Healing the Planet: One Microbe at a Time
Nancy Adajania

Extract from the catalogue essay by Nancy Adajania:

Even now, after so many years, if she were to close her eyes, she can see that gorgeous tree in the Sundarbans biosphere reserve.

"I came upon this magnificent mangrove tree with a sprawling network of aerial roots or pneumatophores spread across a vast area. I knew at once this was not just any tree. This was a conscious, intelligent system."

Sonia Mehra Chawla (b. 1977) will be showing a selection of her works - zigzagging across the mediums of photography, printmaking and films made during the last seven years - at 1x1 Art Gallery, Dubai. The exhibition title, '(Un)Containable Life', makes deft use of the parenthesis: it deconstructs the extractivist modes of controlling human and non-human lives in the age of the 'Capitalocene' (in Jason Moore's phrase). Framed in the form of a mini-retrospective, this exhibition is a prayer against the relentless destruction of the planet. It offers us a substantial account of the artist's journey so far. As we join Sonia on her expeditions across the mangrove forests, wetlands and salt pans of India, and a tidal island in Scotland, we sense her empathy with ecological ruins and indigenous communities, and her disquiet at the manner in which such communities have been marginalized from the surroundings that they have conserved for hundreds of years. I would argue that, in the last few years, we have witnessed an extraordinary transition in the artist's practice from a focus on the modernist, singular art object functioning as a portrait of a botanical specimen or an interconnected ecology, to the embrace of a more collaborative, processual understanding of art as a means to transformative knowledge. For Sonia, art is now indissolubly wedded to an ethic, even a politics of multi-species co-existence. Indeed, her artistic research could itself be seen as a political act, in which she has conspired with oceanologists, microbiologists and climate-change scientists, as well as farmers and fisherfolk who speak from their deep reserves of traditional wisdom.

At the heart of Sonia's practice, we experience her play with the poetics of scale and her transition from representation to participation. Take, for instance, her latest video, 'The Non-Human Touch' (2020). Here, the artist refuses to convey an easy aesthetic of the sublime by approaching the uninhabited beaches of Cramond Island from a remote distance. Instead, she gathers soil samples from the island and studies them in Petri dishes and Winogradsky columns in a laboratory - she disrupts the aesthetic construct of representing an external and awe-inspiring reality, replacing it with the messy engagement of being part of what is seen, what is being shown, what is larger than us yet within us, thus implicating herself viscerally in the crisis of the Capitalocene.

Read Nancy Adajania's complete essay 'Healing the Planet: One Microbe at a Time' here:  

View the exhibition catalogue PDF here:  

Watch a special conversation between Nancy Adajania and Sonia Mehra Chawla hosted by 1x1 Art Gallery and Alserkal Art Week on March 24, 2021: (Click here)

© sonia mehra chawla