The Rupee Ganesha Project: A currency collage and social sculpture
By C. K. Wilde and M.T. Karthik
with the help of M. Devanathan, K. Kabali, K. Murthy, A. Navanidam, S. Sekar
Date made: Monday, December 18, 2006 to Sunday, February 18, 2007
Location made: Periya Mudaliar Chavady, Tamil Nadu, India
Materials used: Indian Rupees, PVA Glue, Vegam Teak Wood, Matte Varnish
Size: One meter rondo
Abstract for the project
The artists created an atelier in a Tamil coastal village in South India, and produced there a culturally syncretic image of the Hindu Lord Ganesha made entirely from pieces of Indian Rupees in circulation: a currency collage.
Cultural commitments to the location and its regional calendar were made a priori, to achieve harmony with the people living in the Tamil village while producing the work. Specific regional cultural practices informed the sculpture as it was being created. Certainly villagers attitudes toward Ganesha were embodied from currency collected in their village. The project directly engaged local artists and laborers to create a carved wooden frame for the collage: a two-inch thick, one meter rondo, cut from a single trunk of vengam wood and handcrafted. 16 Tamil villagers were employed by the project. The artists brought or shipped special materials and financed the project themselves. The Rupee Ganesha was completed at 7:00pm, Saturday, February 17, 2007 in the village of Periya Mudaliar Chavady, Tamil Nadu, India.
History of The Rupee Ganesha Project
In January of 1998, M.T. Karthik and C.K. Wilde met and signed a lease on 1200 square feet in a disused warehouse building in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, transforming the building with other artists into live/work studios from which they conducted their work. The discussion of a cross-cultural, site-specific collaboration to take place in Tamil Nadu began in August of 1998 in Brooklyn and was developed in earnest after 2003. In the intervening years, Karthik and Wilde collaborated on many projects including books, cds, posters, sculptural pieces, a mural, and site specific performance and installation pieces. Many of these works reside in public and private collections throughout the United States and Europe. Between them, the artists have visited many countries in the Northern Hemisphere and some parts of the Global South, often sharing sound and visual information, and composing and publishing multimedia pieces around the globe via the internet. The artists had never before traveled together. Nine years from the time they met, the opportunity arose to do so in realizing The Rupee Ganesha Project in Tamil Nadu.
The a priori cultural commitments made by C. K. Wilde and M.T. Karthik:
Periya Mudaliar Chavady, Tamil Nadu, India was chosen in June of 2006 for several reasons:
1. Tamil Nadu is an orthodox Shivaite Hindu state where Ganesha worship is widely practiced. In coastal regions of the state, under the Pallava Dynasty of the 8th century, monolithic sculptures of Ganesha and other icons, were carved from massive outcroppings (Mahaballipuram). As seat of the Cholla Dynasty five hundred years later, the region was renowned for bronze iconic idols, not solely as monumental temple structures, but in smaller stature and multiple, for domestic use in worship. In 1979-80, Ms. Saroja Nagarathnam of Madras accomplished a unique contemporary example of a Ganesha project- also conducted in Tamil Nadu - an image made entirely from the repetition of tiny scripted Tamil lettering of three mantra of praise to the deity.
2. The atelier is in the center of a village, surrounded by huts, necessitating daily interaction with Tamil villagers and cultural immersion.
3. The atelier has controlled environments satisfactory for production, basic living facilities and access to water and power.
4. One of the artists is Tamil, from an established Tamil and Hindu orthodoxy, with some fluency in language and culture.
Daily vegetarian meal cooked by A. Navanidam- a Tamil from a neighboring fishing village- in keeping with regional South Indian diet (additionally pastas, muesli, some fish and eggs, regional dishes).
Squat toilet/no paper waste
In the ritual of tonsure, one removes all the hair from the head and face in order to approach God with sincerity in seeking blessing. The date of our tonsure ceremony was extremely auspicious: the first night of a new moon on the winter solstice: the shortest day of the year. Mailam koil is a medium-sized Muruga/Ganesh temple on a hill in the rural agricultural district northwest of Puducherry.
