Epiphany and es­cape

Neue Luxury - - Front Page - By Amelia Groom

Time makes a mock­ery of ob­jects. It gnaws away at them, strips them bare, loses them. Ob­jects are cracked, faded, dis­solved, for­got­ten, de­formed, re­named, un­done— all in time. When artists set out to make ob­jects that vi­su­alise time it­self, they risk turn­ing time into space and thereby los­ing its tem­po­ral essence, its move­ments and con­tin­gen­cies. The New Delhi-based artists Mon­ica Narula, Jeebesh Bagchi and Shud­dhabrata Sen­gupta of Raqs Me­dia Col­lec­tive have been deal­ing with ques­tions about time and his­tory for sev­eral decades now, pro­duc­ing works that re­con­fig­ure nor­ma­tive con­cep­tions of lin­ear time, and call into ques­tion its fig­u­ra­tion and ho­mogeni­sa­tion in our mod­ern time­keep­ing de­vices.

Narula, Bagchi and Sen­gupta formed Raqs Me­dia Col­lec­tive shortly af­ter grad­u­at­ing from the Mass Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Re­search Cen­tre at Jamia Milia Is­lamia Uni­ver­sity, New Delhi, in 1992. Raqs is a word in Per­sian, Ara­bic and Urdu that refers to the whirling dance of Sufi dervishes. It is a highly fo­cused and med­i­ta­tive state, but it’s also a state of con­stant move­ment. Narula, Bagchi and Sen­gupta like to think of the word raqs in terms of ‘ki­netic con­tem­pla­tion’, a no­tion that could also aptly de­scribe the mode of in­quiry that is at play in their work to­gether. They travel the world far and wide, work­ing in many dif­fer­ent con­texts, con­stantly mov­ing be­tween forms in­clud­ing doc­u­men­tary film­mak­ing and video art, sculp­tures and in­stal­la­tions, con­fer­ences and pub­li­ca­tions, per­for­mances and lec­tures, and ped­a­gog­i­cal and cu­ra­to­rial ex­per­i­ments.

Email­ing me from their studio in Delhi, Narula cites the Yak­sha Prashna episode of the Ma­hab­harata, where an ex­iled prince tells his mys­te­ri­ous in­ter­locu­tor that time cooks us all. “All our work,” Narula re­marks, “is an at­tempt at be­ing sous-chefs and chief tasters in time’s kitchen.” She re­calls that the group’s in­ter­est in tem­po­ral­ity ini­tially arose out of their con­cern with ideas of mea­sure­ment and the im­mea­sur­able. “We re­alised that a lot of the dis­tress and con­fu­sion in our lives was com­ing from the misiden­ti­fi­ca­tion of the thing that is mea­sured with the de­vice that does the mea­sur­ing—we mis­take clocks for time,” she re­marks. “Once we re­alised that time—which is in­fi­nite— ac­tu­ally can­not be mea­sured, and what we par­cel out is du­ra­tion and not time, we felt that we had ex­pe­ri­enced an epiphany.”

This no­tion of epiphany comes up re­cur­rently in the work of Raqs Me­dia Col­lec­tive. In re­cent years the group has pre­sented a range of cus­tom-made non-nu­mer­i­cal clocks—for in­stance When­ever the Heart Skips a Beat (2012), which started as a video piece and later be­came a se­ries of pub­lic bill­boards; the in­stal­la­tion Es­cape­ment (2009), which fea­tured twenty-four mod­i­fied clocks; or the elec­tric-ki­netic poem-sculp­ture The Eclip­tic (2014). In­stead of run­ning ‘like clock­work’, in a repet­i­tive, pre­dictable and syn­chro­nised fash­ion, these re-imag­ined clocks give a sense of time run­ning er­rat­i­cally, speed­ing up or slow­ing down, tak­ing a rest and chang­ing di­rec­tion. Many of these works have the word epiphany at the top of the clock-face, the space of mid­day and mid­night, re­plac­ing the reg­u­lar cycli­cal tran­si­tion be­tween ‘a.m.’ and ‘p.m.’ times with a sud­den mo­ment of rev­e­la­tion about what stan­dard clock-time can­not tell us. “We should all have epipha­nies about time,” writes Narula, “and our work is an at­tempt at in­duc­ing these ex­pe­ri­ences, in our­selves, and in oth­ers.”

