Introducing a Wacky Good Artist: Hetain Patel

No cultural traditions were harmed in the making of Patel's video, so art fans can relax and watch.

No cultural traditions were harmed in the making of Patel’s video, so art fans can relax and watch.

There’s plenty of good art in the current exhibits at Wood Street Galleries, and one piece in particular is so mesmerizing—as well as so laugh-out-loud funny—that it alone would make a visit worthwhile. The item is a six-and-a-half-minute video called “The Jump: Part 2.” Words can’t convey the impact of this video any more than the photo (above) does, but I will try.

“The Jump: Part 2” is conceived and directed by Hetain Patel, an English artist of Indian descent. It opens with members of Patel’s extended family lined up for a group portrait. All of them, from old folks to a toddler on his mom’s lap, are dressed in their picture-taking best and posed perfectly still. Then the frame widens to show the artist at the edge. He is wearing a Spider-Man suit and he’s coiled for a leap.

Spider-Man leaps. He soars; he lands. And that’s it.

In real time, the entire sequence took maybe four seconds. “The Jump: Part 2” extends it to more than six minutes by being projected in super-slow motion, much slower than TV football replays or the typical slo-mo scene in an action movie. This slowdown has beautiful effects. Patel, the artist, happens to be a skilled dancer. He leaps gracefully, and he’s thin and gangly enough to come across as more spidery than any Spider-Man in the Marvel franchise films. For me, watching him soar in ultra-slow time called to mind Japanese butoh dance, in which the performers can draw out every little movement—the opening of a hand, the shifting of a shoulder—with such hypnotic slowness that you feel you are really seeing a human body for the first time.

The slow motion of Patel’s video also gives you a chance to study the family members in the background. Compared to Spidey, they barely move, but they do move. Various individuals turn their eyes or heads to follow the leap; some change their facial expressions oh-so-gradually. And for some reason this is hilarious. Perhaps they are pondering the basic question raised by the video: In a room full of Anglicized Indians looking dignified in their traditional garb, why a Spider-Man?

Patel chills down with a favorite person, his grandmother. (This image is a detail of the larger photo "Baa's House.")

Patel chills down with a favorite person, his grandmother. (This image is a detail of the larger photo “Baa’s House.”)

Portrait of the Artist 

Hetain Patel (pronounced heh-TAYN pa-TELL) is a conceptual-art prankster. That is one of the more delightful jobs in today’s global economy, and Patel exceeds customer expectations. If you haven’t heard of him, it’s because the show on the second floor of Wood Street Galleries—titled At Home—is his North American debut exhibit. In fact, the Galleries co-commissioned the making of “The Jump.” The rest of the show provides further glimpses of this multimedia artist who has won a sizable following in the British Isles.

Along with “The Jump: Part 2,” At Home includes Part 1 (a slow-motion view of Spider-Man’s leap from the opposite angle, showing only him), plus two more videos and a gallery of still photos. They are self-explanatory but here’s a bit of background on Patel.

Born to Indian immigrants in a working-class milieu in Manchester, England, Patel has said that he grew up feeling neither especially Indian nor English. Therefore why not be a multicultural superhero? His role models were Spider-Man and the media stars of Asian martial arts, notably Bruce Lee. And thence came much of what you’ll see at Wood Street.

The Licking Stick, the Letter, and Patel vs. Borat

Fans of split-screen video should enjoy “The First Dance,” which has six moving images going at once and features three actors: Patel, his wife Eva Martinez-Patel, and Chow Yun-Fat as swordsman Li Mu Bai in footage lifted from the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. One frame of the screen, at one point, shows a gorgeously incandescent scene of Martinez-Patel at a mirror in the couple’s apartment, decking herself in Indian wedding attire. In another frame, here’s Patel emerging from a car outside, then displaying his multicultural superhero weapon to the camera. It’s a wooden measuring stick, marked in a yard’s worth of inches on one side and centimeters on the other.

