Artists

A common observation about infrastructures notes the way in which they become visible only in times of breakdown. [1] Their real natures always elusive, these are structures and networks which are ironically only perceived through lack, through disruptions and through crisis. In Anjum Singh’s solo exhibition, I Am Still Here (Talwar Gallery, September 9 - November 2, 2019), the body itself yields an infrastructural reading, becoming suddenly, acutely visible with the onset of illness.

Singh’s show following on the earlier Masquerade (2015), is a response to a cancer diagnosis in 2014, as she continues to grapple even five years later with the fallout of the disease and its effects on her time and work. The title of the show indicates a continuing, defiant resolve to carry on despite the odds. But what is most interesting perhaps, is the way that she not only works with her new condition, but actually connects it with ongoing concerns in her work, to make sense of the connection between interior and exterior, the natural and the inorganic, the body and its environment. If previous works, including her explorations of her city Delhi in The Skin Remembers, attempted to visualise the abstract nature of pollution through its effects on the body, in I Am Still Here, the body itself is the abstraction that must be unpacked. It is an infrastructure whose delicate ecology is laid bare in a moment of distress. Through all of the show, then, there is a cartographic drive carrying forward from Singh’s larger oeuvre, pressed here into an investigation of her own body as a foreign country.

The probe reveals a strange land populated with odd bits and ends, that vaguely recall industrial machinery. In two large canvases, the body’s bloodstream is imagined as an infinite field of red, cells radiating around in psychedelic rivulets occasionally encountering unidentified objects, as a button floating seemingly in space. One of these features a wheeled mechanical device (appearing not unlike a movie camera) that seems to be generating the speckled splendor of crimson around it. In yet another painting, clustered blood cells resemble the circular protrusions of bubble wrap, recalling both Singh’s earlier use of throwaway plastic, as well implying a symmetry of the undulating pattern of the synthetic material, and the shapes and figures of the human body. Throughout the exhibition, the organic abuts the inorganic as Singh raises the simultaneously simple and profound question of what it means to be human. Faced with an alien invasion of the body, Singh attempts to create an inventory of the normal body existing prior to such attack, only to find in it a constantly mutating, ineffable mass. In several works, one is reminded of diagrams and figures dimly gleaned in biology classes, of viruses, cells and bacteria that constitute the very stuff of life, but whose appearance must always be refracted through the mediation of the microscope. Singh appears to be commenting in paintings of eyeballs - detached and sutured painfully to an external black mass - on the very machinic basis of perception; we cannot make sense of our own body without the great machines of vision devised to bring it into view even to ourselves. Something about the process of her treatment, the sustained exposure to X-rays, scans and other reports that image the body’s interiors, seems to have triggered an awareness of the constant exchange between human and nonhuman vision in the construction of the self. This extends both to the body’s surface - the centrality of the mirror in the perception of our appearance - as well its interior - its cells, antibodies and viruses that can only be captured under the microscope.

The perception of the nonhuman creates disturbing visions in some cases, as with images of the heart blackened to a grenade, or unidentified organs spliced together with razors and screws that strike the urgency of mortality running through the show. In other places, such encounters with the alien within oneself become the object of scientific expeditions, with blood samples and other specimens marked with all the care of the meticulous empiricist. Even in works which seem to finally transcend the inward, earthbound thrust of paintings that centre on the body, as in the vertiginous heights of Turbulence and the aerial views of a series of city paintings, Singh encodes these outside spaces as topoi in an interior world. Images of a plane in distress in stormy weather, or the city rendered in a Mondrian-esque labyrinth that threatens to give way to a blur of colours, converge on Singh’s negotiation of her illness that is at once so close and so remote. In one poignant work, Singh configures the components of her physiology into a grid, identifying “blood”, “alkaline”, “enzyme”, “oxygen” and finally “Singh” as the constituents of the artist. The gesture betokens a desperate desire to find herself amidst the various known and unknown quantities that make her being.

At the show’s end, one is tempted to make a comparison with another artist who engaged his illness in his art practice. Bhupen Khakhar’s works since he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1998 - a time also coinciding with a renewed burst of sectarian violence in the country - reflected a coming to terms with impending annihilation. But while Khakhar’s canvases, of bruised and scarred faces and filmi stand-offs between doppelgängers, indicated an ironic stance - as ever - in the face of death, Singh’s response to her illness moves beyond death altogether. For Singh, the disease becomes an occasion to reacquaint herself with herself, a homecoming of sorts. Bar Yerushalmi describes Khakhar’s small water-colour painting Sri Lanka Caves (2002), made a year before his death - “all that's left is a collection of brown, feces-like stains, which, at a closer look, reveal faded, bent figures in a maze of underground tunnels…It seems that in his last days Khakhar experienced painting in its most physical form. He abandons storytelling and explores the basic act of painting: layers of paint piled on top of each other, commemorating the transient flesh.” [2] Here, unlike Khakhar, Singh’s latest works form a piece with her longstanding interest in the materiality of the diverse media she employs. Recalling the similarly eclectic practice of German-American artist Eva Hesse, Singh has through her career engaged such diverse materials as magnets, discarded plastic, ice cream sticks, and even eggshells, in an almost archaeological approach that regards mute material as embedding secret histories. Even in the current exhibition comprising largely paintings, there is an indication of her practice across media in works that simulate the textures and effects of metal and plastic in paint. Singh encapsulates her career thus far through recurrent motifs and subtle allusions to shows past,allrendered in the monomedium of paint. In I Am Still Here, Singh turns a forensic eye on her own body as medium, and so in a way, discovers a further articulation of her boundary-pushing practice even in adversity.

Notes:

[1] Larkin, Brian. “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure.” The Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 42, 2013, pp. 327-43.

[2] Yerushalmi, Bar. “Pleasures of the other flesh.” Tohu magazine, September 4, 2016. http://tohumagazine.com/article/pleasures-other-flesh

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