Originating in the Himalayas, the Yamuna river flows through New Delhi and accounts for more than 70% of the city’s water supply. The river is highly venerated in Hindu mythology: bathing in its sacred waters is a way of cleansing one’s sins. But in reality, the Yamuna has become a highly toxic sewage dump for domestic and industrial waste from the city, saturated with deforested silt and slimy goop. The river’s dire condition is the concern of many Indian artists, among them Vibha Galhotra. The galling absurdity of people who continue to purge themselves in the Yamuna, and of officials who would rather perform rituals on its banks than sanitize its waters, has inspired her stirring exhibition ABSUR -CITY -PITY -DITY at Jack Shainman Gallery. It might well be considered her homage to the river.
The show begins with her mesmerizing single-channel video “Manthan” (2015), which features aerial shots of sludge and frothy white foam drifting like waves of snowflakes on the surface. Accompanied in parts by the soundtrack of a Hindustani classical singer, Galhotra’s measured, nearly 11-minute video takes in popping bubbles, islands of muck in wide angle, and eventually four men dunking a large white sheet in the water, before revealing its black surface oozing with scum. The work echoes the dilemma of Edward Burtynsky’s awe-inspiring images of ravaged landscapes. “Manthan”’s poetic stance treads a fine line between horror and beauty, and between environmental ethics and aesthetics.
Using large quantities of her trademark nickel-coated ghungroos — small metallic bells traditionally strung around women’s ankles as a form of jewelry — Galhotra compiles canvases that evoke the mire and depleted landscapes surrounding the river. In “Untitled (from the Flow series)” (2013), solid patches of chocolate brown and beige are cut through with mushroom-colored strips depicting denuded terrain, dotted with islands of alluvial soil. The effect is reminiscent of Clyfford Still’s large abstract paintings, whose swaths of jagged edges conjure ridges and escarpments. The uneven surface of the closely clustered bells appears both painterly and sculptural. The hundreds of tiny metal objects resemble shifting silt from afar, belying the work’s hard leaden edge.
In “Flow” (2015), sewage seems to slide down from a corner of the gallery and spread out like viscous oil sludge on the ground. Yet concentric ripples of ghungroos, differentiated by shades of cocoa, oatmeal, taupe, and cream, produce a beautiful plush carpet on the floor. Galhotra dexterously combines the physicality of sculpture with the fluidity of paint to claim both mediums. Similarly, “Untitled (from the Flow series)” (2015) sees a large mosaic of ghungroos in alluring shades of gold, copper, lead, and ore mapping minerals and waste metals embedded in the earth. The results take the form of a highly tactile abstract painting — a sumptuous palette of burnished hues that might also conjure a modern-day metropolis glimmering in the night.
Galhotra’s ingenious transformation of indigenous jeweled objects into representations of an environmental crisis appears to mitigate an acute situation. Much like Burtynsky’s technique of photographing landscapes at large scale, Galhotra’s topographical renditions of the river and surrounding region are presented from afar. While works by both artists are true to their themes, the viewer is left to extrapolate the significance of ecological catastrophes shot from a distance and deliberately aestheticized. Although Galhotra states that her intention in alleviating the context of her work is to provide some form of hope for change, the beauty of her canvases distracts the viewer from truly understanding the urgency of her activist-driven project. Faced with the predicament of being true to environmental ethics, Galhotra, like Burtynsky, errs in favor of aesthetics.
Her most strident critique is evident in 365 impressions from a year of daily visits to the river. Small photographs, drawings, and images from newspapers capture her caustic musings on Delhi, accompanied by sediments collected in tiny bottles on the floor. In direct contrast to the aerial views of the landscape in her canvases, the preserved sediments and cloth from the river serve as tangible reminders of an apocalyptic moment in India that requires immediate attention. Seen in this context, Galhotra’s gallant effort is a remarkable advancement since her first solo exhibition at Jack Shainman in 2012.
Vibha Galhotra: ABSUR -CITY -PITY -DITY continues at Jack Shainman Gallery (513 W 20th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through December 5.