Things Are Vanishing Before Us

Things Are Vanishing Before Us

Premjish Achari's dream of curating an expansive exhibition featuring a combination of sculptures and paintings from various parts of India came true in its full colours with the exhibition, Things Are Vanishing Before Us, at Bikaner House. Presented by Gallery Dotwalk, the object-based exhibition brings forth questions on the relationship between identities and objects. In this conversation, Achari talks to us about the process of bringing together 43 artists from different backgounds, history of objects and their posessions, and their relevance in the age of rapid digitalisation.

What made you curate an exhibition centred around objects?
My curiosity about the trajectory of screen media and its effects on viewing, immersion, and framing began in 2014. I had the pleasure of presenting my thoughts in several locations. During this exploration of the radical alteration of our culture, I got to thinking about the fate of objects and how they would fit into things to come. For centuries, tangible items have been a major part of our lives—steering material cultures and shaping personal identities. 

The dream of creating an expansive exhibition finally came to fruition in Hyderabad with more than 15 artists. I showcased paintings, drawings, photography, and other forms of contemporary art. I dreamed of a survey show featuring sculptures from various parts of India. Although many galleries and art departments appreciated my proposal, they declined to join, as the costs for such a big project were beyond their means. Then one day, my interests in objects and contemporary sculptures culminated in a thought-provoking research project: How do our memories and identities shape our understanding of objects? How do mementos help us feel nostalgia? What is it about certain objects that make them so meaningful? How are digital versions of photographs and artwork impacting how we perceive them? How do communities that were kept away from material possession and were oppressed lay claim to narratives of heritage and material culture? It is alarming to witness all the things we hold dear slowly vanishing away forever. With the generous support of Gallery Dotwalk, I brought together talented artists from around the world to answer these questions. I hope viewers will come to appreciate the tangible and material aspects of objects through the lens of the exhibited artworks. Including discussions and speculative elements in the exhibition encourages viewers to contemplate the future of objects and technology.

Digital memory is vast and can hold a huge amount of things in its servers, how do you think material memory can survive at a time like this? 
The capacity for digital memory today is practically limitless, yet the lasting power of physical memory remains as powerful as ever. It's impossible to deny the impact of digital storage on storing information, but there is also no mistaking the place that material memory holds in our hearts and our culture. Our aim here is not to make a comparison between both forms, but to explore the opportunities and effects of each.

Think of a handwritten letter from someone close. Though digital messages are stored and archived, they can’t compare to the special touch of a physical note. The paper, the handwriting, and the effort put into expressing one's sentiments all contribute to the emotional power of the letter, which can recall not only its contents but also when it was written and how the sender and receiver were connected. These unique material memories go beyond personal moments, too; museums, libraries, and archives have preserved physical artifacts that remind us of our shared history. Ancient texts, sculptures, or any other relic provide a tangible link to what has gone before us—while digitization helps us access them more readily, there’s no replacing standing in front of a centuries-old object and experiencing it as others have done for generations.

In this digital era, the issue is not whether material memory will stay alive, but instead how it will continue to transform and adjust in tandem with the digital environment. What are the new situations in which tangible items exist as sources of remembrance, identity, and historical history, coexisting together with their virtual equivalents? Will it carry on to arouse emotions, narrate stories, and deliver a feeling of relationship and endurance in an ever more technology-driven universe. Though digital memory offers simplicity and availability, tangible memory presents thickness, texture, and tangibility that ensures its unique value in the human experience.

Things Are Vanishing Before Us

Do you think objects still possess a significant power for forming our sense of self?
Throughout history, items from dominant social classes have influenced the way heritage and history are remembered. The material culture of those in power has been the primary focus of historical preservation efforts, museums, and other cultural establishments, leading to a shared understanding among society as to its origins. These artifacts tend to showcase the perspectives, accomplishments, and values of those with privilege, thereby fortifying traditional narratives. This means that objects can also lead to the formation of an exclusive sense of self. 

Understanding the significance of engaging with the material culture of minority groups is key to developing a more equitable and comprehensive view of times past. Marginalized communities possess their own unique stories, which are usually absent from mainstream accounts. By including the material culture of minorities in historical and cultural contexts, we can begin to right historic wrongs and create a more complete picture of a society's history. This approach gives us insight into the experiences, struggles, and contributions of these communities, illuminating parts of the past that have often been overlooked or deliberately silenced.

To put it simply, influential members of a society have typically impacted the common narrative about heritage and history by means of their artifacts. It is therefore essential to reengage with the material culture in general and of those without power so that a more comprehensive and balanced picture of the past can be achieved. This approach helps to right historical wrongs and provide an accurate representation of diverse cultural and historical experiences.

How did you manage to unite 43 artists from diverse backgrounds, who employed various mediums for this exhibition?
Gathering 43 artists with various backgrounds and mediums for the exhibition turned out to be a complex, yet satisfying experience that depended on a few fundamental tactics. We first created an open and accepting space for the artists to explore their personal views and artistic expressions in relation to our curatorial subject.

Our team, including the Founder-Director of Gallery Dotwalk, Sreejith CN and Sibdas Sengupta, Assitant Curator, searched vigorously for artworks that displayed a variety of styles and techniques, but all of them corresponding to our bigger themes. We examined each candidate closely to make sure that each addition would add up to a coherent and inspiring narrative about the role of objects in current society. We also included details about their individual journeys and cultural legacies in our catalogues and publicizing resources in order to put the emphasis on the richness of our collective imagination.

We predict that this comprehensive and open-minded approach won't just lead to a powerful and meaningful exhibition, but it will also generate long-lasting connections amongst the artists that can result in future collaborations crossing boundaries and techniques, still contributing to the international artistic scene.

Things Are Vanishing Before Us is on view till September 24, 2023 at Bikaner House, Delhi.

Words Paridhi Badgotri
Date 18.09.2023