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Stir World | Amid the COVID-19 lockdown, Pooja Iranna's staple-pinned plea to slow down rings true

By Sukanya Garg

Where does the forest end
And man’s dominion begin?

Where does the land disappear into the sky?
Wiping the slate clean of his whim?

I was compelled to ink this couplet as I watched artist Pooja Iranna’s video work Silently at her recently concluded solo exhibition SilentlyA Proposed Plan For Rethinking The Urban Fabric at the Centre for Contemporary Art, Bikaner House in New Delhi. The video’s imagery of mountainous greens amidst the backdrop of chirping birds changed into lines that inter-crossed their way across the video screen, one drawing at a time, one construction at a time, till at the end, over 60 of Iranna’s drawings cumulated into an architectural construction that eclipsed any memory of the original green landscape. The subtle artistic rendition is what is so remarkably characteristic of Iranna, who has been calling attention to transgressive expansion, to encroachment, to nature and ecological redressal and to slowing down, albeit without raising her voice, and letting her work echo her concerns.

Talking about the exhibition that opened in a gallery space located in Lutyen’s Delhi, Iranna reminisces about her upbringing in this part of Delhi and the tremendous influence the latter has had on her artistic thought process and practice. She says, “Those buildings that I saw or went around when I was a child, left a much more serious aesthetic impact than what happened after that”. For her, the architectural spaces in Lutyen’s Delhi “had a soul”. Being an artist who has constantly been working in the architectural element, for Iranna, buildings were never merely concrete spaces. Describing the source of finding inspiration in buildings and architectural spaces for her early drawings, she says, “It’s like faces full of emotions where people live their lives, they have their own relationships. I think a building or a space you enter says a number of things, not just about the individuals who live in it, but also the culture that the building tends to reflect - our lifestyles, our thoughts, everything becomes a part of it. It’s like the proverb that walls speak to you. Each texture, each corner can speak to you if you are sensitive enough to understand”.

For someone with the sensitivity of Iranna, it is no surprise then that she experimented tirelessly to find a visual language and medium that could synchronise with her concerns. It was in 2007 that she discovered staple pins when her work completely transformed. The discovery came right after a period of extensive work in digital photography, installation and experimental water colours. Iranna says, “There was this dire need in me to go 3D. I had to deal with this feeling of how do I come about a new material which has not been used before, and for which I don’t have to depend on anybody else. For me, my art is first solely my experience and then I love to share it with people, not before it”. Luckily, staples pins, fit the bill.

Researching and experimenting tirelessly with staple pins, Iranna, however, does not like to master just one medium. She constantly shifts between mediums, discovering each of them in depth and circling between them. Her latest solo is a testament to this as it included selective works from the last 10 years of her practice; the exhibition displayed works in staple pins, acrylic, wax, pastels, water colours, cement, video, as well as digital photography.

Resounding with the issue of increasing encroachment and over-construction, the work Pervasive Expansion, which was displayed on and against mirrors, created the mirage of infinite construction, except the reality of it isn’t merely a mirage.

In the work Assorted Aggregation, Iranna spoke of overgrowth. Acrylic sheets with linear drawings in white descended from the ceiling, spaced out so the viewer could walk through them. The walk, however, culminated in a view which was the summation of the nine acrylic panels, the final rendition creating a claustrophobic architectural space, the initial minimal beauty of the white colour being eclipsed by the excess of it all. The work Squeezed echoed the feelings of the artist who continues to live in the city she once thought was beautiful. With a note of melancholy, Iranna says, “Thirty years ago, I was seeing the building of Delhi, now I see Delhi in deterioration”.

For someone who advocates ecological redressal and a shift back to natural sustainable ways of living, the choice of construction materials in her work leaves the viewer perplexed. Explaining the irony, Iranna says, “I am working on plastic with plastic, with cement, with metal to make you understand that you need to get to a level where you get sick of it, where you are choking, where you can’t take it any longer. Unless you get choked, you will not understand what you are heading towards in no time”.

While the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is a tragedy that her exhibition fell prey to, having been shut down a few days after its opening; perhaps, on a deeper level, Iranna’s message of slowing down together is the gospel of the times we are living in. Her conclusive remarks even as I interviewed her were, “We have to think as a society, come to consensus together. Individual approach is not enough”. Nothing seems truer now!