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‘Splitting the Other’: Nalini Malani retrospective in Lausanne
A major retrospective of acclaimed Indian artist Nalini Malani’s work of the past decade and a half takes place at Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts in Lausanne, Switzerland.

One of the most significant artists of her generation, her artistic output is mostly in cycles (polyptychs), employing multiple-projection video installations. A profusion of figures and disparate elements from animate and inanimate spheres like fragments of machines, tadpoles, worms, larvae, winged creatures, monsters etc are portrayed in elementary colors like yellow, blue and red. She has depicted the women's revolt in a nation – now the world’s largest democracy - first caught between the legacy of colonialism and the third-world socialism ideal, and later pushed by forces of globalization into dramatic socio-political and economic transformations.

The vibrancy and vitality of her practice is evident in select video installations, paintings, as well as theatrical collaboration projects on view. Figures drawn from mythical tales of different cultural background (Alice in Wonderland, Cassandra, Akka etc.) form scenes that depict the consequences of capitalism, orthodox fanaticism, war, and the environmental destruction in an epical narrative outpour. In her new suite of works on display, a gallery stages an engaging conversation between female figures that stem from diverse myths, as they sometimes melt into one another.

The artist relates Cassandra’s tale through thirty painted panels. They are arranged like a large stained-glass window wherein Cassandra simultaneously appears both young and old - as a skipping girl and as a young lady, who imbibes her prophetic gifts through a blue umbilical cord connecting her ear to that of a sage. Yet it traverses the whole pictorial space, thus deftly linking up a realm of action to the next one.

Each of these settings is meticulously arranged on a round surface resembling a curious cell culture or Petri dish. An enormous smoke cloud billows out over one of these. These swathes of smoke that emanate from explosions are a frequent motif in her work. It is actually alluding to the nuclear tests India has conducted and to the blatant insanity of further nuclear escalation. On close examination, calamity and terror can be noticed issuing from it.

Some thirty tondi (circular formats) that fan out around the Cassandra polyptych form a planetary system of tableaux, to reiterate the deft juxtaposition of the stencil-like image of an aged woman and a young girl, thus uniting in the same compositions two recurring figures in her work: Alice in Wonderland and Mother Courage. The colors cannot mask the horror of these scenes. This chromatic exquisiteness prompts the viewer to inspect more closely, and registering the mutilations of human beings in a specific historical and global context.

In a rather gloomy gallery, creepy creatures surround spectators. The artist terms them ‘Mutants’. Two of them are drawn on the wall; rest painted on milk carton paper. On the concluding day, an Erasure Performance will take place, wherein they will be washed with milk. This material alludes to the milk powder imported from Chernobyl, a site of nuclear fallout, more than two decades ago. Her Mutants also refer to children born with radiation-related deformities after nuclear tests in the US.

Put in a larger perspective, her awkward figures remind us of the violence the planet and its inhabitants are infected with under the garb of progress. In a hemi-cycle carrying five large video projections, Nalini Malani makes us confront with the birth of the India that was also the cleavage of the nation, whereas in ‘Transgressions’, she deploys a new type of installation work she terms a ‘video/shadow play’. ‘Splitting the Other’ section has fourteen panels that present a procession of monsters, human figures and angels, free-floating brains and some grub-like entities. They peer through blank eyes, of canons, anti-tank mines, bones, embryos, and umbilical cords.

Elaborating on the core concept, a curatorial note states: “The artist brings together, on an epic scale, all periods and all cultures, trying to multiply the perspectives, and to evolve outside identities and hierarchies. An imposing Genitor or World Wanderer stands out by nature of its proportions. Not only are umbilical cords growing out of her womb, but also issuing from her arms and hands are broad veins supplying nutrition that bulge out into the surrounding space. They adopt the form of an oscillating, hose-shaped vertebral column. The old woman’s blood vessels nourish innocent newborns as they float in space behind her. She is also supplying food to monsters and toad-like creatures that bar her path. The giant woman embodies various mythical and legendary characters like Medea, Mother India, Sita, and Alice. They become actresses in Indian reality.”

Her artistic world, largely constituted by visible overlays, is fluid with everything in a constant state of metamorphosis. In it, bones, brain, blood vessels and body organs often float outside it - in both volatile and exploded state because of the Splitting.