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DECAYING TIME AND FROZEN LIFE

Visual Arts

What is civilization if not defiance of Nature? Encapsulating Nature to convenient, acceptable and consumable proportions has been manís grand narrative on earth. Time has been divided and marked by rituals, clocks and calendars; nights have been lit up; daylight has been tailored to taste; the weather is conditioned; distances are telescoped; heights scaled; and life spans lengthened. In other words, civilization is all about arresting, exploiting and even overturning the natural, whether through institutional frameworks or through technological advances. And so naturally do technological advances enter manís life that popping an aspirin for headache seems the most natural thing in the world, done almost by reflex.

Itís surprising, therefore, that an artist from the generation that chats on computers, sleeps with cell phones and shops at malls should have paused to question what is unquestioningly as much a part of modern human life as are natural processes. Prajakta Potnis from Maharashtra is particularly amazed by the dimension of Time and how it is tackled by man. Refrigeration slows decay; and shopping malls and airports sanitize their environment, leaving the weather and natural light behind at the point of entry. Besides, the inanimate ó escalators and elevators ó moves instead of living people, turning physical space into fixed measures of Time, minimizing human variables.

In her current solo show at Experimenter, on view till November 3, she suggests her critical agenda in the name itself, Local Time. Because local time is anything but local since an Indian Standard is imposed on the whole country. So that, although Mumbai and Calcutta are on different longitudes, they must follow the same clock. To underline the dichotomy, she and her artist-friend in Calcutta, Dhrupadi Ghosh, photographed the sky from the two cities at the same time at one-hour intervals, starting from 5.27 in the morning and clicking till 6.27 in the evening of September 9, 2012, recording a fascinating array of moods in terms of light, cloud formations and colour variations. An exercise thatís scientific in its sense of enquiry but poetic and philosophic in the resonance it yields.

In fact, the interplay of enquiry and imagination seems to be the Potnis signature, for she indeed has one. A series of five archival prints she shows confirms this. What appears hallucinatory, both alluringly strange and insidious, is an attempt to understand the tension between the organic ó vegetables inside the refrigerator ó and the man-made. One must rot, according to Natureís laws; the other must resist that. The surreal imagery of fridge interiors with lace tray covers and filtered light is an unreal setting for a kind of allegory thatís serio-comic in its distortion of reality. A piece of pumpkin growing a raw, festering wound ó thatís just lace, actually ótakes on a sentient, even toxic life. She uses a bunch of carrots that seems to be excreted by a sponge to comment on GM crops, but the image bristles with sly innuendos both erotic and scatological, alluding to natural bodily demands.

The three other prints, also of fridge interiors, recreate an ambience urban life is familiar with through a simple device: faux escalators in miniature which she had asked to be manufactured according to her specifications (picture). Bereft of any organic intrusion, the photographs summon a cold, clinical, creeping menace that goes beyond the antiseptic mall or airport the artist may have wished to recall. Itís a kind of Kafkaesque land that could be monitored by distant, invisible beings. Or a sci-fi future where the technology created by man operates on its own, while all life has been bloodlessly removed. Time, as the artist intended, does seem to freeze; to stand still. Not only because Nature is exiled, but also because thereís no activity, implicit within which is flow and flux; transience and decay; and which normally indicate the time of day. Thus condemning the mute world of the prints to a limbo.

If a faulty fluorescent tube that blinks but doesnít beam steadily is used, not very imaginatively perhaps, as a conceptual correlative to systemic failure, what the viewer should note are the levels of disturbing meaning that emerge from the prints. A site-specific installation using one wall of the gallery is rather splendid in its simplicity and links up with the ideas the artistís been mulling over in her prints. She patterns it with dark thread and crumpled lace to mimic fine, wandering cracks and mouldy encrustations. The wall, therefore, turns both victim and witness, recording Time with its eloquent silence.