The works draw its title from Pablo Neruda's poem "On the Blue Shores of Silence: Poems of the Sea." Excerpts from Neruda's poetry resonate with the phenomenology of the terrains and become entry points to various enquiries: artistic, philosophical, existential and metaphorical. The work is an ode to water as both the 'giver' and 'taker' of life. "I need the sea because it teaches me ... the sea is the source of living and dying."

"Blue Shores of Silence" has been filmed in the deep interiors of the Great Vedaranyam Swamp along India's Coromandel Coast, as well as in the vast degraded mangrove belts in the southernmost end of the Cauvery Delta (Tamil Nadu, India.) One is only able to navigate these locations by water through the narrow creeks and canals of the wetlands and parts of the terrain have quagmires and shifting masses of land, reminding one of the episode of nature's wrath and fury in 2004.

The Indian Ocean Tsunami (2004) devastated the Coromandel coast, it swept away and displaced many coastal communities. Apart from the monumental economic and environmental losses, Tsunami was also responsible for inducing a deep psychological trauma among people. As the full scale of the tragedy unfolded, reports emerged from scientists, environmentalists and local inhabitants, of several cases where mangrove forests had saved lives and property. Mangroves not only broke the impact of the waves, it also trapped debris and prevented people from being washed out to sea, which was a major cause of death.

Although the Government of India along with Private Institutions and NGOs is taking measures to protect and conserve mangrove forests, these majestic coastal bio-shields are still under serious threat from human activities. The coastal habitats have been encroached upon, often illegally, to make way for shrimp farms and aquaculture, agriculture and urban development. Continuing heavy loss of mangrove forests represents a real tragedy for our oceans and the extensive life-support systems mangroves engender. With climate change and sea level rise upon us, we must look to the mangroves to help turn the tides which these forests can do through their ability to control erosion, buffer against storms, and sequester huge amounts of carbon.

'Critical Membrane' marks the current phase of Sonia Mehra Chawla's ongoing project, 'Scapelands', and her close engagement with the present and future of India's endangered mangrove systems. Spanning prints, photographs, video works and installations, this body of work addresses itself to the mangrove ecologies of India's Coromandel and Malabar coasts, located respectively in the states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The artist's exploration of these regions has been inspired by an awareness of impending ecological catastrophe. The mangroves, an osmotic border between land and sea, are under grave threat from direct human interference as well as the cataclysmic shifts in a natural world disordered by the long-term effects of technological activity. In Mehra Chawla's elegiac images of dying mangroves and shrinking wetlands, we find the chronicle of many deaths foretold.

'Critical Membrane' reminds us of the epochal costs that humankind must pay for its economic expansionism, a logic set in motion during the industrial revolution and supported by the contractarian ideology and extractive practices of global capital. As the philosopher Akeel Bilgrami has memorably phrased it, this paradigm has replaced nature with natural resources, communities with populations, and the knowledge to live by with an expertise to rule by. This instrumentalisation of our lifeworld follows from the industrialisation-era model of pitching humankind against nature. By contrast, research across a range of disciplines has encouraged us, with increasing urgency in recent decades, to embrace the understanding that we inhabit complex webs of stimulus and response, intervention and repercussion. We are bound together by interrelationships that require sensitive calibration but are treated, all too often, with shockingly callous and ultimately self-destructive disregard.

Suggestive of the fluid boundary between self and other, species and habitat, the title of Mehra Chawla's exhibition alerts us to the need to subject our visions of anthropocentric, nature-depletive development,to critique. The artist's practice combines a commitment to the processes of research and activism with a fidelity to the poetics of the artwork. In bearing witness to an unprecedented moment in the history of the planet, she brings together a variety of impulses, ranging from microscopic details of bacterial and microbial cultures to documentary cinematic studies of marginalised groups whose eco-sensitive occupations have suffered as a result of the decline in their environment. While I have argued, previously, that there is a strongly solitary, expeditionary quality to Sonia Mehra Chawla's projects, I would also draw attention to the equally vital collaborative and empathetic aspects of her work. Her thread through the labyrinth is woven together with the threads of other questors, other survivors, other celebrants of resistance.

- Ranjit Hoskote

© sonia mehra chawla