Posted on Feb 23, 2017
As told to Kaveri Acharya
Tanmoy Samanta's images lay shrouded in a veil of mist. These extraordinary shape shifting images are his 'portraits' - are they objects or sentient beings, it is hard to say. Wafting through their soft, pastel world, the portraits and their stories carry Tanmoy's meditations on memory and time. Here are a few excerpts from a conversation with him at TARQ.
How did the title of your show come about?
‘Portraits in Time’ was Veerangana’s idea, but we went back and forth before finalizing on it. Both of us agreed on it because the show is all about portraiture – of a person or an object – anything that is identifiable. But these images also move towards something different, representing not just an object or person. They move into a larger context. The ‘portraits’ are part of an indefinite ‘Time’. We’re not talking about a particular period, recorded event or memory. We’re looking at Time as a constant – it is fugitive and furtive.
Your world of images is very unique. They are surreal and have a dark humor. Where do these images come from? Where were they born?
That’s right, they do have a dark humor. There’s also a conjunction of different elements; a constant interplay of contradicting and complementing in creating the image. And they come from so many different sources. It could be something as insignificant as an object found on the side of the road or in a junkyard. Or something that we keep in a cupboard; perhaps an heirloom – something precious. I also look at literary sources. Then there are images that have stayed with me and recur in dreams, taking different shapes everytime. It’s a constant process, one source leading to another. Sometimes the images come out of the blue but other times, it’s a lot of exercising and experiments in my sketchbook.
In an earlier conversation, we had talked about how memory plays a role in your work and tied into the element of time. But you are quite clear about the distinction you draw between nostaligia, sentimentality and memory. How would you distinguish the idea between memory and nostaligia?
Yes, when I talk about memory or recalling, I’m clear about not attaching a sense of nostalgia or sentimentality. There is no sense of attachment to the object or person that I am trying to portray. And there is a sense of humor, which I believe subsides the sentimentality. Memory and recall are about playing around with sequences and reality.That’s why I say memory plays with itself, it creates its own pattern and plays its tricks on our minds.
How did you arrive upon tempera as your medium of choice?
Well, I always like to build the layers in my painting slowly. The viewer has to linger over the painting to discover the layers and discover subtle details. I’m a laid back kind of a person. When I work I like to lengthen the time I spend with my painting, slowly building the layers in my painting . I like to allow the painting to reveal something to me. Tempera allows me to work at leisure. It also requires patience because a lot of thin layers to need to be worked on and each layer must dry out before the next one can be applied. Unlike, for example, acrylic which needs to be worked on fast because it dries fast. Tempera is also the only water based medium that provides the luxury of working and re-working like oil paint.
Books form an important part of this show alongside your paintings. Can you tell us a little more about your engagement with the ‘Book’ as a concept and object?
I was fascinated with the book format but I did not how to go about incorporating it in my work. I tried making painterly/painted notebooks but I couldn’t do it to my satisfaction. So I started working with the Book as a sculptural expression, an object of intrigue.
My father was going to discard some old books and my first thought was to start painting in them. But I eventually turned to looking at the form and sculptural possibilities of these forgotten books. So I glued the pages together, added the layers of rice paper and slowly the books took on a different identity of a sculptural piece (Relic). The books remained could be identified only by the faint presence of their covers but started referencing an alternate universe and altered universe. The tactility in my paintings is magnified in the book-sculptures. (Relic) looks like something from one of my paintings.
The Banned Books seem to be quite a pointed statement on the power of a book, what lies between bookends and the way this innocuous looking object has threatened the Powers that Be throughout history. So drawing upon this, I’d like to ask – what are your thoughts about the current state of censorship and paranoia that we seem to be surrounded by?
The innocent, harmless form of the book and the massive threat it poses to a mighty government has always interested me. What’s in a book that makes a government feel so threatened. Reading cannot be subject to prohibition. It is an assault on one’s intellect and humanity.
Do you feel that art today, must have a political angle?
I don’t think my works are very directly political. But in a larger context, I feel that everything is political. Human beings are political beings. Any creative work, not just painting, should be progressive. Forward-looking and standing against oppression.