2016 - 2017
Video Still
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

Shrouded in an uncanny silence, the haunting images capture the melancholia of a life come to an end.
The landscapes speak chronicles of past histories, politics, the environment and economics of consumption. Masked in a profound and unfathomable stillness, are they merely residues of past histories or are they markers of a dystopian nightmare and an apocalyptic vision of times to come? The work becomes a site for contemplation and reflection, a ground where the mind stops between uncertainties.

Video Still
Video Still
Video Still
Video Still
Video Still

'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.
Video Still
© sonia mehra chawla