A thick sheaf of paper is balanced precariously on two wooden wedges, open like a book. Gravity pulls at the centre of the stack, drawing it deeper and deeper into the gap that separates the two wedges and making one wonder if it is the sheaf’s fate to disappear into this crack. Then there’s the brass sculpture, showing two sets of staircase, separated by a gap. Could they have been a single staircase at some point? What caused them to separate? How has the gap transformed them? Other such questions — on the nature of separation and the resulting trauma, and how they affect and transform everything they touche — come up as one walks through the exhibition “The Weight of Separation”, artist Andrew Ananda Voogel’s second solo show at Mumbai’s Project 88.
“I wanted to explore how we could look at something intangible like separation,” says the artist, as he leads us through the exhibition. Voogel’s preoccupation with separation and trauma, in all its myriad forms, is driven partly by his family history. His great-grandmother, Sita, was one of the many Indians who, during the colonial occupation of the country, were forced into indentured labour, torn away from their families and communities and taken to the Caribbean to work on sugar plantations. The artist, who was raised in California and who is now based in Taipei, had dealt with this painful story in an exhibition called “The Middle Passage”, which was shown at Project 88 two years ago. In the current show, this story is not delved into again, but it serves as the occasional important touchpoint, from which the artist takes off to tackle other issues. The diptych Diagram and Relic, for instance, has the small, engraved figure of a little-known Central American god called Naylamp, who is said to have come from across the seas with his people. The legend carries the faint echo of Sita’s story, but Voogel is actually asking a larger question here about the gap in the value of the original engraved icon made in gold and its print.
A particularly haunting work from the exhibition is the installation Handloom I and II, which features frames made from reclaimed timber and cotton thread that Voogel bought in Varanasi last year. On that trip, he recalls being saddened by his encounters with the weavers who make the famous Banarasi saris. While the product of their looms is renowned the world over for its luxuriousness, the weavers themselves struggle to make a living off their ancestral occupation. Voogel recalls, “Their bodies are broken by time but they continue to work because they have no choice.” He pays homage to these “broken bodies” with the use of two wooden frames which, Voogel says, had originally been intended for holding a canvas. “But the wood was old and I knew the frames wouldn’t be able to do what I had originally wanted. But I wanted to give them a place in the world, and so I sanded and painted them, and used them here,” he says.
Voogel’s interest in the subject of separation extends to geographical points of separation and conflict as well, and in April this year he will be at the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), that divides the peninsula into South and North Korea. This is, right now, one of the most politically tense patches of land in the world, but Voogel has made it the site for an installation — a massive, 300 kg steel prayer bowl — that, he says, is his gift to the Korean people, regardless of which side of the DMZ they are on. The installation will be unveiled along with a performance led by the Austrian composer Renald Deppe, who has written music specifically to be played on the prayer bowl. “It’s a beautiful place, but surreal too because you frequently hear blasts from the military exercises performed by both countries. The music from the prayer bowl will hopefully reach across the divide,” he says.
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