How does an artist create the intangible? Through deliberation in her abstract works, Shirazeh Houshiary, the Iranian-born British artist nominated for the Turner prize in 1994, marks canvases repeatedly and relentlessly with words till the form, stripped of meaning, is rendered formless. The resulting works sit on the cusp of being there but only just, a presence that is dissolving even as it is made manifest.

Houshiary’s first solo show in India, Breath, at Mumbai’s Jhaveri Contemporary, jointly presented by Lisson Gallery, has three suites of works. Origin, Presence and Breath—the very titles spell the intangible. Deeply influenced by Sufi philosophy, “breath" has preoccupied Houshiary for long; transcending identity and culture, it knows no boundaries.

Starting on a monochromatic base of aquacryl, she uses pencil to inscribe linkages of text—but this is not text you would expect. Houshiary takes two words and endlessly marks them on the canvas, in minutiae, not in calligraphy. Like a mantra that transports one to a transcendental state, the incessant repetitions are the rigour she brings to a practice of deliberate markings to spell erasure. In this riyaaz the word loses its meaning and it becomes about enunciation—air and breath. Its holographic sense of something that almost floats free of the surface, is hypnotic.

A painting from the series Origin

In a dark room with no windows, Houshiary places four video screens at eye level as windows to her world—the world of Breath. She choreographs sound and visuals using chants of Buddhist, Jewish, Christian and Islamic prayers with drawings of the expanding and contracting breaths of the vocalists, set to animation. Distilled down to the purest form, like vapour caught on glass, the appearance and disappearance of incandescent lighting on the screen ebbs and flows with the chants—the images building into a slow expansion in one, flame-like in another, an equal rise and fall in the third, and an imperceptible change in the fourth—defining cultures in these vocal renderings of controlled breath.

Breath then is the universal essence of all. As one stands in the centre of darkness, immersed in the chants rising and falling, turning to catch a breath appear here and watch a breath disappear there, one’s breath as you draw closer to the glass intermingling with the breath on the screen, it’s a 5-minute world that transports you to eternity.

In the entrance hall are two paintings from the series Origin. Over a background of expansive, swirling blues and white, she layers text inscriptions, words assiduously linked, one an affirmation, the other a denial, casting a fine web over the free expanse of space below. From engaging with a field of colour, the viewer, on coming close, is caught up in the undecipherable words. Negation in the words used, pushing back and drawing in the viewer—the artist uses opposing actions to prise out presence.

Abstraction here is suffused with emotion, and both are formally treated. Walking through Houshiary’s show, one walks through the silence of the canvases, the images fermenting with some unknown, quiescent energy; then through a dark passageway, one enters the room playing the video Breath. Surrounded by this ephemeral in energized form, through luminous particles of light and overlapping chants, that rise and fall invoking breath, the intangible is made tangible.

Breath is on at Jhaveri Contemporary, Walkeshwar Road, Mumbai, till 23 March, Tuesday to Saturday, 11am-6pm.

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