Looking for the Profound in the Ordinary – Reflections from Sonam Chaturvedi’s Art Exhibition ‘Occurrences’ at Jindal Global University

‘What common perception trivialises and misses, an artwork apprehends in its irreducible essence’ – the opening quote to Sonam Chaturvedi’s art exhibition ‘Occurrences’ perfectly anchored the philosophical approach of the display. [1] Conceived during her residency at the Jindal Centre of Visual Arts, the exhibition was on display in the art studio at Jindal Global University in May 2018. It was a result of her collaboration with students of the B.A. (Hons.) course at Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities. 

The primary purpose of the project was to plant events, or occurrences, in the students’ lives by sending them instructions via email, which triggered multiple encounters through the two months of her residency. Her open-ended instructions were poetic and intended to plant an idea for the participant to follow. Their material was the art studio and the instructions that demanded of them a play with this material and document it, in different mediums, such as sound, video, photo, poetry etcetera. These were presented in the exhibition along with the instructions. Time, memory and cognition are recurrent themes in Sonam’s work and ‘Occurrences’ is an elegant affair that subtly brings forth these elements. Her ideas are not writ large in an obvious collection of paintings or sculptures but conveyed through a minimalist array of routine and everyday objects.

Her method of orchestrating these experiences is the true highlight of the exhibition. It ties the diverse artworks together to transform the entire space into a unified piece. In the display, Sonam put up the results along with the instructions so that the audience can appreciate the organic growth of the idea from her inception, to the student’s response and then her intervention in terms of the aesthetic placement of the exhibit. This dialectical association between the artist-curator and the artist-participant forms the true core of the show and instils a sense of diffused ownership of the result. The artworks are merely metaphors that permit access to this intangible and richer exchange of ideas.

For instance, Sonam asks her students to ‘make hidden sculptures in space. Sculptures made with any material that resemble you.’ Participant Sumedha Sharma responded by videotaping herself taking circles in the dark under a cloth. Here, Sonam intervenes by breaking the video into several photos, allowing the audience to appreciate the progression of the images and the intangibility of the subject. We are acutely aware that something so transitory can be likened to a sculpture, which is normally characterized by permanence and sometimes history.


 

Picture2
Instruction: Make hidden sculptures in the space. Sculptures made with any material which resemble you.

Picture1


In another instance, Sonam asks her students to ‘divide the space without creating any noise’. Students created a video of a roomful of chairs as they silently pick them and stack them in two neat piles. When asked to ‘create a centre of space such that everything is connected to the centre’, the students arranged a spiral of broken glass with the light of a low hanging bulb gently illuminating the shards like gemstones. Placed in the centre of the art gallery, the piece perhaps also indicates the centrality of the art gallery as the nucleus of the project.


Picture3
Instruction: Create a centre of the space, where everything is connected to the centre, either emerging out of it or gravitating towards it. What would be the centre? 

Instruction:

Intimacy

‘what would you do if left alone

locked in a room staring

at the same empty walls, the clock getting weary of passing through

the same numbers

and you don’t ever want to leave the room it is yours

it is you’

Make the space personal, bring intimacy into it. Add an object(s).


 

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With the art gallery, as the prime focus of the exhibition, the participant responded to this instruction by leaving a marker of her presence in one corner 
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A video of a girl cutting another’s hair plays repeated in the centre of the gallery. An intimate act, performed by a friend, is further signified by the hair on display.

Picture7


 

Sonam was mindful to ground the intangibility of her endeavour in the physicality of the art gallery. With clever use of sound, video, photos, and light space was transformed into an immersive experience that engaged all senses. Despite the multiplicity of visual media, the delicate harmony of the display carries you gently from one piece to another. She did not intend the exhibition to be a culmination of the project but merely a snapshot of the process as it hopefully continues. Her agenda is dynamic and the show is truly participative as she welcomes her audience to respond by leaving behind a set of envelopes with instructions.

The project set itself a challenging task – to convey an experience – the intangible through art. Conventionally, art has been the appraisal of the object and found its meaning entirely confined to it. In its trajectory, aesthetics has evolved from mundane mimicry to impressionistic images to the expression of the artist’s thoughts and ideas. In 1967, Lippard and Chandler published an influential essay titled ‘The Dematerialisation of Art’ and argued that art was witnessing the final stages of an aesthetic revolution.[2] It was leaving behind its focus on the object (painting, sculpture etc.) entirely and yielding its space to the idea behind.

