These are extraordinary times for thinking through images that cry for interiority and reflection in unique curatorial formations
Images are audible as well as objects of vision. We gauge their presence in our lives by deciphering their language and their framing of a moment. In thinking of what images say, I would consider Christopher Pinney, a leading visual anthropologist’s proposition of photography as a ‘cure’ or ‘poison’, depending on its cultural contextualization — its capacity to heal or hurt. Though his premise was based on the images’ service to an agenda, namely a colonial one, I would now dwell on his words in the framework of the contemporary landscape of practitioners — of new sites and thoughtful displays that deepen photography’s role as a formative and complex discipline within the arts. Such is the attempt at Exhibit 320, in its first photography show, titled ‘Postcards from the Interior’, collectively realised by organiser Nicholas Foo and photographer/curator Tanvi Mishra as an India-Singapore collaborative project.
Ever since photography was practised in India (1840 onwards), there has been a continuing effort at unravelling spaces and society before the lens, with the belief in the photo as a referent — tangible evidence of something out there. If this were the range of the ‘philosophy of photography’ — its fundamental purpose as a medium — then this group exhibition, which features six artists’ attempt at assimilating their experiences in respective country, seeks to substantiate the extended role of the photographer as a wielder of realities and creator of memory.
The three Indian artists featured here are Sumit Dayal, Akshay Mahajan and Ankit Goyal, accompanied by Carrie Lam, Sean Lee and Nguan from Singapore. In the curator’s note and lead essay by Indrajit Hazra, there is an overt reference to the ‘self’ in photography; on subjectivity and the personal life of a photographer as opposed what one may consider a photojournalistic exercise.
Sumit explores portraiture and the family in Kashmir; Mahajan, the queer community in Bangalore and Goyal, abstract recollections from the photographer’s perceptive world. Having dealt with Kashmir as a frontier, a ‘territory of desire’ as described by Ananya Kabir, we enter an imaginary space in the gallery with faces on lightboxes that are sensitive to the viewer’s motion. Sumit’s unique installation requires a visitor to touch the boxes as virtual ‘beings’ to reveal the face that hauntingly lingers on a translucent surface before retreating into darkness. In proximity, fixed to the wall, is an album of images that must be read in conjunction. But herein seeps the ‘poison’: how do we approach this work without seeing people as objects alone?
Recognising the need for physical contact as a mode of engagement and care — one that photography rarely permits by virtue of its distance from the object depicted in time — we notice how Sean Lee playfully arranges his own parents in front of the lens, creating a ledger of their lives as participants in a performance for camera, a satire on the self. I find a connection here with the work of Carrie Lam, composed as triptychs in horizontal and vertical formations, that shows an occasional lag in the sequence. Lam’s work, primarily based on her ties with her mother, is an effort to regain time, through her exercise of exploring a subconscious ‘truth’. Her introspective stance attempts to displace the viewer’s reading as we search for Lam in successive images shot over several years — as a girl and then a young adult — at times in the same location; and hence the photo as a historical trace.
From a photographer who never parts with her past to others who live and thrive in transit – are the works of Akshay Mahajan and Ankit Goyal. Mahajan’s series titled “I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone” has gritty and sensual images of the gay community in Bangalore, his friends, that express compassion and transformation from a mere observer to a chronicler and even a companion. In a country where homosexuality till recently was deemed illegal, his images are as edgy as they are humane; as invested in his subjects’ privacy, as their resilience to not only survive but to live outside the bounds of a stereotype.
On the other hand, Ankit Goyal’s surreal images of light seeping its way in, and bleeding from the centre outwards, are fatal attractions — whether with a lover, a night out or with a blindfolded companion. His practice is as much a statement on a personal condition as it is on an Art Noir style, where the image is a stain, and life a collection of impressions — dark, alluring and dreamlike. I end then with the work of Nguan, the master of the Deadpan in this show, engaged with depicting ordinary life in large cities. Shot in medium format, the works reflect the plasticity of life: insipid and drained, imbued with torpor and static in sharp focus — and in the end, a ‘poison’. As an exhibition, therefore, this is a series that compels us to begin a conversation about gauging saturation levels in photography practice today.
(The show is on at Exhibit 320, F-320, Lado Sarai, New Delhi, till December 31.)