Curated by Bala Starr
31.01.14 to 15.03.14


Palette Art Gallery in association with The Australian High Commission  presents Dust, a solo exhibition of works by, Gigi Scaria .

Dust is being exhibited simultaneously at the Ian Potter Museum of Art in Melbourne, Australia, until March 9, 2014. The artist drew inspiration from Australia’s vast, open landscapes. Th e exhibition explores the geographical diversity of India and reveals the powerful connections between the Australian and Indian continents. Through a series of new video works, photographs and painting, the show presents stunning large-scale images of salt lakes and expanses of desert shot in Kutch and Jaisalmer.

“There is a fear and fascination on being an outsider but the vastness is also oddly comforting. There is a stoicism about the place.”

Dust takes its inspiration from a city consumed by the desert. It forewarns of the cyclical relationship of humanity and nature, as well as the ebb and flow of creation and destruction over time.



Reflections on ‘Dust’, A Project by Gigi Scaria

Ranjit Hoskote

“The ancient travel accounts will some day be as precious as the greatest works of art; for the earth was holy when unknown, and it will never be that again.”

– Elias Canetti, The Human Province [1]

1. The Violence of Mobility and Settlement

Gigi Scaria’s ensemble of twenty-five works, ‘Dust’ (2013), bears eloquent testimony to his continuing meditation on the vexed relationship between human ambition and the natural world. Comprising a large-scale painting, a suite of eighteen large-format photographs, five video works, and a video sculpture-installation, ‘Dust’ – a project developed at the invitation of the Ian Potter Museum, Melbourne – addresses one of the primary themes of Scaria’s art: the crisis that has been forced upon the planet as a result of the reckless onslaught that humankind has visited on its surroundings at a constantly accelerating pace since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. In his paintings, video works, sculptures and installations, the artist has often dwelled on the manner in which pasturelands, commons, mountains and valleys have all been relentlessly subjugated to settlement and its inevitable concomitants: architecture, pollution, and the loss of connection with the numinous, that cosmic dimension of belonging in space which might underwrite our brief and transitory passage in time. In the single-channel animation video, ‘Amusement Park’ (2009), he proposed a vision of the metropolis as the triumph of real estate over communitas: in the course of a 5-minute loop, a variety of architectural excrescences, all examples of the sort of glass-and-chrome futuristic kitsch that is globally favoured by contemporary developers, spring up and colonise the landscape. As they creak, groan and grind to life, these gimmicky constructions erase all prior forms of terrain and habitation, and even the memory of these. Instead, they impose on the locale and on our gaze their own impersonal, alienated and alienating presence.

In the 2006 animation video, ‘Panic City’, Scaria had already calibrated the rapidity and violence with which the character of a cityscape can be altered by urban expansion, as new buildings rise and rip through old neighbourhoods in staccato polychrome bursts. By this date, Scaria had already explored the psychological effects of such a process of rampant urbanisation through a poetics of amnesia and dislocation in his 14-minute video work, ‘The Lost City’ (2005), in which it is not the city, but the citizen who is lost: baffled by the erasure of landmarks, baffled by the sudden but constant changes in topography, he becomes subject to a radical disorientation of which the image of a compass rose, pointing to an elusive north, becomes the ironic symbol. Varied as they are in tonality, scale and affect – as is evident, they range widely, embracing melancholia and grim humour, elegy as well as fantasia – Scaria’s works offer his viewers a sense of aperture, an opening that disrupts the fabric of what we assume, from cynicism or resignation, to be our normality. Looking through it, we may situate ourselves in relation to those larger questions of which we have perhaps lost sight, in habituating ourselves to the limitations of normality.

I have invoked these earlier video works of Scaria’s in order to frame, not a new video work, but rather, the large, two-panel painting that dominates ‘Dust’. Intriguingly titled ‘Persona’ (watercolour and automotive paint on paper, 2013), it takes, as its protagonist, the formidable sandstone formation that rises above its low-lying surroundings in central Australia, southwest of Alice Springs: the Uluru/ Ayers Rock. In geological terms, Uluru is an ancient inselberg or ‘island mountain’, an isolated rock formation in an otherwise flat area. In cultural terms, it occupies a place of importance in the sacred lore and mythology of the Dreamtime: it is sacred to the Anangu, the Aboriginal people of the region, who regard it as the home of their ancestral spirits.

