The internal world of the diseased body is the theme of Anjum Singh’s defiantly titled show I am still here at Talwar Gallery, New Delhi, from the 9th of September to the 4th of January. Singh was diagnosed with cancer in 2014, and the brush with mortality followed by a protracted treatment has changed her outlook towards her practice. From her earlier structured installations that often investigated the co-existence of the organic and the artificial worlds in urban spaces, she has moved to ethereal paper works that delineate the evanescent, disappearing self.
Anjum Singh. Bleed Bled Blood Red (Detail). Watercolour, pencil and graphite on paper. Each of three parts: 18.75” x 15”. 2015.
Bodies, be they of cities or humans, are unpacked as exposed surfaces in the show. The interior is exteriorized, unfolded, turned inside out. In art, there has been an emphasis on the outer form of the human body that is meant to be looked at. Singh invites us to look inside the body with its inscrutable materiality. The diseased body moults skin and tissues. Since it’s always placed on call, it ceases to be a proper object. Medical apparatuses scan, investigate and probe, while ports and catheters are inserted under skin like invaders. The resulting works unearth the secret life of the distressed skin, and seem like maps of wounds, lesions, secretions, lacerations and blood stains. A medical gaze hovers over them: the way a body is revealed in samples, medical tests and lab procedures. Instead of the figure, Singh focuses on abstract, mutating shapes and viscera. The integrity of the human body is annihilated.
Through her works, Singh evokes the wayward undulations, breached borders, and the turbulent interior atmosphere of an afflicted body with its altered chemistry and unfamiliar objects. A work in the series Bleed Bled Blood Red suggests blood oozing out of a punctured eye like a red whirlpool. Joyelle McSweeney writes in Eye Wound Media, “To wound the eye is to pluck it from its niche at the top of the humanist hierarchy (seat of vision, insight, understanding, rationality) and reinsert it in a horizontal position of occult and limitless contact.” The wounded eye is no more a site of reception or perception, but becomes a depthless exterior communicating violence, waste and absence. Here, it becomes an emblem of an artist’s vision obfuscated by cancer. Another work from the same series depicts multi-hued stains placed in a grid under categories of ‘mineral’, ‘enzyme’, ‘alkaline’ and ‘Singh’. Singh seems to be asking – where is the self, the ghost in the machine, the ‘I’ that thinks and feels, in these samples and secretions? “There are two of us in the room now, me and my body,” says Singh.
The relationship with the body gets complicated as it goes rogue and turns into an enemy. In Singh’s works, the body-in-peril adopts a metaphorical route of escape and takes recourse to layered imageries. Looking at a painting in the series Flower but not, you wonder whether it’s blood and pus leaking from a cauterized wound after a ligature is undone or a half-eaten apple growing on a tree? Or is it a bloody moon partly obscured by clouds? It seems that Singh has stared at the screens of labs, sample tests and X-ray reports long enough to have spotted the entire nature and constellations within the clinical images of her body. Anne Boyer, a cancer survivor, in her memoir The Undying writes, “Illness vivifies the magnitude of the body’s parts and systems. In the sickbed, the sick disassemble, and this disassembly crowds a cosmos, organs and nerves, and parts and aspects announcing themselves as unfurling particulars: a malfunctioning left tear duct – a new universe; a dying hair follicle – a solar system; that nerve ending in the fourth toe of the right foot – now eviscerating under chemotherapy drugs – a star about to collapse.”
The colour red viscerally communicates the pain and passion of a wound. Pain is also transmitted through the transient, ectoplasmic forms and relentless depiction of the bits and pieces, the flotsam of the broken body. These amorphous shapes evoking scars, toxins, eruptions and sensations are encompassed by white lacunas and empty spaces, that give them a sense of solitariness, as if they are surrounded by snow, or located in the white waiting rooms of a hospital. Sinead Gleeson, a leukemia survivor, sums up the aloneness of the sick body in her essay A wound gives off its own light by writing that “Illness is an outpost: lunar, Arctic, difficult to reach.”
Body parts are shown as sinister and unknowable. In some cases, they are replaced by inorganic parts. In Heart (Machine), the heart is depicted as a time bomb. In Broken, a black heart is painted in the shape of a ravenous monster with needle-sharp teeth. The rapacity and intrusive nature of the medical treatment is conveyed through military motifs. The body is eviscerated like a battlefield. But all is not grim and dark. In Belly Button, a button painted in place of the navel in an act of visual pun. Blood stains are compared to candy floss in the series My Body – Candy Floss in which tar-black organs and appendages emit blood in the shape of a cotton candy. In I am Pink, a pair of lungs look like a pink bow.
In some works, Singh portrays the fractured topography of urban spaces and cities under attacks of hurricanes and other disasters. She has long been preoccupied with disrupted cities contaminated by effluents and pollutants, and her works have depicted the complex diagrams and materialities of surfaces that are forever in contact with or touching other skins and matter. The perforations, scars, tears suffered by the body of the city was the subject of her 2010 show The Skin Remembers. Which leads us to the question: How do we talk about personal sickness when the entire earth is sick in the wake of climate change and ravaged ecosystems? Is the traumatised earth a metaphor for the diseased body? Through this show, Singh has fulfilled Boyer’s wish to make “an atlas of the infernal geographies of the interior of the body in multiple forms of pain and the cities, wars, agricultural innovations, and topological eruptions happening there.”