We arrived, left our chappals in the car, walked barefoot up to the large, main temple, lit paraffin, saw the swami, gave token, confirmed we could have the blessing done, then walked back down the steep steps, through Mailam village to the old temple and koil tank- that's "at least thousand years old," as per Gopi, our driver, a local resident who assisted with translation. We were the only two heads this day. We bought two blades, two towels and then had every blade of hair removed. Then to the koil tank to bathe. We performd puja with the elder swami at the stone Ganesha temple nearest the tank- prayers, offerings, garlands, bell-ringing, chanting, lit paraffin and kumkum placed on our foreheads by the swami. Translation was swift and mostly in body language, very few spoken words. But at last, the swami asked pointedly, in Tamil, if I "knew Ram." I said I did without hesitation, eye to eye. He then asked us to sit in contemplation. Gopi tried to ignore the swami, but I intervened politely to say in Tamil we should respect him and suggested to CKW we should follow the swami's direction, translating that we were meant to spend a minute in deep contemplation on God, Ram. We sat to one side in the temple and considered Ganesha for a time. After some time had passed, we rose, genuflected, and made our way back up to the main temple to see the swami there for the blessing." The younger swami at the main koil had a beautiful face: wise eyes, kind, clear energy and a demeanor of utter calm and measured action. After the puja we walked around the temple- a common practice here. The precise timing of our tonsure ensured that the length of our hair and the size of the waxing moon exactly measured our progress. For weeks, we could always easily see how long we had been at work simply by looking at the night sky or any reflective surface.
Meeting Date: Friday, December 22, 2006 (an auspicious day)
Attendees: C.K.W, M.T.K, K. Kabali, K. Muruli, M. Sekar, K. Murthy, A. Navanidam, Gowri-amma, Girba, S.Ali, others.
With: Refreshments, laptop, a world map
Languages: Primarily in Tamil, but also in English.
Re: Full disclosure of the process to Tamil colleagues
It was important to the artists that workers involved with production should understand the project before beginning and be allowed to give input and discuss the merits and weaknesses of undertaking the task or to refuse to participate.
The meeting was an abstract and semi-lucid affair, spilling between languages, body language, maps and digital images. It was somehow successful on many levels. CKW's previous currency collages were discussed liberally, with details provided by images on the laptop. The discussion was vernacular, pedestrian and clear. The explanation of the facts was direct. We used the map and computer to illustrate as simply as we could where CKW had come from most recently (Aeoteoaroa). We told then how we met in New York and came to be here to do this, showing images on the laptop. We discussed the recent critical success of the currency collages in New York, and the new project in some detail and shared an image of the Ganesha sketch. Several commented with amazement and incredulity at "the idea". All expressed support. Particular interest was paid to the images we had already taken of documentation of the wood cutting process and there was a curiosity and interest by all. Still, several attendees seemed sure this was a joke or a fantasy.
At the end of the meeting, a sudden, short discussion of politics arose as a result of asking if everyone knew what and where "America" is- most didn't. Some immediately identified with the word "America," and within seconds, with the events of September 11- the planes into the towers, of which all promptly showed awareness. We made only a brief disclosure that we were two witnesses to the events in Manhattan. There was a short silence and heads nodding, whispered explanations in Tamil all around, but when we didn't say more and were non-plussed, Murthy joked about comedians saying "What, Bush? You still haven't found bin laden? Get a bicycle! (laughter)... put petrol." and Kabali- "bin Laden is just a man who didn't like tall buildings- I also don't like tall buildings." and Girba saying, "USA first gave bin Laden money ... in 1986." The evening ended with brilliant stars in a moonless sky.
Artist Statement by C. K. Wilde
The goal of the project is the creation of a currency collage of Ganesha, the Hindu God of the marketplace and compassion - an artwork emblematic of dialog between India and the west.The work was conceived jointly by artists M.T. Karthik and C.K. Wilde as an opportunity for, among other reasons, broadening cultural discourse between eastern and western practices of art.The artists created a new "development" model for this cross-cultural artifact establishing an atelier within an Indian village (the "heart" of India according to M.K.Gandhi) in which the services of local artists and craftspeople are engaged in the production of the artwork.Wrapped into the production of the artwork is the inherent mutual value of artistic exchange between cultures. The community has opportunity to cross-pollinate procedural dialects and methodologies in the "temporary autonomus zone" of the atelier.
