An Omnibus Contemporary Practice: Nalini Malani
by Marnie Dean
Marnie Dean muses over the longevity of one of India’s most accomplished contemporary artists, Nalini Malani, who has been at the forefront of contemporary art practice in India and globally for many years. With the foundations of her practice in drawing and painting, what is it about her work that continues to remain so progressive - even revolutionary? Is it the way she has engaged with and utilised emerging technologies branching out beyond multimedia into collaborations in experimental theatre and the like, or is it something more fundamental?
I first encountered the work of Nalini Malani when she was showcased in the second Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art at the Queensland Art Gallery in my hometown of Brisbane, Australia. Fast forward to the next APT in 2002 and I was part of a small group who shared a personal experience with the artist in workshops over several days. Locating Nalini within the history of Indian Contemporary Art at that time R. Siva Kumar explains that ‘Indian Modernism, which always had several post-modernist elements, comes into contact with the Western discourses of postmodernity’.¹ Indeed, Nalini’s politically charged Remembering Toba Tek Singh (1998), a large multimedia and video installation shown at the 2002 APT, is a clear demonstration of this post-modern view, exploring global power relations, intervening, deconstructing and informing. Australian artist Dr. Pat Hoffie explains that “she was among the first Indian artists in Bombay to engage with installation as a more direct way of bringing the audience into contact with the materiality of the issues that were being addressed”.² Toba Tek Singh brings together Nalini Malani’s post-modern Indian view with the practice of installation and the medium of technology serves as a platform for communication.
In re-examining Toba Tek Singh (1998) now, after the advent of post-structural epistemologies that led to the development of digital theories by authors such as Donna Haraway, Eugene Thacker and Lev Manovich concerning networks and incorporeal space3; the relevance of certain particularities in Nalini’s practice surface. Today the manifold interconnections operating in Toba Tek Singh and other works such as The Tables Have Turned (2008), Remembering Mad Meg (2007), Mother India (2005): Transactions in the Construction of Pain, Gamepieces (2003), Unity in Diversity (2003), Transgressions (2001), Stains (2000) and Hamletmachine (1999/2000) seem in perfect tune with a global society that has now overcome issues of proximity and virtuality with communication tools such as Facebook and Twitter. Nalini’s body of work has accumulated and is a plethora of visual narrative that has (with time) moved beyond the deconstruction of post-modernist rhetoric, while transposing her media, into a world and a practice that explores, re-contextualizes and re-orients multiplicities and histories. Chaitanya Sambrani explains: As a necessary corollary to an interrogation of historical discourse and its elisions, Malani’s work has engaged with questions of representation in visual art, setting up a back and forth momentum between imagery pared down, bled of narrative charge, and a range of highly codified iconography, suffused with associative meaning. In either case, this momentum in her work operates through the “unreliable” and highly porous nature of memory, personal as well as collective.4
Nalini’s explorations and representations of histories are most prevalent in her installation/video works that weave interconnections between cultures, religious iconography and the media and through these relationships provide a place of belonging, for those collective memories and aspects of society which are marginalized or just ‘in-between’. In particular, Nalini’s practice from the point of Toba Tek Singh creates a liminal environment in which the viewer’s own memories are triggered and emerge to engage with the work. Her commanding play of light and the intensity of the imagery whether subtle or blatant (or both) together with the ‘glow’ created from video projections, combine to create an atmosphere that impacts on the viewer’s triggered memories, engaging the senses, feelings and emotions. The viewer’s memories and associations connect with the constant movement of revolving Mylar cylinders in works such as The Tables Have Turned (2008) and the looping of video again in the work Remembering Toba Tek Singh, providing a sense of timelessness or an experience of going on being. Looking back over her body of work since Toba Tek Singh, all these elements in her practice converge into a ‘Body Without Organs’5- a vast organism of an installation and a practice made up of associations, connections and media in which the viewer becomes witness to a collective that is a whole, permeating the space of this body when they are privileged to enter into the physical space of the installation, as in the case of Toba Tek Singh. It seems that through the layering and interconnecting in every aspect of her work (whether in her mutant figures, the play of light or the use of sound), Nalini has given a body to that nowhere land and a place where all the memories can co-exist. In his essay about Nalini’s video works, Ashish Rajadhyaksha posits a similar notion when exploring the space they occupy. He says,
"The connection between this and digitisation, the link between new virtualised materials (like the video glitch) and their connection with the 'desert of the real' - the 'real world', if there is at all one left - is what makes Nalini Malani's work distinctive.6"
In the work shown at the 51st Venice Biennale titled Mother India (2005): Transactions in the Construction of Pain, Malani creates a space and a body for a collective of expressions of women who have experienced violence in times of upheaval in India and in the world. The space is constructed from five video projections and made up by the layering of images, audio, animation and video on each screen that together form a giant body- a giant virtual body that can no longer be violated or penetrated as it is a body in implicit space. The work seems encapsulated within the frame of the video display, a protective border for the delicate and vulnerable figures and memories, re-establishing the innocence stolen from thousands of women who have been abused, allowing their stories to be told and their pain to be witnessed. Through its successful execution, this work achieves the unthinkable: it restores what was lost, it provides a home for the dis-enfranchised, it gives clarity and meaning to hysterical voices and it gives fragmented pieces a unified belonging with dignity and power. The author Ajay J.Sinha speculates that “the validity of contemporary Indian Art is sought in the semantic value it gives to the cacophony of hybrid sights and sounds that constitute the spectacle of contemporary India.”7 Nalini Malani has a sophisticated praxis that extends beyond the representation of contemporary India to include its location within a global context and history: the history of contemporary art (east and west) and perhaps more significantly the history of the disenfranchised. As she is a senior multimedia artist (as well as a painter), you cannot ignore a history of theory pertaining to her medium that moves beyond the associations of the pluralisms of the developing world to include critical theory that has been developed to make sense of media that cannot be defined in any binary context. Nalini Malani has a formidable practice, pioneering the development of Indian Contemporary Art and the practice of video/installations works internationally.
1. Siva Kumar, R. ‘Modern Indian Art: A Brief Overview’, Art Journal, Vol. 58, No. 3 (Autumn 1999) College Art Association, pp.14-21.
2. Dr. Hoffie, P. Nalini Malani: Hamletmachine, The Australian National University website, 2003, retrieved 1 November 2011.
3. Donna Haraway posits her influential theory on the politics of virtuality and incorporeal space in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, New York: Routledge, and London: Free Association Books, 1991 (includes "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century"). Lev Manovich has contributed much knowledge to the thoery of new media and its aesthetics see Manovich, Lev (2001). The Language of New Media, Cambridge: MIT Press and Manovich, Lev. "New Media from Borges to HTML". The New Media Reader. The MIT Press. Eugene Thackers work on new media and networks see The Exploit: A Theory of Networks (University of Minnesota Press, 2007) and The Global Genome: Biotechnology, Politics, and Culture (MIT Press, 2005).
4. Sambrani, C. ‘Apocalypse recalled: the recent work of Nalini Malani’, the website of Nalini Malani, 2004, retrieved 1 November 2011.
5. Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Continuum, London and New York, 1980. The idea of a ‘body without organs’ is discussed in particular on page. 40 of the English translated edition 2004.
6. Rajadhyaksha, Ashish. Spilling Out: Nalini’s Recent Video Installations, Third Text, Nr 62, Vol 17, Issue 1.
7. Sinha, A. J. ‘Contemporary Indian Art: A Question of Method’, Art Journal, Vol. 58.No. 3 (Autumn 1999) College Art Association, pp. 31-39.