A WALK through Raqs Media Collective’s exhibition A Phrase, Not a Word is a bit like getting a primer on Jacques Derrida in 10 easy pieces. It’s a spirited defence of deconstruction that builds and breaks ideas with images, an entirely preferable mode to Derrida’s made-up words. In an admittedly deficient gloss, the French philosopher proposes that no thing (or notion) is a perfect stand-in for itself, that understanding can only be approached through many words and definitions, which then funnel to a still slippery centre of meaning. Raqs, the trio of Monica Narula, Shuddhabrata Sengupta and Jeebesh Bagchi who banded in 1992, know that ‘visual artists’ is an inadequate label, so they add media practitioners and also gather curators, researchers, editors and the multiplying momentum of all those terms begins a spiral towards the core of their work.
Pick a piece, any piece, say An Afternoon Unregistered on the Richter Scale, an animation of silver gelatin print, the Examining Room of the Duffin Section of the Photographic Department of the Survey of India taken in 1911 by James Waterhouse in Calcutta. Apply any umbrella term that Raqs claims, say ‘editors’. Watch the cartographers engaged in making corrections to the contours of the map (an imperial project that furthers the imperial project of India) presumably with the aid of other photographs. They remain static, as through a window an inserted figure in construction gear climbs a slope in the video’s slow loop. See if you will the apathy of an apparatus to labour that lies past its purview. The muted blue of a dusky sky leaches into neat collars and cuffs in either a Rin-endorsed blue tinged whiteness of white-collar work or a slow bloody seepage of Bengal’s indigo revolt. As jars of pigments and inks shiver on a shelf the hand appended to an impassive face pens a single point. Edits to an original photograph, just tweaks even, but note the unchanged trappings of government offices, unperturbed by subterranean tremors, even as they are involved in documenting, fixing terrain. If the two-bladed fan is historically accurate, it is also presently disturbing, its digitally doctored swish mimicking the hands of time, a reminder that all “post” prefixes (-colonial/-modern/-independence) are premature since ground realities stay much the same. That then, is an abbreviated reckoning of what Raqs manages with just their editorial hat on. Their work comes with the vicarious frisson of witnessing a controlled explosion that isn’t destructive but deconstructive. The metaphor is of their selection. The exhibition is structured around the esoteric construct of sphota, an explosion of meaning impelled by triangulated vectors of making a thought, speaking a thought, and grasping a thought, as articulated by the 5th century linguist, Bhartfthari — who per Wikipedia is also the author of Vākyapadīya — a happy corollary of any examination of Raqs’ work.
They don’t seem particularly interested in installing themselves in turrets and garrets, as the guards of arcane secrets or creators of privileged perspective. This is a grubby enterprise, a forensic ground-operation. When a work does turn on violence, they defuse it with wit. One installation has a decommissioned M-16 rifle, standard issue for many national militia, propped in a fish tank. It’s squat, stolid, surreally split by refraction. Fish swim around, as is their wont, and pay it as much heed as they do the oxygen tank, which does a fair impression of an ammunition clip in a corner. Not in its natural medium — a fish out of water — the gun has hardly an ominous overtone. This Navya Matsya Nyaya (The New Law of Fishes) as the work is titled, posits perhaps that no political power will grow out of the barrel of this gun.
Raqs doesn’t seem interested in guarding arcane secrets. This is a grubby enterprise
You’ve got to be good bedfellows with high philosophy, cosy consorts with a shared and chequered past, to rib and nudge at it this playfully.
Raqs does the dirty with texts and words and videos, sculptures and short films and sound installations, algorithmic representations of cross-computer conversations, and intricate stencils in foil. To all the whingeing and hand wringing over mixedmedia and its mixed messaging, Raqs is a riposte, the conclusive quip that closes the conversation like a dropped bomb.
At Gallery Nature Morte in Delhi till January 12, 2013
Aditi Saxton is Features Editor, Tehelka.