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Two photographically-based shows on view now at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in Boston perch at opposite ends of the genre of “conceptual art.” To be sure, this is a daring curatorial decision, one of many designed to cement the ICA’s experimental niche in a city filled with exhibiting organizations. “In Search of Vanished Blood” features the 2012 multi-media installation by Nalini Malani, “India’s foremost video and installation artist and a committed activist for women’s rights.” A layered cacophony of visual and auditory commotion, it contrasts sharply with the contemplative exhibit by American Liz Deschenes, spanning 20 years of her seminal sculptural photography. Both are being shown through October 16, 2016.
There is no shortage of women making spectacular photographic work today. So first off, I’d like to applaud the ICA for addressing an ingrained representational inequity by showing two of them at the same time. For one, it proves how different women’s perspectives can be, since the “women’s viewpoint” cliché seems to require constant reproach. With this truism effectively dismissed, viewers are instead permitted to consider of a host of more fascinating contrasts imbedded in the perspective of each artist.
A veteran political and social activist, at 70 years old Nalini Malani deftly and unequivocally dispenses the message of a violent and dangerous world. A refugee from Pakistan to India in her youth, she was witness to the hostilities that accompanied the Partition of India after WWII, to the cruelties of Indian religious fundamentalism in the 1990’s and to an ubiquitous cultural brutality toward women. These seminal experiences are the canvas upon which Malani builds a much larger interpretation of life.
Malani is a big thinker, contextualizing her own experiences with references to international poets and writers, from the revolutionary Pakistani writer Faiz Ahmad Faiz (from whose poem Malani created her title, “In Search of Vanished Blood”) to Irish playwright Samuel Beckett. As much as she blends Eastern and Western influences, Malani integrates historical and contemporary art forms: shadow drawings reminiscent of magic lantern presentations are projected onto the walls of her signature installation, overlaying color digital photographs of women’s faces, hands and bodies.
In an adjoining room, eight prints from her 2015 series The Angel of Despair layer close-up photographs of young women, maps of the world and Malani’s pointedly primitive drawings. Her positioning of body parts, fruits of the earth and agents of war add to the overall tension in her work.
By purposely presenting her many conceptual elements simultaneously, Malani effectively compresses her expansive ideas into an overwhelmingly visceral experience. As disturbing as it is ingenious, she succeeds in engaging both the gut and the mind.
The cerebral and tranquil work of Liz Deschenes could not be more diametrically opposed to Nalini Malani’s in both concept and presentation, but it is no less thought provoking. It all depends on what you’re thinking about. Deschenes is thinking about seeing, which tantamount to thinking about thinking. It can get very “meta”, which has its critics, but Deschenes transcends all that by making work that is visually appealing and playfully intriguing.
Through a combination of B&W and color photography, camera-less photograms, free standing frames and site-specific sculptural installations, Deschenes exploits the premise of optical illusions to provoke our curiosity. In effect, she has produced myriad ways to generate one fundamental question: how do we perceive? This is a great quest, one that has compelled generations of Neuroscientists, myself included. And it’s no less fascinating when you realize that, to an extent, perception varies from person to person.
Deschenes utilizes a variety of photographic techniques and display methods to invite the viewer’s interaction with her work and the spaces she creates around each installation. However it remains incumbent on us to play along and experiment. The serenity of the actual pieces does not immediately provoke this response, however, and if you’re shy, you may miss out on the point of Deschenes work, which is to test the ways in which the work changes with your distance, angle, even your frame of mind.
That said, there are pieces that require explanation, like a shiny, bright “green screen”, displayed like a photographer’s backdrop from wall onto the floor and out toward the viewer. Not a compelling piece in itself, when you read that it is meant as a play on the idea that, on television, the “green screen” becomes invisible behind telecasters and, paradoxically, confers flattering skin tone to people of color (until recently, nearly “invisible” on network TV), the artwork transforms into an “aha!” moment.
Similar “ahas!” can be had throughout this expansive 20-year retrospective exhibit, as with “Elevation”, a series of prints color-coded to correspond to those found on topographical maps, displayed horizontally but absent the landscapes to which they refer. Or “Moiré, 2009”, a series of dizzying patterns that appear to pulsate in different ways, depending on your viewpoint. These B&W-appearing prints are actually layered constructions utilizing cyan (blue) to create a red afterimage when viewed. Whether or not you understand the optical underpinnings and photographic methodology of Deschenes’ work, pieces like this stand on their own with captivating visual aesthetics.
I especially enjoyed Deschenes new piece, created specifically for the curtain windows in the ICA’s John Hancock Founders Gallery, a series of eleven boxes containing concave, reflective photograms, set against the backdrop of Boston Harbor. To me, this work epitomizes the artist’s open invitation to actively investigate her constructions. I suppose if you are not inclined that way, the purpose of Deschenes conceptual art could lack the richness she intends. But this is the danger of all conceptual art: if the viewer doesn’t engage with the work, it becomes just another pretty picture.
For more information about these exhibits, go to: https://www.icaboston.org/exhibitions
Feature Image: Installation view of Nalini Malani’s multi-media “In Search of Vanished Blood” at the ICA, Boston (photo courtesy ICA, Boston).