You get into a ‘multimedia’ show featuring ‘installations’ with furrowed brows. You worry how those open-ended terms might leap at you. But when you step out of the show transformed, unmindful of the mediums used by the artists to present their ideas, you know you are on to something special. 'A Cry from the Narrow Between', an exhibition of "photography, video installation, text-based works and sound works", achieves that rare feat.
But several questions militate in your mind. First, why did Bombay-based Tejal Shah and Beijing-based Han Bing put up their show in Delhi of all places?
Han has installed, among other things, a stone-rimmed screen showing big-machine construction in China on a video-loop. In the gallery basement, Shah tells tales of sexual violence on a man, a woman and a hijra. All of it is boldly placed at the intersection of the efforts to forge a nation and an individual’s sexual identity. These could just as well be about our testosterone-charged Capital that’s been turned inside out, upside down for the Commonwealth Games.
What about the mouthful of the title? Maya Kóvskaya, a China specialist who interlocuted between Shah and Han for the show, explains it in the innovatively-designed tabloid-sized catalogue that comes with the show. It’s from Sappho, the Greek poetess who wrote: “I am neither living nor dead and cry from the narrow between.” The ‘narrow between’ marks the limbo between the spheres of Eros, the liberating life-force in Greek mythology, and Thanatos, the personification of death.
Why the hint of rapture in the parted lips of Han in his self-images, while the transgenders in Shah’s images pout with sealed lips? Kóvskaya, now in Delhi as critic-in-residence at the Khoj International Artists’ Association, says, “Maybe because Tejal isn’t playing a role — she’s giving shape to her subjects’ fantasies. Whereas Han Bing is being more expressive as his own subject.”
Both the artists reject narrow sexual labels that carry their own politics of exclusion. Of Han, Kóvskaya says, “Pandrogyny is both a particular facet of his identity as well as an important element in some of his work.... The artist resists attempts to be shoved into any other category such as ‘transgendered’, and reminds us that the act of “naming” and categorising is itself a kind of power.”
Has China’s inexorable nation-building come in the way of Han’s Eros, his creativity? In an email reply translated by Kóvskaya, the artist says, “The State can (only) make the expression of creative power difficult in the public realm... But art and other forms of human creativity can generate new spaces, and new forces of change.”
It’s a powerful force that, at its best, will not leave you unmoved. Check it out for yourself at the show.
(A Cry from the Narrow Between is on at Gallery Espace, 16 Community Centre, New Friends Colony till April 3, 11 am to 7 pm)