A bicycle stands at the entrance to the gallery, numerous bricks neatly fitted into its triangular frame and towering high above the seat across the rear stand; a pile that results in a house-like structure. Bricks, of all different sizes and materials, are one of the striking features of Demolition Series, a show by Bijoy Jain and Studio Mumbai, currently exhibited at Chemould Prescott Road. Walking past a sparse wooden construction bearing the sign ‘Julie Tailors’, what appears to be the back of a painter’s workshop with red-topped jars of colour, and gallery walls lined with ladders, bricks, rakes and floor plans etched on slabs of stone, Demolition Series comprises several elements of construction that in Chemould’s high-roofed space, ‘defy their actual purpose and presence’ in the world.
Looking up at (and right through) a bamboo and bark skeletal frame of a structure, or peering down at tables with multi-coloured tiny bricks forming incomplete lego-like buildings, as viewers of the show we are never quite sure whether something is being constructed or whether it is being torn down. This is largely because for architect-turned-artist Bijoy Jain, these states can never quite be separated from one another.
Jain tells me, ‘The word demolition doesn’t mean destroying something down to the ground from a very specific(ally) destructive spirit. But it’s more the idea that demolition is a process of making space in which a void is created. At some point, [this void] has to be responded to.’ It is in the space of this void, where destruction leads to creation (and vice versa), that Demolition Series lives. Pointedly lacking labels or demarcations, the viewer is left to wander the gallery and derive her own conclusions about what state each element, from the grey door with latches resting against a corner, to upright tube lights tied to bamboo poles, refers to. In what Jain terms “experiential interpretation,” the work’s meaning is made in the viewing.
What does it mean, then, to enter and view the space created by Demolition Series within the context of Mumbai city, a metropolis recently subjected to several building collapses and subsequent razing of largely poor, minority housing? Can demolitions ever really be seen in what Jain calls “a natural state of being” when its realities are so deeply rooted in the politics and economics of spaces and people? For Jain, the impetus behind the show is decidedly apolitical. He says, “If you look at cells in your body, they’re going through a continual process of demolition. And that is required for our evolution. This is the nature of being; this idea of constant flux in which we live. For me, [it is not political] it’s an ontological survey that takes the depth of space and time into consideration.”
While both art and artist abstain from further comment, the exhibition invites its more diligent viewers to discover red-bound books entitled ‘studies’, placed at different locations in the gallery. Comprising images and text that can be read as a mapping of the terrain that the exhibition lays out, the subjects of these studies range from a colony of people living under mosquito nets in Surat, to a full-scale demolition of a large building in Gujarat. However, when transformed into the larger art of the show, the traces of these lives and mappings are only abstractly hinted at, and virtually un-spottable for those who haven’t closely looked through these inconspicuously placed books.
In this way, for Mumbai’s more socially conscious viewers, Jain’s attempt to isolate elements of demolition outside of their lived realities doesn’t quite gel in the face of the very real loss of homes and lives the city has witnessed over the past decade. The inwardly collapsing structures and the debris of construction materials dotting the gallery space form the landscapes of several cities today. And while the show is visually and thematically powerful, by abstaining from addressing the realities of poverty and loss it skirts without quite touching, Demolition Series remains a ghostly abstraction of the forms of destruction that are growing social, economic and human concerns.
This piece was originally published under the title In Constant Flux: (de)Constructing Demolition in The Sunday Guardian on 27 July 2013