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Rohini Devasher seeks out the visual aesthetic of the inner and outer worlds

Fascinated by astronomy and early scientific instruments, Rohini Devasher conceives Glasshouse Deep, seen at Busan Art Sea Festival (2021).

by Shraddha NairPublished on : Dec 22, 2021

Rohini Devasher is an artist of Indian origin, trained in painting and printmaking. In her practice she explores a range of media including print, video and site-specific drawing, while dabbling with early scientific observational instruments in combination with contemporary observational sciences. Devasher is keenly interested in astronomy and atmospheric sciences. Her work has been exhibited at numerous venues and festivals including Sharjah Biennial (2019), Fukuoka Asian Art Triennial (2014), Kaserne Basel (2019), Moscow Biennial (2017) and the first Kochi Art Biennale (2012).

Her fascination with the activity of celestial bodies is one I can easily relate to. Up until I realised I would have to learn physics extensively (a subject I loathed in middle school), I was convinced that I wanted to be an astronomer. I remember a sixth-grade field trip to a farm in the rural peripheries of Mumbai city, far away from city lights, where we were taught basic astronomy - how to identify constellations, how to track the movement of the moon etcetera. It remains one of the more magical memories I have of my childhood. Devasher’s work is an embodiment of this magic.

A still from Glasshouse Deep (2021), a video by Devasher | Glasshouse Deep | Rohini Devasher | STIRworld
A still from Glasshouse Deep (2021), a video by Devasher Image: Courtesy of Rohini Devasher

Looking into outer space is an investigation which draws us into looking inward, deeply. The outside mirrors the inside, the space within. Her recent work, Glasshouse Deep (2021), a video installation, takes a closer look at the minute and miniscule. It was recently on view at Busan Biennale (2021). The work combines images and research of diatom specimens sampled at different times of the year and during different seasons by scientists Minji Lee and Sanjoon Park. Devasher speaks with us about this, as well as her upcoming project, The Observatory: Second Site.

The video artwork is a look at diatoms, a major group of single celled algae | Glasshouse Deep | Rohini Devasher | STIRworld
The video artwork is a look at diatoms, a major group of single celled algae Image: Courtesy of Rohini Devasher

Shraddha Nair (SN): I understand that the forms I am seeing in this video are actually diatoms from single cell algae. Can you tell us about the journey that led you to being fascinated by this specimen in particular? Was there a moment of profound awe that you can recall and share with us?

Rohini Devasher (RD): The organics that populate the Glasshouse Deep claim ancestry from plants but of the minute kind, single-celled algae - diatoms. Like plants they turn sunlight into chemical energy through photosynthesis, but unlike plants diatoms also mysteriously possess a urea cycle, a feature that they share with animals. This incredible hybridity has been attributed to the incorporation of genes from their ancestors and by horizontal gene transfer from marine bacteria. Diatoms are chimeras with glass exoskeletons, exhibiting the most intricate bilateral and radial symmetry. A symmetry that is seen is other equally unexpected spaces as well. In the digital domain, video feedback demonstrates that some systems have the ability to spontaneously organise themselves into increasingly complex structures.

Glasshouse Deep uses images of several specimens of diatoms, each exhibiting the most extraordinary diversity of form. One of the early works which referenced diatoms and radiolaria was Bloodlines (2009), a video and print installation. Bloodlines is a tree of artificial life exploring the theory of cumulative selection. It begins with seven central forms; parents let us say. Each ‘parent’ form is the result of a gradual building of a skeletal structure made of individual, manually placed layers of video. Bloodlines introduce us to a family tree where each ‘parent’ breeds a set of ‘progeny’, which in turn produce offspring of their own.

Glasshouse Deep is the latest in a suite of works that employ video-feedback to explore processes of growth and evolution through a technological matrix. The work aims to discover and extend the underlying laws and processes, arising from fundamental physics and chemistry, which govern growth and form in biological systems and its mirroring in the digital sphere. 

Diatoms are responsible for over 40 per cent of photosynthesis in the world’s oceans | Glasshouse Deep | Rohini Devasher | STIRworld
Diatoms are responsible for over 40 per cent of photosynthesis in the world’s oceans Image: Courtesy of Rohini Devasher

SN: What draws you to be interested in worldview of western science? Why choose to work with the datasets of these two scientists in particular?

RD: The scientific is one frame, one way to try and understand our world. I am interested in many other frames including the speculative / artistic / historical etc.

Glasshouse Deep is a deeply collaborative work. Ritika Biswas and I had many conversations around the curatorial premise of the biennale. I wanted to take my work with video-feedback further and it was she and the Busan Biennale team who put me in touch with the Korea Institute of Ocean Science and Technology (KIOST). I was very interested in the work of Minji Lee and Sanjoon Park who work with the seasonal migratory patterns of diatoms in the South Korean Sea, but more specifically they had the data I needed, i.e., high resolution images. The conversations grew from there.

SN: The outer world is reflected symmetrically to our inner world. Does this characterise your exploration as well, or are your motivations different? Can you tell us more about what inspires you about the forms of this world?

RD: Glasshouse Deep is a journey into the minute world of the strange deep, where the very small assumes a planetary scale. Reflective, refractive, luminous, each organic/entity(s) temporal evolution is layered with the motion of a trajectory through points in space. Speculative migrations both vertical and horizontal follow orbits that telescope inwards and outwards.

Light is a central protagonist. The intensity and spectral quality of light induces migration and behavioural photo protection in diatoms. Video feedback occurs when a loop is created between a video camera and a television screen or monitor. This dynamic recursive flow of light between camera and monitor generates startling and beautiful forms. Discs of expanding and contracting light reveal oscillating points/dots, gradually dislocating radiating pinwheels and star bursts exhibit complex patterns and colour, flowing outward from the centre, demonstrating that at every higher level of complexity, there is greater potential for new structure and change.

Glasshouse Deep (2021) by Rohini Devasher | Glasshouse Deep | Rohini Devasher | STIRworld
Glasshouse Deep (2021) by Rohini Devasher Image: Courtesy of Rohini Devasher

SN: Can you briefly tell us about your upcoming project titled The Observatory: Second Site?

RD: Since the beginning of 2020, sound artist Legion Seven and I have been working on a project that brings astronomy and art together to explore themes of observation and perception. Last year we created a performative essay called The Observatory that examined the trajectory of early to contemporary celestial renderings to try and unpack the complexities of observational astronomy, the ways that perception impacts the act of observation, and how this is historically demonstrated through the observations of stellar phenomena.

We are currently developing The Observatory: Second Site, with the support of Pro Helvetia and Khoj, which looks to take the ordinarily immobile observatory online, and further explore the ways in which ‘seeing’ is strange, wondrous, and more ambiguous than one might imagine.

In renderings of the planet and other celestial objects, there is a vast gulf between the virtual and the real. Space-based telescopes, spacecraft such as Hubble, New Horizons, Cassini and countless other instruments have generated extraordinary images in ultra-high definition; images that have found their way into our lives and taken up places in our imaginations. Entities have been assigned form, shape, and so, meaning. But the experience in the field with a telescope is very different. On asking one amateur astronomer how he dealt with the anxieties and false expectations that often accompany a first-time observation – that moment of, ‘is that all?’ – his answer was that you have to remind people of where they are and of what they are seeing; that the light from that object has travelled so far before hitting the light receptive photons in their eye. As an experience, it is visceral; it is uniquely individual, yet also part of a shared experience of knowing.

It is this ‘shared experience of knowing’ that we are looking to further investigate in this iteration of The Observatory.

What do you think?

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