Saying it with flowers
'Critical Mass' is as entertaining as it is thought provoking.
Ravi Agarwal Photo: Courtesy of Ravi Agarwal
They say you shouldn’t believe everything you read in the papers or, for that
matter, what you see on TV or even hear from people who have firsthand
experience. According to Ravi Agarwal, that also applies to the popularly held
view of India.
53-year-old Delhi-born artist Agarwal currently has three
works in an Indian group exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum called Critical Mass.
It is certainly an intriguing, motley collection of works, which addresses many
aspects of Indian life, and nuances thereof, of which most of us are probably
For a start, India is generally considered to be a
conservative society with strong adherence to religious customs and
Indeed there are thousands of well attended and well-tended
temples, mosques, shrines and other holy sites all over the subcontinent, not to
mention various waterways which are believed to have sacred properties. The
latter are one of the subjects Agarwal addresses in his works on display in Tel
Aviv, but in a decidedly left field manner.
In fact, Agarwal challenges
mainstream Indian thinking on several fronts. He has been a powerful advocate on
a range of social and environmental issues which, naturally, comes through
strongly in his art, too. One of the areas that feature prominently in his works
on display here is the issue of gender.
Why, wonders Agarwal, should
certain rituals be considered the exclusive domain of women? Why can’t he, for
example, take part in a purification ceremony in which a woman is covered in
flower petals? His Immersion, Emergence work, in which we see several shots of
the artist bathing in water festooned with petals, considers this social-gender
But just how ready is mainstream India to embrace such radical
ideas that appear to challenge the very core of the country’s religious and
cultural being? Isn’t his work considered just a little bit sacrilegious?
Agarwal prefers to take a more pragmatic approach.
“Fifteen years ago I
started an environmental NGO. I think it’s a marriage of science and the way
forward in the sense of how to answer these questions about the environment. If
you look at this culturally, you get locked into cultural history.
need to look at things more in terms of reality – at what modern life is about,”
Agarwal’s NGO tackles sticky issues.
“We do work on
things like pollution, and toxics, we work on issues of clean food,
pesticide-free food, and we influence policy. We have contributed to five new
legislations in the last 15 years.”
Pollution also features in Agarwal’s
works in Critical Mass, with a shot taken from his Alien Water series which
shows baskets with ritual offerings by the banks of the Yamuna River, the
largest tributary of the Ganges, part of which flows by the Taj Mahal in Agra,
and which is regularly used by ritual bathers.
Although, in pushing his
environmental and social agenda through the machinations of India’s legislative
system Agarwal has had to dip into political waters, he says he does his utmost
to steer clear of that area, both in his art and in his everyday
“The idea of stopping participation and stopping dialogue doesn’t
really move anything forward,” he states, alluding to the matter of cultural
boycotts. “Art is an exciting way of looking at things. It is the universal
language, and it is about ideas rather than about medium.”
clearly managed to circumnavigate the tried and tested areas of art and
breadwinning, and has used his chosen vehicle of artistic expression in his own
“I was a photographer from the age of 12. That was the first thing I
really knew how to do, I taught myself, and I didn’t want to do professional
photography, like press photography, because you get really locked into
something,” he says. “I trained myself in classical photography, but American
photography – with work of people like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange – and
also some European photographers like Cartier-Bresson, had a certain view of
photography. Photography was never interwoven in the history of art – each field
had its own trajectory – and somewhere in the Seventies they came
The artist says that technological advances have changed the
“Today anyone can take photographs, and why not? So the
medium has become less important, and it has become a matter of an idea-based
practice. So, in a sense, anyone can be an artist, you don’t have to go to
The mindset is evident through Critical Mass, which
offers a fresh perspective on urban life, social issues, domesticity, religion
and even politics in modern day India. One work, for instance, invites the
public to step into an elevator. Once the doors close, images of an elevator
shaft run down the other walls, giving the impression of moving up a multi-story
building. Each floor represents a different social class, until the “elevator”
reaches the roof which offers a view of the cheekby- jowl urban sprawl of
The effect is so realistic that exhibition curator Tami
Katz-Freiman said some visitors expressed surprise that the Tel Aviv Museum had
so many floors.
There are plenty of items in the exhibition regarding
which, one suspects, the artist in question also had his or her tongue firmly
planted in their cheek during the creative process. There is a fun interactive
piece by Shilpa Gupta in which the visitor has to “dodge” various objects which,
along with the visitor’s silhouette, are projected onto a screen, while Subodh
Gupta Curry examines the gulf between the haves and the have-nots with an
impressive arrangement of stainless steel plates and other eating
Critical Mass is as entertaining as it is thought
For more information about the Critical Mass exhibition:
03-6077020 and www.tamuseum.com