Time is the great unifier of human experiences. The physical passing of time grinds us down with its relentlessness, and yet the psychological experience of time can be hugely liberating, allowing us to live in the present, even as we let memory take us into the past and let imagination help us speculate about the future. This is the conundrum at the heart of the group show “In and Out of Time”, put together by British art critic and curator Jane Neal and which is currently on at Galerie Isa in Mumbai. Featuring four of the leading contemporary artists of our times — Diana Al-Hadid, Adrian Ghenie, Idris Khan and Michael Kunze — the show examines the experience of time and the nature of memory, a question that has engaged each of the artists over the course of their careers.
“I wanted to explore the relationship between painting and drawing and the concept of time. Drawing and painting can bridge time, they can unite the real with the imagined, the past with the idea of the future. These mediums can even suspend time; it’s an incredibly inspiring subject,” explains Neal. The title of the show, she says, is open to interpretations and possibilities for the artists concerned. “It could suggest artists who address time in terms of a linear understanding, or time as in beating time, as in music, or history or even time travel. All of these areas are reflected by the artists in the show in their own distinct ways,” she says.
For the artists, this has often come by way of revisiting works that they have found inspiring. Al-Hadid, for instance, has regularly referenced art from the past, with the notable example being her interpretation of The Allegory of Chastity, an oil-on-wood work painted by Flemish master Hans Memling in the late 15th century. For Syrian-born Al-Hadid, these works are often a way of looking back at humankind’s history of follies. The current exhibition, for instance, has a wall sculpture called Omphaloskepsis, which is a comment on the ruined state of human legacy; beneath the deliberately mangled and mutilated surface, one can discern the lines of a Gothic cathedral.
Similarly engaged with the past is Romanian painter Ghenie who is, in fact, often described as the “The History Painter” for the wide range of influences that he draws on — from Francis Bacon to Edvard Munch and Vincent Van Gogh. In the lurid, grotesque facades of his portraits, such as the Self Portrait in Winter, one can see the artist striving — and succeeding — to form a vocabulary that draws from the fraught history of 20th century Europe.
Kunze, on the other hand, uses his work to explore a little-acknowledged strand of modern Western culture and thought. The German artist seeks to critique the development of the singular, “anglo-saxon” view of modernism; the “official modernism”, as he calls it, which traces its origins from Cezanne to Cubism and the avant garde movement of the early 20th century, right upto the minimal and conceptual art of the ’70s. Kunze’s interest lies in the path forged by those who fell outside the mainstream in modernist history — the Shadow-Line of Modernism — represented by Balthus, Bacon, Anselm Kiefer, as well as the euro-continental cinema of Luis Bunuel, Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, Andrei Tarkovsky and Werner Herzog. His work, as a result, is dense and labyrinthine and seems to belong to no particular time that we can easily label.
Time represented as memory and history finds expression in Khan’s works as well. The London-based artist has long been fascinated by the use of text and had in fact shot to attention in 2004, when he scanned every page in the Quran and then proceeded to condense and digitally layer the images — the repetitiveness of the act of scanning became a kind of ritual, a reflection of his connection to the rituals of Islam, into which he was inducted as a child by his Pakistani father. The act and unexpected melodic patterns of repetition finds expression in all his works, including his work titled Emotional Infectiousness — created by repeatedly stamping the paper with a portion of text written by Mark Rothko, who formed the triad of abstract expressionism along with Jackson Pollock and Willem de Koonig.
he result is a star-burst of text — a beautiful, abstract tribute to one of the great artists of the 20th century.