Else, all will be still

  Ravi Agarwal
  October 11 - December 2, 2015

Notes from October 2013 to August 2015

Ravi Agarwal asks, ‘Can we envision a future that is both environmentally and socially sustainable?’

Lunar Tide is a set of 29 photographs taken of the sea at night. By the laws of nature we should not be able to photograph the sea at night as it has no internal light source. In the absence of light and therefore the absence of sight the sea makes its vast presence known through the endless sound of crashing waves. Now I know that one cannot literally hear through a photograph but I am going to take poetic license to state that in fact the reiterative quality of the work almost brings alive the endless crashing waves. The black inkiness, which should have been invisible, is highlighted, in this set, through a white illuminating glow which results from the artist shining a torch into sea for hours while simultaneously photographing the swell and ebb of the tide. Movement is spotlighted and the viewer is given a focus for his meditative attention.

The sea has often been imagined and described as the site for meditative experience. Art shares a similar space in the social imaginary. The collection of works in his solo exhibition Else, all will be still at the Guild in Mumbai is photographer, writer and activist Ravi Agarwal’s first interaction with the Sea. He is an old hand at rivers and nalas but the Sea with its vast unknown has always been out of this moderate swimmer’s (there is a point to mentioning Ravi’s swimming prowess which I shall come to a little later) realm of engagement.

This is partly due to the fact that his home town New Delhi is so very far from any sea and ocean. The other is that Delhi is situated on the banks of the river Yamuna – once a magnificent river flowing from the Himalayas past Delhi and the Northern Plains till it meets the Ganga; a river on whose shores many a beautiful city was born, a vibrant ecosystem that fired the imagination of artists and patrons alike. Today the Yamuna is a much abused almost dead water body, from the moment it reaches the capital city where it absorbs all the city’s waste almost entirely unfiltered. And as a passionate environmentalist Ravi has applied all his professional and conceptual resources to bring attention to the plight of the Yamuna, the river increasingly marginalized from city life and imagination. Ravi has repeatedly visualized this engagement and concern: Alien Waters (2004 - 2006), Have you seen the flowers on the river? (2007) and in 2011 he co-curated, with Till Krause, Project Yamuna-Elbe: Public.Art.Ecology (www.yamuna-elbe.de  and www.yamuna-elbe.org), which manifested as engagements with the disappearing ecologies of rivers’ in Hamburg and Delhi.

The relationship has been scientific, political, textual and artistic. His works have been both documentaries and constructed narratives. And while ecological and social concern remains at the heart of this exhibition it is the image that is at the core of the experience. Thus we do not enter the image from the thematic but vice-versa, it is the many shades of the sea that reveals a comprehensive social and ecological story.

A Lovers’ Lament

Romantics and their antecedents have employed a lyrical prose for the experience of nature, as if mere text cannot do justice to its multi-tiered monumentality. To try to understand it is to limit it and to order it, as the classicists do, and so it is to reduce its beauty. Poetry, with its liberal use of a language of emotions and metaphors, provides a tool with which the boundlessness is comprehensibly expressed. While we have ordered the exterior, our interior is turbulent and uncontrollable – to love, to fear, to lose and to gain are unquantifiable measures. So too we may have ordered the plains, first cultivating them and then through urban settlements, we may have contained rivers, marshes, ponds and lakes, forcing them into spaces and shapes of our convenience, but the oceans, skies, the geological layers underfoot and the molten core still withstand our probing.

And so it is that Ravi turns to Sangam poetry to provide the parameters of his encounter with the sea. Ancient Sangam literature was written in Tamil between 300 BCE and 300 CE and is a collection of 2381 poems composed by 473 poets. The love poetry is classified into modes depending on the type of mood, nature, location and nature of relationship represented by the poem. The poems are either about an inner field, Akam, which refers to personal relations such as love and sex or an outer field, Puram, which discuss external relations such as valour, ethics, benevolence, social life and customs. Akam poetry is tied to different landscapes: kurinji - mountainous regions; mullai - forests; marutham - agricultural land; neithal - coastal regions and paalai - deserts.

Neithal is associated with the state of ‘pining’ or ‘longing’ and the state is located on the bodies and lives of fisherfolk, their boats, nets, markets and so on. A similar location of states of being onto motifs occurs in the exhibition - poignancy translated through the catamaran that belongs to Ravi and is displayed in the exhibition, the timelessness of waiting vocalized through Ecological Manifesto, three photographsfaintly inscribed by texts from his diary, and that portray the catamaran falling through an impossibly flat blue sky, and rather literally Sangam in which Ravi identifies the 5 modes of poetry onto 5 engine parts, referring to two systems of signification

Ravi’s relationship with the sea grew alongside his friendship with Selvam, our protagonist, a tiny-scale fisherman who ekes out his daily living from the sea and is determined that the long line of fishermen in his family will end with him and his children will have a different and hopefully more prosperous life. So much so, he has not even taught his son to swim. One encounters Selvam in the videos (Shoreline I,II,III) of him engaged in his hereditary professions – fishing, boat building and net repairing. His strong silent face seems restrained, refusing to speak the words that lay bare his circumstances, desperate not because he is a bad fisherman but because he is a poor one, unable to invest in a large fishing vessel and thus catch the numbers and types of fish that would make this work profitable.

