In celebration of International Women’s Day 2019, The Private Museum (TPM) is pleased to present From Lost Roots to Urban Meadows by Singapore-based artists, Madhvi Subrahmanian and Nandita Mukand. As part of TPM’s Women Artists series, this joint exhibition follows the most recent developments of the artists’ practices, featuring installation and sculptural works informed by their ongoing explorations into nature and how it responds to our everyday life in the city.
Subrahmanian reflects on the fluid interconnectedness of nature and urban cultures. Bringing together conceptual and sensory experiences, her works are often participatory and/or immersive in nature. Her contemplative process attempts to trace the imprints of the intangible through her investigations into city structures, space layouts, archaeological sites and the displacement of objects by shape-shifting shadows. Drawing upon her interest in metaphysics and its abstract concepts such as being, knowing, identity, time, space; and neuroplasticity, Mukand’s practice observes the deep intricacies of nature, mingled and merged with the working of the urban mind. Through the amalgamation of synthetic and organic materials, her works ruminate upon citified mindsets and illuminate urban veils that separate us from nature.
Through the inquisitive lens of both the artists, From Lost Roots to Urban Meadows seeks to challenge our perceptions of nature and life – inviting the viewer to delve deeper and engage in new conversations about our urban existence—with or without—nature.
Madhvi Subrahmanian (Born in Mumbai, India. Lives and works in Singapore.)
Based in Singapore, Madhvi Subrahmanian is an artist, curator and writer. Her initial training in ceramics was with Ray Meeker and Deborah Smith at the Golden Bridge Pottery in Pondicherry India and she has attained her Masters in Fine Arts from Meadows School of the Arts, Dallas, TX.
Madhvi has been awarded the Charles Wallace Grant and other grants including the India Foundation of the Arts. She has been invited to several artists in residence programs in Japan, China, Korea, India, Thailand and US. Her sculptures and installations can be seen in several private and public collections such as the Mumbai Domestic Airport, India, Shigaraki Ceramic Sculptural Park, Japan, and Fule museum in Fuping, China. She shows with Gallery Chemould in Mumbai and has participated in many biennales, solo and group exhibitions around the world. Her works have been shown at museums such as Indian Heritage Centre, Singapore, Yingee Ceramic Museum in Taiwan, Ayala Museum in Manila and Henan Museum in China.
Madhvi is part of the curatorial team for the first international contemporary ceramic triennial recently held in Jaipur. Her works have been published in international magazines, like Ceramic Art and Perception, Nueve Keramik and in books like Smoke firing by Jane Perryman and Contemporary Ceramics by Emmanuel Cooper. Madhvi’s work was also recently on the cover of India’s premier contemporary art magazine-Art India. Madhvi is the elected member of the International Academy of Ceramics (UN organization) based in Geneva. Recently her installation Ode to the Unknown based on colonial rubber plantations and labour politics was commissioned and acquired by a Singapore museum, Indian Heritage Center, Singapore.
Nandita Mukand is a Singapore based artist whose practice encompasses sculpture, installation and painting and whose work has been exhibitted and collected in Singapore and internationally. Drawing upon her interest in metaphysics, neuroplasticity, quantum physics and contemporary buddhist texts her work often mingles observations of growth and decay in the wilderness with the workings of the urban mind.
Nandita’s work was included in the OpenART Biennale 2017, Sweden and Imaginarium: To the Ends of the Earth, Singapore Art Museum. Other notable exhibitions include solo shows : Mind(less) Wilderness (2019), Forest Weft, City Warp (2017-2018),The Materiality of
Time (2015) and group shows : Exploring BigCI, Hawkesbury Regional Gallery,
Australia (2015), Untapped,Chan Hampe Gallery, Singapore (2016), Fundacio L’Olivar Summer Exhibition,Spain (2016).
She has been awarded artist residencies by the Fundacio L’Olivar in Spain, the Hawkesbury Regional Gallery, Australia and the Bilpin International Ground for Creative Initiatives, Australia, all of which have enabled her to deepen her research into the natural world.
