“Silver Bird”: an exploration of ‘flying’ with Indian artist and cinematographer Shambhavi Kaul – in conversation

This compact exhibition approaches the site of ‘airplane space’ in a unique manner, with a series of plane narratives that attempt to cinematically define humankind’s relationship with flight.

Art Radar spoke to Kaul about the ideas behind both the exhibition on display at Jhaveri Contemporary, Mumbai until 25 November 2017 and the evolution of her experimental cinematography practice.

Shambhavi Kaul, Silver Bird (Nose), 2017, Dye sublimation print on aluminium. 35.5 x 53 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Jhaveri Contemporary, Mumbai

Shambhavi Kaul, ‘Silver Bird (Nose)’, 2017, dye sublimation print on aluminium, 35.5 x 53 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Jhaveri Contemporary, Mumbai.

Shambhavi Kaul was born in Jodhpur, India and lives in the United States where she teaches Practice of Filmmaking of Art, Art History and Visual Studies at Duke University. She has exhibited her work worldwide at international film festivals in New York, Ann Arbor, Toronto, London, Edinburgh, Berlin, Oberhausen and Rotterdam, as well as at major exhibitions such as the Shanghai Biennale and Experimenta India in Bengaluru. “Silver Bird” is Kaul’s second solo show at Jhaveri Contemporary and is made up of four parts – a single-channel film, a series of photographs, a 40-page booklet and a two-channel video installation.

The artist is an experimental cinematographer whose work – a unique interplay of opposites, reality and science-fiction, the familiar and the uncanny – engages the onlooker in a visual dialogue that transcends space and time.

Her films use analogue, digital, archival and print media within both documentary and fictional frameworks, usually with the marked absence of any human players. It is this atypical divergence from cinema’s traditional focus on personal narratives and the use of varied backdrops, nature, objects, birds and animals in her cinematic constructions that makes Kaul’s practice stand apart.

Shambhavi Kaul, Silver Bird (Outer Wall), 2017, Dye sublimation print on aluminium. 48 x 33 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Jhaveri Contemporary, Mumbai

Shambhavi Kaul, ‘Silver Bird (Outer Wall)’, 2017, dye sublimation print on aluminium, 48 x 33 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Jhaveri Contemporary, Mumbai.

While her early work was made for the movie theatre, she has evolved her oeuvre over the years to include moving-image installations such
 as Fallen Objects (2015) and Modes of Faltering (2016), in which she visually comments on cinema’s escapism in the former, and the confined spaces of a movie theatre as a site of terror in the latter.

In a step further from Modes of Faltering and on similar lines, in “Silver Bird” Kaul has thought about the ‘airplane space’, which has also been a scene of terror in recent decades. The four sections of this show – the film, photographs, booklet and video installation – all approach the interior and exterior of an airplane in a distinct manner providing the viewer with a montage of narratives that are familiar and comforting on the one hand and disconcerting and threatening, on the other. Jhaveri Contemporary writes:

In this cosmos, Kaul casts her subjects, human and otherwise, as meager pawns; ghostly material markers upon whom the abstract forces that govern this site are exerted.

Shambhavi Kaul, 'In-flight', 2017, 40-page booklet. Image courtesy the artist and Jhaveri Contemporary, Mumbai.

Shambhavi Kaul, ‘In-flight’, 2017, 40-page booklet. Image courtesy the artist and Jhaveri Contemporary, Mumbai.

At the beginning of the exhibition, visitors can rifle through In-flight (2017), a 40-page booklet designed by the artist that contains images and texts sourced from various in-flight magazines, offering the reader an escapism not unlike the promise made by film and cinema. The texts, all edited by the artist, are reflective of people’s strong urge to fly, to spread their wings, to discover the world even in the face of danger and hardships. These include statements like:

You are in a Silver Bird right now. You are rocketing into the future at 500 miles per hour.

You are exhausted. What you need is to explore.

Men and women labored alongside foreigners. They worked hard. And when they weren’t digging they gathered around for music or a touring circus. They swam and they laughed.

His adventures in flying were set in motion in a remote outpost. He regularly injured himself. He insisted on flying despite the lingering effects of his many injuries. The last time he flew, he took off and never returned.

Shambhavi Kaul, 'Hijacked', 2017, ingle channel film, 15 min, Super 16 mm, HD. Image courtesy the artist and Jhaveri Contemporary, Mumbai.

Shambhavi Kaul, ‘Hijacked’, 2017, ingle channel film, 15 min, Super 16 mm, HD. Image courtesy the artist and Jhaveri Contemporary, Mumbai.

The dual-channel video installation Safe Travels that greets visitors at the entrance is a hyperrealistic, quirky montage of views familiar to flyers – both from inside the airplane and of the outside as can be seen from the windows. Kaul seems to be questioning humankind’s illusive dream of airplanes being symbolic of travels to exotic lands – one that continues to propel us to travel, despite the dark shadow of terror that looms over this aerial world. The irony in the title Safe Travels is not lost on the onlooker and one is drawn to the seamless loop of ‘airplane imagery’ that includes hypnotically waving cabin curtains and a slow panning over of a tropical island destination as the plane touches down.

