Documenting the age of Anthropocene

As the city’s oldest museum completes a decade since it re-opened, it stops to stare at the world around, inviting ten artists to respond to issues most relevant today

Published - March 16, 2018 08:30 pm IST

 Stacked up:  Manish Nai’s untitled pyramid features long narrow bars of garments glued together.

Stacked up: Manish Nai’s untitled pyramid features long narrow bars of garments glued together.

“Language imposes a strange and alien logic that tells us not to smell poetry, hear shadows or taste lights”, reads the text accompanying artist Mithu Sen’s video installation titled I have only one language; it is not mine . In Sen’s world of “lingual anarchy” we’re enslaved by the restrictive powers of language, that keep pure experience at bay, forcing us to articulate instead of sensing what we see, hear and feel. Exploring the tenets of interpersonal relationships and familial structures in society, Sen provides us with alternative ideas of home and communication. As one watches Mago, Sen’s alter identity, interacting with her young hosts — orphan girls in a home for abandoned minors in Kerala, ‘language’ — this very human attribute, loses its power of being the primary means of communication. Mago speaks in what sounds like gibberish, an alien incomprehensible tongue and yet manages to converse and mingle within her new environment. Smiles still get exchanged, thoughts still expressed and emotions replace the spoken word, leaving one to question the role of language itself. Does it alienate and exclude instead of resolve and unite? Mago then ends up becomes hope itself, a universe of alternate possibilities, pushing one to seek new ground, to leave one’s home in search of a new one, to explore and arrive at an unknown familiar.

Art and social change

The concerns that Sen’s performance-based project raises, provide an intriguing segue into Assymetrical Objects — an exhibition that commemorates the tenth anniversary of Bhau Daji Lad (BDL) museum’s re-opening to the public, post its restoration in 2008. Sen, along with nine other prominent Indian artists, have been invited by the museum to respond to the theme of environment in today’s anthropogenic times, with their diverse bodies of work that span video, still imagery, installations and projections. BDL Director and managing trustee Tasneem Mehta, whose own concern has always been about “how art can be a medium for social change,” reasons that “one of the most important discussions today is around the ‘Anthropocene’ or how humans are impacting the earth and the great need for us to change our approach to how we live and consume things. The idea is that the exhibition engenders conversations in these areas and brings about greater awareness.” To which Himanshu Kadam, the show’s co-curator adds “Each artwork selected for this show can be seen as an allegory of man-made and natural crises that are upon us. We chose the artists based on their strong engagement with the issues reflected in this exhibition.”

In the 160 years that the museum has been around, first inaugurated as the Victoria and Albert museum, Bombay in 1857, the world around it has completely transformed. So have its founding principles of nature and science that have been heavily compromised by industrialisation and its allied processes, severely damaging the environment and our lifestyle as we once knew it. So when Jitish Kallat’s mammoth sculpture ‘Aquasaurus’ stands exactly where a giant whale’s skeleton stood once 142 years ago, it’s with deliberate awareness of what it’s replacing and the process of change that it refers to. Kallat’s prehistoric monster, modelled on humble water tankers that ferry water in this city is inspired by the imagery of vehicles burnt to their bones during riots. It is a symbol of both — the shortcomings as well as the unrests that Mumbai, the ever burgeoning metropolis, constantly grapples with. The skeletal structure thus becomes an ode to the city’s bloody history, as also to its everyday.

Urban decay

Sahej Rahal on the other hand, draws a parallel between the past and the future, as also myth and technology, where he creates strange looking objects, which are folkloric (‘The Watcher’) and futuristic (‘The Walker’). Drawing on images of familiarity, Manish Nai, known to work with minimal structures created from ubiquitously found material, presents the viewer with what resembles a pyramid. Long narrow bars stacked one upon another, on a closer look reveal printed garments glued together, that one sees in street markets everywhere. This untitled pyramid though is hardly a marker of a glorious past, reminding one instead, of the ever growing heaps of thoughtlessly disposed garbage, generated by a vicious cycle of consumerism that plagues our towns and cities.

Is there a way out of this trap that we find ourselves in, one wonders? Atul Bhalla’s strategically placed images on both sides of the stairway, that one encounters while moving to the upper floor of the museum, further escalate the bleakness of the times we live in. His layered photographs of the Vaitarna river, mythically believed to be a pathway upto heaven, show a ghastly reality — a water body filled with toxic waste of all kinds — a self-created muck, that we as perpetrators cannot help getting stuck in. Shilpa Gupta extends this thought, merging our physical beings with chunks of detritus accumulated in the environment. Though amusing, Gupta’s interactive projection also leaves one rather unsettled. Watching oneself — a diminutive form on the giant screen, metamorphose into strange shapes, as the debris floating through the air cling and settle to one’s shadow with a thud each time, one realises that our actions are self-effacing.

Controlled worlds

While Rohini Devasher and Reena Kallat both provide viewers with intriguing modifications and perspectives to the current world we inhabit, Prajakta Potnis examines temporary man-made worlds like airports and malls that we often escape to. Using a miniature escalator model, Potnis places this within a refrigerator/freezer, drawing a parallel between the two as confined, temperature controlled spaces that cut off any contact with the outside world while you’re within. Her photo installations both exude a sense of sterility that is impossible to find in the outdoors, where not everything is built by humans and for human interaction only.

New world orders

“In the age of the Anthropocene, is there still room for wonder?” speculates Devasher, who of course firmly believes that there is. Using ‘strange-ing’ as a strategy at creative problem solving where the obstacle is juxtaposed with something completely unrelated to it, she aims at extricating a new perspective. With video footage shot at a volcanic site in Japan during a residency, Devasher presents an inverted, interior world projected onto a hand-drawn map. One, where a bright iris-like opening, like an inner eye, lights up a world emerging through mist and fog. The grid-like layers resemble the inner working of a machine, a computer’s motherboard perhaps, establishing the connection between “nature and technology’’ that informs all of her work. While Devasher drew inspiration from Jules Verne’s literature for her work, nineteenth century books from the museum became a point of reference for Kallat’s work at the show. Merging various species of flora and fauna, some important national symbols of states, Kallat transcends borders and the socio-political boundaries that come with them, uniting not just continents but creating a new world order along the way.

The way forward leaves in its wake a sense of nostalgia and with forced change, occurs a deep sense of loss. Ranbir Kaleka’s video installation ‘House of Opaque Water’ comes as a catharsis to the show. One travels with Sheikh Lal Mohan, through his memories, as alive as the cow in the shed he’ll forever hold within his palm, to the spot in the sea where his home lies submerged miles below after the rising sea levels drowned his entire village. The three screens create a surreal experience for the viewer as one feels like they would, when perched on the tip of a boat with the entire expanse of the ocean before one’s eyes. “Three screens make it easier to break away from the temporal and spatial singularity and linearity of the single screen,” adds Kaleka, whose work drifts between different spaces and time zones. His second video, more abstract in comparison, might not be as moving or emotionally charged as the first, but is a strong comment again on threats that our forests face with irresponsible development on the rise.

One walks away from the show with a sense of having seen different facets of the same thing; like holding an imaginary object in one’s hand or mind, one with many sides of varying sizes that extend, collapse and transform as one interacts with each one, closely and intimately.

Asymmetrical Objects is currently ongoing at the Bhau Daji Lad museum, Byculla until March 27

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