ART, ECOLOGY, AND A POLITICAL CONSCIOUSNESS
PRIYA PALL IN CONVERSATION WITH VIBHA GALHOTRA
PP: Knowing you for almost a decade, I notice that your practice is located between construction, demolition, and rebuilding in our living environment. You interrogate underlying concerns about the interdependence of economy, ecology, politics, and culture throughout your work, from conception to realization, working in the tension between various antitheses, like absence/presence, silence/noise, replete/wanting. Could you elaborate on that?
VG: These tensions form the basis of my work. My practice is based on the observation that while the things we perceive are formed around opposites, different stages in between coexist; if something is present, the absence is felt as well. For instance, the environment we are creating right now (in all directions: economic, political, social and environmental) is not organic and has a high quotient of artifice. The interdependency of these environments is such that if interrupted, life as we know it would fail.
PP: What would you say are some of the key considerations in this exhibition you have titled Absur –City –Pity –Dity?
VG: This exhibition speaks of my tryst with the environment in both visceral and physical terms. Many of my works have come out of this engagement. Basing my knowledge on available research, my work is concerned with exploring, examining, and understanding issues of the environment. There is no data that can be presented without bias. At the very least it is skewed by the researcher’s own global perspective. Furthermore, we can only consume the research that is made public, without any way of verifying it. We take the data given to us as facts and that becomes our truth – nowadays referred to as the “Google Syndrome.” My work is a way of questioning this truth. It is a documentation of a journey, which can be understood as a kind of research into the real world. The works in this exhibition are a testimony to the way we live. They have come out of my long-standing concern and need to call
attention to our misplaced priorities. Thus, it speaks of the highly absurd way in which we live, and simultaneously, of scientific process and knowledge. Activists such as Vandana Shiva in India are constantly fighting for the fundamental right to a healthy living environment. The present destabilization of climate systems and weather patterns with their intensifying catastrophes are induced by human activity, yet many people are ignorant as to the causes. At present it seems the human future is uncertain what with natural catastrophes, conflict and war pushing us to the brink of ecological, economic and social collapse.
PP: Thematically, this exhibition is a continuation of, rather than a departure from, the previous exhibitions. Certain works of yours have been parsed differently in this exhibition, for instance, the resin cast works are a variant of the work Consumed Contamination in Sediments & Other Untitled…. What is the basis for returning to a specific form?
VG: The continuous observation of one thing and looking into another as its result made me question and scrutinize the mockery we create around ourselves in the name of so called development – or perhaps I should say for the dream of a Utopia. Sustainable environment is one such issue: we are the ones who have created the problem, and as such, the solution will also come from us. We just need to find it. My continual trips to the banks of river Yamuna, which runs through Delhi, led me to make these works. I juggled with thoughts between reality and belief. I would like to recount an incident that moved me towards this direction: on a Sunday winter morning on my visit to the Yamuna, I was particularly overwhelmed by the stench of sewage waste in the river. While I was engrossed with documenting the river, a couple began performing a ceremony for their ancestors at the banks of the river, which involved bathing into the “holy” river
to pay respect to their ancestors. I was shocked at their oblivion to the filth, as they stripped and submerged themselves in the water. But even more so, I was filled with anger at their superficial faith, and their irreverence towards something they considered holy. I felt that there was no choice for me but to bring people face-to-face with reality, which I did by using the actual sediment from the river on to the canvases. I used the works in this exhibition to highlight the surrealism of the situation at a much more profound level.
PP: Your first ghungroo work – the Beehive – was hedged in on all sides by urban and industrial development and as such, it became a focus for consideration of the impact of man on the environment. It evoked, reflected, and mourned change. Your most recent work however seems to establish a new relationship with ghungroos, almost painting with them as wall-based sculptures. The spatial context itself differs.
VG: With the ghungroo works in this exhibition, my intent was to create surreal interventions that are glossy and spectacular. I wanted not only to highlight the environmental agenda prevalent in my works, which is undeniable, but rather to make the viewer aware of our own perception of our surroundings – to “see” our environment that we take for granted, as a boon. Furthermore, this algae-like organic “growth” of ghungroos completely covers my drawing until it is deconstructed. The attempt is to gradually draw the viewers in with the lushness of the surface and towards reality through it. The process of making each work is very long and laborious, as would be the actual deterioration of the environment. Its tactility and the materiality brought in an altogether different cultural process.
PP: In your works there is always an articulation of environmental frameworks, was there ever a time when this was not a concern?
