Chennai’s iconic Binny Mills now becomes an accompaniment for art

The dilapidated Binny Mills complex, once a landmark of Chennai’s industrial legacy, becomes a poetic accompaniment for art

March 09, 2022 04:05 pm | Updated March 13, 2022 01:12 pm IST

A view of Binny Mills

A view of Binny Mills | Photo Credit: Ravindran_R

As you drive into SPR Origine on Perambur Barracks Road, inside to your left is a posh complex of villas and outside on the right is the majestic sprawl of Binny Mills, the bits not yet torn down for development. The visual contrast is so arresting that for a moment it seems as if this locale were itself a gigantic art installation. So, it is apposite that it is on the second floor, in a room with a sweep of glass that looks down at Binny Mills, that one finds the heart of the Within|Without exhibition mounted in a vacant villa on former mill land.

In 2011, in an antique shop, photographer N Prasannakumar had stumbled upon an old, cracked drawing of Binny Mills made by a Leipzig-based industrial draughtsman, and the yellowing page of a document recording how 20-odd acres of military land was given to Binny & Co. in 1928. Now, Prasanna has converted these into two cyanotype prints that evoke a conversation across eras that is immensely moving. The poster is printed on cotton fabric that is as close as possible to a Binny Mills original while the deed is printed on William Turner 100% cotton paper from Hahnemühle FineArt. The original cyan of the print has been toned with green tea and coffee for a muted shade that evokes the associations of a blueprint even as the prints themselves morph into a statement about image-making as an activity that embeds time and memory, presents and pasts, presences and absences into it.

Bhagwan Chavan’s work at SPR Origine

Bhagwan Chavan’s work at SPR Origine | Photo Credit: Ravindran_R

The drawing mirrors the bits of the mill that survive outside the window, becoming an intense experience of intimacy and distance; a simultaneous encounter with remembering and forgetting, creating and erasing that conjures one of those rare art moments of perfect roundness.

On the floor below, Pravin Kannanur’s acrylics on canvas reinvoke ideas of the circle as a search for meaning. The works are from his Core series with their myriad parabolic spirals that spin outwards from a heart of colour. Although only Score 3 is from the performance project he did where movement and musical scores fused, the other pieces also suggest sound moving and dissolving in centrifugal waves. In the best pieces, the colours make poised and confident ripples. The whorls and rings strongly suggest the Fibonacci effect, and Pravin says the concept underlies each piece. Can the artist harness the power in some of these works or will he be caught in the vortex of a recurrent idea — these are questions he will soon have to confront.

A close look at Pravin Kannanur’s work

A close look at Pravin Kannanur’s work | Photo Credit: Ravindran_R

The ground floor displays two artists whose works share affinities. Bhagwan Chavan’s layered oils, like the 2017 canvas that I will call ‘Shipwreck’, or the 40” by 38” in suffused blues and oranges show him at his best, but his recent move to acrylic is shaky. There is a distinct loss of presence and personality that might be discomfort with medium or the fractured mood of the pandemic. He shares the floor with John Tun Sein’s abstracts.

Explaining the theme, Coimbatore-based artist Jitha Karthikeyan speaks of spaces redefined by the lockdowns, the blurring of home, work and leisure lines, and all the things made unavailable to us. The show thus is meant to speak to notions of ‘without’ and ‘within’ and their many manifestations. One problem with curation these days is that the concept often seems built post-facto, after artists get together with existing works, and then shoe-horned into place. One is wary, therefore, of curatorial intent. Two artists seem out of sync: M Siva, whose interesting mixed-media exploration of vahanas seems adrift in this show, and the talented Natesh Muthuswamy who is now unwell. The works chosen from his oeuvre, with the sparrow as theme, have not aged well and sit uncomfortably.

The idea of ‘spaces’ then is perhaps best served by the venue. Seeing works inside the setting of a deluxe home makes excellent sense for art buyers, while the history of the place lends much drama to the art.

Within|Without is showing till April 3 from 11.30am to 6pm. Contact 9841570091 for details.

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