As the 21st century unfolds, new discoveries in science and technology have begun to transform our lives. We live in a globally connected world, inundated daily with news of the potentially devastating consequences of human actions on nature. How have we gotten to this state of being? And can artistic practice better sensitise us to emergent challenges? Art is a powerful tool to redress and reimagine our world. We at the museum feel it is time to look back and reflect. Asymmetrical Objects, currently on display at the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum, endeavours to articulate a visual vocabulary that addresses these issues.
In January 2018, the museum completed 10 years since it reopened to the public in 2008, after a major restoration that took five years, and won UNESCO’s Asia-Pacific award of excellence. In March last year, the museum completed 160 years since it first opened in 1857. The exhibition takes its cue from the world’s earliest impulses — founded on nature and science — to establish the museum. In the 19th century, science represented certainty and objectivity. It held out the possibility of endless hope. However, the lens through which we view both today has radically changed.
In traditional societies, nature was seen as a celebration of the divine and was sacralised and ritualised. Many of those values have been compromised or rejected, as industrialisation and urbanisation have threatened older rituals and modes of thought. The Age of Enlightenment, which defined our modern world view, was founded on the principles of natural law and reason. French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s ‘natural man’ represented untainted innocence, and Voltaire’s definition of reason gave birth to the scientific temper. Nature and science, though, became instruments of oppression during the colonial period. Today, the certainties of the Enlightenment have long collapsed and we are struggling to make sense of an unruly world.
George Birdwood, the first curator of the erstwhile Victoria and Albert Museum, Bombay (now the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum), was a botanist. He not only designed the museum but also the botanical garden next door. Nature and science were the tropes employed by the British administration to observe and order Indian society and culture. The museum is one of the earliest examples of this attempt to understand the local natural history, social order and cultural and artistic production. We continue to engage with these themes by including several contemporary art practices that can present more nuanced and inclusive counter histories.
The exhibition title is drawn from the work of Timothy Morton who The Guardian calls ‘the philosopher prophet of the Anthropocene’.
The Anthropocene is a period that looks at man’s alienation from nature through deep time, and the geological cataclysms it has initiated. Morton has characterised the phase we are in as the ‘Asymmetrical Phase’, in which forces beyond our cognition that he calls ‘hyperobjects’ take on a life of their own, much like the objects we house in a museum develop a life removed from their makers.
We invited 10 of our foremost artists whose practices include an interest in nature and science, to explore the Age of the Anthropocene and its impact on the environment and its effects on biodiversity. Jitish Kallat’s work powerfully encapsulates issues surrounding water; Manish Nai evokes notions of consumption and excess; Mithu Sen explores language as a construct that can be a barrier or a form of rejuvenation; Reena Saini Kallat approaches nature as a holistic idea that knows no borders and investigates how man has created artificial divisions; Prajakta Potnis creates non-spaces which suggest an alien world we might be heading towards; Atul Bhalla explores the idea of pollution in both the philosophical and physical realm; Rohini Devasher addresses issues of deep time and geological phenomena; Sahej Rahal builds on the idea of hybridity and mutation; Ranbir Kaleka captures nature’s fury and its many profound consequences; and Shilpa Gupta implicates all of us in the debris and destruction around us. Is healing and redemption possible? What does the future hold? We can only wonder.