Colours of rumour, play and fantasy.

Colours of rumour, play and fantasy.  

IF, for a moment, we agree that cities have skins, then buildings are like pulsating membranes: some make music, others noise; some fall apart, while others cling tenaciously to their frame, like tattered handkerchiefs miraculously holding up the sky. Walking past Churchgate Station at rush hour, I wonder whether the passers-by have the headspace even to look at the skyline, or bat an eyelid between a damp PWD block breaking into a sweat and an Art Deco balcony taking refuge behind its dowager-like ornament. Shaking off the miasma of the mundane, I walk into Pooja Broota Iranna's exhibition of mixed-media works at the Guild Art Gallery, located in Mumbai's busy Colaba quarter (the exhibition has travelled from the Chitra Kala Parishath, Bangalore). Instinctively, I ignore the walls and cross to the centre of the gallery. A group of buildings stand there, covered in the colours of rumour, play and fantasy.

Standing taller than the average viewer, these building blocks made of board shake just a little. The artist seems suspicious of the straight line: every now and then, we come across blocks that have been deliberately glued out-of-joint. Their lightweight Do-It-Youself format may suggest the toy, but the imagery on their surfaces is both delightfully playful as well as perspicacious. Digitally manipulating the photographs she has taken on various journeys through architectural spaces, Pooja zooms into details of built form, sometimes leaving them recognisable, as with the occasional glass window, and at other times, transforming the image to the point of unrecognisability, such as when a parapet edge is turned, by subtle repetition and distortion, into a lyrical wave pattern. Using Photoshop, the artist textures and layers her photographed images, enhancing or muting them, even pulling them gently out of shape: as when she cajoles the image of a plain-Jane glass window into pirouetting along a fa�ade.

These digital distortions don't scream out; but play hide-and-seek with the various layers of the image, until you can no longer distinguish between the photographically recorded image and its digitally reworked painterly version. Pooja plays with the artifice inherent in both media, and thereby unsettles the conventions of viewing an artwork that is not only a photograph, but also a painting, an artwork that slips between definitions.

Our senses take delight in the compositional qualities of these structures: their anonymity, seriality and replication of form, qualities that we might associate with Minimalism. But wait a moment, do we detect a red herring? The Minimalist reading misleads: these surfaces are not flat and unornamented, but are richly worked. The regular shapes of these structures are subtly distorted by the tactile patterns stretching out like taut skins on them: diamond embossed concrete, flaking Tuscan yellow, frosted green glass, coarse brick. The urge to decorate is strongly manifest, but the ornament is not extraneous to the structure. Rather, it is integral to the expression because it connects the structure to an implied environment suggestive of architecture as well as the smooth and jagged edges of human relationships and interaction in the city. Who can enter, who trespasses, who leaves? Which is the fa�ade and which the core?

The artist blurs the categories of structure, surface and ornament and turns them into overlapping layers that compete for attention, morph into each other. This could also explain why the artist instinctively chose the computer as her tool: in the production of a digital image, the source cannot be separated from its various manipulations. The final reworked version is at once a template of human vulnerability and fortitude. Pooja's search for the perfect tension between fragility and toughness, the permanent and the ephemeral, becomes more concentrated in the miniature (5.4 cm) digital prints of architectural details framed individually on the walls. Aerial shots of staircases break into a kaleidoscopic pattern, cantilevers erupt into festive sparklers, windows turn arboreal and sprout leaves instead of glass; columns turn into spectres haunting the dark. We would not have guessed that these digital prints began life as gouaches and were reworked laboriously in Photoshop, the process sometimes taking a whole day as the artist merged textures and layers into a single image.

Her treatment turns each pixel into a live cell. The gouaches in her sketch pad (also part of the display) have the raw quality of the mark of the hand, which their digital counterparts retain. The artist does not refine the image to a point of synthetic polish synonymous with computer-generated imagery, thus planting a doubt in the viewer's mind: What is clear and what is code?

The display of the prints in the gallery reminds me of the jhanki, or glimpse: the central device of the traditional Indian visual principle of revelation by concealment. In this system, fragment and whole are constantly in interplay: the fragment is not dependent on the whole; the whole in turn is not reducible to the fragment. Pooja has deliberately not enlarged the size of the original gouache while working in Photoshop, an obvious temptation given the potential of the medium. The artist observes that, although they may be miniatures, "you can travel through them and live within their spaces, they are not meant to alienate the viewer." The hard structural geometry is infused with organic colours such as terracotta, aquamarine, viridian and ochre; forms become intimate, as when the extreme-close-up of a fa�ade appears as a microscopic view of algae. These works function like the compressed image files in a hard disk; if stored in expanded form, such files would cause the computer to run out of memory. This is an interesting metaphor for memory and representation: an experiential gestalt encrypted in a digit, recalled in a glimpse.

As our eyes pass through the maze of details, we realise that Pooja is not interested in building a museum of architectural styles or references. Instead, she makes us conscious of our habitus, which according to Bourdieu is a set of naturalised attitudes, customs or values that mark the relationship of the self with the environment. She thus provokes the viewer to scrutinise and become freshly sensitised to the habitus.

A work that particularly seizes the attention is a vertical panel of digital prints portraying different degrees of distortion in a jali pattern commonly associated with Mughal architecture. The smudged jali pattern is textured to look like dissolving stone or a tenuous spider-web. Like the miniature jhankis on the walls, this pattern dramatises the tension between the seen and the unseen, the graspable and the mysterious, the code that cannot be cracked. At the bottom of the panel are red knots that resemble the threads tied by wish-makers in Sufi shrines in India. Pooja leaves us with these tender threads of desire, which link us to each other and our environment, but which may encode the danger of breaking without warning.

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