Is Time Just an Illusion? A Review of "Notations on Time" at Ishara Art Foundation
By Harmehar Maini
Published on April 12th 2023
“Time is your ally” - is a quote my mother reiterated since I was a child. While I only understand its deeper essence now, I do fathom that us humans are obsessed by the notion of time – something intangible, that nevertheless creates an illusion. Some might say time is an illusion. From Dali to Pippin, the concept of “time” has indeed received much attention throughout art history.
How we interpret time is a question that Notations on Time, an ongoing exhibition held at Ishara Art Foundation, Alserkal Avenue, Dubai, seeks to ask. Curated by Sandhini Poddar and Sabih Ahmed, Notations on Time is a group exhibition running until May 20, 2023 that comprises 20 artists from South Asia and its diaspora. The exhibition encourages a conversation between artistic generations that lays emphasis on connections between the past, present, and future.
While I have not viewed the exhibition in-person, my digital outlook through Ishara Foundation’s website and Instragram made me discover an artist selection I was very pleased with. I have been following Ayesha Sultana and Zarina & Dayanita Singh for a long time now. The theme of the exhibition, however, resonates with me the most. While having a look at the exhibition it struck me how seamlessly the curators picked different works of art that represent highly diverse forms of the notion with time. The works naturally flowed and were in sync with one another. The exhibition poses a good question - “where and how do we ‘read’ time?” The answer is simple if we notice beautifully natural and obvious things in front of us like bodies, skins, machines, rivers, landscapes, stars, and much more.
It is no secret that Dubai is making calculative strides to strengthen its status as one of the world’s leading creative hubs, and this has also become an advantage to the South Asian region. Because of its demographic makeup, the UAE understands and appreciates art other than Western art trends, which gives the UAE’s contemporary art scene a fresh personality. Over the past decade, South Asian artists have been receiving great attention thanks to Art Dubai, Sharjah Art Foundation, Volte Art Projects, Ishara Art Foundatation and many more venues. This creates a multifaceted scenario where artists, gallerists, and new-generation collectors benefit from one another. Ishara has played a pivotal role in representing artists from South Asia, now and even in the past.
In this following interview, we take a multipolar, experimental form, in which some of the participating artists (Mariah Lookman, Sheba Chhachhi, and Anoli Perera) and the two curators of the exhibition (Sandhini Poddar and Sabih Ahmed) share multiple perspectives that we then weaved into one text.
Mehar Maini: Could you tell us about the process of making this exhibition? As curators, what has been your biggest learning?
Sabih Ahmed (S.A.): Notations on Time is an exhibition three years in the making. It started when Ishara extended an invitation to Sandhini to curate an exhibition in 2020, for which she developed an extraordinary framework for a show titled ‘A Laboratory of Time’. With all timelines coming to a halt due to the pandemic that year, the project was put on hold. When we resumed conversations, Sandhini wisely suggested that we go back to the drawing board because it would be impossible to speak about time in the same way again. As we read, researched, spoke to artists, and shared notes over the next two years, our ideas moved from experimenting with a laboratory, to thinking of the exhibition as a time-machine, to creating time-capsules, to marking time-stamps.
Over this period, she very generously extended the invitation for me to co-curate the exhibition along with her, and we finally arrived at the idea of ‘notations’. The title invoked the idea of marginalia and notes made on the margins of books where subjective interpretations and personal thoughts annotate the printed page. Another reference for the title was of musical notations on a score, which are at once silent and yet repositories of music. This led us to approach the exhibition in what Sandhini referred to as an archaeological site - layered and scattered with fragments belonging to distant yet connected histories.
The [exhibition] title invoked the idea of marginalia and notes made on the margins of books where subjective interpretations and personal thoughts annotate the printed page.
These ideas were formative for the curatorial direction and exhibition design. We were clear about what this exhibition was not going to be. We did not want it to be encyclopedic. Neither did we aspire for taxonomies or thematic divisions into categories. It was also not going to be about binaries such as east-versus-west; north-versus-south; objective-versus-subjective; or natural-versus-machinic notions of time. Instead, we wanted the exhibition to stage an interwoven field where artifacts put together convey complex stories and geographies around our understanding of time.
For Ishara, this is something my colleagues and I are deeply invested in, i.e., to keep experimenting with curatorial methodologies and exhibition-making in order to present a richer and more dynamic image of the world that is not constricted by borders.
Sandhini Poddar (S.P.): This exhibition germinated over a long period of time; its seeds were first planted prior to the pandemic. We therefore started anew and decided to include 20 practitioners, who are both residents across South Asia but also from the diaspora. Speaking for myself, my biggest learning has come in the form of audience responses to the exhibition, which, since it opened on January 18th, has proven to be aesthetically inviting, intellectually thought-provoking, and sensorily rewarding, from what has been shared with me thus far. It is gratifying when an interior intent—that of understanding the palimpsest of time—is shared and communicated with an audience and goes on to create reverberations of kinship.
