Excavating cosmographies with Sahej Rahal

From salvaging new worlds in discarded objects to making environments that parody existence itself, Indian artist Sahej Rahal challenges the tales we take for granted.

by Jones John Published on : Jun 15, 2020

It is almost always taken for granted that the stories that seem to shape the world, be they historical or legendary, have been passed down unchanged with a continued existence that has managed to withstand the tides of time. This presumption manifests insidiously in our everyday lives; through public performances such as political speeches and quasi-academic discourses that vivify imagined pasts, its tremors unsuspectingly form the foundations of how we are made to come to terms with the present. “These performative acts, or these performative rituals, are sort of playing out on a national scale and they inform the idea of the subject, and we are implicitly asked to perform as well and made complicit in that game,” reflects Sahej Rahal, who, through his sequential acts of world-building, hopes to provide a counter-narrative against such attempts at homogenising perceivable realities.

A painting from Juggernaut, 2019 | Juggernaut | Sahej Rahal | STIRworld
A painting from Juggernaut, 2019 Image Credit: Courtesy of Sahej Rahal and Chatterjee & Lal

"I am kind of interested in interrogating that process that is unfolding, this speculative way in which history is weaponised to forward a certain kind of ideology, and also teasing out the seams of that in how the inherent absurdity of this process is revealed to us,” says the Mumbai-based artist. Excavation is central to Rahal’s practice – in 2019 he was the first-ever recipient of the Sher-Gil Sundaram Art Foundation’s grant for installation art for a project which found him engaging with the chalcolithic archaeological site at Inamgaon in Maharashtra – as is the incomprehensibility of history, and it is through the infinite expansiveness and possible multiplicity of his on-going cosmographical construction that he hopes to divine the fallacy of narrative singularities.

Harbinger at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, 2014 | Harbinger | Sahej Rahal | STIRworld
Harbinger at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, 2014 Image Credit: Courtesy of Sahej Rahal and Chatterjee & Lal

Within his practice, excavation manifests in his use of found objects to create artefacts that then ‘pretend’ to be something else. For example, at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2014, he was assigned a space that was used for the shooting of Malayalam films and advertisements. On the conclusion of these shoots, he would raid their sets to scavenge materials that were now embedded with a certain kind of memory and decontextualise them by making them armatures for his sculptures, so while in their afterlife they might be perceived as parts of his installations, what might not be so easily discerned is their own history. This is affirmed by the arbitrary nature of artifactual meaning-making, which he heard reiterated in his recent interactions with archaeologists at the Deccan College in Pune from whom he understood the profession to be ‘speculative’ or as acts of drawing lines between two points, descriptions which are very suitable when trying to comprehend the worlds he creates in the gaps between his artworks.

Juggernaut virtual environment, 2018 | Juggernaut | Sahej Rahal | STIRworld
Juggernaut virtual environment, 2018 Image Credit: Courtesy of Sahej Rahal and Chatterjee & Lal

In Rahal’s worlds, meaning-making is participative and this is enabled further in his creation of virtual environments, such as Juggernaut(2018) and Antraal (2019), where his audience can choose to take part. In addition to this, these environments also serve the task of allegorising his intent. The entities we follow in these programmes are symbionts, dependent on the relationships they establish with their environments, both virtual and physical. Their function is the nurturing of these relationships without which their very existence would appear to fall short and in engaging with them the audience takes part in a form of compounded semiosis that is primarily current, with only imagined pasts and futures. We can see/hear what they are but we can only assume what they might be, and due to the rules governing the AI, at no point can we return to what they used to be, making attempts to trace their journeys as futile as trying to understand how they came to inhabit their specific biomes in the first place.

Antraal, 2019 | Antraal | Sahej Rahal | STIRworld
Antraal 2019 Image Credit: Courtesy of Sahej Rahal and Chatterjee & Lal

Jorge Luis Borges’ protagonist in The Book of Sand, when confronted by the infinitude of the eponymous book, in that it had no beginning and no end, hid it in the only place where it might get lost, the library, after decided that destroying it might result in a melee of unforeseen, and possibly irreconcilable consequences. Rather than attempting to hide or destroy evidence of the multiplicity embedded in our metaphysical existence, what Rahal does is to play along with the chaos in a tune of his own making. By embracing the pre-eminence of the present, Rahal reconciles with the horror of infinity as recognised by Borges’ protagonist. Rahal’s practice heralds multiplicity as a means to enmesh and drown out the singular narratives that seek dominance in an ever-pluralising world and while it might only create ripples, there is a nobility in trying to move an ocean.

Rahal is to be exhibiting at the 13th Gwangju Biennale, which has been postponed to 2021 due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Contingent Farewell, 2016. Photo by Christie Yuri Noh | Contingent Farewell | Sahej Rahal | STIRworld
Contingent Farewell, 2016. Photo by Christie Yuri Noh Image Credit: Courtesy of Sahej Rahal and Chatterjee & Lal

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About Author

Jones John

Jones John

John is an independent curator and art-historian working out of Bengaluru, India. He has studied at Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Bengaluru, and Lasalle College of the Arts, Singapore. His research interests revolve around transcendentalism in the visual arts, cross-cultural identities and their relationship to contemporary culture.

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