Reality of illusions

Reality of illusions

from left) Malekeh Nayiny’s ‘Traces’; Han Bing’s ‘Withered Lotus’;

Iranian artist Malekeh Nayiny’s homecoming wasn’t an easy one. The revolution in Iran kept her away from home while she was still studying in the US. After a decade and a half, when she did fly back to Tehran to visit her ailing mother, she could never make it in time to hold her dying mother’s hand. What remained were a few personal belongings of her mother, a lonely father and a host of memories. “Two years later, my father died as well. All that was left for me were traces of their lives: Their objects, their letters and abandoned pictures from the past, evidences of their one-time presence in this world. I could not help but feel haunted by these symbols of the past and it became clear to me that they would always remain inside me. And, even though I fought to erase them from my mind, I realise how deeply I still cherish these traces that tangibly connect me to my past, each one telling me a different story of a time gone by,” says Nayiny. And that explains her photographic diptych titled ‘Traces’, with which one comes face to face in an ongoing show aptly titled ‘In You is the Illusion of Each Day’ at Latitude 28 in New Delhi.

Curated by Maya Kóvskaya, the show draws its title and thematics from the lines of the poem, Your Breast Is Enough, by Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who understood our deep human need to feel intimately and inextricably connected to the world outside each of us. In an evocative essay to the show, Kóvskaya writes: “No longer were Malekeh’s illusions of self and family in sync with the world she had left behind. The rain of old family photos and the pile at her feet in the work came to represent the passage of time as well as lost time and lost people. The presence of the absent in the traces they left behind serves to underscore the ways in which the world can become a different place through the reordering of the dominant principles that gave coherence and meaning to what would otherwise simply be a mountain of meaningless matter. It is the power of illusion that enables us to tie these disparate things together into something called life.”

Hence, in each of the works in the exhibition, presented by some of the most cutting-edge artists from across the globe, illusions and their place and function in our lives serve as the dominant concept.

In Dilip Chobisa’s two untitled mixed media works that make a fine demarcation between the inside and the outside, one can find three-dimensional visual language being used to create an illusory effect. “In both works, a room in our foreground is separated from the outside by an archway that is fenced off with a length of barbed wire. In one work, a tumultuous cloudscape broods on the horizon, in the other a walkway leads to a tree that is growing in the shape of a man’s head. Inside and outside interpenetrate and bleed over the symbolically policed boundaries, placed at the gateway between worlds,” explains the curator.

At first glance, Neha Choksi’s vertical work, titled ‘Queen of the Night’, which holds the ubiquitous sapling of a raat-ki-rani tree against a dark green background, seems like a painting. Get a little closer, and it looks like a photograph. She has taken a live plant and painted it in black and white, later photographed it against a theatrical backdrop, and finally embellished it with handwritten text. Like many other works in the show that present illusions in varied ways, Choksi’s method is to ‘superimpose upon and smother the real’.  


In a complete contrast to Choksi’s dramatic yet simple imagery is Delhi-based artist Pooja Iranna’s complex sculptural installation made of ordinary staple pins. Titled ‘Everything is Not Straight’, the installation creates the illusion of an urban skyline that is inundated with shining surfaces of steel and glass high-rise buildings. Pooja has been talking of these structures ever since she started her art practice almost two decades back and has remained grounded to architectural spaces in this show as well. She says, “There is no stone unturned as the human race has successfully managed to use their cultural as well as technical knowledge along with positive energies, to construct the unthinkable.”

But here she goes beyond the human genius and beauty of spaces created by man. Everything is not to be seen at the surface level. There is both fragility and strength in her work, just as there is human creativity. The not so straight partitions and the visible curvatures all denote the concealed part of life which could be beautiful for some or even ugly for others. She says, “The crux of the matter here is that life, surfaces, spaces do have twists and turns but it depends on the human mind and its strength of how one responds to them.”

Adds Kóvskaya, “Similarly, in Pooja’s digital print, the unfinished façade of an urban mega-building dominates the frame. What is striking is the way in which this could be a scene from anywhere — it could be China just as easily as India.”

Ethereal images

The same gleaming, high rise urban structures find place in Chinese artist Han Bing’s photographs titled ‘Coiled Dragon Pillars’, ‘Sun in the East’ and ‘Withered Lotus’ from his ‘Urban Amber’ series. Han Bing grew up in an impoverished village in rural China, labouring in the fields as what he describes as a bona fide “peasant”. At three, he began drawing in the dirt with pieces of broken glass, because his family could not afford art supplies. When he moved to Beijing to study at the Chinese Central Academy of Art, he was moved by the harsh contrast between the urbanised “Chinese dream” propelling the nation’s struggle to become “modern”, and the cruel realities of those left behind or trodden underfoot in this stampede. Exploring the struggles and desires of ordinary Chinese people, he photographs ordinary scenes and architectural structures from everyday life along the banks of urban China’s polluted and garbage-infested rivers that are full of industrial waste, human and animal faeces and captures both the “detritus and the dream in a single image.”

Says the curator, “In this series of startlingly ethereal, yet foreboding images, we see at once China’s dreams of becoming a modernised, urbanised, propertied new nation, and simultaneously, the fictive, illusory nature of these dreams. Floating in the ‘skies’ of these inverted images are the filthy refuse and toxic by-products of our own excesses and myopic desires.”

And these are the illusions that also find place in Raqs Media Collective’s projected video loop titled ‘Shore Leave’. Describing the visit of a sailor to a prostitute, ‘Shore Leave’ is a short story in words and images, about words and the unsaid, about desire and longing, creating a fleeting illusion of warmth even in this so-called deviant intimacy. A more tangible illusion finds place in Sonia Khurana’s zoetrope (a rotating device that produces an optical illusion of movement from a set of static images), which shows several images of the artist dressed up as legendary Egyptian opera singer Aum Koulsum. When the zoetrope is rotated by a viewer, the images merge with each other to create the impression of an operatic performance.

New media certainly has a host of possibilities for young artists today. The site-specific installation, titled ‘Moist Fear’ by Kartik Sood, is inspired by an imaginary situation — a dying man sitting in a room, waiting for a magical moment that will remove all fear from his mind. Using found objects like lantern, quilt, wooden horse sculpture and old photographs, Sood creates an eerie atmosphere in a room that reeks of both reality and illusion of death.

What this show finally does is to make us ask ourselves a question — how to fold the world into ourselves and ourselves into the world. And how will we face this challenge? As Kóvskaya sums up beautifully, “Perhaps by marshalling our illusions of the best that we can be, and holding them up as a standard by which we judge ourselves, our histories and future generations.”