Total eclipse: The “Black Sun” across cultures – picture feast

Artists from diverse backgrounds engage with the fluidity of identity.

The exhibition “Black Sun: Alchemy, Diaspora and Heterotopia” features varied interpretations of the iconography and metaphors of the ‘black sun’ – the solar eclipse – across culture and context. Curated by artist Shezad Dawood and curator Tom Trevor, the exhibition will run for six months, from 10 November 2013 until 27 April 2014, at the Devi Art Foundation in Gurgaon, India.

The Otolith Group, ‘Otolith III’, 2009, film still. Image courtesy the artists.

The Otolith Group, ‘Otolith III’, 2009, film still. Image courtesy the artists.

The 12 artists featured in “Black Sun” are:

Alexandre Singh
• Ayisha Abraham
Ashish Avikunthak
Matti Braun
James Lee Byars
Maya Deren
Zarina Hashmi
Runa Islam
Nasreen Mohamedi
Lisa Oppenheim
The Otolith Group
Tejal Shah

Lisa Oppenheim, ‘Heliograms, 8 July 1876/ 11 July’, 2013, toned photographs, exposed with sunlight, framed with museum glass, 12.2 x 12.9 inches, 5 photographs, installation variable. Image courtesy Devi Art Foundation.

Lisa Oppenheim, ‘Heliograms, 8 July 1876/ 11 July’, 2013, toned photographs exposed with sunlight, framed with museum glass, 12.2 x 12.9 inches, 5 photographs, installation variable. Image courtesy Devi Art Foundation.

The ‘black sun’ broadly represents an eclipse, both figurative and literal. The astronomical event when one celestial body is temporarily obscured by another, thereby shrouded in darkness, was compared by Carl Jung to the spiritual journey of the soul. The metaphor of the eclipse could also represent a movement from darkness to light, ignorance to knowledge, and from being invisible to being seen – or vice versa.

In an interview published on the Sotheby’s blog, co-curator of the exhibition Tom Trevor said that the starting point for the exhibition at Devi Art Foundation was “an understanding of vision that comes with the threat of overwhelming blindness”, as with the relationship between day and night, the sun and the moon.

The idea of the ‘black sun’ is linked to the notion of a turn towards the ‘unknown’ in contemporary art, as well as to Jung’s discussion of the ‘dark night of the soul,’ used to describe a crisis in a person’s spiritual life, or belief system, that leads to a process of transformation.

Ashish Avikunthak, ‘Kalighat Fetish’, 1999, production still. Image courtesy the artist.

Ashish Avikunthak, ‘Kalighat Fetish’, 1999, production still. Image courtesy the artist.

Metaphors of the black sun can be found in various cultures and eras, such as Kali worship in India and the Renaissance in Europe. Indian filmmaker Ashish Avikunthak’s Kalighat Fetish is about the cross-dressing male devotees of the goddess Kali. According to the artist’s website, the work attempts to “negotiate with the duality” and ruminate on the “nuanced trans-sexuality” of the ceremonial veneration of the goddess.

Art alchemy: transmutation and transformation

Alchemy refers to a philosophical tradition that is primarily concerned with processes that ensure immortality and the transmutation of base metals into gold. According to the exhibition’s press release, during the 1960s and 70s exhibited artists such as James Lee Byars, Nasreen Mohamedi and Zarina Hashmi engaged with not only the symbolism of the black sun, but also the hermetic aspects of alchemy that allude to personal purification.

Tejal Shah, ‘Unfurling I – V’, 2000, black and white silver gelatin print on fiber-based paper, 20 x 20 inches each. Image courtesy Devi Art Foundation.

Tejal Shah, ‘Unfurling I – V’, 2000, black and white silver gelatin print on fiber-based paper, 20 x 20 inches each. Image courtesy Devi Art Foundation.

Indian artist Tejal Shah describes her work as positioned within a feminist and queer framework, challenging hegemonic discourses. Her five-part photo series, Unfurling I-V, depicts her friend in his transformation, a literal ‘coming out’ as they moved from indoor spaces into the street. The artist statement on her website describes her friend’s experience as “his unfurling, like that of a butterfly transforming from a caterpillar”.

Ayisha Abraham, ‘Through the Dark Mine’, 2013, installation. Image courtesy Devi Art Foundation.

Ayisha Abraham, ‘Through the Dark Mine’, 2013, installation. Image courtesy Devi Art Foundation.

