10 March 2023
Beyond the Measure of Time
As part of Art Week 2023, Ishara Art Foundation hosted a public talk in dialogue with its group exhibition — Notations on Time — co-curated by Curator of Ishara, Sabih Ahmed, and Adjunct Curator at the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, Sandhini Poddar.
Notations on Time invites us to think laterally about how we have come to experience or measure time. Conceived over a three-year-long conversation between Ahmed and Poddar, the exhibition was meant to open before the COVID pandemic. As the world — gradually and then all at once — surrendered to a suspension of time at the onset of COVID, it invited a revision of what it meant to experience time and the lapse of past, present, and future. ‘The patriarchy has taught us to read time in a linear fashion,’ Sheba Chhachhi says, suggesting that time has a multidimensional aspect to it, shown to us through history, in ancient texts and documentation. As opposed to simply measuring time, the exhibition at Ishara invites a gentler reading of the phenomenon, inviting us to nestle within a moment as we experience its passage. Through the inter-generational and inter-geographical dialogue staged through photographic, sculptural, video and mixed media works of 20 artists from across South Asia and its diaspora, we see how individual and shared memories forge new ways of experiencing time 一 in cycles, in fragments, in pauses and blank spaces. We also discover how memory forces us to find residues of time in space, skin, and soil.
An accompanying public talks programme moderated by writer and editor Saira Ansari, accompanied the exhibition and centred the voices of three of the participating artists 一 Mariah Lookman, Sheba Chhachhi and Anoli Perera 一 whose practices are deeply rooted in the feminist movements of South Asia in the 1980s.
Sheba Chhachhi Portrait
At Ishara, we see Sheba Chachhi’s Silver Sap (2007) — a series of eight thoughtful photographic prints on silver gelatin — that capture time as it manifests in the ageing and labouring female body.
Sheba Chhachhi, Installation view of Silver Sap (2007). Photo by IsmailNoor/Seeing Things.
On the opposite wall we find Mariah Lookman’s Night Song (2015) 一 a video work that traces the sounds of militarisation resonating in the night sky. Placed beside it is Mirror Image II: 1, 2, 3 by Lala Rukh, Mariah's longtime mentor and friend. The work depicts a seascape at night rendered in carbon paper, echoing the poetics of night time. The two works create a bridge between these generational artists, at a lingering, liminal moment after one day ends and as a new one begins; a point where Mariah's night and Lala Rukh’s night graze past each other.
Mariah Lookman, Installation view of Night Song (2015). Photo by IsmailNoor/Seeing Things.
Sheba Chhachhi: My work has always been fuelled by the desire to open up dialogue. During my activist days, we conducted many workshops and consciousness-raising sessions with our protests and campaigns, but the pedagogic role didn’t allow for doubt or ambiguity. This is one of the reasons I began to explore art spaces. I wish to open up the possibility of thinking differently about key concerns, whether about women in society, violence, or increasingly, the ecological destruction we are witnessing. The conversation I seek to initiate is also about offering an alternative imaginary. We are inundated by neoliberal ways of understanding the world, which constructs our subjectivity. I’m interested in destabilising that subjecthood by creating a sensorial encounter, by making the viewer or participant a little uncomfortable, and opening up the possibility of thinking differently.
Mariah Lookman: Spending time in the studio has to be out of compulsion. You choose your medium so that your message can be communicated in a way which does not translate smoothly into language. There’s also the matter of experience. Where you can speak of experience, where you can think of active time. It’s also an ethical position. When you talk about neoliberal ideas making inroads into everyday life, they also make big inroads into museums and the contemporary art world as well. One could be a sensationalist and decide they’re going to make everything uncomfortable 一 shock and awe! Is that the motivation? Or is it to get someone to stop and to think? That’s where I’m coming from. I want people to stop and think a little.
ML: As artists, we suspend time. As you enter into the space of a work, you leave everything else behind. You’re compelled to think of history differently. In South Asia, our problem is that too often we’re pegged to the British Colonial period, the Mughal empire, 1947 and Partition. I don’t subscribe to that timeline. The history of the Indian subcontinent is bigger than the colonial era, or Partition. These are probably our blips. We have a culture and a history that dates thousands of years, but we tend to focus on the last 75 years. There’s no such thing as extracting yourself from your neighbourhood. That extraction is the militarisation of our countries because state powers believe it to be the only way to exercise control. As artists we have our own role to play in dismantling this military state apparatus and I think feminism can do that as a group 一 especially South Asian feminist networks. It’s a sisterhood and it has been active for a very long time.
