A new show investigates how the lion has slipped into our general consciousness and perhaps lost its majestic associations, says Jaideep Sen.
While researching the lion, and its use as a symbol of power and authority, Sreshta Rit Premnath stumbled upon some intriguing trivia. For instance, “In the early maps by Romans, areas that were unmapped would be indicated with the symbol of a dragon,” he recounted. “When the British started mapping the colonial world, they replaced those unmapped spaces with the words, ‘There be lions’.”
For his new solo show – titled LEO – at GALLERYSKE, the 30-year-old New York-based artist began to look at the many associations that the lion has come to assume over the years. As the numbers of the big cat in the world – of both of its two largest populations: the Asiatic and the sub-Saharan species – have dwindled to a few hundred, Premnath sought to explore the manner in which it has come to assume a solemn, and silent, presence in urban society, as elements in design and architecture that may well seem commonplace.
In the course of his study, Premnath said, he found a form of duality to such representations. If, on the one hand, the lion signified terror and might, over time the animal had also turned into a target employed by humans to assert their own dominance. “The lion is both a symbol of the unknown – of threat and fear – and, at the same time, an object of [human] violence,” he offered in a telephone conversation, a few days before the opening of his show. “It’s that kind of relation that I was interested in.”
In a concept note, Premnath said that he sought to explore the “specific representations of power that have been repeatedly used historically and cross-culturally” in LEO (the show is tagged “procedures in search of an original index”). Using videos, photographs and paintings, LEO explores the trajectories between the use of the lion as an effective symbol of power, to one that has been exhausted, and even devalued, through overuse and repetition. “The lion is especially useful as a specimen for this investigation, as a creature that has historically symbolised power, and through whose subjugation – through hunting, taming and training – people have articulated their own positions of power,” he explained.
The fall from grace of the lion may be a foregone conclusion, observed Premnath, if only in the context of associations of empires that have lost significance in the modern world. Although, he added, eliciting reactions to imperial inferences wasn’t the focus of his show. By resorting to images of the lion as part of monumental fixtures – in historic gateways as well as in prominent public spaces, LEO was more intent on revealing a sense of over-familiarity and banality that now marks impressions of the king of the jungle.
In simple terms, he offered, the aspect of such images being absorbed into everyday life may not appear striking to most people. Consider that “you never really stop to look at the HSBC lions [at the bank’s Hong Kong headquarters and at a few other branches].” Or at the guardian statues that flank the Louvre [in Paris], or the entranceway of the New York Public Library, he suggested.
At the show, viewers may instantly find a glaring lack of Indian references – the Ashoka Chakra for one, doesn’t figure here. Other common occurrences – from coats of arms and the English Premier League to popular carmaker brands – also seem conspicuously missing. It would indeed be a stretch to expect such cheeky insertions as that of the Lion Brand of firecrackers, though Premnath added that his general intention was also to spark off such thoughts in viewers.
A large part of LEO is in fact based on Leo the Lion, the mascot of the Metro Goldwyn Mayer studios in Hollywood (as implied in the title). A video loop named APOLOGY plays out clips from one of MGM’s earliest releases, the 1924 film He Who Gets Slapped. A video titled MGM RIP, of mostly silent shots, follows Premnath on a visit to a small town in rural New Jersey, in search of an unmarked grave that’s rumoured to have been the resting spot of the first lion that was used as MGM’s trademark. MASK, another video loop, was extracted from the title sequences of one of the studio’s oldest silent films, in which, rather uniquely, Leo does not roar. This last piece could be viewed “as a kind of death mask for MGM, which [recently] filed for bankruptcy”, noted Premnath. “The perplexed lion seems to look around itself without any hope of narrative climax.”
The show also includes a series of triptychs – one of them, named HIDE, is comprised of dated black-and-white photographs ripped in two to separate the humans – a duo of cameramen in one, and two armed gamekeepers in a cage in another – from the beasts. The prints are shown against a large Rorschach painting, shaped (somewhat) like a lion skin cast upon a wall. Another video, titled Dept Of Lions, is of a series of photographs of gateways flanked by lions, where a handful of Indian mentions, such as of temples of Tanjore and the Jagannath Temple in Puri, stand alongside sites like the Temple of Isis in Philae in Egypt and the temples of China.
Premnath, who completed his schooling in Bangalore before moving to the US, added that he did feel more comfortable with a westernised approach. “Even having grown up in Bangalore, it would be hard to say that I had a necessarily ‘eastern’ upbringing,” he said. “I would be more hard-pressed to name a bunch of Hindi movies than MGM classics.” As for the Ashoka Chakra, Premnath added that he had consciously omitted the reference, essentially “because it’s a symbol of consolidated power”.