by Vatsala SethiDec 31, 2022
What makes something nostalgic for a generation? Is it the sense of comfort that comes from accessing memories of the past and carefree days of one's childhood? Post-pandemic, there has been a resurgence of trends from the 90s, owing perhaps both to a sense of escapism as well as seeking comfort. These trends further seem to be anchored in the rebellious, free-spirited, young, playful and jovial nature of pop culture. This can also be interpreted as a counter-culture of sorts, one that strays from the homogeneity that accompanies minimalism.
At Indian artist Amrit Pal Singh’s solo exhibition The Toy Face Tour, you find a glimpse of this transition. One where nostalgia isn’t black and white but an overwhelming pop of colours and quirkiness. This newer definition of art, anchored in technology, Metaverse, non-fungible tokens, digital art and other new age advancements is a familiar concept for newer generations. But for a generation of art lovers whose idea of art is rooted in finding the meaning behind artworks—the radical thoughts it imparts and the rebellious confessions it generates, NFTs lie in a sceptical realm of nascent art forms. It neither rejects nor completely adopts the conventional definitions of art.
Even while standing in Singh’s whimsical world of colours, toy faces and memories of the 90s, one cannot overlook these thoughts. At the panel discussion, marking the opening of Singh’s The Toy Face Tour, founder and editor-in-chief of STIR, Amit Gupta puts forward a thought, “Music, art, films, cinema, and everything has changed. So, nostalgia has its own emotional chords. It has just evolved and the time factor may have reduced but it's still there. Our folks will go back 50 years or 100 years and talk about world war, industrialisation and freedom fighting. Today's generation might talk about what just happened yesterday or just a few years back. So timeframe may be of a different dimension.” Is the new generation redefining art? Can art just be about an unexplained rush of happiness and joy? Or does it always have to be reforming? Do Gupta’s thoughts offer a different perspective to these questions?
Singh’s works are not up for debate, they come from a place of personal experiences and moments, as is the case for many artists across generations. What separates him from conventional means of art is how he binds these inspirations of nostalgia and pop culture together in a language that is direct, simple, accessible, and ‘happy.’ The Toy Faces are reminiscent of a whimsical childhood that transcends age and persist through adulthood. His 3D toy-like renditions characterise a sense of playfulness paying homage to inspiring people from the field of music, technology, and 90s web culture. As Singh drops his 100th NFT, his show aims to be a place where digital meets physical, and art meets utility. Presented by Method India and Hefty.Art, The Toy Face Tour embarks on its journey from Delhi, travelling to Mumbai and Bangalore in the coming weeks.
At STIR Gallery in New Delhi, India, one can stand face-to-face with Singh’s Toy Faces which they must have in all probability encountered online. Each of the frames is thoughtfully anchored to its designated place—some aligned and some tilted on purpose. Contrasting the green backdrop, the first Toy Face that appears in front of the gallery is that of Frida Kahlo, with her iconic floral crown. Standing a few footsteps behind the Kahlo exhibit is the Bowie Toy Face with his phenomenal lightning bolt and the Van Gogh Toy Face with a sunflower on his pocket. While making way from around the huge Rubik’s cube table, the visitors stand facing the life-size version of his famous NFT, a physical art collector's Toy Room.
In the colourful and vibrant Toy Room, overwhelmed with abstractions of his Toy Faces and geometric shapes are a series of playful furniture pieces, designed by Singh. In the 3D setting are shelves, sofas, armchairs, sculptures, and artworks by the digital artist set against the peach walls of the Toy Room, adorned in wallpaper with toy face patterns. Amid the many collectables in the quirky Toy Room are more displays of Singh’s Toy Faces including Salvador Dali with his surrealistic clock from The Persistence of Memory, Yayoi Kusama amid her popular dots, M F Hussain with his paintbrush, Jean-Michel Basquiat with his famous hairstyle and Andy Warhol. The Toy Room with all its overwhelming colours, patterns, repetitions and fun becomes a world in and of itself placed on a blue carpet, where again a rug with the Toy Face motif marks the artist’s style.
The opening of The Toy Face Tour on April 28, 2023, was accompanied by a panel discussion. The conversation between the visual artist Singh, Emilia Bergmans, the co-founder of The Brewhouse and VegNonVeg, Writer and Translator, Anish Gawande and Founder and Editor in Chief of STIR Amit Gupta was moderated by Director of PSArts Priyanshi Saxena. The panel with creatives from different disciplines discussed the 90s, the transition of artists from physical mediums to digital, the influence of technology and what these advancements mean for the art community and the world. Introducing the essence of the conversation was the statement from the event's official release, “The 1990s was a decade of tremendous change marked by significant cultural, political, and technological shifts. Artists and cultural practitioners responded to these changes by exploring media techniques and subjects. Pushing boundaries of what was considered art to visit time for experimentation, innovation, reflection, and introspection the creative community grappled with changing times and the world around it. Today we can see the ongoing influences of these movements in contemporary art culture. Artists continue to use technology in innovative ways, from AI algorithms to create generic art, to virtual reality, to create immersive experiences at learning.”
As the discussion began, Saxena posed the question—“Why do think nostalgia has been bookended in the nineties and but the Y2K did not make it into the nostalgia?” Responding to this, Gupta said, “I don't think nostalgia got stuck at the nineties because the plates of nostalgia may have changed as the generation evolved and therefore the definition of certain nostalgia would have moved from what it used to be to what it could mean to today's 18-year-olds or 25-year-olds. The dimension of nostalgia has followed the way cultural commentary evolved and the way socio-economic factors affected, the generation post the nineties.”
As the conversation went from a collective definition of nostalgia to a more personal one, Singh shared what laid the foundation for his artistic exploration. “A lot of my art is very personal to me. I want to create what I liked as I was growing up and think it'll automatically find its audience. A lot of my communities are also of similar age, and similar interests related to pop culture and meme. Growing up, I was a huge toy phonetic. I used to play with GI Joes, Hot Wheels and Legos. As you could see, the simplicity of Legos is reflected in the work.” As Singh concluded his inspirations for work, Bergmans added, “In general with being more exposed and everyone seeing similar things, we’re getting into a space where there's this kind of visual trend going on. It's harder to be original these days because we see so much and so much is also coming at us at the same time as well. What I really like about this(Singh’s works) is that you know it's one simple thing, but by changing a few things, each has a very distinct character.”
Amid the talks of how art has changed over the years and on nostalgia, Gawande extended a literary perspective to it, saying, “I'm a nineties kid and nostalgia is the tugging of heartstrings. It's an incredibly complicated process, and I primarily approach it through literature. I think the ways in which the past is evoked in literature and the ways in which nostalgia is evoked is similar to how someone like Jerry Pinto reimagined Bombay, taking you through the corridors of Elphinstone College in the late eighties and the seventies through words. You are starting to see a sort of similar trend taking place for the 2000s now. It takes time and doesn't get done well initially.” As the discussion went by the panel talked about the comeback of pop culture, 90s trends, being perceived by newer generations and social media, and the future of the art world as it juggles between the conventional and the contemporary.
The art exhibition ‘The Toy Face Tour’ is on display from April 28 to May 14, 2023, at the STIR Gallery in New Delhi, India.