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Shubigi Rao: The Tuning Fork of the Mind

The Tuning Fork of the Mind, an installation based on a pseudo-scientific theory about brainwave activity while looking at art.
Sep 2008

The Tuning Fork of the Mind is a multilayered installation based on a pseudoscientific theory about the brainwave activity occurring when an unwary viewer encounters art. I developed this theory to chart the collisions between viewer and artwork, and to prove how the mental gymnastics and cognitive leaps required to comprehend a work of art generate vibrations at frequencies calculated to specifically, and with singular malicious focus, derange the brain.

The installation comprises multiple units (from machines, hand-drawn, hand-made books, drawings, etchings, a filmed brain dissection, and sundry objects, to a romance, a tragedy and a discredited scientist) that paradoxically attempt to elucidate while contributing to the air of general befuddlement at the same time. To develop the theory, I had to immerse myself in studies about the brain, and the physical aspects of the artwork involved gathering material from varied, unlikely sources to complement the intricate hand-made aspects of the installation, which includes a "machine" that can measure the brain damage caused by exposure to art, and then convert the damaged waves into sound, so viewers can "hear" their damaged brains.

This work grew out of a response to the general, uninformed, vituperative opinions about contemporary art that I heard and read in mainstream media. I felt that if art is so offensive, why not go the whole hog and declare it dangerous? To this end, I decided to prove how art can seriously derange people.

My works always undergo a series of mutations that tend to be something like this:

Wild, unfeasible idea in an alien field >> complete immersion in the academia of said alien field >> exuberant, self indulgent ingestion of useless knowledge >> realisation that original idea is irrelevant, and alien field is still alien >> panic >> gathering clutter (mental and physical) as a bulwark against looming deadlines >> turning that clutter into something that might hopefully look like art.

I believe that gaps in comprehension and miscommunication provide fertile ground to make us think and feel beyond the everyday stimuli-response. So I draw on a range of issues from my interests in varied subjects like archaeology, literature, natural history, bibliophilia, and garbage. My work invariably tends to be triggered by something I’ve read – frequently "unfashionable" or outdated knowledge – and I always find myself drawn back to highly questionable or doubtful areas of research.

My work is tucked away in a room at the top floor of a block in the South Beach Camp, a lovely ramshackle building I see as the ugly step-sister to the more glamorous venues, which is exactly how I view my work in the context of "cutting edge" (yuck, what a phrase!) contemporary art. I love the unfashionable, the tumbledown, the ramshackle, and the unwieldy. I love making work that has no idea of how ungainly it is, and is so annoyingly cluttered with ideas, thoughts, messages, secrets and trivia that it doesn’t seem worthy of the effort required to unravel its tangled skeins. The site has been a real challenge, and constantly attempts to suffocate the work, sort of like an evil twin. I like to pretend that the building and the work were made for each other in a very prickly, uncomfortable kind of way.

The experience has been crazy, frustrating and consequently exhilarating as the work has to mutate according to the dictates of the site. I love that random, freakish evolutionary process, where the work is never as important as the venue, or the event, and can consequently slip its moorings of having rigid artistic pretensions, and just be a more gleeful, self-ingesting experience. I subscribe to the antiquated view that art, unlike T.V., need not be about spoon-feeding and instant gratification, because it is when we try to understand the seemingly incomprehensible that we open ourselves to the experience of art. I’m always humbled by the tremendous breadth of human knowledge (we have so much that we regularly discard it, disregard it, and dismiss it). I would never presume to tell viewers what to do, feel or experience. It isn’t really my job to teach anyone how to feel "wonder" – that would be presumptuous and arrogant of me. I can only hope they might get a glimpse of some of the glee I experienced in the making of the piece. That’s all I can ask for. The rest is really just up to the viewers’ ability to slow down and just drift, and allow themselves to feel the surprise that is sadly, all too often buried under concerns of a more prosaic and pecuniary nature. It may just be a bit too much to ask for, what with the screaming exhortations of the F1 next door yelling "Go faster! Noisier! Glitzier!"

So it’s always a delight for me when anyone shows interest and asks questions about the work. I’ve had engineers attempting to make serious sense of my mock-diagrams, and archaeologists examining my invented taxonomies. The mock-museum aesthetic of the work lulls the viewer into approaching it soberly, to study the exhibits, and try the brain-wave measuring machine, upon which they realise the fraudulent nature of the work. Viewer reactions include the bomb squad believing the machine to be potentially dangerous, and dismantling it, an irony which proves how dangerous this artwork really is! A lot of vandalism and theft has also occurred, which may arguably be because the artwork is such a bad influence…

For people like me who revel in the intimate, the private, the tiny, the delights secreted between the layers of a small but complex work, there is more wonder in creating gentle confusion and a side slippage of meaning where there was previously only inflexible perception. To create an elaborate, meaningless lie is a wonderful thing.

Note of the editors:

  1. The theme of the 2nd Singapore Biennale 2008 is Wonder - in its different meanings: to be surprised, awed, to be curious, to call into question, etc.

The Tuning Fork
of the Mind
Installation at South Beach Development, Singapore Biennale 2008

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