The cinema is predicated on machines. The cinematic apparatus makes possible an array of technologically-contrived spectral images on the screen. A dialogue in binaries, the exhibition Delirium // Equilibrium, curated by Roobina Karode, uses the techno-aesthetic genealogy of cinema to showcase a diverse range of works by artists including William Kentridge, Shezad Dawood, Alia Syed, Neha Choksi and Naeem Mohaiemen. The works cover a range of technologies that anthropomorphize the inanimate. The various installations (kinetic, video and the like) communicate a dystopian ecology of consumption. While works by artists Kaushik Mukhopadhyay, Sheba Chhachhi and Shazia Sikander concentrate on the various manifestations of elemental detritus, artists Nalini Malani, Sonia Khurana, Vibha Galhotra, Ranbir Kaleka, Nandita Kumar, Mithu Sen, Sudarshan Shetty and Amar Kanwar steer towards an ontological exploration of the digital medium through their works.
The exhibition begins with Kaushik Mukhopadhyay’s installation, Small, Medium, but not Large, which comprises an array of abandoned domestic objects such as obsolete models of phones, computers, keyboards, microscopes, home appliances and other technological litter. Placed neatly in different orders across a long table and a shelf, the objects come to life at pre-set points through auditory interruptions. The landlines from the yesteryear come to life as the sudden noise of the machine unsettles the viewer in a moment of sudden recall. Defunct, the computers are made to sit in rows and face each other with light bulbs placed between them; the arrangement evokes dark humour as the computers seem to be in conversation with each other in a departure from their past functionality that depended solely on contact with the human hand. Drawing from Bengali playwright Badal Sircar’s scenography of found spaces, Mukhopadhyay conjures a universe of used or ‘dead’ objects, imparts them agency, and creates his own language of waste through an anxiety of excess.
The assemblage of waste material weaves into Sheba Chhachhi’s installation titled Neelkanth (Blue Throat): Poison/Nectar. Drawing from the myth around Shiva’s devouring poison (and containing it in his throat) to save humankind from annihilation, the installation consists of 260 aluminium light boxes (each with monochrome pigment prints of isolated human body parts) that are arranged in different permutations with a video in the centre of the set-up showing a convulsing human neck. Using the contemporary Indian ‘infoscape’ as her entry point, Chhachhi draws attention to the rising levels of toxicity in the air and the pain of ingesting it. Grafting mythology onto the human body, she reduces the latter to the smallest physical senses as images of garbage dumps are placed amidst what otherwise appears to be a visually romantic landscape.
Mithu Sen’s work, I have only one language; it is not mine, is a video originally shot by hand cameras and phones, and later rendered into negative on screen. It is the documentation of a performance by the artist at an orphanage in Kerala (housing survivors of emotional and sexual abuse) where she acted the part of an alien infiltrator, Mago, who does not know the tongue of the human. Speaking in her signature gibberish, Sen interacts with the girls in a ‘non-language’ while establishing an organic bond by using the humour that an invented tongue allows. The visual language of the video is shaped by an informal aesthetic as the camera looks at its subjects often from the hands (and perspective) of the children, effectively preserving a childlike naïveté around the work. Working around the concept of a ‘language’ and its attendant notions of comprehension, the artist uses the indexicality of the image and an unscripted dialogue with the girls to create a surrogate world of spontaneous relationships.
Amar Kanwar’s feature-length single-channel video, Such a Morning, follows a professor of Mathematics who suddenly decides to retreat into the interior of a derelict train in the middle of the woods. As conveyed by the text on the screen, it is conjectured that the professor is losing his eyesight and that he has withdrawn into the woods to allow himself to acclimatize to darkness in anticipation of its total onset in time. A journey through motions of light and darkness, speech and silence, and fear and freedom, the film uses a running metaphysical text to establish a sensory engagement with intangible elements. Following the strain of slow cinema, the film explores the phenomenology of the senses, as an aural universe of flutes and strings merges with the sensorial registers of verdant landscapes and abundant streams of sunlight in haunting vignettes.
Ranbir Kaleka’s Forest runs along a similar strain of phantasmagoria, where a single frame is seen to house multiple characters and actions at different temporal points. The video, in effect, becomes a palimpsest of histories, where the static frame of the forest becomes an algorithm against which the various events are enacted. Placed along the even plane of the photographed world, the events become a spectral remnant in the viewer’s memory in their constant cycle of erasure and substitution. A particular tableau- that of a lioness guarding a bookshelf in the middle of a forest, strikes the viewer in the visual dissonance of the constitutive content. The subsequent burning of the bookshelf seems to point not only at the pervasive attempt at intellectual sabotage, but also the ecologically raging issue of deforestation; whether as bark or paper, a wealth of knowledge is lost.
The exhibition creates a ground for sound, colour, movement, tactility, light and shadow to converge in a technological alloy. Each artist uses the medium of the digital in very specific, idiosyncratic ways while a range of energies excited by the works are contained in the space of the museum in a dialogic equilibrium. While it showcases works that use cutting-edge digital technology (such as Shezad Dawood’s 3-D work, Kalimpong), it also houses works such as Sonia Khurana’s Zoetrope, which evokes the prehistory of the cinematic medium by using the eponymous kinetic device to mobilise a string of photographs and simulate physical performance. This hints at the contemporary impulse to depart from normative understandings of cinema by using diverse mediums of expression, much like the devices that preceded the advent of cinema proper.
Spanning a range of digital artworks, the exhibition attempts to poise itself between the nightmares and somnolence evoked by the machine. The exhibition accomplishes this by using the language of waste, gibberish, phantoms, virtual reality, animated machines and pictures of political pasts to offer a sensorial archive of the contemporary moment. The equilibrium is experienced in the architectonics of the space and in the attentive trajectory of the viewer through the cavernous museum alleys, as each work segues into another in a seamless flow of energy.
The exhibition is currently on at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art and will run until October 30th, 2018.
Collection and images courtesy: Kiran Nadar Museum of Art