New Delhi: Vadehra Art Gallery presents Atul Bhalla’s latest show, ‘…या की कुच्छ और!’(ya ki kuchh aur!), which opens to the public from November15, 2014, to January 2, 2015. Comprising photographs and videos, the exhibition presents the artist’s continuing dialogue with different environments while addressing issues surrounding water politics, wastage and consumption, and the human disengagement from nature. The show documents works that have been created 2012 onwards focusing specifically on three critical projects in three diverse locations, Inundation in Hamburg, Germany, Deliverance in New Delhi, India and Contestation in Johannesburg, South Africa.
The principal work in the series Deliverance depicts a boat suspended mid-way between the sky and water. Bhalla spent 2013 working with traditional boatsmen to craft a boat with twin rudders, which also led to an extensive documentation of the process and dying culture and craft of the Mallah community. In the image, Bhalla focuses on this frozen moment when the wooden structure is being lowered into the river and will assume its identity as a boat. One could read this image in many ways – that potent moment when an object realises its own identity or equally an immobilized being in a state of eternal suspension, echoing the physical stagnation of the river as it encounters the city. By using images of daily acts, the artist refers to the associated belief systems and processes images that could potentially generate discourse around ecological issues.
A similar referential model is visible in the series Contestation where the artist engages with the South African context. Bhalla spent three months in Johannesburg as part of a residency in 2012 and was struck by the large-scale privatisation of land and resources. He condenses his experiences in a photographic series that documents a white chair located at different points in the landscape. The chair, a metonym of white, male authority, brings into focus the harsh racial history that till date is the reality of this country. Contestation refers to the ongoing issues around land privatisation and ownership, and the violent political and social history of South Africa.
Finally, in the series entitled What will be my defeat? - II, an outcome of the Inundation series, the artist’s conscious placement of his body in relation to the river Elbe generates a visceral, physical experience. Central to Bhalla’s practice is the act of immersion. For Bhalla, immersion is not merely a physical performance but a constant exploration and re-exploration, of a place or an action that facilitates an organic development of the work. In the context of the print series What will be my defeat? – II, the act of immersion takes the shape of the artist becoming one with the city’s cultural fabric and it sites of memory and rituals. In a contrasting manner, the conspicuous absence of the body in the works Inundation I, II, III, leaves the viewer to his own devices when it comes to negotiating with the image and the endless expanse of the river merging into the sea.
Atul Bhalla comments: “My work is in the documentary mode but it is not a documentary itself. Research alone does not work, what is important for me to produce work is engagement. I need to engage with different environments, visit and revisit places and people that I find will lead me to the next step. This is what I mean by immersion again, this constant exploration. Be it the boat making or me carrying a chair around an African landscape, these are very corporeal experiences for me. I need to be there doing it, sometimes again and again.”Atul Bhalla (b. 1964) is a conceptual artist who has been working with environmental issues for more than two decades. Known for his sustained preoccupation with the eco-politics of water, Bhalla invites the audience to engage directly with urban and metropolitan spaces, particularly water resources in his home city, New Delhi and those that he visits during the course of international exhibitions and residencies. Questioning distribution, regulation, commoditization and pollution of water, Bhalla has over the years explored its physical, historical, spiritual and political significance in relation to the population of New Delhi. His personal negotiation of water provides a stage from which to address larger political issues concerning bodies of water and the urban environment.