For their con­tri­bu­tion to the 2015 Venice Bi­en­nale, Raqs pre­sented Coronation Park, a se­ries of nine sculp­tures in­stalled out­side in the Giar­dini. The ti­tle of the work refers to a pub­lic park on the out­skirts of Delhi, where large sculp­tural mon­u­ments were in­stalled to com­mem­o­rate the Bri­tish Raj in the 19th and early 20th cen­turies. In their Coronation Park, Raqs Me­dia Col­lec­tive dis­placed and re-imag­ined a se­lec­tion of fig­ures from this site, main­tain­ing their au­thor­i­ta­tive pos­tures and mon­u­men­tal scale but also draw­ing out their in­her­ent in­com­plete­ness and im­per­ma­nence. Closer ex­am­i­na­tion of the sculp­tures re­veals that cer­tain faces, heads, tor­sos and whole bod­ies are miss­ing —lopped off, hol­lowed out or left un­fin­ished, in the midst of all the cer­e­mo­nial for­mal­i­ties and pompous re­galia that the for­mer im­pe­rial power wanted to set in stone.

Narula de­scribes the site of the orig­i­nal Coronation Park in Delhi as “a derelict quasi- cer­e­mo­nial space, where relics of the Bri­tish Raj are kept for the con­sid­er­a­tion of an ab­sent pub­lic.” It was here, amongst the di­lap­i­dated and near-for­got­ten of­fi­cial com­mem­o­ra­tions, that Raqs ex­pe­ri­enced an epiphany, “about the hol­low in­te­ri­or­ity of all con­sti­tuted author­ity; the con­stant panic at the heart of power con­sid­er­ing its fraught, frayed and of­ten fraud­u­lent claims to le­git­i­macy”. This mo­ment of rev­e­la­tion, Narula tells me, pro­vided the ini­tial im­pe­tus for the Coronation Park work, which they con­sider as “a provo­ca­tion to think about the in­ner life of power, and its deep­est anx­i­ety: the in­evitabil­ity of ab­di­ca­tion”.

The ma­te­ri­al­ity of the sculp­tures fur­ther draws out the sense of im­per­ma­nence and in­ner fragility. Ini­tially sug­ges­tive of clas­si­cal sculp­tural ma­te­ri­als like solid mar­ble and pol­ished gran­ite, the par­tial fig­ures are in fact cast in white fi­bre­glass, with their lofty pedestals made from cheap ply­wood coated in bi­tu­men. So what ap­pears at first to be solid, im­pres­sive and last­ing turns out to be flimsy, hol­low, and al­ways in the process of com­ing un­done. The tem­po­ral­ity evoked here is not sim­ply that of en­tropies ir­re­versible ar­row, mov­ing things in­cre­men­tally to­wards ruin; power is in­evitably eroded over time, but it is also in­her­ently in­com­plete and al­ways in the process of con­sti­tut­ing it­self. The sculp­ture’s miss­ing pieces sug­gest some­thing that is ei­ther un­fin­ished or un­done, so the time that is de­scribed in this work is both not yet and no longer.

The­ory and prac­tice are in­sep­a­ra­ble in the work of Raqs Me­dia Col­lec­tive, and their highly re­searched es­says and lec­tures are an in­te­gral part of their artis­tic out­put. In their text Now and Else­where, pub­lished in e-flux jour­nal in 2010, Raqs write about time and the ap­par­ent lack of it in con­tem­po­rary lives. “In the strug­gle to keep pace with clocks,” they re­flect, “we are now al­ways and every- where in a state of jet lag, al­ways catch­ing up with our­selves and with oth­ers, slightly short of breath, slightly short of time.” When pos­si­ble, Raqs sug­gest, “es­cape is up a hatch and down a cor­ri­dor be­tween and oc­ca­sion­ally be­yond lon­gi­tudes, to places where the hours chime epipha­nies.”

