Indian artist, environmental activist, writer and curator Ravi Agarwal explores the relationship between man and the sea.
Artist, photographer and environmentalist Ravi Agarwal’s current solo show at Gallery Espace is a contemplation on the interaction between humans and nature.
Ravi Agarwal’s body of work is a keen and sustained contemplation on questions of ecological sustainability, urban developmental practices, capital and the human conditions of those who share an intimate relationship with the nature around them. His latest solo exhibition “Else, all will be still”, running at Gallery Espace in Delhi from 8 April to 14 May 2016, is a further excavation of his preoccupation with these issues, particularly man’s relationship to nature.
Besides photography, Delhi-based Agarwal also works with video, performance, public art, in situ installations and found objects. He is a writer, curator and an environmental activist who has written extensively on ecological issues and is Founder-Director of the NGO Toxic Link.
Agarwal has been shown widely internationally, including at Documenta XI (2002, Kassel, Germany), “Horn Please” (Berne 2007), “Indian Highway” (2009-ongoing), the Sharjah Biennial (2013), among others. He co-curated “Yamuna-Elbe”, an Indo-German twin city public art and ecology twin city project in 2011.
“Else, all will be still” is a collection of photographs and videos about the sea and the people whose lives intimately revolve around the sea. On the subject, Agarwal says:
Two years ago, I had a close encounter with the sea, a first for me, an inland urban person, and the show is based on this experience in a fishing village near Pondicherry, where fishermen friends helped me navigate new waters. The ‘ground’ changing experiences led me to further my ongoing explorations about the man-nature relationship and the question— what is nature?
Agarwal draws from Sangam poetry to arrive at a vocabulary for the exposition of his encounters with the sea. Sangam Engines is a collection of five photographic prints inscribed with Sangam poetry, which equates five landscapes with the internal emotional landscape. He says:
I was led to ancient Tamil Sangam akam love poetry, where five landscapes— Kurinji or mountains, mullai or forests, marutam or agricultural lands, Neithal or the sea, palai or desert—became an internal terrain of feelings representing sexual union, yearning, sulking, pining, and separation (respectively). The outside became inside as object and subject co-formed each other. […] unlike later ideas of nature, which are binary, and think of human and nature as separate, these poems imagine nature as internal as well as external, and not binary but complex. The engine parts in the work show the language of capital and technology, which nature has now become.”
For those who live by the sea, whose lives are inextricably linked to the sea, it is the surging, gaping womb of the earth. It is life sustaining and life giving. Lunar Tide, a set of 29 photographs of the sea, shot under the light of a torch and taken at night, corresponds to the 29 days of the lunar calendar and the impact it has on the tides. Shot in black and white, shapeless white matter shifts from one photograph to another in the hollowness of the black; Lunar Tide becomes the unknowable mystery of creation. In much the same way, Fishing Nets, a photograph of fishing nets drying on the beach, becomes the sea and its title in one gaze.
Yet Agarwal nudges his viewers to look at nature closely and see if one can truly see nature at all. Rhizome uses words extracted from interviews with fishermen regarding what they think of the sea: nature does not make an appearance in their articulation of their relationship with the sea. Agarwal says:
On the other hand, I as an outsider think of the sea as ‘nature’ or as beautiful. This work comes from the new philosophical idea that ‘nature’ is a construct and it does not really exist in that form. When we create the category of ‘nature’ we actually do it to exploit it or to ‘act’ upon it. By not creating this false category we can have a more sustainable relationship with the planet.
Because nature is yet another product for the ever-desiring production of capital, the possibility of a symbiotic relationship between men and nature is increasingly being exhausted. Engines: 20 KM is a set of 20 photographs; it refers to the distance that a fishing boat with an engine can travel. Engine boats cost ten times more than those without one; fishermen who can afford motorised boats get bigger, better and more catches in comparison to poorer fishermen who cannot afford a motorised boat and must depend on traditional hand-paddled boats.
Shoreline, a set of videos, further explores the differences between those who exploit the sea and those who live from it, and what capital-technological interventions mean for that relationship. Selvan, a small-scale fisherman, is captured engaged, doing his daily chores out in the sea. His strong, silent face belies his desperate circumstances: the prospects of his children in the non-rewarding profession of fishing as a small fisherman.
“Else, all will be still” is an insightful ode of anguish to the sea, and an elegy for the depleting modes of human lives that coexist alongside it.
Nature has been reduced to an object which can only be ‘acted’ upon through tit being ‘extracted’, ‘admired’, ‘enjoyed’, etc, but not lived. This relationship is one of power. Capitalism, technology, mass production, resource exploitation, all has prospered through this positioning. Wilderness has been privatised, forests fenced, rivers tamed, and animals made extinct. Those who lived on the ‘land’ have become poor, while those who live ‘off’ it have become rich. There seems no going back from consumption, and progress.