Exhibition Review: Being Singular Plural

Introduction

Being Singular Plural, running until June 6 at the Guggenheim in Manhattan, was first staged at the Deutsche Guggenheim in 2010.1 Funded by Deutsche Bank and curated by Sandhini Poddar (a native of India and Assistant Curator of Asian Art at the Guggenheim in New York1) the exhibit features “recent and new film, video, and sound-based works by seven of the most innovative and visionary contemporary artists, filmmakers, and media practitioners living and working in India today,” according to the museum guide.1 I learned while scanning the Guggenheim’s website that the exhibit takes its name from an essay and book by French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy,2 and that is what first caught my attention. From there I was led to sponsor Deutsche Bank’s site where it was explained that, in addition to Nancy, the philosophies of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari formed the foundation of the included works.1 In fact, Desire Machine Collective, whose work features prominently in the show, derives their name from Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophy of a “productive machine subconscious.”3 This concept reminded me of Bruno Latour’s dingpolitik, and the agency of nonhuman actors.4 While not overtly political (Amar Kanwar’s The Torn First Pages (2004-08) being the exception), the “power” of things—both in the literal and metaphorical sense—is a subtext of the exhibition. Filling four floors of the museum annex plus a sound installation in the museum plaza fronting Fifth Avenue, it’s a large show encompassing audio, video (both projection and monitor-based), historical artifacts, and interactivity. The themes of environment (both built and natural), obsolescence, suppression, revolt, community, and abandonment, also feature prominently in the show. This summary of the exhibition’s goal comes from the Deutsche Guggenheim’s website: “As Nancy has argued, the emptying out of representation, wherein evidence lies, points to the moving image as an end in itself rather than a means to an end that may lie outside the image’s surface.”1

The primary components of the exhibit include Trespassers Will (Not) Be Prosecuted (2012) by Desire Machine Collective, in the museum plaza; The Torn First Pages (2004-08) by artist Amar Kanwar, located on the second floor; Desire Machine Collectives’ films Residue (2011) and Nishan (2007- ), on floor five; and Kabir Mohanty’s interactive installation In Memory (2009/12), located on the seventh floor.

Trespassers Will (Not) Be Prosecuted

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click above link for audio of Trespassers Will (Not) Be Prosecuted (2012), taken via my iPhone

It makes sense to begin with Desire Machine Collective’s Trespassers Will (Not) Be Prosecuted (2012) since the visitor is first greeted with this audio installation upon approaching the building. The recording comes from a sacred forest in northeast India called Mawphlang. 1 According to the beliefs of the local people, removing anything, even so much as a branch, will be met with punishment (the actual punishment is unspecified).1 But what about sound? To quote writer and reviewer Daniel Volzke from the DB website, “can one steal sounds? Where are the boundaries between the material and the immaterial, nature and civilization? And who draws them?”1 When questioned about the “intervention”6 of their act, the DMC responded that “the work questions notions of materiality in terms of taboos, and if taking sounds falls within the scope of those beliefs. The project enabled us to realize the feasibility of the intangible, which cannot be touched or seen but can be heard and carried.” 6 “Viewing” the installation critically, Trespassers Will (Not) Be Prosecuted (2012), while lovely, is less transportive and hence less successful because of the museum’s location across from Central Park. Someone, like myself, could easily mistake the sounds as emanating from the park. The DMC’s intention was to create a “subjective ‘ideoscape’ in each observer’s mind” where “the passive, fixed public space is reclaimed and rendered dynamic with the use of technology.”6 In my opinion, Trespassers Will (Not) Be Prosecuted (2012) would be more successful, and more in line with Nancy’s notion of interconnectedness, if the audio were being broadcast live from India to New York, and perhaps vice-versa as well. The thought of the sounds of Fifth Avenue in New York being blasted into a virgin ecology on the other side of the world is intriguing. But then, who is the audience on the other side?

Amar Kanwar

The Torn First Pages (2004-08). Interior of show guide.
The Torn First Pages (2004-08). Source: DB ArtMag
The Torn First Pages (2004-08). Source: pluralasia.com

On the second floor of the Annex is Amar Kanwar’s The Torn First Pages (2004-08). The name of Kanwar’s exhibit derives from the story of Burmese bookseller Ko Than Htay, who served three years in prison for tearing out the first page of every printed material in his shop because they contained “mandatory slogans of the military regime.” 7 Various films and images relating to the political situation in Burma are projected from behind onto paper sheets, 7 thereby honoring Htay and creating the ultimate confederation of media and materiality. A powerful discussion could be had about the representation of authority in this show because several of Htay’s actual books, with their first pages ripped out, are included in the exhibit, but they are sealed under plexiglass and we are forbidden to touch them. I was reminded of the scene in Dead Poet’s Society where professor Keating instructs his students to tear out the introduction with the formula for poetry from their textbooks. Carpe Diem!