A locus sanctified by centuries of shamanic ritual practice, Uluru is an archetypal example of thetemenos, or sacred precinct; and yet it has been the subject of considerable dispute, in recent decades, between the upholders of Aboriginal religious belief systems on the one hand and the votaries of the tourism and heritage industry on the other. The question of who may have access to the Rock, and for what duration, has become a volatile political question. Those who regard it as a temenos treat the visits of pleasure-seekers and leisure trippers as a violation of holy ground; those who see it as a natural wonder have sought to make it accessible for hikers and those who follow nature trails. An operational compromise has been achieved through discussion between the various stakeholders in the issue. Scaria, while alive to local sensitivities around Uluru, lifts it from its specific cultural and political context and renders it into a universal symbol. In ‘Persona’, he skews the Narcissus myth into a dystopic, Kafkaesque anti-myth: in this painting, the Uluru/ Ayers Rock looks into a pool and sees, not its own reflection, but a semicircle of high-rise buildings: the future lies, not in the self-image as focus of adoration, but in a self transmogrified beyond understanding or remedy, and ripe with the potential for catastrophe.

In viewing this painting, we must also consider the reference, in its title and structure, to Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 cinematic classic, ‘Persona’, featuring Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann. Bergman’s ‘Persona’ is developed around the violent, disruptive twinning, the simultaneous pulling apart and near-identification between two women, Alma (played by Andersson) and Elisabet (Ullmann). I am tempted to read the Bergman film and the Scaria painting in adjacency – the logic of a simultaneous fusion and scission plays out in both works – although the artist observes that the film was not uppermost in his consciousness while he was working on the painting. Bergman’s ‘Persona’ is more of a psychological drama which deals with emotional complexities,” writes Scaria. “My idea was more about the persona of nature and the way the Uluru Rock reflects the ‘persona of a geography’.” [2]

Scaria’s preoccupation with the ‘persona of a geography’ points toward a significant aspect of his practice: his approach to landscape, to the moment when landscape-as-such is born from the bodied encounter between nature and the mobile observer’s gaze and agency. Trained as a painter and active as a film-maker, Scaria adopts the assumptions and techniques of both disciplines when he engages with the givenness of nature and the landscapes that are teased, crafted or wrested from it. In previous suites of work, he has emphasised the confrontation between nature and the observer/ intruder by shifting our viewerly attention, as it were counter-intuitively, from the former to the latter. In the wittily titled sculpture, ‘Someone left a horse on the shore’ (wood, mirror glass, metal wheel and paint, 2007), he presents us with a Trojan Horse cast as a mobile city, complete with rows of windows. Similarly, in the more pointedly named sculpture, ‘Settlement’ (wood, mirror glass and paint, 2009), he offers us an excavator, its clamshell bucket seemingly poised to drive a trench in the earth and dig out its resources; however, we see that the machine is, again, a moveable city, equipped with pleasure terraces above and the roller-shutters of storefronts below.

These sculptures achieve a seemingly surreal, even whimsical fusion of the apparently opposite mandates of mobility and settlement; in actuality, they symbolise the processes of ceaseless destruction that underwrite and quite literally undergird our metropolitan present. Scaria’s recurrent image of the tidal waves of identical, cookie-cutter apartment blocks intended for occupation by a new and burgeoning middle class reminds us poignantly of what has been lost: precisely that ‘persona of a geography’, disregarded by a policy of expansion that neither stops to develop an organic engagement with the site it has fastened upon, nor pauses to calibrate its effect on the complex entanglements of soil, water, rainfall and the seasons. Scaria’s engagement with mobility, and the manner in which it can poison the earth, creating and dissolving landscapes at whim, springs from his conviction that humankind’s transition from an ecologically responsive, rural way of life to an environmentally exploitative, urban mode of existence has provoked into being an inexorable logic of devastation. The activity of habitation involves the acts of demarcating territory and taking possession; soon, these acts are amplified into gestures of expansion and conquest, and the conquistador mobility of the modern self recognises no limits to its will, no horizons to contain its desire.

Indeed, as though in reaction against this, Scaria turns largely away from the world of habitation and the aggravations of collective life in ‘Dust’. He chooses to embrace, in dramatic contrast, such uninhabited and inhospitable tracts as still remain on this planet: the Rann of Kutch, a salt desert situated on India’s south-western border with Pakistan; and the sands that stretch around Jaisalmer, a city in the Thar desert in Rajasthan, also on India’s border with Pakistan. While both the Rann and Jaisalmer incarnate the condition of the border, the site of dispute, hostility and – several times since 1947 – of warfare between the two major rival nations in South Asia, the artist’s choice of these zones is not political in any topical sense; indeed, his exploration of these classical loci of solitary retreat and sudden revelation is more introspective in tenor. It would not be too far-fetched to suggest that Scaria’s quest, especially in the video works that form a major part of the constellation of ‘Dust’, is inspired by the possibility that one might usefully search for that holiness which the earth’s as-yet uncharted regions seem to protect and promise to the attentive questor, as Elias Canetti indicates in the passage quoted at the head of this essay.

