By Nicola Trezzi

I think the tree is an element of regeneration, which in itself is a concept of time. The oak is especially so because it is a slowly growing tree with a kind of really solid heartwood. It has always been a form of sculpture, a symbol for this planet. —Joseph Beuys

The world Joseph Beuys was trying to regenerate with his radical acts has dramatically changed. However, there are still artists who are interested in making a change, artists that are willing to devote their practice to the cause, who take advantage of their prophetic role in order to shift the focus to issues that belong to reality at large, to politics, to the environment, and to nature. Because of her multitasking, fluid and positive position, Vibha Galhotra has established herself as one of the most interesting examples of this kind. Born and raised in India, Galhotra has taken the relationship between nature and culture to a new level, linking the philosophical understanding of anthropology, rooted in Western thinking, to traditions—both theoretical and practical—that belong to the East. Galhotra’s actions reside, from many points of view, within a gray area4 between the East and the West.

Altering Boon
One of her most iconic images is a map of the world marking all her travels, which include Nepal, Italy, and United States, among others. This simple, yet powerful composition is accompanied by a statement in which she describes her experience at security checkpoints in various airports throughout the globe.5 The concept of these multiple moments of “imposed pause” is crystalized in her work Altering Boon (2011), a hammock featuring a map of the globe made of glass beads. In her attempt to establish links, moments of “dynamic rest” and reflections create “bridges”6 between culture and nature, poverty and wealth, and the East and West. While her work is global in content, it is also a most precise encapsulation of many issues dominating India today, such as civilization’s role in pollution, the mistreatment of natural resources, and the effect of technology on the natural and cultural landscapes, a connection Galhotra subtly creates with the use of ghungroos.

Galhotra’s exhibition at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York is the ultimate attempt to confront universal problems related to globalization, using the Indian condition as the example for the larger overview. Two works are particularly interesting in this regard, because they create a perfect balance between the history of art—whether from the West or from the East—and environmental issues affecting the Indian tradition and the contemporary state of the country. The series Consumed Contamination (2015), in which several kinds of vegetables are suspended in small monoliths of resin, employs the language of minimalist sculpture, raising pressing issues such as pollution, the exploitation of land by agriculture, consumption, and the contamination of natural resources, especially water.
Consumed Contamination

The second work, Manthan 8 (2015), is a video documenting the following action: four men in wetsuits and goggles meet on an extremely polluted site alongside the Yamuna river,9 each taking one corner of a white cloth and dipping it into the river’s black waters. They twist, squeeze, and wring the cloth in symbolic cleansing, transforming it into a sculpture which Galhotra has trapped in a long prism of resin.
While uniquely her own design, her work echoes artistic developments of different generations and regions10. What separates and identifies Galhotra is the attitude in execution. Avoiding the figure of the artist as superior creature, as demiurge, Galhotra goes for the actual making. She is the originator of many grassroots initiatives11, she gets her hands dirty, works alongside the people, and travels from one corner of the planet to the other. It is important to understand Galhotra’s modus operandi as truly ecological; at the same time deep care and attention should be given to the etymology of the word ecology rather than its widely accepted meaning. The word describes the branch of biology dealing with the relationship between organisms and their environment, but its etymology is much broader and universal: oikos “house, dwelling place, habitation” and logia “study of.” In other words, her ‘ecological’ attitude creates a parallel between the micro and the macro: the house as a representation of the whole planet, the artist as a representative of humankind, and the artwork as the essence of all things thought and made by humans.

Galhotra’s practice doesn’t appear as a direct remedy to the problems of globalization; instead each artwork must be considered as symbolic territory in which solutions for a better reality can be found. The current situation of India and its society becomes material for speculations, formal investigations, and conceptual interpretations. Indian thinker Homi K. Bhabha writes: […] DissemiNation—owes something to the wit and wisdom of Jacques Derrida, but something more to my own experience of migration. I havelived that moment of the scattering of the people that in other times and other places, in the nations of others, becomes a time of gathering. Gatherings of exiles and émigrés and refugees; gathering on the edge of ‘foreign’ cultures; gathering at the frontiers; gatherings in the ghettos or cafés of city centres; gathering in the half-life, half-light of foreign tongues, or in the uncanny fluency of another’s language; gathering the signs of approval and acceptance, degrees, discourses, disciplines; gathering the memories of underdevelopment, of other worlds lived retroactively; gathering the past in a ritual of revival; gathering the present.

