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Marking time through art – 'Notations on Time' by Ishara Art Foundation

The exhibition Notations on Time showcases the works of 20 contemporary artists who explore the dimensions of time through art.

by Divya MenonPublished on : May 11, 2023

Does time lie submerged under layers of decay? Or is it a fleeting entity that wraps the world in transience?

There is perhaps nothing more rudimentary, more intimate an experience as time. And yet, there is perhaps nothing more unknown or indefinable either. Trapped within the polarities of what time could be perceived as, there is perpetual effort to lock time within the boundaries of personal experiences, opinions, intuitions, scientific and philosophical ideologies.

Notations on Time by Ishara Art Foundation, curated by art historian, Adjunct Curator at the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Project, Sandhini Poddar, and co-curated by Associate Director and Curator at Ishara Art Foundation, Sabih Ahmed, is not just another art exhibition soaked in the many mysteries of time but more importantly, it is a dialogue across several generations, often criss-crossing metaphysical and other dimensions. It consummately delves into the repositories of time in an effort to explore its nuances and dimensions through art. It strives to map the philosophical and political trajectories of time. An experiment that uses fragments to point towards the monumental, it is a massive undertaking raised on the slippery dimension called time, employing art as the medium. 

Exhibition view of Beautification - Check Your Memory, 2013, Installation, Chandraguptha Thenuwara | Notations on Time | STIRworld
Exhibition view of Beautification-Check Your Memory, 2013, Installation, Chandraguptha Thenuwara Image: Ismail Noor/Seeing Things, Courtesy of Ishara Art Foundation and Chandraguptha Thenuwara

But then what is time? Is it something trapped in decay? Is it an elusive entity that colours the world in transience? More interestingly is time a piquant condiment that goes into the brewing of both the fuzz and truth equally around wormhole, time travel possibilities and innumerable metaphysically delectable theories? Again what if time is a mere illusion, nothing more significant than a figment of man’s imagination? Where does it begin to show itself and how can it be explored through modes different from the mundane? The questions are innumerable as they are pertinent and the plot gets thicker as one imagines art as a navigator through time in an effort to mark its trajectory. The group exhibition is a brave attempt to capture and demystify the mind boggling world of time through a vibrant landscape of art that portrays various different hues of what time could look like and feel like through the works of 20 contemporary artists from South Asia and its diaspora and several interesting dimensions emerge.

Exhibition view of Notations on Time,2023, Sculpture installation | Notations on Time | STIRworld
Exhibition view of Notations on Time, 2023 Image: Ismail Noor/Seeing Things, Courtesy of Ishara Art Foundation

Sandhini says, “When thinking of time, the first image that comes to the mind is not that of a linear 2D form but one that is sculptural, the aesthetics of which can become an experience. It is interesting to note that just as a sculptural form is neither linear nor flat and can be appreciated by entering it and seeing it from within, time too is sculptural and much like a story where there are many points of entry and exit and it becomes a subjective experience with no one truth and no one reality. For Sabih, however, time is all about transformation and transience. He says, “Time is therefore a medium through which everything changes, some in continuity, some not.”

What then qualifies art as a massive marker of time, what is it that makes art a very important peg around which time weaves its myriad stories that surpass all known binaries. What is it that art can do that other modes cannot in mapping time?

Installation view of infra-vocabulary from ‘Seepage’, 2009, Installation, Raqs Media Collective| Notations on Time | STIRworld
Installation view of infra-vocabulary from Seepage, 2009, Installation, Raqs Media Collective Image: Ismail Noor/Seeing Things, Courtesy of Ishara Art Foundation and Raqs Media Collective

It all began in 2020 when an invitation was extended to Sandhini Poddar to curate an exhibition on ‘time’. She came up with an amazing framework and called it the Laboratory of Time. This, however, turned out to be quite ominous in the wake of the pandemic that forced the project into a hiatus, pushing time into a laboratory of sorts where it would then on be tried and tested in different ways. When the project was resumed it encompassed all that the pandemic had to offer in terms of renewed ideologies, experience, knowledge and wisdom and that is how the idea of Notations on Time was invoked. It was at this juncture that Poddar invited Ahmed to join her as a co-curator of the exhibition.

To understand what the vast canvas of the show embodies it must begin with an awareness of what it does not. The curatorial team was very clear from the beginning that this would not be an encyclopaedic narrative on the journey of time. It was also not meant to create taxonomic categories of time. Rather the focus was to achieve an exhibition interwoven with different experiences of art through which complex stories and geographies around understanding time could be showcased. Ahmed adds, “Having bypassed several binaries like east versus west, north versus south, objective versus subjective, fact versus fiction, natural versus machine time, we decided to stay with trying to understand how art opens up a much richer and nuanced experience of time.

So what is a notation all about? Poddar explains how the notation goes against the ideas of hegemony, the monumental and the state of being complete. She says, “We kept moving towards the idea of sketches or diary entries. It is interesting to note how something so fragmentary and intimate can point to something larger than itself. Some of the works in the show, for instance those by Amar Kanwar and Soumya Sankar Bose, have taken several years to complete and we wanted to represent these through a slant or a gesture as intended by the word Ishara. We were very particular from an aesthetic point to include art that were haikus that could point to larger truths." 