2. The Journey and the Desert

The crunch of boots on salt-encrusted ground; the cloud mirrored in brackish water; the onrush of wind barely stopped in its track by rock outcrops; the expanse of drought-fissured fields: we are seized, in the suite of video works that form part of ‘Dust’, by the sensory richness of austere experiences. Whether he is crossing a salt desert, traversing scrubland, or negotiating a stretch of sandy wasteland, Scaria invites us to attend to such entries, recorded in a journal of furrowed earth and salt desert. The auditory, as much as the visual sense, dominates these works. It prompts a hallucinatory participation in micro-level happenings that are rendered with all the enigmatic resonance of momentous events.

These works summon us to a threshold of alertness where we apprehend every rustle and quiver in observed reality. At the same time, by reducing the conditions of representation to a spare minimum, Scaria deepens our temporal sensitivity. He conveys a visionary awareness of the intimations, more subtle than apparent, that reality offers to a sensibility tuned to its cryptic language of signs. In the solitude and estrangement from normality that the wilderness imposes, the weight of events is felt more clearly and sharply than when one is carried along on the current of normality. Everyday events do not evaporate but settle in the mind as precipitates, assume the character of meditative signals. Consider, for instance, the 3-minute single-channel video work ‘Followers’ (2013), set at the edge between scrub and desert in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan. Shown on a large monitor, this work is restful, seemingly an excellent example of the deceptive ‘documentary aesthetic’ [4] that characterises this suite of works: a flock of sheep follow their leader, the bellwether, across the frame; when the bellwether stops, they stop; when the bellwether sits, they sit. An unremarkable moment in the millennial history of grazing animals takes on, for a brief moment of illumination, the gravity of a parable about societies and their unthinking adherence to uncritical conformity. ‘Inverted’ (2013), a mysterious 3-minute single-channel video, does not yield up a moral so easily: it captures our attention with its single capsized boat floating on a pool of brackish water, which we recognise to be water only through the sign of the boat. Left to itself, it would be a cauldron in shades of brown and tan, set in the midst of crystalline salt accretions, as if in a phantasmagoria conjured up by Coleridge.

Scaria’s travels into these difficult, climatically hostile regions were not made on the spur of the moment, in some Romantic act of turning away. They involved careful planning and preparation, and the company of an expert who could guide him through the physically and psychologically demanding experience of being far outside the zone of comfort within which a city-dweller sustains himself. As he entered the Rann and scoured the dunelands of the Thar, though, he found himself absorbed into the solitude of the questor. He found the distinction between space and time dissolving, without any firm features in relation to which he could anchor the miles or the hours; he re-figured it through gesture, by running into the zone, or towards the camera, by striding purposefully towards an island of vegetation in the far distance, by circling around a rare pool of water. These gestures were traced on the surface of impermanence: they left no mark on the uncharted terrain, which is governed by its own infinitesimal rhythms of periodic change; they made sense only to the extent that they allowed the artist, Crusoe-like, to map, measure and memorialise his own activity in the face of the natural expanses in which he found himself.

His situation was not unlike that annotated by Bruce Chatwin, indefatigable connoisseur of the anatomy of restlessness, in The Songlines: “Any nomad migration must be organized with the precision and flexibility of a military campaign. Behind, the grass is shriveling. Ahead, the passes may be blocked with snow. Most nomads claim to ‘own’ their migration path (in Arabic Il-Rāh, ‘The Way’), but in practice they only lay claim to seasonal grazing rights. Time and space are thus dissolved around each other: a month and a stretch of road are synonymous.” [3] The encounters that Scaria stages with the natural elements in ‘Dust’ remind us that the desert, the expanse of seeming nothingness, has historically been identified as a place of solitude and revelation. Classically, in the Abrahamic tradition, it is the site of prophecy and revelation, gnosis and self-discovery.

Across the spiritual traditions and wisdom lineages of the world, too, it has been one of the requirements of shamanic initiation or Gnostic retreat for the questor to step outside his or her zone of comfort, to risk the Self in the face of the Other or in the presence of Elsewhere. Whether the questor is a pilgrim, an explorer, a shaman or, more modestly, a tourist, to go on a journey is to invite the risk of transformation through the hermeneutics of encounter, by entering a threshold space, a liminal situation where one’s identity might be transmuted or re-defined. Travelling, especially over long distances requiring prolonged exposure to nature at its most direct, can prompt an access into meditative states. Such travel also encourages a profound investigation into the assumptions of belonging: does one belong simply and unproblematically within such regular frameworks of definition as ethnicity, nationality, sectarian or civic affiliation; or must one lay these aside to demonstrate a responsiveness to a larger, more inclusive, even cosmic dimension of life? Such questions inhabit Scaria’s new performance video works, ‘Hour Glass’ and ‘Once Upon A Time’.

