Oceans of fantasy

Gaia Reloaded is Preetha Kannan’s vision of degraded seas and a new form of life populating the depths. She talks about her new show and her passion for the environment.

Updated - February 21, 2015 04:57 pm IST

Published - February 21, 2015 04:46 pm IST

A painting from the Gaia Reloaded series. Photo: Special Arrangement

A painting from the Gaia Reloaded series. Photo: Special Arrangement

A whale with airplane landing gear. A giant lobster with gear wheels; another with machine-clamp claws. A swordfish loaded for a very bloody war. A whale shark with a reading light scanning arch-punctuated walls. These images could be from a potentially terrifying future, a deadly dream, or perhaps just a mind rich in imagination and adept at creating adventures in an alternate universe. Reminiscent of the surrealistic visions of artists like George Grie, Artur Sadlos and Ruedi Giger (remember his startlingly nightmarish extraterrestrial in Alien , the 1979 Ridley Scott film starring Sigourney Weaver and Tom Skerritt?), this is the supra-imaginative creativity of artist Preetha Kannan.

Some years ago, Kannan spoke of her plans to focus on the elements: soil, water, air, fire and sky (ether). “I am planning work next on cityscapes with mangroves. Where do we have space for them any more with all this development in cities? And then I will be working on my underwater series.” This passion for the environment and its preservation was given fillip by her stint with Baba Amte many years ago, her involvement with the anti-Narmada dam campaigns, and her work with organisations dealing with women’s issues and the basic amenities for slum dwellers in Chennai.

She uses a method of laying on strata of paint with little dots, almost like pointillism, colours set one atop the other to create depth and shade that could be straight out of a digitally manipulated photograph. Kannan takes her viewer through a gentle dreamscape of mangroves — she has a deep and abiding concern about the rapid destruction of this coastal ecosystem — or into a vividly coloured world of trees that is in turn soothing and stirring. Her latest collection, which includes just seven paintings and two installations, takes her audience underwater to a strange new world that holds surprises around every marine rock. “It is a complete change from my older work; my last show was more ideal and balanced,” Kannan explains. This time she focuses on “facets of contemporary activity that pollute the air and water”, from industries to automobiles. “The great oceans are being negatively impacted by human activity and that led me to a very surreal speculation. Perhaps one day the destruction of the habitat will be so far gone that life will have to adapt to survive a new environment!”

Gaia Reloaded is Kannan’s vision of the oceans “with the environment degraded and a new form of life populating the depths”. And in the bizarrely predicative paintings she has tried to show “familiar forms melded with elements of plane tyres, circuitry, night lamps, pulleys, pianos and robotic hands, machine parts, bullets, missiles, war machinery, and more, merged with the aquatic creatures.” These surreal beings are recreated in two resin installations. One is an eight-foot-long shark with objects within its transparent body. “Look inside and you can see all those day-to-day bits and pieces, from pistons and cycle chains to elements of gas stoves, all completely rusted, as if they have been in the ocean for so long” that they have lost their original form and gloss. Included are skeins of electrical wires that would bring power to these internal elements, almost like veins would in a live fish. The other installation is a group of 30 fish, each about seven inches long; a school swimming along suspended on fishing wire. “Each contains plastic of some kind,” Kannan says, “a portion of a single-use toothpaste tube, a fragment of a quick-fix noodles packet, a little segment of detergent wrapping, a bit of a cola can…basically everyday plastic that we all use. These things are polluting the seas. I placed them inside the fish as I cast each one.”

‘Just seven paintings’ is a deceptive statement. Each work is astonishing in its intricacy, stunning in its complexity. It is amazing to find that it is all done with paint, not using computer imagery or photography. Kannan describes her work as having “details like pixilation, with constantly changing hues, suggesting abstract harmony of colour. It is from far away that this becomes obvious. It is all just paint, done with a brush, with gradients of colour.”

Each painting took her about two-and-a-half months to complete. According to Kannan, “This series is more surreal. I’ve been wondering how to depict what is happening today in my small way. I live near the ocean and have mangroves in front; they are dying out slowly, being replaced by roads and buildings and the coastline is slowly moving. We hardly have anything planted to save it. We also know that the fish are suddenly disappearing. These are simple concerns that made me think of the whole thing in a very dynamic way.” And maybe with this representation of a possible future, we as inhabitants of this planet will also share Preetha Kannan’s concerns some day.

Gaia Reloaded

Where: At Gallery Beyond, Mumbai

When: February 27-March 26, 2015

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.