Indian artists reach for the stars
With telescopes, domestic objects and lost constellations, Indian contemporary art takes a shot at cosmic phenomena and astronomy
After chasing eclipses across the country, artist Rohini Devasher travelled to some of the most hallowed sites of Indian astronomy in 2010. Her first stop was the Indian Astronomical Observatory, the second highest optical telescope in the world at 14,500ft above sea level in Hanle, Ladakh. Her field investigations resulted in Parts Unknown: Making The Familiar Strange, a suite of seven videos plotted against a drawing of the quadrant of space that is home to the Pleiades open star cluster. The videos were windows to a hybridized terrain—they seemed to be of Hanle, but had an extraterrestrial appeal to them, merging the familiar with the strange.
First shown in 2012 at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, Devasher revisited Parts Unknown in 2016 at the Spencer Museum of Art, Kansas, US. The Delhi-based artist is known for the extensive use of astronomy in her practice, having visited the Giant Metrewav e Radio Telescope near Pune, Maharashtra, and the Scottish Dark Sky Observatory in Ayrshire, Scotland. “All these trips were extraordinary. These sites, hidden away from civilization, are almost symbolic of the individuals that populate them. Astronomers escape the city as often as possible to find the stars, unspoiled and untouched. Astronomy offers that form of escape, far from people and places," says Devasher.
If astronomers have looked for answers by scanning the outer reaches of the known universe, so have artists. In many ways, the cross-pollination between astronomy and art is successful not because of the scope of vibrant metaphors or poetic titles but because the astronomer and the artist consider the fundamental questions of the human condition: Where are we from? What are we doing here?
A place for space
In the ancient world, the connection between the human and the divine was wrought in the stars, as illustrated by the origin stories of mythmakers and the divinations of astrologers. Advancements in astronomy ran parallel to these, drawing in artists who were both enchanted by the mysteries of the universe and the scientific discoveries of their time.
Space art, as we know it today, with its influences of astronomy and astrophysics, can trace its evolution by centuries, with a prominent example in The Adoration Of The Magi, a fresco painted by Florentine artist Giotto di Bondone around 1305. Giotto replaced the legendary Star of Bethlehem with a comet. It was only in the 20th century that scholars concluded that Giotto’s fresco was the first “scientific" recording of Halley’s Comet in Western art. Halley’s Comet, visible from earth once in 77 years, had appeared in 1301 and served as a model for Giotto.
Delhi-based Raqs Media Collective, founded in 1992 by three independent media practitioners Monica Narula, Jeebesh Bagchi and Shuddhabrata Sengupta, maintains that the later impact that Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei had is undeniable. “When he dared to postulate a heliocentric understanding of space, he didn’t just make a contribution to astronomy. He transformed the way people understood hierarchy, stability and change. This was a revolutionary transformation of the world," writes Raqs in an email.
Raqs has curated an exhibition that opened on 31 October at the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (Macba), called In The Open Or In Stealth. Among the artists invited to participate are Devasher and Pakistani artist Mehreen Murtaza whose work refers to the late Pakistani astrophysicist Abdus Salam. Raqs says Devasher’s and Murtaza’s practices are expanding the borders of contemporary art in our milieu. “A curiosity about space, or about the deep oceans, expands our ways of thinking, wrests free from narrow, sectarian and nationalist boxes, and provides a more capacious frame within which to think questions that have political and ethical implications. Some of the most intensely political and philosophical literature being produced today is in the science fiction genre, which allows us to take nothing that we see around us for granted…. We have to become comrades of cosmonauts and deep-sea divers," Raqs adds.
Mumbai-based contemporary artist Jitish Kallat would agree. Many of Kallat’s works have been highlighted by a cosmological narrative, such as Sightings, Forensic Trail Of The Grand Banquet (2011) and Preamble. In Sightings (2015-18), each photograph carries a detail of the surface of a fruit as well as its visual negative image. Seen up-close, the fruit’s surface and its inverse appear like telescopic snapshots of supernova explosions, contemplating the macro as manifesting within the micro.
If this reminds us of William Blake’s Auguries Of Innocence (To see a world in a grain of sand, as the verse goes), then that’s the meeting place for art and astronomy. “It’s not so much an interest in astronomy as much as a desire to shift focal lengths to gain a different understanding of our world. One element that has continued throughout from my earliest of works is this engagement with the skies; a place where it all begins, with light and energy and photosynthesis that becomes food, and the food that becomes our bodies," says Kallat. Kallat had previously examined the connection between the self and the cosmos in Epilogue (2011), a large photo-piece in which waxing and waning rotis symbolized moons. Kallat memorialized the satellite as seen by his father during his lifetime—22,889 moons to be precise.
Through the course of modern art, right from American sculptor Alexander Calder to Indian sculptor Adi Davierwalla, astronomy and Einsteinian physics have inspired artists. There are also those in the contemporary scene who have turned to the metaphysical considerations of the universe alongside mysticism, such as Subodh Gupta in his last solo in India, Anahad/Unstruck. In this, Gupta referred to anahad, the cosmic sound that pervades the universe, through an eponymous installation of six stainless steel sheets. In a series of paintings, In This Vessel Lay The Seven Seas, In It, Too, the Nine Hundred Thousand Stars, Gupta was able to create the illusion of the cosmos but as spotted in domestic items, such as the bottoms of used pans. These miniature universes bear resonances of the lines in our palms, hinting at a cosmic destiny.
Going the extra mile
Looking outward, therefore, means looking inward, a marriage of astrophysics and metaphysics. “Astronomy is as much about an encounter with the self as it is an experience of space and horizon. It gives me a sense of perspective; it is both hugely humbling while being simultaneously empowering," says Devasher.
Raqs has created two significant pieces—an installation called The Museum Of Lost Constellations and another called The Blood Of Stars. The former was exhibited at the Observatory Museum, Stockholm, in 2018. It was based on the diverse constellations that had been named over the centuries before the International Astronomical Union designated 88 “official" ones in 1922. The Blood Of Stars was an immersive site-specific installation in ex-military cave-tunnels in northern Sweden. “As you know, the iron in our blood comes from celestial bodies—we share our basic building blocks with stars," says Raqs.
Raqs says their interest in astronomy is part of their commitment to having their “consciousness altered and expanded". “...We observe clouds, the intensity of sunlight, the smog in the air, tidal patterns. We read everything from star tables to atlases of distant planets. We talk to others—like, for instance, to a retired astronaut who told us that the most challenging thing she felt about being on the International Space Station was getting used to 16 sunrises in 24 hours," Raqs says.
Devasher allowed her twin passions to take wing early on, having joined the Amateur Astronomers Association Delhi (AAAD) the same year she started her bachelor of fine arts in painting at the College of Art. At AAAD, Devasher discovered a diverse group of astrophysicists, photographers, entrepreneurs and academics united by a common love for stellar phenomena. “In 1997, it was the closest thing to a science fiction convention in the city," she says. “Astronomy shares a lot with science fiction and speculative fiction, where the underlying question is “what if?". The answers to that question are always more interesting," she says.