Having quit a successful corporate career with Proctor and Gamble to devote herself full-time to art making, Nandita graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts (First Class) from Goldsmiths, College of London via LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore. She received the
LASALLE Award for Excellence for outstanding student of the year (2014). Nandita is also an alumna of the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta and has a degree in Electronics Engineering.
Between and Beyond Screen and Window: Mapping the Shapeshifting.
How does a city grow?
TEXT by Andrea Fam
A city bears witness to development on a daily basis. As I put these words to paper, I can hear the whir of a chainsaw put to task on manicuring the trees located within and along Singapore’s public housing estates. In the pauses in branch pruning, the wind carries the sound of drilling from a distant construction site. This medley of noises is a sonic indicator of the city’s attempts at advancement. But how does a city grow?
An urban sprawl comes to mind when envisaging a growing city. And as it slowly but surely spreads, it overruns a natural landscape that once existed. But where, from an aerial view, we imagine the universal grey that comes with the assembly of roads and buildings, what is not detected is nature’s cohabitation with its colonisers and attempts at reclaiming its lost terrain.
The concept of a growing city is reflected on and explored in the works by Nandita Mukand and Madhvi Subrahmanian in their duo show, “From Lost Roots to Urban Meadows”, that ponders humans’ complex relationship with nature. The intertwine between built surrounds and natural environment are central concerns in the practices of the two artists: both share a view of nature’s unwavering resilience in the face of mans’ unruly and oft unchecked expansionist tendencies, whilst also recognising the beauty of nature’s reflection in the man-made.
A sense of growth is detectable when you first encounter the works in the show. They extend across the exhibition space and dot its walls with determined purpose, some suspend and hover above the ground in anticipation and latency. More than just a sense of growth, this exhibition creates an impression that it is growing, and indeed the matter which the works are created of and the manner in which they are displayed creates an illusion that the works are coalescing and morphing.
A viewfinder, a lens and a light source
The visitor is invited into a space that eminantes a sense of earthiness; clay, natural fibres and other organic materials lend the exhibition its raw quality. Whilst seemingly instructive in their presence and positions, with sets of ceramic sculptures weaving towards, through, around and away from cypress seed pods and rhizoidal growths, what lays effectively camouflaged within these composites is an allegorical approach to navigating the exhibition. The titling of the works: ‘Urban Veil I’, ‘Empty Vessels I’, ‘Entropic Orders I’, ‘City Weave’, ‘Floor Plan’, ‘Forest of Shadows’, etc., are indicative of the way in which each artist ‘sees’ and ‘moves through’ the world around them and ‘sees’ and ‘moves through’ the world they have deployed in the exhibition space: they employ framing devices that limit vision, simultaneously enclose and exclude a line of sight, create demarcations, or else fade in and out of reach.
A sense of invitation is experienced as you enter the doors of the museum. Lying in a state of repose is Mukand’s ‘Empty Vessels I’, an installation of hundreds of cypress seeds distributed across several bulbous groupings resembling hives of bees that suspend from the ceiling or lay languidly on the ground. The seeds that were sourced from Spain, where the artist spent time on a residency, bears significance: “the cypress tree grows very tall, and allows people to imagine it connects earth to the sky. [They say] in Spain the Cypress trees are grown in graveyards as a way to link the dead to heaven” recalled the artist in her studio where we discussed the work. In explaining the work’s title, she reflected: “what’s fascinating to me was how small, tiny and insignificant [they were], and maybe nothing would come off them, but at the same time each seed is a vessel that has the potential to become a very tall tree that bears more seeds, and more seeds might make a forest”.
Trees that grow in presence punctuate the wall beyond ‘Empty Vessels I’. ‘Forest of Shadows’ by Subrahmanian is a work that seems to gain in size before your eyes. Comprised of stoneware, light and shadows, the work tessellates in two directions: horizontally and vertically. Softly outlined trees appear to rise upwards whilst solid dashes seem to mark the length of the wall. Only when sidled up against it do you recognise the work of light passing through the stoneware, casting a stencil of these trees against the surface of the wall, like sentinels keeping watch. Subrahmanian further illustrates: “You will see the shadows of the trees, but you don’t see the objects, or the objects become the shadows, and the shadows become the objects. I like that inversion that happens, and also that something is not tangible – you can’t quite hold on to a shadow, it escapes you. You can’t claim it.”
