Exploring the past & present of photography at the V&A Photography Centre, London
by Zohra Khan, Samta NadeemMay 26, 2023
•make your fridays matter with a well-read weekend
by Dilpreet BhullarPublished on : Oct 14, 2020
The mirror, while reflecting as well as distorting realities, serves as a classical metaphor for the workings of the human mind. These unique qualities of the mirror have occupied a significant place in the works of Greek mythology, western literature and psychoanalytic philosophies to offer a ‘reflection’ on the human faculties. When used as a material in works of art, the mirror disturbs the idea of a single perception and extends an invitation to the audience to be a part of the artwork. Harking on such multifaceted nature of mirrors are the two artists: Iran-based Shirin Abedinirad and Ratna Khanna from India. What drew my attention to the works of the two artists, both using the mirror at the core of their creation, was their shared acute sensitivity towards the natural environment. Bordering on illusion and reality, their art practice succinctly manipulates the scale of spatial settings.
Abedinirad’s installations such as Tide and Mirror of the Hearth # 2 frame a slice of reality, which otherwise remains unrecognised to the naked eyes. The act to distort the contours of a given world gives the artist a chance to play with the conventional ways of seeing and perceiving things. In an interview with STIR, Abedinirad mentions, “While looking at the installation Mirror, mirror on the land, the audience thought there is a pool of water on the ground. And if you look at the door in the House in the Wind, there is a play with the shadow and light, the door with a mirror creates a two way-road with light and shadow”.
Khanna’s photographs and sculptures use mirror and glass to complicate our ideas of perception and reality. One of Khanna’s photographic installations, Hierarchy (two photographs and a sculpture), encapsulates her conceptual practice about the multi-layered perspective from the vantage point of the onlooker. It is the internal logic of ‘hierarchy’ that sets the order of meaning, where subjective and objective perspectives on reality are often convoluted. As the title suggests, for the one perched at the top of the order, this position may hold a present-day reality, which is never far from the future possibility of the one standing at a level lower. Khanna talks about her understanding of the mirror and how she incorporates it to add a meaning to her works, “The materials that I use, the mirror represents fragility (vulnerability) and the ego - the self which is always a starting point for me. I use glass, both transparent and black, to say there is always a fluctuation between the inner and outer worlds for me. The sculptures occupy this liminal space between photography and drawing, an in-between place where a lot of confusion lies and I mean confusion as a broad area to explore rather than personal behaviour”.
For Khanna, the unsettling of reality is dovetailed with the question of memory. Her photographic works from the series The Shape of Things to Come, challenge the idea of a single memory. When the photographs are an inherent representation of a figment of memory, she creates three-mirrored reality for the viewers. The subjective memory of the artist captures the reality in the form of a photograph and shares it with the collective memory of the viewers, a reflection of reality in the mirror and finally a tangible reality of the photographs.
Not a far-fetched speculation, the works of both the artists underline the modernism approach to the logic of perspective and recreate an illusion of the reality visible. At once the optical illusion of their works becomes a microcosmic representation of the macro-environment that remains under the garb of permanency. Their abstract works, a play on light and shadow, make a commentary on the uneasy truth that ‘nothing is set in stone’.
Abedinirad creates site-specific installations with different shapes of mirrors to reflect an unseen part of nature. It is not a common sight to find a door with an attached mirror in the middle of nowhere; a mirror installation in the shape of a tower standing in open land or even the oval-shaped mirrors lying in a row on a vast expanse of sand. These installations carry a surrealistic aura to refurbish the nature around us. Abedinirad talks about her interests in mirrors and nature, “Through mirrors, I can edit nature in the way I want. I do not add any elements to it but still create a new image of it. Mirrors are magical and sometimes it is not possible to imagine what will happen when I will place my installations or land arts in nature. It is a kind of adventure for me as an artist. Importantly, before installing my artwork, I take some moments to talk to mother nature and ask her permission and help. Nature plays a great role in my artworks. And if nature is polluted, so will be my artworks. Respect for nature is essential in my view”.
Interestingly, her works do not shy away from the geometrical precision to conjure up the illusionary world. The meticulous alignment of the work could find its roots in Abedinirad’s Iranian culture. She further elaborates on this, “Many things trained my eyes and shaped my view: ancient Iranian structures, symmetrical compositions of architecture, Islamic geometric patterns, and isometric perspective of Persian miniatures among others”. The symmetry with which works are rendered, in a way, becomes an extension of harmony available in abundance in nature. Intricately entwined to the natural environment, the humankind sooner or later accepts this harmony to translate it into an everyday practice. Abedinirad recognises this to say, “We are part of nature and I reflect it in my artworks, so naturally, people feel part of my artworks. I intend to create a deeper connection between nature and human beings”.
Geographically distant, never met, yet both artists share the ways of creating a piece of art: rely on their instincts. Abedinirad confesses, “Oftentimes my ideas come to my mind suddenly and there is no need to change anything in the original idea, so I try to stay loyal to the original idea. Usually, I select the most minimal and easy-to-make ideas and I avoid any kind of elaborations in my artworks. I make a simple drawing that just helps me to remember the idea and I do not like to use 3D software to see how my artworks look in an environment”. In a similar vein, Khanna declares, “My drawings are intuitive - inward and the way I understand photography through my work is through the idea of permanence rather than recording reality. I make an alternative point of view and I photograph it. I have started to work with dust, another fragile material like glass and the most easily available material in Delhi, it is free and the most ubiquitous. Dust is often thought of as an ephemeral substance but it is permanent, it changes but it is permanent, gentle yet aggressive”.
The art practices led by Shirin Abedinirad and Ratna Khanna assert that we have travelled far and wide from Narcis and Eve's experience of reflection that instigated their fall. The epistemological search on the natural environment initiated by the artists has unearthed a novel way of looking at our surroundings. It is like lending a new ‘mirror’ to repurposing of the landscape genre. Uninhibited to experiment with a streak of creative freedom, Abedinirad and Khanna assure their audience a work of marvel could open a window to the world hitherto unseen, waiting to be experienced.
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