‘Nalini Malani: In Search of Vanished Blood’ is one half of Eva Respini’s punchy first season of in-house exhibitions as chief curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston. Given that a decade has passed since the Institute’s last exhibition by an artist associated with the Indian subcontinent (Kanishka Raja in 2005), Respini’s focus on Malani alongside Boston-born Liz Deschenes signals a clear intention to broaden the ICA’s programme.
The compact, two-room presentation intelligently focuses on Malani’s singular video-art practice. It is a simultaneous elaboration on, and simplification of, the medium that the artist began working with in the early 2000s, having largely abandoned painting in oil on canvas during India’s tumultuous 1990s in favour of a medium she felt lent itself better to political subject matter. The exhibition opens with eight digitally collaged prints from the recent series ‘The Angel of Despair’ (2015), which highlights Malani’s ongoing experimentation with filmic means. Hung at regular intervals throughout the crimson-painted gallery, the prints function as a storyboard, their loosely connected titles carrying the visitor along (I Am the Angel of Despair; With my hands I give Ecstasy). In each print, Malani’s signature roughly painted forms – amoebae, larvae, human figures – cavort gooily against a black background, punctuated by a brightly illuminated female face projected over a map of the subcontinent. This pronounced contrast between light and dark is unusual for Malani’s print-making practice, and renders the viewing conditions of cinema (images projected in a darkened space) in two dimensions. The conjunction of face and map also figures Malani’s longstanding concerns with Hindutva nationalism, which propagandistically fuses India’s geography with the Hindu goddess figure Bha¯rat Ma¯ta¯ (Mother India), ignoring the country’s religious diversity. In a pointed riposte, Malani’s images include veiled Muslim models..
The prints effectively prelude the exhibition’s titular work, installed in an adjoining gallery: In Search of Vanished Blood (2012) beams six 11-minute video projections through a row of five individually painted rotating Mylar cylinders suspended from the centre of the ceiling, casting a phantasmagoria onto the surrounding walls. At first, the vista beguiles: a single, fixed point of projected light catches the surface of a Mylar sheet and dances there momentarily before the films begin. But the continuous roll of the cylinders soon brings the shadows of their painted forms – pelvic bone, man-eating beetle, long forceps – into contact with increasingly menacing projections: the frantic silhouette of a galloping dog precedes bloody stains that spread frame-by-frame over a woman’s naked back, thighs and face. Themes addressed in the print collages – violence visited on female bodies; nationalism run amok – here run headlong into each other and wash over onlookers. At the work’s climax, the projections are accompanied
by a chillingly even-paced recitation from Mahasweta Devi’s short story ‘Draupadi’ (1978), in which a captured communist guerrilla regains consciousness following her brutal torture and sexual assault, and mentally registers the damage inflicted on her body.
In Search of Vanished Blood is that rare work that manages to elicit both awe at profound beauty and visceral horror at real social tragedy, without tempering the emotional impact of either. It is this virtuosic quality that accounts for the work’s swift circulation: in the four years since Malani made this ‘video/shadow play’ (as she has dubbed the medium) as a commission for dOCUMENTA (13), the installation has been presented in venues from Tokyo to New York, making this its fourth iteration. Such relatively wide exposure is welcome. Writing for The Wire earlier this year, Geeta Kapur looked back on the global scope of Tate Modern’s 2001 inaugural exhibition, ‘Century City’, and declared it a ‘daring internationalist gesture’. How encouraging that, 15 years on, such gestures are starting to become