Rather than a topdown development model, the model of the Rupee Ganesha Project is horizontal in nature, respectfully living within a South Indian community and engaging it through an egalitarian project. "It takes a village" to raise a child, so too this work of art required a community. The skein of relations that bind us and support us is generally overlooked in the western canon of art in service to the idea of singular authorship (like Karel Fabritius, known as Rembrandt's "assistant" rather than his collaborator). Antidotal to this perspective is the Hindu example of communal relations expressed over thousands of years in the villages of India.
The Hindu and Buddhist study of subject-object relations and causality have produced a philosophic substantiation of perspectives born from diligent observation and reflection of Indian village life. The perspective that life is a collaboration we all share responsibility for, that the self and mind are fluid and knowable, that our bodies are but a sleeve for the soul, that the energy we expend and produce is part of a closed system of relations, that "The Other" is in truth the same as the "Self", and that the differentiation of identity is a blessing or gift.
Freedom from this cycle of incarnation only happens through the discipline of personal responsibility for our actions or acts (karma). We engage and are engaged by this world of "maya" or illusion, and our acts have causal effect for oneself and the community at large.The creation of a sculpture of wood, paper, and glue therefore has another invisible sculpture hovering over it - in the skein of communal relations that produced it. So it is with the Rupee Ganesha. The person who cooks for the workers is as important as the artist in the production of the art.
Artist Statement by M.T. Karthik
A remarkable recent study of the Hindu caste system by Louis Dumont (Homo hierarchicus, Paris, 1966) is surprising confirmation, for me at least, of the remarks I have ventured with regard to difficulties of being atheistic in the West and monotheistic in India. This French Orientalist points out that castes are not units or elements in the same sense as the proletariat, the bureaucracy, the Army, or the Church: that is, corporations, social bodies, each different from all others. Castes cannot be described as substances; they are not classes, but a system of relations. Each caste, naturally, has its own distinguishing characteristics: its own territory, occupation, function, diet, marriage customs, ceremonies, rituals, and so on. But these features are not what make up a caste; they define its relation to other castes. They are indicative of its position within the whole, characteristics distinguishing it rather than constituting it. What constitutes caste is the over-all system; what defines it is its position within the system.
This conception is the exact opposite of ours: to our way of thinking, the individual is the basis of society, and both the individual and society are self-sufficient units. In the West, society is either a collection of individuals or a totality, something resembling a collective individual. When politicians call upon the people to "march forward as one," they are not merely mouthing a cliche' ; they are saying that the group is an individual, what the English tradition calls, "the body politic." To us, the nation is a projection of the individual; in India, the individual is a projection of society. Our public law is embodied in a constitution, a word that derives from the Latin word stare: to stand firmly and immovably in one spot. It denotes the collective will to stand together as a single entity, as an individual. There is nothing similar in India. Every political and moral concept in that country- from the idea of a monarchical rule to the hierarchical system that extends from the varnas to dharma- have nothing to do with the idea of society as the common will. In the languages of India there is no word to designate the reality that we call a nation.
The basic unit of Western thought is an individual entity, whether metaphysical (being), psychological (the self), or social (nation, class, political bodies). This model, however, does not correspond to reality, and reality continually destroys it: dialectics, poetry, eroticism, mysticism, and in the realm of history, war and internal conflicts are the violent, spontaneous forms whereby Otherness reminds the One of its existence. The great discovery of modern thought in many different disciplines - fom physics and chemistry to linguistics, anthropology and psychology- has in fact been the discovery of relationship; a totality of unstable, evanescent particles has taken the place of an ultimate irreducible element. The basic unit is now multiple, contradictory, insubstantial, ever-changing; hence contemporary thought has failed to corroborate the suppositions underlying the central traditions of the West.
