Culture

Inside contemporary artist Nalini Malani’s 50-year-long career retrospective in Italy

The exhibition is on till January 6, 2019

The arts of prophecy are often tautological. "They reason in a circle,” classicist and poet Anne Carson writes in her 2016 essay, Cassandra Float Can. “The prophet must prove to you that she is a prophet by telling you unbelievable news, which you will only believe if you already regard her as a prophet.” Of what use is the flair for foresight if you are condemned never to be listened to? How do you validate your identity and your interiority when it is doomed to remain a subject of doubt to the world you inhabit? The second part of veteran Indian artist Nalini Malani’s retrospective, The Rebellion Of The Dead (on till January 6, 2019) at Castello di Rivoli, Turin, inadvertently answers some of these rhetorical questions, focusing squarely on Cassandra, the tragic Greek seer first blessed by Apollo with the gift of prophecy, then cursed when she refused his advances. For Malani, Cassandra “symbolises the unfinished business of the women’s revolution — a woman’s thoughts and premonitions are not understood and taken cognisance of,” she writes in the prelude to the accompanying publication by Hatje Cantz.

A Cassandra exists in all of us, Malani, who has been working with Greek mythology since the ’70s, firmly believes. “She [Cassandra] observes with attention, she memorises, and this becomes a thought. Thought gives insight. And the insight gives the prophecy,” she writes in the paragraph preceding her bottom-line — “Thought is considered a male substance. If more attention were paid to the female thought process, perhaps we might reach something called progress.” Herein lies the philosophical, poetic, and etymological crux of her five-decade-long practice.

Nalini Malani In Search of

In Search Of Vanished Blood, 2012

Nalini Malani City of Desi

Nalini Malani working on City Of Desires – Global Parasites, 1992-2019

A video work dating to 2011, screened on a corner wall six metres above The Tables Have Turned (2008) in what Castello di Rivoli refers to as Room 34, exemplifies Malani’s reliance on tautology as a figure of visual speech. Titled Skipping Girl, it features the movement of skipping, so universal to girlhood, in seemingly eternal repetition. “A ciclo continuo”, reads the Italian translation of the English ‘loop’, resonating poetically with Carson’s suggestion about the arts of prophecy reasoning in a circle. Eerily enough, this very immediate and direct work has been embedded in the show such that it becomes an inadvertent test of your attentive powers as a viewer. You can’t really blame yourself if you missed glancing at it — there’s a whole universe in Room 34 awaiting absorption.

Nalini Malani The Tables h

The Tables Have Turned, 2008

There is the elaborate wall drawing, City Of Desires – Global Parasites, linking the cartography of Mumbai, Malani’s home city, with stencilled excerpts from Italian writer Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1972), interspersed with verses from AK Ramanujan’s Elements Of Composition. Projected upon one area of it is Dream Houses, Malani’s first stop-motion animation dating to 1969, made on 8mm film, when she was the only female artist at Akbar Padamsee’s now historic Vision Exchange Workshop (VIEW). In the ’60s and early ’70s, between the ages of 23 and 30, Malani made five experimental films, working with 8mm and 16mm film. Today, she is considered one of the pioneers of video art in India, but at the time, she was forced to shove her films in 32 boxes, along with some drawings and collages, because nobody was interested in them, much like Cassandra’s prophecies.

Malani’s evocation of Cassandra throughout her career — attentively amplified through the selection of works, curated by Marcella Beccaria — functions as both an autobiographical mode and an objective correlative. Since 1992, Malani has been seeking artistic recourse in the performance of erasure, wherein she embeds a singular, foundational thought — the curse of the world’s historical inattention to female prophecy — with mythical and literary dimensions, using shadows, turn tables, and stop-motion animation, or tempering acrylic, so it assumes the texture of watercolour, so that all her figures seem to float.

Nalini Malani Mother India

Mother India, 2005

Enlisting either audience members or a range of professionals in the eventual erasure of a site-specific drawing, from gallery staff to dancers to security guards to museum personnel, Malani has had them use multiple materials, from a cleaning brush to a bucket of milk, pencil erasers, bare hands, and even a bouquet of red roses. The same future awaits City Of Desires – Global Parasites, once the show concludes. Malani considers this gesture of erasure as one that validates the ephemerality of what was created to be seen, but is then forced to survive within the intangible realm of memory, like so much female thought. It is also a negation of the ‘market value’ of an artwork. Malani can afford this erasure. She can absorb its loss only because the wingspan of her oeuvre comprises multimedia work within which she has re-presenced female thought through her rehabilitation of protagonists across the spectrum of Western and Eastern mythology, from Medea to Sita.

Nalini Malani studio Bomba

Nalini Malani in her Mumbai studio

The subversive re-presencing coupled with subsequent erasure means that what you retain as a viewer and how you choose to float within the spectral Malanian world will eventually redefine your perception of it. The veils you encountered collect, leaving a non-linear, non-narrative residue. But what haunts most, and makes her work frightening, is how she hints at your own complicity in the suppression of female consciousness. Malani’s artworks speak in tongues, often even talking over each other, as they dialogue with the past. Until the audience believes her prophecy, she, it seems, is fated to repeat her visual acrobatics, much like her skipping girl, as a subversive figure of hope. A ciclo continuo…

Photographs: Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea (The Tables Have Turned), Burger Collection, Hong Kong (In Search Of Vanished Blood), Ranabir Das
(Nalini Malani working on City Of Desires – Global Parasites), Payal Kapadia (Nalini Malani in her Mumbai studio), courtesy of Nalini Malani (Mother India)