‘Confessions of a Thug: Pakiveli’ closed on March 22 2020, just one day before the first UK lockdown was finally implemented. Given restricted access to social spaces (pubs, openings, etc.), a critical conversation around the show could not unfold at the time in the places it naturally would. This interview with Hardeep Pandhal offers a reflection on the show over a year on from its closing, hopefully providing space to underline and elaborate on the work. We also talk about his practice, being an artist in Glasgow, Orientalism, Weird Punjabi Gothic and rap.
CALUM SUTHERLAND: In simple terms, I guess what I’ve been thinking about since I saw the Tramway show is what you put into that space, which is to say the motifs present in the work: cricket, rap music, the bedroom, masturbation, Tupac, all of which we can discuss. But I’ve also been thinking about your approach to exhibition making and in particular your use of Tramway’s main exhibition space. In Uncaged Cipher: Confessions of Confessions of a Thug (2020), an explorative talk about the exhibition, you mention wanting ‘to redress or disturb some of the trends I see in promotional material accompanying exhibitions these days.’ Could you talk a little more about this impulse? And how it manifested itself in the show?
HARDEEP PANDHAL: I’ve been present in a lot of my previous work, perhaps most explicitly in video works where you see me talking about my work to camera. Usually, this sort of footage is shaky, hand-held and shot in one-take. I hope these unpolished recordings are read as being more generous than the content that appears in authorised gallery interpretations, to convey ideas that are more inexplicable, honest and unrehearsed.
For example, in the film Happy Thuggish Paki (2020) I talk quite candidly about the animation software and hardware that I use, or rather my limited understanding of it. I wanted to tease out more layers and associations, such as the hardware’s drawing pen and the adjustable gap between the cursor and the stylus in my hand, which is called the ‘parallax’ within the software. A parallax is a displacement or difference in the apparent position of an object when viewed along two different lines of sight. It denotes a perceptual effect whereby objects under consideration take on a different character or appearance when viewed from two separate perspectives. I find the idea of the parallax useful when thinking about practices of interpretation, or how disparate interpretations may coexist in an interdependent way. The idea of being able to shift one’s viewpoint, or being sympathetic to multiple viewpoints has been integral to my development as a person.
Moments like this are subtle and thus not likely to be read by viewers the first time around. In this example the moment consists of a deliberate misspelling of the word ‘cursor’, which can cause confusion in itself, and only appears on screen for a couple of seconds. The show is full of ‘easter eggs’ like this. An easter egg is typically an undocumented, bonus feature in a piece of computer software. Sort of like an in-joke. When you discover an easter egg in a video game or in a rap song you feel rewarded for exploration that is deep and repetitive – and, dare I say, punishing. Play is work. For me, the act of experiencing art should be a form of play
In large part, my impulse to redress and disturb these trends that I see in promotional material accompanying exhibitions comes from personal experiences of having no editorial control in these forms of publicity, such as video interviews. It stems from being made to feel like a puppet regurgitating popular rhetorical stances fed by institutions. I think it happens to me because I am conscious of trying to address multiple audiences, like an objective participant. I want to engage fans of the subject matter and participants of the cultures I am invoking as well as a more nebulous, critically minded contemporary art audience. I don’t want to succumb to cultural dysphoria in a non-constructive way.
The way interpretation is conveyed, in promotional material for example, is important to me and I need a lot of time and reassurance from professional institutions before feeling up for participating in things like video interviews. This issue has clearly shaped the work I make, perhaps even to the point of me deliberately making impoverished and gratuitously sardonic things, as part of a critically deflective strategy. I’ve been through too many instances of discomfort in video interview scenarios. I think it’s from a fear of losing my soul, or having to take on and assuage the burdens of institutional guilt. Reluctance is important to me. I’m not a basic sycophant.
CS: I felt you arrived at a modest, focused presentation, which was also uncomfortable in that it did not affirm the scale of the space. There are certain institutional pressures at play when making work in Glasgow, and indeed certain spaces and awards incentivise particular modes of working and exhibition making. Is this something you feel you have to always be conscious of, or work against? For me, Confessions of a Thug: Pakiveli contrasted with the blockbuster presentations of artists who had previously exhibited at Tramway like Nick Cave, Mark Leckey, and Amanda Ross-Ho. Did you have any of these shows in mind when considering the installation? Was this part of the ‘redress’ or was your focus elsewhere?
