Street Ballardry

The art of Delhi-based Sumedh Rajendran is theory-laced, obsessional and strangely preoccupied with junkyard motfis of leatherette and jagged metal.

Sumedh Rajendran's art comes swathed in capital-"T" Theory. "In landscapes marginalised by the hierarchy of power structure, negotiation is a mere theatre," the self-penned blurb to his 2004 show, Pseudo-Homelands, announced in fluent Foucaultian. An interviewer once asked him why he moved house from Kerala to Delhi. "I wanted to create a language that could communicate directly," came the surprising reply. "It should also include the philosophical content; the trauma of the society; our state of being." A tall order, you might think. And indeed, if Rajendran's work does manage to communicate any of that earnest cultural studies stuff, it does so indirectly.

His signature style is one of oblique suggestion and private code. The typical Rajendran sculpture might include a metal locker in the shape of a silhouetted horse carcass, a giant ball covered in leatherette and an old tyre. He has recurring emblems, such as animals, trucks, missiles and body parts, and favoured materials. Despite his impressive prices - $35,000 (Dh129,500) at Christie's for one piece, back in 2008 - there's nothing glamorous in his world of cardboard, industrial plate metal and fake leather. But there is something very highly aestheticised, almost fetishistic about it. I'm reminded of a dialogue that Martin Amis wrote in his review of JG Ballard's novel The Day of Creation. Says one enthusiast to another: "I've read the new Ballard." "And?" "It's like the early stuff." "Really? What's the element?" "Water." "What's the hero's name? Maitland? Melville?" "Mallory." So it goes with Rajendran, except his admirers would ask about heavy-duty materials, masculine military-industrial symbols and sides of meat. His work has that Ballardish air of obsessive preoccupation. It feels murky and personal and only incidentally - or symptomatically - political. He even does Ballardian titles: Betrayal Flesh, Infant Region Advancing, Breakdown Survival, compacted gobbets of technocrat neurosis. Like the sage of Shepperton, he's an artist whose particular gestures may be mysterious but whose general movement soon becomes predictable. Except when it's not.

"Actually, the photography, it's the first time that I'm exhibiting," he told me when we met at 1x1 Gallery in Dubai. "Photography is very recent." He has a joint exhibition there with Prasad Raghavan, an advertising man who makes imaginary film posters. The new show broadens the Rajendran repertoire to include such novelties as collage, staged photography and paper silhouettes. These are experimental works in the sense that he doesn't yet seem to have hit on a formula that satisfies him. "I wanted to do something with photo-collages and so I thought I'd try that," he said, half-apologetically. He enlisted an advertising photo crew and found film extras that met his requirements. "People between 25 and 30," he said. "And their body language should be a bit tired. They are embraced in the day-to-day complexities of life, and I wanted to bring that thing." Most important was their anonymity. "Their intention is to become an actor. My intention is to make them a layman."

In one image, a dishevelled office-worker stands against a backdrop of blue sky and clouds. He has his back to the audience and a large fish fixed to each ear. In another, two more schlubby characters stand in a patch of wasteland. Each has a plastic oil can for a head. One of the men is upside down. The artist, it appears, really is just trying things out. Indeed, there's a restless inattentiveness in some of these pictures, as if he wanted to get them finished so he could move onto the next one. Most of the scenery is generically urban, yet distracting details slip through. Why is there a Scorpio SUV behind those three men hiding their faces? It seems a bit brand-specific. Why the Pepsi commercials around the shuttered shopfront where a paunchy salaryman is being fondled by a huge leatherette hand? Are we supposed to notice them? One hopes not; that would make the picture seem as heavy-handed as the corporation it is plausibly satirising. And yet if they aren't there to be read, they shouldn't be there at all. The actors are perfectly anonymous. The scenes, however, aren't.

In the most successful of the photographic works on show here - none of them have titles, which may alert the viewer to their provisional status - Rajendran gives up on backdrops altogether. A group of his shirtsleeved sadsacks stand around in white space, each with one foot in a cardboard box. One has an oil can tied to his leg; another, a car tyre. As in the other pictures there's a lingering sense of silliness. But we're in Rajendran-land at last, an allegorical anyplace full of violent happenings and opaque symbols.

When we spoke the artist seemed aware of the challenge that working with photos poses to his approach, but he discussed it only in an elliptical fashion: "I can ask human beings to stand and act, but in my work there's a lot of animals. I can't ask animals to act." He added, with a hint of melancholy, that with photography "its context is different. There are a lot of artists for whom photography - good artists like Matthew Barney - they did very good work with photography. It's a very excellent medium. Maybe, compared to sculpture, I preferred..." Then he tailed off. Well, he's always most affecting when he leaves you to fill in the gaps yourself.

The proof of that is his economical paper silhouettes. In these, the sinister mood of the sculptural work comes through quite strongly. In one, a powerful figure in red stands over the prostrate figure of another. Neither of them have hands or feet: their wrists end in the hollow mouths of tubes. The victor has what looks like a railway shed sticking out of the side of his head. Wavy lines converge at the vanishing point, evoking a grey river estuary. The spare graphical style intensifies the symbols, or at least redeems them from ridiculousness. Rajendran started making them during a research residency in Manchester. Unable to work with sheet metal and leather he fell back on Paperchase. It's gratifying to think that the cutesiest of high-street stationers was able to assist work as disturbing as this. A companion piece shows a greyhound-like dog leaping through trousered legs to bite an ankle. The dog and some of the legs are cut out of silver wrapping paper. Below, one black shadow pokes a hole in the neck of another, and silver droplets run down his body.

Yet the most effective works in this collection are, inevitably, the sculptures. These are, so to speak, wheelhouse works for Rajendran. We get a pile of his animal-shaped lockers loaded on the back of a rusted replica truck. The lockers, he told me "are a thing that emerge from the human's relation with memory and his possessiveness towards his own fate... Even though it was the vital substance of movement, it is caught and restricted in a shape which is moulded by the situation of where you are."

We get a headless, legless horse, the front half of which is another locker and the hindquarters a shapely construction in leatherette. We get a man in leather trousers, his upper body cut from a rusted iron grille, bending to catch a huge leather sphere. Of his favourite materials, Rajendran made the cryptic observation: "There is an emotion. That emotion I want to translate, so I think about which material can carry my emotion."

Most hearteningly, we get titles. The chap with the ball is Abducted Corridors - Unseen Prey. The horse is Lower Ribs. So much of the power of Rajendran's work is bound up in these sullenly suggestive names. They emerge, he said, from exploratory writing sessions. "It's kind of my personal dialogues on how I interact as an artist when I create. There is always a dialogue happening inside me. Me and me..." These ones may not be up to the standard of his best - the shows called Chemical Smuggle and Street Fuel Blackout probably deserve that prize. But they crackle with life, galvanising the work. For Rajendran, a couple of words are worth more than all his pictures put together. Long may he keep talking to himself, working up those theories, working out those obsessions.