Displaced shelters and rogue flies

The Network: Contemporary art from New Zealand; Nandita Kumar: Let the brainfly
Chatterjee & Lal, Mumbai; Lakeeren Gallery, Mumbai
11 April - 7 June 2014; 6 March - 30 June 2014

New Zealand planted its flag firmly on Mumbai’s art scene this April as two exhibitions opened in well established galleries in the hip Colaba district. The Network: Contemporary Art from New Zealand at Chatterjee & Lal was presented in collaboration with Jonathan Smart Gallery from Christchurch, and a short walk down the lane, Lakeeren Gallery exhibited LeT tHe bRAinFly by another New Zealand-based artist, Nandita Kumar. 

In sweltering Mumbai, the appeal of New Zealand (NZ) was instantly romantic. Images of rolling hills, blue streams, green fields came to mind. In popular culture, the scenic landscapes that backdrop Peter Jackson’s blockbusters, reinforce this environmental ideal. However The Network attempted to go further than these tropes to offer an insight into what concerns artists of, or from, New Zealand. A group show of eight artists, The Network is the first leg of a reciprocal project that culminates in an exhibition of Indian artists at Jonathan Smart Gallery in 2015. Professing to being an opportunity for a ‘cross-pollination of ideas’, it was interesting to note works by two diaspora artists—Sanjay Theodore who curated the show, and Yuk King Tan.

Theodore, having recently relocated to India from NZ with his family, presented Bring Back Buck, a shelter of blue tarpaulin held in place by bamboo scaffolding, no doubt a reaction to the city’s breathlessly expanding urbanisation. Colloquially known as Taad-Patri, the cobalt-blue tarp, a multi-purpose, water resistant material that is cheap and utilised by the masses, is ubiquitous on the sprawling city-scape, in view even before one lands at the airport. What changes when this material is appropriated by an artist and placed within an up-scale art gallery where its audience is of an upwardly mobile class?

Taad-Patri has entrenched itself as part of the city-experience. Useful, for instance, to roadside vendors for displaying their products as a makeshift shop, the material’s durability and strength acts as a convenient ally to the disenfranchised. At the first sign of trouble, all their wares can be wrapped up at a moment’s notice and huddled away. A water-proof, sun-proof, wind-proof, pigeon poop-proof agent, the omnipresent material protects rickshaws, temporary refuge camps, leaky roofs of poor households—and Antilla, the world’s first billion-dollar home and prominent vertical eyesore on Bombay’s city-scape. As one material unifying the city and its people from across the social strata, Theodore’s installation certainly made for a layered reading. 

Within the narrow installation, the artist also set up a shop, encouraging visitors to take a torch to explore artworks within, one of which included a tarp-suit. Not remotely gritty, the shelter offered a sanitised experience devoid of smell and grime. Instead viewers saw assorted photographic works evidencing Theodore’s unpredictable, even unsavoury, encounters with the city. Some images bordered on the bizarre—an odd lenticular photograph of an uber-muscular Ganesh idol, for instance, contradicted the well-known depiction of Ganesh as a chubby boy-god with a cheerful disposition, an ample belly and a love for sweetmeats. 

If on some literal level, Theodore’s striking tarp installation made visible the invisible masses of India, often subconsciously blocked from our periphery, then Yuk King Tan’s film Scavenger (2008) metaphorically laid emphasis on the same. Another diaspora artist of New Zealand, Tan’s practice investigates multi-cultural identities and value systems in a quickly evolving cosmopolitan city such as Hong Kong, where she currently resides. In Scavenger, Tan followed the route of a recycle-trolley worker, who collects compacted paper boards and scrap metal. On this particular outing however, the aged labourer’s trolley is occupied by compacted paper, sculpted into a life-size seated lion, a replica of the HSBC mascot. As she stands outside the HSBC headquarters, gently rocking her trolley in front of the bank, there is palpable tension between her own paper-lion and the original bronze in front of the bank. Her route from the wealthy central business district to the oldest in Sheung Wan, where her cardboard sculpture is weighed and the labourer’s wages are dispensed, is not easy. As she nonchalantly goes about her routine, some people are amused by this sight, some offer to help, or some typically snap pictures with her as she rests. Her unusual cargo has suddenly made her visible to those who would normally turn a blind eye to an elderly labourer’s travails. Through this gentle intervention, Tan found a way to connect disparate strangers in a hyper-urban city, a way to draw attention to the plight of migrant workers and a way to question power structures by appropriating a well known bank’s mascot and letting a low-wage worker negotiate with it in any way she saw fit. This was one work in the show that touched a chord through its visual and conceptual subtlety. 

As the opening night progressed, Greta Anderson’s close-up photograph of a bull with a redolent gaze was mistaken for a cow (considered sacred) by one Bombay collector, its ear tags not giving it away as an animal ultimately headed for the slaughterhouse. Day for Night, Bull (2013) was taken with a special technique that allows night scenes to be shot in day time. The result was a disconcerting photograph of the animal’s head emerging out of darkness, with its neon ear tags punctuating the pitch black atmosphere. The innocence of the bull working against its darkened composition made for an uneasy visual. Beyond the frame of this image what one might consider are the farming practices in New Zealand and other economies that have been environmentally detrimental.

On the other hand, Rob Hood’s photo-collages of souvenir postcards of idyllic landscapes, rudely disrupted by his awkward placement of the peanut, were also suggestive of the same. The nut is not native to NZ but has been cultivated widely in recent decades. Though the piece played up the famed natural beauty of NZ, the peanuts placed atop these postcards annulled their effect, ushering puzzlement and humour, but any further critical reading of this work escaped my grasp.

