Friday Review

Nature at its elegiac best

CREATING A SPECTACLE “Farmer with Spider”. Photo: Pablo Bartholomew

CREATING A SPECTACLE “Farmer with Spider”. Photo: Pablo Bartholomew  

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“Memento Mori”, Pablo Bartholomew’s ongoing show, creates a psychedelic panorama, which talks of time, past and present.

Among photographers in the country, Pablo Bartholomew has perfected the art of creating a spectacle of photography shows born in the womb of his own past. His latest suite of works that unveiled at Nature Morte in Delhi is titled Memento Mori. Slides captured in Bangladesh for the National Geographic in 1986 have gone through the devastation of rain seepage, termites and the ultimate coating of three decades of time’s tryst with decadence in film. So he gives it a resurrection and creates a psychedelic panorama, which talks of time, past and present.

Between history and memory

Surreal tints of an emerald green/turquoise haze dotted with pointillist porous textures stare back at you. Intriguing is "Farmer with Spider", a work which reflects the power and beauty of moisture laden patina that symbolises a cinematic aura with intimations of the solace to be discovered in the very texture of ruination, and the sensibility of sheer humility to be found in the nature of the images we see.

In the works "Two Boys and Passengers on Bus Roof" and "Boy with Sheep", there is a rural lucidity, essentially the testimony of time against the tide of what remains mortally absent through the presence of debris. The first feeling is one of haunts of history becoming the punctuation in the pastoral passage of memory. The historical moment is in the remnants of ruination, but it is memory that crystallises into a cocoon. The images talk to us about the sites of memory and the real environs of history.

Contradictions and conflicts

In more ways than one these images haunt us until we have fathomed the absence of reality, but rather a certain stylistic unity of livelihood among the pieces of narrative that get filled in if we know of the Bangladesh debacles. One image that burns through your brain is that of "Head of a Boy". At once a palette of contradictions and conflicts as you think of nations that fight over sharing waters of a river while an urchin lives because of the very presence of the river.

"This is the 3rd part in this series. In 1986, I was commissioned by the National Geographic to photograph the monumental effort of 15,000 Bangladeshi men who had to physically close the mouth of the Feni River to control flooding and create a freshwater reservoir for irrigation over a seven-hour intertidal marathon, thus building the largest dam in the country," recalls Pablo.

"I stored the negatives from the assignment in a box on the topmost shelf of one of the cupboards in my apartment. In 2014, I detected the aftermath of a leak that had its source in the apartment upstairs that had rendered the area damp and humid. I climbed a ladder to investigate and was horrified to discover that these original negatives had been feasted on by termites that had colonised the cardboard box. The images they had borne had become abstract and unrecognisable; nature seems to have interceded to create entirely new works of art. In a way I was looking at the power and poignancy of time."

Mosaic Mappings

We can borrow the passion of Pablo’s convictions, if only because of the immediacy and translucent intricacy of an image such as "Men By the River". Although moisture veils thinly so that flecks of the silhouette of the two men are visible, there is a certain inherent seraphic signature that contrasts with the lighter spaces where certain areas exposed give us dictates of dark room drama. In spite of the directness of his handling of the patina of negatives, Pablo has always been a photographer with a deepened conscience, it’s as if he has wanted to pay his respect to the mapping of time through the direction of human symbols in his narrative.

Mosaic mappings are tinged by the green tints of moss like gleanings that stream through our consciousness – tales that are struck down before they got told. The residue is a haze, one that quenches our curiosity and in turn asks us to ponder over the drama of bones that have once lived. Suddenly decadence and life itself are strange bed mates living out a tenuous, tendril sojourn within the frame of an everyday idiom. Abstraction and realism view with each other to tell tales.

While the colours of water seepage are vibrant viscous and varied the imagery of subjects come through as softly surreal more like a sustenance filled sub text as in "Horse Head and Flower".

Residue of Time

Around you in the matrix of rooms at Nature Morte are rustic rhythms, gentle edges and strongly contrasting areas of bleeding greens and pock marked fleshed out siennas – you are drawn into a vortex of virtual vanitas, one that hides the moody ambient that was born of the flooding controversy at the mouth of the Feni.

The scenes depicted here are like rainbow coloured reflections; a veritable comment on the transitory nature of life and the inevitability of events that function symbolically. The show traditionally alludes to an allegory of rustic resonance that tries to balance the beliefs of life’s simple pleasures in a land graphed by poverty.

In using the genre of memento mori, the modernist moorings in Pablo transform its significance and meaning to conform to the context of the times. In the case of these images that spin around us like 33 studies in still lives, the images do not function simply as invocations of an afterlife, as reminders of the transitory nature of this life and the inevitability of time past, but also serve to remind the viewer of the omnipresent aura in the context of simple things like seepage and termite infested rot.

At best even works like "Boy with Baskets" and "Boy with Fishing Gear" personify the power of portraits and how Pablo uses the idea of rural tradition to create a surreal study of the meandering momentousness of Albert Camus’ words: ‘You can’t create experience, you undergo it.’ You also acknowledge that both man and materials are fragile and mortal. Then in mounting a show that has a phantomic feel Pablo equates history and experience by giving us his own insignia of the conquest of one realm over the other. Above all, nature as a paintbrush has an elegiac elegance, a chromatic echo that the human hand can never equal.

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Printable version | Dec 7, 2019 6:51:49 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/Nature-at-its-elegiac-best/article14628606.ece

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