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Installations in Plus One intrigue — and puzzle

Strong India in Focus exhibition could stand a little interpretative help

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The works in Plus One, at SPACE gallery are submitted for your approval based almost solely on your own interpretation. Part of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s India in Focus festival, the six installations by four artists are presented without description, statement or even identifying labels. A single sheet available at the attendant’s desk maps the gallery and tells which work was created by whom, with titles for each. Sometimes, personal interpretation is enough. But at moments, the questions that might arise for some viewers hinder rather than enhance our appreciation. 

Sumakshi Singh’s “Light Threads” is gorgeous. A triptych of wall-mounted silk panels have been embroidered with flowers, vines, trees, rivers and birds. They come alive with projected stop-motion animation, populating the river with a boat filled with people ferried from one rectangle of fabric to another, growing the plants to fruit and blossom, filling the skies with flocks sporting vibrant wings and shining tails. It’s elaborate in execution, simple in story, ornamental and aesthetically pleasing. 

The two video works by Surabhi Saraf are a little trickier to decipher. “Fold” multiplies a woman performing housework until there are a hundred or so duplicates. Seated on a pristine white couch, she removes laundry from a basket at her feet and folds and stacks one garment after another. A pair of jeans, a white-striped polo shirt, a career skirt, all in basic, boring neutrals. As she pulls more scarves and wraps from the washload, they become colorful, with bright patterns and shiny threads. Clothing transforms from “Western” to “traditional,” becoming more interesting and eye-catching in the process. As this happens, the unity of the images is thrown off, the echos fall out of sync and, eventually, differing garments are folded simultaneously. Surabhi’s “Tablets,” meanwhile, is a performance caught on video in which several participants of various ages, genders and ethnicities execute tasks with repetitive gestures and coordinated movements. They seem to be in an assembly line, or factory, each fulfilling his or her duty in conjunction with the other humans surrounding them, but without communication.

Patterns in motion: Surabhi Saraf’s “Tablets”
  • Patterns in motion: Surabhi Saraf’s “Tablets”

“Fold” examines solitary work at home; “Tablets” documents shared work within a warehouse. Both present activity that’s rote and mindless, requiring nothing from its actors but the ability to continue without deviation or protest. “Tablets” feels tense and jarring, “Fold” almost meditative. While “Tablets” might well refer to the sort of sweatshop where personal electronic devices are manufactured, the gallery’s website reveals that the artist was inspired by employees of her family’s pharmaceuticals factory. These works comprise one place where some statement on the artist’s intention in the gallery itself might be useful.

Avinash Veeraraghavan’s “Home Sweet Home” is composed of projections on facing walls in a small room. On one side, water flows over rocks; on the other, a giant eye blinks and squints within a circle, iris big as a beach ball, pupil large enough to be sunk in a basketball hoop. This particular work was malfunctioning the day the writer visited.

The most arresting work in Plus One is Shilpa Gupta’s “Mechanical Flapboard.” It’s the sort of device once used in train stations and airport terminals before replacement by computer screens: a rectangle filled with segments of rotating panels that spin and scroll to spell out arrivals and departures, delays and cancellations. In this case, however, what is spelled out are disjointed thoughts on violence, fear, nations, nationality, one’s place in the world and one’s place with one’s self. For instance: “SOMETIMES I KLIL / FOR WHAT Y  U     HAVE / FOR WHAT I D NT  HAVE / FOR WHAT I          HAVE.”

“Mechanical Flapboard” disturbs you before you see it, broadcasting a siren song jarring and percussive but seductive nonetheless. Flaps clatter within their stalls, come to rest to form a thought, then let it momentarily hang in silence before finally, in a rush, flipping to the next one. The work’s language is halting and stammery, brief bursts that double back then lurch forward in a stream of consciousness frequently dammed or dry. It misspells words, substitutes numbers, leaves letters out, speaks before it’s ready, then unleashes ideas that would make even the most tardy of travelers stop in their tracks. This is beautiful, brutal poetry told through a medium that pitches, falters and occasionally fucks up. 

Obviously, given that the exhibit is part of India in Focus, all of the artists in Plus One are of Indian descent. Their works are gathered under the aegis of the exhibition’s theme, each hearkening to what the gallery describes as “the repetition and pattern-making traditional to Indian visual culture.” Yet while the works in Plus One might contain repetition and patterns, they also contain a lot more. While some are successfully presented without context, others could benefit from a bit of explanation.


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