Notations on Time: Where dreams intersect with history

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How do you artistically explore, enter, and experience the labyrinthian, many-sided aspect of time? This is what curators Sandhini Poddar and Sabih Ahmed venture forth, through the brilliant group show titled ‘Notations on Time’ at the Ishara Art Foundation in Dubai.

The works of 20 contemporary artists are carefully drawn from across the Indian subcontinent and its diaspora.

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The exhibition is “an experiment in conjuring an eco-system of time where dreams intersect with history, and seasonal cycles with the measure of each breath. This exhibition is an attempt to read time against an urge to measure it, where works of art serve as fragments, haikus, and ciphers,” says Sabih Ahmed, Associate Director and Curator at Ishara.

“Time exists in innumerable, simultaneous registers,” according to Poddar, Art Historian and Adjunct Curator at the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Project.

There is a unique dialogue between artistic generations at work here, highlighting entanglements between the past, present, and future. The curators approach time in tiny fragments, not as an all-encompassing paradigm.

These artists operate very much outside the Western canon. ‘Notations on Time’ adds to our understanding of the art practices and their approach towards “aesthetics, existence, remembrance, and futurity.”

Installation view of ‘Notations on Time’ at Ishara Art Foundation, 2023. (Image courtesy: Ishara Art Foundation and the artists. Photo by Ismail Noor/Seeing Things.)
Installation view of ‘Notations on Time’ at Ishara Art Foundation, 2023. (Image courtesy: Ishara Art Foundation and the artists. Photo by Ismail Noor/Seeing Things.)

“Where and how do we ‘read’ time? On bodies, skins, machines, rivers, landscapes, and stars. Within wormholes in cosmic space and underground, in unseen root systems, within site-readings from archaeological and evidentiary fieldwork, within ancestry and oral traditions, within myths, folklore, and storytelling, within science fiction and mixed realities, within long-dead stars in the cosmos viewed through powerful telescopes, and so much more. The exhibition poses questions such as, ‘what happens when residues from the past are reincarnated into the future? Where does the jurisdiction of the present end? What is the future of the past? What possibilities can the space of an exhibition offer to think through these questions?,’” explains Sabih Ahmed during a tour of the exhibition.

Inter-generational influences, cultural efflorescence, and political underpinnings reveal itself out of the juxtapositions the curators undertake and become clear to the viewer as they take in the show.

At the entrance to the show are two tiny teak boxes containing offset-printed image cards by renowned photographer Dayanita Singh titled ‘Box of Shedding’ and the ‘Pothi Box,’ created in 2018, that can be shuffled over time and point to ‘structures of memory’ harking back to a precolonial era.

Installation view of ‘Notations on Time’ at Ishara Art Foundation, 2023. (Image courtesy: Ishara Art Foundation and the artists. Photo by Ismail Noor/Seeing Things.)
Installation view of ‘Notations on Time’ at Ishara Art Foundation, 2023. (Image courtesy: Ishara Art Foundation and the artists. Photo by Ismail Noor/Seeing Things.)



Artist cum activist Chandraguptha Thenuwara’s ‘Beautification’ (White cement, 2013) symbolizes the timeline of violent civil strife in his home country of Sri Lanka, and the destruction of the cultural monuments that followed in the name of beautification to erase recent history. The fallen Themis (Goddess of justice) points to the trampling of civil rights, falsification of history, and the different parts of the work are scattered across the gallery floor.

Thenuwara, based in Colombo and The Netherlands, poses difficult questions on the relation between time and justice.

Anoli Perera, Detail view of ‘Watch Series’ (2020). Shown in ‘Notations on Time’ at Ishara Art Foundation, 2023. (Image courtesy: Ishara Art Foundation and the artist. Photo by Ismail Noor/Seeing Things.)
Anoli Perera, Detail view of ‘Watch Series’ (2020). Shown in ‘Notations on Time’ at Ishara Art Foundation, 2023. (Image courtesy: Ishara Art Foundation and the artist. Photo by Ismail Noor/Seeing Things.)

Soumya Sankar Bose’s ‘Where the Birds Never Sing’ (2017-2020) is a revisitation of a dark chapter – the Marichjhapi massacre in the Sunderbans in the Indian state of West Bengal in 1979. The refugees who occupied legally protected reserve forest land were forcibly dispersed. The photographic series is the result of a long-term research project unearthing bitter memories that have been deliberately erased by the state. The artist meets the few survivors, and the photos are re-enactments of those stories and memories of a violent past. The work points to the question of time and how repressed memory can be brought to light on a tragedy that should hang heavy on a nation’s conscience.

Soumya Sankar Bose, Installation view of ‘Where the Birds Never Sing’ (2017-2020). Shown in Notations on Time at Ishara Art Foundation, 2023. (Image courtesy: Ishara Art Foundation and the artist. Photo by Ismail Noor/Seeing Things.)
Soumya Sankar Bose, Installation view of ‘Where the Birds Never Sing’ (2017-2020). Shown in Notations on Time at Ishara Art Foundation, 2023. (Image courtesy: Ishara Art Foundation and the artist. Photo by Ismail Noor/Seeing Things.)

