Published by Exhibit 320 & British Council India on the occasion of the artists' solo exhibition 'Scapelands' in 2015
I Tell us about your interest in notions of the 'self', especially in the early phase of your artistic practice.

As we move through life, we leave behind three or four significant images of ourselves, each one different from the others; we see them through the fog of our past, like portraits of our different ages. Personal identity and notions of the 'self' are fragile constructs that are constantly in the process of transformation. For me, these images become a kind of confessional; a context for looking into oneself or at oneself. I think self representation is essential to any biography. It marks the beginning. A true self image is much more than what appears to the eye. At whatever level it is conducted, and flawed, inept or masterly as the result may be, it is inevitably an expression of a situation and a relationship sustained over time. The relationship between the artist and his/her 'self' is at its deepest level, one of unique and long sustained intimacy born of immediate, close and intensive scrutiny. It is a kind of conspiracy, a personal and shared endeavor to which both artist and his/her persona are active parties.

The self imagery in your work, particularly between 2008 and 2012 is laden with layered psychological inputs. The manner in which the 'self' is re-constructed in your practice, opens up from a very intimate level to a generic understanding of womanhood. How do you understand and connect with feminist discourse in your practice? I am also curious to know more about your response to the maternal experience.

The suite of works 'Some Roots Grow Upwards' and 'Metamorphosing Female' (2009-2011) was informed by my experience of pregnancy and childbirth. I began to perceive the world from the inside-out. In my practice, I more modestly limit myself to an aspect of feminism and motherhood that concerns me personally both as a mother and an artist. My practice is about a sharing of feminine experiences and articulating the fragile balance between life and death. The darker side of my work primarily concerns the internal mechanisms of visual imagery and how these mechanisms address the mind. Pregnancy and childbirth are life-altering and complex experiences for a woman. A mother experiences the strongest intensity of drives. She experiences emotions of attachment, aggression, fear, love and guilt. Her body is vulnerable, ephemeral and it becomes a site of transformations. I often use images of my body to portray such transitions of the flesh and of the mind. I feel that the body registers all emotions directly, and carries the 'marks '.

The first phase of my works talked about the enigma of conception, gestation and growth, and referred to an intensely personal notion of that is physically excruciating, bodily, and ambiguous regarding the status of life and death in the process of birth. While, every day the life sciences are gaining growing mastery over the mystery of gestation, what follows is fundamentally in the realm of the unknowable. It is largely incomprehensible. Embryology is indeed the most sublime topology! Julia Kristeva says, and I quote: 'Within the body, growing as a graft, indomitable, there is an other. And no one is present, within that simultaneously duel and alien space, to signify what is going on. 'It happens, but I'm not there.' 'I cannot realize it, but it goes on.'

There is simultaneity of death (here I refer to the mass of the afterbirth) and life in the birth of the child. There is also a certain degree of immortality in the experience of birth. Motherhood is complex as it generates emotions of both desirability and despicability. The latter experience is always concealed, obscured and remains unstated. Yet the marvel felt in experiencing the ephemeral through the maternal bond overrides this angst.

There is a sense of collective consciousness in the multiple channel video 'Becoming Light' conceptualized and filmed in 2011. You mentioned inviting a multiplicity of women at various stages in their life to participate. Could you elaborate?

Becoming Light is a multi screen video and sound installation which enmeshs manifold experiences of women through verses of poetry. I invited a group of women at various stages in their life: youth, maternal and middle age, to recite a poem from 'Memory Bird' by Nandita Jaishankar Allana. The woman is at the centre of love, life cycles, growth and decay. The video is presented as a montage of moving images oscillating between three screens. Viewers enter an immersive environment in which they are compelled to make their own experiential journeys. The video sequence portrays the female form as it gradually emerges from the darkness and progresses from obscurity to light.

The viewer is confronted with the pregnant silences and deep penetrating gazes of a multitude of unknown women. As the sequence unfolds, the vocals expand and multiply in the gallery space. Gradually, the entire space is populated by the histories, memories, vulnerabilities and desires of these women, and in this space, the viewer becomes the one watched and observed. The work suggests an ongoing cycle of mortality and rebirth with the forms of the women simultaneously growing and shrinking, rising and falling, emerging from and dissolving into one another and into the very matrix of their origin. The female body transforms from a youthful exuberance to a middle aged and portrayal. Aged, wrinkled and vulnerable, her maternity binds her to her roots.

