Artists

The city I grew up in is transforming itself. Over two hundred thousand trees will be cut by 2010 for the metro, new roads, new malls and the commonwealth games. The ancient Ridge forest has now a fast train running through it. Buildings are brought down with the boom of a crane, in an instant, and replaced by glass and steel. The roads are choked with cars, which seem to be traveling to and fro, going somewhere, maybe nowhere. Overnight parks are converted into stadiums, as bulldozers and crane stealthily uproot old and wizened trees at midnight, as the city sleeps, literally. Clockwork efficiently takes over, as we seem to move towards a predetermined future. Labour is just another commodity. Economic resources replace life-giving nature. I retreat, in this midst, I retreat, to another place, which I always knew: to my elements.

- Ravi Agarwal

‘An Other Place’ is very significant as it marks a shift in Ravi Agarwal’s practice: hitherto well-known as a documentary photographer. Ravi himself questions the validity of the documentary photograph as representing an ‘objective’ position, as being a miniaturised (or enlarged) replica of reality. Reality itself composed of multiple perceptions, as mercurial as their reflection. Therefore, can any ‘documentary photograph’ claim to be represent a singular ‘truth’? Writing on photography in the last few decades has clearly established that every photograph is a ‘re-presentation’, a carefully considered image based on the individual photographer’s deliberate choices of framing: each picture thus speaking also of that which is excluded as much as what is included within the pictorial frame. Ravi writes, “Photographs and images are no longer about the ‘truth’ but about the ‘idea’ of truth. They no longer represent the outer but have come to be accepted to be more about the photographer and his ‘reality’.”

In optical photography, light filters through the lens and inscribes the image on to a physical matrix - the emulsion of the film. From the 1980’s (when digital cameras became available in the market to general users) till now, digital technology has proliferated manifold. Seemingly, photography has never been simpler or more accessible. The image is recorded as electronic data by sensors that convert light into discrete signals. With the advent of digital technology, the veracity of the photograph and its relationship with reality comes into question. Graphic software such as Photoshop allows the artist/photographer to intervene beyond the confines of the darkroom - cropping, altering, and overlaying.

Roland Barthes likened photography to “a kind of primitive theatre”. Ravi extends this reading by quite literally donning the director’s mantle and arranging the action in the visual space. Ravi utilizes the possibilities offered by the digital to metamorphose his images into alternate worlds. Ravi locates himself in each of these photographs; not always as the subject but in as much as these images are all purely ‘/creations’. ‘Urbanscapes’, ‘Ecology of Desire’ and ‘Mechanical Man’ are composites, made of two or more disparate visuals that have been brought together. ‘Machine Man’ is also a construction, a record of a performance before the camera.

Ravi trained as an engineer, and works as an environmentalist in the non governmental sector. As an environmentalist, Ravi works tirelessly to suggest constructive ways in which burgeoning ‘development’ in the city can interact with the ‘natural’. His photographic practice over the last couple of decades has been in the ‘documentary’ mode. Using his camera as a tool, Ravi has engaged with natural and human ecologies. The life of the street, thick with human activity, was mapped in a series of photographs between 1993 and 1995. ‘Down and Out’ (1997-2000) a project in conjunction with an anthropologist, was based on a community of migrant labourers in South Gujarat. People and their relationship with the natural world have formed the core of Ravi’s photographic practice. In the contemporary urban scenario, the value of a people or a river is judged on its ‘usefulness’, based on what they can offer (economically and politically), both are reduced to being resources. As the city takes over, the loss of those that no longer of ‘use’ in the urban development imperative, is registered at both the macro and micro level (to borrow from oft used economic jargon): Ecologies, histories, communities, people, a person, a tree…

As a traditional mud-making community was displaced by new land notifications, Ravi highlighted their plight through photographs 92003) that engage with their everyday life and loss. Between 2004 and 2006, Ravi returned repeatedly to the banks of Yamuna, his photographs charting the steady demise of the river and communities that are sustained by its waters. Simultaneous writing reflects a growing disgust at “a backdrop of vicious municipal politics, putrid water, priceless land, dispossessed (non) citizens, the forthcoming Commonwealth Games that demand location, city planners enmeshed in schemes of massive financial and infrastructural investment, visions of profit, and ‘public’ debates armoured in the inaccessible language of scientific assessment.” ‘Have you seen the flowers on the river’ (2007) a series of photographs and a video work created as part of an eco-art residency traced the journey of flowers sown on the bed of the Yamuna through a system of exchange that is the basis of livelihood for local communities. As the land becomes precious for its per-acre real estate value, the marigold fields and the people whose lives are inextricably bound to the river must go. Ravi’s anguish and an ever-increasing sense of despair can be sensed when he says, “The script seems to be prewritten. The river is timeless. The river is dead.”

In 2006-07 Ravi turned inwards as it were to find an appropriate site to express the breach in a hitherto interlinked ecology. ‘Dead Wood’ a series of performative photographs imaged the male body in a nurturing role, in a “desire for unity from the duality, the merging of the self and the ‘other’ and the becoming ‘one,’ with one’s ‘true’ nature and nature itself.” [1]

Distance between the photographer and the photographed is an invisible presence in every image. In Ravi’s case, his photographs are visual representations of extremely personal and internalised experiences - physical, psychological and emotional as he grapples with the reality of his altered relationships with the river, depleting forests and the rapidly spreading city. As the bonds become increasingly tenuous, the self (understood by Ravi as “interlinked into a network of inter-related ecologies, or as a ‘personal ecology’”) finds itself located on shifting ground.

