I saw this show a few days after it opened, which is literally months ago (or at least a month ago). Now the closing date is nearing — May 31st, in case you were wondering — and I figured it was about time I wrote something, anything about Cardinal Meridian: New Geometries of the Infinite.
Ok, so I’m writing this because I’m procrastinating, which means that sometime around Friday, I’ll be typing rubbish all night in a desperate attempt to meet the deadline that seems benign right now and will at that point of time look like the love child of Medusa and Cereberus. This also means that most of my unicellular brain is attempting to focus on a subject that has absolutely no relation to the show that’s on at Lakeeren: The Contemporary Art Gallery. Add to that the fact that I can barely remember what I had for lunch today, let alone the art I saw months ago, and this post’s prospects don’t look particularly good. However, I have photographs and I remember a critical detail: I loved Cardinal Meridians.
If you’ve ever been to Lakeeren then you know that it’s a shoebox of a gallery. I mean that quite literally. It’s rectangular and narrow, which makes it far from ideal for art because Lakeeren can’t house big exhibits and there are only a few parts of the gallery that are suitable for works that need to be seen from a distance.
In this little space, gallerist and curator Arshiya Lokhandwala has managed to pack in an intriguing and charming show. There’s a quietude to the show that probably comes how much white is all around you. Amina Ahmed’s boxed works used transparencies and white paper. Black appeared in a few of her installations but it was almost as though it was to highlight the richness of its opposite colour. Seher Shah’s prints are intricate, monochromatic (as far as I remember) and have a lot of white in them. Bindu Mehra’s installations, made of solidified hot glue, seemed to unfurl out of the gallery’s white walls; almost like a living thing peeling itself off the surface or like the waving tendrils of creatures that live on an underwater reef. The two spots of colour in Cardinal Meridians are in Nandita Kumar and Fariba Salma Alam’s work.
Alam’s is the most colourful. “The Night Journey” is a set of ceramic tiles, arranged in a horizontal line. They show a black and white image of woman in a robe (head thrown back, so you don’t see her face; only her neck and the underside of her chin) and a shadowy fragment of Islamic calligraphy. It has cracks on it and you can see the sharp elegance of the script and some floral designs. What stood out for me was the rich blue that I’ve come to associate with Izmir tiles. It’s a mysterious installation and I guess the title refers to the miracle of the Mi’raj, in which the Prophet goes up to heaven on a horse given to him by the archangel Gabriel/Gibreel. The Prophet is even able to go to a part of heaven that Gibreel cannot enter and there, God and the Prophet have a chat about what kind of behaviour will qualify for pious. God tells the Prophet that that he thinks mortals should pray 50 times a day. The Prophet, like a good Middle Eastern businessman, bargains and brings it down to 5 times a day. I vaguely recall the Prophet meeting Moses, Jesus, and others from the Judeao-Christian side of the family, but that may be entirely from my imagination.
NOTE: Experts on Islam, please feel free to correct the summary above. My knowledge of the Qu’ran and Islamic literature is sadly limited.
Now how that connects to Alam’s installation — beyond the obvious parallel of someone looking up and seeing the word of God — I don’t really know because I don’t remember her work very well. Perhaps the figure in the work was hoping for a miracle like the Mi’raj or maybe her night journey is to a dream world where such miracles are aplenty. The story of the Mi’raj is an example of the purity of the Prophet’s soul (which is why he can ascend to the heavens and come back to earth without the added complication of death) but it seems to me also one that suggests a man defining himself. The miracle asserts Mohammed’s identity as the Prophet (as opposed to a prophet or one who is persecuted for spouting blasphemous rubbish) and it gives you the basic criterion for establishing yourself as a good follower. Perhaps Alam’s work has something to do with that identity quest too. It really would help if I remembered her work a little more clearly. I confess, I can’t even remember the second work that was in the show.
