DWELLING | Part Two
The word ‘dwelling’ evokes deep, intuitive associations of intimacy, consolation and belonging. These associations captivate us despite the unpropitious circumstances that often threaten our homes and territories of allegiance. The 12 artists presented in Part 1 of DWELLING – the 10th anniversary exhibition of Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke – engaged with the rubric of dwelling in a variety of register, including habitation, landscape, the nation-state, the diary as journey, and the materiality of site and locale. The 12 artists shown in DWELLING Part 2 also address themselves to diverse concerns, ranging from interiority to the panoramic. Fantasia and allegory manifest themselves as modes of revelation here. The exhibition’s visual formats embrace the trompe l’oeil vista, the performance video, the archive, the miniature and the sketchbook: each framed as a familiar yet uncanny repository of sensation, emotion and memory. Some of the artists evoke imaginary cities or planetary surfaces; others invoke the wall as membrane or skin, and the memorial or monument as anchor of identity. We come upon the group here as safety net and harness; we warm, also, to the nurturing presence of family. We confront questions of habitus and habitat, as well as the startling contents that find occupancy within the imagination’s labyrinth of hopes, fears, and desires. DWELLING convenes the works and celebrates the practices of 24 artists who the gallery represents; or who are its long-term friends and collaborators. These artists incarnate the life of the gallery, the web of relationships and conversations that sustains its activity. In preparing for this exhibition, I turned to an enigmatic, perennially important text of 20th-century philosophy: Martin Heidegger’s ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’ (1951), a meditation on accommodating the self’s needs and desires to the environment through architecture. During my conversations with the participating artists, Heidegger’s essay formed a dynamic bridge among the oeuvres of the participating artists, many of whom have long been preoccupied with themes such as ‘building’, ‘neighbourhood’, ‘community’, and ‘locale’. I invited our artists to regard Heidegger’s essay, not as a unifying template, but as an experiment in common ground. One of Heidegger’s key propositions in ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’ is that of the locale – the bringing together of the known and the unexpected, in the “founding and joining of spaces” that is the act of building. Heidegger emphasises that it is by dwelling “in things”, through nursing, nurturing, cultivating and constructing, that we most fully articulate life. A seminal yet controversial thinker, Heidegger (1889-1976) joined the Nazi Party during its ascendancy; he never publicly expressed contrition for this indefensible and repugnant allegiance after the fall of the Third Reich. The post-World War II West German authorities forbade him to teach or publish for six years. ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’ was his first publication following his intellectual rehabilitation. It is informed by his preoccupation with Germany’s post-war housing crisis and the homelessness wrought by the wartime destruction of its infrastructure. Doubtless Heidegger had also had time to reflect, during his six-year exile from public life, on the challenges of inhabiting a new society that intended to embrace difference instead of annihilating it. This society founded itself on an uncompromising belief in human freedom and dignity. Its Grundgesetz or Basic Law (1949) was inspired by the conviction, voiced by the anti-Nazi politician Karl Arnold, that “what we construct will someday be a good house for all Germans.” Whether in Germany, India, the USA, Turkey, the UK, or France, Heidegger’s ‘locale’ and Arnold’s ‘good house’ remain intensely relevant to our turbulent present. These tropes – as well as the gestures of nurture, cultivation, and care – recur, subliminally and without laboured deliberation, throughout the extraordinary works that have been gathered together to form DWELLING.
* The Artists
1. Abir Karmakar, ‘Abandonment of All that is Rational: Daybreak’ (oil on canvas, 2017)
The panoramic vista is a special form of landscape, a natural expanse proposed as a view that dramatically threatens to exceed its frame. Classically, it has been a site of the Sublime, the condition in which the viewer is overcome by awe, a sense of rapture mixed with fear when faced with a presence far greater than oneself. The panoramic vista is nature breaking into the narrow house of the self. Abir Karmakar’s evocation of the drama of sunrise at the edge where land meets ocean and sky is a fine exemplar of the genre. Its horizon is a space of liminality, a condition of betweenness and potential transformation. In its grandeur, Karmakar’s vista expands our physical sense of terrain as well as our consciousness. A sophisticated exercise in trompe l’oeil, it brings nature’s sheer otherness into the gallery, reminding architecture of the currents and cyclones that lie beyond it.
2. Abul Hisham, ensemble of works (watercolour, pigment and soft pastel/ charcoal/ coir ash on rice paper pasted on canvas/ hardboard, 2016-2017)
Abul Hisham retrieves the art of the miniature from the cabinet of multiple cultural legacies that all Indian artists inherit. He translates impulses culled from the Safavid, Mughal, Rajput and Deccani repertoires into an expressionist vocabulary, developing a sequence of portraits and tableaux that are uncanny, riddling, and phantasmagorical. Hisham’s protagonists appear to be individuals from everyday life who have been touched with the wand of folklore and transformed into archetypal characters. We meet pilgrims and fishermen in his jewel-like paintings; we encounter phantoms and heroes here, soldiers and worshippers. With them, we journey through hell zones of river, marsh, darkness, fog and fire, a borderland between dream and nightmare. In Hisham’s paintings, we celebrate the fabular universe of such story cycles as the Vetala Panchavimshati and the Panchatantra, which continue to reside in our imagination and may be activated as pointers to the challenges and dilemmas of our present.
