Taking its title from the mechanism in a timepiece that literally keeps time, that maintains the beat by permitting repeated movement at regular intervals, Escapement, Raqs Media Collective’s solo at London’s Frith Street Gallery from July the 8th to September the 30th 2009, reflected upon the profound shifts in the relationship between time and geography, temporality and spatiality, catalysed by the unprecedented immediacy and intensity of the movement of information, capital, goods and people that has accompanied globalisation and the advent of the Internet. The social, political and cultural processes put into play by this economic and technological revolution, both locally and on a global scale, have dominated much of the art and writing of this prolific New Delhi- based trio. True to its horological title, the exhibition used the clock as a metaphor to explore the existential conditions and crises that mark contemporaneity, a global state of being of one’s own time in a period of temporal acceleration and spatial contraction.
The relationship between time and geography took material from the sculpture, One thousand four hundred and forty (2009), titled for the number of minutes in a day. Stacked upright in a clear acrylic version of a clock’s casing, which resembled a gigantic Petridish, were 1440 clear plastic rods, of varying lengths, breadths and cross-sectional shapes. Bundled together according to size to form peaks and troughs, their arrangement resembled a crystalline cityscape that seemed to refract light. Transforming a unit of time into a module of urban topography, the elegant sculpture was a literal representation of “a day in the city”, entwining the temporal and the spatial as the twin structures of contemporary urbanity.
The exhibition’s eponymous centrepiece - a refined and expanded reworking of an early work, Locationn (2002) - consisted of 27 softly glowing clocks lining three gallery walls. Each was assigned, by a nameplate underneath, to a different city - from megalopolises like New York, Tokyo and New Delhi to sites of recent violence like Baghdad, Kabul and Grozny. A hypnotic soundscape made up of regular thumping heartbeats and dripping faucets, punctuated by the occasional discordant static of a dial-up Internet connection or a buzzing door bell, established a sonic rhythm through the space; a deadpan video close-up of an equally deadpan face, whose gender and age were hard to place, conveyed the same idea visually, as the visage cycled across four monitors placed around the gallery’s central column.
Words connoting psychological states - epiphany, anxiety, duty, guilt, indifference, awe, fatigue, nostalgia, ecstasy, fear, panic and remorse - replaced roman numerals on each clock face. It was half pat anxiety in Lagos while Ramallah was minutes away from epiphany. While measured time might differ according to location, these very human mental states are universal side-effects of the conflicts that plague the world as well as the synchronicity the Internet and 24-hour news cycles provide. Thrown into the mix were three fictional cities - the biblical Babel, the mystical Himalayan refuge Shangri-La, and Macondo, the setting of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magical realist epic One Hundred Years of Solitude, where time (or at least the mechanism in the clocks) went backwards, suggesting that the imagination (be it dystopic, utopic or literary) might provide a respite or ‘an escapement’ from an unrelenting deluge of information.
Escapement mimicked the rows of clocks commonly found in airports, hotels, headquarters of multinational companies, and other spaces that French anthropologists Marc Auge has dubbed the “non-places of supermodernity.” Showing the time in different major world cities, these displays become emblems of globalisation, marking such sites as both temporally and spatially rootless, as simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. A result of spending too much time in such spaces is the discombulation of jetlag, of always being out of sync.
Jetlag is, of course, a major occupational hazard of the global art jet set, of which Raqs are most definitely a part. They have been regular fixtures on the international biennial circuit since their inclusion in Documenta 11 in 2002, and were, themselves, curators of last year’s critically lauded Manifesta 7. Escapement’s strength lay in its ability to recapture the peculiar limbo of jetlag, evoking a state where time as a measure becomes truly abstract and completely relative and circadian rhythms are unmoored from body and place. Tossing and turning, unable to sleep, every sound is amplified; the mind - uncannily alert - cycles through various mental states that the busy, but banal, routines of everyday life disallow. Where Raqs’ cool precision and insistent critical distance has left the viewer feeling somewhat disengaged and disembodied in previous installations, in Escapement that sense of cool detachment was experienced viscerally, mimicking the disconcerting lull of jetlag.
Published in ART India, The art news magazine of India, volume XIV, issue IV, 2009-10