British artist, Seema Mattu’s Electric Toothbrush (2016) begins with a question: “Have you seen a C-grade Indian adult film before?” It flashes on the screen for only a moment before the video begins in full force, but it sets a tone for what is to come. The text is written in a calligraphic font, an approximation of handwriting too contrived to be made on anything but digital software. Next to the question is a poorly photographed image of that timeless erotic archetype: a sexy schoolgirl. The edges of her head are squarely cropped, a bad Photoshop job pointing to the artificiality of the image. Her chin sits too angularly on the squat neck of a mismatched body, like a Barbie doll whose torn-off head was stiffly re-glued onto a neck it can no longer move on. She waves at the camera. Her white button-down has popped open. A red necktie falls between her breasts.
The image is funny in the way cheap erotic images are. It’s kitschy – tacky in a vein that I’ve found defines much of the young artist’s aesthetic. It draws on Internet culture, reminiscent of a recent moment when digital things felt less seamless, less digestible than they are in 2018. That kitsch is critical to Mattu’s examination of a mediated and globalized sexual culture where certain tropes are reiterated to sustain a social system that represses female sexuality to justify its violence against it.
The piece moves too quickly to dwell on a single image. At its outset, a male reporter asks an unidentified woman, “Dildos and vibrators are banned in India, right? So what sex toys do girls use?” She answers without hesitation: “Electric toothbrushes.” The sound clip recurs throughout the four minute video alongside certain images and clips in a spontaneous flow of image and sound. Silk Smitha and Kamal Hassan dance to “O Babuaa Yeh Mahua” from the classic romance, Sadma (1983), in the background. A border of thick-bellied, hot pink samosas flashes rhythmically as Smitha, a ubiquitous sex symbol of the ‘80s, dances to express the unrequited love she feels for Hassan’s character.
Other clips and images are imposed atop the video. On a distant feed, someone is asked, “Have you ever taken a naked selfie?” A video of Mattu on Snapchat floats in the top left corner, a head on an iPhone screen looking down on the viewer and the rest of the clips flashing in the video itself. The artist is made present, accompanying the viewer as we watch protests for gay rights, a party in a banquet hall where a group dances in a conga line, and stock footage demonstrating how to use an electric toothbrush. The images used are mostly anonymous, their sources unidentified, and, yet, they are highly recognizable – things we are used to seeing on the news or in films or in commercials. They are cultural signifiers we digest with some ease when they are presented on their own, but somewhat jarring when rapidly flashed before our eyes in Mattu’s videos.
The result of this strobing feed is ambitious. Ir takes time to digest, to capture the wide breadth of the found images, sounds, and videos woven together in the piece. Mattu contemplates the ways we digest images and information in a digital era, understanding that her worldview is essentially informed by an Internet Age. There’s an intentional friction between an obvious lightheartedness within the images themselves and this poignant exploration of the simultaneous oppression and exploitation of female sexuality in Indian culture, whether in diaspora or on the subcontinent. The politics surrounding a pride parade or gay rights protest are couched against more mundane moments: a selfie, videos of someone’s Desi community dancing stiffly in a banquet hall, a meme taken from That’s So Raven reading, “You’re Saying Gay Marriage Is Legal Now?” The political reality of sexual and gender-based rights is read as part of something larger, depicted with images that are, to return to the word, kitsch.
Kitsch is in the image of the electric toothbrush cleaning an anonymous white lady’s mouth. It is in the alternation between that image and scenes of Indian police moving civilians aside through a protest. Kitsch is in the clip of Drake dancing in “Hotline Bling” overlaid on the sensually choreographed sequence from Sadma. Consider that Silk Smitha was disparaged in the Indian press throughout her career. As a woman who put her sensuality on display, her body was a site of anxiety for a media who referred to her as a soft core porn star despite her acting ability. Kitsch is the way her image is taken for granted, her dark-skinned sensuality disparaged even as she reclaims her body from a culture that would hide it. What does Drake have to do with that kitsch, except everything? Both figures are specifically manufactured, forming an ideal of art whether based in dance and sensuality or based in the cultural capital of a James Turrell light piece and a pop star who can’t dance. Mattu reminds us of the kitsch in every image and piece of footage we see as stock – the kitsch that reflects something larger and more critical about a culture who manufactures its shit – its violence and oppression – into commercial objects.
In the last minute of the film, “O Babuaa” stops playing. No one dances. Only two clips play on the screen. On the left is footage of a Dalit woman, entirely naked except for a headscarf she clutches desperately as she tries to defend a man being taken away by the police. On the right is a clip from the film Unfreedom (2014). A young woman is raped as her father watches. He arranged the corrective rape to cure her of her homosexuality. Both scenes are brutal departures from the kitsch that pervades the first three-quarters of this piece. A departure from humor entirely. A divestment from cute. Mattu shows us a bleak reality, one taken from real life, one manufactured by a Bollywood machine, showing us this interplay of sexuality as it is represented and practiced. What do we take for granted when sexual violence is made a part of the mainstream? And how does that mainstream violence permeate the non-violent images that precede these ones?
Mattu’s constant presence in the corner of her work evokes an almost panoptical figure. She watches with us as the events in the video transpire on a separate screen. There’s an emphasis on the virtuality of seeing of something from afar, seeing a social issue through television or the Internet. By placing herself as the viewer, she creates a layer of separation from something that intrinsically and systemically impacts the treatment of women globally. Yet, despite her physical presence in the piece, the artist doesn’t seem to offer commentary. She is a viewer, seeing the images and clips flash beneath her as we do. Mattu acknowledges that her videos are assembled instinctually to reflect the way her mind works. Even in the footage in which she’s dancing in the conga line or in the photographs and selfies she flashes between found clips, she seems reflects on her own experiences as they run parallel to these larger phenomena. She raises questions, curating content as though this were a schizophrenic Instagram feed, never providing answers.