Interpreting Contemporary Geographies: India Art Fair 2017

The India Art Fair, (IAF), opened at the NSIC grounds on February 2nd to an increasing number of footfalls. Despite the overwhelming number of galleries displaying typical paintings and sculptures there were a number of provocative and non-commercial Projects.
At the centre of IAF’s right hall, Art Heritage gallery’s exhibition of Vanita Gupta’s Breathe In, Breathe Out: A Medley in Spatial Registers introduced the viewer to an immersive realization of the process of inhabiting a topography. In the context of this work this could signify diverse possibilities: the uneven terrain of individual interiority, the interstices of the human body, or simply the contours of a fluid but intricate geography, including that of the gallery itself, exposed to the continuous traffic of what passes through—bodies, breath, elements, emotions, sensations, and the residue of intervention sand interpretations created by these encounters.

The work invited the viewer into a glass cubicle, creating the illusion of a symmetrical and seamless space, which was then partitioned by a central panel of compartments holding phallic mounds, some penetrated by scissors, needles, and knives. Creating an ostensible contrast between linearity and circularity, the straight edges of the structure juxtaposed with the undulations of the objects within, and the presence of cutting tools making a self reflexive gesture towards processes of spatial manipulation, Gupta’s work explored the multiple levels at which a space could be made to function, ranging from the smooth and expansive to the constricted and ruptured.

An unstated but subtly reverberating concern that seemed to animate this year’s edition of the India Art Fair with its focus on ‘global interest in South Asia’, was geography, understood not only in the specific sense of territories bounded and mapped, but also taking into perspective the challenge of approaching, perhaps inhabiting once again, the fixed cartography of the global through the disorienting and reorganizing effects of contemporary artistic intervention.

By bringing together and showcasing artists and works from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and India, The Art Fair attempted to weave a complex dialogue between places, identities, histories and artistic traditions, and thus opened the possibility of simultaneously representing and remapping through the lens of contemporary art practice, South Asia, along the twin coordinates of the local and the global. A meticulous foregrounding of the art of South Asia, worked alongside the showcasing of several international galleries to highlight the rising prominence of South Asian art in the international art scenario. The focussed scope of this year’s edition allowed for an intimate engagement with the diversity of mediums, genres, materials and formats displayed, while facilitating the possibility of more sustained conversations across disparate works.

What does it mean to talk of a geography of the contemporary, especially where the contemporary as the site of an unfolding present is essentially an unfinished and evolving dynamic? Does such a geography install itself in the realm of contradictions, inversions and paradoxes which push towards a continuous destabilization of representational formats in the search for newer materials, mediums and idioms of expression, ones that reflect the instabilities that constitute our contemporary world but also provide new ways of thinking about time, space, identity and matter?

Reena Saini Kallat’s MOMA supported installation, Woven Chronicle in which a network of routes and pathways travelled by migrants, asylum seekers, labourers and refugees is superimposed upon a map of the world, served as an apt encapsulation of this focus. Drawing our attention to the metaphors of connection and transmission, Kallat used electric cables as skeins of yarn, interspersing these with switches, speakers, and electrical boards, to chronicle the world not just in terms of borders, but also as a set of troubled and poignant itinerancies and displacements across and despite boundaries. As the viewer entered the arena charted by Kallat’s innovative multimedia map, a soundscape consisting of factory sirens, telephone tones, bird cries, and droning machines articulated a global imaginary in terms of a synaesthetic composite. As both tapestry and circuit board, the geography of the globe in Kallat’s work was seen as one that is prone to constant turbulence and testified to histories of violence, uprooting and dehumanization, where connections don’t translate into uninterrupted dialogue and coexistence but in fact alert us to the difficulties of attempting to weave such a dialogue across various kinds of cultural and political resistances.

The map emerged as a strong motif in Sri Lankan artist Pala Pothupitiya’s work exhibited by the Delhi-based Gallery Blueprint, where digital prints of maps were painted over and reworked to suggest a rewriting of existing historical narratives. In Fort Jaffna, a colonial map of this strategic location was playfully and irreverently superimposed with cut-outs of mythological figures, reproductions of architectural blueprints, and the artist’s own drawings. It evoked a hybrid history that challenged the notion of an authentic telling. In Pothupitiya’s hands the map divested of its symbolic authority was transformed into a resource fertile with alternative, indigenous and local knowledge about the life of a land.

In Shalina Vichitra’s work, presented by Art Motif, this aesthetics of cartography was used to outline the peculiarities of contemporary existence, to destabilize our habitual ways of relating to the spaces we inhabit, even as the map was made into a projection of inner topographies. Her acrylic on canvas works derived from and played with components of mapmaking: aerial maps, guide books, route maps, urban sprawls, survey sheets, legends and symbols, which were metamorphosed or ‘deconstructed’ into abstractions that conveyed the experience of emotional and bodily encounters with topography. In Enmeshed, a bright red 52 by 66 inches canvas, was made into an abstract map of an urban terrain, worked over with an intricate network of connecting lines, their energy disrupting the staid facade of the urbanscape, forging links through a fictive ghost world of urban alienation and anomie.

The ways in which these works played with the idea of territory, seemed to suggest a deliberate resistance to understand geography as a stable concept. It is in fact impossible to do so in a post-capitalist, post-modern, technologized landscape where boundaries of spaces and selves are simultaneously erased and inscribed. The question of geography acquired a different scale and conceptual register however in the work of three women artists showcased at the fair.

Parul Thacker’s work titled The phantom of an aureate sun, whose orb pupilled the eye of nothingness, was exhibited by Volte Gallery, Mumbai. It consisted of intricately detailed landscapes uniting miniscule forms of minerals, grains, Himalayan ash, threads, gauze and silk to create an overwhelming experience of texture. Her works drew attention to the craftsmanship and design intrinsic to subliminal and often overlooked natural processes and suggested a continuum between nature and art.

In Mithu Sen’s intricate and fractured landscapes, like Touchstone at Chemould Prescott, dismembered organs, skeletal remains, aborted foetuses, arterial streams and neural networks were seen to enmesh with everyday objects, decorative motifs, pieces of text and organic forms. These delicately detailed dreamlike spaces blurred the lines between the living and non-living, human and non-human, organic and inorganic by outlining the hidden symmetries and subtle continuities between them. In her bittersweet canvases the macabre ceased to remain so, as it became part of a larger process of mutability and regeneration. The fusion of forms and species suggested a topography that is not centred on the transcendental human subject, but rather shows the human as deeply embedded in a shared cosmos of materiality.

Sen’s sculptural installation, Phantom of Pain presented by Nature Morte, urged us to engage with the fragility of the human condition. A massive representation of dentures with pink decaying gums and countless tiny teeth was made to double up as a landform for miniature denizens of this macabre ‘landscape’.

Finally, Sumakshi Singh’s botanical forms at Exhibit 320: leaves, flowers, algae, web like formations, painstakingly crafted out of thread highlighted the resonant vulnerability of the solitary object suspended in time. Reminiscent of fossils, these works, ranging from large installations mounted on glass to tiny woven forms exhibited on the floor, invited a careful and tentative approach and enabled an exploration of a different order of time: of waiting, slowness, uncertainty, efflorescence and decay. In our Anthropocene era of global capital and rapid transformation of ecological systems, the fragility of these woven bodies, grossing one of the highest sales in the Fair, stood as a quiet testament of aesthetic resilience.

The Art Fair, despite its commercial intentions, managed to provide its viewer with much to mull over.