'Who is Asleep Who is Awake' looks at the political realities that form in a liminal state

Sudarshan Shetty curates Who is Asleep Who is Awake for Serendipity Arts Festival 2022, on the intersections between reality and fiction and the claims to freedom and expression.

by Sukanya DebPublished on : Dec 28, 2022

Presented at the Serendipity Arts Festival 2022, Who is Awake Who is Asleep is an exhibition of works by seven Indian and international contemporary artists, curated by Sudarshan Shetty. The works presented as part of the exhibition for the fifth edition of Serendipity Arts Festival take the form of video art, photographs, sculpture art, and on-site installation, speaking to the liminal state between wakefulness and sleep as a possible metaphor for hidden desires, worlds, and states that threaten to destabilise established, hegemonic realities. The 'dream' state or the space of dreaming, wishfulness and imagination, is brought together in a seemingly undefined space, where artists whisper and hum their liberatory aspirations.

With the choice of mediums at the art festival, what stands out is the representational aspect of reality, where photography and lens-based media attempt to capture and contain reality. There is an attempt at camouflaging the unseen and desirous with the accepted forms of representative realities, that can be seen in the works presented. In conversation with STIR, Sudarshan Shetty speaks about the references that he brings into the framing of the exhibition for the art fair, “The idea for the show comes from my long-standing interest in the interpretations of dreams and the waking life from some ancient Indian texts on the subject. The title is derived from a popular verse by the Great poet-saint Gorakhnath, as uttered by him in the 12th century AD.”

Shetty goes on to explain the philosophical underpinnings behind the curation for the art exhibition, “What is the relationship between fiction and imagination? What are we left with in an experience of fiction? Does it allow us an interpretative space for imagination? Can it evoke a space for each individual to make meanings based upon their own experiences of life? This may take us to a human need to locate ‘truth’ as a signifier for a definition of self. Are there multiple paths to the truth? Is ‘truth’ a singular phenomenon?”

Exhibition view of ‘Sleepers’ with viewers at Serendipity Arts Festival, 2007-13, Photograph series, Dhruv Malhotra | Who is Asleep Who is Awake | Dhruv Malhotra | STIRworld
Exhibition view of Sleepers with viewers at Serendipity Arts Festival, 2007-13, Photograph series, Dhruv Malhotra Image: Shantanu Sagara; Courtesy of Serendipity Arts Festival

Presented at the art event was Hidden, a short film by Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, that follows his journey in finding a young woman, who is said to have an ethereally gifted musical voice. The film is shot in first-person perspective as the director accompanies his daughter along with her theatre-producer friend, driving to a remote Kurdish village in search of the legendary voice. The young singer remains unnamed in the film and out of sight, as she communicates with the filmmaker and her daughter from behind a curtained enclosure, telling the story of her restricted life.

Having a renowned and supernaturally gifted voice at a young age, her reality came to be understood as a curse, where the political undercurrent lies with the allowances that women are afforded within Iran currently, and the inevitable misogynistic spin on feminist art and beauty being beguiling forces for unassuming men to fall prey to. Restricted by Iranian authorities, she is not allowed to let anyone, that is any member of the opposite sex, ‘see’ her perform. However, the father-daughter duo ask her to sing from behind the curtain and she obliges. As soon as she begins singing, the piercing clarity and beauty of her voice is apparent, where her voice stands in for ‘voicing’ of the woman’s melancholic yet desirous reality, speaking to a wider liberatory desire felt by Iranian women.

Exhibition view of Hidden with viewers at Serendipity Arts Festival, 2020, Short film, Jafar Panahi | Who is Awake Who is Asleep | Jafar Panahi | STIRworld
Exhibition view of Hidden with viewers at Serendipity Arts Festival, 2020, Short film, Jafar Panahi Image: Shantanu Sagara; Courtesy of Serendipity Arts Festival

Shetty speaks about the expanse that the dream-form takes within the exhibition, “Each of the seven artists' work here, comes from diverse worlds of engagement and are not necessarily made with a direct connection to the curatorial theme. However, they move seamlessly between the perceivable spaces of dream and waking life, perhaps to open up questions of what is real and what is not.”

Sleepers by Dhruv Malhotra is a photographic project as part of a larger series on capturing semi-urban and urban landscapes during night-time. Malhotra portrays the semi-urban developing landscape of Noida, an expansion of the National Capital Region (NCR) of Delhi’s business and commercial hubs. In this photographic series, Malhotra captures the sight of sleeping men in the city, often workers within the informal sectors or daily wage labour. The men he captures use make-shift structures such as park benches, abandoned cots, temporary beddings, plywood sheets, the top of vehicles, carts, and even blankets along sidewalks, in order to create spaces of rest that end up being transient and uncertain. Notably, we see a city under construction, where these sleepers are surrounded by new structures being built, towards which they possibly contribute during the day. The night-time lays bare the precarious existence of workers whose lived experiences form the background of a capitalist urban development under construction, where the phrase ‘city that never sleeps’ is given new meaning.

Exhibition view of ‘Sleepers’ at Serendipity Arts Festival, 2007-13, Photograph series, Dhruv Malhotra | Who is Asleep Who is Awake | Dhruv Malhotra | STIRworld
Exhibition view of Sleepers at Serendipity Arts Festival, 2007-13, Photograph series, Dhruv Malhotra Image: Shantanu Sagara; Courtesy of Serendipity Arts Festival

No(w)here by Indian artist Abir Karmakar is a set of art installations that appear to seamlessly occupy the space of the old government excise building in Panaji, Goa, which was chosen as the venue for the exhibition. Given the dilapidated state of the old government building, the paintings have a trompe l’oeil essence, while depicting domestic spaces of an imagined middle-class household. A living room, a washroom, and dusty display cases with mundane to religious objects, depicted in immaculate detail. This series follows Karmakar’s previous work commissioned by Asia Society Triennial, where the interiors of a house in Kutch, Gujarat, were replicated in paint. The lack of human presence within these depictions speaks to the semi-urban middle-class family aspiration, through the form of objects and realisation of a domestic sphere. Karmakar plays with space, where each of these iterations are site-specific art and appear as wall paintings, rather than detailed representations on canvas.

No(w)here, 2022, Painting installation, Abir Karmakar | Who is Awake Who is Asleep | Abir Karmakar | STIRworld
No(w)here, 2022, Painting installation, Abir Karmakar Image: Shantanu Sagara; Courtesy of Serendipity Arts Festival

Warsha is a short film by Lebanese writer and director Dania Bdeir, which has received much critical acclaim across international film festivals. The story follows a day in the life of a Syrian migrant worker named Mohammad, who works as a crane operator for a construction site, and a daydream that situates prayer within a reverie of queer joy. We see Mohammad finding ecstatic expression within the dangerous precarity of the crane as a site, hundreds of metres above ground, in the sounding of a liberatory dream within a religion-conservative societal reality. On enquiring about ‘sleep’ or ‘dreams’ as an expansion of political art provocations within this exhibition, Shetty tells STIR, “I think all the works in the show are deeply political without being didactically so. While all the works in the show spring from the images of everyday realities they transcend into other areas of liberal imagination and remain open to each individual's interpretation of them.”

Still from Warsha, 2022, Short film, Dania Bdeir | Who is Asleep Who is Awake | Dania Bdeir | STIRworld
Still from Warsha, 2022, Short film, Dania Bdeir Image: Courtesy of Serendipity Arts Festival

Also read: SAF 2022: An exhibition challenging how we see the image in the age of Web 3.0

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