014.
Goutam Ghosh, Carbon Monoxide, 2014.

What do people think back home when you tell them you are having a major show in Norway?

I have not told any of them because it would make so much noise in my life.

So you keep those worlds separate?

Yes. I’m sure I would need to answer so many unnecessary questions that are not going to help me at all. I don’t think I am a strong enough person to fight against those kinds of tough questions.

Do you limit yourself by only using the mediums you work with: painting, drawing and film?

Painting and drawing are very useful tools that help me to understand things and of course it is the same with film. I have some other plans that I do not really want to jinx by talking about, but they involve some radical landscape projects which fit into the fact that my work is often about landscape and ecology, natural resources and so on.

What was the most disturbing truth that was revealed to you by moving to the West?

”The West” and Norway are two very different things. The moment I arrived in Oslo from Berlin last week for example, everything changed in terms of quietness and emptiness. Personally, I am a big fan of darkness and cold; the boredom they allow is extremely productive for me, a positive disturbance in that sense. What bothers me is that the gaze from Norway or the West towards the third or developing world needs to be more honest in the sense that we must recognise that we are different and not equal; we need to admit that and only then can we move on. To say otherwise is a lie, so let’s fight first and then we can become friends. I’m brown, you are white, let’s just say it and then we can move on. The tensions of our reality should not be hidden, you are this and I am that, now let’s find some common ground.

Okay, then let me be more prudent: What about the caste system in India?

Well it is much better with new generations, not so many people give a shit, but it is of course still there; there are so many ethnic groups and so many different languages.

Does it still play a role, even in the art world?

Not obviously, but I guess that some people have more knowledge than others due to an expensive education, and knowledge is power.

What about the “caste system” in Norway?

I don’t think there is any such thing here. It is so nice to see how this country works in terms of gender equality, how all people are treated equally and the generosity of all the people I encounter. Also the generosity of the state, how everybody has security and nobody is left behind; it is a really amazing thing to see for somebody coming from India. I have heard a lot of people complain that the system is not as good as it used to be and there is far more inequality, but I do not see that as I was not here before.

It has changed, through materialism. When you get more money, you become corrupt, you have too many opportunities and become spoiled, but that is something universal. The Norwegian attitude has changed in the last ten years or so. We are always going to be different though, apart from the rest, like Iceland. In the same way Britain is always going to be arrogant. That is why the British managed to colonise India so easily, because they could understand, manipulate and exploit the caste system as they recognised it through the lens of their own class system. Norway could only colonise the North and South Poles because we understand snow.

Goutam Ghosh, 2014.
Goutam Ghosh, Serving From Third Court, 2014.

To finish, what question do you want to answer or what statement do you want to make?

Well, I would like to shine a light on Buddhism and Sufism in the context of geo-politics and religious war in the world. Buddha never wanted to become a god, but people turned him into one. He said we are not going to talk about “God” and his influence was spreading in India in such a way that it was becoming a threat to the Hindu authorities. Therefor they turned him into a god so that he would just be one of many; they made him into exactly the opposite of what he actually was. Anyway, his influence did not end up spreading in India but went north and east towards China and Japan. I think the realisation of Buddha’s ideas or the Sufi way of thinking make a great deal of sense for the various crisis situations that currently exist in the world today. The three major faiths are held back by the fact that they are religions; if they were to take God out of the equation the world could function much better during the present crises we have. Buddha just gave us ideas, and if we could do the same thing with Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and so on, we would have a whole spectrum of ideas to pick and choose from in terms of how to live life, to decide what is ethical and what is moral. For example Ghandi’s way of working through non-violence was very Buddhist, and although he was criticised for certain things I only look at his good side because of course he was human like the rest of us and had failings.

I have the same relationship to Barack Obama. I forgive everything naïvely.

I was reading a letter that Einstein wrote to Sigmund Freud about the start of the Second World War, asking if he could reflect on all the violence and destruction in terms of the unconscious. Freud wrote back saying that he was very sorry he had to say it, but war and violence is a very basic human instinct that has always and will always exist. I was reading that and I was thinking as I read about whether he had encountered Buddha or not? But then at the end of the letter he describes how Buddhist principles are a potential way to cope with that current situation.

Is art a religion?

Yes, definitely, that is what Buddha said.

About art?

Not about art, but that your work is your religion.

So are you religious?

If you are asking me if I am quote unquote “religious”, then of course not, but yes, my work is my religion. It is what I believe in, manifested in objects.

Goutam Ghosh, Art Effects, 2014. Photo: Vegard Kleven.
Goutam Ghosh, Art Effects, 2014. Photo: Vegard Kleven.