Review by Bansie Vasvani
November 15, 2013


In Search of Vanished Blood
Nalini Malani
Galerie Lelong, New York
Sep 6 - Oct 26, 2013     
Nalini Malani's seminal piece In Search of Vanished Blood, first shown last year in Kassel, Germany at Documenta 13, makes its debut in the US at Galerie Lelong, New York. What distinguishes this work that is a convergence of painting, installation, and projection from previous works conceived in the same vein is its radical submergence of the viewerÕs sensibilities in a rotating 360-degree spatial and temporal experience.

In Search of Vanished Blood takes its title from the 1965 Urdu poem Lahu Ka Surag, and is highly influenced by the 1984 novel Cassandra by Christa Wolf and the 1910 fictional work The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke. Much like WolfÕs protagonist Cassandra who represents the struggling female artist and the visionary whose visions were disregarded, MalaniÕs recurring female figures not only address womenÕs issues but also the artistÕs own proclamation to be heard. Her deeply personal experience of the traumatic India/Pakistan partition of 1947 commingled with her inspiration from Rilke to explore the idea of existence transforms this historical discourse into a timeless narrative that is relevant today.

Malani's work consists of a range of highly codified images that are culled from Hindu mythology, ancient Greek and Indian history, prehistoric imagery, ecological disasters, and women's issues. Acutely political, but not delivered in a straightforward declamation, her narrative is communicated in a syntax that is both playful and bizarre. Five rotating Mylar cylinders hung from the ceiling bleed with liquid watercolor figures painted on the transparent surface. Appearing vulnerable and enigmatic, each figure is reverse painted in the traditional Indian glass painting technique introduced by the Chinese in the fourteenth century. Accompanied by a six-channel video, Malani converts these figures into a panoply of seamless, magnified shadows that are cast onto the surrounding walls through light projected on the moving cylinders.

Entering the space is an intensely visceral experience wherein the viewer's gaze and body are fully engaged with the work. The artist's endeavor is as much theater as it is a visual encounter in the way she blends dark moving shadows with pictorial references to contemporary events. Looming forms of dinosaurs, under water sea animals, Kali the Indian goddess of destruction, bloody human figures, urban skylines, gestures from sign language, ecological disasters, women, and a gigantic prostrate female figure are some of the images that swirl around the viewer mingling myth with the everyday world.  An eerie sound track and a profusion of reds, oranges, yellows, blues, grays, and black submerge the viewer in what is akin to an underwater experience leaving one to contemplate the significance of her alchemical process and the blurring of specific identities.

Voiceovers in a range of female intonations express the call of doomsday and female injustices.  A series of disjointed utterances such as this is Cassandra speaking, in the heart of darkness,I reject all the sperm I have received, and I take back the world I gave birth to,bring our attention to the continual struggle for women's equality, and the difficulties of the world we live in. Its destructive path is offered in fragments, traces, and erasures that point towards a new visual language. Without being offered any synthesis or resolution, one is left to ponder over the limits of rationality and new forms of stability.

In his catalog essay that accompanied Malani's installation at Documenta, socio-cultural anthropologist Arjun Appadurai writes a brief exegesis of the misinterpretation of the Gandhian principle of non-violence, which is based on the need to take action, as a perverse call for violence. It dovetails Malani's out cry against the aimlessness of war and the need to resort to brutality to sort out human differences. Referencing the traumatic bloodbath of the Partition and other horrific acts against humanity, Malani raises important questions about the meaning of existence and the role one plays in the world.

In Search of Vanished Blood is as much a search for roots, brotherhood, and camaraderie as it is a despairing cry for what is going on around us and what is possibly to come. For Malani her place as an artist is best served in her ability to purge, heal, and metamorphose the viewer's experience through her enthralling 360-degree installation.