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A great sense of agoraphobia arises in Delhi-based artist Gigi Scaria’s current exhibition. Covering three gallery spaces, the exhibition surrounds the viewer with a long line of unending horizons. Comprising video, photography and a painting, the exhibition records Scaria’s research in the Rann of Kutch and the Thar Desert on India’s border with Pakistan; home to the world’s largest salt desert. ‘Dust’ is a departure from Scaria’s previous work, which frequently employed digital manipulation to make futuristic architectural incursions into images of urban India, or comprised sculptural imaginings of a hyper-mechanised society. Nevertheless Scaria’s attention to overdevelopment continues to permeate these new works, many of which record the relics of industrial advances on the land.
In the large format photographs Crushed to the ground, Timeout and Overflow (all 2013) Scaria surveys various signs and ruins of industry. The desert landscape, sparsely scarred by power pylons and drain systems, is unspecific and yet familiar to an Australian eye. India and Australia share a British colonial past, however the colonialism that pervades Scaria’s work emphasises the imposition of humanity on the land since the industrial revolution, particularly in its accelerated contemporary mode.
The insatiable hunger of urban development in India makes an appearance in the photograph Dust in which a segment of an overbuilt Indian neighbourhood is, somewhat comically, digitally spliced into a sand dune. More subtle and ominous are the footprints of long-gone abodes on cracked earth. In Land faded the brick foundations are all that is left of an ill-fated attempt to claim an inhospitable place.
The visual resolve of this new body of work is marked by a pared-back aesthetic and the quiet sophistication of an observatory mode. The blindingly white planes of the desert, both stunning and terrifying, are captured in the video Once upon a time. Projected onto a large freestanding screen centred in the gallery, this is the most striking work in the exhibition. Shaky handheld camera footage registers a far off sliver of land, rising mirage-like from the iridescent whiteness. The desert Scaria traverses knows no time, having been calcified and paralysed by salt; it is both ancient and ageless. Time is marked on the empty landscape by the artist’s body. The soundtrack of Scaria’s breathing and the jolting movement of the camera, as he walks in the heat, create a rhythm of endurance. As Scaria’s camera clings urgently to the island of land, the only marker on the salt marsh, we cling to his breath and pace; subjectivity and the body become the only demarcation in this timeless non-place.
In a sensitive coupling, a second video work, Hourglass, is projected on the reverse of the same freestanding screen. Both works, shot in a similar, if not the same landscape, are dominated entirely by a seemingly endless salt plane and feed into each other through Scaria’s mapping of them with his body. At the centre of this work the artist’s figure, only just large enough to make out, moves away from the camera and becomes less than a speck on the horizon, lost in the shimmering haze. Moments later the video cuts and we see the figure returning towards us. The futility of his actions and the minuteness of his body induce an almost existential trauma. It is a meditation reciprocated by three nearby photographs, Exile I, II and III. In two of these photographs a diminutive island populated by shrubs sits on the horizon, and in the third, an island-shaped cloud hovers between the land and the sky, neither mass nor absence, belonging nowhere.
In the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, Indian curator Ranjit Hoskote offers a rich and poetic essay that weaves together the historical, literary and psychological threads of Scaria’s work. This text is followed by an insightful interview between the exhibition’s curator Bala Starr and the artist, in which he remarks, ‘you compare “your” landscape with the new landscape you find in front of you’. Just as the horizon line relentlessly adjusts itself like a spirit level, Scaria enacts a constant recalibration in relation to the landscape through observation. For this reason, the works in Dust without digital alteration more acutely communicate the overwhelming indifference of the desert. As he takes the photographs Persona I and Persona II, the artist’s shadow falls on sand dunes, monochrome orange under the equally vacant blue sky. With this most simple of gestures, Scaria locates himself in the landscape, between belonging and unbelonging.
Gigi Scaria, Camel and the needle, 2013. Inkjet print, 100 x 150cm. Image courtesy the artist. © The artist.
Divided by accident, 2013. Detail. Inkjet print, triptych, each 100 x 150cm. Image courtesy the artist. © The artist.
Time out, 2013. Detail. Inkjet print, diptych, each 150 x 100cm. Image courtesy the artist. © The artist.
Dust follows Scaria’s Macgeorge Fellowship at The University of Melbourne and his exhibition Prisms of Perception at the Ian Potter Museum, both in 2012.