Rituals of Healing
Mopping a floor splattered with red paint, throwing her voice into the corners of a room and constructing ‘fake’ performances, Monali Meher pushes the body in unexpected directions, informs Zasha Colah.
The Jehangir Nicholson Collection has a work by Monali Meher from 1996 – made of wet filter paper, varnish and ink, its surface has been sculpted into looping, snaking forms. Its tactility offers a cue to the eye, implying the artist’s body, sensing actions of layering, kneading and moulding. This early work seems to begin not from a theme, but from the torqueing of material. It appears fragile, but has quiet strength – an extension of the artist’s persona into the work. One feels that Meher’s being is itself at the centre of this work. It coheres with her creative trajectory, where the boundaries of the self – will, endurance, concentration, exposure – pose challenges and incite new expression.
At a residency in Vienna in 1998, Meher had become fascinated by the Marionette Theatre – not with the dolls themselves, but with the people behind the set, whom she photographed. Their machinations usually remain hidden but “they actually have to act to make the wooden dolls take on expression,” she reminisces. An urge to reveal process became the forerunner to her first performance, Reflect, (A personal window display), 1998, in Vienna, and then, in Bombay. It began with the sentence, “This performance has no beginning and no end”. Meher re-visited the acts of making art – mixing, tearing, cutting, preparing and cleaning. She developed her photographs taken during long walks through the city of Vienna and created by overlapping black and white images of ephemeral material, dried leaves, nude mannequins in shop windows, beds, sofas and water heaters. The soundscape consisted of recorded sounds from the street, opera music and her singing voice. Casts of cigarettes, cherries, mushrooms and bread, made, photographed and re-made in real time, behind crafted replicas of Viennese windows, all played with the immediacy of the image. Meher returned to making the hidden apparent in Reverse Rewind Replay: Five Acts from the Past (2005) – a work inspired by Lars von Trier’s Dogville.
Walking up the stairs of the galleries of the NGMA, Mumbai, during its annual show, curated by Saryu Doshi, in 1999, and passing a work by the pioneering performance artist Rummana Hussain till one’s head was level with the floor of the topmost domed gallery, was a scene in fuchsia – it was a group of installations by the then ‘young artists’ working in Bombay. Meher’s Smell the Art (1999), an installation of decaying roses in four troughs of oil, Japan black, water and Plaster of Paris, spoke of how the body – the viewer’s and the artist’s – was changing continuously, transforming and decaying like the slowly wilting flowers. In Non-Repeating Loop (2000), a three-hour performance- installation made at the beginning of a residency at Rijksakademie van beeldende kunsten, Amsterdam, Meher inserted her body as material into the work alongside the plaster and decaying roses. As soon as the body ‘entered’ the work, it almost immediately felt alienated. Unlike in a painting where the figure and the background share the materiality of paint, Meher’s body found itself in an unfamiliar setting. An existential moment, it seems to me, is contained in what she says about the performance, “I knew I was going to remain here. I had to find a way for my personality to gel with the surroundings.” She returned to these themes of identity and displacement in works like Between Familiar/ Unfamiliar, The Home & Heart, Beats a Golden Kiss (Tate Modern, London, 2006) in which she walked around the museum, her chest covered in gold leaf, speaking to the artworks. She wraps her personality over surroundings, just as she wraps red thread over a chandelier in a museum, over books in an unfamiliar library, round and round knives in the video Breathing (2005), or round a map of the world. Meher’s personality merges with the surroundings, as she wraps red thread over a chandelier in a museum, over books in an unfamiliar library, around a knife or a map of the world in different works. The legendary video and performance artist Joan Jonas had encouraged Meher to use her voice in her performances, and in Non-Repeating Loop she created an acoustic space by projecting her voice into the corners of the room. Her body’s movements came free, snaking, like her earlier paper works – she drew with the body, plaster and decaying petals, conscious of a moment of creative power, conscious of the body as an instrument of sound, aware of the sharp cold, the changing daylight and her waning strength, till she merged into this landscape of powder and voice. Says Meher, “I could not watch the documentation. I looked so exposed, so free. I felt I had gone beyond some boundary. The performance became the process of my thoughts in public. It was a new work, a new self.” During the performance, she tried to take apart negative and positive casts of herself with a hammer. The metaphor became far more anxious when they did not come apart – the self seemed to withdraw. Or perhaps, it was an older self that remained locked, a form whose shape she could no longer fit into. A body lost or shed. One witnessed the impossibility of the subject trying to catch up with itself. As the body tried to become part of a created landscape, was Meher the director of the performance or the actor? Seeing itself seeing, the subject itself splits or doubles.