Ayisha Abraham (India) and Lisa Oppenheim (New York) reference gold in their works. Abraham’s video installation, Through the Dark Mine, reuses footage by historian Jankai Nair of gold mines that are now closed, following mine workers in the darkness 7000 feet below the surface of the earth as they extract ore for gold. Lisa Oppenheim’s Heliograms highlights the connection between gold as the element most closely associated with the sun, and also to the medium of photography itself: in the 1840s, gold was used as a sensitising agent as an alternative to silver. The series consists of a photograph of the sun from 8 July 1876 exposed to sunlight over three months in 2011, starting from the vernal equinox.

Lisa Oppenheim, ‘Heliograms, 8 July 1876/ 11 July’, 2013, toned photographs, exposed with sunlight, framed with museum glass, 12.2 x 12.9 inches, 5 photographs, installation variable. Image courtesy Devi Art Foundation.

Lisa Oppenheim, ‘Heliograms, 8 July 1876/ 11 July’, 2013, toned photographs exposed with sunlight, framed with museum glass, 12.2 x 12.9 inches, 5 photographs, installation variable. Image courtesy Devi Art Foundation.

Diaspora: identity and influence

The press release mentions the diversity of representations of the black sun from various cultural perspectives, referring to the symbol’s nature as “diasporic, which lends weight to the idea that, like symbols, each of us, wherever we find ourselves, are similarly displaced and fluid.”

Zarina Hashmi’s work is symbolic, in one way or another, of her wayfaring life. In an article from ARTINFO, Hashmi says:

We are supposed to travel – that is how we work. This whole idea of being so attached to one place (…) I can talk about home and I can talk about my hometown, but would I want to go and live there? No, because I carry it with me.

Zarina Hashmi, ‘City I – IX’, 2003, print, 7.5 x 5.5 inches. Image courtesy Devi Art Foundation.

Zarina Hashmi, ‘City I – IX’, 2003, print, 7.5 x 5.5 inches. Image courtesy Devi Art Foundation.

The idea of diaspora is also evocative of rich cross-cultural influences and inspiration from myriad sources. Curator Shezad Dawood told the daily Indian Express that he wanted to expand the concept of the diaspora beyond its conventional definition of colonialism in this exhibition.

I wanted to show how artists are constantly inspired by ideas and influences when they live in different countries.

Matti Braun, ‘R.T./S.R./V.S.’, 2003-12, wood, foil, water, dimensions variable. Courtesy BQ, Berlin and Esther Schipper, Berlin. Image courtesy Devi Art Foundation.

Matti Braun, ‘R.T./S.R./V.S.’, 2003-12, wood, foil, water, dimensions variable. Courtesy BQ, Berlin and Esther Schipper, Berlin. Image courtesy Devi Art Foundation.

This idea finds expression in the installation by German artist Matti Braun titled R.T./S.R./V.S., which recreates the opening scene of The Alien, an unrealised film by Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray. The script of this film is said to have inspired Steven Spielberg’s 1982 film E.T.

The Otolith Group, ‘Otolith III’, 2009, film still. Image courtesy the artists.

The Otolith Group, ‘Otolith III’, 2009, film still. Image courtesy the artists.

London-based The Otolith Group’s 48-minute film Otolith III also takes the screenplay of The Alien as a point of departure. In their version, the characters try to take control of artistic production and the artistic process that determines their existence as images.

Heterotopia: multiple possibilities

The final word in the title of the exhibition, ‘heterotopia’, is a term used by the French philosopher Michel Foucault and refers to the co-existence of multiple possibilities, discourses and universes that are interlinked and presented together.

Alexandre Singh, ‘Assembly Instructions (IKEA)’, 2008, 37 framed inkjet ultrachrome archival prints and dotted pencil lines, dimensions variable. Image courtesy Devi Art Foundation.

Alexandre Singh, ‘Assembly Instructions (IKEA)’, 2008, 37 framed inkjet ultrachrome archival prints and dotted pencil lines, dimensions variable. Image courtesy Devi Art Foundation.

Alexandre Singh’s Assembly Instructions (IKEA) utilises a collection of photocopies from diverse sources linked together as visual diagrams to create an entirely new context. It was inspired by the artist’s many visits to Ikea stores, all uncannily similar yet always in flux. In an interview with Italy’s Mousse Magazine, Singh referred to these diagrams as “tangential logic”:

I meander through ideas and suppositions that digress quickly from their departure point; sometimes they meet back up with a previously discarded sequence of ideas and flow off in another direction. Sometimes they just run into dead ends. I guess I could also call them academic daydreams.

The idea of heterotopia gives an insight not only into the diversity of the exhibition, but also the curatorial framework behind it.

Kriti Bajaj

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Related Topics: events in Delhi, picture feast, artists as curators

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