Perhaps contextually lost to Indian viewers, the rest of the art felt visually bland. Fiona Pardington’s photographs God of Greenstone (2013) and Moko Iwituararo, to my mind did not communicate legibly beyond their specific Māori contexts. Nathan Pohio’s Not down on any Map (2013), two framed black and white images of imperial ships, did not convey much either, even though dealer Jonathan Smart was on hand to convince me of their potency. And finally, in search of a universal cliché, Chris Heaphy’s painting (The Awakened One, 2013) sought the silhouette of Buddha filled in with Māori symbols. 

Having been particularly thrilled with Tan’s sobering film juxtaposed with Theodore’s makeshift shelter, it was nonetheless interesting to witness this cultural exchange happening on an otherwise staid Bombay art scene. It would be even more fascinating to see the culmination of this project through the choices of artworks Chatterjee & Lal will make for audiences in Christchurch come February 2015.

A stone’s throw from Chatterjee & Lal, Lakeeren Gallery exhibited LeT tHe bRAinFly, with artworks by Nandita Kumar, a New Zealand artist of Indian origin who spends her time between Auckland and Mumbai. Visitors were privy to Kumar’s conceptual elements even before setting foot in the gallery. As I walked up the old wooden staircase leading up to Lakeeren, I noted Kumar’s signature ‘bRAinFlies’—brains equipped with housefly wings—stuck on the walls as if heading away from the gallery. ‘These are escaped flies’ Kumar obliged on noting my puzzlement.

Kumar’s purpose is to build immersive environments for audiences to encounter sensory experiences, connecting them to something beyond the tangible. She has recently been developing this idea through small-scale experiments in glass bottles and various interactive installations, and these formulations for marrying low technology and solar-powered chips with delicate aesthetics and sound could be seen in the exhibited works, all from 2010.

An installation of steel drains hovered over several large canvases and an animation film, while a number of brainflies seemed to burst from canvas onto gallery walls, some aiming for the gallery door seeking an escape route. Assembly Line Emo, a single composition of twelve small canvases interconnected with cable and assorted wiring, commenced the narrative of the exhibition by illustrating the story of a journey beginning from the exterior of the human body to the interior, while representing a myriad of human emotions and their corresponding expressions. As limbs contracted and the eyes began to look within, an evolution of the brainfly came to the fore.

In a sense, the entire exhibition could be read as a storyboard for the birth of this peculiar species. As in most birthing circumstances, the process was complex and fraught with confusion, pain and blood, which the following canvas Birth of Brainfly depicted. Fear and anticipation gave way to serene scrutiny as a large flesh-coloured and somewhat muscular brain emerged free from the artist’s disembodied grey-monochrome head. No more bound by the physical prison of the human skull, the mutated brain, stretched out its wings and burst out of one canvas so as to enter the next. The Journey into the Multitude charted the next phase of brainfly’s journey, together with its herd, in full vitality entering into a bloody portal that may or may not have been on a metaphysical plane. Clues to this were drawn on the gallery walls, tracing the journey of the flies into another realm—a landscape of neurons and floating all-seeing eyeballs. 

Judging by the easy legibility of her imagery, Kumar took her visual cues from graphic illustration artists such as Robert Crumb and cartoonists Jim Woodring and Ron Rege. In order to intensify the viewing experience though, I wished Kumar had incorporated tense, palpitating sound as she does in her six minute sumptuous but tense animation-film biRTH oF bRAiNFLy. According to the artist, sound was indeed part of the exhibition but due to some technical issue was switched off when I visited, which is unfortunate and made for an incomplete experience of the artwork.

Where other canvases retained the purity of her black and white fine-lined drawings with little colour, Orgy of Organs, the only painting that integrated colour, illustrated a strange but tense psycho-sexual landscape of the body. A muscular palpitating heart, entangled streams of red and blue arteries, veins, neuron tendrils and tentacles with blooming vulvas and ejaculating penises seductively mimed botanical design. Metaphysical and sexual fantasies intertwined here, whilst a few brainflies lay motionless on the lower gallery-wall, having met the end of their life-cycle. 

Making the housefly-like irritant quite the uninhibited hero of this cosmic journey, Kumar sees the common fly not as an unhygienic annoyance but as an integral protagonist of the natural order. The cluster of steel drains hovering from the ceiling acting as transitional gateways to some unforeseeable place, invite us to investigate the dark recesses of our mind where we may not like what we find. Or perhaps it is in this dark abyss that one might find enlightenment.

The unsightly mutation of the brainfly suggests the age-old question ‘why’, the genesis of critical thought and ‘individuation’. Carl Jung’s definition of the term asserts this as a process of differentiation. Kumar tackles the concept through metaphoric and physical representations of gender that the asexual brainfly gravitates towards, deciding for itself what makes it unique, accepting its primal instincts. Going further than gender constructs, Kumar tackled larger philosophical questions of birth and death through her specific visual style but, above all, it was her conceptual vision that made LeT tHe bRAinFly a most compelling exhibition. 

Sanjay Theodore, Bring Back Buck, 2014. Installation detail. Courtesy the artist and Chatterjee & Lal, Mumbai. 

Yuk King Tan, Scavenger, 2008. Still, DVD, 14 mins, 22 secs. Courtesy the artist and Chatterjee & Lal, Mumbai. 

Installation view showing (left) Yuk King Tan, Scavenger, 2008 and (right) Sanjay Theodore, Bring Back Buck, 2014. Detail. Courtesy the artists and Chatterjee & Lal, Mumbai. 

notes: 

The Network: Contemporary Art from New Zealand included work by Chris Heaphy, Fiona Pardington, Greta Anderson, Michael Parekowhai, Nathan Pohio, Rob Hood, Sanjay Theodore, Yuk King Tan.