After the Rijksakademie, Meher was invited by Marina Abramović to participate in Cleaning The House at the NMAC Foundation in Spain in 2004, where she did a performance called u o a e m. Meher says about the work, “It came after a workshop, concentrating on a blank wall, without eating or talking. I was isolated with only six hours of sleep. Because of the hunger I had unsound sleep and there was a sense of leaving the mind’s inhibitions after that.”
Meher uses ritual to explore her intentions and strategies, but unlike the Actionists or even Abramović, her explorations of pain are bereft of either sadism or masochism, different to cutting, marking the body, or bleeding. The use of red water is only an indication of blood in the work In Determination (2009). Dedicated to those who lost their lives in the 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai, Meher had mopped the floor of a large performance space onto which red water continued to drip. The pain was psychological not physical; it indicated endurance. The body did not become a statement either, nor was it a comment against apathy. In Determination was like a ritual of healing: Meher’s endurance become a pact, a shamanistic dive into freezing water.
When Meher cleans, scrubs, peels and draws, she does it on the viewer’s behalf. Her vocabulary of tasks developed out of her memories of women at work in her grandmother’s home – kneading, peeling, grinding, using the charkha, pulling the thread over a loom. Meher began to theorise performance as the work between one woman and another, performer and audience, a kind of pact, a shared labour. In Oldfashioned (Brazil, 2003) the audience was invited to participate in peeling the words ‘war’ and ‘racism’ off potatoes, to cook, and then in acts of antropofagi to eat the signifiers, dense with use in the social history of art since Van Gogh’s Potato Eaters from 1885. The conception of artist and audience acting in alternation challenges the narcissistic strain inherent in this genre. Her theory of performance also adds to the nation-woman metaphors in use, from Abindranath Tagore’s young Bharatmata (1905), to Atul Dodiya’s virago, Woman with Chakki (1999).
A critique of In Determination comes out of her own work. Meher felt that the intensity with which it was performed at Art Dubai 2009 was missing in the Mumbai and Glasgow performances. “Was I there in the same way? Did I dive into it? I wondered: can it really be upheld in repetition? I thought about making something which is fake, a fake performance.” In Fake performance scene of tragic end in the old church (2010), between six performances of dramatic scenes, a technician abruptly enters to adjust the lights. Despite such interruptions, Meher felt that the audience got emotionally involved with the scenes of tragedy. Watching a performance, the audience is vulnerable to the moment, like the performer. Meher’s comment is telling of how the audience is as watched as it is watching. The houselights never dim.
If the viewers are implicated in these works, they are also let off scot-free in an unusual work, With or without emotional hang ups (2005), which was a live performance for the web, streamed from Meher’s home in Amsterdam to an audience in Duke University, USA. In this work, Meher experienced only the idea of being watched without being able to see the audience or have any idea of its instant reactions.
The artist’s implied body in the two-dimensional work from 1996, the summoning of the viewer’s body in Smell the Art and a fascination with the magic of making over the resolved work, are suggested as precursors to Meher’s entry into performance art. The inserted body, the alienated body, the split gaze – seeing and being seen, and the lost body, together dramatise the unfolding of the subject, so much a part of the theory of this genre. Yet, it seemed necessary to suggest where Meher has made this genre her own. It is less evident, I feel, in her choice of materials, soaking her hands in henna in Camouflage (2001) or wearing a saree in Three Departures (2006). Rather, it comes through in the different approaches she takes to pain, and in her very humane theory of performance, derived from memories of her grandmother’s home.
