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Sound a Metaphor

Navin Thomas presents engaging mechanics of aural forms in his first solo in the Capital.

Written by Damini Ralleigh |
Updated: November 26, 2018 3:24:24 pm
The instruments that make the installation were discarded by a local military brass band called Madras Sappers, whose image adorns a wall of the gallery.

A sound installation of a six-piece ensemble of wind instruments — sousaphone, tuba, euphonium and the French horn — that declares the “weather” report, forms the cynosure of Bengaluru-based multimedia and aural artist, Navin Thomas’ first solo in Delhi, “Out Here in the Exosphere”, at Galleryske. Titled The Weather Report in 3 Parts by the Phantom Orchestra, the artwork, true to Thomas’ predilection, utilises salvaged material from scrapyards.

The instruments that make the installation were discarded by a local military brass band called Madras Sappers, whose image adorns a wall of the gallery. The roughly eight-minute rendition of the “weather” report works as a stark comment on climate change. “When I first started thinking of the weather report, they were mostly sounds of catastrophe, like burning oil fields and melting icebergs. I realised it was too literal. So, I rewrote it in abstraction, as a game of table tennis,” he says.

The analogy with the game, the initial part of the sound piece that is an orchestration of ‘tuning’ instruments and the poetics that emerge, allude to the artist’s musings. That which cannot be ‘tuned’ forms its basis, while the rhythm of the ball during a ping-pong game is interpreted by Thomas as something that “can be much like the weather, bruised and battered and yet light and playful, at the same time and most of all, uncertain”.

Navin thomas, Phatom Opera, Thomas predilection, Madras Sappers, latest news, Indian Express Navin Thomas’ Sheet Music For Table Tennis (NavinThomas/Galleryske)

While the praxis of this recipient of the 2011 Skoda Prize for Contemporary Art has been informed by enquiries into the afterlife of retrieved material as well as sound-based sculptural work — “field recordings of the old purist idea of acoustic ecology that I would rearrange into pieces with long timelines of aural patterns of built architecture such as an electrical transformer hum and interference alongside the chorus of wild mynas fighting over scraps of food” — the current exposition marks a shift from this to aural forms, speciality, architecture and the mechanics of sound. “This shift in my practice, I think, is influenced from observing local religious groups practice vocal harmonies in large halls that were specifically built for chamber acoustics. A few years ago, I accidentally ended up salvaging the architectural remains of a landmark theatre along with the entire set of sound horns that are placed behind the theatre screen. These horns were used in old-school theatres to project sound. In order to restore some of these systems and get them back to a working state, I had to break them apart and recreate the mechanics to understand how sound can be projected and contained,” he says.

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Clues to Thomas’ interest in music, and by extension sound, are peppered across the gallery, found most unusually in some pieces. In Sheet Music For Table Tennis, for instance, wooden knobs on reclaimed panels of wood transliterate notations of music into the language of sculpture. This, he refers to as a condition similar to synesthesia. “You could break up visual patterns and random objects and then re-arrange them to represent notation, and then if you are able to experience movement, timing and variation from these patterns, you actually might be on to something much larger than cultural conditioning,” he adds.

As metaphors pour out of the work on display, Thomas is “in talks for the Phantom of the Orchestra to become a media art collective and take part in well-curated shows about the weather”. The exhibition is on till November 24

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