Inventory: The Subject of Tears: Reflections on three works by Divya Mehra
by Jacqueline Bell
1. A wall in the gallery is crying.1 The wall’s colour is initially confronting, painted a deep, rich green. One of three works that comprise Divya Mehra’s 2016 exhibition, It’s Gonna Rain, the wall is constructed to conceal a pump system that releases water into the wall itself. The water steadily accumulates in the plaster, forming large, droplet-like shapes that pool beneath the surface of the paint. Slowly, these oversized beads slide down, still contained within the stretched exterior layer. After a time in stasis, the weight of the water becomes more than the stretching paint can bear. At this point, the spherical forms give way, producing discreet ruptures in the paint’s surface that expose the damp plaster underneath. These small wet wounds become the source of delicate streams of water that move silently down the surface of the wall. Reaching the floor, the water pools before draining through the pump system to begin the process again. Fresh droplets of water form, burst and intersect with the dry, silvery lines that mark the previous tracks of tears. This process repeats over months, for the length of the exhibition. The air is heavy; the humidity of grief.
2. In his essay for It’s Gonna Rain, writer Kegan McFadden recounts a series of events in the artist’s life that informed this body of work.2 In May 2015, the artist’s father passed away. In the months that followed, a tree that Mehra’s father would often pray at was cut down; and a statue of the Hindu deity Ganesh was stolen from outside of a restaurant owned by the artist’s family in Ottawa.3 The seven-foot-high brass statue was estimated to weigh three to four hundred pounds.4 How many people would it have taken to accomplish this painful act?5 One theft, private; the other, public. What remains materially of both is minimal; a cross-section of a tree and the brass base of a statue, now punctuated by a hole where the figure had been. These are the only objects in the exhibition, resting on the floor, without pedestals. Adjacent to Mehra’s weeping wall, the literal evidence of loss.
3. Grief is a practice of containment; suppressed by the norms that govern acceptable behaviour, it is then suppressed again through the internalizations of these codes. Within the field of art, too, there are judgements on work that displays “too much” emotion. Scholar Jennifer Doyle speaks to how, within art criticism, what is deemed as an excess of emotion has become wrongly associated with a “naïve practice”6 – a perception that is especially fraught in relation to representations of tears specifically, which “seem to embody both the height of unquestioned emotionality and the depths of emotional manipulation.”7 These arguments function as their own form of containment, a threat to the reception of works that engage the subject of tears. The power of the work in It’s Gonna Rain is its ability to confront these biases, at the same time as it reflects the challenge of making work on the subject of such recent and difficult events. In a wholesale refusal of this containment, it is tears that erode the very confines of the institution; the paint on the wall, literally bursting under the pressure of emotional force.8 The result of a series of losses with both private and public dimensions, the exhibition is a defiant complication of public grief.
It’s Gonna Rain by Divya Mehra was exhibited at The New Gallery in Calgary from September 9 to October 22, 2016.