Text written by Zasha Colah (Art India magazine, Volume XV, Issue IV, Quarter IV, 2010-11)
Monali Meher: Departed, Assembled, Wrapped, Captured: Time
Text by Avni Doshi, Art Asia Pacific magazine. (Open and/or save as PDF)
Texts from performances
Today when I decided to talk, I was wondering…on which topic! But very soon I was pretty clear about it. This was in year 1991 when I was leaving my country for the first time, was going to united states of America, there I was invited to be an art counselor for the American children in a summer camp of Vermont. For me it was the first time to board on the plane, I was very excited about it, I had a window seat but the person next to me was absent. And on the 3rd seat was a middle aged man, it was unrecognizable to know from which country he was. But he was very friendly.
In 1998 Reflect, a personal window display was a turning point in my life, I made a statement in my first performance, “Nothing is permanent “and it is the nature’s law, but I soon realized that its very difficult to live with the fact, ‘cos you don’t want to give it up and afraid and afraid and afraid of being left alone. Sometime you want to say the truth to your dear ones! You know , you know that its not at all easy, its like…..one of those implant brain surgeries, either you are dead or alive, but you know it only when its done! Till then you are dreaming, you are in the strange, strange world, very close to the water, I must say its beautiful! So beautiful!
But in 1996, when the surgery was done on my right breast, it was a kind of relief; the lump was out, out of the system. And I became free. But I did not forget about my Indian background. I must not, I must not, the tradition, the roots, the nature and the people and the festivals and the ceremonies like being born, getting married, that was a big issue! The priest studied the birth stars of husband and wife, and chose the most auspicious date for a groundbreaking ceremony, a chilly day in April.
It is sometimes so difficult to take freedom and to make use of the freedom as well to give/ offer the freedom. I remember in 1993 someone told me that you don’t come because it is an auspicious day, your presence will spoil everything.
Just in the last week, I attended a theatre/ performance show, “Toren Van Babel” by Lidy six and Robert Styne. I used to play a role of a story teller, one among 25 of them; you have to tell a story to one of the audience who is lying in the bed. The rule is that you must tell a story in your own accent and your own ununderstandable language.
But this time instead of story telling, I decided to be in a bed.
The man who brought me to my bed asked me to be comfortable and he offered me a cup of hot mint tea. Instantly I was relaxed with my cushion and the night lamp beside.
One by one story tellers started coming in, I was curious whom was I going to have? Finally I had a Greek story teller, and I was told a story in one of the most ancient languages. The story was about a man and a woman from Greek mythology. The man has to go on a war so he tells his mother to take care of his wife, her own daughter in law. But she actually hates her daughter in law so she cuts her hair and sends her to the forest with 10 sick sheeps. And she tells her that if she comes back with 1000 healthy sheeps, she will be able meet her husband. When the son comes back, he asks his mother where his wife was. The mother tells him, she is dead! He doesn’t believe her and he kills his own mother. This was the end of the story which was a bit weird for me, but I was more curious to know about the hair cutting part. So I asked the Greek story teller, why the mother cuts her hair? And what is the meaning of it? He told me that it means making a woman ugly or look like a man and taking her feminity and power away.
I believe in miracles, are auspicious accidents, encouraging omens, a prosperous moment to make a decision, marked by success, fortunate, predicting good and attended by favorable circumstances, these are all interesting issues, so who cares anyway, ‘cos I am an Auspicious one…………………………………!
Copyright, Monali Meher, Feb. 2004 Amsterdam
May be the title for my performance for the “Nederlands een” exhibition in Gouda.
A small square Delft blue style tile hanging on the wall above the bed with the text,”The concert of life can not be programmed.” Change in relationships, discovering new things and new patterns about myself, shocked, feel restless, feel familiar! I feel, I am in a cell to work on my emotions and use them, maybe others can find their ways- Do I want them to walk on my path-> Politics->manipulation or stimulation. I feel arose, I love making love and to make up-> my books, shoes, computer, chair, furniture luckily in a purely practical sense—in an originally nonsuperficial sense, perhaps it would be real to say that it all began when I came to Ollanda.
They say I do not hear properly but how it could be if they want me to hear what they want to hear or say! Ruined emotions, identity issues, personal issues, new curiosities and accents, new taste and smells, familiar and unfamiliar, blue and white, black on red, green peace with orange pineapple, pigs, cows, chicken and salmon-> Smoked, Jong and Oud-> still to remember it all began when I came to Ollanda.......................!
It could be argued or corrected that unpractically in actual sense it all began thousands of years ago-----long before they came to the west cost of Hindustan and went further on.......................!
