After Anish Kapoor’s Indian debut, it is the turn of the Otolith Group, who are also from London, to show their art here for the first time. The Turner Prize 2010 nominees’ solo show—Kapoor won the prestigious British award in 1990— opens at the Experimenter gallery in Kolkata today.
The Otolith Group was founded in 2002 in London by its core members, Anjalika Sagar and Kodwo Eshun. The two met over a common love for the experimental film-maker Chris Marker and London’s now-defunct Black Audio Film Collective founded by sociology, fine art and psychology students. Sagar and Eshun were drawn to the idea of the “essay film”, a sort of experimental voice-over on montage, or “Left-wing essay”, as Eshun puts it.
The theoretically dense films that the collective has since produced—apart from Otolith I, II and III which comprise the Otolith Trilogy, this includes titles such as Communists Like Us—combine moving image and sound with text. Sagar’s background in anthropology and Eshun’s in film theory, mashed with doses of political ideology, cosmopolitan modernism and science-fiction, find their way into their films.
Layered: A still from Otolith III , a 48-minute film that was in competition for the Turner Prize.
A video on the artist-led collective on the online Tate Channel, which features Turner Prize 2010 nominees, shows Sagar and Eshun’s studio-in- residence: an eclectic, book-splattered communal space. Eshun teaches visual culture at London’s Goldsmith College and several of his students collaborate on their projects. The collective engages in film- and video-making, conducting workshops, exhibition curation, publication and developing public platforms for contemporary art practice. Their films and installations have featured widely in international exhibitions, including Gasworks, UK; The Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; The Second ICP Triennial of Photography and Video, New York; and the Tate Triennial, London, among others. In recognition of their potential, their work is supported generously by the Arts Council England.
The group takes its name from the part of the inner ear which establishes one’s sense of gravity and orientation. This is ironic considering the disorienting nature of their essay films. But as Eshun explains, they took the name because they like the “facelessness of collective film-making”.
At Experimenter, the group will present its most significant work so far, The Otolith Trilogy. A copy of the book, A Long Time between Suns, that consists of archival assemblage which links their Turner-nominated, two-venue exhibition in 2009, will also be available for reading. The films are demanding of the viewer. There’s an exciting cerebrality to them, with layers of intertextual references, but it appears that a fuller appreciation might call for an altered consciousness from the viewer.
Eshun and Sagar, born and brought up in London, are of Ghanaian and Indian descent, respectively. Prateek Raja of Experimenter gallery points out that they grew up on the fringes of British society and culture and these influences show in their work. The Otolith Group’s work is definitely on the fringes, and it is avant-garde in that sense. But there’s a self-conscious edginess to it that is sometimes impenetrable. Sure, one can catch snatches of deeply moving wisdom while watching their films, such as this in Otolith III: “But what is the status of an event that half the people in its wake believe happened, though it did not, and the other half believe did not happen, for the wrong reasons?”
Clearly, their work is asking a lot of important questions. But sometimes, they’re difficult to hear.
OTOLITH FOR DUMMIES
A synopsis of the three films on view at Kolkata’s Experimenter gallery
• ‘Otolith I’ (2003) is an exploration in microgravity. It weaves in a real-life meeting between the Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to travel into outer space, and Anjalika Sagar’s grandmother, Anasuya Gyan Chand, who was the president of the National Federation of Indian Women.
• ‘Otolith II’ (2007) is a volte-face, taking place in a very concrete world, observing labour at Mumbai’s mega slum, Dharavi. Many sequences were shot where ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ was filmed. In tune with postmodern film theory, the frame cuts up the bodies of the teenage workers to block visual pleasure, making it harder for the viewer to empathize with them.
• ‘Otolith III’ (2009) explores the unrealized potentialities of the screenplay for Satyajit Ray’s unmade 1967 film, ‘The Alien’. It attempts a “premake” with street casting scenes of characters from Ray’s screenplay.
The Otolith Group—Solo is on at the Experimenter gallery in Kolkata till 8 January. The group will tour New Delhi in January and Mumbai in February.