Clocks pop up in the strangest of ways in Raqs Media Collective’s quirkily titled Asamyavali/ Untimely Calendar. These are not the tick-tock variety as convention would have it, measuring life in minutes and seconds, but of a more unusual kind. While the chimes of these clocks cannot be heard, their reverberations echo nonetheless through the rooms of the National Gallery of Modern Art, where the show was mounted from the 18th of December 2014 till the 29th of March 2015.
In A Day in the Life of Kiribati the numbers on a clock face are replaced instead by emotional states. For instance, the number 3 is substituted with “guilt” and 9 by “fear.” The midnight hour heralds “epiphany,” while 8 o’clock would have us swing between “epiphany” and “ecstasy.” On the silvered surface behind the clock an enigmatic green dotted line with a slight protrusion points to a blueprint or boundary. Its meaning only emerges when read in conjunction with the title of the work. Kiribati is a nation of islands, which for many years was bisected by the International Date Line with the western part of the Republic 24 hours ahead of its eastern half. In 1995 the government succeeded in pushing the Date Line eastwards to make both sides contemporaneous with each other. All it needed it appears is a slight nudge in an imaginary line to effect a change in routines and rhythms.
In other clock works such as Whenever the Heart Skips a Beat, analogies are made between clocks and beating hearts while Night & Day, Day & Night features a 24-hour clock, with twenty four Hindi words about duration. If idiosyncratic clocks are a manifestation of an untimely calendar, what then is this ‘untimely’ that the artists refer to? As Raqs eloquently put it: ”Asamaya is both untimely and unlikely time, an unseasonable time. It can also be a time that we wish not to come to pass, or a time of desires and dreams, an imagined time. An asamayavali is an account of a time that is out of sorts; a time that is exciting and sits uneasily on our consciousness.”
While Asamayavali can then be construed as a time that is asynchronous, the question that automatically arises is: What is this time out of step with? Instead of providing any ready answers, the artists queer the pitch by scattering clues, puns, riddles and rebuses throughout the exhibition space. Several of their works are situated in the matrix produced by the intersecting axes of time, labour and capital. Their show then is an open invitation to unravel the strands that make up their rich and varied practice and tease out new interpretations.
Accentuating the experience of un-timeliness are works that make the viewer oscillate like a pendulum between the past and the future, ensuring a destabilized present. As the title of one of their works suggests: It’s About Being Here and There at the Same Time. In it, three simple metallic strips in brass, copper and steel make up the frame of a doorway, offering visitors the chance to exist simultaneously in different times and spaces.
The future present is encapsulated in Time Capsule from 2011, to be opened in 2061, which has the image of an aluminium box, buried in the earth on the 18th of June, 2011, in Moss, Norway and meant to be only opened in 2061. Annotating the work is a text, “A Letter to Amalia Jyran, Who Will be Fifty Four in 2061 CE.” Amalia is the daughter of Monica Narula, one of trio that make up Raqs Media Collective. A copy of the letter dangles from the wall for visitors to peruse and next to it is a picture of Amalia, curled up on the floor dressed in blue.
Of all the works on display, Raqs’ forte is undoubtedly their videos. After all they cut their teeth making films, among no doubt a host of other diverse pursuits. Time and labour intersect in Strikes at Time, where annotations to Jacques Ranciere’s meditation on a group of worker-intellectuals in 19th century France in his ‘The Nights of Labour’ are meshed together with diary entries of Heeraprasad, a worker who committed suicide in Delhi in the 90s. Joining the nocturnal activities are a blue elephant and a ghostly vehicle outlined in fluorescent light. A surreal note is also struck in the video loop Door to Sky, where the door of an airplane is set against a blue sky with cottony clouds. The rest of the airplane appears to have evaporated into thin air. Could it be the sole relic of a crash one wonders, or does it function as an offer of escape into a different time and space?
Times of loss and longing are fore grounded in the 50 minute video diptych The Capital of Accumulation. Set in Warsaw, Berlin and Bombay, it examines Rosa Luxembourg’ life and legacy and the machinations of capital in these cities. The Polish Luxembourg was the first Marxist post-Marx to propound that the accumulation of capital hinges not only on the internal temporal dynamics of particular capitalist societies but also on capitalism’s spatial penetration and destruction of the non-capitalist world. An element of mystery is injected into the film when a forensic analyst in a hospital in Berlin claims that an anonymous decapitated body kept in the hospital morgue may well be the remains of Luxembourg who was killed and thrown into a canal in Berlin. The split-screen film was hugely satisfying as it offered viewers the chance to re-interpret the narrative and make their own connections in new ways.
Capital also rears its head in the video loop Re-Run, a restaging of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photograph of a bank run in Shanghai in December 1948. It depicts a group of people desperate to get their cash out of their bank and convert it into gold, fearing that their hard-earned money might soon be worthless. The video has strange currency as it mirrors the financial crisis in 2008 and depicts how the present can be destabilized by the fear of an anticipated future.
Woven into the exhibition fabric are also tales from the Mahabharata and the Jatakas. Haunted warriors make an appearance as do yakshas and yakshis alongside imposters and interlopers. Raqs’s practice is also heavily inclined towards the use of texts and hypertextuality. They generate meaning and knowledge in rhizomatic fashion, with ideas transmitted across a network of nodes and synapses. This non-linear way of working, whether in their films or text-based work, allows for an open-endedness and a multiplicity of meanings. However, not all works are easily accessible. But then riddles often aren’t. They need to be cracked and there is a strange delight in doing so. I took my cue instead from the pictograms in The Imminent Departure of Anybody, Everybody, Somebody, Nobody, Antibody, Busybody and Others and headed off to the nearest exit, the lines from T.S. Elliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” buzzing through my mind:
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.