The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2013

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NOV 2013 Issue
Art In Conversation


Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.
Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Nalini Malani recently flew to Japan to receive the Fukuoka Arts & Culture Prize and to open her solo exhibition at the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum. A book about her dOCUMENTA (13) installation: Nalini Malani: In Search of Vanished Blood with essays by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, Arjun Appadurai, and Andreas Huyssen was produced by Hatje Cantz last year. Meanwhile, Galerie Lelong and Charta have published Nalini Malani and William Kentridge: The Shadow Play As Medium of Memory, by Andreas Huyssen. On the eve of her opening at Galerie Lelong, in a darkened space with magical mylar lanterns turning and projectors casting floating images, Nalini Malani spoke with Ann McCoy.

Ann McCoy (Rail): I would like to start out with a quote of yours from The Shadow Play As Medium of Memory. You are discussing the shadow:

Darkness is more potent than light. It just needs a shadow and you can obliterate light […] If you take it a step further with ideas: how quickly something has to do with enlightenment or revelation can be destroyed, and very quickly by the ‘shadow of doubt’ or a moment of skepticism. I think that that’s one aspect of the shadow. Because a shadow is very strong, it has no materiality and yet it’s so strong.

In Huyssen’s book Kentridge references Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, and the association of light with philosophical knowledge. He states that the reverse can be true: a descent into the shadow realm can provide both relief and elucidation. Your shadow projection space explores the feminine and its shadow realm, overturning the given political and social codes.

Nalini Malani: Yes, the potency of the feminine that lives in the shadow, I feel, is something that we need to address, as a society and as a civilization. This ‘shadow’ is something even feared. We learn from the Greek tragedies—especially from the Oresteia that the Furies torment Orestes with his guilt for killing his own mother. Orestes is brought to trial before Athena who judges in his favor and he is acquitted. But Athena was not born of woman, she was born from the head of Zeus. At this moment comes a civilizational change. For the Furies the act of matricide cannot be exonerated. So they are then led into the shadow world where they lay beneath the surface.

Rail: The underworld is a feminine realm—Gaia, Demeter, and Persephone reside there, although a host of male figures also make the descent: Orpheus, Dionysus. It represents a stage of individuation for both sexes.

Malani: The ongoing trajectory of positioning the feminine into the shadow world is still endorsed; I think that is a crucial factor to examine.

Rail: If only we had the Eleusinian mysteries and both sexes reenacted Demeter’s journey.

Malani: We don’t, not in recent times anyway. It is these universal truths that we must speak about and use as a metaphor for our times.

Rail: Luce Irigaray writes about the vagina-like passage going into Plato’s cave, this in-between world that patriarchal, heliocentric philosophy can’t cope with.

Malani: Yes, I think Irigaray makes here a vital critique from a feminist approach. In fact a lot of her work speaks of an intrinsic female sexuality in the domain of thought. Very few philosophers have addressed this. It has to do not only with the female body, but also with the male body. How does a male body feel female sexuality? How does it mirror in the male? To my mind these are ideas that really will lead to some kind of progress, if there is identification with the female, the female skin, the female touch and the subtleties of that. What does it trigger in the maleness of oneself?

Rail: There is a tactile sense in Irigaray that can also be felt in your work, in the tactile quality of your images.

Malani: There is an organic feel to the works of Irigaray that I admire. Making these ‘tactile’ images is for me a way to internalize the experience of my protagonists. For the viewer these ‘tactile’ images try to embrace the person. My work is not a slogan but a physical experience that might lead to an internal experience that goes beyond transmittance of knowledge.

Rail: Your projected space is unique in many ways. It’s not a theatrical space with an audience: you’re part of it. The viewer is contained in your ‘imaginal’ space, surrounded by floating images and sound on all sides. Like the men in Plato’s cave, the viewer’s shadow is projected on the wall.

Malani: The form that I use in my video and shadow plays are rotations or revolutions (of the Mylar drums) that don’t repeat the superimpositions. The juxtaposition is always new, and it’s almost as if you have to keep looking at them. It’s not to mesmerize or to hypnotize, but to look afresh. The medium of video/shadow play is used in a manner that the artwork forms before one’s eyes. It gets completed in your presence and immediately changes. As such no moment of the artwork is repeated. It is like life, in that one unique moment will never come back again. It grows and dies in front of you while you are part of the artwork itself.

Rail: The Mylar drums rotate, change the image, the viewer alters the image, and a new image emerges—a new relationship with a monster, a Hindu Goddess, or a projection of a modern woman may occur.

Malani:In Search of Vanished Blood” addresses two kinds of violence, violence perpetuated by the victim, and violence perpetuated by the aggressor. I try to find a language where this does get transmitted. In this case, I found it in Faiz’s poem. Finally, it may not have to do with India as locality, even though I start from there. It could become another locality for the viewer. It might be Syria, for example, or some other part of the world, or even a moment in the past that can be relived now.

Rail: Your space is a-perspectival. The viewer’s gaze is constantly shifting, there is not one primary point of focus. Somehow this seems more Indian than European. The Indian philosophical Anekantavada implies that one can grasp reality only by taking into account the multiple perspectives.

