In their first European museum show, Raqs Media Collective interrogate conventional notions of time.
Düsseldorf’s K21 Ständehaus hosts the Delhi-based collective in an immersive exploration of whirling temporal dimensions.
‘Raqs’, a word referring to the dervishes’ state of whirling, lends itself to a constant state of movement and contemplation. Whirling does not mean that the world is spinning around a fixed point, but rather that dynamic points on earth are relentlessly moving through and around it, exploring different stages and stations of thought. It is a dance. At the same time, ‘Raqs’ could be an acronym for ‘rarely asked questions’, giving name to the pockets of misunderstanding or leaves of research left unturned. Based in Delhi, India, the Raqs Media Collective (RMC) – comprised of Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula and Shuddhabrata Sengupta – seeks to formulate these questions. Are they ‘rarely asked’ out of shyness, ineptitude, apathy? Or are they ‘rarely asked’ because the answers could be as convoluted as the questions themselves? In a state of constant factual flux, dynamism and ever-changing opinion – as whirling as the dervishes – it becomes the task of artists, writers and thinkers to create snapshots of stillness.
Investigations into time, language, philosophy and history are central to the activities of the RMC. Founded in New Delhi in 1992, the collective brings together the most diverse media from contemporary art praxes through eager speculation, archival research and theory. Each member – who envelopes the role of curator, author and filmmaker alongside their principal activities as visual artist – is dedicated to an examination of social and political conditions in a global context.
With gallery exhibitions in the United States, Europe and Asia, Bagchi, Narula and Sengupta are active on the international stage whilst engaging with India’s culture and contemporary politics. Their hybrid praxis is simultaneously poetic and analytical, and occupies a field of tension that resides between tradition, theory and political enquiry. And this is the crux: by shifting through fields and spearheading a fervent search for those rarely asked questions, RMC aesthetically exhibits snapshots of stillness, but the artists rarely find it themselves, working together with experts from other disciplines, including architects, performers and computer programmers.
The point of departure for RMC’s ongoing exhibition – on view until 12 August 2018 at the Düsseldorf’s K21 Ständehaus, and the first museum presentation of the RMC on the European continent – is the collective’s continuing fascination with the phenomenon of time, a topic that has intensively preoccupied them since their inception. While this is undoubtedly a popular topic for artists, RMC have erected themselves at the crossroads of art, documentary filmmaking, new media and critical theory, operating on the cusp of theoretical explorations and metaphorical and aesthetic discourse. With their exhibition, RMC open up a new space of possibilities, one that invites visitors to heighten their awareness of the fundamental ambivalence of this world while critically reexamining established methods, narratives and patterns of thought.
Curated by Susanne Gaensheimer and Beatrice Hilke, the exhibition offers 25 featured works that reflect upon chronological ambiguities. They ask: What is time? What does it mean to measure it? And, at the core, what is the relationship between time and its histories/narratives? Viewers find themselves confronted with a range of temporal dimensions – from the brevity of a heartbeat or pause for breath to historical episodes, and all the way to the inconceivable quality of eternity. Viewers are encouraged to interrogate conventional notions of time, its disciplinary or authoritative function in everyday life, and its foundational role in the capitalist organisation of labour in the 21st century.
In RMC’s recent work, the hard reality of industrial forms, economic systems and regulated global time clash with more mysterious realms of psychology and consciousness. Their 2009 installation, Escapement, is built of 27 clocks in the likes of those found at train stations or airport terminals. While several refer to the time zones of real cities, others consider the “temporality of play and imagination” at three mythical locales. Clocks for Babel and Shangri-La are given equal consideration as New York or Hong Kong. Beyond this, in lieu of numbers on the clock faces, a series of words stand as the temporal markers of one’s day. Here RMC portrays the possibilities of combining emotional states – of what it means to find oneself between guild and indifference or nostalgia and ecstasy – which are independent of space and time.
The effect of this installation is twofold: on one strata, the piece reveals a disruptive humanness belied by the orderly timetables that trade and transport require, while, on another, it suggests that the standardising force of globalisation attempts to constrain or dictate human experience.
Their film Strikes at Time (2011) follows a similar current. As an anonymous voice reads from a journal, the entire piece feels like a slightly impersonal (but relatable) lucid dream. As the camera follows a dimly-lit path through a city at night, the spectators’ perception of location and time are skewed. The artists explain in their statement:
In that no man’s land annexed by the awakening mind from the fatigue of the labouring day, the work weaves together a disquisition on time in the form of a discreet annotation on the philosopher Jacques Rancière’s The Nights of Labour, together with renditions of the found text of a worker’s diary by the CyberMohalla Ensemble, a group of unorthodox proletarian urbanists that [we have] been in dialogue with over a decade. The shadowy presence of a Yaksha and Yakshi – guardians of wealth in Indic mythologies – stands watching over the work, marking time with questions.
