“Reality is a nice place to visit, but no one ever lives there”.
Sanchayan Ghosh’s Reversed Perspectives: 3 Conjunctions engages with the landscape. Ghosh’s long-term involvement with Birbhum ‘the land of red soil’, in West Bengal, unfolds mostly beyond the gallery. In village theatre plays, soil collecting, or gardening studies, to name just a few, Ghosh has explored a variety of disciplines to engage with landscape. Now he has shortly materialized some of these explorations at Experimenter Gallery.
Visitors approach the exhibition cautiously. They stumble somewhat disoriented upon a wooden frame of red light expanding in the two directions of the gallery. The visitors have to duck beneath the upper rods of the frame if they want to proceed further. The frame appears weightless, as if floating above the gallery, and illuminates the gallery with a red haze. It shows silhouettes of people carrying a plough, reciting a poem, or chatting in the evening. This, in combination with the sounds of chirping crickets, birds and temple bells, evokes an image of a peaceful village life at night. Another part of the gallery takes the visitor to a field lab. It presents scientific data on the geographical characteristics of the land, the acidity of the soil, and the layers of sediments. The handwritings on the wall tell about Birbhum’s historical political events, mention worshipped gods, and show diagrams of the percentage of forests, cultivable and non-cultivable land in this fringe landscape. Is Ghosh going for a geographic-ethnographic exhibition? A visitor encountering the lab table commented somewhat surprised that “this is a scientific display?” What is Ghosh up to? Why is the exhibition called “reversed perspectives”?
The five images showing villagers of Birbhum reminded me at first of a nostalgic and romantic rendering of an ethnographic subject, the profusion of Santhal women in Bengal’s art history come to mind. However, like Abanindranath Tagore, who became critical of his own orientalism, Ghosh does not try to pin ‘the other’ down on canvas. The shadows, as Ghosh calls them, are negative, reversed images. In theatre workshops people chose their postures to pose in front of a silk screen infused with photosensitive material. By exposing the screen to light, shadows are left behind. Walking among the shadows, the village sounds, that give a feeling of quiet undisturbed village life are now mingled with the sound of stone grinding machines. Stepping carefully further through the frame visitors find the laboratory table, ‘the second conjunction’. Dr. Ghosh’s crude method for soil testing and knowing your land” on the wall describes the process in which pH tests connect the acidity, neutrality and alkalinity of a variety of soil samples with the politics of land. With his research assistants Durbananda Jana, Soumyadipta Sen and Sanjib Mondal, he collected soil samples from and around Birbhum that are spread out on the lab table.
The shadows, the soil samples, the writings on the wall, at first sight they might mean to suggest the landscape can be objectified - here is the land of Birbhum, you can even touch it. But it soon becomes clear that Reversed Perspectives does not try to objectify landscape. It is not about the landscape of Birbhum, Birbhum is merely a take-off point to address and play with ideas and practices of representing the landscape in many ways. The shadows do not re-present. It is, literally a shadow of a person, showing an absence rather than a presence, in-hibition instead of ex-hibition. Reading “Dr. Ghosh’s crude method for soil testing…” it becomes clear that ‘Dr. Ghosh’ is not an ordinary scientist. Like an alchemist he mixes things that ‘should be’ kept separated, connecting layers of sediments to layers of narratives. The red light of the frame sheds light on the drawings of scientific observations and poetic or historical narratives. Yet, as some of the texts are written in red, the red light also obfuscates them. They are barely readable when walking past them, or sometimes not at all. After finding a torch at the lab table the visitor can explore what is written, like a landscape painter who paints light, tries to capture light, and reveals a landscape. Not by making statements, but by drawing imaginative connections Ghosh dis-orients and impels the visitors’ curiosity making them part of his crude methods.
When I asked Ghosh to tell me a bit more about his work one of the things he talked about was the way artists have been traditionally schooled to study landscape from a certain perspective. A tree, for example, has been drawn sketched and sculpted according to its direct visual presence. ‘A tree’, just like any ‘object’ is connected to a wide network of other things, an ecosystem (that also includes humans). When an artist renders the tree as single object from one perspective, captures its ‘essence’, he misses the chance of expanding on a variety of possible perspectives. For me this revolves around the inability of art, or science, to represent the complexity of reality. The impossibility of an artwork to ‘truly represent reality’ has been compensated by the use of the frame. The frame’s intention to make up for the shortcomings of the artwork is futile attempt to create stability where no stability can exist. Artists, being aware of this tension, practised throughout art history a breaking-out of the frame. One could write an art history of art works breaking out of their frames: breaking out of the frame of the art institution, which nowadays, among many artists, including Ghosh, translates into a tendency to work outside the museum or gallery space.
But is there an outside? Can we get rid of the frame? Is there a space beyond the frame that promises the artist a complete freedom instead of creating a new frame? When we name something, we give life to it. When we use the word space, we imagine that there is something like space ‘out there’. But, as Bruno Latour argues, there are two traditions of thought concerning space. The second tradition argues that when you remove every-thing from a space, nothing is left. Henri Lefebvre is one of the earlier advocates of this last position that space is not simply there, but is always produced. A landscape does not simply surround ‘the tree’, like a gallery space does not simply surround the ‘artwork’. We do not live in a void in which we can place individuals and things. We live inside a set of relations that delineates sites that are irreducible to another.
Ghosh’s solution to this predicament is not breaking out of the frame; he has created a frame within the gallery that does not naively frame the artwork but has become an intrinsic part of both the artwork and gallery. The frame is porous and the visitor can step in and out of it. (Yet it was interesting to see that during the opening of the exhibition many people stayed within the frame).Furthermore, Ghosh’s frame has an outward, a reversed, perspective. It does not vanish into a point at the horizon, it points to the corners of the gallery, and expands therefore beyond the gallery. Doing so this frame disturbs a sharp distinction between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’. And lastly, whereas the frames of landscape paintings always attempted to contain light, this frame is made up of light itself. As Paul Duro states: We see the artwork but we do not see the frame. The frame usually plays a supportive but submissive function. Ghosh reverses this and makes the frame a central element of the artwork itself.
Leaving the lab table we enter a small space, ‘the third conjunction’, where the perspective suddenly reverses drastically. We see images of a passing landscape projected on two walls and the ceiling that vanish into an exaggerated perspective. Compared to the rest of the gallery this place is confining, bordering on claustrophobic. The projection of the video on the enclosing walls gives the landscape a bodily character. Can we contain landscape after all? The video depicts images of a landscape, but they are fleeting and muffled by smoke. Instead of framing landscape in fixed genres of sublime or picturesque aesthetics and treating them as objects of contemplation, Reversed Perspectives examines the way landscape circulates as a medium of exchange. The exhibition, in conjunction with Ghosh’s projects outside the gallery, focuses on process. Instead of representing landscape from a certain perspective Ghosh’s work and practices are in effort, by engaging with a multitude of disciplines, to explore and combine ways of approaching landscape. Landscape is a verb as WJT Mitchell said. This is, from my perspective, what Reversed Perspectives does, it changes landscape from a noun to a verb.
Published in Experimenter 2012/2013