Urbanscape - the word generates mental visuals of gleaming skyscrapers, busy streets and horizon lines lost in the busy maze of vertical constructions. That these images most typify the notionofurban for most today itself speaks of the loss of plurality that is inherent in any space. In the blitz of media images, through slickly produced television commercials, in the immediacy of the latest news grab, and in the glossy technicolor photographs of magazine and billboards, the urban has become synonymous with material prosperity or at least the aspiration for it. As Indian cities step into the spotlight as the new and shiny face of the ‘super-power-in-waiting’, the images in ‘Urbanscapes’ present a very different face of the city - a visage that is fast fading into oblivion, one that has been relegated to redundancy in the frenzied march of the city to meet its own future. Layers of histories contained in architectural spaces are wiped out in the single roar of a bulldozer. As the rich palimpsest of the city’s pasts is irrevocably transformed, the loss penetrates beyond the physical topography.

Over a period of two years, Ravi has relentlessly photographed buildings and spaces that that are biding their time, ‘marked’ for certain annihilation. These images of abandonment are the corporeal markers of the city that Ravi can no longer relate to. As the experience of the self in its relation to hitherto familiar spaces between uncertain, Ravi’s images too shift their earlier focus from being people-centred to uninhabited and empty city-scapes. Stories are narrated through absences that resound in every crumbling brick and sagging wall.

In the physical act of framing the subject while photographing it as an image, the disembodied experience becomes tangible. Intervening at yet another level as an image-maker, Ravi transforms the ruined structures into areas of hope. The lush yellows and reds of blooming laburnum and bougainvillea trees, the startling orange of marigold fields reclaim the monochromatic grey interiors, breathing back to life memories of what has been and the possibility of an alternative future, even if it exists only in the visual mythmaking of Ravi’s composite images. Intensely personal, these ideated representations allow Ravi to cope with altered reality he sees around him; even as digital pixels of colour, they permit Ravi to re-inhabit the barren spaces, now awash with light and colour.

In ‘Mechanical Man’, Ravi adopts a different strategy to reclaim the topography of the city. Before the “vulgar new aesthetic” represented by the chrome and glass of glitzy malls consumes these structures (some of which have been demolished since these photographs were taken), Ravi inserts in them the fragmented body of a plastic male mannequin. Larger than life, the lifeless body sucks all attention from the pictorial space into itself…demanding an appreciation for its constructed and factory-produced perfection. The ‘mechanical man’ signifies the ‘commodification’ of the self, the urban body and its plasticity that is an antithesis of all that is natural.

‘Ecology of Desire IV’ posits the body of the mannequin in diptych alongside built structures. This juxtaposition of the mannequin (as the mechanised and de-humanised self) problematizes the relationship of power between the body and the construction; the mammoth scale of the former highlights the fragility of the buildings - a play on the contemporary credo of ‘big is powerful’. Ironically, the inevitability of death and the vulnerability that comes with this realisation overturns all notions of power.

For almost a decade now, people have not been the primary subject of Ravi’s photographs. Presence is established through gaping absences and empty spaces. The body returns in these images - however not as that of the other, but of the artist himself, as a performed body - signifying both the self and the anonymous other.

The body is clearly gendered in ‘Machine Man’ [2] (the title itself births an alternative superhero), a series of photographs on which the artist performs before the camera. Clichés of masculinity are played out in the relationship between machine parts, the tactility of mobile oil and the bare male body. The reduction of manual labour to a nameless and faceless resource and its gradual replacement by mechanization is played out in ‘Machine Man’. The unidentifiable performer (due to the pictorial framing in which the face is hidden) celebrated his own physicality by smearing oil over his body; in the flexing of muscles as he poses with mechanical bits and parts. The physical contact with metal and oil reclaim the power contained in using one’s body for labour. The body also seeks to re-establish a link with the organic. Oil and the physicality offered by its viscosity, allows Ravi to construct and inhabit a private and visceral world, even if only for the duration of the performance. The body is the site through which these relationships are created and negotiated; that it is the artist’s own body is rooted in the personal and experimental nature of the series of work.

The violent clash of nations in the last few decades locates oil as one of the most sought after and contested substance in world history. Like water, oil is a naturally occurring substance, extracted from compressing geological matter formed over millions of years. ‘Oil is not Water’ - a two screen video projection plays with this notion, with two disparate substances being bought together. On one screen, oil covered hands rub together, appearing to revel in the silky smooth texture of the oil. Could the action also be read as a desperate attempt to cleanse the hands/the self of the brutalities that have come to be associated with oil and the wars fought for its possession? As the oil drips off the hands and off the screen, droplets of oil come in contact with water. The aesthetic sensibility that informs the still images continues here too. The dissimilar viscosities repel each other in a hypnotic play of visual texture.

Video has been a natural extension for Ravi’s thematic explorations. The text of ‘Oil is not Water’ is embedded with multiple readings, all of which are suggested through a visual language veering towards abstraction.

“What does a photograph mean to me? How does it relate to my state of being? How comfortable am I with its unpredictability, as I am with mine? How do I locate the ephemeral in a physical human body which perceptibly ages and withers and dies?” asks Ravi. ‘An Other Place’ is a milestone in his search for a strategy to locate the ephemeral and re-establish selfhood. Constructed images of personal experiences and altered realities bear echoes of past relationships between the body and the previously inhabited spaces that now lie abandoned and deserted.

“Ultimately, photography is subversive not when it frightens, repels or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, when it thinks”. [3] ‘An Other Place’ offers, as the title suggests, an alternative space, a site that yearns to re-establish relationships with the organic, with that which is less ephemeral, a place wherethereis the possibility of “rediscovering a personal ecology”.

Notes

[1] Text by Ravi Agarwal accompanying ‘Dead Wood’

[2] This series of photographs continues a theme first explored in a 1.5 minute video work entitled ‘Machine’ (January 2008)

[3] Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida, Vintage, U.K, 2000. PP38
From the exhibition catalogue published by Gallery Espace (2008).
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