On language and archival gesture
Serving RMC as an essential medium is language: this takes the form of the wordplays and neologisms that are integrated into their titles and texts. In illuminated installations such as Lost in Search of Time (2015) or Revoltage (2010), individual letters are brightly illuminated in regular rhythmic patterns. This linguistic play allows these artists to elicit the most various readings, to subvert the fixed authority of long-accredited terms and concepts, and to subvert linear narratives, further evident in the collective’s acronymic name.
The emphasis may not always be on the letters themselves, the artists explain in an interview at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. For them, the punctuation – the graphic signs – or the lack thereof signify or stand in for what cannot be said. In working with the more metaphysical limits of language and comprehension, the group is increasingly aware of the conceptual ideas that text cannot offer.
In another work, which has curiously become the headlining image of the K21 exhibition, depicts a digitised handprint. Enitled Untold Intimacy of Digits, the looped film is void of text, yet there is a similar imposition of state controlled lingual history, personal identity and archiving. As the fingers of the giant print slowly fist and unfurl, it is discovered that it belonged to Raj Konai, a Bengali peasant who, in 1858, was commanded by British colonial officials to identify himself on paper. The print found its way to Francis Dalton, a eugenicist and explorer, becoming a key part of his research into identification, foreshadowing fingerprinting, ID cards and facial recognition software.
Extending a wave from “global capitalism’s earlier days”, Konai’s hand is a ready animation of the state “literally impressing itself on its subject’s skin”. Yet in spite of this attempt to catalogue its owner, Konai’s palm multiplies in ghostly iterations, its gestures, sensations and creations all lost to time.
Several artists look at time: it is not an original topic, but, RMC argues it is a natural train of thought for humans. The group simply tries to configure their existence and interaction in this particular time and place, and how it may shift to other temporalities, other understandings – or, should we say, further ponderance. In doing so, their multitudinous practice creates a palette of emotions, a network of sentiments about what it is like to live in this world. They write:
What more can we say of contemporaneity? It appears at the proper moment, but has no fixed place in time. In that spirit, let us not arrogate solely to ourselves the pleasures and the perils of all that is to be gained and lost in living and working, as we do, in these interesting times.
In looking to these “interesting times”, dissemination is key. The mixing of registers, alongside the importation of strategies from one discipline to another, allows for their exhibition to become a semantic framework inside which new meaning is produced, connections are made and rarely-asked questions asked. Raqs Media Collective puts its work forward as a domain that operates ecosystemically, endlessly adapting itself to questions and conversations. And though their minds, projects, collaborations and investigations whirl at the speed of sound, there are pockets of stillness, moments of reflexive, internal contemplation, left, at least for now, suspended.
Raqs Media Collective’s exhibition is on view from 21 April to 12 August 2018 at K21 Ständehaus, Kunstsammlung Nordhein-Westfalen, Ständehausstraße 1, 40217 Düsseldorf, Germany.
- Contemporary Indian artists ponder over the politics of labour at Experimenter in Kolkata – in conversation – July 2018 – Art Radar spoke to the artists in a sort of panel discussion to shed more light on their group exhibition and their intentions
- 11 Indian artists explore personal and collective memory in “Lapses II” – interview – May 2018 – the second chapter of “Lapses” explores the impact of personal, political and cultural trauma on memory
- “I Wish to Let You Fall Out of My Hands (Chapter I)”: Bangladeshi filmmaker Naeem Mohaiemen and Pakistani artist Bani Abidi – in conversation – February 2018 – “I Wish To Let You Fall Out of My Hands (Chapter I)” by Naeem Mohaiemen and Bani Abidi at Experimenter in Kolkata examines longing, memory, identity, dislocation and loss through architecture
- Passwords for Time Travel: Raqs Media Collective’s online commission for Remai Modern – July 2017 – new web work by Raqs Media Collective is a futuristic glossary on Remai Modern’s website
- Recounting contemporaneity: India’s Raqs Media Collective – artist profile – January 2016 – Art Radar profiles internationally acknowledged New Delhi-based Raqs Media Collective by focusing on their latest transdisciplinary projects as curators and artists
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