A smiling modern mother, a handsome benign father, an ‘agyaakari’ well-adjusted kid. That’s the yuppie Indian dream of nuclear families across the sub-continent. But beneath the veneer of the happy Indian family with customised modern Indian values lies the reality that is only revealed through a prism of augmented reality (AR).
Mumbai-based designer and graphic artist Mira Felicia Malhotra’s mixed media work titled Log Kya Kahenge fuses painting, irony, and virtual reality to give an inside peek within the dynamics of dysfunction in an everyday Indian family. A mundane portrait of a family when seen through the naked eyes morphs into a Tim Biskupian dystopia when seen through the iPad. The handsome loving husband is revealed to be a wife-beater, the wife is depressed, and the ‘son’ is actually gender dysphoric and struggling to come out to the parents. Though the piece was not for sale, it evoked interest among onlookers who flocked to the girl with the iPad accompanying the artwork to see to get a slice of AR.
“People keep revealing to me what happens behind closed doors of Indian families and it is so different from what these families project. They want to appear very ‘normal’ but that is just a projection. It’s always about ‘log kya kahenge’. So the AR became a perfect metaphor for that,” says Malhotra.
Malhotra’s art, despite its use of brand-new Apple-sponsored tech, builds on a tradition of family portraiture that dates back centuries and was pioneered by none other than Raja Ravi Varma. His first commissioned painting was ‘Kizhakke Palat Krishna Menon & Family’ and it was a family portrait of a wealthy Indian family and critics have claimed that it was this portrait that started Varma’s professional career as an artist. Incidentally, the portrait was on display at another wing of the India Art Fair (IAF) 2023 edition held from Feb 9-12 last week, along with the greats. At first glance, the painting appears rather dour but the longer one looks at their faces, the subjects reveal finer details about their individual characters.
In the digital age, artists like Malhotra are taking a more direct approach by interpreting the art for the audience. Family portraits in both paintings and photographs are as much about what is seen as about is what is left out. Here the art is being interpreted for the audience by AR.
The artist, who is currently collaborating with Apple Inc, wanted to create something interactive and so AR became the medium through which the story of the dysfunctional family is told.
While platforms like the IAF are ways for the artists to increase their sales and exposure to the exclusive art buyers and critics circle, digital artists struggle to be taken seriously in the art world. Malhotra states that creating the actual artwork —the painting on canvas— was a way to legitimise the artwork that was created using the AR. Malhotra, however, states that “the real artwork is what you see through the lens of the AR. All the trauma, repressed rage, sexual identities are revealed through the AR”.
Rahul Raghavan, one of the organisers of the Art Fair and a Trustee at the Purushottam Public Trust, an institutional partner for IAF, tells Outlook this was a ripe time for IAF to be encouraging digital artists.
He states, “It’s not just about celebrity artists, people who are high-selling or high net worth. It’s for everyone.
He adds that the entire art show could be an NFT today but insists that the IAF is a “great platform for buyers, collectors, critics, and artists new and old to meet and interact”.
But the digital art space seems to be the future and its potential in the art world is huge. The emergence of digital innovation such as AI art and VR has led to the growth of a milieu of “unique and unfamiliar forms of creativity and extending classical forms of expression such as painting and sculpturing”, as per the authors of The Principles of Art Therapy in Virtual Reality. Nevertheless, those like Malhotra experimenting with AR have to ensure that the technology is used to enrich the narrative rather than just be a slapdash add-on.
“But people need to stop taking digital innovations as a novelty and the response this time at the art fair was encouraging. But artists need to keep pushing the envelope,” Malhotra states.
The digital availability of these pieces of art also makes them an easy platform for expression of feminist resistance and reflection with NFT artists like the Hong Kong-based Claudia Chanhoi using the medium to comment on internet culture from a feminist lens though her phallic artworks that are basically self-commentaries on being a heterosexual woman in the dating app world.
On the other hand, many aspects of digital art remain controversial, raising complex questions about the nature of art, ethics, and the impact of machine learning on originality of creative expression in a rapidly changing digital landscape. The emergence of NFTs (one-of-a-kind artworks situated on the blockchain that can be traded via Ethereum), for instance, has led to both interest and outrage. Critics claim that NFTs are environmentally damaging but digital artists claim the kink can easily be worked out by replacing the currency in which NFTs are traded.
Malhotra points out that though AI art is controversial when it comes to copyright and intellectual property rights issues, it can increase inclusivity for artists with disability.
Among works of digital art of note at the IAF this year was a fledgling installation of a collection of AI-generated photos as representative of a new style of photography “viral” on the internet. Mumbai-based artist Prateek Arora's pigment print photographs depicting a futuristic fusion of Indian ethos and sensibilities with a sci-fi Star Wars-like universe was projected as an attempt to “create new fictional worlds and alternate realities”. The art is a commentary on the “originality” of AI-generated artworks that “mimic photographic images and invite the viewers into wilful deceptions”.
The nuances of what constitutes as the contours of art in the digital world, which mushroomed rapidly in the post-Covid world of locked doors and isolation, need further finetuning now that it has come out from behind its mint packaging into the cut-throat industry that’s the international art world. But the quiet digital art revolution which has already begun to change the definition of art is likely to catch on more.