Shambhavi Kaul, Silver Bird (Outer Wall), 2017, Dye sublimation print on aluminium. 48 x 33 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Jhaveri Contemporary, Mumbai

Shambhavi Kaul, ‘Silver Bird (Outer Wall)’, 2017, dye sublimation print on aluminium, 48 x 33 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Jhaveri Contemporary, Mumbai.

Moving towards the heart of the exhibition, there is a series of photographs called Silver Bird, which are exterior views of a decommissioned aircraft. Kaul has closely cropped images of the aircraft’s nose, wing, tail, door, windows and underbelly and positioned these against a pitch-black background – presenting them as a visual obituary of a carrier that has served its purpose. In death, the Silver Bird is almost brought to life in these photographs, as the onlooker is forced to think of the aircraft’s mortality while perhaps sparing a thought for our own. In this narrative, the aircraft is projected as “part detritus and part futuristic space shuttle”, as stated by Jhaveri Contemporary.

Shambhavi Kaul, Hijacked, 2017, Single channel film. 15 mins. Super 16 mm. HD. Image courtesy the artist and Jhaveri Contemporary, Mumbai

Shambhavi Kaul, ‘Hijacked’, 2017, single channel film, 15 min, uper 16 mm. HD. Image courtesy the artist and Jhaveri Contemporary, Mumbai.

In the final room is a 15-minute, single channel film called Hijacked (2017), the first project by Kaul to employ human actors. It combines a documentary view of the same decommissioned plane in the “Silver Bird” photographs, juxtaposed with a staged version of passengers mechanically enacting typical activities that we associate with flying, such as sleeping and eating peanuts. Using subtle editing techniques, Kaul makes the viewer believe that the defunct carrier is in the air once again, carrying passengers, even though the actors play out their parts with a minimum of props against a dark nondescript background.    

Art Radar spoke to the artist about her practice and the ideation behind the conceptualisation of her solo show “Silver Bird”.

Shambhavi Kaul, 'Hijacked', 2017, ingle channel film, 15 min, Super 16 mm, HD. Image courtesy the artist and Jhaveri Contemporary, Mumbai.

Shambhavi Kaul, ‘Hijacked’, 2017, ingle channel film, 15 min, Super 16 mm, HD. Image courtesy the artist and Jhaveri Contemporary, Mumbai.

The sequencing of the elements (brochure, video, stills, film) in the exhibition, seems to tell a story. What was your intention behind this display choice?

Perhaps the most consistent engagement in my work has been with regards to the topic of sites or “place” and the way cinematic narratives work to order our experience of these sites. For years, I approached this exclusively through a film practice. Over the last few years, I expanded my work to include moving image installations and through this experience I discovered the unique potential of working in flexible spaces. Because, of course, film theatres are also particular installations but they are not as flexible to design as say a gallery space is.

“Silver Bird” takes this a step further because, as you point out, my approach now includes multimedia. While the four elements in the show are all complete in their own right, they also work together, through juxtaposition, to tell a story. For me, the exciting aspect of working in diverse media is that each offers very different narrative potential. In this environment, my engagement with filmic storytelling is somewhat exploded and not at all self-enclosed. Here each element either tries to address my question or confronts the other.

Shambhavi Kaul, 'In-flight', 2017, 40-page booklet. Image courtesy the artist and Jhaveri Contemporary, Mumbai.

Shambhavi Kaul, ‘In-flight’, 2017, 40-page booklet. Image courtesy the artist and Jhaveri Contemporary, Mumbai.

The idea of the aircraft as “part detritus and part futuristic space shuttle” is portrayed in the stills. Can you explain to us why you wanted to show this dichotomy?

A junked airplane can seem very mundane, literally a mass of decaying material. But if one thinks about them in terms of human desire, they are not mundane at all. The photographs speak to this tension between the desire to fly, and maybe even leave the planet for some other (outer) space, in relation to the object we have created to meet these desires. 

Shambhavi Kaul, 'Silver Bird (Tail)', 2017, dye sublimation print on aluminium, 81 x 122 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Jhaveri Contemporary, Mumbai.

Shambhavi Kaul, ‘Silver Bird (Tail)’, 2017, dye sublimation print on aluminium, 81 x 122 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Jhaveri Contemporary, Mumbai.

You have said in the past that you like to project what is both familiar and unfamiliar to the viewer, in your work. How would you say that this intent reflects in “Silver Bird”?

“Silver Bird” is about airplanes and airplane space, and I am drawn to this topic precisely because it already expresses this tension between the familiar and the unfamiliar that is indeed a recurring theme in my work. On the one hand, airplanes are ubiquitous to our globalised world, on the other, it is only a small cross-section of the world’s population that can actually afford to fly on them.

To those who do fly on them, on the one hand, it has become such a common form of transportation, there is hardly anything novel about it. On the other hand, the idea that this huge metal object can take off… it is strange, and strangely unbelievable each time. There is also the unfamiliarity one feels when one realises that while flying, one has literally taken off and left the planet.

Amita Kini-Singh

1933

Related topics: Indian artists, video, film, gallery shows, events in Mumbai

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