It has been studied and learnt that idealistically in real sense it all began long ago when love laws were made—whom to love, how to love and how much to love. But for me in real, naturally practical sense it all began when I came to Ollanda. The unfamiliarness made me courageous and be revealed. And the fake or real familiarness made me fantasized and sometimes confused.
Perceiving the actual reality I am living in, is always been my first priority which keeps me going, growing and changing, changing habits-> life is habitual-> just operating life by habits, is not actually living. So it’s important to feel unfamiliar once in a while and how I use this unfamiliarness in life & work was all began when I came to Ollanda.
I don’t know if it’s good or bad but I took my own destiny in my hand. It became my habit to ride a bike on terracotta bicycle path and further on became my pattern as beautiful as tulip fields.
2nd May 2006, Uithof Utrecht, University Library.
I wrapped peace, geschidanis, the modern world, wetenschap, chemical abstracts vol. 66-75, 96, 113- 119, the modern world since 1870, second edition, zeiten und menschen, LA phylosophie. Dieuke remembered her time in Uithof, while attending the lectures- students used to knitting warm sweaters.
“Sprekend Verleden” Gregory felt that my Red Myth was very extra ordinary. He felt Dutch are unlike the weather very predictable to have such things going on here like wrapping books in the library. He wrapped “Discover the past vol. 1,
A paragraph taken from the Ancient world
Magic hunt dance-> “But if he wanted to paint pictures, why did he paint them far away inside the caves where they would not usually be seen? The reason is that he did not paint them to make the part of the cave where he lived nice to look at. Instead they were used as a kind of magic. Animals and hunting played such a big part in man’s life that he felt that if he painted pictures of animals on the walls, he had a kind of control over them. The evening before a hunt the leader and some others would visit a special place where the pictures were and dance about and pray for a good hunt. Sometimes they would direct arrows at the animals and they then felt that they would be successful in the hunt on the following day.
Copyright, Monali Meher, 2006 Amsterdam
Carl Andre & Martin Creed (Room 1)
So, has your heart been a little bruised in a recent encounter? Was somebody not quite gentle enough with your big, warm, blood-pumping organ? Well, they weren't very clever to let you go! And when a whirlwind affair comes at you on the 3rd, 4th and 5th, you forget all about them. Sure, be careful with your heart (it's a really special one!), but take a chance. By the 7th, you should see some new developments. On the 10th and 11th make a real effort if you like them, and on the 16th and 17th, take a break to do a little emotional processing, invite them on some kind of encounter on level 5, high very high to walk on a never ending path taking small, small steps ahead bricks by bricks for the 19th, and by the 24th or 25th, you could be at a real turning point reminding me of dazzling necklace of marine drive and the big sea ahead of me to swim through endlessly. On the 29th, watch out for endless problems in the work. Expanded world, questioning the world, the quotations from my origins, the plus and minuses and the equalities! Who decides this anyway?
Naum Gabo, Brancusi, Piet Mondrian, Kandinsky, Utopi and abstraction. (Room 2)
2nd May 2006, Uithof Utrecht, University Library. I wrapped peace, geschidanis, the modern world, wetenschap, chemical abstracts volumes. 66-75, 96, 113- 119, the modern world since 1870, second edition, zeiten und menschen, LA phylosophie for my Red Myth installation. Dieuke remembered her time in Uithof, while attending the lectures- students used to knitting warm sweaters. “Sprekend Verleden” Gregory felt that my Red Myth was very extra ordinary. He felt Dutch are unlike the weather very predictable to have such things going on here like wrapping books in the library. He wrapped “Discover the past vol. 1, 5th Sep. The Tower card suggests that my alter ego today is the Survivor, whose superpower for revolution lies in for change with the aid of a serious reality check. Today I have reached a turning point. It may be all over but the crying. I have the strength to move on and create a better situation for myself. You may say that I never saw it coming or learned the hard way, but with profound change comes new opportunity. One door closes -- another opens. So tear down the wall, and rebuild anew. Construction, composition, monuments, volumes and fishes.
