Created in 2014, Atul Bhalla's Contestation I captures the topographical expanse of a South African savannah as it stretches towards a distant horizon. In catching the diffused daylight as it skips across the varied textures of the terrain, the carefully composed photograph attests to the artist's finely-honed aesthetic sensibility. As an art historian, it was Bhalla's attention to the details of composition, and the manner in which his images could be positioned alongside historical and stylistic correlatives that initially captured my interest. And while many writers have substantively addressed the Delhi-based artist's engagement with the ecologies of water (Maddipati, Pall, C Wilson), this essay departs from these contemporary concerns to focus on the largely underexplored aesthetic components of Bhalla's photographs.
In keeping with the expressed theme of this issue of the Visual Arts Journal. I consider how a selection of Bhalla's landscapes created between 2008 and 2014 can be productively positioned within broader trans-historical and transnational zones of visual practice. At the heart of my analysis rests the hypothesis that the landscapes I discuss in this short essay can be seen as palimpsests that bear the traces of three pictorial precursors--the compositional devices of the picturesque, the formal conceits of stereoscopy and the role of the photography in conceptual art. In weaving through these diverse visual frames, this essay considers how Bhalla's landscapes critically reorient historical antecedents to express a depth that reaches beyond the surface of the image.
I have always been fascinated with the language of landscape and, in particular, how certain scholars have asserted that visual iterations of the land are epistemically and technically related to ways of seeing (Cosgrove 20). Largely received as timeless encapsulations of natural beauty, representations of the land are embedded in contradiction, as ironically there is often nothing natural about them. Regardless of the medium employed by an individual artist, landscapes merge ideological codes with compositional devices to manufacture specific forms of knowledge. This epistemological imperative emerges in particularly sharp relief within discussions of the picturesque and many cross-disciplinary assessments tie its arrival as a pictorial rubric to historically rooted social issues or moments of cultural change (Birmingham 9, Auerbach 47-18). Variously set against the backdrop of land enclosures in eighteenth century England, or the territorial claims of nineteenth century colonial India, picturesque landscapes may have been pretty but they were never neutral. Many scholars have argued that the knowledge cultivated by these images was predicated on a prescribed set of visual conventions that not only organised the composition but also ordered an imagined encounter with the landscape. My concern here however, rests in how picturesque images tactically positioned an ideal viewer within the frames of the image and how Bhalla reconfigures this visual mandate.
Indeed it is the established compositional strategies and the inferred viewing practices of the picturesque and how they impact the position of the ideal spectator that informs my reading of Bhalla's Contestation I. It seems to me that elements of the picturesque emerge in this image through the dappled patterns of light and dark in the foreground and how these direct the eye upwards to the umber toned hillock in the middle ground. The eye momentarily rests on the mound of denuded earth before continuing towards the distant horizon. When British clergyman William Gilpin first introduced his aesthetic ideal he stressed careful attention to texture and composition as necessary components of a correctly formulated picturesque view. His artistic blueprint mandated that textures should be asymmetrical, complex, varied or broken and must appear without obvious straight lines within the image. The irregular arrangements of textures was in turn, pictorially reigned in by the overall composition, which according to Gilpin, should include three discrete elements-a dark foreground with front or side screens, a distinctive middle ground, and at least one further, less clearly represented, distance (18-21).
In applying this visual template to Bhalla's panorama one can identify the presence of three defined spaces marked out by the rough sepia toned grasses in the foreground, the smooth rise of earth at midpoint of the image and the atmospheric perspective of the undulating hills on the distant horizon. The rise of earth that sits at the fulcrum of the image horizontally bisects the image to visually balance the blue expanse of heavens with the terrestrial folds of the grasslands; however, the placement of the adorned chair in the otherwise uninhabited landscape is ambiguous. To my mind, the chair not only recalls the importance of the ideal spectator within picturesque images but its decisive placement within the image also potentially amends observer's presumptive omniscience.
