Contemporary Contingencies

Kathleen Wyma

5 April-26 April

The ugly – be it in the form of something that is there and should not be, or in the form of something that isn’t there and should be – can be – an artistic resource of great value, though it is a value which is quite detached from the beautiful.  Initially it will take the form of offering to the undefended spectator or reader a situation which is fundamentally interesting.


The proposed exhibition entitled Contemporary Contingencies is the second part of a two-fold project that seeks to consider the relationship between the aesthetic and the appalling, or more plainly said, the beautiful and the ugly.  It is a social and art historical fact that beauty was a causality of the 20th century; the ruins of progress and development cast long shadows on aesthetic idealism and ironic and so-called “ugliness” was strategically deployed as the artist’s weapon of choice.  Ugly, of course, is a problematic term at best; it cannot simply be cast as the “other” of beauty.  In attempting to chronicle the historical evolution of ugliness Umberto Eco notes that almost since the dawn of civilization philosophers and theoreticians have actively pursued a stable definition of the beautiful.  Generations have sought a benchmark of aesthetic pleasure by which everything could be judged.  Paradoxically, such sedulousness was not given to finding a consensus for that which was deemed to be ugly.

It is interesting that at the threshold of the 21st century, although many artists continue to eschew the beautiful in favour of artistic expressions that challenge and resist visual pleasure, we are still no closer to understanding what is “ugly.”  We are no closer to reaching a consensus on what it means to be deemed “unsightly.”  To be sure ugliness is a variable designation.  It is relative to social cultural and historical values.  Yet the issue remains; how do we frame artistic engagements which defy or resist canonical notions of the aesthetic?  How do we frame visual expressions that trouble rather  than titillate?  How do we understand our relationship to images that represent the dark side of life, the grotesque or the misshapen?

Beginning in the 1980’s the notion of the anti –aesthetic emerged as the postmodern avatar of the ugly.  The anti-aesthetic successfully brought to the fore domains, ideas and material practices which were normally concealed from sight– they challenged us to look again.  Engagements with the anti-aesthetic do not in and of themselves deny beauty but rather they emerge in sharp divide as social, cultural or political interruptions.  This type of artistic practice resists totalizing visions in order to create spaces for the silenced, the autochthonic, and that which is always present but rarely acknowledged.

Subsequently, contemporary engagements with the ugly are not so much bound up in a dialectical dance with the aesthetic as they are with reclaiming the details that exist at the margins.  Those details which trouble– those details which deny easy placement.  These visual engagements demand a second look at those spaces that are often denied representation.  They actively highlight the gap that exists between the representations of space and representational spaces.  Representations of space are idealized visions of the world, they encapsulate  a stabilized world that is both ordered and manageable. Conversely, representational spaces dynamically contingent and serve to visually articulate a world that is more tentative and driven by the cacophony of contemporary life with all its complexity and chaos.

The operating assumption of this exhibition is one which seeks to consider the anti-aesthetic or the “ugly” as that which marks a critical cultural and artistic position.  As an exhibitionary strategy it hopes to jettison the idea that the ugly is simply the antithesis of the beautiful.  As an index of engagement, this exhibition hopes to advance a more nuanced understanding of the term “ugly” and its application within contemporary artistic practice.  With this in mind, is it possible to think of the ugly as a decisive critical intervention that is relative to the vagaries of historical, social and cultural circumstance?


  • 2012 – Variable operatives- Duo show with media artist PrayasAbhinav – Video installation and lenticular prints. The Guild  gallery, Mumbai
  • 2009 – Syncytium / Cosmopolis Installation – Living off The Grid  curated By MeeraMenezez – Anant Art Gallery, New Delhi,
  • 2009 – Arpeggio for Abbe Faria – Photo Installation – Retrieval Systems Curated by RanjitHoskote – Art Alive Gallery new Delhi
  • 2008 – RORSCHACH BREATH – Dual Channel Video ( Mechanisms of Motion) Anant Art Gallery, New Delhi, ( Third life) Bombay Art Gallery Mumbai
  • 2007 – LIQUID MEMORY new media Installation – Christian Hosp Galleries, Nassereith, Austria
  • 2005 – NRLA – Live Art Festival , Midland, Perth , Australia
  • 2004 – FLOW – Instant Karma Algorithm – Interactive video data projection, New moves, International Live Art Festival, Glasgow -UK
  • 2004 – Zoom ! Art in Contemporary India, Culturgest, Lisbon, Portugal2004 – Along the X axis: video art from India and Pakistan – Apeejay Media Gallery, New Delhi
  • 2003 – FEED – What You See Is What You Get – Interactive video data projection – Khoj, International artists camp, Bangalore, India
  • 2002 – Diary of the Inner Cyborg, Interactive projection, “CODE” Interactive Digital installation – Under Construction – exhibition of Asian Contemporaray art, Organised by Japan Foundation, Tokyo, Japan
  • 2002 – Necessary Illusions with 24 cups of coffee – Interactive projection, New moves International Live Art Festival, Glasgow-UK
  • 2002 – Diary of the Inner Cyborg, Interactive projection, Stephen Lawrence Gallery. Greenwich, London
  • 2002 – “CODE” Interactive Digital installation “Kapital and Karma”, Kunsthalle Wien, Austria
  • 2001 – Video Installation – “Leap Into and Across” – Collaborative workwith a Particle physicist. Venue Tata Theatre, Mumbai
  • 2001 – Interactive Digital Installation “Asystole” – A Diary of the Inner Cyborg Version 0.1 The Fine Art Company Gallery, Mumbai
  • 2000 – Interactive Digital Installation “Necessary Illusions With 24 Cups of Coffee” at Lakeeren Contemporary Art Gallery, Mumbai.
  • 2000 – Interactive Digital Installation “CODE” at National Gallery of Modern Art Mumbai.
  • 2000 – Site specific installation “THE CROSSING” at Army – Navy Building foyer, Kalaghoda Art District, Mumbai.
  • 1999 – Interactive Digital Installation “BRAHMA’S HOMEPAGE” at Lakeeren Contemporary Art Gallery, Mumbai


[1] The first stage of this curatorial initiative is called Reviving the Retinal and will open 1 March at Gallery OED.

[2] Here I am recalling the frame of Reviving the Retinal in which I set the stage with the following quote:

“It looks beautiful,” he said.  “It is beautiful,” Soraya replied, “if beauty is what you are looking for”.  Down there you will find rare alligators and giant woodpeckers and scented cypress trees and carnivorous sundew plants.  But you will also lose your way, and indeed yourself, for it is in the nature of the Great Stagnation to capture all who stray into it by inducing a sleepy laziness, a desire to remain there forever to ignore your true purpose and simply lie down under a tree and rest.

Rushdie’s words lyrically and poignantly underscore the idea that beauty is potentially dangerous.  Indeed, beautiful has the uncanny ability to bait us and to lull us into a deep, complacent, if not deadly, sleep.  Beauty, like the song of the mythical sirens, draws us away from our true purpose and thus should be avoided at all costs.

See, Salmon Rushdie, Luka and the Fire of Life (New York: Random House, 2010), 104

[3] For more see, Umberto Eco, “Introduction,” On Ugliness, trans., Alastair McEwen (London: MacLehose Press, 2011), 8-20.

[4]  Mark Cousins, “The Ugly [part 3]” AA Files, No. 30 (Autumn 1995),68.

[5] Here I draw on ideas put forth by Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans., Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991):38-39.

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