by Dilpreet BhullarJul 05, 2022
I first met Sonia Mehra Chawla several years back at a social evening for Charles Wallace fellows at British Council in New Delhi. While she calls herself a visual artist, there is equal parts of academic and lab research to what she does. The concerns that remain core to Chawla are that of ecology, and her explorations are around the potential cohabitation, sustaining all life forms on the planet. Her renditions most often use photographs and the preferred process span across printmaking, drawing, and transmedia installations.
On asking if her practice is mere documentation rather than work of aesthetics, she quotes Lewis Baltz: “Anyone can take a picture. What is difficult is thinking about them, organising them, and trying to use them in some way so that some meaning can be constructed out of them. And that is really where the work of the artist begins”.
I speak to the artist on her practice and the recently concluded solo presentation titled (Un) Containable Life at 1x1 Art Gallery in Dubai that included her works from 2013-2020.
Rahul Kumar (RK): You work across various media and processes - fine art printmaking, drawing, painting and transmedia experiential installations. The photograph/image remains a common thread. Please take us through your early career and journey thus far.
Sonia Mehra Chawla (SMC): Even while I was a student of painting at the College of Art in New Delhi, I socialised myself in the ethos of printmaking, putting myself through a substantial training in the processes of etching and serigraphy that meld the gifts of both the artist and the scientist. I trained under the stellar printmaker Anupam Sud, and often worked for long hours in her studio which I called a ‘laboratory’. After my graduation and during my MFA, I continued to explore printmaking alongside painting at the Atelier 2221 Print and Edition Studio, founded by master printmakers and educators, Pratibha and Devraj Dakoji.
I was always interested to explore ways to transform a photograph through the layering of various processes, mediums and materials. The intense need to represent the natural world in a way that emphasises its ephemerality converged with my preoccupation with photography and printmaking techniques, and became an essential part of my storytelling. My predilection towards printmaking is also reflected in the rich layering of different artistic mediums in works such as Embryonic Plant and Biomorphic City, large paintings on canvas created in 2013-14.
Scapelands (2014-15) is easily the turning point of my life, my career. It’s been my learning curve. In Scapelands, I embraced the macro-ecologies of rivers, mangrove zones, rock formations and forests, studying them scientifically while translating them into the microcosm of the image. The project was supported by a fellowship and residency grant endowed by the Charles Wallace India Trust and British Council India. Scapelands enabled me to deepen my research into printmaking, at the London Print Studio, where I experimented with image-based non-toxic printmaking methods such as photopolymer gravure.
RK: Science and its research form a critical core to your practice. I am intrigued how art and science find a common ground in what you do.
SMC: I believe that art-science collaborations have the potential to create new knowledge, ideas, and processes.
I often draw my inspiration from scientific research with a focus on climate change, sustainability, and conservation. Over the past decade, I have had the privilege to collaborate with leading researchers, scientists, ecologists, activists and scientific research institutions across the world such as MS Swaminathan Research Foundation India, Wellcome Trust UK/DBT India Alliance, Marine Scotland, ASCUS Art & Science, Edinburgh, Marine Laboratory Scottish Government in Aberdeen, PHFI India and Botanic Garden & Botanical Museum, Berlin, which holds a crucial position in the global network of botanical research institutions.
In my opinion, the idea of just asking a question through an altered lens is so imperative. While working, I sensed a large gap between the scientific and cultural worlds. I feel that more often than not, scientific data is inaccessible and absent from our daily culture, and the general public. The science community faces the challenging task of communicating and relaying scientific outcomes to policy makers, stakeholders, and other non-scientific communities who can pursue policies and actions based on the information. In my practice, critical dialogues around art and science are often animated with these engagements and encounters: reason/intuition, economy/environment, biosocial/bio political, aesthetics/functionality, technology/future imaginaries, self/other, culture/nature and mind/body.
I think both scientists and artists are qualified and proficient at looking for the unexpected and the unforeseen. Visual art has the power to spark dialogues and introduce the issues into our mainstream culture. I think the significant question is, how can artists and scientists come together in collaborations that will benefit all players, including the public? How can they connect to work towards transforming our thoughts and our societies to address the urgencies of our time? How can they teach us to inhabit our world in new, non-toxic ways?
RK: Your art practice revolves around the notions of ‘human-lead destruction to the planet Earth’. Why take the human being away from nature? Man is part of the ecosystem and nature will always course correct (or not), but that is what evolution is all about. Thoughts?
SMC: As a response to your questions, I would like to share my thoughts on the unmistakable ‘presence’ of ‘absent’ humans.
In works such as Residue, that was on view at the Yinchuan Biennale 2016, the viewer enters an immersive setting where he is surrounded by images of degraded and devastated mangrove forests that are traditionally home to a thriving community of diverse species on the south-eastern Indian coastline. Dark wooden stumps, dead and rotting branches and cracks from hypersaline soils dot this landscape. Through an explicit presentation of the absence of humans, we find ourselves in the presence of our own conjuring.
In the Anthropocene, an epoch characterised by its losses such as mass extinctions, environmental degradation, and indigenous livelihoods, I propose taking seriously the emotional and moving force of absence. ‘Absence’ is not just synonymous with loss. It invokes much more.
What does it mean to invoke the ghosts and histories of lost or near-extinct species, forests and sensations? Is it possible to imagine a reparative future for a damaged planet using decay as a starting point? By speaking to and being spoken to, these ghosts of our pasts and futures help in constructing an ethics for the present time. Furthermore, absence can often unfold a disturbing power. Those who experience something as absent have to fill the deep void that they experience with their own emotions, they have to bridge the emptiness that threatens their established perceptions. Only when we learn to make sense of absences, can we think through the absences of the future yet to come.
On another note, I would argue that it is essential to view the series as an interconnected whole, each piece of work has been conceptualised and created in relation to another, each work has an integral role to play. Residue is accompanied by Signs of Skin, a series of films, documentary cinematic studies of marginalised groups whose eco-sensitive occupations have suffered as a result of the decline in their environment. Signs of Skin advocates for ‘live-able’ collaborations and explores the potential of co-habitation and mutual care for sustaining all life on Earth. My journey and passage through these labyrinths is interwoven together with the threads of other survivors, questors and other celebrants of resistance.
RK: How do the extremes of microscopic visuals to wide-angle images of wilderness or wildlands and landscapes, come together in your art? How do you navigate these spaces?
SMC: Ecosystems themselves come in indefinite sizes and scales. All ecosystems, micro ecosystems and macro ecosystems or biomes are inter-connected and intricate relationships are established between them.
Air, wind, breath and exchange of gases is what makes life on Earth possible. Microorganisms have been around for billions of years longer than most other species, and far longer than humanity. It is our arrogance that let us believe that humanity is more significant, and through my practice I like to question these systems of hierarchy. All organisms including humans have ecosystems within, and surrounding them. There are millions of teeming cells, microbes, parasites and colonies of various types inside a human body, as well as externally to it.
The particularity of micro-systems does not mean that they are isolated. On the contrary, they are often a significant part of the functioning of larger ecosystems. In my practice, exploring both micro-systems and macro-systems, and thinking across ‘scales’ is a way of understanding an extensive network of relationships, entanglements and exchanges between living things and elements of our planet.
Works like Universe-in-Details focus on the multi-species mixes that make up our worlds. They ask the necessary question, ‘What does cohabitation mean in an era of many urgencies with accelerating rates of species extinctions?’.
RK: How do politics, culture, and ecology tie together in your practice? Personally, are you interested in activism to raise awareness on climate change and inspire climate action? What role can art play in times of crisis?
SMC: Man by nature is a social and political animal. The political informs and shapes the world around us, it influences our choices and actions. I strongly believe that being alive at this time means being called upon to respond to a world in crisis on several levels.
Since 2015, my ongoing research into the coastal ecosystems of India’s Coromandel and Malabar Coasts at the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) has initiated me into a complex and multifaceted understanding of the ethical and political dimensions of scientific research. The Critical Membrane series served as a reminder of the human interconnectedness with the environment and the dire side-effects the relentless pursuit of economic growth could have on it. I would say that my art practice is inextricably linked to an ethic, even a politics of multi-species co-existence and co-habitation. The artistic research could itself be seen as a political act, in which I have collaborated with several climate change scientists, ecologists, oceanologists, microbiologists, as well as fishermen, farmers and indigenous people who speak from their deep reserves of their knowledge systems and traditional wisdom.
Current environmental and social crises make art-based activism particularly relevant today. However, some established opinions need to shift in order for artists to become more empowered. Another important thing to consider is the various ways an artist’s personal practice can be a form of activism.
The experience of art engages the audience, stimulates empathy, promotes healing and growth. Empathy is necessary to achieve social and environmental justice. We collectively define our culture. For me, activism is a way of growth, a personal and community growth and human-growth on a far-reaching scale. Artists are activists because we perceive things and feel things intensely, we have a vision of a better world, and so we react and respond. This is a form of activism that starts from the inside, from within us, and it is also the process of making art.
RK: Would you call your practice, a process of ‘documentation’ rather than works of ‘aesthetics’?
SMC: What constitutes ‘beauty’ and ‘aesthetics’ has been a much-debated topic. As a response to this question, I would like to share a quote by Lewis Baltz. He says, “Anyone can take a picture. What is difficult is thinking about them, organising them, and trying to use them in some way so that some meaning can be constructed out of them. And that is really where the work of the artist begins”.
The Universe in Details series I made between 2016 and 2018, took a microscopic view of things in its exploration of the role of microbes in mangrove ecosystems. In these works, the globe appeared to have been reduced to a petri-dish in which microbial activity spawned wondrous worlds. Set against a deep black background, these luminous forms offered striking organic patterns where clumps of cells often transform into abstract vistas and cavernous hollows. Cultural theorist Nancy Adajania writes, Universe in Details’ echoes Blake’s perennial line, “To see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower”. In this photographic series, we see images that may resemble a tree of life, a salt stain, fungus, grains of rust, a rash, a painter’s palette or a bit of intestine. These seem to be infused with live matter even as they skirt the edges of artifice. Taken as a whole, these image references may seem incongruous. What they have in common is an unsettling beauty.’