Silence in sensation

Marianne Vermeijden
Translated from the Dutch by Beverley Jackson

The city sleeps, not a sound is heard to disturb the tranquillity. You are alone in the universe – or so you persuade yourself – and with the gathering silence, your concentration too is heightened. Aji loves to work in his studio at night, listening to Dhrupad. His drawings and watercolours are very labour-intensive. He can toil for days and nights on end over a single watercolour, a technique that can make images just as light and ‘fluid’ as the thoughts underlying them. Subjects are never hard to find: an octopus-like tree he once saw from a train window somewhere in India; a sheet of fragmented clouds in the Himalayas; a magazine photograph that clung to his memory. He preserves images of this kind in the form of small sketches; or sometimes they are engraved in his memory so clearly that he can retrieve them just as surely as from a box of index cards.

Take that random photograph that ended in an almost two metres-wide charcoal drawing. The shot showed a moment in a wrestling match, in which the men strained and contorted their bodies in their efforts to press each other to the floor, each one exerting his muscles to the fullest extent. In such encounters muscles rise and swell, subside and twist. This subcutaneous mobility conjured up to Aji the fancy that a body may house other bodies. And that is what gave rise to his highly original drawing of a wrestler holding down his adversary, while a band of monkeys has quite literally burst from his torso and limbs. Now the muscles serve as a ‘monkey rock’, into which the animals may vanish as quickly as they emerged.

Aji has made drawings since he was a young boy, and he did not hesitate about going on to art school. Initially, drawing was a way of processing experiences and emotions: therapeutic self-expression. In that period he depicted human figures with robust contours in a raw, direct style; all anger and sorrow had to be excised. These drawings and paintings are vaguely reminiscent of the work of Francesco Clemente, but they lack his polish and theatricality – instead, they have a more touching quality.

Someone who must always seek inspiration in his problems, Aji says now, years later, comes to depend on problems. ‘To put it more strongly, you make yourself into one big problem, to make sure you can carry on working.’ This insight motivated him to change course, to shift his gaze away from within, and look outside – soul-searching was superseded by vista. In a phase of this kind, an artist must reinvent himself. And it takes a long time to learn how to push aside the ego as ‘supplier’, in order to see the visible reality in the full light.

For Aji, observing reality also means reading a great deal. He derives just as much inspiration from books on anthropology, psychology and art history as from Western and Indian philosophers. He loves Persian miniatures, but also Da Vinci’s drawings of drapery. From Tibetan Tanka paintings to ancient ritual objects from India or Renaissance altarpieces – it is not easy to find something in which he takes no interest.

In the years since this change of course from introspection to vista, Aji has produced impressive panoramas of seas, mountains and woods, in charcoal, oil and watercolour. He generally forms a mental image of the work before he begins. Technique and size are also determined in advance. But while he is at work, all sorts of things may happen that could not have been predicted beforehand.

In this way, each work automatically acquires a unique dynamic quality, which it is Aji’s task to exploit. Work and maker gradually become so inextricably linked that what happens outside that process loses all relevance. At such moments, this total absorption in drawing, surrendering to the mutable nature of things and allowing oneself to be surprised by intuitive interventions, is no longer a form of doing but a form of being. It is this quality that not only provides Aji with great enjoyment, but also gives his work its intensity and depth.

Thus, I can imagine him thinking one day that he wanted to make a watercolour of a typical Dutch coastline with a horizon of foam-tipped waves and grey cloud cover. He certainly produced a coastline, but nothing about it is remotely reminiscent of Dutch surf. Water and air have forged a wispy bond in the form of vapour-like shreds of mist. They stretch from surf to horizon and appear to have such high humidity that you can almost feel the chilly, salty mist on your skin. Meanwhile, gentle waves in Mediterranean blue ripple up onto the beach. But behind them, behind that white hazy in-between area, the waves assume monstrous proportions. The beauty of the sea and the age-old fear of the unknown that has afflicted generation upon generation seem to have been compressed here into a single image. And that brooding grey Dutch atmosphere is nowhere to be seen.

Another impressive example of such a panoramic scene is a charcoal drawing of a mountain landscape – a series of mountain ridges, in fact, rising behind a wooded foreground. Real mountains do not exist in forms such as these – these are too capricious, too baroque, and too close together. It looks as if the rocks blew bubbles from themselves in antiquity, and now lie coagulated in layered, curly rock formations reaching up to the sky.

