Review: Sheba Chhachhi’s Evoking the Pause

This review was first published on Mumbai Boss.

Water Show

Given the limited number of respectable galleries and art spaces in the city, it would be unfair to say there’s been a glut of Sheba Chhachhi exhibitions this year. However, considering that the number of solo shows Chhachhi had in Mumbai until 2011 was zero, two exhibitions in a year seems to verge on over-exposure.

We tend to be impatient viewers, hungrily hunting for novelty and ever ready to dismiss repetitions. Chances are there will be some who will walk through “Evoking the Pause” at the Bhau Daji Lad museum and complain about how similar much of it is to “Luminarium: A Prelude“. It’s true that there are similarities in technique in a number of the works but be patient and look beyond the obvious resemblances to understand the stories that have inspired Chhachhi’s art. They are poignant and simple in their melancholia, notwithstanding Chhachhi’s love for phrases like “beyond normative boundaries”.

“Evoking the Pause” is a mini-retrospective of Chhachhi’s works from the past eight years. Unlike Jitish Kallat, who turned the experience of seeing an exhibition into a treasure hunt, Chhachhi has helpfully drawn up a map in which the works of art are pointed out clearly. Tucked into different nooks of the museum are photographs, videos and installations. Chhachhi’s work is striking in its sophistication but the emphasis she places on traditional crafts and lingering mythologies connects her art to the mission of the Bhau Daji Lad, which is committed to preserving the history of local communities. She’s developed a distinctive and unique medium for herself, one that uses photography, video, found images, lightboxes and screens to create a modern version of the pre-cinema magic lantern.

Take the placement of “Ganga’s Daughters” as an example. These powerful portraits of women ascetics are placed in a room that has cabinets full of figurines of male sadhus striking freakish yoga poses. On one wall are nineteenth-century paintings of demure Indian ladies and they seem positively wilted next to Chhachhi’s vibrant, saffron-clad women. The installation “Mistri ke Haath” shows the hands of a man who made tiles. How ironic then that the work lies prostrate before the bust of David Sassoon, who we can thank for the beautifully-tiled watchtower in the nearby Jijamata Udyan.

Chhachhi’s faux books—they are actually lightboxes—are curious, beautiful works. They look like books but you can’t flip through the pages. It’s chilling to think this might be the future of the book: a static beautiful thing, fixedly open to tell only one story. Fortunately, Chhachhi’s stories are worth remembering and re-reading. Her books use both traditional artistic techniques and modern technology to talk about issues related to both the past and the present. “Ultanag”, which shows the story of Krishna ridding Yamuna of a serpent’s venom, is a myth about reducing the river’s pollution, which is precisely what is needed today.

Our favourite book was on one of the piles in the installation titled “The Water Diviner”. One page showed an image from a miniature painting of Radha and Krishna on the banks of the Yamuna. Instead of painted waters, however, Chhachhi has a photograph of the Yamuna today, festooned with garbage. On the facing page is a description of a pristine forest. It is interrupted by a news report about 40 men beating up women in a bar, in an effort to safeguard Indian tradition.

The highlight of “Evoking the Pause” is meant to be the two installations on the first floor of the museum. Both fill the building’s enormous rooms with shadowy darkness. “Neelkanth: Poison/Nectar” shows a miniature cityscape made of small aluminium towers. At the heart of this “city” is a screen that shows a neck that seems to be constantly swallowing. “Neelkanth” refers to the myth of how Shiva swallowed all the poison that rose out of the sea during the Samudra Manthan. It is eye-catching but the references feel too forced and the images of garbage repetitive. “The Water Diviner”, however, is an enchanting installation. Piles of newspapers, files and books crowd a room to recreate the sense of being dowsed in water. Blue light casts strange shadows and on one wall, a video shows specks swirling in water. The specks become a swimming elephant. We’re willing to bet someone will be booking a holiday to the Andamans the moment they leave the show.

Review: Anish Kapoor

This review was first published in Mumbai Boss.

Sets and Violence

View of Anish Kapoor's show at Mehboob Studio, Mumbai

Kapoor’s first exhibition in India is a grand two-city affair that has predictably led to comparisons. But it’s a silly idea to force a face-off because Kapoor has curated the two exhibitions with very distinct objectives. The National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi offers a retrospective while in Stage 3 of Mehboob Studios in Mumbai, are nine works, made between 2006 and 2010, that are very much of the present. They masterfully showcase what has been a subtle leitmotif in Kapoor’s work for decades: violence.

The massive Mehboob Studios is a fantastic setting. Its industrial feel and the rough decay of its walls and floors provide an interesting contrast to the smooth sophistication of Kapoor’s installations. In two corners are “Stack” and “Shooting into the Corner”, bracketing the show with red wax. “Stack” stands like a monument made of bloody pulp. There’s a radiance to the wax because it catches the light beautifully, which adds to its bloody, fleshy quality making it all the more disturbing.

“Shooting into the Corner” is one of the most powerful works Kapoor has made till date. As the phallic cannon splatters the white-walled corner with red, it’s impossible to miss the sexuality of the image being created. Kapoor was inspired to make the installation by the destructive quality of Viennese Actionism. It then went on to become a response to the idea that abstract art is simply splattering paint upon a canvas but “Shooting into the Corner” is more than a cheeky salute to past painters. The corner is literally the cornerstone of architecture, which is one of the markers of an advanced civilisation, much like military technology. The cannon also adds references to colonisation in India, and the violence that marked the process of one culture trying to civilise another.

The mirrored works sit inside the frame created by the two wax works. Their metallic look may seem the diametrical opposite of the visceral feel of the red wax but Kapoor’s mirrors aren’t there to reflect as much as dismember. The mirrored works are rarely favourites of critics. They’re generally deemed to be too carnivalesque and intent upon being spectacular, which is of course precisely the reason they’re favourites of most visitors. The mirrored surfaces play upon our narcissism, just like crazy mirrors do at funfairs. But Kapoor’s mirrors are more malevolent than their carnival counterparts. Their shine draws the viewer near, urging one to look for themselves only to cruelly distort everything out of shape. Faces are stretched on invisible racks, walls melt into swirling eddies, bodies lose all proportion, clothes turn into abstract dabs of colour. Some, like “Non-Object (Pole)” remove the person entirely from their surroundings.

In the list of Kapoor’s mirror tricks, perhaps the most boring one is the untitled concave disc that merely turns the world upside down. Its alter ego is another concave disc, which is magnificent. Also untitled (we’ve nicknamed it “Shatter-pattern”), the surface is a mosaic of mirror fragments that don’t just turn the world upside down but also transform it into a weird, Cubist abstraction. However, if you look closely at the disc, you’ll realise that the smaller mirrors show you the right way up. We’re tempted to see a subtle reference to Damien Hirst’s “For the Love of God” in the shiny, diamond-like surface of this disc, which shows a crazy world that proves to be an illusion when the viewer looks closely. But maybe we’re being too imaginative.