While Alam’s work was perhaps the closest to being conventionally beautiful, it was also the least arresting in comparison to the other works in the show. Nandita Kumar’s two jars, both titled “Earth” (I think), was fantastic. I’d seen one of these at the India Art Fair in January and it was great to have the time and space to spend a little time with it in Lakeeren. Inside the jars, Kumar’s created a little landscape of sorts out of wires and circuits. The hints of colour are in the copper wiring and black… thingamabobs. (I’m nothing if not articulate.) Keep the jar out in the sun and the circuits are powered to emit sounds, like birds chirping, whale song and other natural noises. In the gallery, the installation was plugged into a power source. Pull out the enormous cork stopper and you could hear this curious, soft orchestra.
“Earth” is like seeing magic. There’s so much that’s at play in Kumar’s jar. You have a miniature ecosystem in there and it’s incredibly fragile. It’s also man-made and solar-powered, which simultaneously salutes both human ingenuity and its limitations since ultimately you still need the energy from nature to bring the installation to life. The need to preserve what we have, the anxiety that there may come a time when all we’ll have are these artificial sounds because the real animals may be extinct, the human urge to play god by creating a miniature world — there’s all this and more swirling around in Kumar’s installations. Those jars are filled with hope, fear, memory and ingenuity. They are absolute delights.
I remember really liking Seher Shah’s prints but sadly, that’s about all I remember. (On the other hand, considering this post is already 1153 words, maybe my absence of memory isn’t so sad.) All I can recall about them is that they were reminiscent of vintage maps and all sorts of things were crammed into each print. There are portraits of bearded, militaristic men, aerial shots of cities, shapes that are vaguely reminiscent of the Kaaba, fine-lined patterns that reminded me of the geometric patterns seen in panels in Islamic architecture. Shah’s prints are a strange mix of futurism and nostalgia. They’re black and white and despite the historicity suggested in the different elements that she’s collected in each print, altogether it seems almost like a kind of blueprint for a new city. Or a blueprint for something at any rate.
Shah’s work connected very neatly to Amina Ahmed’s installations for me. Both are boxed — Shah’s prints are framed while Ahmed’s sculptures in transparent boxes (which in turn offered a link to Kumar’s glass jars). Both have an air of delicacy to them and both display fine lines as well as precise geometry. Also, like Shah’s prints, there was a map-like quality to Ahmed’s work, which used drawing, pins, thread and strips of paper to create three-dimensional structures. Oddly, it reminded me of planets, despite the polygonal shape. It was like looking at journeys and orbits that had been plotted, or a star map. You can’t help but recall the notion of perfection in Islamic art being articulated through intricate geometric patterns. I particularly loved the work that used twisty strips of paper. It looked a little bit like a flower and the pieces of paper seemed like longitudinal lines that had snapped out of shape. The installation also mocked the idea of binaries because in this work, the straight line did curve and white was also grey.
Finally, Bindu Mehra, who creates sculptural installations out of hot glue. I don’t really know how to describe them. One looks like an odd net or like a warped matrix. Another is simply a long line of glue drops that looks a string of frozen tears. There’s another that is a curling, complex pattern. It looked to me like giant mehendi done in white and 3D. Mehra has smaller works like this one that I saw at the Mumbai Gallery Weekend and those reminded me of the shola (pith) accessories with which the Durga idol is traditionally bedecked. The works in Cardinal Meridians are much more elaborate. There’s a mysterious quality to them, perhaps because of the fact that it’s a white sculpture on a white wall. The shadows that the work casts in places is as much a part of the piece as the actual physical sculpture. The tendrils and curves of Mehra’s work feel a bit like an optical illusion that’s been pinned like a butterfly and kept from shape-shifting. I could spend a lot of time staring at it and the shapes it contains are subtly reflected in both Ahmed and Kumar’s installations.
S,omehow Cardinal Meridians felt very feminine to me. This isn’t because all the artists in the show are women. Maybe it’s my mushy side responding to the fact that the works in the show touch upon all the Woman’s Day/ Mother’s Day clichés — strong, versatile, delicate, nurturing, creative, elegant, graceful — but fortunately, it never feels like a Hallmark advertisement and neither does it exude the poncy self-importance that contemporary art so often does. And yes, it’s very, very possible that I loved this show as much as I did because I saw it right after encountering the Chatterjee & Lal segment of Rashid Rana’s new show, but I suspect even in my grouchiest mood and despite the fact that the title is a little perplexing, I’d like Cardinal Meridians a lot.