Historian Darrin McMahon writes, happiness “is the last great organizing principle of life. We no longer live our lives according to beauty or honour or virtue, we want to live in order to be happy.”
But this obsession with happiness clearly isn’t working. According to Oxford University researcher Michael Plant, the reason is something called ‘hedonic adaptation’—the tendency to return to stable levels of happiness after most of our life events. “We are remarkably good at getting used to things” he says, “There are very few events in life that have a long-term impact on our happiness.” Hedonic adaptation is a well-known psychological phenomenon. We continuously seek gratification through individual wealth, ambition, and good health, and in fierce denial of the futility of our actions. On an individual level, happiness is also extraordinarily inflexible. Births, marriages, deaths do have transient effects on self-reported happiness levels, but they typically return to their previous stages. While chronic deprivation affects life satisfaction significantly, happiness has a marked resilience to most other life events.
Now associate this well established theory as a plausible cause for the depreciating pleasure we receive from the romantic love that we oft glorify and prize as the epitome of happiness one can possibly achieve. This discourse sets the partial premise of Marium Agha’s visionary practice. Agha recently returned to Lahore with her solo exhibition titled “An ephemeral culture of love” held at Taseer Art Gallery.
Agha in her work debunks the myth of love and its gladdening emotions being eternal. For decades, the advice that women pass down on lasting relationships and marriages as well as the image portrayed in the local and global media convene to take a unanimous stance that for women, a loving relationship is the best they could attain, one that has an everlasting form of fulfilment. In a society that considers a lasting marriage as a personal achievement, propagates love as the penultimate target, and longs for companionship, the ideology has so deeply been ingrained and internalised that not only is the debate on the reality taboo, but most women don’t even realise – or dare to acknowledge – that love can and often is an ephemeral state that injects just fleeting moments of thrill.
Having previously used images of gore, of the flesh, and of the characters from popular fantasy tales, Agha focuses solely on flowers for this series. A flower is a highly symbolized icon in and of itself in the canon of visual iconography. It is also perhaps one of the symbols that has undergone extensive evolution and moulding over time, witnessing a shift in its interpretation. Once adopted as a sign of femininity and feminine beauty by both sexes, it is now being rejected by most women for having misrepresenting them for so long – a flower after all is nothing but a frail, transient, docile object with a short lifespan. How could it possibly represent the empowered, assertive women and the strength they embody.
Agha weaves compositions derived from found images of flowers on display atop ornate vases and table stands. The imagery not only speaks of opulence, consumption, and of an ostentatious pretence that one performs before an outsider to maintain their status and emotional stability, but it also very obviously cites the iconic floral still life paintings from the 17th and 18th century that we are all well familiar with – a movement that too lends itself as a metaphor for the consumption and vanity of earthly achievements, pleasures, and the futility of ephemeral gratification. In fact, few of the pieces by Agha are appropriated classic works by artists like Paul Cézanne and Van Gogh.
A labour inducing exercise that is spearheaded by a woman, the artist hires craftsmen to execute the painstaking details and patterns in these intricate tapestries. In doing so, Agha manages to capture the fragility and the delicate sensibilities that may not have shone through from this otherwise robust technique. Agha leans towards this medium for its lack of sympathy towards mending errors. It is unapologetically irreversible and any mark made is permanent that ironically contrasts the impermanence of human emotions and satisfactions that Agha addresses.
Agha distorts the images that seemingly break free from their confinements of their picture perfect frames. This not only denotes a sense of dormancy that plunges from the exquisite beauty and perfection that we seek, but also suggests an elevation to a state of euphoria. Temperatures risen, the flowers, the frame, and the canvas melt and diffuse; they are active, fluid, and unrestrainable. She challenges our idealised perception of pleasure that we deem as eventual and optimum – a state we consider as stagnant – through the illuded and constant transformative nature of her visuals. They seem to own agency of their own desire.
The heightened sensuality evoked by the motions in her work may not be palatable to many, and often her work is considered to be provocative despite it being implicit in its visual. However, it is intended by the artist to provoke. For too long we have ingested views on female sexuality, carnal desire, and femininity through the male lens. In the complex times of today where women stand up to be the voice of their own body and to regain authorship, works like these are crucial to raise dialogue and to raise awareness. Women driven narratives that challenge the male gaze by displaying their own perspective on their own issues are bound to provoke and to unsettle. It is always refreshing to witness women express their outlook on lust, sex, sexuality, desire and on the underwhelming reality of those topics that exhibits itself as a controversial dissent – a dichotomist reflection to the romanticized and glamorized notions around love and sex that is promulgated in our society across generations, and is dispersed through the fictional situations orchestrated in various forms of art, media, and cultural practices.
One strand of recent philosophical attention to Marcel Proust’s novel À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (In search of lost time) claims that romantic love is depicted in the text as self-regarding and solipsistic. In the early volumes of In Search of Lost Time, the young Marcel is forever falling in love with people and places at the drop of their names which he detaches from later, spinning in and out of the phonemes and their elaborate webs of desire. Love is directed at the partially knowable reality of the other. The ultimate renunciation of romantic love is not just a consequence of an impossible standard for knowledge of another person, but also of a demanding evaluative standard for the permanence of love. This interpretation takes into account the broader themes of lost time and the desire for stability, and is more charitable, connecting to familiar worries about transience and the yearning for constancy and longevity in loving relationships. Love is a strange emotion. Perhaps, it is not even an emotion but is a state that almost feels like an entity alive and wilful of its own choice. It is ever evolving. True love is neither quick nor brief or eternal. It changes from day to day. It ebbs and it flows, it fades and it reappears, it deflects and it stabilises.
Instead of transient, love, arguably, is fluid.