Selvam is at ease in the sea, an ease us landlubbers can never master, not having learnt to swim in treacherous tides alongside mastering the skill of walking, not having spent our lives with the creatures that live beneath the water surface, unknown and often dangerous. Ravi expresses, through text - in his diary and photobook Ambient Sea - and in conversations, the awe and fear the sea causes. The artist is not a strong swimmer and the magnitude of helplessness when encountering the sea causes an anxiety to colour the exploration of this new frontier. I can appreciate this shade of interaction for I have never been fond of swimming in the oceans, its unmarked vast boundaries, its unknown inhabitants and its volatile moods causes crippling anxiety that surfaces even when I attempt to calmly contemplate the rolling water from afar. I like my physical and emotional being to remain on an even keel.

While I often locate myself within art I don’t often speak of it but Ravi’s work demands an investment that is greater than the self. It is an investment that extends into spaces of empathy and unravelment. Ravi began exploring the sea when he inhabited a house on the beach in a small fishing village in Tamil Nadu not too long ago. And so he embarked on his journey in, around, on and through the sea. But how does one understand the sea, this which has many shores, a surface, hidden depths, an unseen floor and an unmarked history? Unlike a river which has a course, visible edges, a defined ecosystem, moments in history, a sea is uncontained, even its flow is relational to a celestial body, its inhabitants boundless, its currents wild and its history unconscionable.

Much of this exploration of the tantalizing subject and the process of image making is visible in the exhibition. There is the reiteration and repetition in his photo-series Lunar Tide and Engines, there is irony and humour with playful juxtapositions in Sea of Mars and Ecological Manifesto, there is documentation in Salt Pan and Shoreline I, II & III, research and context in Sea of Sand and constructed narratives in Rhizome and No One Asked Me.

How does one make visible the past and future while inhabiting the present?

In Rhizome Ravi has foregrounded the sight of water with words on placards. Each word is selected from the vocabulary of fishermen as they relate to their environment or ‘nature’ without using the actual ‘N’ word. The photograph throws in sharp relief the dichotomy between those who live with nature and those who talk, think and write about it.

Is there something in the way we uphold the term that deifies and isolates it, that makes all approaches to it singular rather than systemic? By singular here I mean not relational and reinventive with each encounter to maximize that exchange, as Agamben would have it, but at something set in stone. Ravi assures us that Nature is not set in stone, but rather our idea of it is. For humanity to exist in the world and not destroy it we have to rethink our idea of the world – not as a pristine utopia but a co-habitat where there is reciprocity, i.e. we take but we also give back. Thus the discourse has to move away from plunder and protection but rather towards moderation and mutual benefit.

Referring to philosopher Timothy Morton’s work, Ravi writes in Ambient Seas, “Nature has been reduced to an object which can only be ‘acted’ upon through it being ‘extract’, ‘admired’, ‘enjoyed’ etc. but not ‘lived’ with.” Much of art is object making and so how do we reconcile the dichotomy of an object that makes an object of that which it wishes to preserve as organic? Thus the object that is art distills a thing – that is nature – into a series of motifs – that would be the viewer experience. Good art and artists employ strategies that spiral you back through this path leading you from motif in the object to the thing that is living.  Ravi presents his diary, Ambient Seas, as a strategy to undertake an immersive journey in oceanic waters by making visible his own process of idea to image. For many artists writing, note taking, scribbles and doodles are integral for the completion of an engagement. A diary is a point of rumination and by making this visible to the public, the artist invites engagement with source material thus encouraging individual interactions with ideas and images. We are allowed, in a sense, views of image blueprints and this visibility accepts the possibility of diverse points of view – the image is not sacrosanct but act as gateways, much like the diary.

At the start I located a meditative practice onto the exhibition on the back of Lunar Tide, of letting the image simply be. Coincidentally Ravi also made a video, Neithal, of the sea at night. Here the sea is not silent but its own voice has been transposed by multiple voices – Sangam poetry, acoustic depth measurement and notes on climate change. Watching the video is akin to being inside Ravi’s head; of imagining multiple thoughts and references – pillars which support his involvement – crashing around inside as he sat silent and still facing the sea. It reminds me of the movie Being John Malkovich, multiple voices converse and collide and their simultaneous location is both playful and a tinge psychotic. Environmentalists use several techniques from scientific rationale, thoughtful narrative to rabid militarism to comprehend, control and converse with Nature.

Deeksha Nath
New Delhi, September 2015


His work may be viewed on www.raviagarwal.com

Ravi Agarwal is the founder of the environmental NGO Toxics Link www.toxicslink.org
Yamuna Elbe project can be viewed at
www.yamuna-elbe.de  and  www.yamuna-elbe.org

Short List of Publications on the river:

Agarwal,  R. Immersion. Emergence. New Delhi: Youthreach (2006)

Have you seen the flowers on the river? New Delhi: Khoj Artists'
Association (2010)

 Reimaging the River, in Nanda, R. (ed.) Seminar 657, May 2014, 
New Delhi

Fluid Landscapes’ in Nature and History, Cederof  &Rangarajan
  (eds.) Seminar 673, September 2015, New Delhi

Agarwal & Krause (ed). Yamuna Manifesto. New Delhi: Goethe Institute and  
 Toxics Link (2013)



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