To extract ‘ecology’ from theoretical abstraction and bring it into the realm of lived experience needs alternative ways of thinking and being in our world. Nature is a problematic subject, and the Cartesian distancing of culture places it in a field of confrontation. Rather than dualism, thinking about Nature involves correlations of the human and the non-human. An ‘ecosophical perspective’ is essential to address the criticality of our anthropogenic environments, and find keys to environmental and social sustainability.
In his artistic engagement with nature, labour, politics, urbanism, the understanding of ecology combined with environmental activism, Ravi Agarwal works through an ecosophical and eco-aesthetical lens. It is another debate whether art practice can contribute meaningfully to the development of sustainable lifestyles, when the State places art at the bottom of the cultural ladder. But Agarwal traverses this gap through a sustained engagement with ecological issues via his research, writing, policy awareness, and institutional alliances; a parallelism of thinking and practice.
His latest exhibition, ‘Else, all will be still’, is a second solo show at the Guild Art Gallery, and comprised of photographic prints, installations, video and a diary. This body of work emerged from his encounters with the Sea for the first time in Tamilnadu, and opened new ways of imagining for an inland urban person. Critiquing dualistic bodies of knowledge, Agarwal positions ecology as an inclusive natural ontology of complex material systems, threaded to cultures and ideas of fragility, balance, equity and democracy. Being located at Alibaug, the exhibition required gallery-goers to cross the Arabian Sea. The symbols of metropolitan progress became miniscule in the expanse of the gray waters, and this experience set off layered encounters with the works themselves.
Agarwal’s ‘ground’ experiences with the sea and catamarans, the narratives of local fishermen, and an engagement with Tamil Sangam poetry gave rise to monumental images of the waters at dawn, day, and night. Engaging with internal (Akam) and external (Puram) landscapes of the wild and the ordered in Sangam poetry, Agarwal weaves love, longing, touch, smell and desire to stories of loss, survival and disenfranchisement. His friendship with a local fisherman, Selvam, helped him navigate the mysterious sea and also understand its materiality in the lives of the fisher-folk. They largely attach attributes of livelihood, trade, and money to the sea, and poverty to the fishing occupation. Such one-word attributes are embedded in the golden sand in Rhizome, popping up like protest placards of an invisible people. Peculiarly, the word ‘nature’ is absent in their vocabulary. In this materiality, Agarwal inserts words from Akam poetry such as Neithal which connotes coastal landscapes and evokes ‘yearning’- an ache that is embodied in Selvam in his circumstances, and the urge to leave. Shoreline I,II,III is a set of documentative videos where one sees Selvan fishing, building boats, and repairing nets, his hands and body weathered by his hereditary occupational demands. He wants a better life for his children, and their encounters with the sea are restricted to the shoreline; unlike Selvam, they do not know how to swim.
Surface, Depth, Line, Asymmetry, Flatness, Horizon, Repetition are pictorial markers in the photographic prints. Hightide acquires the blurred and turbulent quality of wild waters, reminiscent of a Turner painting, while a Salt Pan reflects the skies boxed in urban grids that disappear into the horizon. The catamaran appears in Sea of Mars and Ecological Manifesto; in the latter the catamaran is flung into stark blue space, floating in emptiness. One discovers writing from the artist’s diary, faint and of the same blinding blue, making it difficult to read for the viewer. With ecological sensitivity lost amidst the rapacious model of development, does a manifesto have any voice?
Engines is a large photo series of boat engines set centrally in the frame, and in a modernist grid that works like a ‘net’ for the composition. Usually, boat engines are structured at the back of the boat. But their centrality in the work gives them the quality of portraits, linking them to questions of sea trade, modern navigation, and interstitial spaces of machine and nature.
Lunar Tide, a series of 29 photographs is an immersive process of making visible the sea at night, impossible in natural circumstances. The sea is a vast inky space after dusk, and makes its presence felt through sound, illuminated only by external sources of light. Agarwal photographed the sea by focusing a torch on the waves, working with ideas of positive and negative spaces, visibility and invisibility, and ‘seeing’ the sound of crashing waves. Neithal, a video extends this experience of listening to the sea by layering it with other enunciations of Sangam poetry, acoustic sounders, and climate change. It offers ocular and perceptual insights to the viewer into Agarwal’s conversations with the sea.
Ambient Seas, the diary brought into the gallery space opened out the artist’s other processes of engaging with the sea, making private ruminations public. Notes, doodles, thought exercises, sketches, research photographs are routes of the ‘experience’ becoming an image. Agarwal presents parallel creative trajectories to develop dialogues between the source, the experiential modes and the viewer. Stepping out of the gallery space, one encountered a real catamaran inscribed with brass text, and its dislocation to a concrete surface set off narratives of nature, industry and history. Belonging to the artist, the catamaran perhaps waited to embark on journeys not proscribed by the dualistic discourses on Nature.
Our ideas of ecology are based on our histories, and we are said to be in the epoch of the sixth extinction caused by humans. There is increasing evidence that the Earth’s ecosystems have been dangerously altered by capital and technology. To borrow from the philosopher Timothy Morton, Nature has “become a generic category and is ‘acted’ upon. It has to be seen, appreciated, exploited, explored, imagined or ignored, but not necessarily lived”. Agarwal responds to Morton’s philosophical approach, and questions the very signification of Nature in language and landscape. It needs to be situated in meaningful correlations, rather than a border under constant surveillance. Our anthropogenic environments are toxic, and unless we re-imagine the idea of Nature, all will be still.