Malani: I am not so sure about that. Early 20th-century science with Einstein and Freud went beyond the single perspective as well, and in the arts Cubism and Surrealism soon followed. Instead of calling my space a-perspectival I would rather call it multi-perspectival. “In Search of Vanished Blood” as such deals with the different perspectives on violence.

Rail: In your art there are references from various cultures and artists of different times. How do you perceive these appropriations?

Malani: As a global society we partake of a lexicon of images through history and civilizations. Relegating an image to its geographical location is important, however it can be inducted into new configurations without obliterating the origins as in Hannah Höch. In the flux of change it is important that we cull from this and re-vitalise it in the new global context. Unfortunately, when Western artists do this it considered innovative, but if an Indian or a non-Western artist does it is thought of as derivative. Now in the age of the Internet, all artists inherit a veritable lexicon of images. Now all will partake.

Detail view of Nalini Malani’s installation “In Search of Vanished Blood” 2012, six-channel video/shadow play with five rotating reverse painted Mylar cylinders, sound, 11 minutes, total dimensions variable, edition of 3; at Lelong, © Nalini Malani, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong, New York.

Rail: Jung understood this image bank and that these images are part of the collective unconscious, even in their modern dress. What I love about your work is your multiplicity of images. The archetypal layered with the political makes it resonate and roots it in human history. If the political does not tap into the archetypal, it does not penetrate into the unconscious; hence dead Che Guevara laid out like a crucified Christ takes on the mantle of a savior.

Malani: I would critique Jung here as the interpretation or validation of these images is not universal. This is precisely why I use so many layers. Things are not very straightforward; there are so many subterfuges that happen in life. I think it’s better to use a language that has deviant and different subterfuges—your mind moves in that manner, too.

Rail: “In Search of Vanished Blood” starts with the poem by Faiz (from the time of the Bangladesh war of independence), then to Breast Stories by Mahaswetadevi where you have a female tribal fighter who is raped in police custody and then picks up a gun and fights.

There’s no sign of blood, not anywhere. I’ve searched everywhere. The executioner’s hands are clean, his nails transparent. The sleeves of each assassin are spotless. No sign of blood: no trace of red, not on the edge of the knife, none on the point of the sword. The ground is without stains, the ceiling white. This blood which has disappeared without leaving a trace.

In Search of Vanished Blood
from The Rebel’s Silhouette
Faiz Ahmed Faiz

Malani: For this video/shadow play I used quotes from four writers, being Samual Beckett, Heiner Müller, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, and Mahasweta Devi. In 1979 I was very taken by something that Kitaj said: “Some texts have pictures in them.” That has stayed with me all these decades. The quotes that I use here work in different registers. The Faiz quote that you cite works for me like the chorus. The poem bemoans the fact there is this blood that has been shed. Who is the hero? Who is the victim? Who is the conqueror? What flags are flying out there?

Rail: In the piece you project the Faiz poem on a woman’s veiled face.

Malani: This veil has nothing to do with a specific culture or religion. The head of the woman you are speaking about is covered with cloth as if she was hijacked and is being tortured with waterboarding. In the video/shadow play the poem elucidates life going out and the futility of it.

Rail: In your piece the body is referenced with rape and visceral imagery. In one of the drums you have autopsy tools, like there’s a dissection of some sort going on. Do organs speak to you?

Malani: If you want to listen, organs speak. They have different emotions, which we tend to relegate only to the mind. But I think that is a very one-dimensional way of listening to thoughts. There are other ways. I think women are very close to their bodies.

Rail: What about this dissection?

Malani: Well I started with the dissection because there’s been a spate of rapes in the country, in India. This has lead to a nationwide discussion and it’s almost as if the shame of rape is now over. The woman can come out and say, “I was raped. I am a victim. I am not going to be ashamed. I haven’t done anything, it was done to me.” However the woman still has to undergo all the invasive examinations and so on as part of the rape case procedures. Often the rape victim is not a survivor—she’s mutilated or in certain cases even dies of the injuries. So to some extent the autopsy instruments have to do with this.

Rail: Like a kind of post-mortem as a metaphor for examining the problem. Is it also about dissecting society, and wondering why are we still so barbarous? Or what is it that is bringing on this ancient frenzy of rape?

Malani: Rape has been prevalent through the ages. It’s about territory; it’s about defiling and desecrating the woman’s body. In India there has lately been a huge public outcry about severe violent rapes from which the young women died. But the history of rape in the subcontinent is even more horrific. In Gujarat, in 2002, an official report records that a pregnant woman from the minority community was not only raped, but as well he cut up her womb and took out the fetus. It’s like saying,”I will not allow this patriarchial lineage to continue.”

Rail: Your work references cyclical time with the turning of the drums. In the West we tend to live more in linear time. As an Indian, living with epics like the Ramayana and the Kalachakra, you’re living more in cyclical time.