“There is no definition to an object without shadow – it gives shape, lends character and sets a mood. Through its transformative ability it can give a static object movement–exaggerating and distorting it as it lengthens and shortens with light. The spacious pattern of shadows, be it on the forest floor or the deep recesses of an architectural space, displays the unparalleled and the ethereal beauty of filtered light.”.
The attempt to wield light continues in an alcove off the main exhibition space in the works, ‘Reclaiming the Road’, and ‘Connect/Disconnect’. ‘Reclaiming the Road’ can be metaphorically described as a duet between a road and the trees that line it. This scene of tall trees casting their long shadows across a road, was photographically recorded in the neighbourhood where the artist lives but at the same time could be any road and any bank of trees anywhere in the world. The work is often read as the pulse of a heart, with its cardiac rate and frequency charted on a graph. It would be closer to describe it as a seismograph as the image captures the road’s expansion over time and temperature. ‘Reclaiming the Road’ is an observation of the daily ebb and flow of the tide of these trees’ shadows.
In ‘Connect/Disconnect’, window-like structures double up as grids on a map and lines mimic pipeways that crisscross cities and divide land whilst connecting humans to each other. “Windows are important for me because they are an avenue in and out of architectural spaces to the world outside – an access point” comments Subrahmanian. “These clustered windows are an avenue for sight and perspective and allow us to consider how perspectives shift: are we looking at a forest or is it a mirage?”, speculates the artist. As the light source trails the linework of ‘Connect/Disconnect’, an image of an electrical circuit starts to take shape. Subrahmanian again: “I see the linkages as connections within the city. They are pipes and sewerages and electrical wiring all rooting the city.”We remain in the vein of mapping with ‘Floor Plan’ which Subrahmanian describes as a “cross between an architectural floor plan, an abandoned city and archeological ruins.” Positioned as though floating off the ground, the work responds to the cracks and crevices of the museum floor, imagining a city that expanded by circumventing rivers and ravines. Meant to be viewed from top down, ‘Floor Plan’ considers the practice of cartography and the kind of information that can be discerned from the data laid out by the study of maps. I am reminded again of an urban sprawl where meandering lines that traverse a landscape are likely man-made.
“I am interested in architecture and the spaces between. […] like Agnes Martin, Joseph Albers and Mondrian, I see the city through grids and geometric shapes” explained Subrahmanian as I studied her series ‘City Weave’ for the first time at her studio. Embedded within each ceramic convex disc is a framework of lines that configure and reconfigure to form different impressions of city networks, depending on how the discs are oriented. Oriented one way, they appear to resemble tall buildings with numerous windows on each floor. Oriented another, the same composition now takes on the appearance of a train going by a window, or conversely a city being seen through the window of a moving train. Aside from grids and geometric shapes, Subrahmanian also sees the city in the weaves of cloth: “I come from India where patterns are commonly found on cloth” she reflected. Here the impression of the city through a framed window immediately becomes populated with people. The same imagery can be seen in her latest development ‘Urban Fabric’. Though similar in form in that it also comprises ceramic discs, ‘Urban Fabric’ combines the appearance of a woven city. Distinct in this series is how the discs line up to make the city skyline, or viewed another way, the edge of a fraying tapestry.
Cloth is also activated as a viewing technique by Mukand in her series, Empty Cocoon and Urban Veil. In ‘Empty Cocoon I, II and III’ Mukand has fashioned her wire and mesh fabric to take on the form of cocoon casings. “A lot of [my] works are about processes of creation […] how things are created, grow and die. I see that in very difficult and harsh climates and conditions plants always grow very gracefully, and they adapt as they grow. And as they do so, they take on very graceful form[s]. Neuroplasticity tells us that the human brain can also adapt and change and develop new skills”, stated the artist as she described the mirroring of plants and humans in their abilities to adapt in the face of change.
