Imagined Futures, Reconstructed Pasts

Imagined Futures, Reconstructed Pasts

BY ANANT ART · JANUARY 31, 2017

imagined futures creation

How do the past and future coalesce in the present? To explore this question 17 artists are invited to create a vision for the future or to re-imagine the past. The exhibition also offers a series of questions for the artists to ruminate on:

By bringing together memories of the past with an imagination of the future can important undercurrents in the present be rendered visible? How have the seeds of the future already been sown in the past?

Does an imagining of the future reveal a dystopia or a utopia: a fantastical magical space or a planet in shades of Soylent Green, drowning in seas of plastic waste and battling climate change? By catapulting viewers into the future, can the artists offer them the space to also interrogate the present and deliberate on the consequences of their actions on future generations? Can utopia in turn possibly engender dystopia?

Often spectres of the past come back to haunt us, configuring us in the process. Conversely, the past is continually being reconfigured from the point of view of the present. How is history being reconstituted to suit the ideology of the present? What ramifications does this reconstruction have for the future?

Some of the artists have chosen to address the issues of impending ecological disaster in the age of the Anthropocene. Gigi Scaria foregrounds the delicate ecological balance in his work Look up, Look down. His photograph depicts an installation, in which a house is perched on one end of a wooden log, while a mountain occupies the other end. The work highlights the degradation of natural resources and interrogates our notions of progress. Achieving equilibrium in this precarious sea saw is tricky as the artist so eloquently points out.

Issues of climate change are obliquely addressed by Prajakta Potnis in her lens-based works. She stages installations in a freezer in her ongoing series when the wind blows. The title draws from a 1982 graphic novel by Raymond Briggs. Potnis chose the now antiquated refrigerator, which unlike its current frost-free avatar deposits thick layers of ice in the compartment. For Potnis, "The frost from the freezer simulates a snow-clad deserted landscape or a terrain of an unknown planet. With the melting of glaciers to the seed vault in Norway, the freezer seemed like an appropriate space to reiterate the dialogue around the Anthropocene through the realm of the domestic."

It was in a Berlin residency that Potnis's attention was drawn to the 'kitchen debate' between the then U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon and the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in 1959 at the opening of the American National Exhibition in Moscow. Held largely in one of the exhibits - the kitchen of a model suburban home-the talks strangely enough focused on technological innovation in the domestic sphere rather than on each other's military superiority. This at a time when the danger of a nuclear escalation between the two super powers loomed large. Potnis references this exchange in her appropriation of everyday household appliances to stage her apocalyptic scenarios. In Capsule 603 the humble kitchen lighter resembles a missile, which has crash landed in a frozen landscape while in Capsule 309 the row of pressure cooker whistles create an atmosphere of tension, threatening to explode at any moment. A further sub-text to the work is provided by the fact that often the equipment designed for domestic use is a spin-off of the research and engineering originally conceptualized for purposes of war.

Rohini Devasher sees herself as an archaeologist of new fictions and futures, borrowing from Fredric Jameson's influential text Archaeologies of the Future. While exploring the relationship between utopia and science fiction, Jameson wrote, "For the apparent realism of SF (science fiction) has concealed another, far more complex temporal structure: not to give us "images" of the future - but rather to de-familiarize and restructure our experience of our own present." Devasher, who is an amateur astronomer, has been exploring this interface between the past and the future, human and non-human, utopia and dystopia. A star gazer and eclipse chaser, she carries out a series of experiments and observations, which are manifested in her work. One such occasion was the longest total eclipse of the century on July 22, 2009 in Patna. Contact, the series of photographs in the show, depicts the dome of the planetarium in the early hours before the eclipse. For Rohini they are, "A meditation on anticipation and expectation, prophecy and prediction, the waiting that is so central to amateur astronomy." While in anthropological terms "contact" refers to the first meeting of two cultures unaware of each other, in science fiction it alludes to the meeting between humans and extraterrestrial life.