The archetype, the basic intellectual framework of India, by contrast, is plurality, flux, relation; just as elements are combinations, the individual is a society. The notions of interdependence and hierarchy are a natural consequence of the basic idea of relation. We look upon the system as an individual; the Hindus look upon the individual as a system. Our notion of a community of nations is that of an assembly of equals, at least potentially if not in actual fact; underlying the caste system is the concept of a hierarchical interdependence.In the West, individualism, equality, rivalry; in India, relation, interdependence, hierarchy. The idea of substance underlies our concepts; the caste system lacks substance: it is a chain of relations. To say that the world of castes is a world of relations is tantamount to saying that:
"La caste particulire, l'homme particulier, n'ont pas de substance; ils existent empiriquement, ils n'ont pas d'tre É L'individu n'est pas. C'est pourquoi, pour les hindous eux-mmes, ds quĠils prennent un point de vue substantialiste, tout, y compris les dieux, est irrel: l'illusionisme est ici en germe, sa popularit et elle du monisme ne sauraient tonner."
Louis Dumont, Homo hierarchicus, Paris, 1966
"Time and again, my Hindu friends have tried to explain polytheism to me by means of a simple, and essentially European, formula: the gods are manifestations of the divine. But this explanation does not tell us why the gods of India change name from region to region and from caste to caste. To call this phenomenon an instance of syncretism is to offer a handy label for it rather than an interpretation of it; this syncretism would require explanation in turn."What is more, the position of the gods in the hierarchy and their meaning also change ... These changes are related to the calendar: there is a rotation of divinities, a divine revolution similar to that of the planets. The explanation offered by modern Hindus- that the names change but the god remains- is only a partial one, and moreover, it too is European: it endows the divinities with substance, turns them into individuals."The truth would seem to be the exact opposite: the gods are interchangeable because they are nonsubstantial. They are at one the same and different because they have no autonomous existence, their being is not really being; it is the embodiment of a momentary conjuncture of relations. The god is merely a cluster of attributes- propitious, harmful and indifferent- being actualized within a given context. The meaning of the god- the actualization of this set of attributes or that- depends on his position within the overall system. Since the system perpetually rotates, the position of the gods continually shifts.
"There is another peculiar feature: the god is almost always accompanied by consorts. Duality, a basic feature of Tantrism, permeates all of Hindu religious life: male and female, pure and impure, left and right. Lastly, the god is the possessor of a "vehicle" - Siva's bull, Ganesha's rat, Durga's lion- and is surrounded by a multitude of familiars and parasites. Each couple rules over a great throng of minor divinities: not individuals but relations. The Hindu pantheon is a hierarchy of crowds, a system of systems. It thus more or less mirrors the caste system."Nonetheless, it would be an error to consider it a mere reflection of the social structure, as proponents of an elementary sort of Marxism might maintain, for the caste system depends in turn on the distinction between the pure and the impure. Hindu society is religious and Hindu religion social. Everything fits together. The divine is not the godhead; nor is it an impersonal substance, a fluid. The divine is a society; a tissue of relations, a magnetic field, a phrase. The gods are something like atoms, the cells, or the phonemes of the divine.
"I would like to offer criticism of Dumont's theory here. It seems to me that something essential is missing in his book on Hinduism: the description of what distinguishes human society from divine society. Some distinctive feature, note or sign must separate the sacred from the profane, the pure from the impure, the castes from the divine multitudes. Dumont tells us how the system functions and describes its structure, but he fails to tell us what it is. His definition is not inaccurate: rather it is formal, and therefore disregards the content of the phenomenon being studied."
"The question may be stated, rather roughly, as follows: what is the divine? The answer, one as old as the Upanishads, is simple and clear-cut: there is an impersonal being, forever identical with itself, a being impermeable to change that simply is, in which all gods, all realities, times, and beings are dissolved and reabsorbed: Brahma."This notion reduces the heavenly and the earthly world, time and space, to a phantasmagorical unreality. Later on, a complementary notion appears: the being of man, Atman, is identical with the being of the world. Hence the subject is entirely eliminated. This absolute monism requires a no less absolute denial of reality and time. What is more, this unalterable and indestructible being can be defined only in negative terms. It is not this or that or the other: neti, neti. It is neither the whole nor its parts; it is neither transcendence nor immanence; it is nowhere and yet it is always everywhere.