3. The Terrors and Consolations of the Horizon

A moving figure occupies our attention in the vacant expanse that fills the frame in the 5-minute single-channel video, ‘Hour Glass’ (2013). Its movements are staged against the horizon that marks the border between a salt desert and an acetylene sky: it’s close enough to arouse our interest in its fate, but too far away to tell whether it’s approaching us or moving away. On balance, it seems to be moving away. Or is it? Clearly, this is a human figure, in all its indecisiveness, anxiety and vulnerability in the cosmic scheme of things. In fact, it is the artist himself. Scaria’s moving figure, its performance set in the Rann of Kutch, can trace its descent from a genealogy that begins with Caspar David Friedrich’s celebrated Rückenfigur, the figure seen from behind: a figure of mystery, melancholia, embodying a profound longing for the infinite, a nostalgia for some cosmic state of being and belonging from which, it would appear, humankind has ben decisively exiled.

At once vatic and disenfranchised, the Rückenfigur has fascinated Scaria over a considerable period. It recurs in ‘Wanderer above the Sea’ (watercolour on paper, 2009), his riff on the famous Friedrich painting, ‘Wanderer above the Sea of Fog’ (oil, 1818). Friedrich’s hero with his coat flapping in the wind – adopted by the votaries of Romanticism and still frequently cited in an array of cultural productions including post-apocalyptic science-fiction movies – is replaced in Scaria’s version by a man costumed in the regalia of a prince of British Raj vintage. Instead of the fog-carpeted mountain ranges of the original, this visitor from the colonial past gazes out at a vista of built form, sierra upon sierra of high-rise apartment blocks at the edge of some Indian metropolis. The Rückenfigur leads the viewer into the space of uncertainty and mystery, which invites exploration: terra incognita. If Scaria has been disposed to subject it to affectionate irony in earlier works, he follows it, in ‘Dust’, as a guide pointing to out-of-body feelings of awe in the face of an overwhelming, once-lost totality, a recognition of the Sublime.

The presence of the Sublime suffuses the entire action of the 32-minute single-channel video, ‘Once upon a Time’ (2013), which consists of the artist’s sighting of, and approach towards, an island of vegetation that manifests itself like an apparition in the middle of the salt desert. Is it an oasis? Is it a mirage? The horizon communicates itself here as an edge, beyond which may lie unnamed terrors; yet it also promises the consolations of a destination etched against the blankness of the desert. It sets a limit for endurance, but also a boundary condition to be hoped for, a goal whose accomplishment may be anticipated. The distant vegetation of the island, at first illusory and unreal, gradually gains definition and reality as it comes into view, and is finally arrived at; the island’s orange mass stands out against the crystal-veined surface of the salt desert. The title clues us to what the mythologist and scholar of world religions, Mircea Eliade, would have described as the in illo tempore character of this work: barely camouflaged by the tonality of documentation, this is a fabular composition, a quest narrative; its temporality is that of the myth of the heroic journey.

In his video works, Scaria has returned constantly to another obsessive articulation of the horizon: to the movement of the eye as it follows a vehicle moving across the landscape, along yet also against the line of the horizon. In his five-channel video, ‘Prisms of Perception’ (4 min 25 sec; 2010), for instance, a train travels from left to right across five screens, shifting seamlessly from one avatar to another as it goes: it switches rapidly from the temporality and speed of the old-fashioned freight train through various and increasingly sophisticated stages of locomotive innovation, until it shoots across the last screen as a shinkansen or bullet train. The origins of this recurrent image of the train as vehicle, symbol and subject of irrevocable historical change in Scaria’s oeuvre lie in a childhood memory: in Kothanalloor, his childhood home in the southern Indian state of Kerala, the railway tracks ran behind his home, so that the sight and sound of passing trains are encoded into his recollection. In ‘Dust’, Scaria articulates his fascination with the horizon – which sets up a limit, marks a perimeter of anticipation, and invites transgression in the form of exploration, all at once – in the hexagonal video sculpture-installation, ‘Against Gravity’ (2013). Its 3-minute loop, circling across six panels, follows the routine of a truck carrying a freight of salt across the adobe and umber tones of a flat, relatively featureless landscape. The truck breaches the continuity and eternity of the horizon, replacing it with a metronomy of its own.