By this I mean that within Gilpin's aesthetic rubric the putative spectator was typically positioned outside the frame of the image and granted a privileged, unencumbered sightline that assumed a kind of imaginary and disembodied mastery over the landscape. In this regard, the omniscience of the ideal viewer was ostensibly caught up in a kind of will to power that was based on visual possession. And while this could be unpacked further in relation to the history of South Africa, I leave that discussion for another time so that I might instead address how the inclusion of the chair in Contestation I unveils the clandestine viewer.
The chair may mark the physical placement of the ideal viewer but it does so in a way that draws attention to the disinterested contrivances of picturesque landscapes. To be sure, the festooned chair not only serves to catalyse consciousness about what at stake in receiving landscapes as impartial but it also introduces a politics of looking--a politics that was typically driven asunder in earlier iterations of the picturesque. Perhaps most significantly, the presence of the chair introduces a timebound, embodied experience that interpolates the viewer into the photograph. Indeed, the artist's careful attention to the temporal and physical placement of the viewer is a leitmotif that resonates through all the images I consider in this essay. However, within Contestation 1, the chair and the guided view it offers, draws critical attention to how photographic images are framed and cultivates mindfulness of how we often perceive them as unmotivated objects.
Roland Barthes famously remarked, ‘the photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially' (4). However, Bhalla's photograph amends this well-healed axiom by carving out a definitive space for theviewerand,indoingso,presentsthepossibilityofanexistentialrepeat.Assuch, this particular image introduces temporal contingencies that can be triggered by an imaginary journey across the thresholds of the picture plane in a bid to occupy the vacant chair. Notably the photograph is no longer an inert slice of time and, contrary to Barthes' suggestion, the repeat is not driven by the reproductive capacity of photographs but rather by the recurring leaps of the viewer's imagination.
Questions of time and the definitive placement of the viewer also resonate through Bhalla's Pachmari Pond II, 2008. The diptych rehearses the motif of water found in many of Bhalla's ecologically minded projects to capture a ripple arching across the reflective surface of a shallow, rock-bedded pond. Like Contestation I visual interest is heightened by the play of light and texture; however, in the context of Pachmari Pond II these elements do not invite exploration of the receding depths of the image but rather serve to stress the importance of its surface. This change in visual tactic is particularly manifested in how the vertical stocks of vegetation springing from the upper reaches of the image are broken into an impenetrable abstract pattern formed by the undulating surface of the water. As I stated at the outset, my interest lies in how the image is formally constructed to potentially transect and revise antecedent visual strategies. And in keeping with this I am particularly drawn to how the doubled image recalls the binocular views of nineteenth and early twentieth-century stereoscopy.
When images such as On the Ganges, India first emerged in the mid-nineteenth century they offered a novel way for the public to engage with static photographic images and indeed the technology of stereoscopy produced a new way of seeing, which simulated an almost haptic experience of the world. The verisimilitude offered by stereoviews was predicated on printing the two exact photographs onto a card that, in turn, was placed in a specially designed viewing apparatus. The mechanics of binocular human sight melded with the new technology to create an almost palpable replication of three-dimensional space. The illusionary depth afforded by stereo-views enabled the viewer to be almost magically transited to another location.
Alan Sekula argues the stereoscope delivered a comprehensive and immersive visual experience that encouraged disembodied vision and a ‘belief in dematerialised form’ (22). It is interesting to note how both the precepts of the picturesque and the optical mechanics of stereoviews nurtured the illusion of disembodied viewing. On the Ganges, India is how we typically see these images reproduced today and without the mediating function of the viewing apparatus, it may be difficult to understand how stereoscopic images crossed a visual threshold to create a convincing spatial simulacrum. Nonetheless, what I find fascinating is how Bhalla's Pachmari Pond II and On the Ganges, India formally harmonise in the employment of doubled images of a similar scene.
While the formal similarities are readily apparent, Bhalla's bifurcated image literally disturbs the atemporal simulacrum of the stereoscopic image. The ripples that move across the surface of the pond challenge the simulated, timeless experience of space fostered by stereoviews. Bhalla's camera captures movement through the successive clicks of his shutter in a way that suggests the diptych does not attempt to create a believable space but rather a believable time.