Sol le Witt. (Room 5)
A paragraph taken from the Ancient world. Magic hunt dance-> “But if he wanted to paint pictures, why did he paint them far away inside the caves where they would not usually be seen? The reason is that he did not paint them to make the part of the cave where he lived nice to look at. Instead they were used as a kind of magic. Animals and hunting played such a big part in man’s life that he felt that if he painted pictures of animals on the walls, he had a kind of control over them. The evening before a hunt the leader and some others would visit a special place where the pictures were and dance about and pray for a good hunt. Sometimes they would direct arrows at the animals and they then felt that they would be successful in the hunt on the following day. “The artist at work”: The Stone Age artists must have closely watched the movements of the animal; as his pictures catch the spirit of their actions very well. I was always fascinated by the warli painting done by adivasis on their huts layered with cow dung and liner white drawings filled with free spirit.
Cildo Meireles Eureka/Blindhotland. (Room 7)
Smell, touch, feel, hear, taste all senses become less with the distance. Distance made me feel unfamiliar to myself, I as a human being trying to adapt to the new situation and with creation made me feel familiar to my own origins and nostalgic. I have found my way to live. The unfamiliar ness made me courageous and be revealed. And the fake or real familiar ness made me fantasized and sometimes confused. Perceiving the actual reality I am living in, is always been my first priority which keeps me going, growing and changing, changing habits-> life is habitual-> just operating life by habits, is not actually living. So it’s important to feel unfamiliar once in a while and how I use this unfamiliar ness in life & work was all began when I came to the west. I don’t know if it’s good or bad but I took my own destiny in my hand. It became my habit to ride a bike on terracotta bicycle path and further on became my pattern as beautiful as tulip fields. 20th Aug. You have been enjoying an increasing sense of awareness about your new environment and you're really starting to get a handle on things. This confident energy is filling you with a positive enthusiasm that will hit you as soon as you get up in the morning and it'll carry you through the day. The only sticking point for the entire day will be the fact that your intellectual curiosity isn't going to be satisfied to the level that you are hoping. It seems that not everyone is on your wavelength just yet.
Duchamp, Warhol, Gober, koons, Lucas, Manzoni, whiteread Readymade revisited. (Room 8)
4th Sep. The Chariot card affirms that my alter ego is a Promoter, idol or patriot, whose superpower sets objectives or avant-garde trends to compete for attention, rank or opportunity but pays a price for right action. Today I rock so bring it on -- I'll wait. I bow to, or stand for progress but 'pause for applause' to narrow the field or set stakes, stage or vehicle to motivate charades accordingly. Performing for pride, 'pinks' or personal gain doesn't hurt my game. Ambiguity in a rut is a drag so I play to win or my 'empire strikes back' with a spin, giving props to a blueprint or back-story that hits the spot on my ambition's ego trip. I've arrived and I'm ready for my close up so 'move it or lose it.'
Joseph Beuys. (Room 10)
6th Sep. The Magician card affirms that my alter ego today is the Imaginer or Director, whose superpower is a state-of-the-art design force. By bringing free will and intention together with natural principles, the creative process is transformed into a blueprint for success. The spell is cast, and I don't have to see it to believe it. As a creative wiz, I have what it takes: the presence of mind to do what I do best. I can apply or advance new ideas and entertain new possibilities with resourceful and inventive attention to detail. I lay it on the line. I set the stage for performing my own enterprising experiments to make it over and make it work. I leave it all behind so that I can simplify or renovate the formula. I read between the lines for tips and tricks to following conventional methods and guarding my reputation and my privacy.
Holzer, Acconci, Nauman, Kosuth, Image/ Text. (Room 11)
3rd Sep. The Fool card affirms that my alter ego today is a Quantum Leaper with a hero's heart. My superpower is liberated by free will and trust, which lead me to explore simple speculations for their own sake. I can move beyond the fear factor. I don't know where I'm going, and I don't care where I've been. I only know that, as the hero of my own story, it's for me to find out. For, like Alice, I'm on the verge of stepping into a rabbit hole; unless I stop short and play it safe, I'll know soon enough where following my own feet has landed me on this curious venture. The blissful frailty of unwritten conclusions and unguarded access sweetens the desire. So despite familiar warnings, irresistible promise draws my eyes wide open and away from domestic comfort zones, with only certain inquiry, hope and faith to recommend my course. I'll never know until I try.
Copyright, Monali Meher, 2006 Amsterdam.