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Artists Focus On Earth’s Critical Zone At Goethe-Institut Exhibition

In Arts, Nature, News
March 13, 2024

NEW DELHI: The fragile mangroves system, the vanishing ‘kattumarams’ (traditional boats), the ravaged hills of the Aravalli Range, the frail ecosystem of Ladakh’s Nubra Valley, a glimpse of Bhopal and the toxicity of mindless industrialisation – Indian artists are focusing on Earth’s Critical Zone to highlight the need for action.

The term ‘Critical Zone’ describes the fragile layer of the Earth’s surface, which is only a few kilometres thin and on which life is created.

Prominent artists Ravi Agarwal, Rohini Devasher and Sonia Mehra Chawla, along with young and emerging artists Amarjeet Singh, Kush Sethi, Vanshika Babbar, Ankur Yadav, Anuja Dasgupta and Rahul Juneja, raise important ecological issues through their works at the exhibition ‘Critical Zones. In Search of a Common Ground.’ currently on view at the Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan New Delhi.

The exhibition, which has already been featured in Kolkata, Mumbai, and Colombo, is the outcome of an extensive collaboration between artists, designers, scientists, and activists to draw peoples’ attention to the interconnectedness between all living and inanimate lifeforms on earth, and the need to take action to preserve the Earth.

Sonia, in her work ‘The Universe in Details’ and ‘Bioshield’, both from her series ‘Critical Membrane’, highlights how mangroves, the critical membrane between the land and the sea, offer a habitat for many organisms, and are disappearing faster than any other ecosystem.

“Globally, mangrove forests are among the most threatened habitats, with rates of loss exceeding those of rainforests and coral reefs. The mangroves provide a preview of the challenges ahead for ecosystems,” says Chawla. Her work includes a 13.30-minute video that seeks to create awareness about conserving these vast laboratories of nature.

Ravi Agarwal, who is also founder of environmental NGO Toxics Link, in his work ‘Ecologies of Loss I & II’, shows how the traditional fishing communities of South India are living a precarious existence, as they are forced to sell their homes to new tourism and adopt other work, while their children seek different professions. “Thus, a 2000-year-old culture with deep cultural roots in the sea landscape is fading away, and with it the ancient boats made of tied wood called ‘kattumarams’.”

Rohini, in her work ‘Glasshouse Deep’, focuses on diatoms (single-celled algae) found in the depths of oceans. These microscopic diatoms not only photosynthesize, but also possess a urea cycle, a feature that they share with animals. The over 14-minute video shows the flitting forms of diatoms with their fascinating glass exoskeletons, exhibiting the most intricate bilateral and radial symmetry.

Incidentally, Rohini has become the first Indian artist to be honoured with the Deutsche Bank ‘Artist of the Year’ 2024.

“Rohini utilizes a research-based approach to create intricate narratives that address the pressing issues of our daily lives,” said Stephanie Rosenthal, Director of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Project, who recommended the artist to Deutsche Bank. “Through the medium of drawing, she delves into societal structures and cultural dynamics, providing the viewer with a purposeful and contemplative space amidst the digital cacophony.”

The six emerging artists from Delhi, selected to bring into the conversation authentic local observations and experiences, focus on raising awareness about environmental issues around the places where they live.

Amarjeet Singh, in his work titled ‘[Hyper]-Toxicity: Cultural Hegemony & Industrial Encounters’, focuses on issues surrounding industrial toxicity. He has used a multi-media installation to “make the invisible visible” and delved into the Bhopal gas tragedy to highlight “toxicity as a hyper object that emerged in the industrial age.”

Ankur Yadav, in his creation titled ‘Puranepar’ or ‘On the Old One’, highlights the issue of “degradation and extraction” of the hills of the Aravalli Range near his hometown of Behror in Rajasthan where “31 hills have been illegally razed for raw materials to support the construction boom. This destruction has not only disrupted the water flow of old rivers, but also transformed the cultural fabric of the entire region with the loss of the wild species. Unfortunately, environmental degradation goes unquestioned.”

In her work, ‘Disguised Fossils’, Vanshika Babbar uses a set of “augmented reality face filters that situate the viewers’ faces in a variety of phenomena related to climate change like forest fires, rising sea levels and temperatures, droughts, and oil spills.” The face filters are intended to make the viewers reflect “on what it means to be complicit in the events of environmental change.”

She hopes her work will help highlight the role of “anthropocentric discourse” – of considering humans beings as the most significant entity of the universe – and what it has relegated humans to, of ‘becoming observers, survivors, and victims’.

Kush Sethi’s work ‘Wild Aesthetics of Urban Environments’ seeks to ‘create a sense of wonder’ with his installations and his two-part walk/shop will provide viewers ‘a gateway into urban ecology through gardening’. “My aim is to allow conscious interactions with plants. Through minute observations, and playful engagement as gardeners, participants will be invited to view the city as a living ecosystem,” he says.

Anuja Dasgupta’s work ‘Against the Grain’ comprises an installation of the topsoil of Nubra Valley, Ladakh.  It is a celebration of the often-forgotten high-altitude flora. Dasgupta hopes her work will “serve as a call for action, nudging visitors to rethink their own ways of engaging with the critical zone that is the trans-Himalayas.”

Rahul Juneja’s work, titled ‘Crackle of an Undying Log’, deals with the question, “What might be the wishes of a wish-granting Kalpavriksha tree in the contemporary world, and what sights of the future might this techno-ecological intersection envision?” Through the work, Juneja attempts “to think of the critical zones beyond the ecological crisis they exhibit and trace the complex socio-cultural, economic, and technological relationships that drive it.”

Speaking about the exhibition and the related workshops, Katharina Görig, Director, Programmes South Asia, Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan New Delhi, said: “As part of Critical Zones, the Goethe-Institut, in dialogue with curators, art mediators, civil society partners, has curated a series of Delhi-focused activation programmes that anticipate, investigate, and mediate the ‘critical’ issues faced by living systems in and around the National Capital Region. These include thematic issues like sustainability, local environments, and larger ecological concerns through a series of curated events.”