Aziz Hazara’s video titled ‘Monument’ is a powerful work that locates the memory of a suicide bombing at a tuition center that killed more than 40 students. It depicts a collective graveyard and community memorial, sensitively revealing intimate details. The work is also a broader meditation on loss and remembrance.

New Delhi-based Sheba Chhachhi’s series of eight silver gelatine photographs titled ‘Silver Sap’ (2007) documents a senior healer and caregiver at work and “challenges conventional notions of beauty and identity.” The work carefully avoids exploitative representations of the female body. Time takes on another form and meaning as the work boldly tackles the subject of the ‘laboring body’ and the ‘sensuality of the aging.’

During a discussion about her work hosted by Ishara, Chhachhi described her techniques as “building time into the image,” and "constellating multiple temporalities ” – a perfect example of which would be ‘Silver Sap.’

Anoli Perera, based between Colombo, Sri Lanka, and New Delhi, India, grapples with the themes of space, time, body, memory, and domesticity. In the ‘Watch Series’ (2020) mixed media on paper, she deals with the gap in real time, and the anxieties emanating from her relationship with her aging mother.

A page from Raqs Media Collective’s book ’Seepage’ is blown up as an installation (vinyl board), an infra vocabulary of the present moment, or a contemporary ‘visual chant.’ The practice of the New Delhi-based Raqs itself is a “restless and energetic entanglement with the world and with time.”

Ladhki Devi, based in Western India, is a practitioner of Warli art. She uses rice-flour paste to create a world of goddesses and gods. Following in her footsteps is her son, Rajesh Chaitya Vangad , another accomplished Warli art practitioner, who collaborates with the artist and photographer Gauri Gill. The works ‘Dasha Mata’ by Devi and ‘Dussehra in the Temple’ by Gill and Vangad are separated in time but share the style and symbolism of celebrating Mother Nature, along with preserving an age-old traditional art lineage. Local and urban impulses are juxtaposed in the collaborative work between Gill and Vangad.

Installation view of ‘Notations on Time’ at Ishara Art Foundation, 2023. (Image courtesy: Ishara Art Foundation and the artists. Photo by Ismail Noor/Seeing Things.)
Installation view of ‘Notations on Time’ at Ishara Art Foundation, 2023. (Image courtesy: Ishara Art Foundation and the artists. Photo by Ismail Noor/Seeing Things.)



Similarly, J. Swaminathan’s untitled work (1980) shares the theme of ecological co-dependence as Jangarh Singh Shyam’s Untitled (nests in a cave) (1995). It was Swaminathan who discovered the unknown Shyam in his native village practicing in the Gond tribal style of Madhya Pradesh, and made him famous internationally.

The work of late Lala Rukh and her student and colleague Maria Lookman are positioned side by side and almost become mirror images, revealing inter-generational time.

Shezad Dawood, Installation view of Kalimpong (Ekai Kawaguchi & Alexandra David-Néel) (2016). Shown in ‘Notations on Time’ at Ishara Art Foundation, 2023. (Image courtesy: Ishara Art Foundation and the artist. Photo by Ismail Noor/Seeing Things.)
Shezad Dawood, Installation view of Kalimpong (Ekai Kawaguchi & Alexandra David-Néel) (2016). Shown in ‘Notations on Time’ at Ishara Art Foundation, 2023. (Image courtesy: Ishara Art Foundation and the artist. Photo by Ismail Noor/Seeing Things.)

Late Zarina’s ‘The Ten Thousand Things’ (2016), a set of 100 collages, is also a portable index of ‘diasporic time’. Born in Aligarh, India, the artist traversed the world and settled in New York. Her work as a feminist and as a printmaker earned her laurels. The after-effects of the partition which she experienced found expression in her work, and the dominant theme was a longing for home, mother tongue, and faith.

There are many artists and their works that are in conversation with each other in terms of their stylistic rhythms and ethos.

Haroon Mirza, Installation view of ‘Light Work xlix’ (2022). Shown in ‘Notations on Time’ at Ishara Art Foundation, 2023. (Image courtesy: Ishara Art Foundation and the artist. Photo by Ismail Noor/Seeing Things.)
Haroon Mirza, Installation view of ‘Light Work xlix’ (2022). Shown in ‘Notations on Time’ at Ishara Art Foundation, 2023. (Image courtesy: Ishara Art Foundation and the artist. Photo by Ismail Noor/Seeing Things.)

On the mezzanine floor, London-based Haroon Mirza’s ‘Light Work xlix’ (2022), a seemingly simple work depicting the golden ratio, a work that stays on your mind long after you leave that dark room. Time becomes very relative here. The red, blue, green LED light on the floor combine and radiate to produce a white halo on the ceiling. Mirza’s work nudges the viewer to contemplate time beyond the terrestrial. The dark rock anchored on the floor seems to be floating in outer space! Instead of being seen as science fiction or an experiment with electricity and light, the work relates to the early phase of his foray into this mode of creation and its interplay with human beings and Nature.

Read more:

Navjot Altaf at Ishara: Art, activism, and the larger web of life

Jitish Kallat explores interrelationship between the cosmic and the terrestrial

Iraqi curator Mona Al-Jadir rethinks how institutional memory can be displayed

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