Nalini Malani’s installation In Search of Vanished Blood (2012), titled after a poem by the revolutionary Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz, was the spellbinding centerpiece of her first solo exhibition at Lelong’s New York branch. The Mumbai-based Malani, a pioneer of Indian video art and a committed activist and women’s advocate, creates work centered on the violent postcolonial history of India since its partition in 1947. With In Search of Vanished Blood, she attempts to give voice to the marginalized in India, denouncing the country’s caste system, its religious wars and in particular the fierce abuse inflicted on women. Also on view, and featuring imagery and themes similar to those of the installation, was a series of reverse paintings on clear acrylic sheets backed by bamboo paper.
Commissioned for Documenta 13, In Search of Vanished Blood consists of six 11-minute video projections streamed around the room through five clear Mylar cylinders hanging at the center of the space. The installation brings together a diverse, cross-cultural assortment of source material, with references to works such as Homer’s Iliad and Euripides’s Medea, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, and Christa Wolf’s 1984 novel Cassandra. A colorful, quickly changing video landscape surrounds the viewer with still and moving images of faces (and, disturbingly, a head wrapped in a gauzelike material with the title poem projected onto it), skyscrapers, prints from Goya’s “Disasters of War” series, Muybridge’s running dogs and artwork portraying mutilations, executions, rapes and other atrocities. Motorized so as to rotate, and suggesting Buddhist prayer wheels, the Mylar cylinders feature painted and drawn images (miscellaneous objects, figures from Indian and Greek mythology, abstract patterns) that produce a slow play of shadows over the rapid footage projected on the walls. Overall, the work has a seductive beauty that some might consider compromising; ultimately, however, that beauty serves as a persuasive, poetic vehicle to convey resistance and revolt.
At Documenta, the projections and cylinders were high in the gallery, at a remove from the viewer. Here, however, the cylinders rotated just overhead and the moving procession of video images and shadows were nearer eye level. While this latter installation style might have been less majestic, it also made the experience more intimate and the imagery easier to read (though the shifting, blending visuals are designed to be somewhat illegible). In addition, this more immersive presentation incorporated viewers into the installation, serving to intermix their shadows with the pictures on the walls.
Reinforcing the mood of the imagery is a soundtrack composed of foreboding music and sequences of Malani reading passages of works by writers including Heiner Müller, Samuel Beckett and Mahasweta Devi. At one point, Malani intones lines from Müller’s 1977 play Hamletmachine that invoke the mythological figure of Cassandra. Perhaps this prophetess, whose visions of Troy’s future misfortunes were not heeded-and who thus became a witness to the city’s annihilation-serves here as a surrogate for the artist.
In “Cassandra,” her first solo show in France, Nalini Malani has returned to her artistic roots: drawing and painting. “I draw therefore I am,” she has proclaimed. “Drawing/painting helps me to dream, to free associate, to flow into reveries.” Born in Karachi in 1946 on the eve of India’s independence and painful partition, Malani lives and works in Mumbai. Since the 1990s, she has garnered renown in both the East and the West for her intricate figurative work. Despite a successful foray into multimedium installations, Malani has never lost her appetite for traditional mark-making on two-dimensional supports. The 32 new paintings (all 2009) and 17 recent ones (2006-08) on view revealed the encyclopedic scope of her imagination, which is refreshingly unhampered by national boundaries.
Except for a few works on paper, all the pieces included in “Cassandra” were reverse paintings. Malani has perfected this ancient technique over the past decade, employing clear acrylic sheets instead of glass. Occasionally she applies pigment to both sides of the plastic before framing it behind a second panel. The effects of depth and relief are subtle and mesmerizing.
In constructing her epic visual narratives, Malani draws on sources both classic and contemporary. Influences range from Indian literature, Hinduism and Greek tragedy to modern theater and poetry (Brecht, Beckett, Heiner Müller) and current events. She is well versed in feminist and postcolonial theory, but neither infiltrates her work in a didactic manner. Full of disparate floating images that resist coherent narrative, her surreal compositions suggest dreamscapes of the nightmarish tenor associated with Bosch. Disembodied organs (brains, kidneys, intestines), umbilical cords, mutating blobs, monsters, angels, turds, human figures and animals vie for attention. Faces abound.
The majority of her new paintings are tondi, from roughly 10 to 60 inches in diameter. With titles like Warriors and Green Worm, Angel, and Mutants and Animals, many feature a gigantic larva-like creature that suggests the snail-like shape of the inner ear. Their spotted grounds, some an aqueous red (blood?), others blue (water?), call to mind cellular universes. Female archetypes like Sita, Medea, Alice in Wonderland, Radha and Mother Courage regularly populate Malani’s paintings. In the monumental Cassandra (2009), the show’s 30-panel centerpiece, the cursed prophetess levitates against a yellow ground amid a plethora of the artist’s trademark symbols. Rendered in black and gray washes, the hairless, virtually lifeless woman appears to have been burned alive. In style and content, this meditation on feminine resistance and trauma is akin to those of Kiki Smith and Nancy Spero. Confounding linear interpretations, Malani’s paintings are trenchantly evocative.
Photos: Nalini Malani: Warriors and Green Worm, 2009, acrylic, ink and enamel reverse painting on acrylic sheet, 173⁄4 inches in diameter; at Lelong. Cassandra, 2009, acrylic, ink and enamel reverse painting on acrylic sheet, 30 panels, 881⁄2 by 1531⁄2 inches overall; at Lelong.