Art News & Views

Being Virtual in the Real-About Articulating the Liminal


by Sumakshi Singh

Sumakshi Singh’s installations invite and confuse the viewers as it wants them to be here and there at the same time. The experience of perception forces them to be in the virtual and the real at the same time. Using the disconcerting nature of the perceptual and phenomenological experience, Sumakshi’s projects ask questions about permanence and transience, object and image, fact and illusion. Here is a first person narrative on her works.

Simply put - I am interested in the perceived edges of things and how to keep releasing them. How far can I push an inquiry (whether totally banal seeming, political, historical, cultural or metaphysical) and still let it be art? How much can I stretch a material, using both - its raw, unaltered state and its carefully crafted manifestation all in the same piece?  How much of the process can I reveal and still have the work hold a sense of wonder in its experience? How much of the mundane can be used as a door into the extraordinary? How can circumference become center? How can one un-bracket visual conditioning, asking viewers to look “between” things instead of “at” them? How can I play with metaphor, illusion and “reality” both in concept and in material?…the list of questions to myself and to the audience (some naïve or playful,  some fundamental and others subtle) go on and propel my art practice.

Often the history of the site determines what the work will become and those ideas demand varying material manifestations of which I will just describe a couple.

A seven-year body of work was spurred by living in downtown Chicago’s highly manicured ‘natural’ environment, maintained at a permanent climax of ever-blooming flowers and politely conforming, shaped trees. Coming from India where one encounters all sorts of unexpected interactions between the natural and the urban (visual anomalies like trees growing out of the sides of buildings), Urban USA felt like the entire visual/ natural world had already been processed, packaged and arranged for easy consumption. Soon cracks in the pavement and other unplanned houses for microcosmic activity became sites of inspiration and even direct intervention for my work, as welcome perversions of doctored space.

In these site-specific installations, the meticulously painted and sculpted micro-interventions are accompanied by tiny scars and deliberately exaggerated flaws, bits of moss and fungus growing out of the wall, nails and tape that seem like remnants of previous installations – all of which end up converting the sterile gallery surfaces into saturated, proliferating membranes. They resist efficiency in viewing, decoding and digesting as it becomes impossible to decide what the art is and what isn’t.

In the context of the Urban American culture of immediate gratification and “let’s hurry up and get to the climax”, it creates an interesting space where viewers spend as much time looking at the micro-details of the pre-existing walls, floor and ceiling as the “pieces” themselves. When I was invited to do these projects in museums in France and Italy, the language of the art historical and religious icon started entering this dialogue as well – rendering it fragile, intimate and flexible in its narrative connotations. I started animating these characters from famous images and they seemed to crawl out of tiny pockets in the wall and floor, interact with the micro-interventions or even sweep across ceilings as living, moving frescoes. The work is often about re-evaluating what is considered familiar or “a given” and in this process, allowing conditioned ideas to open up to reveal whole new levels of meaning as relationships are reformulated.

Visual hierarchies start breaking down as “everything” starts getting looked at, the architectural surfaces go from becoming the ground to rest art on to becoming the figure and the gallery itself seems to go on display. Tension is created between the “Cultural Idea” of the gallery space (as a neutral ground) and its “Physical Reality” as a space with specific qualities. What I noticed was that it became hard for viewers to switch off this way of looking once they exited the white cube space. I often get calls after the shows, where people will ask me if a particular crack in the subway wall was designed by me! To me the “pieces” themselves are simply decoys and the real work is happening between the pieces and outside this space (gallery) demarcated for the witnessing of intellectual or cultural activity. The viewing often demands an unconditioned sort of vision, like that of an infant that often zooms in or out a little too much, not being used to bracket/ crop visual information. I got interested in seeing if this breaking of the visual frame could take place within the recognizable object.

This led to a recent body of work that involves drawing out and assembling illusions of a perceived space on top of the pre-existing objects and architecture of a chosen space, until from one vantage point the actual space seems completely obliterated by the perceived. As viewers step away from the specified viewing position and enter the installation, the objects break into strange shapes, stubbornly fighting the architecture and retaining angles of a now-inaccurate perspective, generating a space-time hiccup where they are free to move but their earlier perception is not. The unaltered backs and sides of the actual architecture and objects present in the room begin to unabashedly reveal themselves and a co-existence of the real and virtual begins.

While this direct phenomenological experience of their own frozen vision turns abstract and hard to negotiate, participants simultaneously keep watching themselves in a live video projection where they are moving through the perfectly aligned illusionist space. The mediated one-point view of the video camera becomes a more graspable solution until one sees oneself walking through what seemed like a concrete object, disconcertingly challenging the boundaries of form and matter! Participants are confronted with awkwardly trying to locate themselves in the multiple spaces set up – the fractured “here”, the mediated (video) “there” and finally the space of memory (a prior understanding of the room). Bodies slow down, movements gets amplified as the participants start concentrating on re-familiarizing themselves with their own bodies and trying to understand what the implications of a movement in this space will have on the others.

This ability to be in multiple spaces at once is pretty commonly understood through Facebook, Skype and Second Life. Our “everyday” is quite extraordinary as our experiences of immediacy can now be accessed in simultaneity. Often we even locate our direct experiences through the mediated. I have also been generating performance-based stop motion animations where I question these phenomena through attempts to interact with these virtual objects on a physical plane. I move around the physical room seeming to re-arrange/ re-locate the already drawn objects, attempting to hold, push, lift or pull them, as if they were real. This is done by erasing and re-rendering the drawn objects on the various surfaces and planes of the room, shifting the drawings inch by inch, leaving behind a William-Kentridge-like animated trace of their trajectory through 3 dimensional objects and space. Part of this investigation has sprung up from the reading of Yogic texts that claim material form is an illusionary construct (maya) that we give reality to. The animations become a way of asking myself “well, how much effort does it take to constantly interact with things that aren’t real?”

Using the disconcerting nature of the perceptual and phenomenological experience, these projects ask questions about permanence and transience, object and image, fact and illusion, mapping and displacement, here and there, past, present and future, perception and knowledge, exposing the fragile set of givens upon which meaning is constructed. For me, this body of work is an investigation through the non-linear filter of art making of: What is permanent and unchanging? What is real and how do we recognize it?

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