A Way Into the Future: Optics of Cruelty
A recent exhibition by photographer Ronny Sen features images of the coal fire that has been burning in Jharia — a coal-mining town in Jharkhand — since the early 1900s, as well as the unethical and unsustainable mining practices that continue in the area till today. The artist looks deeply into the current issue of environmental degradation that has made life almost unliveable in some parts of the world
The Jharia coalfire, the subject of Ronny Sen’s series Fire Continuum has been burning since 1916. Coal extraction for coking mills started in 1894 and by 1930, two 2600-feet deep shafts had collapsed as the result of fire. Since then the fire has inexorably spread outwards and upwards, producing the apocalyptic mise-en-scène for the performance of the tragedy that Ronny Sen evokes in his series of images, which in an earlier iteration, and book publication, were given the significant title End of Time. The viewer of these ethereal and disturbing images, made in 2014, seeing them in our current year of the unfolding worldwide climate emergency, will be left with a paradoxical sense of continuity and intensification, of a climacteric which has been flashing warning lights for many decades of, as the new title has it, a fire-continuum. This century-long history announces, then, another paradox: time has not ended, for the burning continues in the coalfields. End of Time announces a paradox akin to ‘post-apocalyptic’. There is no rupture, no ‘beyond’ or stasis; there is continuity. Indeed, one might think of this as the fruition of time, a culmination of a long process. In Jharia, the culmination entails the breaking through to ground level of fires that have burned deep below for decades, a continuum between the ancient fossilised energy of coal and its now unstoppable conflagration. Globally the culmination is the fruiting of the anthropocene with its wildfires, record temperatures, dust storms, bleaching coral, and parched earth. There is a third paradox, something highly unusual, in using photography to record this temporal puzzle. Photography is usually marked by the contingency of the temporal event of its making, the ‘there-then’ which leaves copious time-specific evidence in the ‘here now’ of our viewing of the image, a double temporality wonderfully captured in a caption used by Roland Barthes to describe a photograph of a soon-to-be-executed assassin: “He is dead and he is going to die”. To this sense of the camera’s temporal specificity we might add a material and spatial one: photography usually provides a mathematically and optically ordered ‘screen’ in which off-screen space can be as important as what is shown. Photography thus, commonly involves a manifestation, or materialisation, a concreteness of time and space. And yet what Ronny Sen offers is a not the documentation of the precise moment when time ends but a sense of the endlessness of a time that has unravelled, a time that has un-moored itself from ordinary events and duration, a time that is no longer connected in obvious material ways to the space in which it unfolds. This helps make sense of one of the key features of Fire Continuum: its ‘refusal’ of the conventional default settings of photography, especially of its optical acuity and sense of spatial anchorage. In part this reflects the nature of the disaster: the fires are so extensive that they disorder and re-sculpt landscapes hour-by-hour. There is no stable topography for the camera to record: the co-ordinates are always on the move. There is something peculiarly dream-like about this sequence. Not obviously nightmarish (although it is clearly horrifying) because that would too reductive. It is, rather, deliberately and decisively oneiric, capacious and open, showing how images might perform when no longer imprisoned in specific times and places, and when no longer required to precisely signify. The Jharia landscape in Fire Continuum is abstract, allegorical, like the modernist staging of a Greek Tragedy, or a Brechtian dramaturgy that knows that less is more. The contingency and specificity of photography that is surrendered in Fire Continuum gives way to what Aristotle in the Poetics called Opsis. Opsis was first used by Aristotle to denote the “final element of tragedy”. Opsis, in Aristotle’s very brief treatment of it, suggests the role of masks and other visual effects deployed in the service of the object of the drama in front of a bare stage. Opsis indicates what was seen rather than what was explained, and might be seen to prefigure Lyotard’s distinction between ‘figure’ and ‘discourse’. Opsis takes on a fuller life in Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, which provides a model for thinking further about End of Time. Artaud appropriated two of Aristotle’s six elements of Tragedy