"Negation opened the door to Samkhya pluralism and Buddhism: the one step required was to apply the criticism of change and reality to the idea of Brahma and its correlative, Atman. Buddhism followed the road to its very end: there is neither being nor individual selves; everything is causal relation. "Samkhya pluralism postulated a godless nature (prakriti) and individual souls (purusha). The fan of Hindu thought unfolds between these two extremes: an absolute monism and an equally absolute pluralism. However profound the differences between these many positions may appear to be, they are all dissolved or reconciled in the final phase of philosophical meditation: moksha, nirvana. The annihilation, the reabsorption, or the liberation of the individual ego is tantamount to the disappearance of one of the terms. Change, duality, time, the illusory reality of the self are done away with. Bhakti itself- amorous union of the worshiper with his deity- is no exception: however individual and substantialized Krishna may appear to us to be, he is merely an avatar of Vishnu, a manifestation of impersonal being, as the well-known and impressive passage in the Bhagavad-Gita tells us.
"The enormous effort of speculative thought to endow the divine system with substance, to convert a relationship into distinct and self sufficient being, culminates either in an explicit monism (the Vedanta) or an implicit monism (Madhyamika Buddhism). In all cases, the One wins out. This description would appear to be an oversimplification, but in fact it is not too far from the truth: for all these pluralisms, first, lead to the idea of moksha or nirvana, which cancel out the difference between them; and secondly, the opposition between Hinduism and Buddhism- in their most extreme forms: the monism of Shankara and the relativism of Nagarjuna- is a complimentary one. The white and black version of a single line of thought: two parallel arguments, pursued with equal rigor, the one proving the unreality of everything that is not Being, the other, the unreality of everything that is not Change. The affirmation of Being is arrived at through a series of absolute negations: neither this nor that. The affirmation of Change is also negative and absolute: "In primitive Buddhism all elements are interdependent and real; in the new Buddhism, they are unreal because they are interdependent." [T. Scherbatsky, Buddhist Logic (1962)].
"Being and sunyata (absolute emptiness) are identical: there is no way to speak of them except uttering the syllable no. In Sanskrit, zero may be spoken of as either sunya (empty) or purna (full)."We now have a clearer idea of what the shift from relation to unity entails. Relation disappears in one of two ways: it is either absorbed in Being or dissolved in non-Being. It disappears but it is not transformed into substance. Neither the Being of the Vedanta nor the emptiness of Buddhism is the ground or source of phenomenal reality: rather, they dissolve it. man does not begin with them; he ends with them. They are the final truth. They are not at the beginning, like being, energy, spirit, or the Christian God; they are beyond, in a region that only negation can describe. They are liberation, the unconditioned; neither death nor life, but freedom from the chain of birth and death. In fact, they are not ontological concepts at all, at least not in the Western sense. Translating Brahma as Being and sunyata as Emptiness is something worse than a misuse of language; it is a spiritual infidelity.
"one of the results of this way of thinking is that the problems of time and creation are relegated to the background. The notion of a time that is irreversible and the correlative notion of a god who is a creator of this time are ideas that, strictly speaking, play no part in the logic of the system. They are superfluous ideas, concept that are the products of illusion or sectarian curiosities.
"The idea of a personal god admittedly plays a very important role in Hindu religious life, but, as I have already noted, this god always appears as a manifestation or an avatar of another divinity who in turn is only a relation in the whole tissue of relations going to make up the divine system. Within Hindu speculation as a whole, deism is a secondary phenomenon. It is so in two respects: in the first place, as Hajime Nakamura points out, "the ultimate Absolute presumed by the Indian is not a personal god but an impersonal Principle. [Nakamura Hajime, Ways of Thinking of Eastern Peoples, 1964], and second, such a deity is a creator by error or inadvertence, a god misled by the power of illusion (maya). Or, as Nakamura puts it: 'There is no maya in God, himself but when he created the world ... maya attaches itself to him. God is an illusory state.'