Exhibition view of Listening Bench #5 ,2013, Wooden Bench Sculpture| Amar Kanwar | Notations on Time | STIRworld
Exhibition view of Listening Bench #5, 2013, Wooden Bench Sculpture, Amar Kanwar Image: Ismail Noor/Seeing Things, Courtesy of Ishara Art Foundation and Amar Kanwar

Zarina's Ten Thousand Things III that narrate intense emotions of displacement makes use of fragments of paper to convey these, Amar Kanwar's Listening Bench 5 made out of wood from a musical organ in disuse finds resonance in the struggle of farmers in Orissa and other parts of India and Raqs Media Collective’s infra-vocabulary from the book Seepage is a work that has transformed from a video installation into a book and then from a book back into the exhibition are some of the works that inspire to think of time as transformation. 

Exhibition view of The Ten Thousand Things III ,2016,  Paper, Zarina | Notations on Time | STIRworld
Exhibition view of The Ten Thousand Things III, 2016, a set of 100 collages mounted on Somerset white paper, Zarina Image: Ismail Noor/Seeing Things, Courtesy of Ishara Art Foundation and Zarina

Entanglements of the past, present and future is an absolute reality represented deftly through artworks that celebrate this proposition. The disbanding of jurisdictions between the past, present and future makes it impossible to differentiate between them. As we begin to think of time as a non-linear entity, it slowly takes on several forms like cyclic, spiral creating the feeling of repetition. The pandemic has repeatedly brought this into the experiential realm of life as we know.

Installation view of Beautification - Scale of Themis and Beautification - Hand of Themis , 2013, White Cement, Chandraguptha Thenuwara | Notations on Time | STIRworld
Installation view of Beautification - Scale of Themis and Beautification - Hand of Themis, 2013, white cement, Chandraguptha Thenuwara Image: Ismail Noor/Seeing Things, Courtesy of Ishara Art Foundation and Chandraguptha Thenuwara

Chandragupta Thenuwara's Check Your Memoryfrom his larger project titled Beautification is akin to a concrete calendar of several historical dates that commemorate colonialism, post-colonialism and the tragic civil war in Sri Lanka. But then the aftermath of the tragedy is not confined merely to these dates, they rather seep into the future and then from the present inform the past. Similarly, the dates associated with the tragedies are not singular to just a group of people with shared experience but it could travel across several other frontiers and strike a resonance elsewhere. As boundaries are all rendered null, what emerges is a continuous landscape of time, highly nebulous, where there are no demarcations of the past, present and future.

Mirror Image II: 1, 2, 3 (diptych) , 2011, Graphite on carbon paper, Lala Rukh |Notations on Time | STIRworld
Mirror Image II: 1, 2, 3 (diptych), 2011, Graphite on carbon paper, Lala Rukh Image: Ismail Noor/Seeing Things, Courtesy of Ishara Art Foundation and Lala Rukh

Different instances of generational time also have been explored through this show. It is interesting to note how deeper political and aesthetic sensibilities pass through generations. A lot of these sensibilities shared across the artists are not formal resemblances but deeper concerns. For instance, paired together, Lala Rukh's Mirror Image 2 and Mariah Lookman's Night Song have nothing in common formally. While Lala looks at the image of the night in shimmering water, Mariah's work not only has the night framed in an aural dimension, but looking closer one finds reflections and representations of her deep commitment to unpacking violence and military concerns across the world. This is something that doesn’t come through in Rukh's work directly but in her political ideologies as an activist and feminist. Several more works celebrate the beautiful resonance of ideas and themes across generations that find expression in ways that may not always be obvious. The time spent by Lookman with her mentor Rukh has been encapsulated in a music playlist and the compilation points towards deeper aesthetic and political sensibilities shared between generations.

Installation view of Night Song , 2015 , Installation with 2 monitors and headphones. Video and sound collage, colour and sound, 9:15 minutes, loop, Mariah Lookman | Notations on Time | STIRworld
Installation view of Night Song, 2015, Installation with two monitors and headphones. Video and sound collage, colour and sound, 9:15 minutes, loop, Mariah Lookman Image: Ismail Noor/Seeing Things. Courtesy of Ishara Art Foundation and Mariah Lookman

The design of the exhibition contributes to various ideas that the curatorial team holds sacrosanct. Poddar says, “We wanted this to be intimate, conversations between artists, and didn’t want to create compartments as it would oppose the sculptural mode of time. We also created sight lines very mindfully. Moving around, you begin to start making connections and then resonances simply happen. Walls used were not to cordon off works, neither to partition sight lines but to rather layer them. Therefore you see fragments and glimpses of works touching one another in a single vantage point. The fact that works are laid out like in an archaeological site makes it possible to read time deposits scattered in the exhibition instead of a single work representing one notion of time. It therefore becomes an experience of interwoven expressions that together produce yet another dynamic, layered dialogue.”  

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