Death is not meant to be charming. In no mythology is death anything other than heartless and frightening. However, in Neha Choksi’s new show ‘If Nothing Else, Just a Smile’ death is sometimes cute, sometimes beautiful, and occasionally melancholy but never the stuff of Gothic horror. For Choksi, the burial ground is a starting point for her exploration of forms and reality, rather than an excuse to sink into nostalgia.
One of Choksi’s greatest strengths is this show is that it appeals at multiple levels. ‘If Nothing Else, Just a Smile’ is as engaging to a casual viewer as it is to one who will take the time to connect the title ‘Fontana’s Smile’ to Lucio Fontana of the Zero Group and the artists of the 1960s whose response to a painterly crisis was to create works that promised to be a new beginning. Jacques Lacan’s ideas of reality and memory are saluted in the works – in the handout accompanying the show, Choksi quotes a fragment of Lacan: “there is nothing miss ing in the Real” – but the casual viewer isn’t excluded from appreciating ‘If Nothing Else, Just a Smile’ if they haven’t brushed up on modern philosophy.
This exhibition is made up of photographs, a video and three sculptural installations. In the last two, flowers feature prominently in the works. The cut flowers in particular tie in with Choksi’s theme neatly. Once they are dead, ripped from the plants they grew upon, they start a completely new life in which they are not living but symbols that celebrate life. The photographs that Choksi has shown are all taken in the same cemetery but the pall of gloom that generally hangs over such a site is literally scratched out by cheerful graffiti. Stick drawings that are full of childish enthusiasm obscure parts of the photograph. Choksi has drawn them in a way that uses the lines in the image so that it looks like the scribble is surfacing out of the scene, rather than being an ugly defacement that is placed upon it. One of the photographs is ripped but then pieced together to form a smiling face. Remembering Mummy is crumpled but out of the folds and creases emerges the figure of a woman.
Using the notion of death to be a resting place, Choksi has created two installations using mattresses. They look fluffy, comfortable and are in happy colours that seem to belong in a child’s nursery. The mattresses are perched, almost impossibly, upon vases with flowers. The transparent vases with the wilting flowers carrying the weight of the mattresses make for a beautiful image that elegantly balances melancholia with whimsy. A tree stump from the cemetery seemingly hovers midair, surrounded by a constellation of cut flowers and crowned by a glass bowl that has stalks with green leaves on it. The dead have been reincarnated to create something new, something that has no past memories or connections in a charming show by one of Indian contemporary art’s most thought-provoking young artists.
If Nothing Else, Just a Smile – Neha Choksi, Project 88, Mumbai, 2 August to 28 August 2010