Tucked away in a small room, off the warehouse spaces in Aspinwall House, the main venue of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale earlier this year, was Rohini Devasher’s seven- channel video work, Parts Unknown. In a crowd of big installations that populated the various cavernous spaces, Devasher’s quiet, seemingly modest work belied the expanse held in those small video screens.
The mythic Muziris inspired many artists at Kochi; Devasher chose to create fictive landscapes up north in Ladakh, at the site of the Indian Astronomical Observatory (IAO) in Hanle, one of the world’s highest sites for optical, infrared and gamma-ray telescopes, that draws astronomers as much for the severe terrain as for the dramatic skies.
In Deep Time at Project 88, Devasher, an amateur astronomer and recipient of the Skoda Breakthrough Artist Award, 2013, uses Parts Unknown as the lodestone for newer works. Like the installation at Kochi, she plots the videos on a large wall drawing of the quadrant of space that is home to the star cluster Pleiades-popularly known as the Seven Sisters.
The seven videos are eerie to watch. Layering video with drawings and digital interventions, there’s slight movement over time, shifts occur in these new terrains, some with virulent green foregrounds added to a barren landscape, others indicating an immediacy of presence with raindrops hitting the camera. Shot from the ground, the stark vistas and some added stylized features convey a sense of solitude and bewilderment, as if one has been stranded in an unfolding science fiction film.
Devasher has been researching this world of aficionados for the last three years: their “sociable imaginary” (as an interviewed amateur astronomer puts it) connections to the night sky. Deep Time is a collection of work that has emerged during this period. There is overlap and iteration among the different suites of work. In the repetition and layering within the works themselves, her training as a printmaker is foregrounded, yet it is printmaking in an almost painterly style. Using drawing, digital technology and video, her abstraction and alteration of views is disturbingly disorienting in a rendered strangeness of earth’s terrain.
Monographed Geographies takes off from Parts Unknown, and further muddies the waters between real and unreal. The overlay is intensified in 12ft-long, spectacular images-there’s the grid and the stills from the video Parts Unknown that starts as the base layer. Then contour outlines, added digital images, a printout of a drawing (done while on a residency at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin in 2012) of what seems like a mutating tree form or a river system is stretched over hologram-like, and drawing is added to build up the final image. Time seems suspended; past, present, future stacked in a moment.
Reading Into the Stars is a sound piece that documents her research through interviews of amateur astronomers. This solitary, quotidian and nocturnal tryst with the skies is a personal connection, sometimes “an escape”, to something that is reassuringly “always there”. In a room that resonates with images and voices, emotional “deep times” are recorded-the upward gaze a “cast back to mythical figures…to create a genealogy with ancestors and progeny.”
Surface Tracking, Surveyor and Contact are other suites of works that tie up the cohesive, visual rhythm as one walks through the show-you begin to “read” the skies or earth like Devasher.
Imagine David Bowie’s Starman waiting in the sky, trying to reach us through drawing in punk glitz or perhaps, if things had gone better for Dr. Ryan Stone in Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, she could have paused to photograph those quiet views from outer space. Devasher, as artist, imagines this for us. She achieves rigour in repetition within a singular theme, an abstracted gaze from the skies that fascinates, albeit puzzlingly turned downward in expression. The image from Surveyor II works both ways: It is the ground from above, but it could as well be a lit-up night sky.
The quest to seek, record and document this patterning in organic systems is the thread that runs through space and geographies, each marking or heightening a subtle dig into consciousness. Devasher’s success does not lie as much in scientific revelation as it does in capturing the solitude of a passion; of the deep wonder about what makes time sparkle each night.
Published in Mint newspaper (2013).