Sonia Mehra Chawla’s Critical Membrane frames mangrove ecosystems as metaphor for science, art
Sonia Mehra Chawla visited the Sundarbans a long time ago. The massive mangrove ecosystem that is now threatened by extinction, fascinated her, not just as an artist but as a person stoked by scientific curiosity as well.
Art’s blindness is often pre-empted by its need to emerge only out of the imagination. Even though no one has ever said it needs to. We can reinterpret with just as much ease what exists so commonly to the naked eye. But that ease is often directed at the commonest of common things. Foliage and pretty, tall trees precede our imagination of the environment, and it is almost always sugary and expositional rather than inquisitive. And in the age of climate change and global warming, it is imperative that it be the latter.
Sonia Mehra Chawla visited the Sundarbans a long time ago. The massive mangrove ecosystem that is now threatened by extinction, fascinated her, not just as an artist but as a person stoked by scientific curiosity as well. ‘Critical Membrane’ is the result of almost five years of research and travel that reflects, and more importantly suggests an overlap between science and art.
Currently at Exhibit 320, Chawla’s solo show is an exploration of equal parts science and the aesthetic that we often feel it lacks in its cache. And it isn’t something that happened overnight. Chawla has travelled these forests for nearly half a decade now. “There is an impending feeling of wonder, desire, fear and death in these forests that draws the observer close. These landscapes are curated by light and validated by sound. For me, they are sites of history, memory and transformation, and entry-points to various inquiries, scientific, philosophical, metaphorical and artistic,” she says. Chawla’s previous exhibition ‘Scapelands’ in early 2015 was a precursor to this considerably layered, and advanced work. “During my exhibition ‘Scapelands’ in New Delhi in early 2015, I was disappointed to find that many young people had very little awareness about the importance of this fragile ecosystem,” she says.
Critical Membrane owes its layered identity to the way it sidesteps between the internal and the external, the micro and the macroscopic. In the Residual series, the approach is rather journalistic, and documentarian. These are photographs of the manifest nature of these changing ecosystems; the change being that of the tragic rather than one which is stimulated by natural evolution. Most of these ecosystems, we must remember, are static unlike the wildlife in the regions with a kinetic narrative of their own. The change, therefore, is as much a state of transformation as it is the moving study of one. And Residual series serves the purpose adequately. A photograph of feet stained by what seems is oil, reminds one of human interference and the role we have played in disasters like the oil spill in Sundarbans in 2004.
Perhaps, what makes the curation, and the work as a whole, even more intriguing is its pairing of the scientific and the aesthetic. “Science is interwoven into the matrix of our lives and existence and we possibly cannot distance ourselves from it. Science affects us all, every day of the year, from the moment we wake up, all day long, and through the night. I have been engaging with my audiences and have been pleasantly surprised to find that most people are able to view the works with an open mind, even those with very little understanding of mangroves,” Chawla says. The Universe in Details section brilliantly coalesces these two different worlds, effectively asking us to spot the line of difference between scientific inquiry and aesthetic form.
Of this fine line, that at least in her work emerges with some sort of recognisable tilt, Chawla says, “As a cultural practitioner, I like to analyse and probe cultural, philosophical and social questions connected with scientific and technological research, all of which challenge our assumptions about our relations with science, technology, and the environment. Drawing data and vital information from the fields of microbiology and biotechnology, my artistic investigation also speculates about a future where invisible biological data is uncovered; a world where what is invisible becomes visible.” That such complex ecosystems exist well outside our basic knowledge framework or scientific grooming and development is something she is well aware of and bent on changing. In a way, art here is a bridging the gap to something that is often seen as its anti-dote, its unwilling competitor. And for that to happen, the experience is almost everything. “I am interested in the relationship between the viewer and the artwork, and the role of the viewer within the exhibition environment,” she adds.
Membrane here serves both as a metaphor and scientific anchor. Considering how mangroves play a crucial role in protecting us from natural disasters like Tsunamis and Hurricanes, they have a socially relevant existence to consider as well. An existence we would do well to learn about. “In the past few years there has been a gradual increase in the awareness of the people in Mumbai and Chennai towards the preservation of mangroves. Land reclamations and industrial effluents are the major causes of mangroves degradation in these cities. Systematic dumping of all kinds of waste and debris in the mangrove areas destroys them. I feel that at this time of crisis we need to focus on the various ways we can contribute to raising awareness about preserving these ecosystems,” Chawla says, where she basically underlines the other word that makes up the title of the exhibition – ‘Critical’. And it with that sentiment that Critical Membrane should not only be watched, but experienced and pondered upon, in the afterlife of all that is dead in science, but lives on in art.
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