3. Arun K S, Untitled (installation with watercolour, art powder colour and ink on rice paper, pasted on coated ply; found wood; brass lamp, 2017)
The monument or memorial is an abode of the past: a past as it is sought to be revisited by its legatees in the present, who honour it as an inspiration or infuse it with continuing, life-affirming relevance. Drawing on long histories of religious belief, marking moments of crisis, courage or sacrifice, a monument or memorial is a place of sacred memory. It is an anchor of identity, a talisman of faith. Arun K S recreates the auratic atmosphere of such a shrine through his installation, which is enriched by its various and simultaneous affinities with sculpture, painting, scribal occasion and ritual performance. This installation may also be experienced as a living palimpsest of temporalities: the found wood communicates its histories of natural decay and inner resilience; the rice paper is suggestive of artisanal genealogies of painting and papermaking; the watercolour and ink convey the agency of the marking hand.
4. Buddhadev Mukherjee, ‘In Search of Each Other’ (Chinese watercolour, ink and gold dust on Chinese rice paper, 2016)
Buddhadev Mukherjee’s works represent a wager on the liveliness and relevance of the miniature. The protagonists of his elegant paintings are cast in eccentric poses and whimsical situations. Sometimes, their limbs GALERIE MIRCHANDANI + STEINRUECKE are looped into spirals or stretched out into cloth towers. Or their physique is extended to include snake, bird, shell, fire, cloud, mountain, butterfly wing: they embody, quite literally, a heraldry of states of mind. Might we interpret these as portraits of varied qualities or temperaments such as curiosity, accidie, melancholia, or quixotry? Might they draw on plural sources, including Punch, via Gaganendranath Tagore’s satire, or the delicately drawn figures of Eastern Han Dynasty paintings (1st-3rd centuries CE)? Clearly, Mukherjee draws on elements of the Kalighat vocabulary, especially when articulating the masculine figure as pneumatic, elastic, and often dandy-like in its fastidiousness. His delicacy is deceptive – these are acute, empathetic, sometimes acerbic accounts of human foible, vanity, and vulnerability.
5. Dayanita Singh, ‘Time Measures’ (archival pigment prints, 2016)
The title of Dayanita Singh’s series, ‘Time Measures’, dexterously brings together the inexorable flow of eternity and the mechanism of time, invented by humankind to calibrate it. As though the power of Maha-kaala could be domesticated by dividing it into more manageable units such as years, days and hours. This intriguing title attaches itself to objects marked by the interplay of eternity and time. Here are these wrapping cloths: once bright red, now fading, the folded and knotted fabric fraying. Here is the fold: a trope of infinity bunched into finite constraints yet bursting from them. Here is the knot: a sign of mysteries withheld from prying eyes. What do these pieces of cloth hold: sacred books, government records, genealogical records, or property documents? The pothis and granths of India’s sacred traditions are preserved in such fabrics. These lengths of textile are places of dwelling for collective, often overlooked, memory.
6. V N Jyothi Basu, ‘My Sketchbook, 1996-2006’ (charcoal, pencil, and watercolour on paper: 83 drawings, 1996-2006)
For many artists, the sketchbook is the first domicile of the image, the cradle and crucible for ideas that will gradually take more substantial shape. Often, it will contain the first record of an epiphany, an embarkation point for unprecedented departures. As such, a special quality of intimacy inheres in the sketchbook, and such a document of daily practice is rarely placed on display, except in the context of a retrospective or other survey exhibition. In V N Jyothi Basu’s sketchbook for the decade 1996-2006, we find early evidence, rendered in charcoal, pencil and watercolour, of what would be translated into his scintillating painterly depictions of scenarios of futuristic planets and mega-cities. Black is not, of course, monochrome; in Jyothi Basu’s treatment, line, shading, pressure, texture and grain come together to generate grids, arrays of symbols, occasional figures, as well as speculations concerning the relationship of figure, abstraction and code.
7. Kiki Smith, ‘Everywhere’ (ink and leaf on Nepalese paper, 2017)
Kiki Smith’s drawings combine an exquisite delicacy of image with a robust sureness of handling: they are informed by her lifelong commitment to experimentation with various forms of printmaking. Here, we see the engraver’s fine line at work through the ink, conjuring up an allegorical self-portrait with a fawn. A versatile artist who has been active in a spectrum of media – including sculpture, drawing, printmaking, artist books, and posters – Smith has deployed animal imagery in her work for several decades. The wolf, cat and fawn carry multiple meanings in Smith’s private mythology, which revolves around the perennial themes of death, the journey into the unknown, and the resurrection. Sometimes, they symbolise the forces of the unconscious, potentially as productive as they could be disruptive. At other times, when presented in association with female figures, often manifestations of the self-image, Smith’s animals articulate the vulnerability and desire associated with female sexuality.
