Nihaal Faizal

Nihaal Faizal

With the advent of Red Curtains Opening exhibition, Nihaal Faizal hops onto the Chatterjee & Lal's roster of artists. Red Curtains Opening is conceptually-driven and is concerned with the nature of lens-based media, with the artist creating works imbued with his trademark, often wry sense of humour. As Faizal says, he responds to “the copy,  the replica, the remake, the gadget, and the gimmick” and in doing so, he joyfully  plunders the popular, the banal and the quotidian: desktop wallpapers, CCTV  cameras, stock video footage. With his keen understanding of global and regional  art histories, the exhibition demands close scrutiny in order to unpack the artist’s incisive and often sharp critique of contemporary culture.

The Photograph
At first glance, even if you can’t place them immediately, the photographs of landscapes by Nihaal Faizal appear strikingly familiar—a beach with turquoise water, a golden windswept desert, an autumn forest ablaze with glistening foliage, the ancient structure of Stonehenge, a lush green hill against a blue sky. Upon closer look, it becomes apparent that these familiar images are the ubiquitous wallpapers that adorned computer screens from the Windows XP operating system launched by Microsoft in 2001. Windows XP marked a significant departure from its predecessors by introducing photographs as wallpapers, as opposed to solid colours or bitmap images. For many, this was an initial encounter with computers, and these wallpaper photographs likely hold sentimental value as some of the earliest digital images witnessed and personalised on our desktops. 

Having originally encountered them in domestic and office settings, the transformation of these images from digital objects to imposing prints in the series Landscape Photographs (2014), evokes a sense of detachment. For this body of work, Faizal extracts these images from the computer, prints them at a local photo studio, and in a documentary gesture, photographs the prints. This action changes the aspect ratio of the images based on his camera, a gesture that parallels the transformation of the source images, which were captured by different photographers using medium-format cameras, before being digitised and resized to fit CRT computer screens. 

The white smudge that appears like the sun in each of the images is caused by Faizal’s camera flash, which is both a form of documentation and a visual reminder of the camera’s presence. Though an isolated event on the surface of the photograph, this mark left by the camera indicates the various transformations these images have undergone. The circuitous process of mediation by the artist sees the photographs shifting from the personal realm to the public domain, from print to screen, and back again. 

The Screen
A compilation of computer-generated footage sourced from the stock image website Shutterstock, the video red curtains opening (2014) collects various iterations of the same recurring event. In this footage, red theatre curtains open, revealing a slightly different portrayal of blankness each time: black screens, green screens, and occasionally empty stages adorned with dancing lights. Amidst this void, a persistent element remains: the ethereal watermark logo of Shutterstock—almost as if that is what the curtains unveil.

In the stock economy, images are standardised to an extent where no ambiguity remains. They do not represent anything more than what is visually expected by the viewer upon the entry of generic keywords. They are clear and unsuspicious, without a fixed or singular future, awaiting their turn to be contextualised, directed, and given purpose to. The stock industry operates on this logic of generic visuals—images are at once full of meaning and yet remain fundamentally empty. Their point of origin, the history or authority of the photographer or videographer, and the labour that went into their making, are nothing but inconvenient histories, better left ignored. All that matters is their circulation in a global marketplace, hijacked by their assumed and inserted contexts, and at the highest resolutions possible. 

Another video, four sexy girls hold a green screen at the beach (2014), brings together a single clip of footage, versions of which were downloaded from multiple different stock image websites. In this footage, four girls wearing Christmas hats hold a green screen, and for the duration of a few seconds, laugh, silently interact with each other, gaze at the camera, and point on the green screen, all against the backdrop of a sunny beach. While the video clip remains the same except for its changing resolution, the overlaid watermarks fluctuate across the various iterations.

Just like with the stock image, the green screen symbolises an interchangeability of content. It is a visual space created for any image to enter, and thus this supposed emptiness is that of infinite potential. However, when revealed in its bare form, as in this video, it only echoes an emptiness inherent in all such commercially mediated visuals. In this context, the girls, the beach, their Christmas hats, their laughter, their touch, and even the potential images held by the green screen no longer take centre stage. Instead, the focus of this video shifts to the ghostly, translucent watermarks of the corporations that hold, screen, and regulate these visuals—the ones meant to be invisible in their final renditions, the ones that disappear when the images are paid for.

The Curtain
Dummy (2022) is a collection of cheaply available and mass-produced dummy CCTV cameras, which are presented along with their commercial packaging. These cameras bear a striking resemblance to real CCTV cameras but altogether lack their optical functionality. They possess the appearance of authenticity, but ultimately fall short of being genuine surveillance devices. They are electrical devices and when operated with standard AA or 9V batteries they become activated, creating a spectacle of red static or flashing light. The purpose of these dummies is to provide a cost-effective deterrent against potential intruders, without the need for data management or video recording. In this, they are similar to the hand-painted ‘Beware of Dogs’ signs that were once popularly used by home owners even in the absence of any actual dogs.

The cardboard packaging that accompanies these cameras bear visuals of spaces where the dummies can be potentially installed—mostly stock images of homes, offices, and a range of public spaces. Some of these boxes also contain a recurring clip art image of a cartoon thief, masked and running, with what appears to be a bag full of money. Alongside instructions on use and installation, the various boxes also bear texts describing the conceptual modalities of fakeness, realness, and dumminess that these cameras propose to enact.

While stock images perform constant motion as they traverse various platforms, undergoing changes both in their visual presentation and underlying attributes, the dummy cameras do not activate a movement of images. Instead, in them, photography comes to rest. In their artificial simulation as optical objects, the dummy cameras embody the photograph as a representational surface. They become the screen that hides; the curtains that open to nothing but blankness, offering no vision while representing nothing but visuality itself. 

Across these works by Faizal, photographic movement is circular, beginning and concluding upon itself. We no longer exist within a world where the camera, the photograph, and the photographic subject are stable, tidy entities. Instead we have arrived at a moment where they have all folded in. By turning inwards the obligations of representation inherited from the photographic medium, these works offer a stage on which the photograph, the screen, and the curtain, all gather, each awaiting their turn at playing the other. 

- Chinar Shah