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How the pandemic made an artist sensitive to emptiness

Shivani Aggarwal became more observant of emptiness and overlooked objects during the pandemic. She began to enlarge and alter forms that emerged from this observation

‘The creases I Iron'. Photo: courtesy Sandip Biswas/ Studio Art
‘The creases I Iron'. Photo: courtesy Sandip Biswas/ Studio Art

I vividly recall my days in secondary school. Almost all my essays would invariably begin with the phrase: ‘Man is a social animal’. It seemed to fit any topic at hand! Only now I realise how profound the thought of interdependence and societal living is. This gets accentuated with the isolated living each of us has had to undergo owing to the pandemic over the past two years. People have reacted differently with the life in ‘lockdown’. Visual artist Shivani Aggarwal used this undistracted time in quietude to become more sensitive and observant of her domestic space. 

“Being within the four-walls of my house, I became sensitive to the small spaces that otherwise went unnoticed…little corners, the forms they created, were all fascinating”, she says. Exploring the idea of emptiness became her engagement. She began to enlarge and alter, twist and bend forms and objects that emerged from this observation. And what began with a series of small paintings of dysfunctional objects, with Aggarwal sewing delicate thread boxes on them, finally culminated in a potent body of work. It is currently being exhibited in her solo exhibition, titled Within Confines

As one enters Studio Art Gallery, situated in an industrial area in Delhi, you are confronted with works that define, capture, and even measure emptiness. It has been Aggarwal’s attempt to engage with the abstract idea of nothingness. How does one measure something which does not have a physical presence, yet we engage it with our thoughts, feelings, emotions very easily and fill ourselves with it,” she asks. A large twisted measuring tape, installed on a wall, was marked to gauge emotions like intimacy and worth. The sculpture, titled How do I measure, is delicately carved in solid wood. 

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Aggarwal says that it is satirical and potentially ambitious because the tape measures nothing really. “It is a paradox, which only brings to light our futile engagement of measuring our own emptiness,” she adds. There are other works that provide an alternate point of view of how emptiness could lead to clear thinking and eventual growth. The creases I iron expresses the need to iron out the wrinkles or repair oneself to create this clear space for thought and action. Aggarwal says, “Emptiness can be a large expanse within which ideas and things can grow infinitely. Weaving traps is an attempt to create this huge net for protection and safety made of copper wire, which encases nothing. It does not even have a particular form or shape; it takes the space it is given. It holds nothing within it, enticing the viewer to engage with it.”

Artist Shivani Aggarwal at work
Artist Shivani Aggarwal at work

Materiality is a key to Aggarwal’s sculptural works. A surreal and magical rendition by making wood malleable and using wire to weave adds to the paradox and also a touch of humour. She attempts to deprive the objects of their function by changing the medium of creation. At the same time, she creates a sense of wonderment by pushing the limits in the execution. “It is extremely interesting how we look at everything with pre-conceived notions on how and what it should be doing,” she adds. A viewer’s perception is challenged while engaging with these works. 

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Aggarwal uses thread extensively on her paintings. For her, each individual is expected to fit a certain defined stereotype within a larger socio-political framework. We grow to understand and accept these structural confines so as to not be outcast. She says that these ‘rules’ are never expressed but are expected to be understood and complied with. The thread here becomes a metaphorical element that defines boundaries. “In my works, threads mark a territory defining emptiness, whether it is sewed on canvas as a box or a mesh crocheted into an enormous sculptural trap,” she explains.

The exhibition can be viewed till 15 January, 2022, at Studio Art Gallery, New Delhi.


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