(En)chanting the Wanders of Sea
Nature has been reduced to an object which can only be acted upon. The relationship is of power.
We need to think of our histories of dis-empowerment and dis-possession and of cosmic time in the same moment.
The inevitability of time has seen the long-term relationshipbetween human race and nature. The environmental changes and ecological shifts in current times inform us about the unbalanced practices performed by the part of the human population.The exhibition Else, All Will be Still by the photographer Ravi Agrawal, held at the Gallery Espace, New Delhi, India, put into question the lopsided equation of capital power and sustainability of ecology. The twin epigraph, which are part of the exhibition, hint at the same moments in history of disordered nature and dislocated powers. The photographer, writer, and environmental activist Agarwal runs an environment-sensitive non--profit organization in New Delhi called Toxics Link. Among his many exhibitions, the public art project titled Project Y (2011), running in two cities: New Delhi and Hamburg, played a key role in sharingthe environmental concerns of the two rivers Yamuna(India) and Elbe (Germany). Agarwal’s two-year stay at a village near the city in south India called Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu, culminates with the images presented at the exhibition. Closer to the coastal line, the city and its surrounding areas were popular among the colonizers, especially the French. The imprint of colonial rule is difficult to miss when moving around the city and village.
As we enter the gallery, the twenty photographs of boat engines mounted in white frames stand tall on the white wall to greet us. The collection titled Engines: 20 KM acts as a preamble to the exhibition, and like any preamble it prepares us for the rest of the gallery tour. The wide variety of colored boat engines, captured from an angle to give it a central space in the image, emphasizes the technological development in the field of fishing. Juxtaposed with the five parts of the boat engines on the adjacent wall, Engines: 20 KM underpins the recurrent leitmotif of loss of traditions in the face of technological developments. This juxtaposition – from collection to single –carefully delves into the notions of accentuation to be experienced by the viewer.
The village of the artist’s stay is the birthplace of ancient Sangam poetry 3000 BCE-3000 CE. Sangam poetry tussles between our internal emotive self and its corresponding external landscape. The poetry running parallel to the artworks is largely used by the artist to trace the journey of experiential creativity embedded in the land of South India.Interestingly, the titles of the five parts of the boat engines are borrowed from Sangam poetry: kuriniji/mountains, mullai/forest, marutam/agricultural lands, neithal/sea, palai/desert. These five external landscapes correspond to our five emotions: sexual union, yearning, sulking, pining and separation. The interchangeable elements of internal and external allow the artist to underline the social constructivism running between nature and humankind. Popularly bracketed within binary dialects, the permissible couplet of internal and external informs us about the eclipsing of nature by the totality of machinery.
The artist spent his days at the village dominated by the fishermen, which allowed him to understand their deep-seated relationship with the sea. The artwork titled Rhizome tends to decode the language of association shared between the fishermen and the sea. The variegated phrases placed on the placards are set against the evening sea. The long list of phrases includes: money, MLA, next village, climate change, sangam, temple, port, harbor, fiberglass, trawlers, wave, diesel, deep sea, engine, cyclone, neithal, stone wall et al. The tendency of the rhizome to resist the organizational working of hierarchy, to borrow Deleuze and Guattari’s use of the term rhizome, (un)seemingly put the placards in conversation with each other. While sprouting out from the sea sand, the eclectic placards carry a hidden word of warning/meaning towards the exploitation of the sea goingtoo far in the lives of the fishermen.
The triptych of catamarans titled Ecological Manifesto takes the viewer to the old ritual of fishing performed by the Tamil Nadu fishermen. The etymology of the term catamaran can be traced back to the Tamil kattumaran, meaning tied wood. Traditionally, the six long pieces of wood and three short pieces of wood are tied together to form a catamaran. The images of the floating catamaran in deep blue space are an attempt at giving us a three-dimensional view of the art of fishing. In itself a dying piece of art, the catamaran is a reminder of the capitalization of the sea. Belonging to the photographer’s fisherman friend Selvam, the original catamaran, which must be 2,000 years old now, is also used as an art installation.
The sea is synonymous with themeditative tone of the lunar tides. To translate a sense of tranquility offered by the sea at night onto a photograph is an exercise in qualitative time undertaken by the artist. The set of twenty-nine photographs titled Lunar Tide captures the essence of the sea at night. While facing this collection of sea tides, one is indeed transported to the shore. The twenty-nine images promise to offer us a unique experience of twenty-nine days of the lunar calendar. The long shot capturing the silver lining of the tide, chiefly visible on the dark surface of the sea, is captured by the photographer Agarwal while standing for long hours with the torch pointed towards the waves.
The point of departure of this exhibition is the question or questioning of the mutual bondbetween man and nature. The constructive narrative of nature once again becomes apparent in the image titled Salt Pan. The endlessly stretching and equally divided salt pans on the shore call upon us to locate the state of man under the umbrella of social constructivism of nature. The conspicuous absence of a human subject from the compartmentalization of the salt pan reinvigorates the interplay between social vulnerability and economic responsibility. Inclined to serve as a grim reminder of the inevitability of the consumerist world, the image invites us to witness the blurry boundaries standing between the sea and land.
The exhibition invariably necessitates the need to shift the focal point of governmental policies to protect the rights of the shrinking community of fishermen in India. Moreover, the subtle attempts made by the visuals to talk about environmental issues come at a crucial time of decay of the river Yamuna. Post the Art of Living Festival, organized in March 2016 at the floodplain area of Yamuna, the people of Delhi continue to fight its repercussions on the water body and its natural habitat. While walking through the gallery, the mind presupposes the empirical bend of the artist. How far does the “intent” of the artist qualify for the aesthetic value of the artwork? Transposing the sensibility of the seashore to the spaces of the gallery, via a series of visuals, demands an impact on the viewer which stays with her or him for a long time period. In this case, the art of curatorial display takes the ownership, before the aesthetic value of each of the artworks can be gauged. In the heterotopias of time, seeking a right blend of the two is not such a misplaced wish.
Ravi Agrawal, Else, All Will be Still
April 7 – May 14, 2016 at Gallery Espace
16, Community Centre, New Delhi, 110025
Ravi Agrawal, Engines: 20 KM
Ravi Agrawal, Rhizome
Fig. 3 and 4:
Ravi Agrawal, Ecological Manifesto and Catamaran
Ravi Agrawal, Lunar Tide
Ravi Agrawal, Salt Pan
Dilpreet Bhullar is working as an art coordinator at the Visual Arts Gallery, India Habitat Centre, New Delhi India.