What do two 18th century German alchemists have to do with an exhibition at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), based in the National Capital Region? A lot apparently. When Johann Jacob Diesbach tried to create a batch of cochineal red around 1706 in Johann Konrad Dippel’s laboratory in Berlin, an accident led to the concoction turning a deep blue instead. This synthetic pigment was termed Berlin blue and then Prussian blue because the Prussian army used it to dye soldiers’ jackets.
The colour now lends its name to a show at KNMA’s Noida, Uttar Pradesh, space. Titled Prussian Blue: A Serendipitous Colour That Altered the Trajectory Of Art, it is curated by Arshiya Lokhandwala. When the colour was first invented, artists in particular were excited, viewing it as a replacement for the expensive ultramarine, produced by grinding lapis lazuli. Lokhandwala called upon 19 contemporary artists to use Prussian blue as their muse and interpret it in the context of their own work. The result is a novel and varied exploration across media.
In Sumakshi Singh’s ethereal installations, Light Song I, II, III, light is both subject matter and ingredient. In one work, strands of blue and white thread filter through the space to form patterns on the floor, mimicking rays of sunlight. Using the cyanotype process, the threads were coated with chemicals which, when exposed to sunlight, generated Prussian blue. The areas meant to evoke shafts of light were blocked, paradoxically, from receiving sunlight. As Singh explained in her wall text, “Light Song plays with the poetic paradox where images of light emerge by denying light to the very areas which articulate it.” Parul Gupta’s experimentation with cyanotype has imparted a sense of movement to overlapping gradations of the colour in her archival paper works, Interplay #139 - #146.
When Prussian blue was invented, Hokusai, the famous Edo-era Japanese ukiyo-e artist, used it to create his iconic The Great Wave Off Kanagawa. Anju Dodiya, an admirer of ukiyo-e artists, references the wave as a metaphor for the onslaught of time in Sea-wind Of The Night I & II, fashioned out of charcoal and watercolour on fabric.
In a series of paper and cloth works, Desmond Lazaro marries his love for pigment colours with his research into the relationship between traditional and contemporary cosmology. The suit of N.S. Harsha’s striking astronaut in Andhar Bahar is composed of a constellation of stars and celestial bodies, while Alke Reeh’s arresting Prussian blue textile work is reminiscent of the domes of religious spaces, and, by extension, the heavens. Shambhavi’s installation Bhurukuwaa invokes the deep blue sky just before the break of dawn.
Several works make political statements. In Sheba Chhachhi’s fragile installation, Ajab Karkhana (Strange Manufactory), 600 pieces of laboratory glassware are marshalled to create a gigantic orb coupled with sound. Chhachhi uses them to highlight how scientific inquiry can be manipulated for purposes of profit, as in the production of synthetic chemicals by the pharma industry. In Anita Dube’s text-based Perturbation: Seven B words (Movement 1), seven steel words are lit up by lamps against a blue background. The words “Blues”, “Babasahib”, “Beauty” are on top while those at the bottom read “Bribe”, “Blasphemy”, “Balatkar”, “Bulldozer”. Shilpa Gupta’s posters, which visitors are encouraged to take away, depict four images of holy water, from Mecca,the rivers Jordan and Ganga, and the Golden Temple, reminding us of the similarities that bind us. On the other hand, Ranbir Kaleka’s blue-tinged single channel video, How Far…?, speaks of ecological degradation and displacement.
Some artists chose to subvert the notion of blue, with Mithu Sen displaying pin-prick drawings on white paper. Her cheeky “affidavit” states, “I, Mithu Sen, also known as Prussian Blue, solemnly affirm that I am relinquishing the ‘colour’ identity as a symbolic act of rejecting the prevailing societal illusions and safeguarding myself from engaging in any contentious chromatic representation.” Elsewhere, artist duo Thukral &Tagra’s yellow-drenched space highlights the precarious condition of farmers.
A poignant note is the inclusion of a 1976 painting by the late Vivan Sundaram. In the wall text accompanying his work, his wife, art critic Geeta Kapur, mentions that “Prussian blue was Vivan’s favoured colour and he used it in this painting with the grace and pathos of memory”.
(The show is on till 10 December, 10.30am-6.30pm, Tuesday-Sunday, closed on public holidays.)
Meera Menezes is a Delhi-based art writer.