The focus on time rather than space is particularly evident in the manner in which the artist positions the pond as an impenetrable visual tableau. Moreover, the temporal or binocular disparity between the images potentially encourages awareness of the how the body of the viewer once again occupies an artist directed space. However, this is not to suggest that the image divests the viewer of agency. Rather the delicate space that exists between the photographs shifts attention away from the terminal edges of the frame toward the centre and in doing so invites the viewer to repeatedly scan both panels and to discover their subtle differences. Like Contestation I, Bhalla potentially turns viewers into motivated actors. As such, Bhalla transforms the autonomous nature of the photographs into something is highly contingent and drivent by the active engagement.
The contingency of the photograph was something that was explored in the twentieth century photographic initiatives undertaken by first generation conceptual artists. Photographs in this context were cast as relatively unembellished documents of ephemeral encounters. However, current scholarship corroborates the extent to which many conceptual artists plumbed the depths of photographic history to challenge its social-political function as a purveyor of documentary information. Although conceptualism emerged in 1960s and the 70s there is still a great deal of debate about its mandates and how these continue to resonate today (Art & Language 113-114). Many interpretations pinpoint how conceptualism privileged the supplemental idea over aesthetics and, as such, the photograph was positioned not as a self-contained artistic expression but rather as a visual residue of transience. Perhaps Robert Smithson's A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey, 1967 or Ed Ruscha's Every Building on the Sunset Strip 1966 serve as exemplary examples that demonstrate how conceptualism relegated the photograph to a functionary placeholder that sought to preserve the potentially ‘ambivalent vacillation between materiality, visuality, and cognition' (Soutter 78).
This ambivalence succinctly plays out in Sol Lewitt's Brick Wall, 1977. And while the diptych appears to formally align with Bhalla's Pachmari Pond II there are significant differences. Lewitt's image captures light as it falls on a rusticated brick wall; however, the two sides of the diptych are mirrored images and the difference between them is marked only through the artist's adjustment of contrast levels. To be sure, this tactic resonates with the conceptualism's employment of the photograph as a functionary placeholder for broader ideas such as the entropic sameness and the infinite banality of everyday life that fascinated a number of artists working in post World War II America. Despite the formal similarities between Brick Wall and Pachmari Pond II it is however important to note that Lewitt seems to stress timeless monotony whereas Bhalla's image emphases time-bound dynamism.
At this juncture, I would like to come full circle and conclude by briefly introducing Bhalla's Grasscape, 2014, an image that once again captures South African savannah. The formal allegiance to Lewitt's Brick Wall may be incontrovertible; however, in keeping with all of the examples of Bhalla's landscapes I have considered in this essay, this imagealsopointedlyreworkshistoricalprecursors.Aspreviouslystated,thephotographin earlyconceptualismwaspositioned as a supplement to a text or as a visual proxy for an idea. And while Bhalla's landscapes certainly can be seen to speak to larger issues that I have not addressed here; it is his attention to aesthetic expression that ostensibly sets him apart from earlier expressions of conceptualism. His engagement with time and the position of the viewer also critically nuance history in a way that deserves greater attention.
Without a doubt Grasscape captures the contingencies of time through adjustments to the depth of field whereby some areas come into crisp focus while others disperse into a haze of blurred sepia. The image itself stands as a resounding example of how Bhalla's landscapes can be seen to refocus and reconfigure the visual histories of the past. However, in asserting this I am not suggesting that his work is retrograde, recuperative or nostalgic but rather how it emerges against particular characterisations of the contemporary. Terry Smith argues that the descriptor of 'contemporary' when linked to recent artistic practice has become a blanket term for what ever is happening now and tends to efface the multiple histories that are encoded in visual practice (379). In light of this it becomes possible to see Bhalla's landscapes as layered, critical expressions that potentially dilate beyond the prescriptive limits of the present to tactically engage with the past.
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