The Continuous Flow of Images
Being Singular Plural at the Deutsche Guggenheim
"Being Singular Plural: Moving Images from India" at the Deutsche Guggenheim is the first show to dedicate itself exclusively to contemporary art from India. It includes strictly film and video installations and calls for another kind of seeing and experiencing: the viewer’s "I" is meant to transform into a "We." Daniel Völzke visited the exhibition.
||It’s easy to miss, this buzzing of tropical insects, the gurgling of the brook, and even the squawking of the birds from the hallowed forests of Mawphlang in Meghalaya, a small state in north-eastern India. Outside, in front of the Deutsche Guggenheim building, the big city simply dumps its entire noise mass on top of this loudspeaker concert—the combined din of traffic on the Boulevard Unter den Linden, the voices and footsteps of passersby. In reality, though, the Desire Machine Collective decided to risk a break with tradition when it recorded these sounds to then bring them to the city in the form of a sound installation: according to the animistic beliefs of the Meghalayan people, it’s strictly forbidden to take anything out of the sacred grove. According to native tradition, the spirits or U Ryngew U Basa guard over the area. Anyone who kills an animal or tears up a plant here or even takes a branch for firewood is punished. But can one steal sounds? Where are the boundaries between the material and the immaterial, nature and civilization? And who draws them? In its sound installation, the Desire Machine Collective combines the idea systems of contemporary conceptual art with spiritual tradition.
Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted (2008/2010) is the apt title the collective has given to their work, and this questioning of rules, prohibitions, traditions, and even art’s role prepares the visitor for what she is about to encounter in the exhibition space. With Being Singular Plural: Moving Images from India, Sandhini Poddar, Assistant Curator of Asian Art at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, has put together a group show of moving images whose reserve couldn’t be at a further remove from the kitsch of Bollywood cinema and the overpowering art of Indian’s hot new artists. "I was more interested in ephemeral positions," she says, "and so I looked for works that explore sound, image, and text without a consumerist or spectacle-oriented approach. It’s not about authorship or artists’ egos here, but a democratic idea of the medium film."
Poddar found five Indian film and video artists who have already worked in cinema and whose works employ an international and nearly abstract cinematic language to explore local conditions. Despite the theoretical efforts of the curator—who with this exhibition and with her references to the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy seeks nothing less than an "ontology of the moving image"—the show seems amazingly relaxed. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the artists approach their working method and mode of presenting their works very freely. Despite all the self-referential hooks they employ, they take little stock in genres or classifications. Where does art end and cinema begin? What is documentary film, what is poetry, what is staging and subjective impression? The artists are keenly interested in these questions—and precisely for this reason they are able to break through the boundaries separating categories. What’s important to them is the concrete reality of their material, far more than the relationship of their images to an outside reality.
With his impressionist video installation Song for an ancient land (2003), the artist Kabir Mohanty expresses his skeptical love for his own handicraft the most radically. Of this as yet unfinished opus, the first two parts are on show; precisely this emphasis on process is part of Sandhini Poddar’s curatorial strategy in taking art’s character as commodity and fetish away. But Mohanty fetishizes nonetheless when he lets his camera drift across found photographs and the light reflected on the surfaces of the contact sheets (and what else is photography but fixed light?). Mohanty lets the edges of the image supports become visible; he wants the viewer to be aware of the mechanics of the digital camera while filming, turning on the auto-focus and letting the camera lens focus and then lose its focus again as the sounds of the camera mix with the artist’s breathing and rustling while working. Images are presented here as something made, contingent to a number of different parameters: cropping, movement or standstill, perspective, material. And as concentrated and cool as Kabir Mohanty is when he films photography, his photographs are of his native city Mumbai, and so are the thoughts he shares in the sound track. "I was video," the artist says once. The moving image and the perception of an individual person are so close together that they are nearly interwoven. Just as daily experience cannot be frozen to a single point, but rushes on from one moment to the next, "always in motion, moving continuously towards no puzzle, no disclosure, just this gliding along in the direction of itself" (Nancy)—so too is the film. The exhibition title can also be understood in this sense: the film and cinematic apparatus synchronize the perception of the world and create a common experience, a taking part in a plurality.
Sandhini Poddar vigorously resists the question as to the common cultural background of her artists. She knows the difficulties in ethnic classification all too well. And yet, when it comes to thoughts about an individual imbedded in a collective, social whole, then she does, after all—cautiously and concealed in subordinate clauses—cite a proximity to Buddhist philosophy.
Yet other avenues of thought fit here just as well, of course, such as the concept of a productive machine subconscious as proposed by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari—the name Desire Machine Collective already suggests this. In addition to their sound installation, Sonal Jain and Mriganka Madhukaillya, who have been working together for six years, also present the film Residue (2009-10), which was filmed in a defunct coal power plant. Here, too, we find the same coolness in the scanning of complex systems as in Mohanty’s work. The gears, regulators, pressure gauges, ball bearings, pipes—and behind the steamy glass the foreign and just as impenetrable jungle that an engineer perceives purely as a resource. But this film does not bemoan alienation; there is no center here, no history, no will, but rather just the steady stream of images that differs from the mass media footage in its lack of any real direction.
Amar Kanwar, two-time documenta participant and probably the most well-known artist in the exhibition, also fishes in this river. In his three-part, 19-channel video installation The Torn First Pages (2004-2008), he projects film segments on sheets of paper hung in a steel construction (another reference to devices and machines). These film miniatures explore the resistance movement in Myanmar, bringing the power of the mass media to light but transcending it in their concentration on gesture, isolated sentences, scenes, and symbolism. The reference here is to the responsibility an individual can exhibit in social interaction: the work’s title refers to a book trader from Mandalay who removed the first page, which was printed with propaganda, from all the books and magazines he sold.
The artists here work similarly to this man: they tear apart meaning contexts and do away with the overpowering images of the mass media with caution and much patience, using sleights of hand like the sound theft from the holy forest. And it pays to follow them in their images—to where the self can experience itself as a "we" for a few moments.
Being Singular Plural:
Moving Images from India
June 26 - October 10, 2010
Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin