'Bodies at Sea': an archival exhibition by Devika Sunder and Studio Slip in Bengaluru

The exhibition at the National Centre of Biological Sciences explores the parallels between the body and the sea, through an immersive exhibitory context across media.

by Sukanya DebPublished on : Oct 11, 2022

Bodies at Sea is an archival exhibition curated by contemporary artist Devika Sunder in collaboration with Studio Slip, running till December 2022 at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) Archives Gallery in Bengaluru, India. The exhibition is a year-long project that features works by Devika Sunder, author Astrida Neimanis, sound artist Yolande Harris, scientist and illustrator Ipsa Jain, marine photographer Umeed Mistry, and photographer Rohan Chakravarty. The exhibition design as put together by Studio Slip, led by Kamini Rao, was essential to the realisation of the project as a sensorial, immersive installation that is dependent on audience interaction and reception.

Kamini Rao of Studio Slip mentions to STIR, “A lot of the themes explored are about tracing, mapping and discovery, and we wanted the viewer to have those acts within the immersive exhibition as well, through interactive features.” The interaction lies at the point of discovery, where viewers are encouraged to selectively interact with the media presented as part of the exhibition, and produce their own meanings within the context of interdisciplinary exploration that blurs the lines between science and humanities disciplines.

Exhibition view of Bodies at Sea, Devika Sunder and Studio Slip, 2022 | Bodies at Sea | Devika Sunder and Studio Slip | STIRworld
Exhibition view of Bodies at Sea, Devika Sunder and Studio Slip, 2022 Image: Courtesy of Devika Sunder

As an extension of the archival material available at NCBS, Sunder proposed a project that explored parallel bodies - water and human, through speculative forms. The Indian artist explains to STIR, “At that time I was exploring certain themes in my practice, like ideas around invisibility, physicality - how we situate belonging in our bodies, also attempting to reimagine the body outside of the sterile, static frames of medical imagery.”

Locating the pulse of the exhibition somewhere between sterile imagery and poetic form, the space takes the course of an aquarium as the archives are situated in a basement with only blinking lights, where one cannot tell if they are the ones looking or being looked at. Sunder speaks to this, “In terms of bringing archives together, we had three larger rubrics - tracing the unknown and the mystery of these two environments, mirroring bodies, and visual synergy and kinship ties - what is our relationship as humans to the ocean?”

SEM alveoli in the lung, close-up, Photograph, David Gregory & Debbie Marshall | Bodies at Sea | Devika Sunder and Studio Slip | STIRworld
SEM alveoli in the lung, close-up, photograph, David Gregory and Debbie Marshall Image: Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection

The pair spoke to STIR about the starting point for their research, a neuroscientist named KS Krishnan whose research around the pharmacological potential of cone snail toxins as pain relievers, populates the NCBS archive. The team used letters, shells, and other archival material produced by the scientist, who spoke to a sense of interdisciplinarity, blurring the lines between discovery and scientific exploration. Occurring somewhere between the known and unknown, from the ocean to the scientific lab, one wanders along a trail of poetic similarities and narrative perspective brought out by the curators.

Gorgonian Fan, Marine Images, Underwater Photography, Umeed Mistry | Bodies at Sea | Devika Sunder and Studio Slip | STIRworld
Gorgonian Fan, Marine Images, Underwater Photography, Umeed Mistry Image: Courtesy of Umeed Mistry

As Rao explains, “Working with archives and with medical and aquatic forms, I wanted to reimagine the space as an aquarium and a medical lab. I think we were successful in making it this interesting space where you don’t know if you are in the aquarium floating around or if you are looking in.” The mirrored nature of the body being zoomed in on, whether through the consideration of audio-visual material from the archives, drawings, or even the pumping sound of the MRI machine as recorded by Sunder in one of her works, Essentially Normal Studies, becomes a point of contact where the eerie quality is brought out, in a search for the unknowable. The effect is produced in order to create a sense of discomfort, explored covertly through the art exhibition.

Giant clams, Marine Images, Underwater Photography, Umeed Mistry | Bodies at Sea | Devika Sunder and Studio Slip | STIRworld
Giant clams, Marine Images, Underwater Photography, Umeed Mistry Image: Courtesy of Umeed Mistry

Delving deeper into the oceanic body as proposed by the exhibition space that is made to be interactive through various elements that take shape as lighting, recordings, research material, and so on, the microcosm that the human body presents, we assess a sense of visual symmetry that is unsettling. Through Umeed Mistry’s marine images, one can examine the inner formology of our very guts. The presentation of the exhibition creates a space somewhere between a lab and a museum, with vitrines holding archival material. Evoking systems of classification, through the opening up of what appears almost like a cabinet of curiosity, one also wonders about the violence of scientific exploration and the neutral dimension that is purported as an enlightenment ideal based around the idea of human discovery, especially put forth by 19th century Europeans. Systems of classification veil the invisibilised processes of dissection, discretisation, extraction, penetration and so on, all of which are geared towards making the unknowable into something of semblance. Gesturing to the masculinist ideal of ‘conquest’ as an imperialist ideology, one can’t help but refer to the discomfort that is created by the exhibition atmosphere.

Detail view of Bodies at Sea, 2020, Lightbox artworks, journal and installation, Devika Sunder | Bodies at Sea | Devika Sunder | STIRworld
Detail view of Bodies at Sea, 2020, Lightbox artworks, journal and installation, Devika Sunder Image: Courtesy of Devika Sunder
Portrait of the artist | Bodies at Sea | Devika Sunder | STIRworld
Artist Devika Sunder Image: Courtesy of Devika Sunder
A glimpse from the exhibition Bodies at Sea by Devika Sunder Video: Courtesy of Devika Sunder

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