A game of sheer coincidence, A game of continuous chance encounters

Common Ground: The serendipitous happenstance project
OED Gallery, Cochin
12 December 2016 – 29 March 2017

This game bears similarity with what is also known as life. In life we always expect the unknown. The future, as uncanny as it may seem, is unpredictable. If one has to name a game with similar characteristics it would be the ancient Indian game of what is now known as ‘Snakes and Ladders’.1 This is a game of probability where the numbers on the dice decide the outcome for the player. Similarly, art can produce unanticipated outcomes when open to chance encounters. These chance encounters can lead to many forms of collaboration, from material, to cultural, to social.

Featuring the works of five Australian artists in collaboration with Indian artists, Common Ground: The serendipitous happenstance project was an exhibition, catalogue, and soon to be released film. The exhibition, under the curatorial supervision of Helen Rayment, was shown at OED Gallery in Cochin, India.

The gallery is located on busy Bazar Road, a popular destination for both locals as well as tourists, where there are a series of spice shops and warehouses. Cochin, in Kerala, located in the southern part of India, is a wonderful confluence of all the goodness that nature has to offer; from the luscious spice gardens, to the picturesque backwaters. Not in a typical white-cube gallery, this exhibition was housed in an old spice warehouse. Therefore, locating the gallery was itself like a chance encounter.

Rayment sought to explore the outcome of a trans-cultural collaboration between artists working with different mediums across continents. Her overarching idea was to look for common experiences through divergent practices, or for distinct collaborations between artists. But how is this possible, the differences seem far too much when compared to the similarities, be they language or artistic processes? However, the curatorial note highlights that ‘our similarities are far greater then our differences’.2 Thus began the game of chance encounters, where each artist had their own way of responding to the project.

The multiple entry points to the Common Ground exhibition reminds one of Hal Foster’s interpretation of vision and visuality. According to him ‘vision is social and historical… [whereas] visuality involves the body and the psyche’.3 This exhibition contains both. The artworks offer a linear understanding of collaborative processes, but at the same time explore far more than just an exchange of ideas, if this was in terms of vision. In the case of visuality, it was a rather complex network of bringing already explored mediums, like Madhubani and block prints from India, but enabling new readings of the same. The architectural wooden mezzanine level, newly created within the exhibition space, gave one two alternative ways of viewing: one where the viewer gets a traditional view of the artworks, and the other offers a panorama of the entire exhibition. According to the curator the participants, ‘are all linked by their desire to work collaboratively, regardless of circumstances, and have stepped out of their areas of familiarity to explore culture, identity and place’.4 The outcomes of the collaborations are enthralling in their exploration of the possibilities of cultural diversities.

Australian artist Maggie Baxter’s collaborative partnership with Indian designer and architect Kirit Dave dates back more than two decades. A collaboration this enduring yields much. For this exhibition they produced a series titled The Poetics of Nothing. The artworks clearly reference the block printing history of Kutch, with abstract designs using either free flowing stitches or calligraphy.

Another artist to explore textiles was William Eicholtz, who is well known for his sculptural figurative work. Being completely enamored by the traditional Kathakali dancers in Kerala, Eicholtz used the rich textiles which often adorn the performers during their performances. His sculptures appear like baroque fantasy abstract furniture.

As the game of Snakes and Ladders is about a journey, similarly for Louise Rippert. It is her extensive travels in India that have helped to shape her understanding of the true meaning of diverse culture. In her work one sees the confluence of meditation and rituals. She explores the motif of the chakra (wheel) that has no beginning or end, as it is looped within itself. Thus she refers to her work as a never ending and continuous process of ‘transporting the gaze through layers of diaphanous and reflective materials towards the state of stillness or the One’.5

The trope of the game continued as William Eicholtz and Louise Rippert collaborated with Narayanan Mohanan on the installation Renew, created amidst urban junk in the Mattancherry locality on Bazar Road, extending the exhibition a few hundred metres from OED Gallery. Although easily missed during the daytime, at night the mystical blue lights of the installation glowed, forcing curious passers-by to stop. Here, too, the phenomenon of chance encounter played a prominent role in the installation, which, according to the artists, is ‘an apocalyptic vision and a hybrid shrine where nature and man can coexist’.6 It creates a sense of dystopia among passers-by who are inevitably drawn towards the site.

Similarly to Louise Rippert, Catherine Parker’s journey across India has literally formed her artworks for this exhibition. Her installation series, Chai Stories elevates the mundane experience of the usual conversation that happens over sipping chai (or tea) at local shops, or even households among family members. She met, interacted, and communicated with a range of people while traveling in India; they all became part of the installation as they participated in their own ways towards making the series. Parker feels that without the participation of these people she would have been ‘just a solo artist trying to make sense of a culture that thrives on community and helping others…’.7

The series Godh: in the lap of nature consists of nine digital print panels by Mandy Ridley in collaboration with Ishan Khosla, Pradyumna Kumar and Pushpa Kumari. This series is a re-invocation of the traditional art form Madhubani, practiced in the villages of Bihar in the northern part of India. Traditionally hand painted by the women of the house on the floor and the walls, these drawings narrate stories depicting various social as well as religious themes. Ridley’s idea was to collaborate in order to explore and synthesise the artists’ different drawing styles, and in so doing to create a shared space based upon memories of childhood landscapes, infused with references and experiences encountered by the artists as children. The collaboration resulted in a series of long scrolls, where the drawings bear a close resemblance to Madhubani paintings, but at the same time they capture the amalgamation of artists working with a different sensibility. The resulting artworks explore a dream-like or psychedelic state of the mind through elaborate botanical illustrations.

The conceptually charged works of art of Common Ground: The serendipitous happenstance project make us wonder at the seemingly endless probabilities that are possible with chance encounters; this edition of the exhibition just showcased one such possibility. More such explorations are planned in the future, as promised by the curator. This is not about how one plays the game, but it is about how the course of the game changes with every roll of the dice. Just as no one can anticipate where the dice will lead, similarly, in collaborations like this, the unexpected is always expected.

Ishan Khosla, Pradyumna Kumar, Pushpa Kumari and Mandy Ridley, Godh: in the lap of nature, 2016. Detail, installation. Photograph Atul Dube. Courtesy Moonlight Pictures.

William Eicholtz, Narayanan Mohanan and Louise Rippert, Renew, 2016. Photograph Narayanan Mohanan.

Catherine Parker, Chai stories 1,2, 3 & 4, and detail of The Matchbox Project, Pocket Pictorials, with Yug Prasad and artists. Installation photograph Atul Dube. Courtesy Moonlight Pictures.

Maggie Baxter and Kirit Dave, Poetics of Nothing 3, 2016. Installation photograph Atul Dube. Courtesy Moonlight Pictures.

notes: 

1. ‘Just as the ancient Indian board game of snakes and ladders involves the element of chance, art can deliver up surprising and unforeseen outcomes’ and ‘For this project the game snakes and ladders has supplied the conceptual springboard and also the opportunity to explore our cultural perspectives.’ quoted from Helen Rayment, Common Ground: The serendipitous happenstance project, ex. cat., Cochin, 2016, p.1.
2. Ibid.
3. Hal Foster, Vision and Visuality, Bay Press, Seattle, 1988 p.ix.
4. Rayment, op. cit.
5. Common Ground: The serendipitous happenstance project, ex. cat., p.16.
6. Ibid., p.47.
7. Ibid., p.34.