More than twenty-five years ago, geographer David Harvey surveyed the frontiers of a nascent postmodern world and opined its developing time-space compression would force us to “alter, sometimes in quite radical ways, how we represent the world to ourselves.” Without a doubt the death rattle of the Soviet Union, the subsequent restructuring of the geopolitical world, coupled with the advance of accelerated super-conduits of information, altered our conception of the world. The changes wrought by the last decade of the twentieth century also reverberated through the art world and left an indelible mark on artistic practice. With great alacrity artists, especially those living and working in India, responded to the tectonic convergences of the 90’s and, in turn, were enthusiastically greeted by an art world that had abandoned the pieties (and hegemonies) of the cardinal directions. But this story is well rehearsed by others and, perhaps it is now redundant or reductive to talk about India’s appearance on the global art stage. Bows have been taken; accolades given, and stars have been born. One could say that there is no need to celebrate India as the new kid on the block or to wax poetically about the adoption of new media or to even discuss how the liberalization of the Indian economy fueled a sea change in artistic practice. To do so, inadvertently suggests that India’s contemporary art scene is still enroute to a final destination; yet the title of this exhibition In the depths of our crater lake, all is silent…leaves no doubt that India’s impactful arrival has already occurred and the 18 artists in this show are not distracted by rumble of distant noises.
This exhibition, organized by 1x1 Art Gallery in Dubai, stands as an unapologetically open-ended survey of the Indian contemporary art scene. The eclectic line up of artists offers a diversity of expression, methods, and materials; if there is a unifying element it may be provisionally teased out by considering the manner in which each individual plays with time and space in response to the material conditions of contemporary life. For example, Chitra Ganesh, N Pushmapala and Ravinder Reddy take up ubiquitous cultural and iconic signs drawn from the domain of popular culture. Ganesh recoups the visual vocabulary of the ever-popular Amar Chitra Kathas in her shakti infused digital collages of female protagonists. Many Indian children cut their milk teeth on the graphic stories of Amar Chitra but in the hands of Ganesh, the narratives she pieces together offer a cheeky revision of canonical fairy tales and myths. The re-collection and re-presentation of motifs and forms drawn from popular visual culture also find expression in the work of N Pushmapala and Ravinder Reddy. Pushmapala’s The Return of the Phantom Lady (Sinful City) is an updated avatar of an earlier photo-performance in which she donned the mantle of film noir to masquerade as the Phantom Lady. As a testament to the power of the cinema in India, Pushmapala’s photographs underscore the mobility and malleability of identity in a manner that contrasts with the stable iconic representations of Indian womanhood created by Reddy. The brightly coloured, glittering forms are a leitmotif of his practice and may obliquely recall the lavishly painted, figurative decorations of South Indian temples or (by virtue of their size) they may serve to mark out a space in which to discuss the status of women and the continuous transformation of tradition in India. The work of these three artists employ culturally bound visual idioms to speak of a time and space that convulses across a number of historical registers. But their respective engagements with iconic forms ripple outward from the local in a way that perhaps Thukral & Tagra’s representations of super-kitschy, super heroes do not. Like Ganesh, the artistic duo calls upon the popular and often fantastical world of comics. The slick, finely rendered Science, Mystery, and Magic series navigates through the trans-global flows of visual culture to tap into an international “superhero” network. Though the series may seem to applaud the success and the global breadth of the American Marvel Comics franchise the slick, easily apprehensible images catch us off guard and wallop us with an incisive critique of the growing homogeneity of global culture.
Mithu Sen, Chittovanu Mazumdar, and Navin Thomas use installation as an experiential medium to explore issues related to individual subjectivity. Sen rides the wave of a developing concern to make art more socially relevant and in her video installation I Have Only One Language, It Is Not Mine the artist plays with the documentary impulse to chronicle her recent work in a site-specific locale in Kerala. Her work marks a productive exploration into the possibilities of synesthesia to actively tests the interstices between language, communication, and the realm of the senses. Mazumdar’s Nights of Matryoshka Dreaming creates a dynamic and interactive sensory environment that betrays the often tacit tensions between the public and the private realms of everyday experience. The boxes the artist has constructed for individual viewing constrict experience in a way that questions the dilated, collective viewing practices of an urban cinema hall. Mazumdar reconfigures the anonymity afforded by the darkness of the cinema into an ironic singular, self-conscious experience within the public spaces of the gallery. Navin Thomas, like Sen, explores the role of language but instead of relying on vision he employs sound to actively alter perception. In using sound as a medium, his installation The form of Barnacles crashing a shoreline...subversively extends the boundaries of experience and representation beyond the confined and stable space of the gallery – into a world beyond the white cube.