If you look for a little longer, you discover that neatly outlined steps have been drawn in between the different plateaus, as if nature had endowed the towering mountains with the typical features of temples, pyramids and Towers of Babel, architecture through which ancient civilisations sought to transcend mundane concerns and approach closer to their gods. One step at a time, stair by stair, your view of this drawing strays upwards, to higher and higher spheres, to a limbo where endless tranquillity seems to reign.

You need more than water, paint, chalk and technical skill to elevate a seascape or mountain landscape above the existing reality. That can only succeed with a certain amount of ‘magic’, a secret quality, by imbuing an image with an extra dimension of veracity. Aji wants to ‘put a spell on you’, as the blues ballad says. His drawings are intended to arrest the spectator’s gaze and transport it to a higher form of consciousness, to a meditative form of looking, to convey the sense that behind the visible world lurks an invisible, abstract world. Chinese and Japanese scroll paintings of arcadian landscapes with waving bamboo may instil the same pleasant sense of peace, although it is difficult to identify exactly how this works. Someone who dares briefly to lose himself in such a drawing experiences himself as part of the natural course of things, of an immense universe in which everything is connected with everything else. And that is also the comfort that Aji’s drawings have to offer.

Before a drawing or watercolour possesses the capacity to work this magic, colours, lines, proportions and meanings must all be fine-tuned down to the smallest detail – a process that entails pensively searching, exploring, nuancing, focusing, accentuating – as long as necessary, until the image coincides with the artist’s deepest intentions. If that succeeds, he can briefly enjoy the illusion of knowing the meaning of ‘the sublime’.

A concrete example of that ‘sublime’ is an extremely simple forest view, drawn with charcoal on greenish-grey paper. ‘Forest view’ is rather a grand term for a drawing of just two trees, especially since these are symmetrically placed in the picture plane, compounding the difficulty of making such an image exciting. Even so, he has succeeded brilliantly in doing so here. How? Because we see more than we are shown. From a certain height and distance, we have a view of the tops of the trees. While this is in itself unremarkable, the foliage is endowed with a downy quality conveyed in so many charcoal nuances that it not only looks thin and fragile and perishable, but also seems to quiver softly in the wind. The trees breathe, as it were – and how this effect has been produced is something Aji himself is generally unable to understand.

Aji’s subjects – a wrestling match, a mountain range, two trees – are extremely diverse. This stems not from fickleness, but from a desire to constantly seek new challenges and surprises. Each work must stand alone; it is not necessary for a theme to be squeezed dry to the smallest detail to do service as a kind of logo.

Even so, each work becomes ‘a real Aji’. The distinctive quality comes from the use of colour, the handling of details, the ‘handwriting’, the frequent absence of human figures, the highly elaborated character of his work, as well as the darkness, which constantly recurs as inky-black charcoal. Moonlight changes both the perspective and all visible objects, making everything appear more limpid and more solitary. Darkness and shadows evoke the subconscious; you can project more thoughts onto darkness, it stimulates the imagination and often ferments a kind of suspense.

In Aji’s work this is not the suspense of a thriller, but that of hushed, covert meaning. Take that nocturnal scene of bathing elephants. The animals lie like small islands in the rapid current, while the moonlight on the swirling eddies of the surface makes them sparkle like crystals. This does not depict a natural phenomenon; rather, a drawing of this kind tells us about the secrets that the water holds within it, as if it were a metaphor for the subconscious that can unexpectedly conjure up images, emotions and thoughts – even elephants.

Aji’s unique artistry includes a place for death. The most literal conception of death is the human skeleton. In a large charcoal drawing Aji depicts a full-length skeleton lying in a wilderness of sand and stones, dust and spiky plants. It is depicted with astonishing skill, as an organic part of the landscape. Colour and structure are all of a piece with the sand, the dryness and the prickliness.

All our attention is drawn to the skeleton, because this state of being reminds all of us of our own future. And so we may fail to notice that the apparently barren ground around the bones is in fact teeming with life: it is made up of the contours of a huge diversity of creatures, from birds to crocodiles, from sheep to elephants. Viewers patient enough to look longer will see how ingeniously all these creatures fit together – like the pieces of a organic jigsaw-puzzle landscape.

The earth brings forth life; that is what the drawing tells us. But given the millions of years of mortality that have gone before us, that same earth is also, of course, a vast graveyard. Life and death belong together, and even share the same seedbed. It testifies to Aji’s extraordinary ‘magical’ powers that he has made a drawing about death – the root of all fears, as he has said himself – that is nonetheless a powerful expression of reassurance.