Sahil Naik’s Ground Zero

The fear of apocalypse is as old as the history of humankind. With the evolution of society into the postmodern era, we have, at our disposal, a plethora of causes for the complete annihilation of all that is alive and living. Sahil Naik’s first solo exhibition, Ground Zero: Site as Witness/Architecture as Evidence, explores this vision of the post-apocalyptic–what remains after the end of existence.

A look at Lazaretto, one of his main exhibits, brought to mind an image from the popular cult film, Inception. The haunting abandonment that the limbo city embodies in the film is echoed in the installation as well–a cluster of buildings standing in lost time. They are merely a reminder of trauma and loss, bereft of any other purpose. However, through Lazaretto, Sahil Naik is not just retelling a tale of the past, but also invoking a fear of a possible present, strife with the threat of war, terrorism, disputed boundaries and the perpetual need to migrate in search of stability. Thus, the artwork becomes a marker of not just a lost past, but an empty future born of an unstable, suspicious present. Cinema has imagined this in a multitude of variations but Sahil chooses to present his case bluntly to the viewer, thus allowing them their own doomsday fantasy.

While Lazaretto quietly resonates with the deepest fear in us all- of waking up alone at the end of the world, Naik’s other works like the Cafeteria, have a more violent energy inherent in them. Zooming out from the city space, this specific site of the public commune is a telling evidence of not just abandonment but also of deliberate destruction. The viewer’s focus turns from world apocalypse to site-specific violence–the disaster could be man-made or natural.

The exhibition turns the eye further into the intimate with the series titled Portrait of Homes/Exit Wounds. These brightly lit miniature rooms linearly set up on a wall. It seemed to me, as if, the artist took up someone’s destroyed home, dismantled it room by room, and installed them on the wall as if photos in an album. The light focused on works against the pale background presents a sharp contrast to the rest of the exhibited space which is enveloped in a foreboding black.

The curatorial choice of setting up Exit Wounds in an almost clinical manner made me think of the works being specimens under a microscope. The intimacy of the sculptural representation also made me somewhat uncomfortable, as I imagined my own home facing a disaster- a communal mob, a conspiracy, a flood, or a fire. The niggling sense of discomfort throughout the exhibition only becomes more pronounced with these works, bringing the curatorial concept to a full circle.

The exhibition intelligently plays on the distance of the self from the historical traumas that various communities have faced and the subjective fear of being a part of the same. The artist’s hard work can be seen in his detailing–from the upturned vases and dust scattered on the furniture to the little posters on the miniature walls and coiled nests of wire on the electricity poles. And yet, while he makes his sculptures as realistic as possible, using concrete, cement, wood, wires, and glass, there is a surreal quality owing to the lack of human presence, even as dead bodies.

In a generation where representation has been taken over by all the various possibilities of inevitable disaster, from The Drowned World to Mad Max, not all of us own a copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Hence, Ground Zero serves to remind us of the fact that there is probably no reset button for our civilization.

Ground Zero is on view until Jan 10th, 2018 at Experimenter, Hindustan Road, Kolkata.

All images used with permission.