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Ferry tales from the forest
The work of Desire Machine Collective, one of India's most exciting contemporary art groups, echoes far beyond the banks of the Brahmaputra.
Earlier this year in New York, a corner of Fifth Avenue reverberated with the sounds of a forest in Meghalaya. The Guggenheim was hosting its first show devoted purely to South Asian art, and visitors could hear the murmur of brooks and the cries of birds from the sacred woods of Mawphlang, where tradition forbids people from taking anything away from it. Anything but sound, decided the artist duo of Desire Machine Collective whose avant garde work has travelled from the banks of the Brahmaputra to cities like Berlin, New York and Venice. The latter was perhaps their most prestigious showing. Sonal Jain and Mriganka Madhukaillya were selected to be part of India's first pavilion at the Venice Biennale because, in the words of India pavilion curator Ranjit Hoskote, their work has "strong regional commitments, yet they have taken their body of work out to the world".
For the Biennale the collective exhibited a 39-minute film shot in Guwahati, at an abandoned power plant that's gradually being swallowed up by the surrounding forest. The camera pans over rusty pressure gauges and leaking pipes even as the soundtrack plays Buddhist chants and electronic sounds. Titled Residue, the film shows the merging of the natural and industrial worlds. Says Mriganka: "It is about the cyclical process of creation and destruction and embedded memories. "
It was another act of destruction - the Gujarat riots of 2002 - that gave birth to the collective. Sonal and Mriganka, now in their early 30s, were students at the National Institute of Design at the time. "The riots left us quite shaken up. It was then that we thought of working out of Guwahati rather than the art hubs of Delhi and Mumbai, " says Sonal. Away from the hype and hysteria of the contemporary art world, the Collective focused on archival projects.
But the lack of cultural infrastructure led to DMC setting up Periferry in 2007 on a defunct river ferry that they retooled into a public space along the banks of the Brahmaputra. "It's not just an art space, " says Sonal. Over the years, it's been a music hub, a media lab, a conference centre or just a space for students to work in. Like the river which is not a static entity, Periferry is always in flux. "
But was the name a reference to the centre-periphery dialectic that has haunted the region? "It's an attempt to move beyond to a third space. We don't want to be reduced to binaries because when you talk in terms of binaries you're either a patriot or an enemy, " says Mriganka, who is emphatic that the DMC isn't a spokesperson for the North-East. "But at the same time, " points out Jain, who is from Shillong, "one has a sense of belonging and it's difficult to disengage from the politics of the North-East. "
One of their works '25/75' is centered on a traditional Khasi lottery game. People bet on either the number 25 or 75, based on the dreams they have had the previous night. Set against a soundscape of dripping water, it creates a potent fear of drowing. Another video installation called 'Daily Checkup' combines 'found footage' of police raids and encounters in Manipur with a video of North-Eastern youngsters being frisked at an airport. The visuals run on a loop, alluding to the way in which the invasion of private space has become routine and ritualised.
But while the DMC is still engaging with the local context, the direct references to the North-East in the early works have given way to a new aesthetic. Their next project - quite an ambitious one given that Guwahati doesn't have any pre- or post-production facilities - is a feature film. "It's not easy, and we don't suggest that all artists should move to Guwahati but then there's nothing like a challenge to push yourself, " says Mriganka, who teaches at IIT Guwahati's design department to make a living. "Art isn't for profit. If we wanted money, then why get into art at all, " says Jain. The DMC has done very few gallery shows and stayed away from commercial spaces like art fairs. The only tinge of regret is that Periferry may soon sink for want of funds. "But then destruction is also a part of nature, " says the philosophical Mriganka.
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