Residual Archives: South and South East Asian Art at the India Art Fair

In the seamless circularity of a porcelain vase, delicate blue figures: men, women, children, birds, objects, pieces of elements, shards of matter, in varying physical and psychological stages, healthy, infirm, hopeful, agonised, decrepit, fecund, solitary and concerted, undertake a journey in which origin and destination, going and coming, no longer occupy discrete positions on a linear trajectory but collapse into each other. As the spectator’s attempt to organise this lively play of human and non-human forms into a coherent visual narrative turns into actual bodily navigation and retracing of the orbit of Ai Weiwei’s eponymous journey, a complex story unfolds. Divested of its transcendental connotations as a marker of discovery and expansion, the circumlocutory journey becomes instead a scene of pathos suggesting vertiginous sameness, repetition and cyclicality. On the one hand, Ai Weiwei’s ‘Journey’ (2017) seems to work at a symbolic level, depicting like in Medieval Christian allegories and Buddhist Bhavachakra paintings, cosmic cycles of birth, death and regeneration (suggested by the serial arrangement of verdant and decaying forms), or the recursive succession of seasons (the coexistence of blooming and withering trees), or different stages of human life (a seated old crone and an animated young child occupying opposite points of the circumference). Examined closely however, these figures dispersed along the surface of white porcelain, bear testimony to crude historical realities: displacement, exile, forced migration, persecution, and loss of homes and habitats– those violent and painful journeys of diasporic subjects, asylum seekers, refugees, and immigrants, born out of modern geopolitical restructurings of the global map, who find themselves caught up in circles of bureaucracy, communal and ethnic intolerance, xenophobic policies, and fraught international relations, and so fail to reach concrete destinations of security, sanctuary, and belonging. Evocative of funerary relics, Weiwei’s vase serves as an emblem of mourning, of the artwork’s participation in a melancholic memorialization of precarious lives and their interminable wanderings under contemporary sociopolitical and economic pressures. The Chinese artist is, of course, no stranger to urns, gaining notoriety in 1995 with his performance piece ‘Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn’, a series of three photographs documenting the insurrectionary act of breaking by dropping an ancient heritage object. The shattering, reassembly, multimedia reproduction, and resignification of antiquated artefacts within contemporary late capitalist configurations of the material object, is Ai Weiwei’s politico-aesthetic gesture of defiant subversion of the monumental models of history as an official, unified and monolithic narrative- in order to liberate those complex microhistories that distress and destabilise the texture of any postcolonial cultural space. In the second work by the artist exhibited at the Berlin-based neugerriemschneider gallery, the parallel themes of deracination and duress are embodied in the sculpture of an inverted rust red tree. Titled ‘Iron Root’ (2015), this enigmatic yet unsettling interpretation of an organic form through the hard, tensile qualities of varnished metal is a play of contradictions, suggesting the often-difficult coexistence of violence and vitality, fragility and endurance, wounding and resilience. The jagged, macabre, and disorderly array of roots with their sharp cuts and edges exposed, tells us about the forces that have wrenched it out of the earth. Both a metaphoric continuation of the artist’s exploration of the theme of displacement and its effect on bodies and lives, as well suggestive of the interconnected nature of political/humanitarian crises and the rapid, irrevocable destruction of planetary lifeforms in the era of the Anthropocene, the uprooted and brutalised ‘Iron Root’ articulates a set of concerns that resonate throughout South and South-East Asian art on display at the 2019 edition of the India Art Fair.

In Heechang Yoon’s ‘Kamogawa River’ series (2018) on display at Japan’s Sokyo Gallery, rectangular swathes of fire blasted sand from the bed of the Kamo river in Japan’s Kyoto prefecture is used to trace cross sections of the course of this important cultural landmark. The water of the Kamo river, once clean and home to many fish, amphibians, and microbial organisms is now alarmingly polluted by rampant disposal of sewage and industrial chemical waste. Animating Yoon’s large canvases, the pigmented sand becomes a primordial granular language in which the river speaks to audiences far removed, asserting its powerful presence as an ecological lifeline sustaining multitudes of flora and fauna, while alerting us to the fact of its endangered status and possible disappearance in the near future as a result of human encroachment. Yoon who plans to use sand from the Ganga for another riverine project, uses the figure of the residue as material for an alternative history in which nature (and not culture) enacts narratives of depletion and exploitation.

‘State of Being’ (2018), Chiharu Shiota.

