Frozen World of the Familiar Stranger, hosted in collaboration with Kadist, San Francisco at Khoj Studios, explores our collective growing sense of anonymity and alienation in a global urban life, reports Hemavathy Guha
Khoj Studios at New Delhi’s Khirkee Extension, which has made its mark for hosting avant garde exhibitions and performances, recently organized an exhibition titled ‘Frozen World of the Familiar Stranger.’ The exhibition, curated by Heidi Rabben (Kadist) and Sitara Chowfla (Khoj) was earlier held at Kadist in San Francisco in 2016. Kadist is a non-profit organization originating from its spaces in Paris and San Francisco, and extending to a wide reaching network of artists, curators and advisors.
The exhibition mainly comprised video films made by ten Indian and international artists barring one or two who had exhibited paintings and installations. The title of the exhibition had been taken from the 1974 essay by social psychologist Stanley Milgram by the same name and examined the isolation and loneliness which humans feel in an urban sphere. As Chowfla says, “Frozen world offers an almost satirical point of view on the human condition and what it means to be alive together in the present and in the constructed future.” I felt that even the cover of the catalogue accompanying the exhibition was an uncanny silver grey resembling a frozen snow. While it should be admitted that a lot of research had gone into selecting the films as well as the artists keeping the theme of the exhibition, yet some of the films stood out for the sheer technical mastery over the medium and presentation. The film titled La Town (2014), a single channel video by Cao Fei, a Chinese artist of global recognition, for instance, took us to the future of our cities. Using tiny models and clay figures, the film beginning with a slow motion, picked up pace where we were transported to a future world, with dead cows, revolving cities, ruins of a McDonald restaurant and finally a waterlogged ‘la town’. In the midst, the film was interspersed with a conversation between two people discussing about ‘la town’. As the accompanying catalogue mentions ‘overlaid with a French existential narrative, La Town poses serious questions about the future of humanity, isolation and connectivity in a city that is at once no city and every city. The Cloud of Unknowing (2011), a video by Ho Tzu Nyen, Singapore, showed eight characters in as many apartments, although you felt that they were all sharing the same building as the cloud from one room raised and moved up or down and engulfed another person or a vacant space. Ho Tzu often collaborates with theatre professionals and the lighting in his films is orchestered as could be felt in this film with various hues of black, grey and white merging and coalescing to a smooth flow. The tripartite video projected as a single video by the Peruvian artist Maya Watanabe, titled El Contorno was strategically being screened in the center as you entered the Khoj studio area. The video had three panels, three spaces although the architecture looked similar and different performers and speeches ‘interspersed among the narrators. Even if one could not really grasp the dialogues, the video was technically superb with the narrators emerging and dispersing and the architecture too shifting in sync. Escaped Lunatic (2010-11) by Steffani Jemison, US, was one of my favourite as the film showed a stream of figures (mostly black Americans) running across a field, jumping over a fence or rolling and sprinting through the streets of Houston. The film connected the unjust conditions of urban life and representation of black community across time. Steffani employs the ‘chase genre’, which has often depicted African Americans in scenes of flight from various forms of authority.
As you move across to another room, you witness Tejal Shah’s Channel II, Landfill Dance in which dancers wearing white dresses, masks and figures of insects like cockroaches on their dresses, moved and danced on a landfill site. One of the dancers particularly imitated the crouching, raising on hind legs and the flight of a cockroach quite well and you could almost feel the roach whirring past you. Evoking a sense of nausea and despair, the film brought out one dimension of urban life. There were also other videos and collage by the same artist. Himali Sing’s video Radar Level reversed between two sets of projections, one consisting of water and the other of a desert. Various forms emerged consisting of humans in space suits before the space age and dinosaur fossils. Kartik Sood displayed two videos which consisted of animated paintings and two mini sculptures in iron and clay titled Alone Among Many, 2016. In the video, there was very slow movement of the painted figures and the head in the sculptures was set within a box at a low level looking ahead.
Just Near The Café was a video by Iranian artist Farideh Lashai. Titled Keep Your Stomach Empty…, the work reminded you of Ragubir Kaleka’s synchronized paintings and videos. Keeping the painting by the 19th century Iranian artist Sani ol Molk as a background, the video showed the oppression and fear evoked by mullas who were depicted shooing away an interrupting rabbit while saying their prayers and having a feast. Set in slow motion, the film was closer to a painting.
In Racheal Rose’s video Sitting, Feeding, Sleeping, we see different characters not related to each other like a polar bear, grapes being nibbled at, peacocks and pigeons strutting about .The video also talked about how people tried to preserve dead bodies in a cryogenic lab, basic scientific facts in a robotic perception lab, to animal care within zoos across the US. In all three spaces, the animals were caught between being alive and not being alive. Sahej Rahal had exhibited photographs documenting his performances titled Keeper, 2015 and Katabasis, 2011. As mentioned in the catalogue, Keeper was shot in Shodoshima, Japan, at the foothold of the Yoshida Dam, which holds a manmade island behind it. Katabasis features a burly shamanic being occupying the only working elevator, and physically impeding the movement of other residents, as they attempt to move in and out of the building. Both Himali Singh Soin and Sahej Rahal also performed on different days.