The Anthropocene defines Earth's most recent geologic time period as being human-influenced, or anthropogenic, based on overwhelming global evidence that atmospheric, geologic, hydrologic, biospheric and other earth system processes are now altered by humans. Humans have collectively ushered in an era of environmental destruction and devastation where our activities have started to have a significant global impact on Earth's ecosystems.

The mangrove ecosystem for instance, is disappearing at faster rates than virtually any other ecosystem on Earth. Globally, mangrove forests are among the most threatened habitats, with rates of loss exceeding those of rainforests and coral reefs.The mangroves provide a preview of the challenges ahead for ecosystems.

Through its various phases, the video works from the series 'Scapelands', aim at an artistic inquiry into the mangrove ecosystem in this time of crisis to create awareness about conserving these vast laboratories of nature. The work combines and encompasses phases of research, expedition and documentation, through a robust interaction with the ecosystems that traverses and negotiates between various disciplines, while interrogating conformist notions about our association with and within nature.

Mangrove ecology is the study of abiotic and biotic interactions within mangrove swamp ecosystems. These habitats are significant not only for the biodiversity they represent, but also for the protection of coastal erosion, and for the provision of protected nursery areas for marine fauna. Mangroves are thus defined by their ecology rather than their taxonomy. Each of these mangrove ecotypes is characterized by different patterns of forest structure, productivity, and biogeochemistry, all of which are controlled by a combination of factors such as hydrology, soil characteristics, biological interactions, and the effects of storms and other disturbances.

During my research on these fragile ecosystems, I was interested in understanding how various plant species interact with each other within an ecosystem. This includes the interactions of highly perilous invasive plant species like the Eichhornia crassipes or water hyacinth, commonly known as Vengaya tamarai in Tamil and as Kola vazha in Malayalam.

I was instantly drawn to the ornamental, delicate, fragile looking yet foreboding decadent plant. I spent several months navigating the mangrove waters of Tamil Nadu and Kerala to record and document the life, growth cycles and movement of the water hyacinths as they traversed various parts of the wetlands.

Water hyacinths pollute water supplies through growth and decomposition. The oxygen depleting pollutional load imposed by one acre of growing water hyacinth is estimated to equal the sewage created by forty humans. The plant blocks sunlight from reaching native aquatic plants, actively obstructs drainage and flow of water in the creeks and canals, eventually choking them while depleting the oxygen and raising the water temperature to a stage that in perilous for mangroves and other life forms to endure. The plants also create a prime habitat for mosquitos, the classic vectors of disease. Water Hyacinths eventually alter the ecosystem of the water body and destroy the wetlands. Under favourable conditions the weeds can infest as much as an acre within eight months.

Water hyacinth reproduces primarily by way of runners or stolons, which eventually form daughter plants. Each plant can produce thousands of seeds each year, and these seeds can remain viable for more than two decades. Some water hyacinths were found to grow up to 2 to 5 metres a day in some sites in Southeast Asia. The common water hyacinths are vigorous growers known to double their population in two weeks. In their native range these flowers are pollinated by long tongued bees and they can reproduce both sexually and clonally. The invasiveness of the hyacinth is related to its ability to clone itself and large patches are likely to all be part of the same genetic form. There are three morphs of water hyacinth, long medium and short. However, the short morph is restricted to the native range due to founder events during its distribution. If the water bodies are to be rescued, attempts to physically remove the plants before they flower and set seed. As water hyacinth seeds are extremely long lives, new plants may spring up long after older plants have been physically removed.


Fluidly combining the phases of expedition, research, documentation and meditation in 'Scapelands', Sonia moves outward into diverse terrains of the natural world and simultaneously inward into the history of artistic practice, renewing landscape as a genre. Her project title is instructive: she inverts the two elements of the genre appellation, 'landscape', generating a semantic shift. 'Landscape' announces itself as artifice, for it does not exist in nature; it is the artistic imagination's proposal of a particular way of representing or symbolizing the natural world, of transforming nature into subject. Its mirror twin, 'Scapeland', turns this relationship between subject and artifice around, making the '-scape' the focus of inquiry, engaging with the internalized aesthetic concepts and art-historical categories that form an integral part of our lifeworld. The resulting findings constitute a territory that belongs equally to the cartographer and the psychonaut, at once geographic and oneiric.

Both in the Sundarbans and more recently in Pichavaram, Sonia has explored the watery labyrinth of the mangrove forest by boat, canal by narrow canal. Mangroves remind her of the networks of veins and arteries in the human body, and the water of the amniotic environment; her images articulate these analogies with startling clarity. Chance took the artist to Pichavaram, the mangrove wetlands located between the Vellar and the Coleroon estuaries near the legendary Chidambaram temple, dedicated to the worship of Shiva, in Tamil Nadu's Cuddalore district. Associated with the temple, Pichavaram incarnates the Water Cosmology at its most potent: here, water is a shrine, and anyone who enters the mangrove forest enters a sacred precinct or sanctuary.

Set in Pichavaram, Sonia's video and animation works convey the pervasive sense of a sacred zone, where time is slowed down to the most essential movements of breath, heartbeat, blink and the splash of oar in water. At the same time, they record a threat to the zone, which issues from a seemingly innocuous source: the water hyacinth. This beautiful yet sinister weed spreads out in floating nets, threatening to choke the canals in the Pichavaram mangrove zone. In these works, we find transmuted a strong preoccupation within Sonia's recent work: her almost baroque, even phantasmagoric pictorial evocations of algae, protozoa and plankton evolve, cinematically, into a restrained, graceful iconography of water.

Excerpts from Mystery and Inquiry: Reflections on Sonia Mehra Chawla's 'Scapelands', by Ranjit Hoskote ... Read more
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