We were clear about what this exhibition was not going to be. We did not want it to be encyclopedic.
M.M.: Could you please elaborate on your artist and artwork selection for this exhibition? Were there any specific criteria before selecting the works?
S.P.: This exhibition was borne of ideas, sensations, and questions, rather than from a list of artists or artworks. We knew that we wanted to open up different readings of time; how one can read time on bodies, skins, rivers, stars, and even songs. We wanted every artistic gesture to be diaristic or notational in form, likes haikus or couplets, veering away from grand gestures and statements. The artists selected hail from different generations, some are known to audiences in the UAE and some aren’t. They work across every media.
This exhibition was borne of ideas, sensations, and questions, rather than from a list of artists or artworks.
S.A.: As Sandhini has already mentioned, instead of starting out with a selection criteria, Sandhini and I began with reading how time is registered in different art practices and artworks. We collectively researched artists who have been deeply invested in working through historical traumas, on politics of care and healing, ecology and deep-time, on cultures and technologies memory keeping, on digital technologies and the attention economy. While the two of us discussed artists from around the world, we slowly focused our inquiries to a question Sandhini raised around “what are the questions South Asia can ask globally through geography, history, cultural and temporalities?”
M.M.: What are some of the reading material, films and literature that informed your curation?
S.P.: I have always been interested in the notion of time as being multiple and non-linear, given my initial training in Indian philosophy and aesthetics. Rather than point to any specific books or films as source material—although there are many I could cite—I would say that I have been most inspired by architectural sites such as Sanchi and Borobudur (in Java) and the stories they tell of the Buddha’s life, or Rajput miniature paintings and how the trope of ‘continuous narrative’ enabled painters to show the passage of time within a single wasli folio. I also studied Hindustani classical music for over a decade and have always been interested in mythology, song, and oral traditions of storytelling.
S.A.: The citations that went into the making of this exhibition would be difficult to list here. Because of my decade long experience of archiving at Asia Art Archive, a reference I often found myself going back to was Michel Foucault’s formulation on ‘heterochronias’, where he talks about museums, libraries and archives as political apparatuses that accumulate time. This brings up the question, what are the times that museums accumulate? And what other times resist conventional narratives, rejecting accumulation as a method to tell history. Art practices seem to offer rich responses to how we can resist thinking about time based on a framework of accumulation that can be possessed by some and divested from others. Notations… is an attempt to explore such redistributions that art and exhibition making can offer.
M.M.: Could you illustrate through a couple of artworks how some of the ideas in the exhibition are conveyed?
S.P.: Zarina’s work, The Ten Thousand Things was inspired by Marcel Duchamp’s famous work, La Boîte-en-valise (box in a suitcase), in which Duchamp included miniature replicas of his artworks in portable suitcases. For Zarina, this ability to miniaturize her output, through archiving and reformulating fragments, scraps, and otherwise discarded bits of paper, enabled her to think through the question of nomadism and being in constant exile. It also gave her the ability to think over her own biography and peripatetic life as the wife of an Indian diplomat. Given her early training in mathematics, she was very interested in counting, and once told me how she was counting down towards her own death. Questions of mortality and immortality were certainly on my mind even prior to the pandemic, but became more pressing, as our very breadth came into question. This also leads me to the work of Ayesha Sultana, whose vulnerable and intimate markings on paper can be rhythmically understood through the pacing of inhalation and exhalation.
S.A.: While we were aware that every artwork brought something singular and unique to this exhibition, Sandhini and I were looking at works in clusters so that when seen together, they produce a relational field of interlocked expressions – performing like a chorus, if you may. For instance, we have three instances of ‘generational time’ presented in this exhibition, through the juxtaposition of works by Lala Rukh and Mariah Lookman; Jangarh Singh Shyam and Jagdish Swaminathan; and, Gauri Gill with Rajesh Vangad and Ladhki Devi. In each instance, you can see how deeper aesthetic and political sensibilities are transmitted and shared between artists belonging to different generations that are not merely formal and stylistic resemblances. We had the wonderful opportunity to experience this more closely with a music playlist compiled by Mariah Lookman reminiscing about the time spent with her mentor and friend Lala Rukh, titled ‘… Saaz keheta hai is ko din mei na cchair’ (‘… the instrument says do not touch/tease/strum it during the day’). Another example is of Sheba Chhachhi Silver Sap, where you see a photographic portrait of a healer and care-giver presented in eight parts delicately depicting what Sandhini referred to as reading time on the body, on the skin and on hands. This work is encountered along with Soumya Sankar Bose’s ‘Where the Birds Never Sing’, that refers to reading time in the landscape, in the rivers and forests and how historical events tend to resurface around us.
