The Telegraph
Saturday , May 14 , 2016

Tracking the footprints of time

- VISUAL ARTS - Rita Datta


It's a delicate enquiry that Germany-based Tunisian artist Nadia Kaabi-Linke has been involved in, in recent times. An enquiry into a fundamental process that's both invisible and apparent. Invisible at any given moment, apparent only over time. As her recent solo show at Experimenter bore out, it's the imprint of time on matter that she's been attempting to track. And matter, whether natural or man-made, reacts to the whims of the elements - and of man, too - with its own idiosyncratic logic in relation to the atmosphere. It may get craggily textured with denudations and accretions as the work, Rialto, records; frayed with creases, marks and tinting as the paper sheet pasted on canvas does in Laissez le temps au temps ( Let Time Take Time); or grow heavy with moisture as the salt does in the installation, Sand and Salt, instead of evaporating as expected.

The mutability of matter in microcosm isn't just elusive in its tiring, supremely undramatic, slowness; it is also teasingly unpredictable in its behaviour. This slowness calls for the patience of an archaeologist (or anthropologist), while the surprise of chanciness leaves room for a creative intervention in the process of weathering. Combining the minute watchfulness of the researcher and the leap of a creative vision, Kaabi-Linke is thus poised between letting things be and, at the same time, appropriating accidental changes into a broad, deliberately indeterminable, idiom, as she asks viewers not so much to see products as to participate in a process that's often plotted, as the exhibition note says, through "surface impressions".

This is most rivetingly captured in the 230 cm x 70 cm triptych, Rialto, which immediately recalls the commerce and history of Venice, not to mention Shakespeare. Kaabi-Linke's strategy of plugging into the viewer's associations and knowledge ensures that a personal dimension anchors the surface impressions that she's taken on silk paper in wax, oil and ink of the bridge that was once made of timber but rebuilt in stone in the 16th century after the earlier one collapsed twice. So mangled is the surface that you have the tactility, the scarred richness of a palimpsest in what is but a flat print. To natural wearing are added graffiti from urgent human hands: some name, perhaps, or a heart, that mocks man's persistent, if defiant, attempts to invest an anonymous space with personal references.

For Spic and Span, however, it's the silk paper itself - pasted on canvas - that's the matter which maps the tread of time as a febrile web of meandering, sentient tentacles and capillaries that invade its virgin-smooth whiteness. In darkening the wrinkles with graphite, the artist reclaims a natural process as her creative option to evoke, in the feminine pattern, the aerial view of a landscape unpredictably, immanently volatile. Let Time Take Time is its companion in-the-making, inviting the signs of atmospheric degradation on its undulating surface with human intervention reduced to merely deciding the length of its exposure: two hours every day while the show was on.

Her installation of a hefty pair of bazaar scales was more dramatic, what with its chains and metal containers piled with sand in the one and salt in the other. Here, too, time was to have free play. And since sand, as material, carries in its tiny grains part of the geological profile of the earth and salt carries metaphorical allusions to civilization and history, the presence of time and the environment was overwhelming, not to mention the traditions around food and their reflection in language. When the salt refused to oblige the artist's expectations by evaporating, it only underlined that whatever infallibility human calculations aspire to, Nature can always confound them.

Kaabi-Linke played archaeologist, too, in her Minimalist Colour of Time. It was a project that started in 2014 in an old Victorian building in London and extended, for this show, into a period home in Baghbazar. Because such buildings are where the architectural past lies smothered under successive renovations (mutilations?). When the later veins of plaster and distemper were scraped away by Kaabi-Linke, the earlier coats of paint emerged. But what was chipped away is part of history, too. The artist collected this detritus from Baghbazar to make a pigment used in this series of six, almost-square, canvases the size of door sections from such old houses. Muted in tone, finely textured with granules, and gently glowing under the gallery lights, their stark elegance resonated with meditative silence, turning this narrow space into a kind of Rothko Chapel (Houston) in miniature.

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