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As the Video Wednesday II festival celebrates 20 years of video art, Aradhna Wal traces the medium from its early days to its tech-savvy present

Moving with time Stills from Archana Hande’s Panorama
Photo Courtesy: Gallery Espace

IN THE 1990s, Nalini Malani, Vivan Sundaram and Ranbir Kaleka began experimenting beyond the traditional parameters of art. They incorporated moving images and television sets into a form, now known as mixed media, which has grown so diverse that whittling it down to Video Wednesday II, a new video art project, puts the motion picture back in focus.
Moving with time Neha Choksi’s Minds To Lose

A series of animated shorts play on loop, projected onto the main wall at New Delhi’s Gallery Espace. Divided over three storeys, the false walls and black box rooms turn the gallery into a maze. Turn one corner to a beautifully eerie animated feature on Nagaland; walk into a room for a series of archival photographs intercut with the moon’s surface; tucked under the stairs are videos exploring humanity. “Video allows a flattening. Unlike a biennale or a museum, we’ve got established names and newcomers playing on the same surface. There is no separation in terms of size and how spectacular a work is,” says Gayatri Sinha, the curator, who used only themes to group by. Sundaram’s Wigwam Tune shares space with upcoming artist Shaheen Ahmed’s Refuse/ Resist. The genial older artist builds a wall of thick books representing constructs we live with — love, life, the city — till he collapses. Ahmed stands in counterpose, sullen and defiant, shaving her head as images of conventional beauty play in the backdrop.
Moving with time (From top) Vishal C Dar’s Fire, Sarnath Banerjee’s Sophistication is Fragile and Atul Bhalla’s Alaap to the River

The surreal journey through the festival suggests shifts from the 1990s to now, from the performative to the animated. An early example, Nalini Malani’s seminal response to the 2002 Gujarat riots — Unity in Diversity— used Nehru’s phrase for a work that morphs a Raja Ravi Varma painting, showing how women are primary victims of genocide. “That’s performance. A plot or a reference to earlier works is subverted to show something new,” explains Sinha. Shuddhabrata Sengupta, of the Raqs Media Collective, agrees. “With any new medium, there is a process of discovery. Artists turn the camera onto themselves and become the subject,” he says. The ‘self as subject’ is still alive but evolving. Sonia Khurana explores the neurosis of the body image and the beauty myth, changing clothes frantically in Closet. Khurana could represent that middle generation of practitioners who straddle early performance and newer techniques, such as reportage and commentary.
Sundaram cites Raqs and Amar Kanwar, documentary filmmakers who segued into art, as heralders of a new documentary-based narrative. Raqs’ The Surface of Each Day is a Different Planet explores cosmonauts and old letters and photographs from the 1857 Revolt. Visually, it is not very arresting. But, as the images slide and the voiceover deconstructs the work it accompanies, it becomes strangely hypnotic. “The documentary mode produces a sense of curiosity. It invites the viewer to get inside our heads, to see what we see,” says Sengupta. Animation creates a confluence of craftsmanship and technical skills. Steeped in memory, identity and mythology, Aditi Chitre’s Journey to Nagaland, a feature requiring hundreds of drawings, harkens back to spooky classic cartoons.
Artist Vishal C Dar believes if his video goes viral, giving millions ownership over their copy, that is a marker of success. BM Kamath argues the original DVD is protected by a Certificate of Authenticity, bringing the work back into the sphere of traditional ownership. “Art is seen as object-based in India, something that can be owned, traded, displayed,” says Sinha, explaining why buyers are not receptive to video art. As Sengupta says politely, “The most enlightened collectors also buy video art.” Is that the medium’s greatest strength? As it redefines art in form and content, it may find its highest expression in being unfettered by the market.
Aradhna Wal is a Sub Editor with Tehelka.