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From Diatoms to Fishing Boats — Artists Convey Key Messages on Earth’s ‘Critical Zones’

In Arts
February 22, 2024

A fishing boat lying forlorn against a deep blue backdrop, the flitting shapes of single-celled sea algae called diatoms, large boxes denoting mobile greenhouses to transport crops across two continents – the works of three noted artists highlight the deep interconnectedness between people and life forms and the sheer imperative to understand and preserve this Critical Zone.

At the ‘Critical Zones. In Search of a Common Ground’ art exhibition at the Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan New Delhi, noted artists Ravi Agarwal, Rohini Devasher and Swiss artist Uriel Orlow through their works give visitors a close look at the different perspectives of the Critical Zone of Earth.

Earth’s Critical Zone is the thin surface layer that provides most of our life-sustaining resources.

Ravi Agarwal, founder of environmental NGO Toxics Link, besides being a photographer, artist, writer and curator, in his work titled ‘Ecologies of Loss I & II’, highlights how the traditional fishing communities in Southern India are under stress from multiple sources, including new ports, deep sea trawlers, and diesel engine-powered boats.

His work comprises two banners based on his four-year-long work with a fishing community of the Bay of Bengal as an artist-researcher. “These banners are based on a long project with a fishing community in Tamil Nadu. Their lives do not separate nature and culture, but are entangled with history, development, and survival. The ecological sustainability question has many dimensions.”

Rohini Devasher’s work, ‘Glasshouse Deep’, takes the viewer into the world of the diatoms found at the depths of oceans. These microscopic-sized single-celled sea algae are able to photosynthesize and are of key ecological importance. Her artwork comprises a 14-minute video journey ‘into the minute world of the strange deep, where the very small assumes a planetary scale.’

“Glasshouse Deep is the latest in a suite of works that employ video-feedback to explore processes of growth and evolution through a technological matrix. The work aims to discover and extend the underlying laws and processes, arising from fundamental physics and chemistry, which govern growth and form in biological systems and its mirroring in the digital sphere,” she says.

Uriel Orlow’s work, titled ‘Soil Affinities’, takes the viewer into the 19th century agricultural past of a Paris suburb when European countries had begun to develop colonial agriculture in Africa, growing staples like tomatoes, peppers, onions, and cabbage.

His work comprises a set of large boxes with images, signifying the specially designed greenhouse transport boxes used by European companies in the 19th century when they created industrial farms in West Africa, to cater almost exclusively for the European wholesale market.

“The installation traces networks of terrestrial connections between plants and people across different geographies and temporalities,” says Uriel.

On the exhibition, Agarwal says, “It provides us an awareness of how the idea of ‘green’ futures is multidimensional. We need to be aware of why we have a crisis and what we can do about it. It is an unmissable opportunity to learn.”

Devasher says that more such exhibitions like ‘Critical Zones’ need to be held to create awareness. “It offers a multiplicity of perspectives, of a nature or an ecology that is not just aware of the interconnected-ness of things, but also of its deep strangeness,” she adds

Mira Hirtz, curator of the exhibition and Project Coordinator, ZKM | Karlsruhe, said, “The exhibition ‘Critical Zones’ is travelling through India and Sri Lanka to test its ideas in specific local contexts. The next and final iteration is being held in Bengaluru.”

Besides the work of noted artists, Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan New Delhi has also put up the works of six young artists from Delhi and nearby areas who were selected based on their responses to a series of questions centred on ecology and sustainability.

About these young artists, Hirtz said: “We are curious to see how specific local situations can and cannot be compared, and thereby want to give voice to the local in the global, and the global in the local. In Delhi, the joining of six local artists is an exciting and unique addition, as they bring their experiences of living in and around Delhi into conversations that have been growing during the exhibition’s two years of travel.”

During the month-long art exhibition, Max Mueller Bhavan has also put together an interesting list of activities for visitors, including a visit to Seelampur in northeast Delhi, led by environmental NGO Toxics Link, as part of a ‘Plastics Recyling Tour’

Elaborating on the tour, Farah Batool and Kanika Kuthiala, Senior Managers Culture, at Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan New Delhi, said it would help “participants see first-hand the process of collecting and separating e-waste products, the purposes for which it is recycled, and how it is moulded and reused. Through the two tours that have been organized by Toxics Link, we hope to offer a small glimpse into an aspect of our everyday lives and its impact on this ‘critical zone’.”