By way of interpreting, ‘Urban Veil I’, Mukand opened by describing her sense that “there is always a barrier between us and nature”. ‘Urban Veil I’ is a group of 16 wall-bound sculptures made predominantly of of cloth, paper, plaster, acrylic paint, resin and wire. Taken individually, each Veil bears its own gestural, almost performative imprint. Some curve and curl, others dangle, yet others fold over on themselves in a fashion not dissimilar to autumnal leaves. As a collective, ‘Urban Veil I’ bears the impactful presence of a legion on guard, creating a striking counterpoint to Subrahmanian’s ‘Forest of Shadows’ in the adjacent room. Shadow play similarly occurs in this work; “The shadows emphasise the screen like quality of the work. It is a way of emphasising the Urban Veil. The Urban Veil to me is our growing inability to directly experience and take in the natural world. Living in the city we often view nature only through a variety of screens – computer screens, phone screens, car windows, camera lenses. This in turn obstructs our ability to absorb the clarity, the wisdom, the strength that is available from the natural world” shared Mukand.
The idea of a barrier between human and nature is further explored in Mukand’s photographic series. Produced in collaboration with performance artist, Mar Serinya, whilst Mukand was in Spain on an artist residency, the series looks at human’s interaction with and distance from nature. Four photographs, ‘Together Forever’, ‘The Unborn’, ‘Fragility I’ and ‘Fragility II’, capture Serinya in a range of poses that feature the artist in embrace with plants native to Spain on their early stage of decline. The postures assumed by Serinya delicately balance an affection for these plants with an employment of them as a shield. The series thinks about skin and bark as protective surfaces between human and plant, but also about plant and nature as a protective layer for humans.
Humans and nature vs human nature
One of the last pieces to be included in the exhibition was, ‘Entropic Orders I’ by Mukand. It is a sculptural piece that in part drapes down a wall whilst also accumulating on the ground below. The medium of the work is paper whose multifaceted form has been molded by the shape of the artist’s finger. Born in white and comprising hundreds of thimble-shaped units, ‘Entropic Orders I’ resembles bleached corals or petals made of egg shells. “Entropic” refers to chaos, decay, degradation. As per physics ‘entropy’ never stops. I am interested in the chaos in nature and also within that chaos there is order and grace and therefore contradiction. Repetition and the time involved [in making the work] made me think about how time is experienced in nature and in the city. In nature it is cyclical, repeating, but we humans often experience time as linear (progress, goals, etc.), but I think if we take a long enough view, human projects are often cyclical even as they lay the ground for [a] next generation of projects. As per some doctrines even our lives are cyclical with the idea of rebirth” interpreted Mukand of the work.
In reflecting on this show and its works, on humans and nature, and on humans’ struggle to make sense of the world from the point of consciousness and perception, I find myself pondering over a number of existential questions: Can humans ever fully embrace nature? Is nature ‘embraceable’? How can humans translate the experience of the effects of nature?
‘From Lost Roots to Urban Meadows’ is an exhibition that contemplates human’s existence from the point of their encounter with and presentation and representation of their natural and built environments.
Andrea Fam is an Assistant Curator at the Singapore Art Museum where she oversees the Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam portfolios. She holds a B.A. (Hons) degree in Criticism, Communication and Curation in Art and Design from Central Saint Martins, London, UK. She is one of six curators in the upcoming Singapore Biennale 2019, ‘Every Step in the Right Direction’, and co-curated the Singapore Biennale 2016, ‘An Atlas of Mirrors’. She has also curated and co-curated several exhibitions at SAM, namely, the President’s Young Talents 2018, ‘Imaginarium: Over the Ocean, Under the Sea’, and ‘Odyssey: Navigating Nameless Seas’. Her research interests include investigations into the implications and impact of borders in and on contemporary art production, the role of humour in society.
Thursday, 21 March 2019, 6:30pm
Mrs Rosa Daniel
Chief Executive Officer
National Arts Council
Saturday, 6 April 2019, 3:00pm