VG: I see the environment as a constant muse in my
My early works were concerned with sharing moments that were extremely personal through a mode, which may be read as the performative.
practice and in my life. I am strongly influenced by where I may be situated in at any given time. My father’s work required us to move often from one place to another. Regardless of where we were, it was always the natural environment that stimulated me. Geography informs life in most places, and it has always interested me to observe indigenous practice. The environment I grew up in was not as urban as it is today. People were quite dependent on the natural environment and adapted their ways around it – not like today’s conditioned environment. I still enjoy the moment with nature where technology isn’t the driving force. The idea of sovereignty of nature where man has to find his existence has always inspired me.
PP: The work 365 Days is the outcome of a personal journal you maintained, yet there is nothing personal about it. There is only a sense of time, human activity, entropy, and disconnectedness. Each day begins and ends independently of others – only connected by contaminated water. One feels a conscious layering and overlapping of different histories, different temporalities, and duration. Furthermore, the landscapes in your works are both a place and placeless, both very particular and universal. The singular and the generic are conflated to highlight problems with reckless urban development. The actual place is obliterated, making our question our own place in this world.
VG: The work 365 Days was a daily diary I maintained over the last year, recording events, thoughts, behaviors, emotions, philosophies and action that inspired me, made me happy, unhappy, angry, surprised, shocked, amused, frightened, confused, envious, overwhelmed, filled with wonder or acceptance, frustrated, depressed, ashamed and so on. Each day that passed came with its own absurdities. Each work in this piece documents an actual event in a specific place at a specific point of time, determined from my own experience. However, my attempt is not just to map my own reality, but through it, the reality of urban life across the surface of the planet with materials we consume every day, in order to re-evaluate our own behavior. Similarly, the landscape too could be anywhere on the planet. It is not a comment on a particular landscape. I, through all this, am a traveler, an observer of situations that play out at the Theatre of the Absurd. My time on the planet may seem dark, but in actuality it is the ray of hope that I am seeking in midst of it all.
PP: How do you think Delhi has impacted your life, first as migrant and now as a resident?
VG: It is always fun to talk about my journey of settling in the city of Delhi. While growing up, we moved around quite a bit through North India, due to my father’s work. We never stayed in one place for very long. So this feeling belonging to a place is something I have learnt only in Delhi. This is the longest I have ever stayed at any one place. I was used to relocating in a new place as a child, however living in Delhi as a professional, where I had to make tough decisions on how to survive in this big and expensive city was difficult! (I better not go into de
tails). Moving to new places actually gives me a feeling on being somewhere “in between.” This reminds me of the beautiful quote of John Cage --- I Have Nothing to Say and I Am Saying It…We don’t have to have tradition if we somehow free ourselves from our memories. Then each thing that we see is new. It is so as though as if we have become tourists and that we were living in countries that were very exciting, because we don’t know them… I have the feeling that a sound is acting, and I love the activity of sound. What it does, is it gets louder and quieter, and it gets higher and lower. And it gets longer and shorter. I’m completely satisfied with that, I don’t need sound to talk to me.
PP: Were there any other major influences on your practice?
VG: A major turning point, which made me question my artistic practice, came during a residency in South Africa. Not only was this a period of self-discovery, where I again found myself questioning my identity, but it was also the awakening of my political consciousness. During this time, I came across William Kentridge’s work and was inspired by how his work was a perfect marriage between concept, aesthetics, and his ethical standpoint. I was intrigued by the angst I experienced in his oeuvre. I felt that he is able to achieve and convey an emptiness to the viewer somewhere deep down which remains with the viewer rather the visual imagery. This is what I try to achieve in my work as well.
PP: A large proportion of artists working in the field of environmental activism are female, such as Betsy Damon, Nancy Holt, or Dominique Mazeaud. In the 1970s, ideas about ecology and feminism were brought together and gave rise to a way of thinking and working sometimes labeled as Eco-feminism.
VG: I too have been placed into that compartment, however, from my end, it is not deliberate. I would like to emphasize that I am not into any kind of “isms.” I don’t wish to perpetuate ideas that are archetypically feminine or feminist. Nor am I an activist. I was drawn to ‘abused’ sites, such as the river, not through a desire to redeem them but because I found them philosophically interesting.
PP: And finally, this is the first time that you have embarked on making a film. What prompted you to explore this medium? And how was the experience? Please also tell us a bit more about the theme of the film.
VG: Manthan is based on my personal mourning and cleansing of the Yamuna river, which runs through Delhi. The title invokes a tale from Hindu mythology [Samudra Manthan or “to churn the ocean” to obtain the Amrita (nectar of immorality)]. The film examines the prospects of mitigating the catastrophe of ecology, of the river life force and contrives a situation of the process of churning the deleterious out of the river through a romanticized, performative picturesque space. Mathan is my refusal to give up hope that we can find a way to turn things around before it’s too late.