Art remains in the artist and is the knowledge by which things are made.
– Ananda K. Coomaraswamy
How do we trace the origins of the image world and what is the underlying psychology of visual perceptions? Can we think of the scripted word, as many semioticians have, in creating an image in the mind as the moment of inception?
Four decades ago, at the conclusion of his paradigmatic reflections upon the essence of what was to become the world’s most accessible and influential medium of visual communication, Roland Barthes declared that it was a subjective decision to receive images as either reality or illusion. [i] Writer/editor/curator, Fred Richtin asked, “Should the photograph be labelled, like writing, as either fiction or non-fiction or are they always a hybrid of the two?” [ii] and Rushdie, as quoted by author Amitava Kumar suggests while looking at identity imagery, “the very word metaphor, with its roots in the Greek word for bearing across, describes a sort of migration, the migration of ideas into images.” [iii] Their stark enunciations of the viewer’s responsibility is especially resonant today for artistic and other purposes – transforming, and thereby crucially redefining, the very categories upon which we base our understanding of the world: ‘imagined’ and ‘factual’, ‘appearance’ and ‘actuality’.
In the last decade, there has been an exponential ‘rediscovery’ of analogue media as a means to the foreground, once again, found or constructed intangibilities of the human condition. The printed image on a surface or imprinted in memory – both organic strata – both produced through the sensorial, the shared intelligence of data transfers, creates an arena for theoretically engaging with discursive and real shifts in the present media environment. Early modernists on the other hand, such as László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946) [iv] and Lionel Wendt (1900-44) [v] in Sri Lanka, had experimented with the medium – camera-less photography and multiple exposures, among other techniques – as a way to document the mysteries of nature, to introduce poetic disorder into normative frames, to interrogate viewing habits and to play with perception itself.
Two recent international exhibitions/publications, Memory of the Future (2016) and The Shape of Light (2018) have conceptualized past and contemporary experimental techniques from a European perspective, but relatively little has been published on South Asian developments in this area. [vi] However, important regional trajectories of innovative photo-making are starting to be mapped through the work, for instance, of Film Foundry in Nepal, O.P. Sharma in Delhi, Pathshala in Dhaka and the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad. [vii] Kamra 1 and 2, anthologies of studies of photography published in Bangla, look at histories and theories of representation; also notable is the pioneering scholarship and image archive of Siddhartha Ghosh (1948-2002), who traced the history of photography in Bengal, including the contribution of women photographers, during the period of colonial modernity. [viii] Another valuable initiative is the Afghan Box Camera Project. [ix]
As evident in the works featured here, contemporary practitioners in South Asia (in this case, India) have continued their pursuit of hybrid forms and upheld a passionate interest in global as well as local photographic histories, in the face of ongoing international debate about diktats of technology and the effect of post-digital image surfeit upon creativity, viewership and methodologies of curation. While preparing for this exhibition I drew upon my involvement in The Surface of Things (2016-17), presenting strategies and techniques of reconsidering the significance of personal, family and community archives in relation to material culture. [x] It also provoked me to consider the structure of the modern photography canon, which has reset its parameters and become more inclusive through the expanded autonomy and frequent iconoclasm of new-media/mixed-media interventions. This is a prominent aspect of Unsealed Chamber: the dialectical works featured here are precisely themed and framed, yet rely on their effect on their aura of ambiguity, ambivalence, equivalence. Alternating between fixity and fluidity, permanence and transience, they demand that we decode, as best as we can, the unconventional grammar being continuously shaped within technologically-driven current photography discourses.