As you walk across from one exhibit to another at Yardena Kurulkar’s show, you can’t help but feel that you are moving through an archive of urgent recollections – these are occasions of loss that have travelled into the present as unforgiving memories and these are stations where the disintegrating and resilient body collects itself only to scatter again.
The title of the show at Chemould Prescott Road, mounted from the 22nd of October to the 22nd of November, draws from Kurt Vonnegut Jr’s 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five. So It Goes, mutters its protagonist Billy Pilgrim as he encounters death in a multi-anecdotal narrative set during World War II. As an expression, it frames the casual way of coming to terms with the non-peremptoriness of death, a recognition of inter-connected temporal templates – where a “dead person is…just fine in plenty of other moments”. This is a rich truth about mortality, simultaneity and relativity that Billy learns from the Tralfamadorians, a community of extra-terrestrials that abducts him.
Is it a mortality play you have stepped into, you therefore ask, as you stand before the exhibits? Kurulkar has addressed the idea of life and afterlife in much of her earlier work with a judicious blend of sensitivity and intuition – Transience (2011) with its shrine to a dead baby and Kenosis (2015) with its dissolving, disintegrating terracotta heart come easily to mind and the works still carry a bite.
Yardena Kurulkar. A Premature Burial. Installation with unfired terracotta, clay, gauze, suture, enamel trays, metal. 139” x 58.75”. 2018. Images courtesy of Chemould Prescott Road and the artist.
Death has both a clinical and memorial presence in So It Goes, the eponymous installation that towers over you in the gallery hall – arrayed on wall-length shelves are glass beakers with 382 uterus moulds in porcelain. Kurulkar has calculated the menstrual cycles from her very first and the shrouded moulds that could easily pass off for wrapped foetuses correspond to this number. The work sets the tone for establishing the body in time as a resource, a site to appreciate material transformations. The past holds a host of possibilities that lend themselves to be recognised and treasured despite the fact that they have not been realized or translated into actuality. It is, in fact, the attempt at marking absences, even performing them, that drives quite a few of the works – A Prelude to Sleep, for instance, photographically records the sadness implicit in the routinized acts of clearing, cleaning, undressing and making a hospital bed after the patient has left or passed away. Can the logic of habit and the severity of discipline help organize grief so that we may adjust to its tenebrity, its heaviness?
Objects are couriers that help Kurulkar travel into zones of loss that are both, abstract expanses with indeterminate shapes and specific regions with defined histories. Her father’s rabbit-shaped nail cutter with nails still rattling in it provides the inspiration to calculate, like she does with menstrual cycles in So It Goes, the length to which his nails would have grown till his day of death. A plastic-like strip of coinciding length is clipped into nail-shaped pieces that are packed into 13 snowglobes installed on stands. Each of the snowglobes also has a replica of the rabbit nail cutter as well as other sculpted objects drawn from Kurulkar’s intense memories of her father. Kurulkar lost him when she was eight and The Invisible Father rehabilitates him in the centre of her installational universe. Only a mobile hospital screen separates the missing infants from So It Goes and the absent guardian in The Invisible Father.
Though The Invisible Father threatens to turn over-dramatic at times, its emotional substance is held in check by the installation’s nod to the theatre of the absurd. Earworm, however, is perhaps a little too clever for its own good. It comprises a series of photographs that capture the vibrations in the water held in the 3D replica of Kurulkar’s skull as it is exposed to a dirge sung at Jewish funerals played on a cello. Though it indexes Kurulkar’s desire for multiple vocabularic systems to understand experiences, Earworm lacks dense layering – idea translating into process into artwork – and comes across as a tad gimmicky.
That Quiet Corner consists of a cast iron structure that looks like a tomb pretending to be a bed. Two images – the sky pictured by the artist as she lays on the ground in a Jewish cemetery and the fine criss-cross of lines revealed in a 3D print of the dome of her skull – get superimposed as you look down at the glass sheets that lie where you would find a mattress. Where Death allows people to rest in peace, does it also lie in wait? As the Baudelairian “forest of symbols considers you with understanding eyes”, do Death’s locations grow into each other? The show leads you to many such overwhelming questions.
Yardena Kurulkar. (Facing) So It Goes. Installation with glass, porcelain, metal. 113” x 158” x 4”. 2018. (On the right) The Invisible Father. Metal, glass, SLS and water. 96” x 96” x 72”. 2018. (On the far right) Earworm. Set of 16 prints. Edition of 5. Inkjet print on Hahnemuhle photo rag paper. Each frame: 45” x 35.5”. 2018.
Premature Burial asks: is the body just a sum of its parts? The work comprises a series of hospital trays carrying terracotta clay lumps, wrapped in gauze, connected to each other with black sutures. All the anonymous, kebab-shaped pieces, taken together, equal Kurulkar’s weight. Framing a lament and a paean in the same breath, as it were, the installation is a moving tribute to the ravaged landscape of the human body – a receptacle of cuts, fractures, amputations and surgeries. How extensively can we be reduced and what does this transformation tell us about who we are? In a different key, the work also offers a profound critique of violence, where divisive ideologies categorise people from opposing communities as so much putrid meat that needs to be publicly cut to pieces.
Gieve Patel’s classic self-query comes to mind while watching Kurulkar’s Synonym. The video records a performance where she offers herself to be assailed in turn by water and wind and sits on a stool as fire rages on all four sides. As Patel says, “How do you withstand, body, / Destruction repeatedly / Aimed at you? Minutes, / Seconds, like gun reports / Tattoo you with holes. / Your area of five / By one is not / Room enough for / The fists, the blows; / All instruments itch / To make a hedgehog / Of your hide.”
Kurulkar says that it was her attempt to turn “the body into a metaphorical piece of clay”. In fact, there are not too many artists in India at the moment who explore the fugitiveness of permanence, and the precarious and vulnerable changeability of the human body with such commitment – as a Maharashtrian Jew, Kurulkar has a unique take on displacement at a local, global and civilisational level.
For some reason, the artist whose ghostly presence I could feel as I took the exhibition in was Nasreen Mohamedi. Of course, there are far too many differences of form and flourish to subsume Kurulkar and her under one rubric but you cannot help but feel that the family resemblances between them are too many to miss – there is a relentless, dry-eyed, non-ironical, self-paced interrogation of the angularities of life and an undertaking to map its overwhelming discontinuities and symmetries in the presence of closure and erasure.