Eventually Li Mu Bai appears, flashing his sword about in a fearsomely elegant dance. And in a nearby frame, as his wife watches on a city street, Patel mimics the routine with his stick, doing a damn fine impression. (I’m telling you, the man can move.)

So whatzit supposed to mean? Surely “The First Dance” has something to do with identity creation or emulation and the jumbling thereof. But mostly I found it lots of fun to watch. And I got an ironic chuckle out of the contrast between the glossy, romanticized flashiness of the Crouching Tiger footage on one hand—and on the other hand, the down-home tackiness of Patel’s wooden stick and his less-than-deluxe artist’s apartment.

Which brings up another thing I like about Patel. He’s a prankster who makes fun of himself. I also like his wife Eva, who has quite the on-camera presence and plays along avidly.

The paired photos "Mehndi 14" give us a speech-bubble dialogue that's probably too small to read in this view, but one point is clear: Eva bears her husband's words and vice versa.

The paired photos “Mehndi 14” give us a speech-bubble dialogue that’s probably too small to read in this view, but one point about relationships is clear: The wife bears her husband’s words and vice versa.

Eva appears often in the still photos that show her naked back and/or Patel’s, each with messages written on them in mehndi, a henna ink used for non-permanent tattoos.

In “Mehndi 9,” Patel has inscribed a long, long letter on his wife’s back that begins as follows: “Eva I love you. You complete me. Well I guess I meant you and art complete me. I suppose family should be in there too. And friends … Also to be fair I also couldn’t live without my mum’s chicken curry …”

Venturing briefly into critical analysis, one can see traces of other conceptual pranksters in Patel’s work. I detect traces of Cindy Sherman, the photo-and-film artist who has used costumes and props to make self-portraits that comment on societal perceptions of women. Let’s also give a tip of the hat to McKeesport native Duane Michals, the photographer (and incurable joker) who writes text to go with his photos.

Moreover, Patel’s art reflects that of Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat— the actor who injects a made-up ethnic persona into real situations. The difference is that while Baron Cohen excels at messing with the people around him, Patel aims mostly at his own quirks, and is equally clever and more gracious. Check out his TED Talk “Who Am I?”

Here’s hoping we see more of Hetain Patel in the future. Meanwhile, many props to the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust (which operates Wood Street Galleries) and to Curator Murray Horne, for introducing this crazy guy to our crazy continent.

Krishna emerges from the dark, on wheels, in Muthiah's "The Arrival 1."

Krishna emerges from the dark, on wheels, in Muthiah’s “The Arrival 1.”

Plus, an Added Attraction …

Patel’s At Home is just one of two shows at Wood Street. Upstairs on the third floor are color photos by the Chennai-based photographer Nandini Valli Muthiah. On her web page she lists her “Preferred Style” as “cinematic, dramatic, touch of surreal.” Those words aptly describe the pictures in her series Definitive Reincarnate and The Visitor, selections from which are arranged around the third-floor space in a storytelling order.

Muthiah has recruited a male model to be made up as the Hindu deities Krishna and Vishnu, complete with blue body paint all over. She has then staged him in a variety of modern settings: arriving in the midst of a city in a VIP convertible, alone and reflective in his VIP hotel room, and so forth. Many artists in many media have worked with the theme of ancient deities (Hindu, Greco-Roman, or otherwise) afoot in the modern world. Muthiah’s photos are worth seeing because she does it well.

Both shows, Patel’s At Home and the Muthiah exhibit, are part of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s India in Focus series. They’re on view through Dec. 31 at Wood Street Galleries, 601 Wood St., Cultural District … and admission is free.

Photo credits: “The Jump: Part 2” screenshot, by Katie Krulock. Patel’s “Baa’s House” and “Mehndi 14” and Muthiah’s “The Arrival 1,” courtesy of the artists.  

Mike Vargo, a Pittsburgh-based writer and editor, covers art and theater for Entertainment Central.