Yesterday in a Padded Room by Anurendra Jegadeva

We live entrenched in a world of absurdity. That view appears to be echoed in Anurendra’s installation Yesterday in a Padded Room. Like much of Anu’s work multiple meanings abound in this elaborate opus – some are overt, others more subtle, some are humourous, but none is so trenchant as the artist’s commentary on contemporary society. Ostensibly, the work brings to life an extract from the mythic Kedah Annals, a work of Malay literature believed to have originated in the 18th century. Accordingly to the text, Garuda the Hindu deity and the Muslim prophet and monarch Solomon concurred to divide up South-East Asia; land North of the Thai border would be Muslim; land South would become Hindu.

The installation depicts a war room: two bling golden thrones, bereft of sitters, languish at the centre of a tarpaulin flooring depicting a sea of shark. The back and seat of each throne has been extracted and replaced with translucent Perspex. Ancient-style head carvings representing Garuda and Solomon protrude from the upper backrest of each throne and leer like gargoyles at us, whilst the seat’s interior is home to an assortment of objects arranged like the innards of a pinball machine. Flashing lights and voices, even, emanate from the chair. Nearby stands a vitrine containing a map of the divided lands and an arrangement of cheap souvenirs and memorabilia. Lining the walls like a lunatic’s cell are padded cushions, painted, printed, decorated and defaced with images of kings and queens, heroes and villains, saints and sinners, entertainers and amateurs, the learned and the fools. We can imagine politicians enthroned in Anu’s padded room, hammering it out over territorial hegemony, their arguments and rhetoric as nonsensical as a madman’s.

The trenchancy of Anu’s critique of contemporary society calls to mind Frederick Jameson’s seminal work Post-Modernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism in which the literary critic and political theorist paints a dystopic version of the present. Postmodernism – which corresponds to the period from the end of late 20th century until the present (although this itself is under debate) – is the cultural arm of today’s capitalism. It is characterised by a weakening of historicity (historical authenticity), where historical reality is obscured by ideology and where we are obsessed with the present.[1]

Jameson also wrote of other symptoms of postmodern condition which included: a breakdown of the distinction between high and low culture, resulting in a fascination with the ‘whole degraded landscape of kitch and schlock (cheap or inferior goods) of TV series and Readers Digest culture’; a new depthlessness which manifests itself both as a superficiality and as a literal flatness (two dimensional screens, flat skyscrapers full of reflecting windows); and lastly a captivation with a whole new technology, which ‘sees itself as a figure for a whole new economic system,’ and is based on reproduction rather than industrial production[2]. Like Jean Baudrillard, the philosopher, Jameson believed in our inability to tell the real from the simulacrum (copy), nature from artifice, reality from representation.

Jameson’s description of this social anomie resonates with Anurendra’s installation. Stylistically the work is essentially a sardonic view of our love of the kitch and pastiche; it is a parody of pastiche. We are obsessed with things that appear like the real thing but that no long bear any true resemblance to the real thing. In the installation garish golden thrones, flashing lights and an abundance of dime-store paraphernalia like the Chairman Mao matches, Lady Diana stamps and Monopoly houses and property deeds comprise the ‘schlock’ of Jameson’s book.

The portraits on the padded cushions allude to our obsession with fame and celebrity, and the power of the cult of the personality. From Elvis to Stalin to Lord Muruga, they refer to the later 20th century proclivity to iconisise modern day heroes and villains and to transform older historical figures into clinquant icons. Animals too, it seems, with Anu’s pug dog images, are not exempt from this type of iconisation. The mixture of celebrities of different genres in the installation also points to our fascination with fame itself, rather than the merit, or lack thereof, behind the fame. These figures of modern culture embody Jameson’s scenario where trash meets money, where we live for the instant high, where we are ‘historically deaf’, and where the copy of the copy is taken for the real thing.

The use of a mythic story based around some historical fact is reminiscent of postmodernism’s weakening of historicity. Myths were developed to ‘mediate opposites, explain mystery, reconcile polarities, to take away the randomness of life and weave it unto a believable pattern.”[3] They were ancient ways of explaining the unexplainable. In today’s scientific and technologically advanced world, where news can reach the remotest corners of the world with the click of button, we have no need for myth with the truth so readily available. Yet everywhere around us, rumour and scaremongering abound, stereotypical beliefs cloud our judgment, politicians’ rhetoric dominate our everyday discourse and corrupt leaders rewrite history. Indeed, as Yesterday in a Padded Room demonstrates so well, we live in a world entrenched by absurdity.


[2] Jameson, F., Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. 1991. Duke University Press. Jameson also wrote of post-modern present as being experienced ‘with heightened intensity,’ which can be ‘described in the negative terms of anxiety and loss of reality, but which one could just as well imagine in the positive terms of euphoria, a high, an intoxicatory or hallucinogenic intensity.’ In today’s culture this can be interpreted as the instant buzz of social media.

[3] Willimon, W., The Intrusive Word, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1984.