The ongoing exhibition of Prithpal Singh Ladi titled For Noah (From My Album) at Akar Prakar, Kolkata focusses on the different chapters of Noah’s rescue mission from the Book of Genesis. According to the Biblical narrative, he houses prescribed living beings on his ark in a preemptive measure to save them from the Great Flood that is to consume life on earth, the deluge having been ordained by God to reverse and renew his creation on earth. Noah is warned by God about the approaching disaster, following which he builds a huge ark to house a pair of each species of animals, plants and his own family so that they survive the catastrophe and procreate after. The storm subsides and Noah sends out a dove which returns after a few days with an olive branch, indicating dry land for habitation. A popular Biblical tale, Noah’s persistence and role in perpetuating life on earth with the lives he saves has assumed immense importance as both a cautionary tale and a hopeful fable in religious brackets as well as popular media.
Artist P S Ladi makes a series of bronze sculptures, depicting a range of survival scenarios constitutive of the lives Noah saved, in individual installations. Each sculpture is placed on a pedestal and is enveloped by ornate metal flora from the sides. The podiums (on which the pedestals are placed) are packed in carton cardboards, which indicate that not everything is in full view of the spectator. Each sculpture makes use of negative space in the spatial rendition of action; for instance, we see an animated lion’s head and limbs jutting out of its cage while the spectator uses the gestalt effect to complete its anatomy. The recurring motif of the cage (often manipulated to look like a carton with ornate accessories) in every sculpture raises questions around containment, as each work exudes a sense of overabundance in the density of animals depicted. Particularly, a sculpture shows an army of ants boarding Noah’s ark with a slice of a pumpkin, the latter overwhelming the ants in size. The artist explains that the pumpkin is being carried in as ration for the coming months by the ants as the animals prepare for the deluge alongside Noah’s family. Another installation shows fish contained in a water body within the ship, while pointing to the obvious irony of the water being a threat outside the ship to these lives. A third sculpture shows a mother hen sitting atop a large number of eggs arranged in rows and columns, possibly pointing to their cumulative mission to revive life post the calamity.
The artist has simulated the texture of cardboard boxes on the cages in the installations as well, with nail marks and scratches carefully inscribed on the surface, pointing to the claws of the contained fauna. The motif of containment may point, on perusal, to the many oceanic migrations that have taken place in history, where humans have been reduced to occupying disproportionately condensed spaces and travelled long distances in the hope of physical security. The artist explains that he has deliberately paired animals like tigers and monkeys together as occupants of a cage; being two different kinds with varying degrees of strength and intelligence, they are forced to fight for space and this results in relentless physical animosity. The boxes in the installations carry fauna of all shapes, sizes, temperaments and kinds- aerial, amphibian, insects and static life- in a final journey towards safety. Some of the cages are perforated, with bronze animal heads structured separately on metal sticks and placed on the cusp in the fashion of a pen and pen-holder, the artist’s intention here being to allow a space for interaction between the sculptures and the audience. Another sculpture shows an undefined (albeit masculine in bearing) figure engaged in appeasing and/or fighting the deluge; the metal cast recreates a detailed ripple-effect, which gives the sculpture a sense of suspended action. Here, the artist attributes visual importance to the element of water and its role as both a cleansing agent and demonic threat. Ladi’s sculptures detail the preparatory stages of the narrative, where the ocean is animated as a conscious entity wreaking havoc that the animals remain insulated from. In his sculptures, the artist also draws attention to the non-agency of the fauna, where predator and prey occupy the same space in a survival (and redemption) narrative ordained by celestial forces.
The myth of Noah’s Ark has been used extensively in popular media where a small group of the righteous is seen as surviving an apocalypse, thus preserving life on earth and bypassing the disaster brought on by their contemporaries. Ladi uses the myth to unpack its chapters in layers, while creating formal interventions to raise questions around containment and migration, with the most prominent parallel being the role of a ship as a container and conduit for trade. One simultaneously finds connections between his work and the pervasive tensions around climate change as immediate concerns. Climate change has assumed importance of epic proportions as the science of global warming consolidated towards the late twentieth century, and the threat of extinction is now seen as legitimate, despite a section of the population being in denial of scientific data. Temperatures are rising; glaciers are melting as literature, cinema and art attempt to imagine a natural catastrophe and the ways in which it will affect geographies and lives. The series of installations in this body of work forebodes such a tale where the abuse of natural resources leads to a massive deluge that wipes away life from earth. The enumeration of this narrative in the Bible spiritualizes the concerns around climate change, where the final calamity is seen as a commandment from God. A secular reading of this overtly coded religious narrative still preserves the narrative’s capacity as a potent allegory for the contemporary moment; the flood might surface again, says Ladi.
The exhibition is on at Akar Prakar, Kolkata until August 3, 3019