This year’s Alchemy Festival contained some tantalising treasures to be discovered in multiple venues across London’s Southbank Centre. One ventured to the festival for its astounding array of arts and cultural events, but stayed for the spice and flavour to be found in the open-air Eastern-inspired food adventure nestled behind the Brutalist architectural giant.
Presented in the Hayward Gallery’s project space, artist Neha Choksi asks “What is lost and what is gained?” in an enigmatic solo display. Choksi – an artist of Indian descent ‒ presents a resonating exhibit focusing on the futility of both labour and existence. Three films made over the space of seven years, collectively known as Trilogy on Absenting, are the most successful element of the show. In the single-channel projection Leaf Fall, 2007–08, a team of rural Indian actors build a wooden scaffold around a lone tree and strip it of all its leaves – a process one actor beautifully described as ‘undappling the ground’. Another participant meditates both symbolically and literally: “If it does not kill us, they will grow back.” This act, hollow in its entirety, comes to symbolise the pointless rituals all societies perpetually perform. Iceboat, 2012‒13, presents a similar act of utter futility. The artist rows a boat, carved from a single block of ice, through a body of water until, predictably, it submerges and she falls off the screen into the murky water below. This simple gesture nods to humanity’s inevitable and unstoppable demise. Minds to Lose, 2008‒11, the film bookended by the former works, is perhaps the most poignant and gut-wrenching of the three. We watch an anaesthetised donkey, a sheep, a goat and the image of the shaven-headed artist distressingly fall into a state of unconsciousness. This multi-screen presentation emulates death without the ethical ambiguity of such a display. It is all but impossible not to ponder one’s own mortality when faced with this raw vulnerability of beast and woman.
In a separate exhibit, British duo Amit and Naroop explore what it means to be a Sikh man in Britain today. The Singh Project is a series of photographs taken by artists over the course of eighteen months. Hung just above eye level, these hyper-real images examine the realities underneath ‘The Beard and the Turban’. These symbols, the artists say, represent what it means to be a Sikh man. A trendy hipster, a boxer and a comedian are among the many men who display their personal adaptation of Sikh traditions in a contemporary society. Amit and Naroop obviously don’t include women in this project of beards and turbans. Its comrade venture should focus on the women of Sikh communities. Women, Sikh tradition believes, have the same soul as men and therefore are deemed as equals – a refreshing perspective in light of the status most women possess in a religious context. The Singh Project does much to ponder its men but, like so many others, ignores entirely how women are perceived.
Other noteworthy displays included Dil Phaink – an installation by Pakistani collective PeaceNiche and 3 X 4; a well-meaning, albeit kitsch attempt to connect London and Delhi through live real-time technology.
This year’s Alchemy Festival pushed the perception of what it means to be a contemporary artist from South Asia. Amit and Naroop knocked lightly on the door of these expected norms but undermined their argument by ignoring an entire gender in their exhibit. It was Neha Choksi’s arduous Hayward show that tore through the barriers of essentialist notions. Being a practitioner of Indian descent was moved on to a debate that encompassed a global exchange on the futility of existence that dogs all our lives.