5. Ladhki Devi, Installation view of Agni Devi, Dasha Mata, Paani Naari and Savri Devi from the series Forms of the Devi (2020-21). Shown in Notations on Time at Ishara Art Foundation, 2023. Image courtesy of Ishara Art Foundation and the artist. Photo by Ismail Noor/Seeing Things.
M.M.: Which artworks or curatorial themes do you hope will resonate most with Dubai’s audiences visiting this exhibition?
S.P.: Given Dubai’s accelerated build-up over the past twenty years, and futurity always being implied in any venture in the UAE, I think that audiences will find themselves slowing down in this exhibition and enjoying the form in which the exhibition presents itself. We wanted to create clusters of artworks that would involve intimate conversations and deliberations as well as interesting sightlines across the exhibition space wherein certain themes start to echo across artworks, rebound and refract, creating a sense that there are multiple itineraries that one can embark on.
Given Dubai’s accelerated build-up over the past twenty years, and futurity always being implied in any venture in the UAE, I think that audiences will find themselves slowing down in this exhibition.
S.A.: This exhibition was conceived keeping the context of the UAE in mind, where the public sphere comprises of local residents as well as a high traffic of people that travel here. It is one of those places where anyone you meet is intimately aware or least two time-zones if not more. Much like one knows of bi-lingual and tri-lingual people, I believe we have bi-temporal and tri-temporal people who are living in multiple time-zones as a way to preserve and nourish the itineraries that form their milieus and relationships. The exhibition’s emphasis on the different registers of experiencing time is therefore deeply connected to this context.
M.M.: In your own words, how do you think an artist’s current geographical location, versus hometown, affects and reflects on their works?
Much like one knows of bi-lingual and tri-lingual people, I believe we have bi-temporal and tri-temporal people who are living in multiple time-zones.
Mariah Lookman: I am not quite sure as to how I would answer your question. Affect and Reflect are classic terms in the arts and culture speak- perhaps overused too. It depends on the individual’s practice or interest. Too often we, as artists from the Global South, are framed or perceived in such a way that we are expected to speak from our experiences (mostly expected to be about one miserable thing or the other). We are also expected to perform the role of the native informant: the colonial experience and a post-colonial subject, our plight as an economic migrant, exile as in self or even as a refugee, as a woman, specifically about women’s rights in one’s so-called third world hometown. [It would be different if] for instance if the artist is based in say Berlin or any other city in the Global North. I think we need to be alert to this alterity of this gaze, framing, and the politics therein.
M.M.: Turning to some of artists featured in this exhibition, if you had to pick one benefit, or lesson, from this exhibition, what would it be?
Too often we, as artists from the Global South, are framed or perceived in such a way that we are expected to speak from our experiences (mostly expected to be about one miserable thing or the other).
Anoli Perera: It is a great show that has brought together some powerful works that presents multiple interpretations of time through their works. One gets to think more on about the conventional segmentation of time into past, present and future. I wonder if past and future are part of the present where present becomes a shared space.
Mariah Lookman: I was delighted to be invited to participate in the exhibition. The greatest personal benefit was to be able to visit the foundation and meet the team in Dubai and connecting with other artists- Sheba in particular and especially my conversations with Sabih and Himanshu.
Sheba Chhachhi: That it is possible to build a multi-layered, socially grounded nuanced reading of time through very diverse artworks and practices.
M.M.: To all, what is your definition of time?
S.P.: I don’t have a definition of time. Time has a dimensionality akin to space, it is sculptural.
Time is sculptural.
Anoli Perera: To me, time is measured in moments that intercept so many fields of energy, that offer a larger spectrum of possibilities. It is certainly not linear.
Mariah Lookman: Time is a substance and goes by very quickly- it slips away like sand in the desert. It waits for no one. Therefore, every second and every moment is precious. To be conscious of this is what I try to do. It is multiple and it is singular, it is collective, just as it is solitary. It is linear as in the calendar but also cyclical as time is set on the movement of the stars and planets. Does it come back? No, just as no two days are ever the same.
Time slips away like sand in the desert. It waits for no one.
Sheba Chhachhi: I understand time as being constructed of multiple, simultaneously co-existing temporalities. The image I have of time is like an archaeological dig, akin to drawings of a slice through the earth revealing multiple geological strata - the past, present, and future are all present in a single moment.
Harmehar Maini is an aspiring curator and art writer. She was born in Jammu, Jammu and Kashmir, however moved from her home town to study in a boarding school in fourth grade. After completing her bachelors from OP Jindal Global University, in Global Affairs, she shortly shifted to UAE to pursue arts and real estate. She has worked with Indian Art Fair, Art Dubai and Devi Art Foundation.
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