Apart from notions of womanhood and femininity, I can see your personal space is entangled with biomorphic forms as well as science fictions. It creates its own parallel universe. How do you transpose between many worlds?

My work has often been inspired by Utopian and Dystopian literature, Science fiction, scientific speculation and ecotopian fiction. For me, Science fiction is really a literature of ideas, and change, and change by definition implies that the present is perceived in relation to perceptions of the past and expectations of the future which shape that present. One of the recurrent themes in Science fiction that I connect with, is its exploration of 'spaces' and the articulating of human displacement within these labyrinthine and fragmented spaces.( I refer to both outer and inner spaces)

In my opinion, Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift is one of the most famous examples to use the convention of fantastic voyages to other lands to explore and examine human nature and tendencies. The narrative actualizes metaphors of size and makes a complex interplay of perspectives. Estrangement and association are both essential characteristics of Science Fiction and are recurring underlying elements in my work. (Here I also refer to the writings of Margaret Atwood and Philip K Dick)

As a young reader, I was introduced to and intrigued by terms like 'teleportation', 'terraforming', and futuristic concepts related to 'interstellar space travel'. I was always inspired to read about Journeys, unlimited infinite expanses and uncharted terrains. Similarly, books like 'Cosmic View: The Universe in 40 Jumps' by Kees Boeck enabled new ways of 'seeing'. The reader journeys outward through space to the edge of infinity, then through decreasing scales of size to the atom's nucleus in a series of drawings and illustrations, each seen from a point ten times farther or ten times closer than the previous.

What interests me is how a fragmentary component of a biomorphic section reveals the colossal configuration in nature. I could say that my world comprises of and encompasses a multitude of worlds within it. I oscillate and travel between these Worlds.

There is fluid buoyancy in the way in which these worlds float in your works. In my observation the fluidity of time and space is more of a mental construct than a 'pictorial reality'. But when it comes to visualising and constructing these realities in a two-dimensional space, how do you select and arrange your imageries? Where do they come from?

I endeavour to transform everyday earthly images into phantasmagorical visions ... landscapes that could be from Earths primordial past or vistas from distant planetary surfaces we are yet to encounter. I attempt to create worlds, in which boundaries between the fictitious and factual, existent and imaginary are blurred and where strange hybrids and fantasy formations are the products of imaginary desires; where science fiction and futuristic visions might operate alongside more familiar accounts of the world. Often, the images are presented as a disjointed, dislocated sequence that fails to communicate any stable idea of narrative trajectory or space, but seems instead to create spaces or gaps through which to reflect upon certain recurrent themes and preoccupations.

Time and space are impregnated with a sense of heightened reality. Hybrids of plant, animal and polyp populate the surface and infuse a living vitalism. I maintain a rich archive of photographic images which I often refer to. The imagery is also inspired by microphotographs and electron micrographs of single-celled organisms exquisite in their ornamental morphology, and displaying complex patterns of growth, reproduction, movement and mutability. Within these simple configurations, the entire mechanics of evolution is revealed.

What exactly do you mean by lucid dreams? How much of the world you have created through your art practice is in dialogue with the world you live in or inhabit?

I often engage in lucid dreaming. By lucid dreaming I mean conscious dreaming. It is the state of mind between wakefulness and sleep, which has the potential to open deep phases of the mind. I have often allowed myself to be an observer rather than a participant as the dream sequences unfold. Other times, I have consciously manipulated my dreams with a greater degree of control over my participation where I have been able to manipulate imaginary experiences within the dreamscape. These dreams are often realistic and vivid. The fact that I am aware of the dream orientation, of the capacity to make decisions, of memory functions, of the dream environment, of the perception of time within this context, and that I have a clear memory of the waking world, enables me to be constantly recreate these visions in my artwork. For me, lucid dreaming is a conscious intervention of the self into the dreamscape.

I would also like to know more about your interest in print media. In my understanding, print media requires a lot of technical knowledge and an in-depth understanding of the medium you work with. You seem to have created a balance between a highly technical devise and a world of imagination.

My practice involves working intimately with various mediums like painting, printmaking and photography and video. Working consistently with combining these mediums helps me traverse the limitations of any single medium of execution.