Also the gathering of people in the diaspora: indentured, migrant, interned; the gathering of incriminatory statistics, educational performance, legal statutes, immigration status—the genealogy of that lonely figure that John Berger named the seventh man. The gathering of clouds from which the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish asks “where should the birds fly after the last sky?”12 Two works echo Darwish’s poem, summarizing many core elements of her entire practice: a unique playfulness, a specific constitution in which the whole is made of many elements and many elements made the whole, the necessity of addressing pressing global issues without being direct or illustrative, and the possibility of breaking the holiness of the artwork and to increase its desire to be touched, played with, and manipulated. The first work is Absence Presence (2011), consisting of a large “flock” of metal birds, which are also toys and musical instruments. They are peaceful and threatening at the same time, especially when installed in a single room, creating a very Hitchcock-like atmosphere.
Absence Presence

The birds are, in fact, replicas of old toys which were common in India 10 or 20 years ago, but now banned for safety reasons and only available as collectable items. In this work, the attention focuses on the extinction of birds and other species of animals worldwide, especially the house sparrows, which almost disappeared from the urban jungle of contemporary India. The second work, still in progress, is called Black Cloud. The artist invited eighty local people from Bikaner, in the Indian state of Yamuna, to a field in the Dharnidhar area, where men of all ages released a cloud a small black kites, poetically embodying the artist’s growing concern with environmental issues, whether it be disappearing sparrows, the state of the Yamuna, or the rising levels of air pollution.13 Following Vibha Galhotra’s unique, precious and vital investigations, one can’t help but think about the prophetic words of another individual who linked the West and East. Magnificently conceptualizing the artist’s position, in his book On the Will in Nature Arthur Schopenhauer writes: The inner essence of Man and of the whole of Nature and in the assumption connected with it that, somehow or other, this omnipotence might possibly for once make itself felt, even when proceeding from the individual.

People were unable to investigate and distinguish the difference between the capabilities of the will as thing–in–itself and the same will in its individual manifestation; but they assumed without further ado, that under certain circumstances, the will might be enabled to break through the barriers of individuation .14 In comparing Galhotra’s thoughts on nature to Schopenhauer’s,15 we begin to see her work as a manifestation of the will breaking down the barriers of individualization, starting from the cellular, the organism, in order to connect the essence of the whole mankind and the whole of nature. Complex and meaningful, the art of Vibha Galhotra is capable of intertwining omnipotence and humbleness, a strong sense of independence and a genuine desire for communality, a clear desire to embrace the world and a firm understanding of its Indian own roots. 1) “The Earth is Closing on Us // The Earth is closing on us / pushing us through the last passage / and we tear off our limbs to pass through. / The Earth is squeezing us. / I wish we were its wheat / so we could die and live again. / I wish the Earth was our mother / so she’d be kind to us. // I wish we were pictures on the rocks / for our dreams to carry as mirrors. / We saw the faces of those who will throw / our children out of the window of this last space. / Our star will hang up mirrors. / Where should we go after the last frontiers? / Where should the birds fly after the last sky? / Where should the plants sleep after the last breath of air? / We will write our names with scarlet steam. / We will cut off the hand of the song to be finished by our flesh. / We will die here, here in the last passage. / Here and here our blood will plant its olive tree.” Mahmoud Darwish, “The Earth Is Closing on Us” (trans. Abdullah al-Udhari) in Victims of a Map (London, al-Saqi Books, 1984): 13. 2) Richard Demarco, “Conversations with Artists,” Studio International 195, no. 996 (September 1982): 46. 3) Within the current globalized art field the figure of the anthropologist has influenced many artists and curators; one of the most recent examples being “Intense Proximity: La Triennale 2012,” a project by Okwui Enwezor. Regarding this project Enwezor writes: “[..] in the opening of Tristes Tropiques Lévi-Strauss begins with a disavowal of being possessed of such nausea or intellectual vertigo that sets ethnographic travel in motion. He writes, “Adventure has no place in the anthropologist’s profession....” Especially since: “Nowadays, being an explorer is a trade, which consists not, as one might think, in discovering hitherto unknown facts after years of study, but in covering a great many miles and assembling lantern slides or motion pictures, preferably in color, so as to fill a hall with an audience for several days in succession.

