C Magazine


Issue 137

Amshu Chukki: The Tour
by Zeenat Nagree

To speculate about the future is to imagine other possibilities of what the present holds and how it might progress. Such exercises of the imagination allow one’s narrative to stray from the ordinary to the unexpected, even while taking into consideration our current fears and fantasies. As they magnify and mutate, we become spectators of our own transformation, experiencing the electric thrill of contemplating what might likely never happen, while accepting that it just might. To speculate, then, is to play with the parameters of history before it comes into being.

Artists operating in the speculative mode today are working perpendicular to widespread disagreements about what constitutes fact, and its deliberate manipulation for economic and political gain. In India, for two decades now, Hindu nationalist groups have attempted to rewrite history textbooks with a view to developing a majoritarian national consciousness. Three years ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi went on to claim that evidence of advanced scientific developments can be found in Hindu myths and epics, such as in the purported use of plastic surgery to attach the head of an elephant to the body of a deity called Ganesha. Within such circumstances, as playful as artistic speculation might be, it may also need to hold onto tools of criticality. This delicate balance between demonstrating evidence and indulging in reverie makes speculation a particularly challenging artistic device.

Last December, Indian artist Amshu Chukki presented two speculative projects in his debut solo exhibition, The Tour, at Chatterjee & Lal Gallery in Mumbai. One of the projects, which shared its title with the show, comprised a roughly 20-minute two-channel video and a series of fibreglass sculptures. In the video, a tour guide named Nagarajuna takes viewers through a deserted city without ever appearing on screen. We are tourists amidst empty buildings and shuttered shops – a rather neat and ordinary setting for an apocalypse – hearing Nagarajuna explain a circuitous chronology of events. The sea overtook the land, and then rocks fell from above; aliens used to live there and then they disappeared; the arrival of aliens caused the city’s inhabitants to forget how to speak English.

As the camera moves from the city to an airport, it becomes clear that we have been wandering through film sets all along, looking at facades that try to but never quite entirely resemble the structures they represent. In the closing sequence, the narrator proffers, “All the people who lived here watched a lot of films. They would imagine these films. Did these imaginations doom them? Or did these films lead to their doom?” With these words, the story loops back on itself. The generous pans of slightly odd yet generic architecture and design elements combined with Nagarajuna’s bizarre narrative highlight just how objects that lend verisimilitude to the cinematic image can be detached from their intended signification at whim. All editing, after all, is a form of manipulation. Alongside the video, Chukki presented fibreglass casts of rocks, hollowed out and coated with an iridescent tint on the inside.

The 26-year-old artist has been working in the speculative mode at least for the last two years now. As part of an ongoing artistic exchange between Quebec and India, Chukki was invited to Montreal’s Darling Foundry in 2015, to realize his project of researching and filming examples of utopian architecture in the city. Of these, he chose Montreal’s Biodome, originally constructed as a velodrome for the 1976 Olympics, for a roughly 12-minute video titled Mountain, les invisibles. Like The Tour, this video’s narrative takes a bizarre turn, as the Biodome’s employees – much like the tour guide – begin fabulating using the surrounding landscape as speculative prompts. We hear overlapping tales of war, an apocalypse and extraterrestrials, and through them, the strangeness of the Biodome itself is thrown into relief – an enclosed space that recreates diverse ecosystems using live animals and plants. In several frames, we also see the Biodome’s trompe l’oeil architectural details, which serve no function other than to make the dome visually coherent for the viewer. Here, the strange is contained within the ordinary; it merely requires the off-camera speakers to make it evident. Chukki thus highlights the blurry boundary between plausibility and implausibility in our daily lives, and the instrumentalization of the image in making an argument one way or another. Both The Tour and Mountain, les invisibles rely on the awe of storytelling, showing that whether or not the image co-operates, it can be co-opted for any purpose.

Like Chukki, several young artists in India are increasingly engaging in speculation in their work. Critic and curator Nancy Adajania describes this tendency among Chukki and others like Sahej Rahal, Pallavi Paul, Rohini Devasher and Neha Choksi as “a philosophically informed approach to history that is playful in terms of its handling of material, its fusion of fictive scenarios and the evidentiary. Yet, this tendency insists on rigour and criticality, in working from a commitment to what history is for from a liberal-progressive point of view.” An exemplar of such an approach can be found in Tejal Shah’s Between the Waves, shown at dOCUMENTA (13) in 2012. Shah’s post-apocalyptic world is a queer utopia, where the tasks at hand are to reconnect with a devastated, garbage-filled landscape and with the other one-horned creatures that inhabit it. They work, they dance, they express corporal desire. Owing to the explicit nature of the project, the film was only screened privately in Mumbai after being exhibited in Germany, its speculative scenarios having been deemed too offensive. What, perhaps, could be added to Adajania’s description of the speculative – and seems to be somewhat elusive in Chukki’s speculations – is Shah’s use of transgression, which lays bare limits of freedom in the present.