Mutarerium: Art exhibition in Mumbai decentres humans from ecological narrative, warns of imminent extinction

  • Exhibition curator, Adwait Singh, decided to tackle such difficult issues due to his deep belief in the power of art, which helps people look “beyond the point of no future”.

  • Singh is optimistic about being a curator, given the very real possibility of engagement with the public and artists, in order to start dialogues on such pressing issues.

  • Mutarerium, at the Mumbai Art Room, is on display from 13 June to 31 August.

The theory of the 'Holocene Extinction', or the 'Sixth Extinction', suggests that we are in the midst of a crisis, in which humanity is set to lose between 50 to 95 percent of its biodiversity. Many even warn that the human race will come to an end by 2050. “I got to thinking about the tiny speck we occupy on the geological timeline which is in complete disproportion to the hubris about our accomplishments, where all that our civilisational efforts seem to have achieved is to arrange a grand funeral for our kind,” says Adwait Singh, curator of the Mumbai Art Room exhibition, ‘Mutarerium’, about his vision.

 Mutarerium: Art exhibition in Mumbai decentres humans from ecological narrative, warns of imminent extinction

Mutarerium poster. Photo courtesy: Mumbai Art Room.

With this initial idea, Singh delved into the evolutionary trajectories of other species that we share the planet with, to see what can be learnt. It led to the idea of decentering humans, “in response to the need for evening out the playing field that already predetermines the rules against certain species by setting up a hierarchy of beings,” at the top of which human beings have been placed, according to Singh. Another strong narrative within the exhibition is that of “the dichotomy between nature-culture, [which] has largely been an injurious one that has pitted out human civilisation against nature that needs to be conquered and reigned in.”

Singh’s decision to tackle such heavy-duty issues comes from his deep belief in the power of art. “Art helps by giving us hope for a future. It enables us to come to terms with our own mortality, and see beyond the point of no future.” Artists have the freedom to come from any background and practice in any media, while provoking and challenging policy and government, being in dialogue with the world and systems of the world. “Art performs two key roles in such a scenario: firstly, that of mediation where artists can boil down complicated scientific findings for the masses, allowing a point of access. Secondly, they can generate new perspectives on existing problems that can feedback scientific enquiry and translate into socio-political action,” Singh explains.

With this in mind, he set out to find artists for the show. “I consciously wanted to exhibit research-driven projects that were conceived in an interdisciplinary way,” he explains. Singh found Waylon D’Souza, a multimedia artist, whose work revolves largely around water and evolution. Waylon’s research involved going back to the breaking up of the supercontinent of Pangea, ambitiously sweeping through all of ecological history. Bringing it into context, the artist studies the Ganges in particular — and the phenomenon of the river being considered a goddess in Indian-Hindu society. Waylon’s inquiry rests on the intersection between ecology and religion, understanding how human activities affect the environment.

With the constant need for development, and an increasing stress on the Ganges, “it’s almost like you’re amputating the goddess which you worship,” Waylon says, explaining the phenomenon of environmental repercussions. Much as we impact some parts of the environment, the consequences of such actions, in turn, also affect everything else.

Said 'repercussions' also bleed into larger water bodies, with oceans being full of plastic. “Whales are dying,” says Waylon, and adds, “but some of the smaller creatures are evolving. Because of the acidification of the ocean, most of these sea-creatures, they can’t form their shells. So they’re reducing their size over time.” He gives an instance of the decorator worm, a species that has evolved to use plastic as a shell, a cocoon, sometimes even eating it. “Everyone says, ‘oh we need to save the planet’. But it’s not the planet that needs saving, the planet will go on. It’s actually us and our activities that will determine whether we are saved or not,” the artist says.

Waylon James D'Souza, (Detail)

Waylon James D'Souza, (Detail) The Cascade of the Futures Past, print on ethically grown hemp fabric, ghost and gill nets and mollusc shells, 5 x 7/8 feet, 2019. Photo courtesy: Waylon D'Souza.

