Video Still
'Moving Inwards: Bone Trees & Fluid Spaces'
A note on Sonia Mehra Chawla’s work for ‘A World in the City: Zoological and Botanic Gardens’ at Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen (Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations, IFA) Stuttgart, Germany.

By Kaiwan Mehta

‘A World in the City: Zoological and Botanic Gardens’ investigates the ideas of zoological and botanic gardens as inroads into the world of knowledge production.

Sonia Mehra Chawla’s video travels through the mangroves and its many waterways, as roots and shoots of the plants hang around organising a pathway through these dense ecosystems. The artist, through her research, has worked on six eco-sensitive sites in India, two of them being the mangrove ecologies in the Sundarbans in West Bengal and Pichavaram in Tamil Nadu, in eastern and southern India respectively. In this video the artist explores and brings to our attention the serene yet dense nature of this environment, which is a world of its own, yet constantly under threat. Pichavaram, about 1100 hectares in size, is the world’s second largest mangrove forest accessible via 400 canals and is cut off from the mainland and hence makes for its own complex ecosystem.

The author Amitav Ghosh in his iconic novel The Hungry Tide also tries to unravel the difficult and delicate nature of these ecologies. The novel, set in the region of the Sundarbans, through a delicate and undefined friendship between a local and a visiting scholar explores what such landscapes and intense environmental situations mean to us all — locals and visitors, daily users and researchers. The locals are part of that ecosystem, whereas the environmentalist or the researcher is in most cases sitting outside the ecosystem, trying to enter in.

In Chawla’s video, the viewer is in some way an intruder, a voyeur, until you are completely sucked into the landscape by the meditative nature of the film and its sound; at this point you ask as a viewer — where am I — am I an outsider? Can I enter every ecosystem? Who is more vulnerable — me or the ecosystem? Are we both at the mercy of our times?
In‘The World in the City: Zoological & Botanic Gardens’ on view at the IFA Galerie in Stuttgart, curator Kaiwan Mehta explores the theme and expands it into a ‘concept for the show in two ways- firstly the colonial history of institutions such as world expositions, gardens, zoos and museums where these become sites for knowledge production about the world at large as we see it even today, as well as the imagination of a ‘public’- the idea of a modern viewing- consuming audience; secondly it explores our recent history of the hyper relationship with nature through issues such as Sustainability, Veganism, nature trails, wildlife television channels and so forth...The curator invited a set of seven works from four artists and a collection of poems and essays from a poet to present in a subtle and nuanced way, the relationship that we share as humans and as a civilization with nature, the world, and the cosmos.

Extensive feature-essay published in the June-July edition of the premier International Design and Architecture magazine 'DOMUS'


© sonia mehra chawla