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The poetics of space

Sonia Khurana's solo is part feminist polemic, part aesthetic exploration of public space, body and consciousness

One of the images featured in ‘Insomnia Monologues’. Courtesy The Artist/Chemould Prescott Road
One of the images featured in ‘Insomnia Monologues’. Courtesy The Artist/Chemould Prescott Road

Walking into Sonia Khurana’s solo exhibition Fold/Unfold, which ends this weekend, is a bit like entering a well-designed maze. The carefully mounted exhibition at Mumbai’s Gallery Chemould has multiple sections that house different bodies of work. The landing area, as it were, comprises sets like the eight-channel video installation House Anatomy-Vertical Spin (2014), which bring up themes that recur through the show, such as the concurrence of exterior and interior realities, who occupies public space and how, the feminist politics of restructuring the horizontal into the vertical—when a subject we are used to seeing on a horizontal plane, such as women in Renaissance paintings, comes to occupy a vertical plane, the gaze of the viewer no longer looks down upon them, thus empowering the subject; Khurana actively employs this in her works.

Khurana grew up in Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh in the 1970s, and later studied fine art in Delhi—after completing her master’s from the Delhi College of Art, she held a few painting exhibitions, sold some works, achieved a degree of fame, and then quit painting. She spent a few years of “doing all kinds of odd jobs" before she left the country to do another master’s in fine art through a scholarship, this time from London’s Royal College of Art. Here, a definitive rejection of painting led her to explore the medium of video, which she found “more democratic". After a long residency at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam, she was part of the Global Feminisms exhibition in Brooklyn in 2007 and the elles@centrepompidou in 2009-10, in which the Parisian institution only showcased the work of women artists. She has participated in the Busan and Gwangju biennales, among others.

Fold/Unfold, Khurana’s first solo in Mumbai, spans several years of work with lens-based media (photo, video, moving image), drawing upon divergent practices like performance, text, sound and installation. The works range from her 1999 video works, Lone Women Don’t Lie and Bird, to the more recent iteration of Logic Of Birds—Reconstruction III of 2014, a set of digitally manipulated photo images, and Sleep Interludes, a video with text and voice-over, made between 2008 and 2013.

The exhibition reveals the artist’s articulation of concerns that strike at the very heart of what we understand of beauty, harmony, performance, reality and activism. Her works are political—she routinely challenges dominant norms through her representations of the female body, often making use of her own—but they are also poetic explorations of an artist struck by the inexorable passing of time, marvelling at states of somnolence and wakefulness, and driven to write poetry to frame her performances.

Her more overtly feminist works, for instance, raise the issue of how women occupy public spaces. In them, she explains how urban middle-class privilege increasingly determines the way public spaces are defined and used, keeping out all kinds of “others", from the working class to non-male bodies, with varying degrees of exclusion. In a single-channel video titled Lying-Down-On-The-Ground: Additional Notes (Proposal In Poem), a voice (Khurana’s) reads out text (also, Khurana’s) projected on the wall. “I strive to assume the ultimate gesture: of abandonment, dereliction, dissidence. Thus, (self-consciously) I confirm ‘lying down’ as my device for entering the spaces I encounter. Thus I try to assimilate these spaces and cities that I have never really belonged to."

We see her do this in the Logic Of Birds, a 2006 single-channel video, and even later in the two-channel video diptych Lying-Down-On-The-Ground (2010), where Khurana also explores the poetics of space. She occupies significant spaces—a bus stop near a Delhi Metro station, a site of progress and development; India Gate, the site of display of national pride every year on Republic Day—and after lying down, she draws the shape she takes on the ground, using chalk or stick.

Not only does Khurana subvert social norms that dictate how one should occupy public space, she also leads the viewer to question the ephemerality of occupation itself.

Fold/Unfold is on show today (11am-7pm) and on Sunday (11am-4pm), at Chemould Prescott Road gallery, Fort, Mumbai.

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