and opposed them to a third. Opsis (spectacle) and Melos (sound) - which for Aristotle were the two least important aspects of Tragedy -were opposed to Lexis (language). Efficacy was relocated away from ‘meaning’ and ‘plot’ towards something more elemental and performative. Artaud, used gesture, image, sound and lighting, to shock his audience, believing that allegory was more powerful than what he termed the “lucidities of speech”. “That is why” Artaud wrote in a seminal text of the 1930s “in the ‘theatre of cruelty’ the spectator is in the middle and the spectacle surrounds him. In this spectacle, sound effects are constant: sounds, noises, cries are chosen first for their vibratory quality, then for what they represent”. Jharia abounds with Artaudian effects such as the deafening warning sirens that announce blasting before the landscape erupts as young coal-pickers desperately flee from the showering rocks that pound the ground around them. This precarity without aprent narrative or ‘plot’. Accordingly, Fire Continuum aims not for mere representation, not for the material temporal and spatial co-ordinates of Jharia, but for some “vibratory quality”, like an emergency siren, located in another plane. The earlier, alternative title for this series, End of Time puts me in mind of the kaliyuga, the present era of decayed and apocalyptic modernity. I say this not because I want to lazily fit (in an Orientalising or essentialising spirit) the work of an Indian photographer concerned with time to some hand-me-down local cultural theory, but because the question of time, industry, fire, and the ‘end’, are all very familiar concepts from my first attempt to conduct fieldwork in a heavily polluted industrial town in Madhya Pradesh. In that location the Sanskritic concept of kaliyuga was commonly vernacularised as kalyug, the yug of machinery and industry. It was intimately linked to the exploitation of the earth and involved visions of fire, smoke, death, and the end of current time. Kalyug seems an apposite concept with which to unpick Sen’s series because of this echoing constellation of ideas about an industrial exploitation gone bad. But its also resonates through its imagination of time because although having a very precise temporal limit (it will end with pralay, the dissolution of the world in 427,000 years time) in practice it is the only time in which living humans have ever lived and will live. It is the final element in a four-part theory of what is formally ‘cyclical time’ but which, in practice, is avowedly linear. The experience of kalyug is akin to that of an ant traversing a vast globe: from a theoretical distance it is cyclical, but subjectively it is linear, and endless. Looking back and forth over the translucent, almost archetypal and emblematical images of this extraordinary cruel and viscous landscape, one is stopped short, almost with a jolt by a (to my eyes) sardonic photograph near the beginning of the series that depicts a white Hindustan Ambassador at the absolute centre of a dead, heavy, landscape. Sen explains that this car, used by mine officials, would arrive each morning at 10am and its presence would cause the coal pickers who start scavenging from 4:30am to scatter. The white car symbolised the babus, those who had ruined the landscape and who still had the power to make things even worse for those forced to subsist within it. Many viewers are likely to think of the red Ambassador that featured in Raghubir Singh’s celebrated A Way Into India. Singh’s car was both a literal vehicle, a means of travelling into the terrain he was investigating but also became a framing device whose doors, windows and mirrors became props in the picturing of India. The architecture of the car became a means of segmenting, fracturing, and visually duplicating elements with his photographs: a way of seeing. A Way Into India was perhaps quintessential Raghubir Singh, deploying a superficial modernism to deliver images which, while not simply a tourist itinerary, were nevertheless populated with many exotic pleasures. The lonely white Ambassador in Ronny Sen’s series helps us understand that his accomplishment is not so much to provide a way into Jharia, since his images eschew the specific temporal and spatial precision of much photography. He clearly uses his camera to provide a different pathway, a way into the future, which is not only India’s, a future that has already begun, and which has no end.
The experience of kalyug is akin to that of an ant traversing a vast globe: from a theoretical distance it is cyclical, but subjectively it is linear, and endless