With its sloping wooden beams and postmodern all-white corner, Sheba Chhachhi’s studio-in-residence in Delhi evokes both a mountain lodge in Bhutan and a loft in Brooklyn. She is a photographer who refuses to be photographed. The artist’s latest show features an installation that marries other extremes: 12th century Persian poetry and cheap Chinese toy TVs come together for a commentary on globalization, migration and spirituality.
Winged Pilgrims: A Chronicle from Asia, the eponymous site-specific installation that comprises the show, is a work Chhachhi created in 2006, when the avian flu had hijacked global headlines. Opening at Mumbai’s Volte Gallery today, it marks the Delhi-based artist’s first solo in the city; a prelude to a larger show titled Luminarium that the gallery will host in January.
Winged Pilgrims has changed in composition several times— from its debut at the Singapore Biennale in 2006 to its only other viewing in India at Delhi’s Nature Morte gallery in 2007. At its core, it remains a meditation on the engagement of humans with nature, combining moving-image light boxes, floating robes of Buddhist monks and a soundtrack by classical vocalist Vidya Rao.
For Chhachhi, a photographer who started using photographs and sculptures in installations in the early 1990s to “slow down” the pace of viewing, this is a fitting manifestation. The installation comes alive in a dark room that draws attention to the light boxes which show elaborate landscapes with flocks of birds flying across the screen in a hypnotic loop. There’s more paradox here: The light boxes are encased in Chinese toy TVs that have flooded Indian markets—symbolic of the processes of globalization—but they work on primitive pre-cinema “light box” technology.
First flight: A light box still.
For the images themselves, the artist weaves a confluence of cross-cultural visual references from Buddhist thangka work, Chinese brush painting, the Persian miniature tradition and documentary photography. One light box shows a photograph of a Japanese graveyard with the Hindu god Brahma hovering on his divine vehicle, the swan. A similar Shinto deity from Japan, the Bonten, a god who rides four swans, appears alongside.
One of the first birds to be murdered during the avian flu scare was a wild migratory swan in England. In Asia’s mythic narratives, swans have been emblematic of discretion and wisdom. “I was struck by this metaphoric murder,” says Chhachhi, who uses the bird as a pan-Asian metaphor for the soul or spirit, as they appear in overlapping mythologies variously as the Hamsa, Garuda, the Phoenix and the Simurgh. To her, they represent the earliest form of global movement; and the Buddhist pilgrims, possibly the first global citizens. Birds also stand in for the “higher self”; the achin pakhi of Indian mythology. She uses the indiscriminate culling of birds during the avian flu scare as a parable for the West being cautious of the influx of human immigrants. The panic over the birds carrying the “Asian” flu into Europe mirrored the horror of immigrant incursion, disguising the fact that avian flu was caused by breeding practices developed in Europe itself.
It might appear that Winged Pilgrims is a departure from the 53-year-old artist’s long-running strain of feminism with works such as When the Gun is Raised, Dialogue Stops (2000), about women in the strife-torn Kashmir Valley. But strongly focused on politics and ecology as it is, Chhachhi insists it is her feminist lens that allows her to take on the patriarchal relationship between human beings and nature. “Feminist art needn’t be about women,” she says. “It is about critically challenging the order of the world.”
Winged Pilgrims will run till 1 August at Volte Gallery, Mumbai. The work is priced upwards of Rs 15 lakh.