Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, a practicing oncologist and author of The Emperor of Maladies and The Gene, expounds in an interview in Nautilus (December 2016), “… one of the things that we’re realizing more and more in medicine is that medicine exists at an interface between your particular genetic propensities and the pharmacopeia of medical technologies that we have”.
One could say that artist Rohini Devasher has similar ideas in her practice. In Hopeful Monsters (taken from the theory of macro-mutation first proposed by German geneticist Richard Goldschmidt) - her new show at Project 88 - her art exists in the interface between archive and technology, between idea and matter, between fact and fiction. Working in this interstitial space, Devasher explores chance, possibilities and form, to imagine and realise cultural production.
In the same interview, Siddhartha Mukherjee echoes this production: “What I care about the most, is how is knowledge produced? In what space? How does that knowledge enter society?” Like Devasher, both oncologist and artist consider gene manipulation and mutation and that in-between space or identity that deviates from the norm - to create a new fixed form. Increasingly, as genome studies are being used to predict ‘what if’ scenarios; Devasher imagines this ‘what if’ world sticking with the macro and the hybrid in her plough through archives.
Atlas Phaenogamia or the Atlas of Mimetic Flowering Plants forms 12 unique drawing and print works. Benign looking pressed flowers that one would chance upon in old books, nostalgia captured, the imprint on one page seems to reflect the specimen on the other. On looking closely, Devasher draws you in slowly (using as its base an unknown collector’s deposits at the R.L. Mcgregor Herbarium); the flower (and nostalgia) has mutated to incorporate diverse species including snake, butterfly, cicadas, bee, spider, frog etc. What appears innocuous and romantic in its sepia tones and languid text from afar, takes on in imitation, the discomfort and unease of the imminent birth of a mutant species, silently germinating in pulp.
Tucked behind the entry wall - on a large wall that spans the width of the gallery- is a mural that, panopticon-like, casts an “eye” over the whole show and takes the unease of a visitor’s first encounter with the delicate prints to a monstrous scale. A tangle of colour, plants, insects, reptiles, body parts are imagined as a gigantic multi-coloured, petalled being, unfurling cabbage like, ferociously bursting through the wall, causing ‘cracks’ and ‘mould’ to cement its presence. Devasher works in vinyl prints and pencil in Genetic Drift: Symbiont II to render an on-steroids like entity, enmeshed with the floral/faunal kingdom. Devasher does a mash-up of identity, appropriate in today’s gender fluid emerging world; her plant/animal meld, has a surface of simmering beauty from afar that belies the strange being brought forth, on closer inspection.
In her speculative imaginations Devasher draws from institutional archives often and has used the wall before to use scale as agency, as she did at the Bhau Daji Lad Museum in 2016, in her solo show Speculations from the Field. ‘Deep Time’ was a deeply contemplative contoured palimpsest, a drawing spread 20ft across one wall, and juxtaposed with fossils and minerals from the Museum’s collection that dated back to the Jurassic era. The scale between drawing and objects, the reduction of the drawing to an elemental form, the iterative rendition - the artist spoke then of the essence of a previous work in developing it - digging into time, isolated it from its previous memories. It thus morphed anew and heightened the conversation between drawing and object, between past deep histories and that immediate moment - presence - in the room.
The silence in the room eerily evoked outer space - echoing a Devasher pre-occupation with astrology and science - and with the rich materiality of an archaeological past, sparked “speculative fictions’ : an other-worldliness. The light from the drawings, the glint of the minerals, the shadows and highlights of the surface of the fossils led one elsewhere - like art should do - and the work was a transformative moment as the viewers entered their own imaginations. One imagined the minerals from the cabinets swirling, as if planetary, fossiled time was transported to the skies.
In ‘Hopeful Monsters’ Devasher riffs off the wall again. This time, text on the wall, (excerpts from science fiction author Jeff Vandermeer’s Acceptance: Southern Reach Trilogy, of a conversation between two scientists questioning if what they are examining is a plant, despite it looking and behaving like one) is juxtaposed with six glass topped cabinets that one peers into, rectangular petri dish like show cases; to witness a seething, fluttering bio landscape of morphing insects on embedded flat screens. Like patterns seen at the end of a kaleidoscope, one encounters still images of taxonomic orders selected for their amazing diversity of patterns - sourced from The Insects Unlocked project at the University of Texas at Austin - mirrored in the video loop, producing a new reality.
It is in this work that it comes together insidiously: the creepiness and prettiness, of genes and morphology in a relentless, restless ferment. Using technology (the video feedback used that has a camera plugged into a monitor looking at itself allowing new contexts to be mimicked as during wing development) to ever evolve, the device of contingency in limbo, the artist projects a proleptic future.
Devasher could well produce an app that allows one to play a Doomsday game, worse still I imagined a 3D fly out from the flat screens, in that constant flicker lies an imminence that forebodes unease. However, after a while the unease disappears and one wants for more, the menace is missing. Fixed onto an archival pigment print it loses some potency, a collectible disconnected from contingency in its fixed form.
Using this play of beauty and the monstrous, embedding subversiveness in traditional ways of seeing, the artist draws on her practice of participatory research, use of technology and her stellar drawing skills to provoke thought of the world we live in. Attuned already to the Monsanto debate, to AIDS and SARS crossover infections, a viewer is led to witness what could happen. Unlike Mukherjee’s practice where the ‘what if’ provokes a combative mode for a solution, there is no alleviation left to the imagination here. While the show’s title empathises with monsters hoping to take wing, Devasher leaves us to contemplate the world where nature has spontaneously thrown up variants/mutants as genomes altered through evolution. She shifts the scene to question what is to come as bio-scientific developments intervene and alter the very building blocks oflife.