In 2016, more than 5,000 displaced people perished while journeying across the Mediterranean Sea; 500 died in one shipwreck alone. Those who managed to reach land were often huddled instantly into space blankets as first aid to reduce hypothermia from the frigid waters. These emergency thermal blankets, originally developed by NASA for its space station Skylab, became synonymous with the refugee crisis.
Besides their practical use, they also look stunning, like gold and silver metallic foil. So stunning that they have been successfully turned into art material. Artist James Bridle made A Flag for No Nations (2016), in which an emergency blanket doubled up as a flag on the shore of Athens. The same year, Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei invited controversy by getting celebrities, including actor Charlize Theron, to don these blankets and take selfies at the posh Cinema for Peace gala. In a more poignant project from 2019, artist Giovanni De Gara covered the doors of seven churches in Naples with emergency blankets, indicating a golden land that has been denied to refugees. This year, artist Pallavi Paul uses the blanket, already invested with symbolic weight, in her new installation, Far Too Close.
Paul, 32, is a contemporary video artist based out of Delhi. She has extensively addressed socio-political themes using the moving image, text and installations and has been particularly preoccupied with the production of truth. Far Too Close is her most recent attempt at using history to comment on the contemporary. Her multimedia installation is part of a group show, called Games of Chance, which opened on January 17 at Sunaparanta- Goa Centre for Arts in Panjim. The show intends to “rip out those giant cushions resting safely beneath us and plunge us into the storms of unexpectedness”, states curator Leandre D’Souza in her curatorial note.
In Far Too Close, Paul creates a dream-like scenario, with two videos that take visitors into the depths of the sea. In one video, a huge fish swims across. Despite the documentary feeling of the videos, these are not actual footage. “It is a mythical but familiar lone creature,” she says.
For Paul, this simulacrum is as real as the question of “authenticity” in citizenship. “Looking at what’s happening around citizenship, there is an imagination of identifying the ‘authentic’ citizen. And documents have come to be at the centre of this. Thinking of how to render it visually, I decided that the image of the sea would be the ground for this (idea) to unfold,” she says.
A sea passage has been associated with discovery and new beginnings. It is equally associated with exile, slavery and death. Such hope and despair co-exist during a refugee crisis. Paul points out more paradoxes. She says, “Geologically and historically, the first claim on life is the sea. Yet, the deep sea is one of the most under-documented parts of the planet. The moment of origin is so completely opaque.” Paul has used the words “sea is the first citizen” in one part of the installation, which she believes could be read as a poetic phrase, a claim or even a provocation.
In this water world, Paul has constructed three “safe spaces” out of emergency blankets. In each of these tents, a voice is heard. There is the voice of Urdu writer Ismat Chugtai narrating the traumas of the Partition. She also speaks of her peers Saadat Hasan Manto and Kaifi Azmi, and is a personal account of friendship. The recording was made in 1982 and Paul sourced it from the Prasar Bharati archives.
In another tent, a recording from 1968 of philosopher Hannah Arendt plays. She speaks of the Holocaust and the difference between power and violence. “It is interesting because the protest against the Indian government is painted as violence. Arendt really helps us think about it.” The third voice, personally recorded by Paul in the 2000s, is of Vidrohi, as poet and social activist Ramashankar Yadav, who lived on the campus of Delhi’s JNU, was known. Vidrohi evokes the mountains of Caucasus, the plateau of Pamir and Mohenjodaro in the recording.
Paul calls them “the three appointees”. “Spanning across the ’60s, ’80s and the 2000s, this is a trans-temporal, transnational consortium. Just like people finding connections and solidarity all across the world,” says Paul.
The blankets keep you warm, the voices hold vigil. Paul’s safe spaces can be read as the institutions in contemporary India that are protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). These institutions are also like the emergency blankets that a democracy needs. Paul is a PhD scholar at JNU and previously studied at Jamia Millia Islamia. She finds the recent violent acts against JNU and Jamia deeply disturbing. “It is not just about institutional affinity but more about what these places mean,” she says.