In similar stead, Occurrences achieves the elegant delivery of its idea by the sheer minimalism of its approach. As Lippard had argued, ‘ultra-conceptual’ art did not fuss about the details to make the idea available for immediate, almost thoughtless consumption. Instead, its ambiguity deprived the audience of what it is ‘used to look for’ and demands a more invested enquiry. Sonam’s work has a similar effect on you – it is with a stunned realization that a rather uninteresting stack of books transforms into representations of the dead, the decaying, the dry and become a symbol of ‘Life in Death’.


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Instruction: Create an archive in the space of material which dry, decay, die: real, manmade, text, images, big, small, here, there. Books have a propensity to decompose, the words have been spoken and notice that all the authors have passed away.

When I asked Sonam, which one was the most influential piece according to her, she points at a picture of a female labourer smiling shyly as she held a bunch of flowers. In her instructions, Sonam asked the participant to bring change in the monotony of someone else’s life. She had photographed Parvati Didi – a worker from West Bengal who had left her house for several months and come to JGU for the construction of the swimming pool – only a few days ago. She asked participant Kriti Jain, to find her and take a picture of her with flowers in her hand. The warm smile on Parvati didi’s face as she holds up the flowers and the heartfelt description of Kriti’s experience stands testimony to what a few kind words of care and concern can do. ‘Why?’ I asked, and Sonam remarks that students went out of their way to interact with the silent faces that had always surrounded them and this compassionate exchange broke the monotony not only in Parvati didi’s life but the student’s as well.


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Instruction: Bring change in the monotony of another person. Send a picture with a flower in her hand, and your experience from this encounter.
Picture00
Instruction:
Silence
Break the space into two equal parts without making any sound.
Document the audio-visual silence.
The participant chose to picture the barbed wire just outside the art gallery to signify the longing for freedom despite the absence of over boundaries. She wrote:
‘For this instruction, I chose to capture barbed wire on a wall. Be it borders, barbed wire or any form of partition – they all, in my opinion, act as the perfect symbol of a divide. Most times borders depict political boundary as opposed to a geographical boundary. While the intention may be to create an equal or just spaces, more often than not it results in an environment brewing with fear and competition.’

There is beauty in the countless interpretations the instructions could have taken and the manifestation of each students’ individuality in her response. While the exhibition did not aim to overtly confront any specific social malady, the diffused ownership of the project ensures that it, in fact, refers to many. Some reflect on the presence of hidden barriers while some depict empathy across class lines. Sonam’s instructions were designed to initiate an intimate and personal thought process yet it resulted in pieces that refer to wider problems – the perfect testimony to the fact that ‘the personal is the political’.[3]

John Dewey has argued that art is also just an experience but what makes an experience artistic is the beauty, coherence and continuity of that experience.[4] Sonam engineered these beautiful experiences into the lives of her participants and others. Although staged, it makes you wonder about the possibility of rhythm and a higher design to everyday life. Sonam and her students’ genius is evident from the ability to create a ripple of thoughts and questions, as art should. The transformation of her stimulus to the final artwork provides a manner of bottom-up theorizing that can explain the seemingly irreconcilable diversity of ideas around us as extensions of a few irreducible essentials. It presents you with sharp points of introspection that inspire you to question if there is truly a single explanation of all that goes about us? Or, is there a beautiful multiplicity to life and we care to notice only that which our predispositions permit?


Asmita Singhvi is a BCL Candidate, 2018-19, University of Oxford.
This work was written with the support of Professor Achia Anzi, O.P. Jindal Global University. 

[1] Sonam Chaturvedi received her MFA from Shiv Nadar University and BFA from Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda. Currently she is a teaching fellow in Salaam Balak Trust, awarded jointly by ArtReach India and Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, Delhi.

[2] The Dematerialisation of Art, Lucy R. Lippard and John Chandler (1967-68)

[3] Carol Hanisch, ‘The Personal is the Political’, 1970. This catchphrase has come to characterize many debates within feminism. It underscores the dominance of political structures in private lives and argues that power is ubiquitous.

[4] Art as Experience, John Dewey, 1934.

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