The spaces of the gallery and the organization of exhibitions within them often serve to sentiment ideas. The powers of the exhibitionary space are manifold but the added element of experiential afforded through the aforementioned installation work provides a valuable “take-away” for gallery-goers. Sakshi Gupta’s sculptural engagement with the formal elements of the cube seems an apropos comment on both the space of the gallery and the spaces of existence. Like many of the artists included in this show, Gupta seems to hone in on the politics of looking as a means of questioning what is at stake in the awareness of ones position in the world. At the still point of the world eloquently evokes the horizontally ordered space of subterranean or geological sedimentation yet her cross section underscores vertical axis of time to give visual form to the time-space compression mentioned at the outset my narrative.
The politics of looking is a theme that also resonates in the work of Abir Karmaker and Justin Ponmany. Karmaker’s Porno Paintings nuance the implications of looking. His intimate and carefully rendered images of generic rooms are unmoored from time from space - they could ostensibly be anytime or anywhere – yet they carry with them an uncanny disembodied presence that alludes to the watchful eye of surveillance and unfathomable trespass into intimate domains. Ponmany’s digital images, though seemingly diametrically opposed to the conceits of Karmaker’s finely rendered paintings, betray a common interest in the hegemonic possibilities of vision. The flattened visages of Simon and Prabhu harken back to the advent of the Mercator map in 1569. The compressed image of the world revolutionized the conception of the time, space, and distance in a way that secured the forward march of exploration cum colonization. Yet the reference to the practice of cartography, the idea of rendering the world manageable through representation, is challenged in Hema Upadhyay’s landscapes. Her ambiguously titled mixed media works Fish in a Dead Landscape can be read as cautionary tales pointing to the pitfalls of a world obfuscated by images. They speak to the visual detritus that often fills our lives and the space in which we live – like a plague of locusts, cartouches of birds, stamps and other images rain down upon the world.
Manjunath Kamath’s stilled representations of urban space stand in sharp contrast to the jam-packed cacophonous images created by Upadhyay. Kamath, like Karmaker captures the banality of everyday spaces in an unexpected way. His Dog Lover in Central Park reveals a lone man in an empty city park. His stillness and his isolation poignantly echo in the commemorative statue encroaching on the upper reaches of the image. Are the man and the statue relegated to the same space of neglect, doomed to serve simply as congregation points for birds and animals alike? In some way the image speaks of the existential conditions of urban India and the irony that some of the most densely populated cities in the world foster feelings of alienation and isolation.
Many years ago it was thought that the essence of India was to be found in her villages, but that has since changed; Indian cities are, in some ways, dynamic physical examples of time-space compression. Gigi Scaria trains his artistic eye on the creation of cityscapes as a means of mirroring back this condensed social reality. The compressed, densely corrugated quality of his City Unclaimed when juxtaposed with Slippery Edges or Underwater (reminiscent of the utopic work of Peter and Alison Smithson) form a productive dialectic through which to consider the perilous expansion of urban space. Aspects of the real and the imagined are also explored in Shibu Natesan’s Order of the Day in which a group of policemen, dressed in ceremonial garb, are standing in a dense forest replete with a varied assortment of domesticated animals. Though the choice of the officer’s dress may be the stuff of fantasy, the police presence in the forests attests to the reality of the ongoing conflicts between the Adivasi community, so-called “Maoist rebels” and the armed forces in India.
The work of Sudarshan Shetty, Poonam Jain, and Parul Thacker shift the discussion away from a focus on aspects of representation toward a conversation about process and material and how these elements impact our understanding of the art object. All three of these artists employ unusual materials in a way that is motivated toward the connotative. Shetty, for example, uses recycled wood to create the warp and weft of his oriental carpet. His use of unexpected material draws attention to how we often neglect to think about the origins and placement of the objects around us. The theme of origin and the social or political life of things are also addressed in Jain’s calico covered biomorphic installation. The artist’s use of calico calls attention to how the fabric played a pivotal role in colonial history and begs the question of whether or not that history has ended. As the title of this exhibition is drawn from the material explorations of Parul Thacker it seems only fitting that I should conclude with a discussion of her work. Her wall installations carry with them a sensuous quality that speaks of delicate connective tissues and permeable membranes. There is a kind of intimate topography of the senses at work in her wall installations; the fibre peaks and the crystal filled crevices demand that we take a closer look. They demand that we explore connections, processes, and encourage us to consider how abstractions have to ability to articulate aspects of reality. The title of her work In the depths of our crater lake, all is silent…suggests the importance of not only visually exploring the vagaries of surface and depth, but also to quietly meditate on the power of encounter.
Kathleen Wyma is a Hong Kong based Canadian art critic, educator, and independent curator. She currently teaches art history at the University of Hong Kong.
By Kathleen Wyma
 David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1989), 240.