Artist Neha Choksi digs deep into the earth to answer existential questions

In her ongoing solo, artist Neha Choksi showcases a series of sculptures that look at relationships between material and time

Anindo Sen
First Published30 May 2024
Installation view of the exhibition 'Porous Earth'. Image: courtesy Anindo Sen
Installation view of the exhibition ’Porous Earth’. Image: courtesy Anindo Sen

Artist Neha Choksi is showing a solo in Mumbai after eight years. Titled ‘Porous Earth’, the exhibition at Project 88, Colaba, comprises sculptures made of stone, glass and ‘air’, and is an ambitious enquiry around the relationships between materiality, space, time. Her long multi-disciplinary practice, spanning more than two decades, has included sculpture, performance and video (Leaf Fall and Iceboat are among her better-known works), in the series on display she has worked primarily with rocks—a material that has become a focal point in recent years.

While sculptors have chiseled into stone since time immemorial for creative expression, Choksi seems more interested in using the geological remnants as conduits to investigate underlying existential questions of who we are and why we exist—thereby connecting the primordial with the contemporary.

What you get are shafts of glass stabbed into stone, rocks pulverized into fine pigment, bubbles of air and fine rock fragments floating in cast glass, and arrangements of exposed innards of rocks that have been meticulously drilled into—all effects which are both violent and poetic, ostensibly material yet deeply metaphysical.

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While the rugged igneous basalts and sedimentary rocks hog the limelight, the glass has been the more challenging part materially and Choksi took almost two years to get it right. Most glassmakers were unwilling to get involved because they were afraid of damaging their kilns, given Choksi’s complex requirements of working with stone and glass together. However, Project 88’s expansive 4000 square feet ground floor space, with a hard industrial flooring, has provided an ideal display space. “We could bring the rocks right up to the door with a forklift, then place then on trolleys and wheel them around till we found the exact spot we wanted to place them,” shares gallerist Sree Goswami.

'Watch the void exhale the weight of the sky. Hold wide the void. Held upon. Tug the cosmos and let it fall. Drag the hole to light’ (2023-2024). Image: courtesy Anindo Sen

For the visitors to engage with her works, instead of a statement, the artist has provided five written scores with accompanying thumbnail images of her works. Each of these scores offer to lead towards divergent ways of engaging with her works through alternate interpretative pathways, potentially making the experience both contemplative and playful.

In one work, where she urges us to “Watch the void exhale the weight of the sky. Hold wide the void. Held upon. Tug the cosmos and let it fall. Drag the hole to light”, the illusory effects are profound. The diffraction caused by the five-inch-thick solid glass lens, weighing almost twenty-five kilograms, blurs optically. The aberration of light stirs up multiple possibilities as you move closer, which is amplified by the spotlight from above.

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It is a work where you can imagine deep extremities both above and below. As you peer into the dark void of the hole, you could nudge your mind’s eye to imagine the galaxies, the dust and gas or you could see the deeper, darker depths of the oceans. Aptly, the sedimentary rock, into which the hole has been drilled by the artist and whose exterior has been deliberately left unpolished, reveals fossilised remains from what must have once been the sea-bed.

The centrally-placed work has been derived from two large basalts—one black and the other red—, which were remarkably extracted from the same location. It is consistent with Choksi’s practice of creating work which serves as a devolution of the starting point. It reminds one of an earlier work, Echo of the Inside (Column Cube), a series in which she repeatedly worked on the mould of a single cube into progressively smaller cubes till it neared nothingness. Here she subjects her rocks to similar distortion – repeatedly drilling holes into them till she reaches a point where she cannot do it anymore.

Another work where the idea of violence being a presupposition for evolution is echoed is in the set of two sedimentary rocks joined by a glass rod. The long shaft of glass, which pierces through the two rocks, has pulverized limestone dust cast inside it. “I had been thinking about the action of water, and how I could find a materiality that mirrored it. Interestingly, glass, because of its non-crystalline nature, is amorphous over time, and so physically speaking, it feels like a liquid. It was something that I could utilise in thinking about the cycle from stone to sand to glass to ‘breathing the stone’ inside the glass itself. The result is something effervescent, and yet something very frozen,” Choksi explains.

Porous Earth can be viewed at Project 88 Colaba, Mumbai till 15 June, Tuesday to Saturday, 11 am to 7 pm.

Anindo Sen is an independent art and culture writer.

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