(Un)containable Life

Sonia Mehra Chawla Transitory Shores & Biomorphic Daydreams II 2013 Mixed media on archival canvas 182 x 204 cm (diptych)

(Un)containable Life

Even now, after so many years, if she were to close her eyes, she can see that gorgeous tree in the Sundarbans biosphere reserve. “I came upon this magnificent mangrove tree with a sprawling network of aerial roots or pneumatophores spread across a vast area. I knew at once this was not just any tree. This was a conscious, intelligent system.” 

Sonia Mehra Chawla (b. 1977) will show a selection of her works, made during the last seven years, at 1x1 Art Gallery, Dubai. These works zigzag across the mediums of photography, printmaking, painting and film. The exhibition title, ‘(Un)Containable Life’, makes deft use of the parenthesis: it deconstructs the extractivist modes of controlling human and non-human lives in the age of the ‘Capitalocene’ (in Jason Moore’s phrase). Framed in the form of a mini-retrospective, this exhibition is a prayer against the relentless destruction of the planet. It offers us a substantial account of the artist’s journey so far. 

As we join Sonia on her expeditions across the mangrove forests, wetlands and salt pans of India, and a tidal island in Scotland, we sense her empathy with ecological ruins and indigenous communities, and her disquiet at the manner in which such communities have been marginalized from the surroundings that they have conserved for hundreds of years. I would argue that, in the last few years, we have witnessed an extraordinary transition in the artist’s practice from a focus on the modernist, singular art object functioning as a portrait of a botanical specimen or an interconnected ecology, to the embrace of a more collaborative, processual understanding of art as a means to transformative knowledge. For Sonia, art is now indissolubly wedded to an ethic, even a politics of multi-species co-existence. Indeed, her artistic research could itself be seen as a political act, in which she has conspired with oceanologists, microbiologists and climate-change scientists, as well as farmers and fisherfolk who speak from their deep reserves of traditional wisdom.

(Un)containable Life

At the heart of Sonia’s practice, we experience her play with the poetics of scale and her transition from representation to participation. Take, for instance, her latest video, ‘The Non-Human Touch’ (2020). Here, the artist refuses to convey an easy aesthetic of the sublime by approaching the uninhabited beaches of Cramond Island from a remote distance. Instead, she gathers soil samples from the island and studies them in Petri dishes and Winogradsky columns in a laboratory – she disrupts the aesthetic construct of representing an external and awe-inspiring reality, replacing it with the messy engagement of being part of what is seen, what is being shown, what is larger than us yet within us, thus implicating herself viscerally in the crisis of the Capitalocene.

About the Curator
Nancy Adajania is a Bombay-based cultural theorist and curator. She has curated a number of exhibitions including, the Mehlli Gobhai retrospective 'Don’t ask me about colour', National Gallery of Modern Art(NGMA), Bombay, 2020; the Sudhir Patwardhan retrospective 'Walking Through Soul City' NGMA, Bombay, 2019; 'Counter-Canon, Counter Culture: Alternative Histories of Indian Art', Serendipity Arts Festival, Goa, 2019 and Navjot’s retrospective 'The Earth’s Heart Torn Out', NGMA, Bombay, 2018. Adajania taught the curatorial practice course at the Salzburg International Summer Academy of Fine Arts (2013/2014). She was the juror for the Video/Film/New Media fellowship cycle of the Akademie Schloss Solitude (2015-2017). 
Text Nancy Adajania

(Un)containable Life Mixed media on archival Somerset paper 300 GSM, paired with a photo micrograph print on archival paper 56 x 76 and 30.5 x 20 cm Edition of 3

Sonia Mehra Chawla Drifters and Wanderers VII 2020

Mixed media on archival Somerset paper 300 GSM, paired with a photo micrograph print on archival paper 56 x 76 and 30.5 x 20 cm Edition of 3