Before ET, there was The Alien

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CRITICS HAVE described British artist duo Otolith Group’s work as dense, unflinchingly erudite, occasionally pretentious and certainly not easy to digest.

One critic likened it to the artists throwing a big fat book at the audience, challenging them, forcing them to pause. Kodwo Eshun, 45, and Anjalika Sagar, 43, don’t duck these descriptions.

They are devoted to complicating experience through film and video making, exhibition curation, workshops and publication. The London-based academes and filmmakers have been collaborating since 2002. (The otolith, in case you were wondering, is the part of the inner ear for sensing gravity and movement.)

Eshun and Sagar are in India for Westfailure, their first solo exhibition in Mumbai that will also screen the Otolith Trilogy — a good starting point to understand the Turner Prize-nominated artists. They patiently explain their work to the audience in Mumbai.

The Otolith Trilogy, blending documentary and fiction, draws on various social movements and overlooked histories through archival material. The films are not obviously connected, yet without watching the first, you can’t understand the second, and nor the third without the second. Otolith III , the best known of the trio, is a ‘premake’, inspired by a film that was never made.

In 1967, Satyajit Ray wrote the screenplay of The Alien,about young Haba who befriends an alien who lands in his village. After initial glitches, Ray abandoned the film and the screenplay was supposedly appropriated by Steven Spielberg for ET-The Extra-Terrestrial, which went on to become a cult classic.

In Otolith III, the characters exit the screenplay and comb the streets looking for people to play them, frustrated with the director for abandoning them.

Can a work of art exist only in memory and imagination? The Alien may never have been made, but for Eshun and Sagar, it exists as a seminal work — all the more important for being unrealised.

Their most recent work Anathema questions the parasitic relationship between humans and modern devices. One Out of Many Indophilias analyses the stages of Western Indophilia, from Max Müller to The Beatles.

Their work heavily references India but they refuse Orientalist clichés and reductive theories. Their familiarity with contemporary Indian art is minimal and sceptical, though they say they do follow the Indian documentary scene. Documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan is a strong influence. Otolith I and Otolith II resonate with themes of feminism, socialism, utopianism, the condition of labour and cities.

“We do not make a distinction between the artist and the theorist. With each project, we want to ask a different set of questions,” says Eshun, who jokingly calls the group a rock band. They argue over every idea, but can’t work without each other.

Sunaina Kumar is a Senior Correspondent, Mumbai with Tehelka.
sunaina@tehelka.com

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