OUTSIDE THE BOX?

Review by Parni Ray
February 01, 2012

 

Aalign
Aakash Nihalani
September 24-October 22, 2011
Seven Art Limited
M 44/2, Lower Ground Floor, Greater Kailash 2, 110048 New Delhi, India

Twenty-four-year-old Aakash Nihalani is a Brooklyn-based artist and a recent graduate from New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture. For the most part of the three years since he started showing publicly, Nihalani has been working with the somewhat atypical medium of fluorescent electrical tapes, primarily using them to sketch site-specific geometric doodles on various public surfaces around the city of New York. Nihalani’s works consist of ‘isometric rectangles and squares,’ which enclose space and often create tongue-in-cheek illusions of three dimensional areas amidst unsuspecting two dimensional city spots. There is a playful, interactive aspect to most of his work, which while not Banksy’ish satirical still display a ready sense of humour and a definite voice. Nihalani describes his work as an attempt at highlighting the many unexpected (and usually overlooked) contours and graceful shapes that compose a city. His easy tape formations open up a new dimension into these everyday spaces we encounter regularly and invite us to not just see them differently but also step into invisible pockets amidst them.

 Here in India for the first time, Nihalani will be strutting his stuff at the Seven Art Limited gallery in Delhi over the month. Despite being what some would call a ‘street artist,’ Nihalani has exhibited at various indoor establishments, including galleries and boutiques before. The display at Seven Art is a combination of the many artistic avenues he is evidently exploring at the moment and includes, apart from site specific tape and cardboard installations, photographs of his many tape works in various corners of Delhi, digital prints on canvas, sculptures in laser cut steel and an interactive work. The works displayed are a proof of his longstanding dalliance with geometric forms and perhaps a secret closet-nerd fascination for mathematical drawings. Often as you look through photographs of his works outdoors in the city you pause to squint and make sure that you are not in fact looking at a digitally manipulated image, so delightfully out of place (and optically deceptive) are his installations amongst the mundane hum drum of Delhi.

 Nihalani’s works have the impish abandon of a gleeful problem child with a sketchpen. His tape sketches are capable of eliciting a chuckle or an amused raised brow or even a ‘hey that’s pretty neat!’ and, fortunately, this grace translates well into his interactive works. The sole interactive piece on display at Seven Art presents on a digital tablet a variety of cube formations, an octagon structure that looks like a dismantled Rubik’s cube, another one which roughly looks like a doughnut, and finally one that looks like the sort of eight-point star pattern you’d expect in an old school floor mosaic. These split into tiny cubes that flit away terrified as you drag your cursor over them and quickly run back to their old positions as you move away. After about 15 minutes fiddling with the mouse I suddenly realize how addictive this thing really is (the gallery assistant nods guiltily as I mention this to her)! Nihalani’s website resonates this jocund zippiness allowing you to leave cheery trails of colourful squiggles even as you shift around your cursor to enter his site and feast on the many other joyful goodies he has left packed inside.

 At the end of your quick look through the exhibits at the gallery you cannot help but feel a little disappointed to have encountered his art only in a white cube space. Clearly Nihalani’s art is not well suited to featureless, pristine white walls, which are fundamentally designed to be devoid of any distinct personality. Unlike the various architectural facets on the streets, these offer him no real context or setting and as a result Nihalini has no opportunity to really be able to surprise you here. If anything, his works on the gallery walls look rather tame and crucially bereft of the edgy wit people have come to associate his works with. The photographs of the on-site installations only make matters worse. One can only imagine the effects of a sudden, unexpected artistic intervention on the roads of Delhi. Surely this city’s many corners and their multihued temperaments are the ideal setting for an artist like Nihalini to work with. As the photographs of his woks around the city prove, this fact was not lost to the artist himself. Why then couldn’t at least some of these tape works, photographed and displayed, have remained exhibited at these sites on the streets one wonders? In the absence of any real form of street art tradition in Delhi (the graffiti scene here is only just taking off) Nihalani’s work would not only prove a source of rare inspiration and encouragement but also be an interesting sociological experiment marking how we in the city are likely to react to non-corporatized ‘public art.’ In a city as painfully manicured as some parts of Delhi is today, street art-- which is still widely considered ‘vandalism,’ would perhaps have infused essential elements of subversion in our immediate visual culture. In this context it seems rather a waste to have bound Nihalani’s art within the walls of a gallery, which though gutsy enough to have showcased his art (kudos to them for that) is still critically cut off from the outdoors and in that sense not the perfect location for exhibiting art that absolutely needs people to interact with it to assume its full potential.

In his artistic statement, Nihalani describes his art as an effort to present to those out and about in New York with a chance to step into a city a trifle different from the one which they experience every day. ‘I’m just connecting the dots differently to make my own picture’ he says ‘others need to see that they could connect their own dots, in their own places.’ Perhaps next time he is in town the artist can leave us a treasure trail of dots to find and connect in and around the city rather than leaving them all huddled together in a shunned away gallery in GK where they aren’t even likely to let you use markers on their whitewashed walls.

 (All images courtesy of Seven Art Ltd. and the artist.)