There is something disconcerting about the pair of eyes that stare unblinkingly at you between slate-grey panels of synthetic fabric in Jagannath Panda’s Crystal City. It was a similar gaze that riveted me two years ago, on a visit to the artist’s studio in Gurgaon. I recall that the owl had been perched on a massive stone sculpture in one of his paintings, alert to its surroundings. Now for some inexplicable reason it appears to be hiding in plain sight. Or perhaps it has found a better vantage point to carry out its surveillance? The shiny planes surrounding it are organized in a manner evocative of a clump of crystalline rock, its jagged edges cleverly arranged to mimic towering skyscrapers outlined against a central patch of light-blue sky.
The owl is just one of the many winged creatures that inhabit Panda’s solo show Crystal Cities at Vadehra Art Gallery in Delhi (19th of August -12th of September, Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum September) . The notion of fragility is implicit in the title of the show and in keeping with the artist’s earlier body of works. These have foregrounded the precariousness of ecosystems and the delicate balance between natural and urban worlds.
Panda has been preoccupied for several years with the effects of capital and consumerism on natural habitats, often employing the metaphor of fauna to also talk about larger issues of the destruction of the environment, displacement and migration. Nowhere is this articulated more forcefully than in The Structure of Arid Terrain - II, which depicts a denuded laterite landscape with a vein of iron ore running through it. The sophisticated construction of the work makes the fissure in the earth take on the contours of a quixotic architectural form, with its base balancing on the head of a stag. While sparrows and other birds cavort among its antlers, pictograms depicting industrial activity creating a buzzing background around it.
In many of the works on display, Panda employs the device of the collage, which carries with it art historical connotations of disjuncture and discontinuity. It is a form he has continuously experimented with since his days as an M.A. student in Baroda, when he tore up textiles and incorporated them in his canvases and works on paper. He continues to delight in the textures and sheer materiality of the fabrics and their attendant cultural associations. “Materials are like catalysts and help me build my work,” he says, talking of how he scouts for textiles both in the teeming marketplaces in Delhi and on his travels further afield in countries such as Japan, China and Egypt. Medium here dons the role of metaphor. For instance, chancing upon the shiny, metallic, fabric that he has used widely in the current exhibition serves to spark memories of a workshop in Barbil, a town situated in a mining region of his native Odisha. Rich in iron and manganese ore, he observes at close quarters the rampant exploitation of natural resources to cater to the insatiable appetite for consumer goods.
In the show, this new-age fabric summons images not just of industrialization but also of the gleaming bodies of space crafts. Speed Metals offers a floating fractured realm, which conveys a sense of in-betweenness, in terms of both space and time. Summoning the past and future within a single frame, drones and other flying machines are interspersed with clouds rendered in the older Thangka style of painting. The spectre of the Belgian assemblagist Panamarenko and his fascination for flying objects looms large in the work. Meanwhile, blue butterflies and Sanjhi paper-stencilled trees try valiantly to carve out a niche for themselves among the satellite dishes and floating symbols of luxury cars.
The attempt to negotiate a space between the concrete and natural worlds also manifests itself in Alchemy of Dwelling I and II, which simultaneously plays with notions of exterior and interior. Here the staircases seen in the architectural spaces are symbolic of transitions that accompany negotiations between man-made and organic environments. An air of foreboding hangs over paintings such as Wonderland I and II, belying their very titles. Abstract architectural forms reminiscent of space-age constructions are attractive and repelling in equal measure, the sombre palette functioning as a portent of a dystopian world. Stars morph into fireworks and spacecraft, while a jet-black crow manages to slyly infiltrate the seemingly-impenetrable central structure.
There is a strong autobiographical element underlying the sculptural work Metropolis, which has a carpeted disc of manicured synthetic grass reminiscent of the golf course near Panda’s apartment in the satellite city of Gurgaon. The underside of the disc sports a town with its jumble of spires and outline of skyscrapers constructed from broken toys and papier mache. The work owes much to the artist’s observations of his young son’s construction of a make-believe metropolis, with some of the toys -- including a small golf club-being purloined from the youngster’s collection. It can also perhaps be read as a rumination on the artifice of Gurgaon, with its glitzy malls, call centres, high-rise apartment blocks, and multinational offices located within its so-called Cyber City.
The device of the inverted town also features in The Custodian of Untold Truth, where it forms the underbelly of a Brahmini Kite and can be viewed in its entirety by gazing into a mirrored base. In a similar sculpture, The Profiteer, a winged creature takes anthropomorphic form. The sumptuously patterned bust of a bird balances a briefcase studded with glittering stones while perched on a wooden leg fitted incongruously with a human shoe.
A series of wall-mounted shelf-like structures marks a striking departure from Panda’s repertoire of sculptures and paintings. Black and white photographs drawn from his large visual archive are brought into conversation with toys, silver-patterned wallpaper, papier mache and bits of plywood, creating objects of curiosity. Crystal Cities indicates that the glitz and glamour of the metropolis often blinds its inhabitants to the mechanisms of exploitation and displacement that enables its very creation.
Jagannath Panda, The Profiteer, acrylic, fabric, plywood, glue, fiberglass, rexine, iron, plastic, crystal etc, 77" x 40" x 28", 2017, Courtesy: Vadehra Art Gallery