SC: There’s such hostility between the nation states, particularly today, but from the ‘70s there has been a very rich and lively connection between women’s movements across South Asia, which argues for a South Asian identity not bound by short-term, political expediency. Some years ago, I created an immersive installation called Winged Pilgrims - A Chronicle from Asia. Amongst other investigations, the current understanding of the globalisation of Asia is questioned in this work. While mapping the movement of ideas, myths, mores and artefacts across Asia, I started with India and China and expanded to Persia and Japan. Because that's the stretch. That’s the terrain for the Asian cosmopolitanism that has generated the cultures we inhabit today, something which is being subsumed under far more limited, newer narratives.
On technology, presence and (in)visibility
ML: I've been teaching remotely and in person between Pakistan and Sri Lanka for over 20 years. Operating on multiple sites or being present in multiple spaces simultaneously, is something I address in a lot of my work. But I fear we are clouding our senses with technology. We have five senses that can stretch up to 33, but something that is mediated through the digital world can only give you one spectrum and focus on two senses primarily: sight and sound. Smell is completely absent. What you feel on your skin, which is your biggest organ, does not exist. So the problem becomes the critique of the spectacle and the spectacular. It's important to know where one is, and be in that moment of presence. Because if it was fine to be virtual, I wouldn't be here.
SC: With my large scale, immersive installations, I aim to create an embodied experience, where the five senses, and other sensory aspects and affects are drawn in. Even with photography, which is conventionally limited to being a graphic image on a wall, I try to create an embodied response through the process of creating the work, the form of the work itself, and the relationship it elicits from the viewer.
In a way, the battle for space is already lost. It is owned, securitised, surveilled, controlled and militarised. Where we do have space, is within time. Having said that, the struggle to keep reinventing these spaces remains. We used to occupy the streets in the women's movement, but then got corralled into designated protest sites. These are further policed. Today, you are only allowed to protest during an allocated time, and bystanders are not allowed! You end up communicating with yourself or with other people protesting about something else. So even these last vestiges are rapidly disappearing. Art spaces remain one possibility, and a few of them are willing to present critical enquiries into our condition, and offer an environment where a certain kind of democratic meeting of the minds can happen. As such, we have to fight continuously to keep these spaces alive.
ML: Some things are problematic. It’s a rising trend to say ‘as part of a collective,’ ‘as an activist.’ What does it really mean? At its core, it is active citizenry. It's consciousness that you try to take with you. It's not about ‘how you work as a collective.’ ‘Collective’ is a spirit. You come together very specifically for a purpose 一 to liberate your country, to fight for greater rights for minorities, to stop the demolition of a mosque or a temple. It is the power of numbers, but they only work if there's a consciousness as an active citizen. And you have to live that. My work in art schools specifically, is about living actively.
SC: I like the term ‘citizen artist’ and prefer it to ‘activist.’ My days of being out on the street are in the past. I have changed, and so has the nature of what happens on the street. I do not think of myself as an activist in the old way. My activism now is primarily through my work and pedagogic activities around it. Of course there are situations where a constellation of historical urgencies leads one back to joining others in resistance, sometimes on the street. And I remain connected with the groups, collectives and movements that I have been part of. Being part of a collective was very important in the early years of the women’s movements. There is not only strength in numbers but our own consciousness was forged through that collectivity. I find younger people today forming collectives, perhaps around different premises, but that process is very important. Maybe for us today, collectives manifest at particular moments. However, we are always connected to the larger movement. At a deeper level, the collective is within us.
‘Notations on Time’ is on view at Ishara Art Foundation until May 20, 2023.
Sheba Chhachhi is a photographer and installation artist based in New Delhi, India. She is known for creating intimate, sensorial encounters through large-scale, multimedia installations. Her practice investigates questions of gender, eco-philosophy, violence and visual cultures with an emphasis on the recuperation of cultural memory. She has exhibited in biennials in Gwangju, Taipei, Moscow, Singapore and Havana.
Mariah Lookman is an artist and curator based between Sri Lanka and Pakistan. She specialises in process-centred and research-based practice, while also teaching and curating between Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Her practice has evolved from single authorship projects to collaborative work. She has participated as an artist in the 2022 Istanbul and Taiwan Asian Art biennials, and 2021 Colomboscope in Sri Lanka.