Ravi Agarwal journeys back into the past only to leapfrog into the future in his works Sea of Mars and Pre-Post Anthropocene Craft. He attempts to excavate clues in our past to prepare ourselves for the future, including ways of imaging nature, which pre-date the age of industrialization. "The journey into the future could need many redefinitions. The past holds many clues. The kattumaran, is an ancient rudimentary hand-crafted fishing vessel, predating the nature-culture divide. It also presents itself in a 'Zen' cycle of life - of going back to the past, for the future. The way forward could be backwards, to re-embark on a new set of explorations - a redefining of space itself." In Sea of Mars the kattumaran is stranded on a Martian landscape, taken from a NASA image, with no water in sight. In Pre-Post Anthropocene Craft it somersaults in the air like a space craft, in its quest to chart new waters and futures. A future in which perhaps the relationship of the human to the non-human needs to be reconfigured.

Given the digital age we live in with increasing emphasis on artificial intelligence, robotics and drones, Arshad Hakim chooses to speculate on machines and their morality in his work Ouroboros. In the human-machine interaction, Hakim wonders what will happen if there is a disagreement between both parties and their chances of being locked into an eternal conflict. To get the machine to "vomit" out its morality, he fashions an LED running board, which he gets to "glitch." His proposition is that by this breakdown of codes the machine will reveal what it really thinks.

Like Potnis, Shilpa Gupta also foregrounds the dual use of technology, which it turn renders objects of everyday use suspect in the eyes of a state's intelligence apparatus. In a globalized world, not just capital but terror too can flow across networks, making of every traveller a possible terrorist. In her monochromatic work There is no Explosive in This, a string of seemingly innocuous items such as scissors, spanners and wrenches float like asteroids in space. Gupta thereby draws attention to the increasing mechanisms of surveillance in a post 9/11 world, where ordinary citizens are subject to extraordinary checks at airports and borders. With her tongue-in-cheek title, Gupta critiques the intrusive nature of these measures, while interrogating their usefulness and purpose.

Memory and history surface in the works of several artists. Erasure and memory retrieval, loss and recovery play a central role in Anoli Perera's practice. For her "Memory is a chameleon and a great manipulator. It is elusive, yet accessible. It is fragile, yet powerful. One cannot be without it, and its absence scares us. We become its captive as memory is our only anchor to a place, to a root and to our sense of time." This fear of forgetting haunts the artist as she searches for mementos, relics and faded photos in her mother's album so as to commit her mother's history to memory. In Silent Sitters family members fade in and out of the rose-patterned wallpaper in an act akin to memory retrieval.

Domestic concerns also come to the fore in Shukla Sawant's installation Kill/Cure, which highlights issues of care giving, gynocentric economies, processes of aging and their future imaginings. In an act, which deliberately emphasizes the handmade in a digital era, she painstakingly makes fine drawings of flowers such as datura and night shade. While they are medicinal in nature they also serve a dual purpose as they can facilitate the termination of unwanted pregnancies and female foeticide. To construct her boxes that house her drawings Sawant turns to Amazon packaging, which she finds excessive and wasteful, interrogating its usefulness and with it the usefulness of art itself. Here the very medium serves as metaphor.

Pratap Morey looks at how the urban landscape in Mumbai is rapidly changing around him in his works Superimpose and Transpose-Dispose. Observing these architectural shifts Morey comments, "Metros are undergoing a second wave of unplanned construction where old architecture is being destroyed to make way for a new, superimposed reality. By using digital photography in combination with collage and drawing, I try and capture the illusion of the modern landscape that surrounds me." These works function as palimpsests, with digital plans of imagined, futuristic cities superimposed on the older architectural forms giving rise to works that appear familiar yet uncanny.

Archana Hande in her Golden Feral Trail series records local oral histories to trace the relationship between South Asia and Western Australia, which reveals a story of exploitation, loss and erasure. Elaborating on her research she says, "The story of trade and migration between the two regions from the early 1800s until the present can essentially be mapped from the Gold rush to Ghost towns of today. This trail has taken me to cemeteries, abandoned graves, deserted mining pits, ghost towns, institutional archives and personal photo albums." In the heady days of the Gold Rush, it was discovered that South Asian camels were best suited to the terrain of the Outback. South Asian cameleers and traders, called "Afghans" were brought in with their animals to help the colonial masters hunt for gold. These South Asian camel handlers also played a vital role in opening up Central Australia by helping in the laying of railway and telegraph lines. However, with the advent of modern means of transport, the cameleers released the camels into the wild leading to a large population of feral camels. While many of the towns are named after the British explorers, the nomads who helped them - whether the Afghans or the aboriginal Wongatha - are largely forgotten.

