Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Hosts Raqs Media Collective Exhibit
Published: Sunday, September 23, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 19:01
By Ariana Igneri
Delving deeply into concentrations such as contemporary art, philosophical contemplation, technological research, and historical and cultural inquest, the interdisciplinary work of the Raqs Media Collective (Raqs), a New Delhi-based trio of “media practitioners,” offers viewers an experience that is rich, diverse, and intellectually profound. The members of Raqs—Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula, and Shuddhabrata Sengupta—are collaborative and innovative. For the past two decades, they have worked with outstanding experts in a number of different fields, including directing, computer programming, writing, and architecture in order to create intriguing staged performances, inspired films, and stimulating exhibits.
Raq’s most recent project, The Great Bare Mat & Constellation, explains and exemplifies their distinctive approach toward creation. Their methods here, as in their other works, are a central aspect of their efforts— their pieces are not just about the final creation, but are also about the process of creating, thus resulting in art that is fluid and continuous, constantly being recreated with each person that sees it. “And that’s how we work. That’s how the three of us work,” Sengupta said. “We found that this was an opportunity for us to take that method and make it work for our audience.”
Presented at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, The Great Bare Mat & Constellation, is a “changing” exhibit displayed in a museum that is, essentially, fixed and static. According to Isabella Stewart Gardner’s last wishes, the museum remains as she had arranged it over a century ago before she died. This subtle yet thoughtful ideological contrast between permanence and change only further enhances the overall effect of the production.
The Great Bare Mat & Constellation consists of two separate but cleverly related pieces. The first is an intricately woven, designed, and colored rug that rests beneath The Vinegar Tasters, a 17th century Japanese screen from the museum’s permanent collection. A team of skilled Bulgarian weavers of the Rodopski Kilim Carpet Factory crafted The Great Bare Mat. Streams of light blue, bright white, and deep maroon serve as the background for the stark black lines and dots depicted boldly on the rug’s corners. The carpet is not just an arbitrary splattering of abstract design, though. The streaks are actually a pattern of real signals, essays, and discussions exchanged by the three personal computers of the Raqs members from when they visited the Gardner back in 2010. Moreover, the ebony lines and dark spots represent the constellation of the Great Bear. The Great Bare Mat, then, cleverly explores the ideas of universal conversation as intertwined with vast imagination.
In the adjoining gallery is the second facet of the installation. Dim and quiet, the room is organized with a looping video projection on one side and a display of glass shadow reflections on the other. Images of strange, whimsical beasts and animals slowly evolve in a narrative collage on the video screen. Depictions of the moon, shining and luminous, morph in and out as the figures change. Directly across, similar images are reflected on to the wall from translucent plates painted black. Vague pictures of ominous faces, threatening hands, and odd creatures are thrown about the room as shadows that creep through the viewer’s now wild and animated mind.
The two parts of The Great Bare Mat & Constellation, combined, complement each other tremendously, as they both play with the concepts of imagination and conversation, but Raqs’ exhibition is not just conceptual—it is concrete and purposeful, in that it seeks to promote the practice of these ideas through the work itself. Therefore, Raqs, together with the Gardner museum, arranged for The Great Bare Mat to be the literal center of a series of four exchanges or lectures, taking place through December and reflecting on inspired themes chosen by Raqs. Joined by a panel of various experts, Raqs will mediate these discussions, inviting those in attendance to gather around the carpet and share their perspectives on topics such as nostalgia, intelligence, accumulation, and music.
Clearly, Raqs’ exhibit is extensive and all-encompassing. It brings the viewer on an incredible journey, both emotionally and intellectually. The looping reel is provocative and unsettling, but the carpet is inviting— it beckons to viewers, calling them into a discussion in which they can share their confused thoughts and feelings of discomfort and, somehow, find ease and understanding through the interaction. “It’s like when you go for a picnic,” Sengupta said. “You spread your blanket out … and it’s almost natural that you would begin talking to each other … It’s very much in the spirit of that,” he said. “So come sit down, let’s talk.”