Nalini Malani’s ‘Gamepieces’ at the AGSA – Indian Link | Ad On Picture

reading time: 4 protocol

The contemporary Indian artist Nalini Malani, born in 1946, is endlessly experimental.

Her work includes video, photography, multimedia installation, painting and digital animation.

The latter is the medium used in an impressive set of 88 stop-motion images that viewers first encounter in Gamepieces at the Art Gallery of South Australia.

The vicious murder of an eight-year-old child in Kashmir in 2018 was the springboard for the challenging series of highly emotive and immersive iPad drawings that are now digital animation.

These animations read like a stream of consciousness thoughts about contemporary life.

A range of characters including Alice from Lewis Carrolls Alice in Wonderlandappear in the animations alongside texts by literary, philosophical and linguistic figures such as Samuel Beckett, Noam Chomsky and Paul Klee.

Text fragments flash up, ranging from “I’m exhausted” and “dystopia” to those capturing a sense of wonder, like “parting the clouds”.

Malani says the ordered chaos of her animation chamber simulates the work of the mind.

Perhaps, but there is a simmering level of violence. An innocent Alice jumping on her tightrope before we see her being abused. It’s like Alice shouting, “Can you hear me?”

This is part of Malani’s broader practice of social criticism.

Experimental art

On view are early works created in a climate of idealism under the country’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, a secularist who in the 1960s spoke of changing the class system and creating a new India for all.

Fresh out of art school and a member of the experimental Vision Exchange workshop in Mumbai, Malani began exploring the possibilities of composition through photography and film.

(Source: AGSA/Saul Steed)

Stunning abstract photograms (where objects are placed on photographic paper to create images) such as Precincts, 1969 will be exhibited. Abstract shapes were exposed on light-sensitive bromide paper. You speak of an idealism that is present in modernity itself and in India.

This idealism was short-lived. Malani was in Paris in the midst of the 1968 student demonstrations and was unable to pursue a university education there. She began making monochromes of photographic images superimposed on X-rays.

Again highly innovative in her approach, she protests nuclear testing in her mushroom cloud, 1970/2018.

At the same time, Malani befriended influential literary, film and feminist practitioners and theorists in Paris, which set her on the path to fusing art with literature in numerous theater productions.

idealism fails

This theatrical approach underscores her dramatic yet chilling video piece Unity in Diversity, 2003.

The play was triggered by the violent riots between Hindus and Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, in which more than 1,000 people died – a dramatic reminder of the failure of the Nehru’s idealism for a peaceful, pluralistic India.

We are in a living room with its familiar decor. A sofa, reading lamp, and framed photographs of another idealist for modern India, Mahatma Gandhi, hang eloquently on blood-red walls.

Opposite the sofa, a video features 11 culturally diverse Indian female musicians. Her performance is then interrupted by gunfire, set against a backdrop of Nehru’s pro-nationalism speeches and footage of the riots with bloodied victims, some turning deathly pale.

But what is to be made of this compelling, multi-layered narrative – that idealism fails or, as the title suggests, unity can be found in diversity?

(Source: AGSA/Facebook)

Malani himself knows the price of racial and religious differences. As a Pakistani, she was resettled with her family in India during the traumatic Partition of 1947.

An epic production

Malani’s political criticism takes into account environmental tragedies such as India’s worst-ever chemical spill in 1984 at the Union Carbide Factory, which killed 15,000 and left a lingering presence in deformities.

Her political critique also has a distinctly feminist bias, focusing in her Stories Retold on protagonists such as Sita and Yaśodharā in traditional Hindu mythical paintings.

And then there’s Gamepieces, 2003-2020. This is a wondrous video/shadow game, almost lo-tech in its making, developed in response to nuclear tests in India and Pakistan in 1998.

Back painting creates a painting on glass that is designed to be seen through the back. Here Malani has painted six rotating transparent Mylar cylinders on the back.

The images on these cylinders are projected onto a screen interspersed with multi-directional video images of the nuclear attacks on Japan in 1945. A group of mythical wounded characters and creatures parade, all set to a Hindu musical score.

The word “epic” best fits this fully immersive affective encounter, as Malani intended, knowing the audience would complete the narrative.

Nalini Malani’s Gamepieces, an impressive survey exhibition curated by gallery director Rhana Devenport, is a fixture on Australia’s exhibition calendar.

Malani is a senior contemporary artist whose theatrical installations, often based on historical events, fuse with current global issues.

She moves effortlessly from the past to the present, from cultural memory to contemporary issues, taking audiences into immersive theatrical experiences, traversing art forms from literary to visual to musical, all while being underpinned by criticism.

Nalini Malani’s gamepieces are on view at the Art Gallery of South Australia until January 22nd.

About the author: Catherine Speck is Professor Emeritus of Art History and Member of the Board of Trustees at the University of Adelaide.

This article first appeared in The Conversation, you can read it here.

Read more: Review: The Jungle and the Sea

Leave a Comment