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?

Review: Section Yellow

This review first appeared on Mumbai Boss.

Dividing Lines

Think back to the last time you were waiting to be interviewed for a visa. Remember dressing up so that you look like you’re visa-worthy, waiting to meet a dour official, carrying a file of every possible document to prove your financial worth and respectability? Chances are, you didn’t consider yourself to be a work of art while sitting around in the visa office. Unless, of course, you’re Pakistani artist Bani Abidi. Delhi-based Abidi has been interested in the way power dynamics play out in everyday life for a while now. Last year, she made a short film that showed streets getting clogged as the traffic waited for an unseen VIP to pass. A recent set of drawings showed her fascination for the neat and clean geometry of everyday security devices, like the intercom. The works in her latest show, Section Yellow continue to explore the idea of power dynamics in seemingly banal settings.

Section Yellow is set in a consular office that seems to be in the middle of nowhere. It is made up of two sets of photographs, a few photographic pieces using text, and a video titled “The Distance from Here”, which is dedicated to her husband, graphic novelist and artist Sarnath Banerjee. The video is literally at the heart of the show. It’s a quiet, subtle short film that watches people who are waiting and preparing themselves for their interviews. Look out for how the expressions of people change, observe the quiet power dynamics at play, and wait for the little twist at the end. However, the tour de force of the show is the set of photographs showing the folders in which the paperwork supporting visa applications are kept. Against opalescent white shelves, the coloured plastic folders look luminous and are transformed into a fascinating combination of abstracts and landscapes. The other photographs are montages. They take the yellow lines marking out the queues in the video and alter their geometry.

Powerful as the works in the show are, Section Yellow feels incomplete. This isn’t only because the gallery feels half-full. With the photographic pieces using text as well as the single portrait (it’s of one of the people in the video), Abidi seems to have taken a step towards exploring individual stories. However, this angle is barely worked out and feels like a half-hearted attempt to make the walls look less empty. We recommend standing in the middle of the gallery and imagining the half behind you doesn’t exist. Focus instead on the video and the plastic folders that have become magical thanks to Abidi’s eye.