Mention the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, in India, and the two places that would immediately come to an ordinary citizen’s mind are, first, the Northeast (an undifferentiated landscape of hills, insurgency, tribal crafts and cool young people for most ‘mainlanders’), and then, Kashmir (tourism at your own risk). And the AFSPA’s two iconic images: Irom Sharmila’s wanly resilient face, and those epic Manipuri women who shed their clothes in a desperate public protest against the shooting of Thangjam Manorama by Assam Rifles personnel.
Why have I slipped in this word, ‘epic’? In spite of my reasonably informed empathy, these women, and their protest, are not real enough to me. In my perception, they are caught forever in that unforgettable and widely disseminated press photograph, from which most people know of the episode in this country. Their suspension in the limbo between action and image makes me uneasy. So, ‘epic’ helps me transform an unbridgeable gulf into aesthetic distance, feeling into form.
This is the troubled and troubling terrain explored in Experimenter’s deceptively spare Waiting for the Wind (closing today). The curatorial text uses the AFSPA as a peg on which to hang the geographical, political and formal variety of the work it presents. Each is a reflection on the memory, or fantasy, of violent political conflict. Naeem Mohaiemen sets Otondro Prohori, Guarding Who [sic], Against What? (2014) — an assemblage of photographs, artist’s book, and slides on light-boxes — in Bangladesh’s military regime of 2007-08 (picture). Iman Issa (born in Egypt, based in New York) imagines what an Iraq war memorial might look like in a single-channel video of 2007, commissioned by the Institute of the Contemporary Arts in London. Walid Raad (born in Lebanon, based in New York) shows a series of suspiciously exquisite polaroids of a hostage called Souheil Bachar. They were supposedly made by his captors, who cut out from these images his body and face, filled in later by Bachar himself, according to Raad’s accompanying text.
On the opposite wall is a striking photograph of what looks, from a distance, like a handbag and a saxophone hanging from electric cables, on one of which a squirrel is running by. Closer inspection reveals that the saxophone is an assault rifle with its muzzle bent like a hook, and the handbag a piece of electrical equipment. This is Raqs Media Collective’s drolly titled A Fortunate Spell of Pleasant Amnesia (2014), set in a blue nowhere-land of neutered violence. It could be the cover image of a García Márquez or Vargas Llosa novel. Shilpa Gupta’s National Highway No 1 – 6 Mins 28 Secs en route Srinagar to a picnic in Gulmarg, Kashmir (2005-06) is a video whose image and sound keep getting stuck on the fleeting presence of armed military guards all along the way. At the end of the journey, Tushar Joag’s flimsy white windsock flutters tensely in the breeze of a table fan to the sound of a speech by the Mizo activist and historian, J.V. Hluna. It is installed next to underlined extracts from debates on Mizo insurgency in the Assam Legislative Assembly of 1966-72. Joag’s work of 2014 lends part of its title to that of the show.
Visual, auditory and textual saturation is part of the sensory experience of overt as well as covert oppression and conflict in today’s world: a cacophony of violence that both assaults and deadens the senses. Art — or what becomes art inside a gallery — uses this doubleness to its own advantage, while alerting us to its sinister designs on our lives. But an art space also produces another kind of unease as it lets us reflect on violent injustice inside a soothingly-lit air-conditioned refuge from the killing heat of a summer’s day.
Waiting for the Wind gives us a condensed version of this unsettling convergence of art and its international market with the ongoing abuse of military power on a global scale: the Special Powers of the art-world confronting the Armed Forces of the world. As we walk through, and among, the show’s seamlessly changing political contexts, distinct languages of conflict begin to shed their local inflections and become interchangeable with one another, making us want to hold on to details of time and place. “Mettalica on my infernal soundtrack,” says one of Mohaiemen’s tiny backlit slides that compel us to bend close, “In Europe on stage with Bob Geldof and Angela Merkel.” Then, a few slides later, “Jolpai color of army uniform.” This clash between English, American and Bengali, captured in his photographs as well, is a key to Mohaiemen’s depiction of a particular regime. But the first slide also sets this fable “[i]n the middle of nowhere”. The erasure of a notion of place could be the prerogative of both art and the armed forces.