At the London based Blain Southern gallery, Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota uses weaving and de-contextualised objects as gestures of remembrance and resistance. In ‘Skin’ (2016) a networked web of blood red yarn is deployed to evoke the capacity of epidermal surfaces to embody in a language of texture, complex experiences of pain, affliction, violation, exhaustion, pleasure, and vitality. Shiota plays with the relationship between figure and ground to stage through unevenly distributed interlacings of a thread, the unexpected emergence of shape from its surrounding field. Unattributed to a strictly human context, skin as a phenomenon of preservation and surfacings, serves as a palimpsest for a deep structure of subconscious expressions, even as the performative process of weaving enables the artist to refashion the idea of skin from being a passive site for endurance and inscription, to something that is creative and agentive, constantly under repair and resurrection to accommodate new narratives. Shiota’s sculpture ‘State of Being [Paper]’ (2018) is a phenomenological rendering of the question of how something exists, an object’s unique style of becoming present to perception as an index of its identity. The interplay of delicately woven white thread, solid metal frames and a blank sheet of paper, works at several levels of signification: unwritten stories trapped in the meshes of circumstance, the intertwined nature of all being, or the enigma of meaning itself being a highly subjective process of training the senses to discern singularities.

The idea of art as engendering alternative historiographic methods informs the works of South Asian artists as well. At the Projects pavilion, Shalina S. Vichitra’s sublime installation of a thousand white Buddhist prayer flags animated by artificially created wind is a synoptic view of her nineteen-year old project of placing white flags in various locations across the Himalayan landscape. As emblems of peacekeeping in conflicted terrains, and cultural artefacts that evoke the lives of millions of Tibetan refugees in exile, Vichitra’s ‘A Thousand White Flags’ (2000-present) hosted by gallery Art Motif, uses the sacred object and its animistic philosophy of prayer as what curator Kanika Anand calls “geographical footnotes” to the artist’s archiving of endangered spaces and communities. Objects as storytellers re-emerge in Manisha Gera Baswani’s project ‘Postcards from Home’, hosted by Gallery Espace. Using the tradition of the postcard as a sign of communication across distance, Baswani’s project chronicles artists’ personal stories, perceptions, and memories of Partition. Her immersive work invites viewers to participate in a contemplative journey down a path created between hemp sacks filled with foodgrains, and pause intermittently to pick up a postcard and engage with the numerous inexhaustible histories of partition embedded and present in the material landscapes of the everyday. The event of Partition is interpreted differently in Reena Saini Kallat’s mixed media series on lines (2018) on display at the Chemould Prescott gallery. Referring to the simultaneously arbitrary and durable nature of cartographic divisions, Kallat’s abstract vignettes use electric wires, steel nails, and laser cut paper to recreate the borders that determine modern South Asian topographies (‘Durand Line, Radcliffe Line’). Her work serves as a politically provocative meditation on the violent reconstitution of physical geography into embattled and compartmentalised territories to serve human agendas.

At Shrine Empire, a conceptual rubric tries to connect the artworks on display. Curated by Anushka Rajendran as explorations of the idea of slowness; as a means of arresting the inexorable, and as frenzied speeds that characterise contemporary urban existence, both Sangita Maity’s small format works, and Wasim and Sheikh’s large canvases, engage with the idea of slow temporality differently. Pakistani artist duo Omar Wasim and the late Saira Sheikh’s ‘1371.1’ (2016) creates a sense of time suspended in a depopulated landscape in which an empty and receding railway track vibrates with traces and anticipations of past and future traversals. The finely textured and detailed structure in charcoal and conte becomes an architecture of longing, suspense, nostalgia, and waiting. A similar range of spatially mediated affects is produced in Sangita Maity’s ‘Living with Different Horizons’ (2018) in which stark, almost monochromatic images on iron sheet represent a myriad collection of urban detritus, from large abandoned buildings to close-ups of construction scrap and industrial junk: wires, bricks, cement slabs, and window frames. Offering an alternative account of modernity in which what is broken, dysfunctional and obsolete become the focus, Maity alerts us to the subterranean processes that undergird celebratory narratives of capitalist production and progress. Maity’s medium itself where the photograph is not a realist snapshot but an obfuscatory surface scarred with patinas of burns, noise, and jitters, serves as the perfect site for archiving a poignant account of contemporary capitalism’s production of what Zygmunt Bauman has called “disposable life” (Bauman, 2014).

The artwork as archive and testimony, bearing material and metaphorical witness to non-official histories in danger of erosion under rapidly altering sociopolitical and environmental conditions; the attempt: tentative, radical, and resilient, of art to encode in an idiom of tangibility and presence, histories comprising absences, elisions, disfiguration and disappearance of communities, ways of life, languages and natural forms- these emerge as focal points in the artistic re-imagination of contemporary South and South East Asia.

Cover Image: Chiharu Shiota, Skin, 2016.