The Face (source: Deutsche Bank)

Also included in The Torn First Pages (2004-08) is Kanwar’s continuously-looped film The Face, which focuses on a visit to “the cremation memorial site of Ghandi” by Burmese military leader General Than Shwe.8 Kanwar loops the “manic” tossing of rose petals by the General to “reveal the absurdity and ludicrousness of the act.”8 In ignorance before reading the accompanying description, the film displayed to me a somewhat non-contextual beauty.

The Films of Desire Machine Collective

Residue (2011) by Desire Machine Collective. Source: Deutsche Bank.

Desire Machine Collective returns on the fifth floor with their films Residue (2011), and Nishan (2007- ). Residue (2011) was filmed in a decommissioned power plant and I was reminded of both Jamie Kruse’s The Thingness of Energy and of Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. In the chapter “The Agency of Assemblages” she states that “the ‘constitutive’ or productive power of structures derives from the human wills or intentions within them,” and that “structures … are not vibrant matter.”9 I thought about the will of the artists in filming the neglected structure, where power as electricity once flew, and how the plant was now given a new metaphorical power. You’d expect an abandoned plant to be quiet but instead there was a vibration or hum emanating from an unknown and unmentioned source, which only intensified the new “power” of the plant and of the artwork.

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click above link for audio of Nishan (2007- ), taken via my iPhone

Nishan (2007- ) by Desire Machine Collective

Nishan (2007- ), a stitched-together video panorama of an empty Indian apartment, was in keeping with the shows theme of inside/outside and community, or lack thereof in this particular case. There’s an anthropomorphic effect as you stand in the middle of the large, black room staring at—or through—the apartment and listen to what could best be described as breathing. I imagined the interior of the rooms in the images as great lungs and the windows as eyes, waiting to engage a passerby who never arrives. The paradox of Nishan (2007- ) is its overwhelming loneliness contrasted with the indescribable peace it instills. I found myself lingering here longer than anywhere else in the show.

In Memory (2009/12)

In Memory (2009/12) by Kobir Mohanty
In Memory (2009/12) by Kabir Mohanty
In Memory (2009/12). Source: Phaedon.

The seventh floor of the annex is home to Kabir Mohanty’s In Memory (2009/12) (done in collaboration with an engineer), an interactive and immersive installation that, in the words of the museum’s guidebook, “plays with the ideas of distance and proximity, interiority and exteriority, and singularity and community, traveling to the heart of Nancy’s philosophy.”5 The work comprises a Foley pit containing rocks, sand, and artificial turf, with sensors underneath to track movement and speakers hung in a circular pattern that broadcasts the sounds of children playing, birds chirping, and other familiar sounds of the outdoors. Visitors are invited to step into the pit, pick up the sand and stones, and become fully engaged with the work. It’s a truly immersive and—unlike Trespassers Will (Not) Be Prosecuted (2012)—fully transportive experience. I found that through touch, sound, and the workings of my own imagination (closing my eyes helped), I became one with this piece and with the self-contained environment it creates. The effect adheres to Mohanty’s belief that “we are individually multiple.”10 The visitor/participant is at once both alone and embraced in an environment pulsing with beautiful energy.

Summary

To summarize the experience of Being Singular Plural, the themes of isolation and community thread their way throughout the exhibit but The Torn First Pages (2004-08) seems a moving but distracting addition to me. By its use of paper as film screen, it most cleverly embodies the media/material link (unlike In Memory (2009/12)‘s overt manifestation), and although it stands firmly on its own as a narrative on the brutality of man, the ridiculousness of politics, and the power of art and media to bring attention to injustice, it’s thematically disjointed from the rest of the show because of its politics. Disjointed is also the word I would use to describe the physical layout of the exhibit. I found having to move from the outside plaza, to floors 2, 5, then 7, a bit irritating. In fact, floor 7 was inaccessible during my first visit and I had to return a week later to see In Memory (2009/12). Despite some curatorial missteps, Being Singular Plural is such an extensive show that there is something here for everyone. Amar Kanwar’s The Torn First Pages (2004-08), Design Machine Collective’s film Residue (2011), and Kabir Mohanty’s In Memory (2009/12), in particular, have either a theme or subtext relatable to the physicality, innovation, and implications of contemporary media.

Link to Works Cited

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