Youdhisthir Maharjan, The Absurdity and Redemption of Repetition

Eva Heisler

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Key to Youdhisthir Maharjan’s creative process is repetitive time-consuming labor, whether that be twisting newspaper into rope, methodically erasing all but certain words from a book, obscuring a text with intricate patterns, or cutting and re-aligning passages to form abstract shapes. For his work Long Walk to Freedom, Maharjan erased all the text in Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, leaving only the periods. Disassembling the book to form a scroll, he then connected the periods to form one long line nearly 180 feet in length. In many works, such as Arctic Dreams and Finding God, Maharjan reclaims secondhand books and uses procedural methods to disrupt the visual and material conventions of their pages. Other works, as in his series Language Older than Words, arrange natural materials, such as twigs or thorns, in language-like configurations.

In this interview, Maharjan discusses procedural poetics, ritual, and his influences, ranging from Tibetan
thangka painting to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

You left Nepal at the age of nineteen to attend college in the States, and you graduated with a double major in creative writing and art history. What were you writing those first years in the States, and how did writing evolve into other kinds of mark-making such as drawing and collage?

In Nepal, we were taught to read and write English at an early age, and other subjects were also taught in English, but the curriculum focused on the sciences and mathematics. So, the culture of writing—expressing yourself in words—was never encouraged. Nobody ever told me that I could be a writer or an artist. The visual arts were a part of my life as a child, and everyone liked my works, but no one ever told me it was possible to pursue the arts professionally.

My first couple years in the States were all about experimentation and finding myself. For the first time in my life, I felt free. I could choose to study whatever I wished. I would take classes that sounded interesting, and almost everything was interesting because they were all new and unheard-of.

My early writings had mostly to do with social messages, trying to speak for the ignored and the voiceless. I almost gave up writing and painting after being introduced to Beckett's Waiting for Godot. Beckett’s work made me question everything I knew about language and writing and art. It is a two-act play, but both acts are almost exactly the same with no beginning, middle, or end. I read it with the possibility of adding an infinite number of acts and they would all be the same. Nothing happens for eternity. There is no salvation, no enlightenment, no epiphany. Repetition of nothingness forever. Beckett's influence on me was soon inflamed by existential writings and Hindu and Buddhist philosophies of reincarnation. The notion of repeating the same thing forever.

I translated this idea of repetition and meaninglessness—meaningless repetition—into my art by printing one tiny square etching plate of my stream-of-consciousness writings over and over again until nothing was legible. Futility of labor. The size of my prints grew larger during grad school, where I would print the same tiny plate several thousand times. After graduation, I was without my studio space and printmaking facilities. So, I started thinking about smaller works that would carry the concept and affect of my large-scale prints. I knew I wanted to work with texts as a continuation of my nine-mile long newspaper rope (still growing) that I worked on throughout grad school.

While going through the books I had, I discovered that I used to fill in the closed shapes of text, like “o,” “p,” “d,” and meticulously outline each word, drifting away from the act of reading. The marks were playful and childish and nonsensical, reducing meaningful text into whimsical shapes. Language is nothing more than noise and marks if you are unable to understand or read them. So, they were perfect starting points for my exploration of text and texture. I was conceptually immature before to dismiss them as my lazy doodles.

Many of your drawings and collages evoke the graphic conventions of the page. I am reminded of diagrams and other graphic organizers (but of course any relationship between image and caption is thwarted). Because you studied sciences in Nepal, with the aim of going to medical school, I am wondering if the visual conventions of scientific texts find their way into some of your works.

Not the visual conventions, but my approach to text is definitely scientific, methodical, and algorithmic. Scientific and mathematical diagrams are derived by applying universal laws. One cannot control the final result in science or mathematics on a whim. You have to follow the physical, chemical, and biological properties of the materials and allow them to behave in their own way.

