Nalini Malani: Pt I

By Andrew Maerkle

Remembering Toba Tek Singh (1998), four-channel video play with 12 monitors, tin trunks and mirror surrounded with mirror reflecting material, sound, 20 min. All images: Courtesy Nalini Malani. 

ART iT: You’ve made works, such as Remembering Toba Tek Singh (1998) and Gamepieces (2003), that reference Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as nuclear testing in India itself. How do you feel exhibiting in Japan now after the nuclear crisis at Fukushima?

NM: It’s an ongoing issue with my work, not only now with Fukushima. Hiroshima still exists; the problems of Hiroshima still exist. It’s not something we can say is in the past. And it’s not only to do with Japan, it has to do with so many other parts of the world that are using nuclear energy. Unfortunately, it happened here. Of course we all know about exactly what happened, but every time something like this happens, or even if it’s just a test, we all should be particular about protesting. I think the only way is to protest.
Now, with the networks we have through Facebook and Twitter, we are able to harness many people on the side of protest. In India in 1998 when they did the underground testing in Pokhran, Rajasthan, what was not reported in the papers was that the villagers there started to have skin problems. They are a silent group of people who have no voice. They are the downtrodden, the dispossessed, and to give these people a voice, especially in a place like India where there is so much poverty and they don’t have that voice, is very necessary.
In our part of the world, the propaganda is that nuclear power is a deterrent, which sounds so paradoxical. We didn’t have a disaster, but we could have. This is a powerful potential that we have to combat in every sphere if we believe in humaneness.

ART iT: In Japan now, everyone is aware of the possibility of radiation exposure, and we’re paying attention to what we eat, where it’s coming from, whether to go outside on certain days or in certain places. It can be a very tense, nerve-wracking bodily experience. This is also in a way what you create through your installations, by immersing the viewer into a disorienting situation. For you, what aspect does the body play in actually making the works, whether the paintings or the videos or the installations?

NM: It is ultimately the body that experiences. It’s the skin that experiences emotion and keeps boundaries. It works in several ways. When it’s something to do with India and Pakistan and that tense situation, it’s not only the boundary line between the two countries, it’s also the boundary of your skin, because ultimately it’s the women who suffer the most. When there is any kind of aggression, it’s the women who bear the brunt of it. And when there are nuclear tests done and if things go wrong, the children who are born must be cared for by the women. So I think it’s important today to listen to women. To quote Yoko Ono, we have to listen to the pregnant woman. She’s the one who will be giving birth to people of the world.

Top: Splitting the Other (2007), 14-panel painting environment, each panel 200 x 100 cm. Installation view, National Art Center, Tokyo, 2013. Bottom: Detail.

ART iT: And in physically making the works, does your own body guide you or play an important role?

NM: I started out not as an artist but as an illustrator for medical books, and now more than ever I think about the organs of the body as being able to speak. If you notice, in my works I have brains and kidneys and livers and all sorts of organs and bones flying around. The body is a composite of so many things. As young people we take for granted that this machinery works so well. It’s amazing how many muscles the mouth uses when you speak or in the expressions of your face. But as you grow older you realize these things are slowing down and the organs speak to you, and when you listen to those organs, there are things being said that try to caution you. That’s why I use those images as motifs in my work.

ART iT: Of course, the gestural marks in your paintings suggest the idea of internal organs or excretion or bodily fluids, but they’re also painterly gestures in their own right.

NM: Yes. It works on two levels, on the level of mark making, but also on the level of reading into it an object or form of some kind. I have a lot of metaphor and quotes from other art forms and styles. People in Japan may notice the Hokusai images, but also at the beginning of Modernism in India there was a painting style called Kalighat. Under the British rule in India, the artists lost their traditional patronage and became very poor, so they started to make watercolors with an economy of means, and this started a whole new trend. If you were an Indian art historian, you would immediately recognize the Kalighat line in my work. I like the playfulness of the quote.

ART iT: You started using video at a relatively early stage of its popularization in contemporary art, and for you, both painting and video are used to filter influences from many different cultures. On top of this, you’re turning paintings into projections and shadow plays as well. What is the relationship between painting and video for you?

NM: There was an exigency that pushed me toward making work that would address a larger public. In India, painting became a form shown in a white cube where a certain class of people would visit, but in order to address another kind of public, I thought video would work because people are used to montage. They see so much television and film that they read the filmic language better than they read the painted language. It’s something you’re going to see everyday, everywhere, and you crave to see it.
Exactly when the nuclear testing took place in 1998, I did a huge, four projection installation with 12 monitors in public space, Remembering Toba Tek Singh. It was only on view for 10 days, but everyday I had 3,000 people coming in and debating. There was a general euphoria that the nuclear testing was a great advance for India, but I had facts and figures in this work that contradicted the government line. I had shots from NHK television of what happened after Hiroshima – other people didn’t know. I had a quote from a young Japanese girl who said, “My mother told me to hold on to a pillar if anything happened, and I braced myself against a pillar, but I don’t know what happened – everything flew away.” There’s this very poignant voice speaking about her experiences in Hiroshima.
I had people almost coming to kill me because they thought that nuclear capability was the greatest thing that had happened in India – “We can combat Pakistan! We can kill them!” There was an aggressive violence that came out. This was one of the biggest reasons for starting video, it had nothing to do with the history of video in the West. Luckily for me I have good friends in the NGO world who had the best video equipment available. They were very kind to give me the equipment to use and to shoot.

Both: In Search of Vanished Blood (2012), six-channel video play with five reverse painted rotating Mylar cylinders, sound, 11 minutes.

ART iT: You mentioned the literacy of painting versus that of film. Certainly there are formats of narrative painting that exist in many traditions, whether it’s East Asian scroll painting or Tibetan mandala or Western allegory, each with specific ways to progress through the visual elements to construct a narrative. What is interesting about your video installations is that the use of the cylindrical projections collapses this idea of schematic narrative. How do you conceive of narrative from across the paintings to the installations?

NM: Yes, it’s almost Cubist. The thing is I’m also very interested in theatre, but I found that it was very difficult in India to travel theatre, whereas it’s easy to travel video. The equipment is not cheap, but some way could be found, so I started to make video plays with performance artists. This worked really well for me. In fact, I made a piece in Fukuoka with a Butoh dancer, Hamletmachine (1999/2000), which has been shown in 17 countries and exists in a Japanese version as well. So this way it can really travel.
What you speak of is interesting because what I did in my latest work, In Search of Vanished Blood (2012), which was shown at documenta 13 in Kassel, is that every time you look some place else, you get another image and you get another emotion, and this for me is a very challenging and rich format to work with.
I would like people to be nudged into thinking, and this has that effect. What I noticed at Kassel was that people were seduced into entering – it looks quite magical – but when you come in and you listen, there’s a whole other drama or some kind of holocaust taking place. And then people start to listen, what exactly is happening? I don’t want it to be sloganeering, I want it to be poetic in one sense, and the quotes I found for use in this work do have that effect.

ART iT: But is it an attempt to break down conventional narrative structures as well?

NM: Sequential narrative is one kind of narrative, but in Asian traditions there have been different kinds of narratives. Continuous narrative is what I have in the series of paintings for Splitting the Other (2007), like a comic book where the character appears multiple times. There are traditions in our part of the world where these different kinds of narratives have already taken place, especially the mythic narrative, which is more of a circular narrative. It all depends on the vehicle and the subject. I’m only interested in the contemporary, but I do refer to the past to make a bridge for communication, because I think ultimately that’s what it’s about.


Nalini Malani: Multiple Body, Multiple Voices

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