Interview: Rohini Devasher

Unearthed another lovely interview, in which I learnt many things, like the idea that art is like science fiction and that there is such a thing as “video feedback”. Snippets of it are in the little profile I wrote of Rohini Devasher for the February issue of ELLE. Rohini, like Mridula, is one of our “transformers”.

A lot of your earlier work had a distinctly sci-fi quality to it. Were you inspired by science and science fiction?

I’ve been a huge fan of both scifi and fantasy since I was about 15 so I am certain that has coloured the way I look at things and the way I work. All these fantastic possible / probable / improbable pasts / presents / futures which draw you in. Science fiction in particular is a powerful imaginative tool and its keyword is ‘investigation’. It challenges established assumptions and forces you to turn what you think to be true on its head, because anything can be. It makes you ask the question “what if”?

For instance, a series of prints I did between 2007-2009 (Archetype and Chimera) began with an exploration of the botanical writings of the philosopher and poet JW Goethe  and plant morphologist Agnes Arber, who developed and enlarged upon his ideas. What interested me was their approach, which is holistic and looks at the relationships among parts; how they develop, and how they relate to the whole, and to the forms of other species. What resulted were these hybrid organics that float in a twilight world halfway between imagined and observed reality, strange denizens of a science fiction botanical garden.

What did you want to be as a child? Have your interests changed over the years? 

I don’t really remember wanting to be anything in particular. I always have been and still am very fascinated by all forms for archaeology, including paleontology. And I’ve always wanted to be an astronaut or at least find a way to see the Earth from space. But I think these interests have managed to become a part of my work now.

You went from painting (at the Delhi College of Art) to printmaking (at the Winchester School of Art). Why did you make that shift? Does painting still inform your practice?

I studied printmaking at the College of Art as well and I enjoyed it very much, my teacher there was Anupam Sud, an exceptional artist and one the very best teachers I have ever had. There was something about the possibilities inherent in repetition layering that was fascinating. And that process continues to be the basis for everything I do regardless of the media, video, drawing, print or audio. Drawing is still plays a very important role in my practice from the large site specific wall drawing, to the hybrid print and drawing works, the videos.

When you look back on your early work, how do you respond to it?

There’s a distance so I don’t judge those works too harshly.  That being said, there are some that should never have been!

From the series titled Arboreal.

You recently did a series that was black and white, with tree branches. In its starkness, it’s quite different from the more colourful works you’ve done before. What brought about this shift?

Arboreal or ‘relating to or resembling a tree’ both the video and the set of 20 prints are actually constructed from layers of video, in the case of the prints with still frames of video. I wanted to ‘draw’ with video both moving and still. The raw footage is derived from a process called “video feedback”, which is the equivalent of acoustic feedback.  With patience and certain amount of trial and error it is possible to explore a vast arena of spontaneous pattern generation, which mimics those exhibited by physical, chemical, and biological systems, i.e. plant structures, cells, tree forms, bacteria, snowflakes…. They are not imposed from the outside in any way and are entirely self generated. A small selection of these forms have been layered to create this slowly-evolving, artificial construct which offers insights into the intricacy lurking within nature’s processes. With all my work I am deeply interested in the way form evolves, in the way form changes and grows in complexity. With Arboreal, what results is a digital forest, a greenhouse of possibilities.

Do you have any projects that you’re working on that you’d like to talk about?

My current research explores areas within the larger frame of astronomy. The first is a form of collective investigation with astronomers working towards an understanding of what has been termed ‘behavioural astronomy’. What draws them to the night sky? What sets them apart?

Second and more specifically, I am trying to chronicle, the obsessive subculture of the eclipse chasers—people whose lives have been transformed by what they see in the sky.  As an amateur astronomer myself, I am trying to explore the dual role of the artist as both ‘participant’ and ‘observer’. A significant part of this research was done during the ‘City as Studio’ Sarai Fellowship. I am hoping to take this project further next year.

What is it about art and being an artist that excites you?

The new possibilities it opens up, like good sci-fi.

Are there other media that you’re interested in?

As part of the Sarai residency, I began to work with audio, with histories, narratives and conversations. Sound is a very interesting media, it requires very different things of you and the uncertain and unknown is always exciting.

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