Whether by re-enacting the questor’s mythic journey or re-activating the shock of historical transformation, Scaria refastens the wandering consciousness to an awareness of beginnings, a reverie of renewal and replenishment, a drama of anticipation.

4. Finding the Way by Losing It

The title of Scaria’s exhibition, unadorned as it seems, carries the resonance of a familiar yet ominous Biblical phrase, which occurs in the fate that God spells out for Adam while expelling him and Eve from the Garden of Eden. As mortals on earth, the cycle of strenuous labour is to be their lot, from which the only amnesty is death; as the Lord phrases it in Genesis 3:19, in the Standard King James Bible version: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” This awareness of the transitory nature of human existence, combined with the permanent effects of human intervention in the planet’s life, informs Scaria’s project: as he surveys the evidence of ecological devastation in the zones he explores, he appears to perform a palpation, to borrow a term from medical practice: palpation is the procedure employed by a medical practitioner while physically examining a patient, during which s/he may probe by touch, using degrees of gentle pressure, to feel and define the location, contour, size or firmness of an internal object, usually an organ.

In his suite of eighteen large-format photographs presented as part of ‘Dust’, Scaria performs a palpation of the terrestrial expanses that open before him, probing them at the scale of intimacy by adroit means of the detail. He pauses to record the endless overhead electric lines that cross the wasteland, the poles anchored by stone weights to hold them in place during sandstorms; in one place, he stops to mourn a pole that has been hurled to the ground by the wind and broken. Elsewhere, his camera registers birds among heaped mountains of salt being readied for processing and transportation to depots in distant cities. The well-worn circular tracks of lorries in the sludge suggest a ritual order when they are merely evidence of industrial processes; a channel hacked through brackish land gives us the impression of water surging like electricity whilst, in fact, it must struggle to articulate itself against the choking residues of summer drought and monsoon freshet. Dune, dust, salt, sand, silt, sludge, mud: lavishly rendering the striated, sedimentary textures of the unpromising materials found in ditch, trench and pit, Scaria’s photographic images seem to spell out the alphabet of another planet, a planet that discloses itself to those who would journey across it without maps. We have no names for the places he shows us.

By this circuitous detour through western India, with their marked affinities to the outback, Scaria leads us to confront a question that has been central to the political imagination of the Australian nation: that of cartography, its use as a scientific instrument and its abuse as a mode of ideological fantasy. Too often, the map does not underline what exists in nature so much as it naturalises cultural associations that have been invented. We are reminded, by these images, of Australia’s specific history of cartography, and the intensity with which the map has served as combat ground between settlement and mobility, colonialism and justice. In Australia, the European explorer’s map embodied the expansionist imperial desire to make sense of the earth and fix that sense in stable definitions; its advent banished from history the intuitive modes by which the Aboriginal people divined the voices, shapes and memories accreted into a landscape generated through song, rite and story, an earth that continually renewed its enchantment by disclosing itself to the travelling imagination and reaffirmed the traveller’s coordinates of belonging.

The historian Paul Carter, meditating on the interval between the existence of a place independent of foreign observers who arrive with their imperial ambitions and their establishment of dominion over it in name, fact and brutal intervention, observes: “Before the name: what was the place like before it was named? … The sound of voices calling to each other out of sight, displaying the invisible space, making it answer. Birds with human voices. The legend of giants. What we see is what the firstcomers did not see: a place, not a historical space. A place, a historical fact, detached from its travellers; static, at anchor, as if it was always there, bland, visible. Standing at this well-known point, the spatial event is replaced by a historical stage. Only the actors are absent. Even as we look towards the horizon or turn away down fixed routes, our gaze sees through the space of history, as if it was never there. In its place, nostalgia for the past, cloudy time, the repetition of facts. The fact that where we stand and how we go is history: this we do not see.” [5]

In Gigi Scaria’s understanding of the world, you travel best when you put away the map, embrace the land most completely when you have no names to navigate by and no names to bestow: you find the way only by losing it.

Notes & References

1. Elias Canetti, The Human Province (trans. Joachim Neugroschel; New York: The Seabury Press, 1978), p. 21.

2. Gigi Scaria, pers. comm.: email exchange with the author, 22 August 2013.

3. Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines (London: Picador, 1987), p. 205.

4. The phrase is the artist’s. Gigi Scaria, pers. comm.: email exchange with the author, 22 August 2013.

5. Paul Carter, The Road to Botany Bay: An Essay in Spatial History (London: Faber & Faber, 1987), pp. xiii-xiv.