Review: Section Yellow (again)

This was my first review for Art Slant.

Pretty Paperwork

As a Pakistani who is married to an Indian and lives in India on a tourist visa, Bani Abidi is intimately familiar with the visa application process. In her new solo show at Mumbai’s Project 88, it shows. Section Yellow is composed of  works made over the last few months including a video, two series of photographs and a set of photo-text montages. All the elements tie in with one another, though some manage this better than others.

The montages are meant to punctuate the larger narrative that is set out in the video “The Distance From Here.”  They offer a closer look into the minds and lives of the people seen in the video. Intriguing as they are, next to the largeness of the other works in the show, their format feels too small even though they manage to achieve Abidi’s intention of literally drawing the viewer in. Unfortunately, the montages feel like Abidi is making her viewer walk the plank. There are too few of them and each one ends abruptly.

When one enters Project 88, the montages probably go unnoticed because they are obscured by the enormous projection screen that hangs in the middle of the gallery. It’s fitting that “The Distance From Here” occupies pride of place because all the other pieces in the show are in some way derived from it. For those who are familiar with Abidi’s oeuvre, the video is simultaneously a departure as well as a continuation of earlier work. However, it doesn’t have as strong the vein of humour that characterizes many of the artist’s earlier pieces. The video shows people waiting in a room, and then going through a security check before queuing up for a visa interview. Although little happens by way of plot, it’s tense. You sense the anxiety and nervousness of the applicants as they wait.

This theme of waiting and the power wielded by the authorities in civil society is one that Abidi has been exploring for the past few years. In 2006, she made the video “Reserved,” in which a city ground to a halt in anticipation of a VIP’s arrival. “Security Barriers A-L” (2008) was a series of drawings in which Abidi presented the security barriers she’d seen in her native Karachi that were designed as much to allow some people entry as to pose an obstacle to others. “The Distance From Here” connects neatly with these themes. Abidi’s starting point for the video was the visa interview process in Islamabad where a shuttle bus takes applicants to the diplomatic area. The process of unsettling the civilian begins there and continues with the waiting, the security checks and the lines. “The Distance from Here” is a contemplative piece and needs to be watched more than once to pick up the details of storytelling. There are no plot points. Instead, the story advances through the expressions of the actors who are remarkably unself-conscious in front of the camera.

A number of the applicants carry folders of documents and all of them in the video have to queue up in a narrow space that is designated by yellow lines. Abidi arranges different photographs of these straight lines to create geometrical shapes in the “Exercise in Redirecting Lines” series. It’s a strong work that takes the concrete idea behind the yellow lines and turns them into abstract, almost meaningless shapes. The folders of the applicants are photographed on a white shelf and this series, showing those humble plastic folders, is outstanding. They’re visually powerful. The aqua palette of the folders surfaces out of the white background to great effect. Formally, it’s fascinating to see how the folder is abstracted into a landscape or seascape. You can’t help but return to them and notice details of how certain parts are blurred, how the light bounces off some areas, the gleam of the plastic, the softness of the paper. Who’d have thought paperwork could be so pretty?

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