"God has no Being."
"The Hindu Brahma does not correspond to our idea of Being: it is an empty, impersonal substanceless concept- the other pole and the complement of the notion of relation. What I mean is this: the contrary of Being is Non-Being, and Greek and European metaphysics are built on this pair; the contrary of relation is the absence of relation, nullity, zero (sunya). The Hindu Absolute, Brahma has no relations; the Buddhist Absolute, sunyata, knows nothing but unreal relations. Both are defined by absence and both eliminate or absorb the contrary term: they cancel out relation.
"In the West, what is basic is affirmation: we view Non-Being from the point of view of Being. In India what is basic is negation: they see relation- the human world and the divine world- from the point of view of an Absolute that is defined negatively, or is negation itself. The Non-Being of the West is subordinate to Being; it is lack of reality. Hindu relation, the vital flux, is subordinate to zero; it is an unreal excess. In the first case, the unity of Being is positive; in the second it is negative. "Hence, in essence, Brahma is identical to sunyata: both are the No that is the answer of the Absolute both to relation- the world, time, gods- and to discursive thought.
"We have a tendency to exaggerate the opposition between Brahma and sunyata, between the theory of Atman (Being) and that of Anatta (Non-Being), because we conceive of this opposition in terms of Western metaphysics. Thus, Raymundo Panikar regrets that, 'Between the Parmenides of India and its Heraclitus, no Aristotle has yet appeared ... to prove how the being that moves changes and is not Brahma, at the same time is not an unreal nothingness.'(Panikar, R., Maya e Apocalisse, 1966). But I repeat: mediation is impossible because the opposition is not between Being and Non-Being, nor between Being and Change, but between two concepts that have their roots in something entirely foreign to Greek and European tradition. The thought of the West is based on the idea of substance, thing, element, being; that of India on relation, interpenetration, interaction, flux. It therefore defines the Absolute as the cessation of Change, that is to say, as negation of relation and action. India does not deny Being; it ignores it. It denies Change; it is maya, illusion. European thought does not deny relation: it ignores it. it affirms Change: Change is Being unfolding or manifesting itself.
"Negation and the idea of static balance or immobility are two constant features of Indian thought, both in Hinduism and in Buddhism. Nakamura points out how fond Indians are of negative expressions; they abound both in Sanskrit and Pali and in the modern languages of India. While the European speaks of "victory or defeat," an Indian speaks of "victory or non-victory." He does not speak of peace, but of "nonviolence" and what we would call "diligence" he calls "nonlaziness." Change is "impermanence," and the person who has attained illumination or liberation, "goes to a nonencounter with the King of the Dead."(as per Nakamura). "The negative abstracts, impersonalizes, sucks the substance from ideas, names, acts. Nagarjuna summed up his entire doctrine in Eight Negatives. If the real is negation, change is unreal. For us, the real is positive, and therefore, change is not a synonym of unreality. Change may be an imperfect mode of being in relation to essence, but it is not an illusion. For the Hindu, change is an illusion because it lacks any relation with the Absolute. "The most notable- and the most basic- feature of Indian thought is the identification of reality with negation. Its conception of change is also a prominent feature. The Greek says: everything is in flux; the Hindu says: everything is impermanent. It is hard for a Westerner to conceive of Nothingness, and Heidegger has shown that it is literally unthinkable: it is the fathomless abyss above which metaphysical thought flaps its wings. In India it is Being that is difficult to conceive. Essence, the reality of realities, is formless and nameless. Fo plato, essence is the Idea: a form, an archetype. The Greeks invented geometry; Hindus the zero. To us, Hindu religion is atheistic. A Hindu might well reply that even our science and our atheism are steeped in monotheism. Time and change are real to us because they are modes of being- a being that emerges from chaos or nothingness and unfolds like an apparition. The divinities of the West are presences that radiate energy. Otto's notion of the magnetic presence: the divine is concentrated in a Person; for Hindus, it dissolves in the Impersonal.
-Translation of an essay by Octavio Paz - A Nobel Literature Laureate and former Mexican Ambassador to India
Person and Principle, O. Paz, 1967)