I was essentially trained as a painter in college, but always had a deep fascination for the print media. I was introduced to the world of Fine Art Printmaking, particularly Etching through my Professor Anupam Sud. I worked under her expert guidance with processes such as Drypoint, Hard and Soft Grounds, Aquatint, Chine colle, Marbling, Spit Bite, and Sugar Lift. After Graduation, I continued my practice in the print media at Atelier 2221 Print and Edition Studio which was established by Devraj Dakoji in Shahpurjat, New Delhi. The studio closed down a few years later and subsequently, I set up a working system in my personal studio to facilitate and continue my practice in photo based serigraphy. There is a lack of proper infrastructure in our country for practicing printmakers and a lack of community print studios. More recently, I also began to experiment with alternative photographic techniques on archival papers like albumen prints, cyanotypes, sodium carbonate prints, and Vandyke brown processes.

Working in the medium of Intaglio printmaking and other forms of Fine Art Printmaking requires discipline, attention to meticulous detailing, technical proficiency and precision. The medium is quite laborious and can be physically exhaustive. In addition, there may be a tendency to quite easily lose track of content due to overindulgence in technical nuances. I think one requires a certain kind of temperament to be a practicing printmaker and to excel in the medium. I enjoy the challenges.

You were the International Artist-in-Residence at London Print studio in 2014. You mentioned working with innovative technologies in Fine Art Printmaking. What are the possibilities you explored and experimented with? What was your area of research as a Charles Wallace Scholar? I was awarded the Charles Wallace India Trust Award for Visual Arts by British Council in 2014. The award and residency grant facilitated my research in the medium of Non toxic intaglio printmaking, like Photopolymer Gravure, through the use of innovative and breakthrough technologies. As a Charles Wallace scholar and resident artist at London Print Studio, I was able to collaborate with the finest technicians. I was experimenting with advanced UV exposure techniques associated with solar plates and various processes of developing and hardening the photopolymer plate before the printing process. The medium itself is extremely intriguing with its possibilities to achieve meticulous details and penetrating depths of scale.


Are there any connections with ecological concerns when you speak about the series of works titled 'Biomorphic City'?

In an age characterized by pragmatism, utopian thought could be easily rejected as an inadequate form of daydreaming. I think the ecological utopias can truly function as a rich source of ideals for a different arrangement of contemporary society. In this post modern era as much as in any other, we cannot undervalue the innovative power of the utopian ecological imagination.

The 'Biomorphic City' series is an ongoing project where I have created visionary prototype images of a self sustained mega city which attempt to addresses mega city challenges of energy management, nature, architecture, agriculture, urban spaces and quality of life. It is an ecology based evolution which looks at ideas of sustainability at its core. An effective system that does not reject high technology, but rather shows a conscious selectivity about technology. I call the images 'visionary' prototypes, as we are looking at evolving ideas of sustainability and futuristic designs. For instance, one of the schemes envisioned in the paintings portrays a radical concept in high rise and high density urban living. Towering above most congested motorway intersections, it is a vision of a completely closed metabolic cycle in which traffic exhaust emissions are harnessed via CO2 collectors in order to feed algae grown in photo bio-reactors within the building's facade. Algae and natural by-products produced during algae cultivation are then refined to produce renewable energy sources. Bio-diesel produced using algae contains no sulfur, is non-toxic and highly biodegradable.

I would like to visualize 'Biomorphic City' as an effectively realised utopia.

Is 'Scapelands' a departure from your earlier body of works? Where are these places? Are they real or imaginary? Are they imprints of an 'ideal' world where your consciousness rearranges the places you have already travelled to? Or are they dreamlands within which you can exercise a certain degree of control? In my view, Scapelands is a natural progression from my earlier works. Scapelands is an ongoing process that expresses my continuing engagement with the natural and organic world and is a result of several years of research and documentation of 'sites' in diverse locations. My artistic practice is often concerned with the investigation of nature that is defined not just as the physical world around us but also, and especially the conditions of our physical, metaphorical, and ecological interactions with it. Association and estrangement have been underlying elements in my practice. In a similar vein, several forms and elements return and recur to form an integral part of my visual imagery. The work is eventually an amalgamation of real and imagined territories, and a consequential blend of conscious and subconscious detailing.

What drew you towards the mangroves? Are there any personal as well as mythical connections with this particular landscape?