Atul Bhalla's photographic works interrogate history through the lens of ancient buildings. They depict the Pantheon in Rome, which was a former Roman temple but now serves as a church dedicated to St. Mary and the Martyrs. Besides the pillars of the building, Bhalla's photographs depict a ruined dome and its shadow as well as an angel. The latter alludes to Walter Benjamin's angel of history mentioned in his Theses on the Philosophy of History. In it Benjamin in turn references a painting by Paul Klee, "A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned towards the past. A storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. [1]" In these works Bhalla interrogates the very need of looking at history to seek solutions, since often all it has to offer is violence.

The title of Anant Joshi's papercut on acrylic sheet, Landscape B C A D, succinctly juxtaposes the past with the present. The four part work is conceived as a comic strip, given the artist's preoccupation with toys, cartoons and animation stills. The genesis of the work lies in animated maps and coloured code charts that Joshi chanced upon, which depicted how civilizations over the centuries have evolved, expanded, migrated and been wiped out. The first of the four panels depicts a tree that appears like a Morpankhi and serves as a large family tree with names inscribed on the branches and leaves indicating a genealogy. The second panel resembles the Indian national tricolour; the third one depicts a seemingly abstract pattern in saffron followed by the fourth one, in which the abstract pattern has turned black. While cartoons might appear playful, Joshi is well aware of their subversive potential and how animation has been used as an instrument for political propaganda. He cites the fact that America's CIA secretly funded Britain's first animated film, Animal Farm, based on George Orwell's novel during the Cold War. Joshi's current series too carries political undertones, with the changing colours reflecting the swing in popular sentiment.

B.V.Suresh's installation Once Bitten, Twice Shy: Machine makes a strong statement on the climate of growing intolerance in the country and the curbs on freedom of expression. In his kinetic work, a loudspeaker perched on a bamboo rod cautions cultural practitioners such as writers and artists about shrinking liberal spaces. At the other end of the rod a duster attempts to create a clean slate by wiping over a circle of black coal dust. Is this a mechanism of inducing cultural amnesia, an attempt to gloss over dark deeds? A placard placed close by in Gujarati points to the menace of crocodiles in the city of Baroda. Signs such as these have sprung up near every bridge in the city, warning citizens that the river waters are crocodile infested. Suresh interrogates their intent and wonders if they are meant instead as an attempt to scare "illegal immigrants" who settle on the banks of city's water bodies.

Some of the artists have chosen to foreground temporality in their works looking at ways in which the past and the future intertwine in the present. While Swiss artist Marie Velardi seeks to represent the dynamic relationship between present, past and future with colours and shapes, Sonam Chaturvedi in her video work NOW dwells on the slippery nature of the word. Staged in a continuous loop, the word NOW appears and dissolves into a red background, leaving behind its after image. This spectral trace ensures a never-ending repetition indicating, according to Chaturvedit that, "The present cannot be defined or captured, it is ephemeral, just like this after-image."

In their hour-long video Come and Go, Madhuban Mitra and Manas Bhattacharya inspect moving images from the past, re-contextualizing them into speculative forms for the present, while looking to the future. The video comprises shots spliced together from films taken from across the world and from every decade of cinematic history. In doing so they examine the very history of cinema and how viewers now have agency about what and how they watch films instead of being passive spectators in a movie hall. The work is titled Come and Go after a one-act play by Samuel Beckett. Talking about the video they state, "We stitch together this diverse procession of figures, going far away and coming near, into a strange Beckettian choreography of repetition and difference."For them, "The horizon functions as a metaphor for the "after" or future, uncertain and unmapped but imagined beyond the space of each film from where the image is appropriated."

- Meera Menezes, December 2016

(Imagined Futures, Reconstructed Pasts was curated by Meera Menezes for Anant Art at Bikaner House from 7 December, 2016 to 18 December, 2016.)

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