8. Manish Nai, Untitled (mesh and mild steel, 2017)
Whether as a painter, sculptor, photographer or installation-maker, Manish Nai has long been fascinated by the layering of materials and textures, and the surprises that may be encrypted into them through the judicious use of marking devices. The primal elements of light, shadow and surface have been his allies in these expeditions through the territory of abstraction. Nai’s work has been attended – in its various phases of jute-based composition, digitally conceived drawing, textile sculpture, and billboard-based works – by the optical effects of weave and wave, the evocation of hologram-like images, and the imperative of working with recycled, artisanal and industrial materials. In DWELLING Part 2, Nai approaches the wall as a skin or membrane, a palimpsest on which to register changing sensations. Gesturing towards the tropical anti-mosquito screen, he uses mesh to develop a striated architecture suggestive both of the conduits and the obstacles that await the act of transit.
9. Ratheesh T, ‘Amma’ (oil on canvas, 2016)
A self-portrait including the artist’s mother, Ratheesh T’s ‘Amma’ is a gesture of homage to the home as a focus of belonging. The key action of this autobiographical work is the cooking of a meal by the artist for his mother, in a reversal of the traditional roles defining the mother as provider of nourishment and the son as recipient. Ratheesh suggests a circulation of responsibility by which the younger generation demonstrates its ability to care for the older. The central rituals of cooking and sharing a meal represent the axis of affection and mutuality around which the home’s emotional architecture is constructed. An element of humour is injected into the painting by the mother’s response, which we can only imagine. She is delighted, yet perhaps also somewhat amused by the son’s efforts. This painting emerges from a series in which Ratheesh attests to the sustaining continuity of family relationships.
10. Surabhi Saraf, ‘Intensities’ (single-channel HD video with sound, 10.21 min, 2016)
How does a group bind itself into a collective while allowing individuality to its members? How do individuals enact the group’s “groupness”, while retaining the freedom of idiosyncratic action? Whether at the microcosmic level of family or school or the macrocosmic level of societies or nation-states, the enigma of collectivity has long exercised thinkers as well as citizens at large. Surabhi Saraf engages with it through the medium of choreography, presented through a performance video. Saraf uses sequences of moves that are clearly linked to dance and martial arts traditions: some of them suggest the katas, or ceremonial patterns of flow, transition, gesture and combat position, around which arts like karate are structured. Through these, she demonstrates how the group can be both matrix of cohesion and ground of strife. At the heart of ‘Intensities’ is the performative self, incarnating the condition of being-with-others as an arduous work in progress.
11. Vidha Saumya, ‘After Martin’ (cello gripper on four panels of Whenzhou paper, 2017)
Figures engaged in various forms of sexual encounter populate Vidha Saumya’s tetraptych, ‘After Martin’. As though thrown into an Inferno of the passions or a Hieronymus Bosch-like garden of sensual delights updated for the present, Saumya’s protagonists – who are depicted in all their pulpy fleshiness –pleasure each other, or themselves, or subject themselves to the flagellations of fantasy. We are put in mind of satyrs, nymphs, odalisques and other personae who have, historically, peopled allegories of hedonism. Saumya invites us to explore the allegorical resonances of ‘After Martin’. The open mouths of some of these figures come to stand for the carnal appetites that they all exhibit; and yet, curiously, it is an atmosphere of incarceration rather than of ecstasy that surrounds them. They inhabit a tableau that has, it would strongly seem, been posed under outside direction. Uneasily, we begin to recognise them as captives rather than as celebrants.
12. Vinod Balak, ‘Dwellers from an Unmapped Terrain’ (oil on canvas, 2016)
Vinod Balak approaches his subject, that of a group portrait, in the spirit of speculative fiction. His naked protagonists, absorbed in a game of soccer, belong to a society in which leisure is as rigidly structured as work, or is a precisely programmed break in work protocols. The building that forms the background for the group’s game suggests the corporate headquarters or call-centre macropolis. Looked at more closely, it reveals itself as a mega-coop for battery chickens. Its apparently seamless, hyper-designed symbiosis of architecture and vegetation suggests a bubble world like Huxley’s Brave New World – as horrifyingly dystopian, despite its air of serenity and balance, as any Gotham City or Panem. Through two apertures in the mega-coop, one of them a giant ovoid porthole, we are allowed to catch a glimpse of a truly pristine natural world, tantalizingly placed behind and beyond the reach of the denizens of Balak’s dystopia.
* Note: The Artists in Dwelling Part I were Aji V.N., Anita Dube, Atul Dodiya, C.K. Rajan, Gieve Patel, N.S. Harsha, Nicola Durvasula, Siji Krishnan, Sosa Joseph, Sudarshan Shetty, Tanya Goel and Varunika Saraf.