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Into the rabbit hole of Sohrab Hura's art

In his latest show, Sohrab Hura reflects on his 15-year career, and the power of spillage

Detail from ‘The Lost Head And The Bird’. Courtesy Sohrab Hura/Experimenter
Detail from ‘The Lost Head And The Bird’. Courtesy Sohrab Hura/Experimenter

When I started making Spill, I realised I don’t have a unidimensional relationship with photography,” says Sohrab Hura, referring to his latest body of work, which is currently showing at Experimenter-Ballygunge Place, Kolkata, and on the online viewing room of the gallery. It’s a big statement coming from the 39-year-old associate member of Magnum Photos, the prestigious international cooperative of photographers. Yet anyone with a passing familiarity with Hura’s career would appreciate the sentiment.

Since his father gave him a camera in the early 2000s, Hura has held on to photography like a “drug”, as he told Mint in 2014; it has been his “safe space”. From 2005, for nearly a decade, he documented his mother’s struggle with schizophrenia—and eventual recovery—through two unforgettable series, Life Is Elsewhere and Look It’s Getting Sunny Outside!!! He also made several book- and video-based works, provoked as much by personal circumstances as by his restlessly inquiring sensibility. “I am really not interested in photography’s fiction, which I have always taken for granted,” he says. “I am, rather, interested in its systems, the way it can be manipulated to reveal or conceal information.”

In Spill, Hura delves into his archive of the last 15 years to explore these systems of meaning. It’s a surreal experience to observe, even remotely via the internet, the slow unfolding of this process. It’s like walking into the hinterland of the artist’s consciousness and seeing it branch out in a million directions. From Hura’s early work in 2005, where he chronicled the government’s rural employment scheme in Rajasthan, to The Coast, hypnotic video footage of people wading into the ocean in a frenzy, a thread runs through Spill, though it does not sew together a linear narrative. Instead, its zigzag trajectory creates new contexts and possibilities by entangling fragments that don’t necessarily belong to the same temporal or locational frame.

“My work is built on top of one another,” says Hura, explaining the organic progression of themes and affinities. It segues seamlessly from photography to book-making to videography to writing to installation. The concepts and formats are stitched together or folded into one another, like everyday domestic activities. The idea is vividly externalised by a pair of torn trousers lying on the floor of one of the rooms of the gallery, with a thread and needle stuck to them. It’s a nod to his mother, Hura says, and the notion of care through the mending of clothes. The installation might well be an existential metaphor, reminding us of the holes left in our lives by death, disappearance and desertion that we must all teach ourselves to darn.

Sohrab Hura.
Sohrab Hura.

To look at Hura’s work, therefore, is to be constantly assailed by such multiplicity of meanings generated by the visual cornucopia we are drowning in every day, in real life or on the internet. As the title of the exhibition indicates, along with the installation of a bucket with water flowing into and out of it, this spillage isn’t merely about waste. It is also about harnessing the excess, giving it coherence for a moment, even as it threatens to take another form in the next. Looking at the spillover from Hura’s archives is like seeing into the lens of a kaleidoscope moving slowly. With each movement, the broken bits of glass inside it cohere to form new patterns, leaving a frisson of unpredictability.

This sense of movement is germane to experiencing and understanding Hura’s work. Be it in A Proposition For Departure, where image, music and text create a multimedia symphony, or in the cluster of images that form Midnight Studies And A Self Portrait, movement is inscribed into Spill in more senses than one. Hura has left signs along the physical space of the gallery to choreograph the progression of the viewer through the show. But the arrangement of the images on the walls, or the objects on the floor, also has its own logic of directing our feet, urging us to move closer and peer at a work, or stand back and regard it from a distance.

The architecture of the show, as Hura puts it, is like a “rabbit hole”. You plunge into it, get lost in the depths of dreams, memories and nightmares, your own and the artist’s, and walk out of it, looking at it all over again, and into the world outside, with fresh eyes. Even those seeing the show on electronic screens can sense this magic.

Spill is on at Experimenter-Ballygunge Place, Kolkata, till 2 January.

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