Spotlight Art

Living in the age of the Anthropocene

Vibha Galhotra references ‘manthan’ in the contemporary context in her video.  

Manthan, or the churning of the ocean, is an age-old myth that speaks of the battle between devas and asuras, where the two sides of good and evil churned the ocean to extract amrit or nectar—the elixir of life. Artist Vibha Galhotra references the myth in the contemporary context with her tongue planted firmly in cheek in a video work of the same name. The short film (10.44 min) features four boatmen (hired performance artists dressed in smart water-sport outfits) who ply the black, polluted waters of the Yamuna on rafts made of discarded plastic and thermocol.

They dredge the river by dipping a piece of white fabric into the water and extracting black sludge. The amrit in contemporary context has changed to black sludge. We can thank the daily dumping of chemical effluents and urban waste into the Yamuna for this. Delhi’s arterial river once supported all kinds of biodiversity.

Galhotra’s statement about the state of the environment is sharp and cutting and extends to her other works as well, that are part of her solo show now on in the capital. The artist has, in fact, changed the pristine, white cube look of the gallery by scattering concrete slabs on the floor (a metaphor for the concretising of the earth) and by placing installations, video works and photographs all over in a manner that makes more for an intervention than simple viewing. Through her structurally large but deeply aesthetic works, she tries to redefine her own existence and ownership in a commerce-driven world.

“My exhibition examines the age of the Anthropocene (the age of mankind) with a critical eye. While we place mankind at the top of the pyramid of existence, our mad rush towards what is perceived as progress has ruined our environment and brought it to the brink of irreversible damage and destruction,” says Galhotra, 39, who has been working with environment issues over the past decade.

Vibha Galhotra’s exhibits make sharp and cutting statements.

Vibha Galhotra’s exhibits make sharp and cutting statements.   | Photo Credit: Rajesh Kumar Singh

“I have referred to the five elements, water, air, fire, earth and ether,” says the Delhi-based artist who believes that art can be used to make a statement and engender change. Galhotra is an alumnus of Kala Bhavan Santiniketan, where she completed her Masters in 2001, and is an awardee of the prestigious Rockefeller Grant for 2016 at Bellagio Center.

4000 AD

For this exhibition, as most of her others, Galhotra backs each of her works with in-depth research. For the overall approach, she has referenced conceptual artist Stanley Brouwn’s manifesto, ‘4000 AD’. She also draws upon Plato’s atomic patterns of the five classical elements named Platonic solids, believed to offer an account of the formation of the universe, representing the underlying form of everything that exists. In addition, she draws inspiration from Professor Will Steffen’s climate change graph, ‘The Great Acceleration’. She interprets these texts intuitively, giving physical manifestations to her reading of them.

The objects one sees spinning on a perpendicular axis as one enters the gallery are a manifestation of the Platonic solids, where each shape, whether cube, hexagon or tetrahedron, is a physical interpretation of one of the elements. Galhotra’s trademark ghungroo bells used in most of her earlier works have been employed as a visual tapestry for Steffen’s acceleration graph. “It looks a bit like a wave, and echoes Manthan,” she observes with a smile. “However, what it really signifies is the rapid growth rate of our society and its impact on earth. After World War II, in the 1950s, Steffen informs us that earth’s ecosystem and atmosphere changed rapidly owing to the altered economic patterns of production and consumption.” Tempting us with its shiny surface and aesthetic appeal, ‘Acceleration’ draws us in only to present us with grim facts. We are consuming resources at a faster rate than they can be replenished.

A series of photographs titled ‘Breath by Breath’ looks ironically at the element most often taken for granted: air. “When I grew up, one never thought about air or vayu because it was everywhere, it was not one of the visible elements and we were never aware of the air that we so freely breathed,” says Galhotra. However, Delhi is one of the world’s most polluted cities today, and comes second only to Beijing in China. “We are now forced to sit up and take notice.”

Cleaning leaves

“I was shocked to see jars of air being sold online. I thought, are these companies trying to make fools of us? But it made me reflect and I began looking seriously at the issue of air.” Galhotra followed the Central Pollution Control Board around Delhi, taking photographs of their survey equipment and also creating a series of humorous yet poignant images of the artist armed with a butterfly net trying to capture fresh air—in front of a rubbish pile, at a traffic signal, on a field in the outskirts of Delhi. The futility of the action underscores the irreversible damage done to the planet.

I was shocked to see jars of air being sold online. I thought, are these companies trying to make fools of us? But it made me reflect and I began looking at the issue of air

Another meditative work captures the artist wearing rubber gloves and painstakingly cleaning the leaves of a plant. “I actually do this on my balcony, because my plants are often covered with a film of dust. This normally gets washed away by the rain, but since Delhi has not seen proper rains in a while, we resort to this,” she says, gesturing towards the soiled gloves that are hung as part of the display.

One is curious about the sheets floating in formaldehyde, a la Damian Hirst, and the artist reveals that these are the pieces of fabric used to dredge the Yamuna in the film Manthan. One sheet is pristine white and the other black with sludge. “I wanted to preserve them as sculptural objects, a residue of the performance,” she says.

The gallery walk ends with an audio piece that is both amazing and shocking. A large metal container with the world map etched on it stands in the middle of a gallery room. When you hit its surface, a cacophony of voices breaks out.

The work, titled ‘Time Symphony or Cacophony’, captures the last element, ether. “Sound travels through air. For this work, I sourced different sound recordings from various time periods, like political speeches and recorded conversations between people. What first starts as cacophony dies down until one can hear individual voices,” says Galhotra. Sound is the most primordial of the elements and it seems most appropriate to end here.

ON VIEW: [In] Sanity in the Age of Reason, Exhibit 320, New Delhi, till April 16

The writer is a critic-curator by day, and a creative writer and visual artist by night. When in the mood, she likes to serenade life with a guitar and a plate of Khao Suey.

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Printable version | Apr 13, 2021 3:15:21 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/art/living-in-the-age-of-the-anthropocene/article17751286.ece

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