by Dilpreet BhullarSep 17, 2022
The expression “Rome was not built in a day” gestures at the impossibility of establishing a city – an embodiment of illustrious history and power – within the paucity of time. Most do not consider architecture as a work of imagination realised through wealth and mathematical calculations; an epistemological struggle between material practice and cultural knowledge systems questions the functional agency of architecture. Ayesha Singh’s latest art exhibition Monumental Turns (August 26 – September 24, 2023) at Nature Morte gallery in Dhan Mill, New Delhi, emerges from the idea of distorting the human vision of the contours and dimensions of monumental structures. It is a play upon the mediums, motifs and metaphors of architectural shapes and forms. The capital city of New Delhi serves as a leitmotif and is used to demonstrate the gradual blurring and reappropriation of the salient features of architecture.
Complementing the large exhibition space, the monumental sculptures from the artists’ series Skewed Histories (2023) greet viewers as they enter. Taking inspiration from the design of the southern gateway of the Qutub Minar, a 14th-century mosque complex in Delhi, Singh offers her reinterpretation of the iconic horseshoe arch. These sculptures are juxtaposed with pieces that incorporate motifs from the entrances of 20th-century homes in Old Delhi, designed in the distinctive Indo-Saracenic architectural style that amalgamates Indian, Islamic and European design influences. A third work in the series draws from Singh's Sikh heritage, incorporating arches reminiscent of Mughal-inspired motifs. The immersive installations manipulate scale and frequently overpower the viewer's body and they beckon for meticulous examination so as to draw the spatial distance between the eye and their surface.
In an interview with Stir, Singh discusses how the city of New Delhi has survived decades as the capital of various empires and has been used as the expression of nation-building exercises. “It bears witness to evolving power dynamics and shifting ideologies where the desire for belonging is situated in new construction, renovation and erasures,” she says. “As someone born in the city, I look at architecture as a specific enquiry into our histories and the way we exist and identify ourselves between the creation, fragmentation and overlapping of these narratives.”
For past kings and conquerors, the stories of their glorious lives carved in stone could not withstand the challenges of time. Architecture, from Singh’s perspective, serves not only as a tangible passage to the monolithic past but also contributes to the construction of historical narratives. Through her art, Singh has continually engaged in conversations around socio-political power dynamics dovetailed with architecture. Urban landscapes are witness to rising and falling empires, natural calamities and warfare, subsequently having an impact on human existence — be it political or personal.
The linear sculptural artworks Hybrid Drawings (2023) stand in the shape of columns and domes with a sense of minimalism that challenge the majestic characteristics of the real-life structures. Singh welds a series of distinct structural elements together, drawing attention to the plural fabric of the cosmopolitan city of New Delhi. The variety of architectural features represents the dialogue between historical dynasties in Delhi, be it Lodhi, Mughal or British Empires. Singh interweaves the diversity of cultures to override historical acts of architectural superimposition.
This idea is further explored in the drawings Hybrid Amalgamations (histo-futuristic) (2023) where structures are rendered in graphite and pencil on paper. Portraying totemic structures that harmoniously fuse elements from both imaginary and real architectural designs, Singh effortlessly amalgamates diverse influences into unique and mysterious forms. The artist encourages us to ponder whether the past can move beyond its monumental legacy and discover significance in the future.
The sculpture Frayed Continuum, Cement (2023) is a contraption nestled within a scaffold-style framework, which holds nine intricately carved wooden fragments dating from 1910 to 1960 that are bound together. It swirls at a steady speed and, during the exhibition, the objects are submersed into liquid cement. It seems like a metaphorical take on decadence: the work takes elements of the past and shows how the unending passage of time alters their appearance, meaning and value.
Singh describes the intricate process of making her sculptures: “Working with architects, wood and metal workers, and art installers demanded detailed coordination and planning, down to the thickness of wire required to hang different works.” From various phases of sketching, rendering 3D spaces and altering their forms and placement, to working with large teams in different cities, this has been a process of profound learning for the artist.
Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed in his book The Gay Science (1888) that, “God is dead and we have killed him.” He goes on to suggest that, “One day, and probably soon, we need some recognition of what above all is lacking in our big cities: quiet and wide, expansive places for reflection. Places with long, high-ceilinged cloisters for bad or all too sunny weather…” Is this quest for a place to reflect upon still in the making or is it a thing of a bygone era in the times of shifting borders and shrinking cultures?
Singh’s works allow us to scrutinise our past and ponder upon our present through our city spaces. The motifs of “concrete”, “lines”, “pillars” and “stone” at the centre of this body of work seem to challenge the hegemonic ideas exercised by empires and governments. The use in the titles of words such as “amalgamation”, “continuum”, “hybrid” and “skewed” references the changeable nature of architecture. The strength of Singh’s work lies in promoting the exchange of ideas and experimentation, as well as her recognition that cities witness the rise and fall of many empires throughout history – and nonetheless live on.