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.


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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