Late last year I was interviewed by Dr Jocelynne A. Scutt, a fellow Australian with a distinguished career in international human rights law for The Art of the Possible, the Cambridge University Journal of Politics . She brought a completely different perspective to my art which I'm very grateful for. That helps me to keep learning and improving as an artist. She also highlighted some of the shadows and that is important too. Considering the general lack of focus on political themes in the art world, I feel grateful that they asked to know more to better understand my work.
Thank you Jocelynne and also to Associate Editor Razwana Quadir for putting us together for this article, the editorial board and staff and students at Cambridge University's Politics Department. It is a tough field of study. The journal is moving to print and is under hiatus until then, so I have included the interview/article below.
Below is the text of the interview [added Jan 2013]
Carl Gopalkrishnan – Portrait of the Artist as Polemicist
Jocelynne A. Scutt | 2012-05-03
Does art lend itself to polemics? Is there a role for the artist as polemicist? Carl Gopalkrishnan – known in the world of art as Carl Gopal – has no doubt that passion is and should be the heart of an artist’s work. Painting is his way of taking to the audience a strongly worded visual message where passion is essential, controversy is for embracing , and the orthodoxies of the establishment are to be confronted. His politics are imbued in his art. His art is imbued with his politics.
Trained initially in graphic design and typography at Perth Technical College, now a part of the Perth-Northbridge Arts Precinct, Carl Gopal had both an intense and broadly-based learning experience, including art history along with design, drawing and colour theory. Printing students worked side-by-side with art students, all employing pre-internet techniques. Subsequently, Gopal took advantage of his late-1980s post in a small art gallery in Northbridge, learning techniques from exhibiting artists. His work in acrylic paint stretches over two decades: acrylic paint he sees as a medium comparable with oil, albeit its fast drying time requires fast decision-making and a specifically-focused concentration.
That Carl Gopal is also informed by his academic study of sociology, online narrative and graphic novels is evident in his art. His research into the subject-matter of his painting is an essential part of his work. He is stirred by war, poverty, hypocrisy, denial and destruction of human rights by governments and power-groupings, and today’s encroachment upon civil rights in the name of combating ‘terrorism’. He embraces an interdisciplinary approach, seeing it as ‘closer to the truth’. For Gopal, truth is essential to and in his work.
Race, ethnicity, oppression and invisibility, omnipresent themes in his paintings, are depicted through images and the use of light. Gopal employs ‘caverns of subtlety in light’, creating an intensity of colour and, contrarily at times, art-in-monochrome – as in his 2006 series ‘Sedition and Other Bedtime Stories’ http://www.carlgopal.com/sedition-and-other-bedtime-stories-06/ (accessed 10 November 2011).
‘Sedition … ’ is constituted by seventeen powerfully realised images: the artworks are stark in their intensity, conveying through their beauty the horrors of the death and destruction wrought by the events now known as ‘9/11’; the reaction of government seeing this as a reason for truncating civil liberties, trammelling democracy and legislatively denying human rights; and the complicity of the Australian Parliament (like its counterparts across the ‘first’ world) in endorsing restrictive domestic measures through the Anti-Terrorism Act 2005. In the website, Gopal explains that the series incorporates reflections on ‘quantum physics, alchemy, esoteric knowledge, metaphysical poetry’, as well as the military, the ‘anti-terrorism’ law, and text from the Australian Senate Inquiries associated with the government and legislative response. The series’ origin was ‘some innocent questions from [his] young nephew and niece during the worst of the paranoia’. Reading the legislation led to Gopal’s expanding the images ‘to explore the mythic archetypal underbelly of the new political climate’ that continues its confrontation with the people – all people – the young, the old, the rich, the poor, the powerful and the powerless, and mostly those who are vulnerable.