For this audience, platitudes and commonplaces seem to have been miraculously transmuted into revelations by the sole fact that their author, instead of doing his plagiarizing at home, has supposedly sanctified it by covering 20 thousand miles.” The theme of contact pervades all the information-gathering missions of ethnographic fieldwork. Gathering and analyzing this information presupposed the establishment of proximity and distance between the researcher and the cultures being observed.” Okwui Enwezor, “Traveling Times: Exhibitions and Ethnographic Realism,” in Modern Painters (June 2014): 41. 4) “Gray area” commonly defines something existing between two extremes and having mixed characteristics of both, or a situation lacking clearly defined characteristics. An interesting comparison is a similar term “gray zone” which defines a specific kind of Lymphoma. This metaphor identifies the artist as one who attempts to cure the most dangerous and unclear diseases of the earth. 5) See: Nicola Trezzi (ed.) Contemporary Renaissance (San Giovanni Valdarno, MK Search Art, 2013) for the full description. 6) The work generates several interpretations: while the aforementioned moments of rest and introspection are embodied by the light resting and reflecting on the glass-beads of which the hammock is made, the notion of “bridge” is communicated by the shape of the hammock, and the “dynamic rest” being the primal function of the hammock, literally a rocking bed. 7)

In comparison to known Indian international artists such as Bharti Kher and Subodh Gupta, Galhotra’s work takes a different direction, avoiding straightforward references to exotic symbols of Indian society, a position perfectly illustrated by a special cover of the magazine Wallpaper* in which Gupta and Kher—both admired by Galhotra—were photographed dressed as a nawab—the honorific title ratified and bestowed by the reigning Mu ghal Emperor to semi-autonomous Muslim rulers of princely states in South Asia—and his begum (female). Exceptional in this regard is Galhotra’s famous series of works created with ghungroos, also known as Ghunghroo or Ghunghru or Ghungur (Bengali) or Salangai (Tamil), which is one of many small metallic bells strung together to form Ghungroos, a musical anklet tied to the feet of classical Indian and Pakistani dancers. 8) Samudra manthan—“churning of the ocean of milk”—is one of the most known episodes of the Hindu mythology. The story appears in the Bhagavata Purana, the Mahabharata and the Vishnu Purana. In accordance to this mythological episode, and in connection to this work, the artist also mentions that the goal of the churn is to obtain the Amrit —the “nectar of immortality.” 9) A holy site and the largest tributary river of the Ganges, the Yamuna originates from the Yamunotri glacier o n the southwest side of the of Banderpooch peaks in the uppermost region of the Lower Himalayas in Uttarakhand. 10) There is a long tradition of artworks known as “earth works” that are created with natural agents, the most iconic ones belonging to the so-called Land Art movement; see: Philipp Kaiser and Miwon Kwon (eds.), Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974, exhibition catalogue (Los Angeles and New York/London: Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles and Prestel).

However, in connection to this work two artists specifically come to mind: Korean pioneer artist Lee Seung-Taek and emerging British artist Jessica Warboys. 11) The artist has engaged in grassroots initiatives several times, from Re-birth Day to Black Cloud. Interestingly enough, the word grassroots not only defines the work of the artist denotatively—“of, relating to, or involving the common people, especially as contrasted with or separable from an elite”—but also through its literal meaning: “grass” and “roots,” representative of the work being presented at her upcoming show at Jack Shainman Gallery. 12) Homi K. Bhabha, “DissemiNation,” in Homi K. Bhabha (ed.), Nation and Narration (London/New York, Routledge, 1990): 139. 13) “Air pollution is one of the key issues the whole world is concerned about. Air pollution, both indoors and outdoors, poses health risks to millions of people every day, contributing to asthma, emphysema, heart disease, and other potentially lethal conditions. What the researchers called ‘ambient particulate matter pollution’ was the fourth-leading risk factor for deaths in China in 2010. Air pollution ranked seventh on the worldwide list of risk factors, contributing to 3.2 million deaths in 2010. The project will be initiated to express views on environmental conditions, through visual aesthetics, fun and an active participation by the public at large by flying black kites.” Vibha Galhotra, email conversation with the author. 14) Arthur Schopenhauer, On the Will in Nature (trans. Madame Karl Hillebrand), (London, George Bell & Sons, 1889): 341. 15) While I am totally responsible for this peculiar juxtaposition between Schopenhauer’s philosophy and Galhotra’s art, the artist does mention a series of figures that have influenced her practice: from Raja Mohan’s interest in ecology and economy to Slavoj Žižek’s political statements; from Salman Rushdie’s fascination for the absurd to John Cage’s research on silence; from the 15th-century Indian mystic poet and saint of India Kabir to Global Water Development Partners CEO Usha Rao-Monari.