The clock watchers

georgina maddox | Updated on December 26, 2014


...stand and stare: The Raqs Media Collective trio

An art show which brings history and the everyday in close conversation with each other

Walking through the labyrinth that once was the officious Jaipur Hall of the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), Delhi, is a bit like falling down the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland. Things are not quite as they seem and get ‘curiouser and curiouser’ as one goes along. Entering the exhibition hall, one brushes past vinyl curtains printed with words like ‘Thinking’, ‘Snoring’ and ‘Looking’ that jump out at you. Then you stumble into a room. Well, it looks like a room but is part-photograph and part-artistic construction — a space where past and present are seemingly conjoined and time has collapsed.

This ‘solo’ work is the creation of three artists — Monica Narula, Jeebesh Bagchi and Shuddhabrata Sengupta — who call themselves Raqs Media Collective. They describe the show, titled ‘Untimely Calendar’, as a ‘working laboratory of ideas’. Founded in 1992, the Delhi-based group creates art, curates exhibitions, edits books and ‘stages events’. Known for their quirky, intellectual, poetic and at times, humorous art, they employ a range of media — from photography, video installations, sound pieces, print and text-based works to animation and sculpture.

“The National Gallery of Modern Art is a space that the three of us grew up around and it is interesting to come back here as hosts of an exhibit,” says Narula. The group took 18 months to put the show together.

“The space was very important and we chose the Jaipur Hall for its labyrinth-like quality to create the fabric of the exhibition. The articulation of the structure and design of the show was paramount,” adds Sengupta. Time appears to be the underpinning element of the exhibition, which brings history and the everyday in close conversation with each other. It also juxtaposes the swampy-marshy Delhi suburb with the electric cable towers and growing high-rises; a dormant volcano in Mumbai that feeds the hearth of a tea stall; a factory in Poland may be offset by a monument in distant Vietnam.

One is confronted with a bewildering array of new-media works. In one section, 18 TV monitors hang from the ceiling, displaying official sounding references such as ‘Letter of Verification and Authentication’ and ‘Letter found in the Dead Letter Office’. Humorous and poetic video clips play on a loop. Among stills of a city skyline and various animals appearing on a contraption that resembles an old radio, the most striking is of a man performing a card trick in which his thumbprint appears magically on one of the cards. He later proceeds to sever his thumb and the reference to Eklavya in the Mahabharat becomes apparent.

The letters, an accompanying plaque explains, are correspondence from a KD Vyas, a character likened to an author in the piece that refers to the eight episodes of the Mahabharat. While the video clips show contemporary city life, their allusion to the epic is apparent in each piece.

In another room, an array of photographs lead us into a different time and space, one where photographs are described but never seen. “These excerpts are from actual letters written by soldiers during the 1914 War, about a woman who helped them escape. These were very moving narratives since we believe in honourable traitors,” says Sengupta, of the German woman who saved Indian soldiers.

“It is interesting that these soldiers were from the hinterland of Punjab, UP and Haryana, yet they spoke so sensitively of the women around them,” says Bagchi. “It changes the way you see that time and how women were viewed. We realise that it is not a linear progression and that perhaps there was more respect for women then,” he adds.

Elsewhere in the exhibition, light blubs are arranged to spell the word ‘Revoltage’, but with only ‘Revolt’ lighting up at first. This installation is a prelude to the two-channel video piece The Capital of Accumulation. It talks about Rosa Luxemburg, a revolutionary, the light bulb factory and the creation of artificial light, which allowed mankind to extend work- and play-hours beyond sunset. While it is a tribute to labour and modernity, it is also a critique of a system that continues to extend working hours from 8 to 12, 14 and even 16 hours.

“The piece also contemplates how the human body responds to the world and the pressure created by night changing into day and the hours that are stolen from the workforce,” observes Sengupta.

The adjoining room is full of stuffed objects, such as a reindeer, flamingo, beetles, a tiger and a telescope. While they make references to forgotten or retired constellations, a large clock in the centre keeps time and locates itself in relation to the cosmos, equipped as it is with a GPS tracking device. Finally, all of this is watched over by the two guardians of the Reserve Bank of India, who keep the fortunes within the city.

Admittedly there are pieces in the show that could have been better appreciated if they were viewed separately, as they do not quite fit in with the theme. A few of the works rely heavily on the text to convey the meaning behind the work.

For the viewer who might ask in puzzlement, ‘What is this?’, the artists have one stock response. “It is a question we encourage our viewers to ponder, for it is something we often encounter in life,” says Sengupta. “We have grown comfortable with being bewildered and we encourage our viewers to take out time from the rigours of life to find intellectual questions that may have escaped them.”

(The show runs till February 15, 2015, at NGMA)

Georgina Maddox is a Delhi-based art writer

Published on December 26, 2014

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