by Dilpreet BhullarSep 09, 2020
In Anne Carson’s poem titled, The Glass Essay, which she describes as an attempt at “understanding what life feels like,” the poet sets the scene with the following stanza:
I can hear little clicks inside my dream.
Night drips its silver tap
down the back.
At 4 A.M. I wake. Thinking
In a video performance from the work Days Untitled, the Bangladeshi photographer Sadia Marium lies atop a hospital bed for over an hour; her slightest movements enunciated in the static frame. Besides some fruit upon the bedside table and specks of blue on Marium’s kameez, different degrees of white dominate the screen. Once she fades into view on an empty bed, she opens her eyes to confront the viewer with her gaze, cast from under the sheets that cover most of her face. The tension diffuses itself almost immediately, as Marium tosses and turns for the remaining duration. Time is reduced to a slow trickle, dictated by the smallest of her actions.
Days Untitled stems from Marium’s time in isolation at the Monomita Mental Hospital in Dhaka, where she was admitted by her family. The work is as much an enquiry into the nature of her time there, as it is a protest against forgetting. Her family’s refusal to acknowledge the months she spent in confinement led her to larger questions of how a family represents itself and who decides what is seen and unseen. Accompanied by a growing disquiet towards her photographic practice that looked outwards into public spaces, Marium decided to shift her gaze inwards to evaluate experiences from her own life.
“Watching my brother’s reading table one evening at my parent’s home in Chittagong carried out a constellation of thoughts. It was the only reading table in our modest middle-class home. My sister and I, were both fascinated by the table. We used to take care of it, clean and decorate it. I still do the same, whenever I go to see my parents in Chittagong. I know, our little brother is an adult now, but the image of him as an eight-year-old is engraved in my mind. Perhaps, in the same manner my parents have imprinted an image of me - shy, introvert, never says out loud what she wants,” explains Marium, as she recounts the experiences that led to the inception of Days Untitled.
Repetitive acts of stillness create an atmosphere of monotony that envelops the entire work, comprising mainly photographs, accompanied by text, video and performance. Staging scenes from the hospital, in the studio of Pathshala South Asian Media Institute, Marium, then a student of photography there, executes Days Untitled in three parallel scenes, containing five to ten frames. “Single images were not creating the stillness of time that I wanted to navigate through,” remarks Marium, further explaining how repetition “functioned as a fragmented scene from a moving image and was the thread that weaves seemingly unrelated scenes from multiple narratives”.
While the images from the studio showcase the exterior through banal descriptions of the everyday, other scenes dwell deep into Marium’s psyche. The ‘images in red’ - defined by a common red hue, observe Marium through close-ups, which are further intensified by aggressive motion blurs to represent psychological distress. Another scene possesses a characteristic darkness that surrounds much of the image, with the focus drawn to Marium through a spotlight. These images blur furthermore as at times one can barely recognise Marium, creating a sense of shared dysphoria between the audience and her.
This layered approach is relayed in the text as well, which resists an illustrative role and rather adopts a poetic structure. Memories of childhood flood into the present, dislocating facts from their origins, to construct new meanings that are suspended in a timeless limbo. This exasperation, then, assumes subtle tonalities in an image where Marium dresses similarly to a photograph from her childhood. While her younger self looks away, the older Marium stands taut as her gaze interrogates the viewer. There is no linear progression that distinguishes between the two Mariums. It seems as though both their lives run parallel to each other, weaving into each other at times, only to separate later.
Recalling her experience from the first exhibition of the work at Chobi Mela VIII (2015), Marium recollects how it felt when the work was first shown to an audience. “I was unable to stand in the exhibition space for long as I felt naked in front of the audiences and there was no way to hide myself. Besides, I was afraid that my vulnerabilities would be brutally judged, misunderstood. Nonetheless, the experience built my relationship with photography; never a feeling of comfort or joy in creating an image, rather being challenged and tattered with questions,” she says.
Essentially an exploration of the definitions of the private and the public, Days Untitled looks at the dichotomy through the correlation between emotion and space. “What we choose to be and put forth, when hidden private lives are exposed in the public sphere, how we come to terms with it and how public emotion alters its meaning in private domains,” are some of the considerations that underscore Marium’s intent behind the work. Speaking about the current pandemic, she emphasises on how isolation is a privilege today as a majority of people cannot afford to seclude themselves. “I felt I was imprisoned in this cycle of nothingness; the single movements of the second-hand of a wall clock were reminiscent of the past, a forceful removal from the present world and having no hope for the future,” says Marium, as she remembers her days at the hospital. “Isolation can be devastating. It has its own share of trauma but can also form a deep sense of intimacy, where the distinction between sanity and insanity overlaps, bordering fiction and a blurred reality”.