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Some stories in modern-day art may be a congregation of abstract images. Some may not. In German artist Mario Pfeifer’s first solo exhibition of video art in India, the images depict simple shots from everyday life to tell powerful stories. The installation project, A Formal Film in Nine Episodes, Prologue & Epilogue, showcases nine episodic videos, arranged like moving images that seem to overlap, centred around different themes that may follow no particular sequence.

The multiple-channel, high-definition videos showcased as installations were originally shot on 35mm colour negative over several months in Mumbai. Inside Khoj Studios in New Delhi, where the exhibition is currently on display, the video art plays on three different screens, with each of the nine films running separately. So the images—shot by cinematographer Avijit Mukul Kishore, whom Pfeifer met while working on the episodes—along with the soundscape present a kaleidoscopic view of the ever-growing and changing megalopolis. Each episode is a self-contained, autonomous narration, which is sequentially flexible as the time, place or audience demand.

The idea, says Pfeifer, is to observe situations, materials and actions new or interesting to him and then research the possible societal, urban, cultural and religious information in these. “Interestingly, there was no reluctance from the subjects of these videos. We approached people and situations quite carefully and I collaborated with local coworkers, translators and researchers," Pfeifer explains.

He doesn’t provide any explanation or commentary to accompany the scenes he depicts. Instead, spectators can actively and critically engage with the art, thereby facilitating diverse interpretations. With its images resistant to classification within any clearly defined genre, the entire 51-minute film meanders between the documentary style and pure image production. With A Formal Film, Pfeifer distances himself from his art and questions the social critique that such aesthetics might evoke. In an episode, for example, the very act of shaving a man’s head may intrigue a foreigner who does not know of Hindu rituals.

The moving images, showcasing diverse scenes from Mumbai as seen through the artist’s eye, conjure up the chaos of the metropolis just as powerfully as its harmony: A woman and man engage in a high-decibel conversation on one screen; another throws up the chorus of street hawkers. The images seem to cross over from one screen to the other, suggesting a continuation and overlap of themes—a shot captures a man’s silhouette as a beehive hangs from the ceiling; another screen lights up with images of a beehive that seem to stem from the floor.

Pfeifer’s personal favourites are the episodes shot inside an ice factory, and on eunuchs. “Shooting for the episode in an ice factory was a stunning experience, to look at manual labour for ephemeral good, as ice melts immediately…. However, when we shot with the eunuchs, I wasn’t present there since it would have been too difficult as a ‘white’ artist to gain access to this community," he recalls.

The video art is the result of extensive on-location research in Greater Mumbai, after which shooting took place in diverse locations such as Crawford Market, Chembur, Versova, Belapur and the Kanheri Caves in Borivali. Pfeifer decided to shoot scenes in the project only once, accepting any kind of error or unplanned event as part of the project. “We shot within four days only while the research took about four months, and the editing—as well as the reflection process in Berlin—about six," says Pfeifer, who came to Mumbai to collaborate on a different project with two female artists/film-makers/curators in India. “When the project was finalized, I decided to stay longer in Bombay, which helped me in getting to know the city better," he says.

The exhibition, supported by the Khoj International Artists’ Association and Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan, is on till 24 May, 11am-7pm,at S-17, Khoj Studios, Khirkee Extension, New Delhi.

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