As a curator on the lookout, Singh was “looking for artists who have been thinking deeply and consistently about ecology.” Priyanka D’Souza fit the bill perfectly — she uses miniatures to explore the history of whales, and the threats facing them. She has been studying the reasons for whale deaths — from direct consumption of oil and more recently, meat, to indirect consumption through harmful consumerist patterns. Plastic in the water gradually morphs into the whale’s flesh, something she could observe through seeing images of their innards after they had died choking on plastic.

“The set begins with the yet relatively unexplored phenomenon of a whale fall and the [imaginary] creatures that sustain themselves by consuming a whale carcass in its different stages of decomposition when it sinks down to the deep sea due to its weight. The set ends with more of the ambiguous plastiglomerate rocks [naturally occurring rocks with plastic content], the edges of which form the Haji Ali coastline,” Priyanka says about her work, which is rooted in the present, and makes strong statements about prevailing conditions. “Haji Ali has a phenomenally rich marine biodiversity, complete with corals and the most bizarre creatures, and it pains me to see the huge rocks being transported on trailers (suspiciously only after 12 am) being dumped every other day along with other rubble on top of perhaps an ecosystem that needs our urgent attention,” the artist says about her immediate surrounding.

Priyanka D'Souza. How to Unromanticise the Anthropocene 1, 2, 3 & 4 (Whales in Baroda series); Gouache, Polythene, Wall putty and Copperleaf on Wasli paper; Size variable; 2018-19. Photo courtesy: Mustafa Khanbhai.

Priyanka D'Souza. How to Unromanticise the Anthropocene 1, 2, 3 & 4 (Whales in Baroda series); Gouache, Polythene, Wall putty and Copperleaf on Wasli paper; Size variable; 2018-19. Photo courtesy: Mustafa Khanbhai.

The third artist, Mustafa Khanbhai, also focuses on the future much like his fellow artists. In his version of the future, humanity has been wiped out and hybrid species have been born as a result of the Sixth Extinction, using a generative software — Blender.

Mustafa Khanbhai, A Final Message, single channel video, 44 seconds, 2019. Photo courtesy: Adwait Singh.

Mustafa Khanbhai, A Final Message, single channel video, 44 seconds, 2019. Photo courtesy: Adwait Singh.

Adwait Singh’s motives in putting together 'Mutarerium' are ambitious, yet simple. “If we can make the audiences recognise their tiny place in a vast and intelligent ecological network, which, if continually abused, might get permanently impaired and determined against our kind, then we’d consider our work here done.” He is optimistic about being a curator, given the very real possibility of engaging with the public and artists.

While limited opportunities, tight budgets, and lack of public funding are some of the intrinsic hindrances faced by curators in India, Singh also sees the opportunity for meaningful difference that can be created through his work. Because of the basic art taught in India, “it forces the people to come together and lean on each other in ways that would not be possible in the West. The sociality, co-dependency and the sense of belonging to a community can be very rewarding.”

He explains art curation: “Art, for me, is like the fine-tune function in old televisions that enables us to bring a version of the world in focus and test out its fit for ourselves. It operates in the ambiguous zone between two frequencies, provoking us to perpetual refinement. Curation in this picture is the guiding device that sets the limits for the frequency under examination, keeping our minds firmly on the quarry and modulating the extent to which we can lose ourselves in [the] quest for a particular becoming, without becoming completely lost in the haze.”

Finally, Singh meditates upon the empowering nature of art, allowing one to explore their deep philosophical ideas, being a deck from which one understands one’s cultural and political surroundings, and most importantly, a channel through which one can develop one’s own voice and form of expression.

Mutarerium, at the Mumbai Art Room, is on display from 13 June to 31 August, 2019. The show is curated by Adwait Singh and features artists Waylon James D’Souza, Priyanka D’Souza, and Mustafa Khanbhai.

Updated Date: Jul 08, 2019 12:43:39 IST