PANKAJA SETHI / NIROJ SATPATHY / SAMARJEET BEHERA / SAYANTAN MAITRA BOKA
“I saw all the mirrors on earth and none of them reflected me...” ― Jorge Luis Borges, The Aleph and Other Stories
“Images were first made to conjure up the appearance of something that was absent.”– John Berger, Ways of Seeing
On the opposite side of observation is reflection. Water glass, chrome, and mirror throw images back at us, creating sites of inversion in our visual field. To reflect is also a mode of cognition; when we inquire or meditate on a thing’s meaning, we enter a process of reflection.
The mirror has had a long history in art. Painting in particular has gone through phases of obsession with the mirror. Because a reflection is already a form of representation, a step removed from the real, painters have delighted in using the mirror as a source of further play on pictorial illusion. In painting, mirrors can reveal hidden details that lie outside of the composition. A famous instance of this is Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait of 1434, in which a convex mirror captures two witnesses to a wedding ceremony – and by extension, seems to implicate the viewer in the scene.
The minimalist and conceptualist eras of the 1960’s-70’s brought new uses to mirrored surfaces. Conceptual artists like Robert Morris and Robert Smithson used mirrors in installations as a way of dematerializing the object and inverting the interior and exterior features of space. In Smithson’s Yucatan Mirror Displacements of 1969, 12” rectangular mirrors are dispersed at different sites in the Mexican landscape. Smithson captured the displacements in a series of photographs, in which the mirrors puncture and fragment the continuity and solidness of landscape spaces.
Reflective processes are a necessary part of the forward motion of any culture. We rely on methods of self-observation and criticality to periodically interrupt the inertia of shared patterns, habits, and assumptions. The theme of reflection is powerful in the work of several BAT artists, both as material and as metaphor. One of the first works encountered on the trail is Niroj Satpathy’s Question Machine, a dispersed installation comprised of numerous mirrored cubes installed in different configurations along the trail. Satpathy’s mirrors surprise viewers by appearing in unexpected places: mounted on metal posts next to trail markers, bolted to walls, suspended amidst foliage; an oversized cube vies for space with a small laterite temple in an interior courtyard.
While Satpathy’s cubes undeniably conjure Morris’s Mirrored Cubes of the 1960’s, they function quite differently in the context of Old Town Bhubaneswar. Citing social, political, and environmental challenges in the Old Town district, Satpathy explains that his primary desire is to essentially use reflection to implicate the viewer: “My work holds a mirror to the viewer, urging them to look within and discover their individual agency for change, because the personal is never disconnected from the political.” While ambitious in social intent, Satpathy’s mirrors end up working more effectively as optical disruptions to the cityscape (it is rare that one of the cubes is well enough positioned to capture a reflection of a person).
Another use of reflective surface occurs in the work of Samarjeet Behera. In his work Past Continues/ous, unexpected materials combine to form the four letters of the word (P-A-S-T). An S-shaped laterite base supports three geometric block letters with mirrored surfaces. An interest in “the intersection between history and memory” has informed the design of Behera’s sculpture, whose s-shaped base is meant to evoke a flowing stream – a reference to the fabled river flowing through old town.
Here, the past is depicted as something not stable but instead dynamic, in the process of being formed. The block letters’ reflective surfaces allow the environment and the viewer to become physically part of the ‘past’. Installed in a courtyard garden, the sculpture actively reflects the surrounding greenery; seen from a distance, there is a camouflage effect, causing the form to visually melt or merge with its surroundings. In becoming sculptural, the four letters allude to body, landscape, and architecture, and earth. In this work, reflection is both optical and conceptual; we are given an impression that time and space, past and present, are not separate but are continually flowing into one another.
Pankaja Sethi’ Reflection of Time and Nature employs reflection not as optical device but as material concept. Sethi is deeply engaged with the history and craft of textiles in Odisha; for BAT, she has created a large installation of textile panels constructed from loosely woven cotton and jute. The work’s open construction references the warp and weft of fabric but allows negative space to be active. Subtle landscape elements such as mountains and leaves emerge here and there in the weave, evoking the natural ecology of Odisha. Sethi describes the piece as an “abstract representation of natural process integrating the landscape of the Old Town.” This piece engages a process of abstraction, wherein elements of landscape and architecture are observed, interpreted, and re-captured in material form. Here, reflection is a translation of sensory experience into material expression.
Finally, the reflective surface of water plays a powerful role in Sayantan Maitra Boka’sDuck Above, Fish Below, a bamboo work designed to float in the Guahjara Tank, where locals bathe and geese proliferate. The piece is comprised of a set of tall bamboo cylinders lashed together in a row. The forms bend and curve gracefully toward the water below, creating an elegant arch form; from a certain distance, the form’s reflection in the water below extends and completes this arch, creating the illusion of a closed circle. Intrepid viewers can traverse a bamboo walkway over the reservoir to arrive beneath the arch.
The reflective qualities of water add significant power to the piece; one has a sense of the work being a seamless extension of its natural environment. The artist’s concept note mentions the range of forces and pressures that drive and shape the development of cities and their associated infrastructures. In Duck Above, Fish Below, an array of opposing forces – gravity and expansion, air and water, natural material and human construction – are all drawn into a state of perfect equilibrium.