HP: Too often artists can feel like they’re being expected to fill a space, to realise a preconceived curatorial premise or an institutional agenda. I have arrived at a point in my practice where I know how to identify what’s right for me. My hope is to simultaneously exceed and question what is perceived to be expected of me.
The exhibition was essentially built around the rap lyrics, and these were made available to peruse in a single, cheap A4 bound booklet. This would have taken some time to read. So, in simple terms, I valued time over scale and quantity in my overall production process.
CS: Yeah, for me that brought to mind the slightly casual or disrespectful presentation of Arthur Jafa’s APEX (2013) at MoMA in 2019, which was accompanied by Untitled Notebook (1990-2007). This work consists simply of normal office folders with plastic sleeves filled with images and ephemera Jafa had collected. It has this kind of everyday research vernacular which questions the purity and expectations of the institution…
HP: Also, for the Tramway show it helped to have a longer period of notice in comparison to other projects of a similar scale and visibility I had done. For example, in GI 2018, the last big thing I did in Glasgow, I was given only six months’ notice and I felt like I was being pressured into making specific types of works to fill the space at Kelvin Hall and compliment the broader festival programme. I think I had my cake in the end though, as I showed unfinished student work about the 2010 UK-wide student protests, in addition to making the expected defacing gesture to the space. This gesture culminated in a giant wall drawing of a sepoy (a British-Indian colonial soldier) cutting down a tree with a chainsaw. The tree had money growing on it and the composition made the chainsaw look like a massive penis. I also scrawled on the wall the following:
Fluids leaking fluidly
Over funding policies
With the best of intentions we look forward to establishing contact with other civilised societies in the universe. We look forward to working together with you to build a better life in…
So, you get the sense as an artist that you are fulfilling a mechanical role within a larger system of cultural and nationalistic authorisation. I don’t think it’s simply a bad situation. I try to treat the situation more as a catalyst to take risks and be more playful. But it can feel like a waste of a happy, normal life at times. In hindsight, I was naively happy to go along with the flow at GI 2018. When it came to the Tramway show, I made the decision to set new precedents to help guide the nature of future invitations and studio visits, so that I could reach people who can assist me in developing projects aligned more closely with my deeper interests.
Making what you want and fundamentally believe in is important, and a way of investing in yourself. It filters out the noise and ensures you are engaging with people who genuinely edify your conscience, even at the expense of short-term career boosts and popularity. I wouldn’t exactly say my work is unpopular but I knew that by foregrounding longer, denser and inexplicable lyrics alongside crude animations and small drawings at Tramway I would reward those willing and patient. This, in turn, makes the work more impactful and memorable. So, I went with that. The work resists becoming a glorified soundbite. Like rap music, it demands to be listened to on repeat. It was about deciding what I wanted to do in the future (write, record and draw more) and set the right precedent going forward.
Coming back to your question, I think seeing the Cathy Wilkes show in 2014 had the biggest impact on me, in terms of approaching the space with sparsity. I feel too often British-Asian artists are expected to fill galleries with decorative ethnic bullshit. Don’t get me wrong, I love all of that when I go to visit my mom’s house. It just feels weird when it’s deployed in a contemporary art gallery setting non-reflexively, especially in Scotland where most curators and gallery goers are not South Asian.
Your question also reminded me of the India Street Bazaar exhibition at Tramway in 2016, which struck me as being remarkably apolitical, particularly for the way it hubristically side-stepped the deeper issues arising from its messy and potentially daring premise in favour of filling the space with conceptual diaspora-merch. Really bizarre stuff. In addition to this consideration, while making the show, I also had in the back of my mind Tramway’s proximity to the local South Asian communities that have been living there for years, and the sense of disconnect most UK art spaces have from South Asian communities.
I wanted to focus more on my own work and less on institutional work, as a personal experiment, to better understand how I want to be institutionalised, because being institutionalised is an inevitability unless I simply stop participating.