In this es­say, Raqs re­flect on the his­tory of horol­ogy and the ways in which clocks have shaped and dis­torted our un­der­stand­ing of time. In con­trast to the an­cient time­keep­ing de­vices that marked tem­po­ral pas­sage with things like sand, wa­ter or in­cense, me­chan­i­cal clocks started to slice the con­tin­uum of time up into neat, stan­dard­ised units. And ac­cord­ing to Raqs, the tick­ing hands of this clock “ren­dered a con­cep­tual bar­ri­cade be­tween each unit,” mak­ing the past seem sur­gi­cally cut off from the present. But Raqs also ob­serve that while clocks in­tro­duced a false sense of clean sep­a­ra­tion in time, our in­ter­na­tional time zones si­mul­ta­ne­ously fab­ri­cate a no­tion of tem­po­ral unity. In cap­i­tal­ist moder­nity, all places are swept up into a sin­gle time-sys­tem, re­gard­less of the real dif­fer­ences in the lived ex­pe­ri­ence of time around the world. Places which might be very dis­tant from each other— ge­o­graph­i­cally, his­tor­i­cally and cul­tur­ally — can be as­signed a shared time, sim­ply be­cause of their ar­bi­trary lon­gi­tu­di­nal place­ment. As Raqs write, “clocks in Lon­don and La­gos (with ad­just­ments made for day­light sav­ings) show the same time. And yet, the ex­pe­ri­ence of ‘now’ in Lon­don and La­gos may not feel the same at all.”

Raqs have of­ten at­tempted to ac­count for the ways in which time feels dif­fer­ent in dif­fer­ent places. Their clock works, in par­tic­u­lar, have gone against the idea of a ho­moge­nous, glob­alised time, re­mind­ing us that the rhythms, paces, ef­fects and de­mands of time are, in im­por­tant ways, con­text-spe­cific. A day in the life of Kiri­bati (2014), for in­stance, is a clock that rep­re­sents daily life on Kiri­bati, a small is­land na­tion in the Cen­tral Pa­cific Ocean where res­i­dents are pre­par­ing to be­come some of the world’s first en­vi­ron­men­tal refugees as a re­sult of cli­mate change. As sea lev­els con­tinue to rise, the is­land’s evac­u­a­tion looms. What does the im­pend­ing hu­man-made dis­as­ter do to the ex­pe­ri­ence of time on Kiri­bati? The clock is tick­ing—but rather than mov­ing reg­u­larly be­tween num­bers, Raqs Me­dia Col­lec­tive’s clock moves er­rat­i­cally across and be­tween a range of emo­tional states, in­clud­ing guilt, duty, re­morse, awe, anx­i­ety, in­dif­fer­ence and panic.

The Eclip­tic (2014) is an­other cus­tom-made time­piece which re­fuses no­tions of nu­mer­i­cal mea­sure­ment and the global ho­mogeni­sa­tion of time. The word ‘TIME’ ap­pears in LED lights on the right-hand side of the clock-face, while other words light up along the left, in­ter­mit­tently spell­ing out ‘fix TIME’, ‘free TIME’, ‘fun TIME’, ‘fold TIME’, ‘fig­ure TIME’ and ‘freeze TIME’. What are these flash­ing al­lit­er­a­tive phrases do­ing in place of the fixed num­bers that usu­ally di­vide the clock’s uni-di­rec­tional time up into neat units? Fold time could be read as a time for fold­ing, or a fold­ing of time it­self – just as freez­ing, fix­ing and fig­ur­ing might be things that hap­pen in time as well as to time. What, then, is free time? Time free of obli­ga­tions, time given with­out charge? The ad­jec­tive is also a verb: to free some­thing is to re­lease it from con­fine­ment, so we can read the words free time in the im­per­a­tive, as a di­rect call on us to free our time – to lib­er­ate it from its im­posed rep­re­sen­ta­tion, and in­stru­men­tal­i­sa­tion. Time, then, is no longer pinned down and mea­sured, but re­leased as an ac­tive force of change, and es­cape.

Im­age Plates Plate 01. Es­cape­ment, 2009. 27 clocks, high gloss alu­minium with LED lights, four flat screen mon­i­tors, video and au­dio looped. Courtesy of Raqs Me­dia Col­lec­tive and Frith Street Gallery. Plate 02. Coro­na­tion Park, 2015. Cen­tral...

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