Saying it with flowers

'Critical Mass' is as entertaining as it is thought provoking.

Ravi Agarwal 370 (photo credit: Courtesy of Ravi Agarwal)
Ravi Agarwal 370
(photo credit: 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 not aware.
For a start, India is generally considered to be a conservative society with strong adherence to religious customs and regimens.
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 dichotomy.
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.
You need to look at things more in terms of reality – at what modern life is about,” he proffers.
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 life.
“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.”
Agarwal has 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 way.
“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 together.”
The artist says that technological advances have changed the field completely.
“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 painting school.”
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 Delhi.
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 utensils.
Critical Mass is as entertaining as it is thought provoking.
For more information about the Critical Mass exhibition: 03-6077020 and