‘We’ll Always Have Paris’ http://www.carlgopal.com/well-always-have-paris-08/ (accessed 12 November 2011), exhibited a year or so later (2008) is subtitled ‘Bent Tales from the Sub-Atomic’. Here, Gopal takes his quantum physics influence further, noting its impact on ‘the way we tell stories’. His artist mind ‘sought more familiar analogies’ for concepts underpinned by and found in ‘the history of physics, entanglement, many worlds, no-locality, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and, of course, deciding if Schrödinger’s Cat was indeed alive or dead’. Sitting on his studio floor mixing traditional painting techniques with stencils and photographic techniques, Gopal fashioned an exhibition of thirty-two paintings. The motorcar, Heathcliff (of Wuthering Heights fame), the Eiffel Tower, images within boxes-within-boxes, colour and black and white stand alongside each other, as a coherent statement as to the possibilities – or improbabilities - of a ‘road less travelled’. Science – and ‘the ways it is changing how we are seeing life’ is intrinsic to the stories told through the paintings. Gopal says that it is through this series he developed ‘the beginning of understanding how stories’ – his stories on canvas – ‘are part of the way [he] influences the world of [his] experience’. ‘Can I change that reality through my canvases?’ he asks.
Other galleries – exhibitions replicated on his website http://www.carlgopal.com/ (accessed 12 November 2011) – include ‘Elsewhere - Vignette’ – a foretaste of the paintings to comprise his next show http://www.carlgopal.com/2009-Elsewhere-A-Vignette/ (accessed 11 November 2011) and ‘The Assassination of Judy Garland - A Metaphorical Portrait of America’. ‘The Assassination …’, labelled ‘Part 1’ http://www.carlgopal.com/2010-assassination-judy-garland/ (accessed 11 November 2011), uses ‘the chansons de geste (French medieval epic poetry) and Broadway musicals as a metaphor to explore the changing political narratives in America today’. Gopal explains his paintings as fusing surrealism with ‘images inspired by contemporary urban environments’, including ‘street art, old subway posters and 60s airport paperbacks’. Tiered party cakes appear alongside images of ‘the famous’ including Julian Assange, Barack Obama and Judy Garland. ‘Part 2’ is an exhibition in progress under the title ‘The Resurrection of the Tin Man’. The paintings are powerful in colour, light, image and imaginings, ending in three frames incorporating the plaintive yet power-driven cry, ‘We the People …’
Writing of his belief that art and politics ‘mix’, Carl Gopal lights on an experience he had as a child:
My earliest memories of my family, one of the most powerful, was travelling on a European flight in the early 1970s and being refused food and water by the airline staff because of our colour. My father is Indian and my mother Chinese, so we’re a mix. This was actually an Asian airline, and when it landed my father refused to allow us to get off the plane. He halted the entire air traffic to make a point until the manager of the airline came onto the tarmac and offered his apology and took us all to lunch. We were starved. So that lesson about both racism and internal racism within communities of colour had a significant impact on me and, I think, my sister’s choice of social justice and politics as part of our creative expression. Politics is a more organised way of interpreting human drama, human narrative, so in that sense there is no break between art and politics. When we spin something, make a story, justify it, it’s writing a story. Whether or not that leads to good or painful experiences is really just part of the way that story is written.
Generally, Australian artists work in less than ideal conditions, at least so far as financial support is concerned. This means they are obliged to work in everyday, mainstream posts, whether in government or the private sector. Although this cuts into the time available for artists such as Carl Gopal to work at their art, it also provides them with perspectives that may otherwise be denied them. As he says, working in community, private and government project, education and policy roles has meant he is able to address political issues ‘with an understanding of the influence of the bureaucracy, … its strengths and weaknesses’ together with his personal experience. Observing that ‘working for government has been educational, transformational and painful, an experience that has informed [his] art’, Gopal adds:
Government in Australia isn’t kind to different ideas or people who think differently. It is a conservative nation at its core. Until you have real, working experience of bureaucratic systems, of power in any form, of the language of government, its processes, then it is hard to define what ‘politics’ has become today. How it is different from the past. How it is changeable and corruptible. Although my day-work is not particularly higher-level, it is now easier for me to understand the adage, ‘good people can do bad things’ …
From this experience, I have tried communicate the idea of true and false prophets, the good and the decayed and how we can change what we are doing by changing the story of government. Change the language, the terms of reference, and you change the physical world. … I don’t think we need to wed art and politics together forever, but segregation has always been a policy of failure.
Both Australia and the world would stand free in the absence of racism, ethnophobia, small-mindedness and discrimination on the basis of ‘difference’. No doubt in their absence Carl Gopal would find ways of expression through art which would move his audience. Yet it is also true that Australia and the world would be the less in the absence of Gopal’s work, addressing directly these themes and their political impact. Politics and art do mix.