Within the darkened room, light emanates from the most unexpected of sources. Nox Umbra/Night Shadows is evocative of a walk on a cold misty evening, with the pathway threatening to disappear into an almost blinding haze. For strangely enough, the source of illumination appears to conceal more than reveal-just the way a car’s headlights tend to do in the fog. Were it not for the hint of darkened branches and the lone metal folding chair glinting coldly in the foreground, one can even have imagined being in the presence of a divine apparition, bathed in a pool of celestial light.
This deft handling of chiaroscuro can be observed in other oil paintings in Divya Singh’s show Notes for Tomorrow at Delhi’s Empire gallery. In a similarly titled but much larger work, the viewer again has the impression of standing in the shadows, within a dense thicket of trees, observing a clearing illuminated by sunlight. While three of the paintings in the room are rendered in a sombre palette, She who Knows stands out for its sheer effulgence. Created by the artist during the pandemic, here darkened trees form silhouettes, thrown into fuzzy relief by the incandescent glow that fills the horizon.
In contrast to the suite of works that depict the outdoors, another set on display focuses on scenes of domesticity. What is striking in both is that though they are evacuated of human figures, absent presences lurk within their frames. Singh, who lost a beloved parent a few years ago, has tried to come to terms with her loss by reliving memories and re-tracing paths. She attempts “to locate something of people forever lost to time, by way of simply looking, and observing spaces and structures (residues) that still remain.” Her parental home, naturally, forms the fulcrum of this memory-retrieval process. Here remembrances lie in wait, sometimes in unlikely places, springing unbidden to the fore. They might be coiled on the bookshelf in Portal/Notes for Tomorrow, or perhaps swirling around a memento on a side table in the small-format One/Note for Tomorrow. Then there are more direct indicators of loss: the empty bed with its propped-up pillows in the salmon-pink Four/Notes for Tomorrow or the black-and-white framed photograph on a table in Places. A mirror occupied centre-stage in two of the paintings, functioning almost as a trope of the looking-glass, with its ability to catapult the viewer to another time and space.
Time, existence, mortality and loss are some of the themes that Singh seeks to explore in a plethora of mediums ranging from painting and photography to book-making. Literature and cinema inform her practice, which serve to explain why short videos of films made by directors Victor Erice and Bela Tarr peppered the show. Erice’s 1973 Spanish drama film, The Spirit of the Beehive, which depicts life from the viewpoint of two young siblings, evidently left a great impression on Singh. She has spoken of identifying herself acutely with its characters; almost to the point where she felt she was watching an alternate childhood.
Singh’s ruminations on mortality also play out in the short video Time is a Flat Circle, projected on the gallery floor. Here again the references are subtle and nuanced, embedded in shots of lapping water. The video was sparked by a visit to the Ganges to immerse the ashes of an elderly neighbour. Watching a child play in the very same waters where the ashes were being scattered, the artist became profoundly aware of the circle of life and death, “I felt close to the dead, while standing in the water with the living. In that moment I found that life and death were both immensely beautiful and that Time is a flat circle.”
In her notebooks Mox Nox and Notes for Tomorrow, found images are juxtaposed with lines of text to generate new interpretations. This technique also informs her single channel video, Auto Portrait, in which scenes from a variety of films such as Edward Scissorhands, Three Colors: Blue, In the Mood for Love and Amelie are spliced together to create a montage. As much as the film points to the influences that have shaped the inner world of the artist, it calls upon viewers to actively dig deep within themselves and forge new connections.
On view till March 6.
Singh’s investigation into the mechanics of memory and the construction of the self, appear to find an echo a stone’s throw away in (ME) (MORY), an exhibition mounted at Vadehra Art Gallery. Curated by Deepti Anand, it brings together nine women artists, among them Anoli Perera, Apnavi Makanji, Bakula Nayak, Biraaj Dodiya, Faiza Butt, Himali Singh Soin, Rakhi Peswani, Ruby Chishti and Shrimanti Saha. The curatorial note states, “In (ME)(MORY), the artists approach the construction of these artworks as they might the construction of themselves, from a quasi-dream-like state, or an ectasis, or states of overpowering emotion, seemingly shedding their exterior bodies for the visceral and whimsical world of within.”
Entering the gallery, the visitor encounters Biraj Dodiya’s large oil on linen painting, Green Ray, as well as a set of four smaller works intriguingly titled Roar, had you kept quiet, Twin falls, Memory cave and Cold water alarm. Executed during the pandemic in 2020, their mood is sombre and they lack the vitality of some of her earlier abstract works. On the opposite wall, Apnavi Makanji’s Drawing Breath series, fashioned with graphite and collage on Arches paper, boast of negative spaces on which photographic images of creatures of the natural world are pasted. While they appear to argue for a non-anthropocentric view of the world, their inclusion in the show seems incongruous. It is difficult to find the connecting thread between these works and the central theme of the exhibition. In Faiza Butt’s Sleeping Constellation series in the centre of the room, black and white porcelain bowls are placed on metal stands. Sleeping figures juxtapose with planetary constellations, satellites and even the Star Wars character Chewbacca adorn their surfaces, as if alluding to the world of sci-fi or states of the subconscious mind.
In an adjoining room Ruby Chisti’s sculptural works make an inventive use of recycled clothing to recreate memories. In The Only Blind Spot in History, a frieze of well-endowed doll-like figures turn their backs on viewers, their tattered vestments barely covering their anatomy. In Restoration of a Fading Memory a wire mesh panel forms the scaffolding of the artwork, with hugging figures apparently mourning the death of yet another girl-child, their grief at variance with the glitzy found fabric and sequined flowers. In contrast to the diminutive female figures, the room is dominated by a gigantic gent’s overcoat in The Intangible Sanctuary of Ocean and Stars as if to emphasize the dominance of patriarchal power structures in South Asia.
Employing fabric as a means of self-expression is also evidentinRakhiPeswani’sinstallation,Cultivating the Craft, on the first floor of the gallery. Panels of elaborately quilted cloth hang from the ceiling, adorned with motifs varying from body parts to tools such as a hammer and scissors. The back of the panels are embellished with razor blades or bunches of gold-coloured safety pins, which appear to indicate that pleasure and pain can often be intertwined in the process of self-construction.
Memories can frequently be anchored in the most banal of objects as is evident in Anoli Perera’s evocative The Scribbled Book. Accordion-like, it resembles a telephone diary with scribbled notations-evidently inspired by Perera’s mother’s own telephone book. Overlaid on many of these pages are drawings of an elderly woman standing in front of some glass doors, her loneliness palpable.
Other works in the show included Shrimanti Saha’s large paper work, Landscape with Pink Pool, Himali Singh Soin’s video work, The Particle and the Wave, a sonic and algorithmic reading of Virginia Woolf’s novel, The Waves, and Bakula Nayak’s nude figures juxtaposed with flora and fauna on vintage paper. (ME)(MORY) appears more like a collection of disparate voices instead of a cohesive whole with the linkages between the artworks and the conceptual framework often coming across as tenuous. But perhaps the curator can take comfort in the fact that memories too can be incoherent and don’t necessarily have a thread running through them.
On view till February 24