Autumn 2004

Digital cut and paste from India

I Love my India. Stories for a City

Avinash Veeraraghavan. Tara Publishing/Dewi Lewis Publishing, £16.99

‘In a realm of Calvino-esque echoes, the "invisible cities" begin to unravel their presence, at times stripping away their clothes, at times dressing up until the entire space is filled with accessories of powerful and resounding language,’ observes the Italian designer Andrea Anastasio in his introduction to I Love my India by the Bangalore-based artist Avinash Veeraraghavan. The short introduction promises ‘neither a fixed meaning nor a given interpretation of visual signs, but rather a whispering of unending possibilities’, which, one could argue, is postmodern-speak for ‘sweet nothings’.

The book fits neatly within the genre of the visual essay: digital cut and paste from the streets of Bangalore and other Indian cities divided into three loosely themed sections – although Anastasio is keen that we do not perceive this structuring as the ‘closing of intent’.

Opening with a chapter entitled ‘Billboard City’, it presents series of compositions that play upon symbiotic relationships: the real and the imaginary, the producer and the consumer, the fluid and the fixed. Veeraraghavan uses familiar design strategies – surrealist montage and a suggestion of Dieter Roth – yet I would guess the sources of inspiration are more likely to be Designers Republic, Fuel and David Carson.

He finds his most articulate response in the second section entitled ‘Weak Architecture’, which welds together a range of intentional, accidental and temporary surfaces of urban tissue. This collection – of food kiosks, sheds and temples, of rubble, temporary awnings, concrete tower blocks and bamboo scaffolding – toys with culturally derived notions of space. One of the strongest compositions features waste ground reconsidered as a Christo-esque corrugated mall. In another spread, an illustration of layers of skin culled from an educational chart is cleverly juxtaposed with a photograph of the gable end of a building bearing the trace of the previous, now demolished adjoining building. Veeraraghavan reminds us that the architectural membrane, although dead on the surface, contains lives and memories within a network of nerves and cells.

By comparison the final chapter ‘Remote City’, which blends Bollywood, news footage, sci-fi and cartoons, holds fewer surprises. Banks of stills from cable TV, followed by a photograph of torn fly-posters confirm that we have seen all this (many times) before. A series of pages are perforated horizontally across the middle, inviting the viewer to ‘make your own generic advertisement’ – yet this seems unnecessary and suggests the designer is trying too hard.

Such interference in this chapter also serves to compromise the more rewarding work, such as the collage featuring a folk painting of the revolutionary Chandrashekhar Azad, who appears to gun down a Bollywood star. In another composition icons of film and TV are placed opposite an illustration culled from a school first aid chart demonstrating the treatment for a person saved from drowning. In both of these collages the meaning is neither ‘fixed’ nor is it ‘unending’, but rather finds itself, quite seductively, somewhere in-between.

I Love my India celebrates and re-affirms our enduring love of ‘the street’. Yet it is uneven, at times witty and incisive but all too easily drawn into the predictable and derivative. The biggest disappointment, however, is with the clumsy typographic treatment which, given the nature of these particular ‘invisible cities’, has to be considered a missed opportunity.

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