Similarly, the patterns and images in my works are governed solely by the algorithm I apply to them, e.g., while filling in the “O’s,” I do not choose particular “O’s.” All of them must be chosen by rule, and the visual end-result is beyond my control. I choose what text to work on and what rules to apply to it, but beyond that, I only allow the work to take its own life, which makes the process and the works autopoietic. My interest is only in the process, not the final product. Such a scientific approach allows me to engage with the process objectively and to avoid projecting my emotions and opinions. The works become purely about the process and materiality of text.

Your works share the intricacy and patterning of traditional thangka paintings. Thangka paintings are mixed-media scrolls—I have heard them referred to as composite objects—with many different materials involved in their construction. Is your use of recycled materials, and your emphasis on the materiality of mark-making, indebted to the material features of thangka?

My interest is in the materiality of materials and the process, while everything about thangkas are highly symbolic. The materials and colors chosen for thangkas are specific to the symbols and iconography they are associated with. Effort goes into finding the right materials, which cannot be substituted by anything else. Because thangkas are visual illustrations with messages and stories, every color, form, and material used in their construction has particular symbolic and metaphorical meanings.

My works resonate with the meditative power of thangka paintings and the repetitive labor that goes into making them. I spent a couple of years working as an apprentice at a thangka school. It was more of a factory where thangkas were mass produced for sale. The whole process was systematic. There were people assigned just for specific tasks. It was a laborious process, taking months to finish one small thangka. You sit at one place and do the same thing repeatedly for what feels like forever, which is how I work. Like cutting out hundreds of individual texts from book pages or, in the case of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, erasing all text except the periods, and then connecting the periods to form one long line. It is laborious and mundane, and so, meditative and transcendental. It does not involve thinking or making decisions. Just repetition of the same thing over and over again, freeing your mind from being occupied with questions and worries. It empties your mind, allowing you to think nothing and experience eternity. Eternal nothingness.

You have referred to your works as “performative” and as “ritualistic.” Can you say more about this?

It has to do with my devotion to the process and its absurdity, and the meaninglessness of my works, like cutting out individual texts and gluing them back into simple geometric shapes or arranging them alphabetically, cutting out all instances of the word “God” from the Bible, braiding newspapers into a rope several miles long. They are useless and meaningless, serving no purpose whatsoever. They exist merely for the sake of existence. Without any important function, aesthetics, message, or meaning, the only thing left is their materiality and my engagement with the process.

A ritual is nothing but process. The process of any ritual is very specific and demands specific materials including a particular time and place, and even a particular person to perform the ritual, but the whole thing is absurd and accomplishes nothing. There exist several rituals for the same thing, like Hindus and Buddhists singing different prayers, following different rules, to different Gods (at least, Gods with different names), but the experience is the same. There is no right or wrong prayer, and no right or wrong way of saying it. The power of the prayer does not lie in the text of the prayer or how you say it, it resides in our dedication to and investment in the ritual of praying. Its effect and power can be experienced only if we abandon all reasons and questions, and surrender ourselves to the process.

Many of your works visually interrupt a found text by erasing and/or embellishing the page, creating a poetic or otherwise mysterious relationship between your added marks and the title at the top of the page (such as “Arctic Dreams” or “Gardens of the Moon”). Do you choose the texts specifically for the titles—perhaps using the title as a found poetic line?

Yes. The first and the most fun part of my process is finding books with interesting titles. Interesting because of their poetry, ambiguity, or their futile attempts to define words like Life, Love, God, Happiness, Art, etc. Words that cannot be understood. Words that are meant to be experienced, not explained. I have little interest in the story or text itself. My response is to the feeling the titles embody, not their meanings, literal or metaphorical. My responses are not visual illustrations of what the titles mean or suggest, or what the story is about.

I do not think of the title or theme that I want to work with and then search the Internet, where I can find almost anything. I like the idea of the books finding me instead. I frequent the swap shops and Goodwill where my chance of finding the right book is interrupted by several factors that are beyond my control. So, when I find the books I choose to work with, the whole process feels like fate or destiny, as if it were meant to happen. My journey and the journey of the book collide at a particular place at a particular time, and we meet each other. It is poetic.