The Telegraph
Saturday , August 7 , 2010
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“As the world turns, so does the deaf ears of power/ Watching, not listening, the marksman locates a target. Bang Bang.” Thus begins the artists’ note to the installation, A Measure of Anacoustic Reason, by Raqs Media Collective on their website. This complex installation was first shown at the 2005 Venice Biennale, and only one, single-channel-video-and-dialogue element from it, called “I did not hear”, is part of the group show, This is Unreal, at the Experimenter gallery until September 4. The rich, but difficult, relationship between watching and listening is the thread running through this exhibition. It is an impressively installed show (by Calcutta standards) and places, alongside the Raqs video, a wallpaper and photo-story by them, a complicated piece of kinetic installation by Susanta Mandal, and a sequence of dramatically mysterious photographs by Yamini Nayar.

It is when image and voice, looking and reading, picture and silence, viewing and feeling, pull us in different directions in each of these works that our everyday sense of the real starts getting beautifully or disturbingly muddled. But the artists also compel us to reflect critically and politically on that confusion, and to move toward an understanding (or intuition) of the nature of the real, and of the remaking or unmaking of the real in art by different media, especially video, photography and language.

In the Raqs video, we watch a marksman in an unlocatable shooting range trying to shut out all noise as he concentrates on his target. But a voice insists on taking over the silence that he wishes to create through his (and our) headphones. It is a female voice, sub-continental but cosmopolitan (“translocal” according to the Raqs lexicon) — a voice in the head, going on and on about going on and on. It speaks of dreams and memories, but is haunted by the suspicion that nothing had actually happened. The photo-story, Skirmish, is told through eight cryptic photographs that we see through the découpé texts placed upon them. It is a bitter and whimsical love-fable with a distinctly European, Jeremy-Irons-stalks-Juliette-Binoche feel to it, although the city could be anywhere, even in an Arab country, judging by the road-signs. The wall on which the photographs hang is covered by wallpaper that is also a Raqs artwork called The Librarian’s Lucid Dream: evocative phrases in ink-blue repeated in blocks and floating in white — the impostor of evidence, brushed strangers, decomposition, among others. Perhaps these phrases are from the books that the eponymous librarian handles, and perhaps the photo-story that hangs on the wallpaper has come out of one such dream-book.

There is an odd, and ultimately alienating, tension between reticence and verbal pomposity in the way the Raqs artists curate their own work, incessantly (and one suspects, anxiously) telling us on their website what each work is ‘about’ and what some of the jargon means (try reading them on ‘anacoustic’). Their work, in trying to open up and question the language of power, risks replacing it with yet another kind of potentially deafening verbosity — the bang-bang of theory and curatorial paraphrase.

In spite of the continual, rhythmic noise of its programmed mechanism, there is a moving silence informing Susanta Mandal’s untitled installation (picture). The stuff of his precarious art are halogen, light, liquids, glass, steel and fire, producing an intricate language of bubbles and shadows, repetitive yet ephemeral, seemingly dehumanized yet suggesting spirituality and human pain. There is more than an undersong of Sisyphean tragedy in the endless doings and undoings of these art-machines — and in this, Mandal is in the line of an Indian pioneer like Sudarshan Shetty.

Yamini Nayar creates her own elaborate installations in the studio with urban and architectural waste, photographs them in colour with a large-format camera, and then destroys them. So, what we see in her pictures is a highly theatrical recycling of destruction: structures being assembled and disassembled simultaneously by art and by life. What are the ‘originals’ in this body of work — those vanished installations in Nayar’s studio, or these photographs of them? Do we not see most works of art at one remove from the originals as photographic reproductions? Does photography, then, create reality out of fiction or fiction out of reality?

Nayar’s working method is akin to that of photographers like Thomas Demand and Jeff Wall, although she perhaps does not use digital manipulation as Wall and possibly Demand do. As in Wall’s Destroyed Room and the Diagonal Composition series, there is a bleakness of ravage in some of Nayar’s art that brings Beckett’s theatre to mind. Her Speaking Room is not so much silent as bereft of speech and sound.

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