Malani: I personally don’t experience life being built from a kind of cyclical time in the Indian sense. However I do feel that progress does not take place in a singular line moving forward. I think progress can take place if we delve into our memory and recuperate experiences that we can learn from to move forward. This learning from experience is like a cyclical process, but with a change of layering. The other important factor is the cognizance that moment that we live is also the moment that dies.

Rail: William Kentridge’s theater projections are timed to the second with computer programs like Isadora and WATCHOUT. Your work is very different, you have flux and spontaneity; sequences of images may change and are never recombined in the same way—the possibilities are infinite.

Malani: Well, Kentridge works on a much larger scale and organizes it like a classical theater person where the grand productions are precisely programmed on cue, which is in tune with his background in theater studies in Paris. My video/shadow plays allow the inclusion of irregularity and spontaneity. It therefore appeals to whole other layers of perception.

Rail: In your work, the personal voice is always present, the personal touch. Your presence is in everything you do. I have seen this more in the work of women.

Malani: Yes, that’s how for instance Joan Jonas works too. She works by herself. Everything that she decides to do—the voice, the shooting, everything—she does it herself.

Rail: In your pieces, an endless cycle of violence is portrayed. I think it was Andreas Huyssen who has written that there doesn’t seem to be a catharsis in your work, an end point to this.

Malani: Indeed, I don’t use the cathartic method. I actually use different shades of seduction to draw the person in.

Rail: Also, a kind of meditation. When I first saw your work, I thought of Tibetan prayer wheels spinning.

Malani: Yes, there is a strange balance in my shadow plays between the contents of violence opposite the feeling of non-violence as one experiences in Tibetan praying wheels. The history of this device in my work goes back to 1991 with the work “Heiroglyphs of Lohar Chawl,” in which a set of painted Mylar scrolls simulated a narrow impoverished alley. The idea of Tibetan prayer wheels started after my experiments with painted Mylar pistons in the theater play The Job in 1996. These ‘props’ were transformed in 1998 into the shadow play The Sacred and the Profane. The painted images on the drums had stories retold from the Bhagavata Purana, which have erotic tales about demons, gods, and their consorts. This was in reaction to the right wing party which was trying with force to sanitize Hinduism and erase the erotic aspect of it. These new formats went beyond classical painting, and were developed by me in the ’90s, to address larger social and political issues to a wider public.

Rail: Your recent work has dealt with the silencing of women. Cassandra has a gift for prophecy that’s completely ignored: she’s killed for it. It’s also women’s intuition, a very devalued currency.

Malani: The myth of Cassandra I knew through Aeschylus. However it was Christa Wolf’s version that takes it into the contemporary that inspired me to use this myth in a different manner. Unfortunately the feminine voice is still not being heard. That’s why I find it important to speak about masculinity and femininity as abstract ideas that exists in both genders—and this is about balance. It could well be that your male side is operative at this moment.

Rail: About your actual projection techniques, you and Kentridge both make hand drawn projections that seem more transformed by psychic interiority than digital images. There is a lot of feeling invested in every manual manipulation, every erasure, redrawing of the image. You and Kentridge with your “dinosaur” technology really go back to the Lumière Brothers’ silent films, like the dancing skeleton, that were filmed frame by frame.

Malani: Yeah, it is kind of ironic. People in art are not using pens and paper as much as they used to. I like very much the craft aspect of using materials—pencil or chalk to paper combined with images from newspapers and from the Internet. But I have to draw it. I mean I have to internalize it—the only way I can do this is by drawing the image. I could use the photographs, but that doesn’t do anything for me. I really have to delineate in time. Because when you draw, you draw in time. That’s the only way I can really understand what that other person is going through. In a sense what it must feel like to pick up arms and fight to protect her child and her community.

Rail: In another stop motion animation in the same video/shadow play what I love is the image where your drawings on paper are projected onto the face of the actress. It reminded me of Giacometti’s drawing where the mark becomes the skin and you almost feel like the skin has been removed, the mark describes inner dimensions of the personality.

Malani: The mark-making on skin with the device of video has been my practice since 1999. The performer does not illustrate my subject matter but reveals it on the body. Yes, some would say it’s a device to show what is happening in the internal world of the protagonist.

Rail: The voice is so important in your work. It’s amazing the dimension that voice adds, and it is a seamless part of the work.

Malani: Right after the visual is ready, I start working on the sound, using the texts that I have already lined up. To record the different layers and to work on the perspective in the voice I have a technician, because I don’t know the software technology that well. But at that moment when I have the images, I can already actually envisage the full sound and audio composition. That’s all I can say. It is a moment of grace.

Rail: Nalini, sitting here in your installation, the multidimensional aspect of your work is astonishing. The viewer is transported into a space where the feminine is experienced in a way that is both unique and revolutionary. I can think of few artists able to work in theater, performance, drawing, painting, voice, and film with such perfection. Nancy Spero would have loved this piece. It has been a privilege to see this work and interview you for the Brooklyn Rail. Thank you for taking time out in the middle of your gallery installation, with the electric drills, and last minute preparations.


Ann McCoy

Just say Ann McCoy is an artist and writer who lectures in the Yale School of Drama.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2013

All Issues