“ … cruel Works
Of many wheels I view,
Wheel without wheel,
with cogs tyrannic.
Moving by compulsion each other:
not as those in Eden:
which wheel within wheel in freedom
revolve in harmony and peace.”
These words by William Blake accompany Meera Devidayal’s installation The Silent Wheel in her solo exhibition A Terrible Beauty at Chemould Prescott Road. One reads them with the accompanying headphones on and a song plays, the kind sung by black Southern plantation workers, slaves in the cotton fields of a bygone era in the American South. It’s a strange juxtaposition at first, then the weavings begin as you watch videos embedded in a large photographic print on canvas; Cotton thread reels unspool, and cogs turn as energetically as the song they "sang" in times colonial. The large still (put together from images taken by historian/anthropologist Shekhar Krishnan from a time when machines lay idle on the premises) registers: at a cotton mill, all is at stand still—like the clock above the work—and in ruins. An erstwhile Mumbai cotton mill—once the city’s fortune makers, weavers of dreams and assured work—now stands in ruinous limbo as old-moneyed mill owners look to replenish depleted coffers via the promise of rapacious builder’s offerings. Mills, like Shakti mills here, are the rapid catalysts of Mumbai’s changing skyline, sometimes stuck in litigation as workers, or the city, demand a just recompense. They wait in elegant bare-to-bones beauty.
What’s left when steps, steeped memories, are all that remain of an abandoned mill—when floors disappear and stairways to new heavens are imagined? Devidayal asks all this and more in her video, Staircase to Nowhere, starting and finishing with a still image of stairs amputated in isolation. Despite the title, she takes you everywhere.
Meera Devidayal; Courtesy of the artist & Chemould Prescott Road
Devidayal inserts footage within the frames of the ruin, imagining probabilities—tigers stealthily roaming, posh boutiques flitting and fading, composed Japanese gardens, dancers striking "mudras," an amphitheatre’s operatic invocation. Nature reclaims, man re-reclaims, courts decide as an artist wonders what’s to be of man and machine: nature or mall? A man wipes the leaves of artificial plants in this mall/heaven reached by the stair-turned-escalators. Monsoon greens run wild in abandoned gateways. In stasis between histories, "a terrible beauty" is imagined, real and virtual. It traverses this city’s histories; time and space collapse into each other evoking the ambiguity of the now.
“See my still polished staircase rising,
to ends that never can be met.
Doorways that drew a blank.”
The video A Levelled Playing Field leaves these poetic imaginings within for a while and takes you out into the realized city, filled with tower blocks that rise like new ghettoes from what was once mill land. These aspirations of a city, to take its place in the world, are further captured tellingly by Devidayal's use of a series of frameless windows in the ruins as imaginary screens—like the multiple "screens" that scream alluring products at the big money cricket matches of the Indian Premier League. All things venal flash past, juxtaposed with young street kids playing out a simpler version of "maidan," or field cricket, in the impromptu playing field. Pooled reflections, birds, and abandoned machine parts are an atmospheric stadium.
It is in these doorways "that draw a blank" that we find what could be the leitmotif of the show. In the men that loiter, snooze under the arched ruins, time is paused yet again, seasons pass. Devidayal shot these scenes three years ago, and uses their images recurringly in all her videos. They are all the more chillingly relevant now: it was at these mills a year ago that a young photojournalist, perhaps trying to capture the same serenity as did Devidayal earlier, was gang-raped. In the poetic quiet captured here, is also a city—and space—forgotten; in the heart of bustle, urban crime jostles.
Using still and moving image, Devidayal departs from her signature collaged, multiple material, often busy works (though, as always, Mumbai still inspires). In Rose Garden, a digital print on archival canvas that the artist then painted on, she creates a seeming Mughal garden in colonial surroundings, an Alhambra-like walled refuge. Lurid colors heighten the surreal, and Devidayal returns to her earlier mix of popular culture, calendar art-like renditions. Still, as iridescent color surges into some of the stills in the videos, there’s a maturity in these new works, a restraint that serves well, the narrative allowed to be whispered rather than screamed. Natural light veers, leers into the neon new, then back again, the impermanence of life caught in light. It permeates an audience already in the know, retrieves and revives conversations: of public lands and private takeovers, of city benefits and citizens' greed. These issues are well threshed out now; most of the mills have succumbed to malls and gated communities for the rich and the ponderings may seem a bit too late for reality. In this artistic Utopia however, loss and acquisition meld into a suspended time.
Meera Devidayal, A levelled playing field, Sinlge channel video with sound, 2011; Courtesy of the artist & Chemould Prescott Road
One hoped sometimes for more abstraction; the narrative is a known one.
In imagining histories of man and nature that could have stood where she now stands, amid the ruins of a mill, Devidayal constructs the lived past—old lakes resurge in Where Is the Lake?—and possible futures (a concert hall overlooks the refilled lake). As in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, one is led to a "Zone" of desire: desires of a nostalgic heart, desires of an aspirational populace. Here, it’s not just a room, but the stilled air of a mill in the heart of a city. In that, it’s a chronicle of a city on the cusp. Make or break, the wheels are turning again.
(Image on top: Meera Devidayal, Rose Garden, 2011, Acrylic & Digital Print on Canvas , 45 x 42.5 inches; Courtesy of the artist & Chemould Prescott Road.)