I was first drawn to the majestic anatomy of the mangrove plant. Gradually, deeper associations were invoked through my experiential journeys. Over the past few years I travelled into the lesser explored inner worlds of the mangrove forest biomes, marshlands and swamp habitats In India and abroad. I spent several weeks navigating through scores of narrow constricted canals. There is an impending feeling of wonder, desire, fear and death in these forests that draws the observer close. These scapelands are curated by light and validated by sound. For me, they become sites of history, memory and transformation.

The mangrove swamp ecosystems and habitats in themselves are intriguing. The plants themselves live in hostile environmental conditions and exhibit highly evolved morphological and physiological adaptations to extreme conditions. The mangroves invoke associations with bones, coiled and tangled intestines, networks of veins and arteries mapping the bodies' interiors. In a similar vein, the water pools in the mangrove swamps and biomes have associations with the Placenta site within the female body, Amniotic Fluid & its deepest pools, the Ductus Venosa and the entire systematic mechanics of fetal circulation and growth within the female body. It is through the course of these systems both sublime and decadent, that the entire mechanics of evolution is revealed.

How do you view and interpret the landscape?

I have often viewed the landscape from the inside out. As an artist, I attempt to develop new tools and strategies through my practice that unsettle conventional wisdom about our relationship with and within nature. Such investigations take on a notion of turning inwards into a phenomenological experience of life. As a result, there occurs both a sense of disorientation and identification with the feeling one has of being inside one's own body. With the landscape one is confronted with an 'excess' of presence and is enveloped by it. Ideas and perceptions of the self are left behind. The self is often too sure of itself and arrogant in the way that it puts things to scale. 'In order to experience a landscape you have to lose your feeling of space'. It establishes, despite the most intriguing artifices, its grip and hold on time. In fact, the landscape simply seizes time. Where and when the landscape takes place is not signaled. It leaves the mind desolate. Eventually, Scapelands become places without a destiny.

Your present body of work leads you from a self-oriented personal space to a larger context of ecology and environmental concerns. Where is 'Scapelands' taking you from here?

I am currently working with mangrove ecology. I am also interested in the study of biotic interactions within mangrove swamp ecosystems. A large part of the project involves site visits and research in diverse locations of the country particularly Sunderbans in Bengal, coastal areas of Tamil Nadu like Pichavaram and coastal areas of Kerala. During some of my previous visits, I found that a large part of these forests are steadily being reclaimed for human consumption. Here I refer to the rapid expansion of shrimp aquaculture and Coastal Agri-shifting Cultivation which breaks down the resilience of the ecosystem and leads to land deterioration. These factors have been an important cause of conversion of mangroves in the past decade. This is generating a great environmental concern. There is also a Systematic dumping of all kinds of waste and debris in the mangrove areas that leads to their degradation and inevitable destruction. Land reclamations and industrial effluents are also the major causes of mangroves degradation. In many instances, this is done intentionally to reclaim land for construction activity. I returned a few weeks ago from a trip to Kerala and site visits to the mangrove forests like Mangalavanam forests, Kumarakom forests and some areas in the Alapuzza district of Kerala. In Puthuvype itself, 70 acres of Mangroves were reclaimed for setting up The kerala University of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences. I hope to return to Kerala to visit some of these sites where the mangroves are losing ground to rampant urbanization. I am in the initial stages of my research in these areas and am keen to observe new dimensions that may emerge in my practice.

There is a search as well as research involved in this body of works. Through 'searching' you hope to explore larger dimensions as well as the un-known territories of an 'inner' self. Search can also be an enquiry into in-between spaces. Research pushes you to physically explore territories and 'sites 'and accumulate data from diverse locations. It invites you to experience the width, depth and vastness of the spaces you encounter. The ground realities of research and the inner realities of a search meet in your lucid dreams again and again.

(There is a search as well as research involved in this body of works. Search can be dealt with its larger dimensions and hope to explore the un-known territories of an inner-self. It can also be an enquiry into the in-between spaces where mind pauses before its leaps into a destination. Whereas the research pushes you to explore the territories once known to you only as information. Research invites you to be in the place, experience width, depth and the vastness of it. It also prepares you to touch the ground and feel it with all the data you have accumulated about the place. The ground realities of the research and the inner realities of the search can be met in your lucid dreams again and again.)
© sonia mehra chawla